How to Live the Van Life With Surfer and Musician Jonny Dustow

Matt Rode

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Updated 26d ago

Van life is all the rage right now. From bourgeois trendsters and digital nomads to dirtbag adventurers and real-deal hippies, it seems like everyone and their mother is getting a camper van and taking life on the road.

Sprinters, Promasters, Vanagons, Transits, classic Vws, or just any old van you happen to find on Craigslist can be built out and turned into a miniature mobile home—preferably with 4x4 and solar so you can get off the grid and do some exploring.

Nights like these...

Nights like these...

Van life has long appealed to surfers, with our itinerant desire to chase swells and see the world. Doc Pascowitz and his family may have been the most famous van lifers of our community, but the new generation is doing its best to live up to their legacy.

And the pursuit is turning into more than just a solitary alternative to mainstream society. Van life festivals are popping up all over the place, particularly in Australia, where living the transient lifestyle has almost become a rite of passage for the core surfer.

Jonny Dustow is one of the leaders of this current gypsy subculture, curating a website, book, and documentary, and travelling the world helping to organise events that bring van lifers together. He also happens to know his way around a barrel, so we thought we would sit down with him and chat about how life in a van caters to life as a surfer, and where he sees this whole #vanlife movement going.

You grew up in a surfing family, right? Tell us a bit about your family and other influences in the water, and what drew you to surfing when you were young.
I was so fortunate to be born in the beautiful surf town of Byron Bay, and brought up on a farm not too far from the ocean.

Our parents were surfers, and my brother and four sisters all surfed too. Our mum and dad would take us to the sea to release our energy and get our fill of ocean loving every day. We learnt from a young age to love and appreciate a deep connection with nature, and surfing became a part of our lives that has enriched me so much, both through the surfing community and exploring coastlines around the world searching for unridden waves.

The ocean has a powerful ability to wash me through and ease any pain, stress, anxiety, or worries that I’m struggling with. It doesn’t solve the problems or issues, but it helps me feel okay and puts things into perspective.

Jonny knows a thing or two about attacking a lip.

Jonny knows a thing or two about attacking a lip.

Your brother ended up pursuing a surfing career, while you ended up becoming a teacher. But now you seem to be doing something completely different. What informed your life choices and brought you to where you are today?
My brother Andy Dustow is my favourite surfer in the world, and to this day he blows my mind with what he is capable of when surfing with so much power and style. He was definitely good enough to take on the competitive scene, but it wasn’t really in his nature to compete. He just loved surfing for the sense of freedom and emotional release it gives.

I have always surfed, but just for fun, and for an outlet from social pressures. I became a teacher, but my true love since I was nine years old has been music and how it makes me be fully in the present moment, which is a similar feeling to surfing.

I taught full-time for seven years, but then I needed to stop that in order to spend more time being creative, sharing my music, connecting with like-minded people, and spending more time in nature. So I sold two apartments I was paying off and bought a van, which I converted into a rolling home that allowed me to go wherever I felt like exploring, and share music along the way

So I sold two apartments I was paying off and bought a van, which I converted into a rolling home that allowed me to go wherever I felt like exploring, and share music along the way. With this new lifestyle I am able to connect with like-minded people and share meaningful moments with them. I started meeting so many interesting and amazing people on the road trips that I became inspired to find a way to share their journeys and alternative ways of living, and their pursuit of their passions.

The van life movement has really taken off over the past few years, and you seem to be right in the middle of it. Talk to us about your role, and what you feel the advantages are and what the future looks like for life in a van.
After a few years living and travelling from a van, I found it really inspired me to be more creative and surround myself with fellow creatives.

Four-years-ago, my friends Jared Melrose and Sam Peterson were converting peoples' vans into rolling homes, and we ended up creating an online community to connect all the road-tripping people around the world so they could share stories, catch up with each other, and exchange tips and places to explore.

The road can be a lonely place at times, as you are always moving from one town to the next, so we felt there was a need for this community. We started hosting community gatherings—places and times for everyone to meet up and camp out for the weekend. We started them in Australia and called them Vanlife Gatherings, but everyone loved them so much that people started asking us to hold them in other countries, including the United States, Canada, Europe and New Zealand.

It eventually got to the point where we couldn’t handle the amount of messages coming in, so we asked the community to help us. Kathleen Morton in the US came on board and started helping us share stories and improve our website, and then run community events as well.

Now we have an international tour of events this year that provides a safe space for our community to share their gifts, stories, music, yoga, workshops, art, and poetry, or just come and hang out in nature and feel a beautiful sense of belonging and connection to the land that we camp on.

This all sounds a bit like a neo-beatnik movement, with art and nature playing a big role. That probably ties into both your music and surfing really well. Tell us more about the music you are making.
Music is just a part of me. I love it so much, and it is such a special way for me to share my heart and soul through stories and songs.

I make original music through my Dusty Boots label, and also love playing saxophone and adding to the music other friends and artists are recording. It is like surfing, because whenever I travel, I now take my music gear and surfboards with me, and have an instant community wherever I show up.

The road tripping community, the surfing community, and the music community are my people. I’m so fortunate that I have been able to share my passions around Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the United States, Canada, Hawaii, Fiji, and some countries in Europe too. And there are so many more places to come.

The most important part of surfing and music for me is the connection with nature and with people, and how the whole combination helps with my emotional and physical well-being.

That sounds like a pretty good life! And rumor has it you took an extended trip to Tavarua in November, and ended up scoring. Tell us a bit about that.
My brother has been going to Fiji and staying with the good people of Tavarua Island for the past five years. I would always hear the stories and see the amazing waves he was getting, and wanted to have the chance to visit and spend time with the locals and score some world-class waves.

Last year I was fortunate enough to go and stay on Tavarua, and got some incredible waves and shared some music with the Fijians and other guests. Cloudbreak is an incredible wave, although I was definitely out of my comfort zone once it got big!

It is the most powerful wave I have ever surfed, and makes you feel that nature is truly in control, and quickly humbles you. I will try and go back every year, and hopefully continue to become more confident with the critical surf breaks there.

Most of all, I just really appreciated the opportunity to surf, snorkel, connect with other surfers from around the world, and learn from the Fijians and their simple way of life.

You seem to have a lot going on, but still manage to keep surfing as a priority. Where does most of your ocean time happen?
Sometimes I get overwhelmed trying to balance all the music, community events, part-time school teaching, relationships, and making sure I have time to look after my mental health and well-being. Surfing and music are at the top of my priority list, as they help me so much to slow down, gain perspective, and appreciate the amazing gift that life is. I try and surf every day, even if it's just a 20-minute power session to get a few waves. And if its terrible waves, I will just jump in for a bodysurf or float around.

I love to explore new destinations and new places that I have not surfed, both cold and warm. I really enjoy the adventure of waking up near different surf breaks and not staying in one place for too long. It keeps me inspired and creative with the constantly changing headlands, beaches, and locals I meet at the different surf breaks around Australia and the world.

And between all of that, you are still actively leading the van life movement, planning events and other projects. What do you guys have planned for the near future?
Well, we recently published a book called Vanlife Diaries: Finding Freedom on the Open Road which came out in early April and is available on all online platforms and bookstores around the world. And we have a documentary called The Meaning of Vanlife coming out soon and releasing around the world.

We are growing our international tour of community events each year to include more destinations and more countries, in order to bring as many of the community together as often as we can.

And most of all, we are just spending every day pursuing our passion of sharing stories, looking after the beautiful environments we get to play in, raising awareness for environmental and social causes (Take 3 for the Sea, One Wave Is All It Takes...), and improving the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Australia (through the Yarn Australia project). And of course connecting with and facilitating the van life community everywhere.

Well it sounds like you are a busy man. Keep us posted as things continue to develop, and we will see you on the road and in the water!