How veterans of #vanlife feel about all the newbies
JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — If you search for “van life” on YouTube, one of the first results is a video by Christian Schaffer, a photographer who started living in a Ram ProMaster in 2019, titled “10 Tips for Getting Started.”
Her Instagram page and YouTube channel are among the most visible sources of information about a growing nomadic movement loosely known as van life. Viewers turn to her videos, with their straightforward titles like “Toilet, Shower & Laundry” and “How to Get Internet,” for information about the nuts and bolts of life on the road.
In a phone interview from the Mojave Desert in Southern California, Schaffer said that she still considered herself “new to the scene,” noting that she had met people who had been on the road for a decade or longer. But she said she had been on the road long enough — she lived in an SUV for 14 months before upgrading to the van — to witness a surge in the popularity of van life, especially during the pandemic.
YouTube channels like Schaffer’s have amassed hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and on Instagram, more than 9 million posts tout the hashtag #vanlife.
The phenomenon has manifested physically, too: An array of Sprinter vans towered over the Land Rovers and Teslas parked near the town square in Jackson, Wyoming, this winter, and the winding streets of Taos, New Mexico, were buzzing with the converted vehicles. Residential neighborhoods in Denver are lined with vans, which are now a common sight in the parking lots of ski resorts, national parks and trailheads across the country.
The van life boom
The movement has become more mainstream in recent years — a far cry from the rugged lifestyle depicted in the film “Nomadland,” which is nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture and best director. The film depicts a cohort of rambling, mostly retired nomads who wander the country in converted vans, gathering annually in the Arizona desert to share tips for living out of a vehicle, like whether a 2- or a 5-gallon bucket works better as a toilet.
The newer crowd is younger, more diverse and in generally snazzier digs.
“It’s grown from all angles,” Schaffer said of the recent boom. Traveling full time may sound like a luxurious lifestyle reserved for the wealthy, but the cohort of people living out of their vehicles includes some who were displaced by rising rents and young couples priced out of the housing market, she said, as well as remote workers with nothing tying them to any one ZIP code.
Though some vanlifers are salaried employees working 9-to-5 jobs from home — wherever that may be — many make a living doing freelance work, like graphic design or video production, which gives them even more flexibility to go wherever, whenever.
The movement also includes well-off people with the resources to tool about in high-end rigs without worrying about work. A man in the parking lot of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort said he owned a home in town but was using his van as a lunch outpost this ski season and as a camper in the summer. He said his setup had cost over $120,000.
As people realize “the need for more space and fresh air” during the pandemic, Schaffer said, “the community is growing exponentially.”
The exact number of people who live in vans, either full or part time, is not clear, as many so-called vanlifers maintain a permanent residence using a friend or family member’s address. The Census Bureau estimated that in 2019, there were more than 140,000 people living in vans, recreational vehicles or boats — a 38% increase from three years earlier. There is no formal association for van life, but dozens of groups on Facebook dedicated to the lifestyle have tens of thousands of members each.
Parker and Jessica Caskey, a Denver-based couple who bought their van in January 2019, eloped to Loveland Pass in Colorado, snowshoeing in their wedding attire from their van to a mountaintop.
They estimated that they had seen “more than double or triple” the number of vans on highways compared with last year. “It’s picked up a lot since COVID,” Parker Caskey said.
The ‘ideal’ life?
The boom has kept builders like Vanlife Customs, a Denver-based company that outfits van interiors, busy throughout the pandemic. According to Dave Walsh, owner and co-founder, the company is booked until the summer of 2022.
When businesses shut down last year, “I thought we were done,” he said. Instead, he added, “it was almost like adding nitrous to it — it has taken off so much faster.”
That rush of customers includes some, Walsh said, who “talk the talk but had never gone out in an RV or never even taken a van out.” Some clients see pictures of people living in vans on Instagram and immediately want the same, he said.
“I’ve had one customer that comes to mind that was just disappointed by van life,” he said. “It was hard because it felt like a reflection of me and my business and what we were doing, to hear that person complain.”
But that episode “changed the way we educate our customers,” he said. The long wait for a van customization gives the company time to educate its customers on what it really means to live in a van, from maintenance to insulation to water use.
Jake Frew, 31, who has lived in a van since 2018, posted a video titled “Van life is overrated” on YouTube in January, explaining the pros and cons of the lifestyle to his 170,000 subscribers.
He said he had posted the video because he cared about “sharing a realistic point of view,” adding that some people were disappointed when their experience in a van didn’t turn out the way they had imagined based on what they had seen on social media.
“You search for #vanlife on Instagram, and it just looks perfect,” Frew said. “It looks like the ideal life that anyone would be crazy not to do.”
Social media has, however, proved to be a useful tool for those who are already committed to van life.
Elliana Freeman, 21, a junior at Arizona State University, decided to move into a 2008 Chevrolet Express during the pandemic. After her plans to work at a summer camp last year were canceled because of the coronavirus, she ended up working on a farm in Colorado, where she met people who were living in vans. “I just learned how cool it is,” she said of the lifestyle, “the freedom and adventure you can have with it.”
As her classes went entirely online, the internet became her classroom not only for college, but also for learning how to build a van herself. She turned to YouTube and other social media platforms as she worked with her uncle to gut her van and renovate the interior into a livable space.
Freeman said she was wary of unrealistic depictions of the lifestyle, especially those featuring expensive rigs. “All the Instagram vans” that cost tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes into the six figures, were too expensive for her, she said. The prevalence of those depictions of van life in the movement’s social media presence, she said, are “a bummer because it brings a bad name to the idea of it.”
She has chronicled the effort to build her van on Instagram, where she touts her 2008 model year in her bio.
She stuck to a strict budget, prioritizing sustainability — her area of study at ASU — throughout the project. And Freeman said she was under no illusions about what spending time on the road would be like: She tried out living in her Subaru Crosstrek before she bought the van.
More people, more trash, less parking
Chelsea Hirdman and her partner, Paxton Mueller, bought their van on July 4, 2019, shortly before the lease on their home in Boulder, Colorado, was set to end.
The couple, both 27, worked in Boulder and would go camping on the weekends. “During the workweek, it was just random side streets and parking lots that wouldn’t kick us out,” Hirdman said, adding that when they were asked to leave, it would usually start with a knock on the side of the van, which startled their two dogs.
“A year in,” as van life was becoming more popular, she said, “we started getting the knock more regularly.”
Hirdman, a graphic designer, and Mueller, a carpenter who builds climbing walls across the country, said in a phone interview from Taos, a small town in northern New Mexico’s high desert, that the boom had made it more difficult to find a place to stay for the night. “It used to be only on weekends, when we were at a hit climbing spot,” Hirdman said.
Parking lots in Taos that had previously been reliable — like their normal spot, the library — now have signs posted prohibiting overnight parking.
“It just makes it a little more interesting to find where you’re going to sleep,” Mueller said, adding that he understood such measures were meant to “protect the local community.”
Schaffer, the photographer, said that natural spaces were being forced to contend with “more trash, more foot traffic, more illegal campfires,” noting that there had been an influx of others to the outdoors who don’t live in vans full time, like “weekend warriors” who camp in their tents or cars.
On a trip to Wyoming, she saw a family that had started a fire, though fires weren’t permitted at that campsite. “The fire was reaching the branches above their head and they just seemed completely oblivious,” she said. Schaffer’s friend told them it was wildfire season, and the family put out the fire 5 minutes before a state trooper showed up.
But Schaffer said she hoped that with more people on the road and outdoors, there would be more awareness about things like “leave no trace,” an outdoors principle that teaches against leaving trash or wear and tear on nature.
“People don’t have bad intentions; a lot of them just don’t know,” she said.
Schaffer said she wasn’t concerned about too many newcomers oversaturating the community. Instead, she sees the growth as an opportunity for expanded resources for people living in vans.
Vanlifers could become an asset for small towns as the movement grows, she said, suggesting business opportunities like parking lots with toilet and shower facilities, gyms with weeklong passes or amenities that are hard to find for those without spacious houses or yards, like wood shop rentals.
People living in vans are “earning remote incomes and have money to spend,” Schaffer said, adding that “we just aren’t interested in the traditional tourist” ways of traveling.
Asked whether she felt, because of her large social media presence, she had a responsibility to educate people on the nuances of life in a van, Schaffer said it was important for her to find “a balance between educating and sharing in a positive way, and hopefully encouraging people to also want to protect these places.”
“As opposed to policing” or gatekeeping the lifestyle, she said, “I’d rather inspire people.”
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