Happy Campers: Emily Murray

As soon as Emily Murray got out into the water with a surfboard shortly after high school, she was hooked. Camping and surfing quickly became her life, evolving from a weekend thing to swell chasing to full on mobile living. She recently released a book, “Van Made Recipes,” and since we’ve been exploring the topic, we asked her to share a bit about her background and current situation. She’s offered to share some of her recipes with us, which we’ll be unveiling in the coming weeks. 

van life cooking

What prompted this decision to move into your van? What were you doing prior?

I was born and raised in West Chester, Penn., which is a suburb about half an hour outside of Philadelphia. After high school, my boyfriend, Dave, and I decided we would like to try surfing. Our home was about an hour and a half from the beach so we made a camping trip out of the whole idea. We bought some surfboards and wetsuits off the rack at a surf shop outside of Philadelphia, then headed for a campground on the beach at Cape Henlopen, Delaware.

After that, I’m pretty sure my fate was decided. I couldn’t even catch a wave really, but I had such a good time surfing and camping that weekend, the next weekend we packed up all our stuff (it used to be a lot of stuff) and headed to another campground. It almost immediately became an every-weekend thing, then it became whenever there was a swell, no matter what time of the week.  Usually driving to the Jersey Shore, surfing by day, and camping in the Pine Barrens at night until the swell died. I don’t know which one I liked more, surfing or camping, but the weekend trips started to become more and more elaborate all the time. Dave and I started taking trips to farther away beaches, and spending longer times there, like, Assateague Island, in Maryland, and the outer banks in North Carolina.

van life cooking

Every time we were finding ways to travel cheaper and lighter, always traveling by car and sleeping in a tent. When the Atlantic Ocean went quiet and there was no reason to be at the beach, we would head inland to do hiking and backpacking trips. Our travels growing still more elaborate, we headed to the top corner of Nova Scotia for months on end in search of untouched wilderness and empty waves.

Then we went south, hitting every surf spot we could think of. Once we even drove across the country to California with our tent and surfboards for a few weeks. But my home spot was in New Jersey, on the south end of Ocean City, under a dilapidated pier that was built in a time before my parents were born. It was here I had the best surf sessions of my life up to that point and knew everybody and had good friends. It was great, but the problem with surfing in Jersey is it is freezing cold in the winter (literally,like below 32degrees F ), and the worst part about it is getting OUT of the wetsuit. One day while my frozen fingers managed to pull off my suit, a big gust of winter ice-wind whipped across my wet and bare skin, I got an idea to make my least favorite thing about surfing, better. So I got a van to change out of my wetsuit. It came with a little propane space heater that I would turn on to warm up the air a bit while taking off my wetsuit. The van also had a bed, a sink, a stove, and some storage compartments in it, so this inevitably became the new way I would camp when I went on surf trips, replacing the car and tent.

Sometime later, Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast and destroyed my home break, the old pier was completely gone except a few pylons and the sand bars had moved on to the street and back to sea, everything was different, the break just wasn’t working. A few months later, the tea shop I was working at closed for business and I was out of one really flexible job. I had some money saved up and wanted to head west to explore a different coast.

After talking with Dave about some serious stuff like, what we want out of life and how to get it, the decision just came naturally. All we wanted was a simple life, where we didn’t have to work hard at a job we hated, to pay for an apartment full of stuff we don’t need. We wanted to be able to surf everyday and go on trips when we felt like it. We decided we wanted to see and do as much as possible in this life. We decided that we could be happy without having to suffer, so we got rid of all of our stuff except the necessities (some surfboards, some camping gear, and some clothes), and rebuilt the van to live in long term, and hit the road.

van life cooking

Where do you travel to and how to you decide what stops to make?

While traveling from east to west I stopped at a lot of national parks like Zion, which was awesome, Canyon Lands, Arches, Great Sand Dunes, ect…and did a lot of hiking and camping, then I went to Baja and stayed there for a few months, just surfing everyday and since I got back from Baja I’ve been trying to explore every nook and cranny of California. I love every bit of California so far, from San Diego to Big Sur to the Redwoods every place is more magical than the next.

I make decisions on where I am going to stop based on a few things. The first thing is what I like to do. I like to go surfing and hiking, so I am often traveling to surf spots and back country camping areas. These are my passions and what drives everything, a lot of it is about getting into nature and seeing raw, wild beauty. The next thing I base my decision on is price, I never pay for camping (except in Mexico) so if I’m not stealth camping near a surf spot, or if I feel like leaving the van doors open at night or having a camp fire I’ll head out to BLM land or National Forests which are places that are often cool about camping for free. And the last but not least is something I have no control over, the weather. Surfing it is a given, we’re always looking for the right swell direction and wind direction for the right spot. Tiny changes in the weather can take a good place to magic, or create an awful stressful nightmare of getting stuck somewhere. There are countless times I have had to reroute and rethink where I am going because of unruly weather, but more times than not when I end up somewhere unexpected it turns out to be pretty cool.  So in short, I’m headed where the surf is good, the weather is nice, and the camping is free.

van life cooking

What’s the hardest part about cooking on the road?

I would say cooking in the dark, this seems to happen to me all the time! I’m always out doing things all day and then realize the sun is going to set soon and then I want to watch the sunset so I am left cooking in the dark. I used to use flashlights, but the batteries would burn out and I would never replace them, so now I use a candle lantern and the flashlight on my iPhone. In Van Made Recipes, each recipe is accompanied by a “lazy version,” which suggests how to prepare a meal if you are like me and sometimes are to tired or don’t feel like cooking a full meal in the dark, but want to use the ingredients you bought when you had all the energy in the world.

Check out Murray’s book Van Made Recipes on Amazon or get more details on the website here

Follow Emily’s travels on Instagram @vanmaderecipes.