Van life looks idyllic on social media. But for couples, it can be challenging

Sierra Peters-Buckland, right, travels with her girlfriend, Annette Hayward, in a Mercedes Sprinter van.

(CNN)It looks like a dreamy life of freedom on the open road: golden sunsets, cozy bunks and endless photo ops amidst stunning views of nature.

A growing cult of nomads are taking long road trips -- sometimes for months -- in tricked-out camper vans, often documenting their travel highlights on Instagram with the hashtag #vanlife.
But for couples, especially inexperienced ones, this seemingly carefree lifestyle can come with unique problems. Sharing cramped quarters and isolated from their support networks, couples on the road say they must battle boredom and logistical challenges day after day without driving each other crazy.
    The death of Gabby Petito, 22, while on a cross-country trip this summer with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, has brought new attention to aspects of van life that don't make it into sunny social media posts. Evidence shows the couple had some tense moments on the road in the days before she disappeared.
      Petito's remains were found Sunday in Wyoming. Nobody has been charged in her death. Authorities are looking for Laundrie, 23, who has gone missing since returning alone earlier this month to his parents' home in Florida.
      Many couples romanticize the idea of road trips but fail to plan key details in advance and end up trapped in a toxic situation, says Chicago-area psychologist John Duffy, who has worked with van life couples.
      "A trip like this may feel like a heady, exciting adventure that will draw you closer together, and often it is. But the days, I've heard, can be long and arduous. Naturally, you get on each other's nerves, at least some of the time," Duffy said.
        "And if you haven't spent some significant time together, you may find yourselves in an uncomfortable -- and, in the extreme, dangerous -- level of discomfort and conflict."

        Sharing a small space can take a toll

        The #vanlife lifestyle has grown in popularity in recent years, fueled by social media posts, DIY van conversion videos on YouTube and the desire to escape crowds during the pandemic.
        CNN spoke to a handful of couples who have roamed the US in vans. They say they have been following developments in the Petito case, riveted by the story of the young couple who shared their interests and appeared on social media to have a perfect life.
        "I followed the case borderline obsessively. Gabby had devastating and heartbreaking bad luck," says Sierra Peters-Buckland, 28, a van lifer who's gone on monthslong trips with her girlfriend, Annette Hayward. "But, vanlife did not kill Gabby, traveling did not kill Gabby, the national parks did not kill Gabby. A person killed Gabby."
        For Peters-Buckland, the allure of the van life beckoned last year. She quit her job at a sporting goods store in Oceanside, California, packed her bags and started planning a cross-country trip.
        Sierra Peters-Buckland and her girlfriend have traveled so far to 42 states and 50 national parks.
        In April, she and Hayward bought a white Mercedes Sprinter van they nicknamed Chance. They decked it out in crisp white linen and curtains to soften the van's wooden interior, packed a few belongings and stashed bear spray in various spots to protect against intruders. Then they hit the road.
        On their last trip Peters-Buckland and her girlfriend drove 24,000 miles and visited 42 states and 50 national parks. They saw buffalo, bears, moose and bighorn sheep. One Instagram pic showed a sunrise over Death Valley National Park; the coffee mug in the foreground says, "Enjoy the Journey."
        But long days and numerous daily tasks on the road can take a toll, says Peters-Buckland. She says their journeys taught them valuable lessons on handling conflict.
        "Travel, especially budget travel, can be tiring and cause extra strains having to make decisions every day ... expect the hard times, expect the unexpected and have strategies in place if you're in a relationship that can get into heated arguments," Peters-Buckland says, adding that she and Hayward learned to resolve their disputes quickly.
        Of course, some couples have abusive relationships from the beginning, and their problems can't be blamed on a long journey in a van.
        But even so, too much bickering on the road is a bad sign, van lifers say.
        "If the arguments are happening super regularly, becoming aggressive, or causing deep sadness, the reality is you should not be traveling together in a small space. And probably not be in a relationship," Peters-Buckland says. "We need to stop normalizing toxic behavior so more people don't end up like Gabby."

        Van lifers must take care of their mental health

        Van lifers say they meet like-minded people and make friends all over the country. But it can be lonely being away from their social circles.
        Navod Ahmir has been driving his black 2018 Ford Transit van cross-country on a part-time basis for a year now. He's been up and down the East Coast and to a gathering of Black nomads in Georgia. His partner regularly comes along for the ride.
        "I think the importance of community and how much being alone on the road for long periods can take a toll on your mental health isn't discussed enough," says Ahmir, 28, of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. "It's a balancing act between learning to be more social and living with fewer attachments to people and things."
        With a support system hundreds of miles away and nowhere to flee after a disagreement, couples are forced to get creative about resolving conflicts, he says. Ahmir and his partner are careful to take breaks from each other when needed.