Van Life Meets Business—The Story of Carabiner Coffee

Erik Gordon has been on the road for four years slinging coffee and spreading stoke with Carabiner Coffee. He just opened a brick and mortar shop in Boulder, Colorado but he says you will still find him on the road in Ol’ Blue or perhaps his new Skoolie.


Quick bites:

    • Born: May 30, 1990 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
    • Time living on the road: On and off for four years
    • Go-to van meal: Anything I have wrapped in a tortilla and cheese
    • Currently listening to: The new Sylvan Esso album and Charlie Parr
    • Vehicles:
      • Ol’ Blue: 1971 Type-2 Thin Top VW | Miles: approximately 46,000
      • The Skoolie: 1990 Thomas 40-foot Activity School Bus | Miles: Reads 22,000 but I don’t believe it

Could you describe the evolution of Carabiner Coffee?

The rock climbing started in college, where I became an instructor. The coffee started after I graduated from college when I biked across the country by myself.

I ended up on the Oregon Coast on a really cold day and coffee was the only warm drink, so I decided to go for it. I finally understood why everyone drinks coffee.

About a year and a half later I decided to investigate coffee more. I started working in a little coffee shop in Silverthorne, Colorado. I told the owner of the shop I want to learn everything he knows plus the things he didn’t. This experience showed me how universal and connecting coffee could be. After eight months of pouring people coffee, I was falling in love with it and felt I could run a business of my own.

I asked myself how I could start a business and still live and travel the way I’ve always dreamed of and I immediately began searching for an old VW, the logical choice. I scrounged Craigslist for about a month until I found Ol’ Blue.

After renovations, I began selling coffee on the side of the road in Breckenridge and greater Summit County, Colorado. People were stoked that there was this random guy making really good coffee in an old VW.


How does climbing play into your business? Does it go beyond the name?

I love that coffee and climbing are both ice breakers to getting to know people.

After Breckenridge, I moved to Seattle and started living in the van full-time, selling coffee near crags. I sold to all different kinds of people but was always hoping it would be climbers that would come up to the van. The climbing community is super tight and I wanted to use both the connection of coffee and the connection of climbing in my business.

You just opened a retail store. How has that transition been?

This last year has taken an interesting turn where I’ve become more of a business person than a dirtbag.

We just opened our first brick and mortar here in Boulder, Colorado. I could have sworn a year ago I said I would never do that, but your life evolves with experience and it changes what you want to do. I am always going to be traveling in the van, though. I don’t want to be stuck here. I’m just trying to make a go at being a legit business person.

Van life is something that people from all different walks of life are drawn to. Were there any specific influences that pushed you towards this lifestyle?

Definitely my dad.

He was a vagabond hippie, growing up in the 70s, hitchhiking around the country. His stories stuck with me and it became ingrained in me that this is how you build character and become an awesome person.

My Dad is one of my idols and he’s been a big mentor to me throughout this whole process. He’s psyched … and there are not many parents that are psyched their kid is van life-ing. My dad has influenced my confidence to do it, my passion for it, and showed me what kind of person it makes you.


What locations have you visited with Ol’ Blue that are most special to you?

      • Joshua Tree and the Hidden Valley area. Whenever I am in southern California I always make sure to wake up there at least one morning.
      • Bend, Oregon. Both because of climbing at Smith and the ease of doing van life there.
      • The Virgin River Gorge in southwestern Utah. I have a secret parking spot there.
      • Moab, Utah
      • The Front Range here in Colorado. I’ll head up canyon just to go sleep in the woods every once in a while.

What are some challenges you’ve faced doing van life?

Peeing in the morning. If you forget the pee bottle the night before you are going to struggle.

With my VW it’s having a small van body. If you like to do four-season adventures, finding room for all that gear is pretty tough. With an older VW it’s engine maintenance and not knowing if you will break down. It’s both a big struggle financially and schedule-wise, but on the other hand, it creates one of the best adventure aspects of van life!

After four years, do you ever feel burnt out from this lifestyle?

I would say like every two weeks.

You are going to get burnt out for a lot of reasons; you’re sick of the tiny space, or of not knowing where a paycheck is going to come from, or getting kicked out of a parking spot. But then, once you get through those tough times, and find a camp spot you’re stoked on, you’re like this is the only way I’d want to experience life right now. I’m generally psyched … but there are times.


Tell us about the school bus. Why did you buy it and what do you plan to do with it?

Ol’ Blue is for business and running out of room. Now I’m living with my girlfriend, Brit, so we need room for two people comfortably.

We bought it from a high school who had built out the framing inside as a shop class assignment. It turns out they were selling the bus as a funding project for their arts program. The craziest part is they are going to use the money to build a climbing wall on the outside of the shop. I plan on helping teach climbing to stay connected with the kids because they killed it with the build out.

For now, we are building it out and living in it in Boulder. The dream is to take it on the road to act as a larger brick and mortar shop for Carabiner, where we can go to more places and take more people along. It would be a dream to do a bus tour of the U.S. and pick people up at bus stops. I don’t know if that’s legal, but maybe we’ll try it.

What advice would you give someone considering a nomadic lifestyle?

It’s easy to glamorize it before you’ve experienced it. Be prepared for it to take over your life. It’s allowing yourself to let go of what you think a normal life looks like or even what a van life should look like and embracing whatever craziness comes your way. 


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