ItMy family was fond of road trips. I remember the most memorable being the weeks-long treks across the American West. They usually ended with all of our neatly packed stuff spread out in every corner of my parents’ van. My dad built a bed in the back of my van for me and my brother. It was cluttered with books and ripped candy wrappers.
It’s good to be alive.
On Instagram, road-trip life has taken the more trendy form of vanlife culture—adventurous travel by living in customized vans. Many photos feature remodeled Sprinter vans, with the rear doors open and two people lying on beds facing beautiful scenery. Galley kitchens are available with wood floors and subway tiles. It looks even better than my original Chicago apartment.
A closer look at the reality of vanlife, however, shows that it isn’t always as glamorous as it appears on Instagram. It is possible to make a living out of vanlife if you are committed. isIt is a complex mix of frustrations with everyday things and opportunities for community building, personal discovery, activism, and community building.
VanlifeIt has enjoyed a growing popularity over the years. Sometimes it is because of its love for adventure, other times just because of practicality. According to a survey, 35% of Americans are aware of the importance of adventure. “drawn to van life to be outdoors more,”72 percent “would trade their home for van life to pay off debt.” With films like Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland, vanlife isNow, it is closer to mainstream acceptance.
A few years back, I was introduced to vanlife by someone online. He had my exact first and last name, also ended up in the news sometimes, and, as it turned out, he’s a cousin I’ve never met in real life. (You may know him as the hero who recently 3D-printed the Simpsons’ TV replica.)
The younger Brandon Withrow and Lindsay set off on a road trip to visit every national park. That includes 50 national parks and 24 national monuments. There are also 14 national forests. They have visited 105 cities. 52 museums. And 64 attractions along the way. During that time, they traveled over 50,000 miles, got engaged, and then married—all the time living out of 60 square feet. VanlifeThey saw life as a series milestones. COVID-19 enabled them to live less in vanlife but still manage to get out of the house for at least a couple months every year.
In my car, I was making long and short trips to national parks. Brandon Withrows was apparently trampled on the American West back then.
However, behind these experiences can lie a challenging way of living.
This is one of the many posts on Project’s popular Instagram account. VanlifeAs Project illustrates, the real struggles and frustrations of life on the roads can be just as frustrating. Project Vanlife often reshares more polished vanlife posts—gorgeous van remodels parked along perfect scenery. One reshare, however—a post from Janna and Austin Jenkins (@austinandjanna) on “The things about VanLife not usually shown on Instagram”—became a moment of community therapy for vanlifers happy for some realness on Instagram.
This reality was shared by many who commented on it. They hang the fruit in hammocks that they can buy, but they do often get bruised.
It is important to consider all the possible scenarios before you commit to vanlife. Some vans can be converted into luxury RVs, but not everyone has the room for a bathroom in their tiny home. “pee bottles,”Find creative solutions to manage bodily waste miles away from rest areas.
“The poop in a bag,”Onemanonevan wrote the following “Another user (jean._muir) replied, “You know we thinking [sic] of just using dog bags instead of buying a fancy toilet.”
My cousin was meticulous about preparing before she drove anywhere. “We kept a ‘Preflight checklist’ next to the steering wheel,”He said to me: “to make sure we didn’t forget to do anything before moving the van: lock the drawers, lock the cabinets, nothing on the counter, close the vent, nothing on the roof.”
“Definitely not for every couple,”Janna Jenkins explained to me that it was worth the wait when I reached out. The Jenkins’ account often dispels the myths of vanlife perfection with videos of insider vanlife moments.
“Living in 70 square feet by yourself is a challenge, let alone with another person! It’s made our relationship flourish and really brought us closer together, but we’ve seen couples that have been torn apart.”
(Interviews for this article were conducted before the tragic murder of vanlifer Gabby Petito by her fiancé, Brian Laundrie.)
In March 2019, the couple discovered vanlife through Instagram. This was when they had just been married and were searching for long-term travel alternatives. They were soon on the road nine months after repairing their van.
“VanLife,”Jenkins said to me: “(at least in our experience) is 50 percent of what you see on Instagram and 50 percent of what you don’t see. We really do spend half of our nights in beautiful spots with ocean views or in lush forests, but we also spend half of our nights in Walmart parking lots or at truck stops.”
On the road, there are those things you can plan for, Jenkins said, like having insurance to cover everything, and those you cannot, like discovering, as she did, that she’s severely allergic to bee stings and having to go to the emergency room—hoping that your insurance will cover it all.
Vanlife is for others. isIt’s a more relaxing, part-time occupation.
Katharina Foster and Simon Foster, both from Switzerland, are part-time vanlifers who travel on weekends and holidays together with their dogs. Vanlife”They said. isThe “perfect investment”Even though it is possible to travel with your dog, some people admit that their hair does not get in the way of dogs.
“For us, as passionate hikers,”These people add to vanlife is “very convenient”Sleeping “at the starting point of a hike so we can start very early and enjoy the peace and quiet at the mountain top.”
Nomadic life isn’t perfect, they admit. The outdoors is their favorite place to camp. isInstagram isn’t always as picturesque as it seems. Many times, the spots they use to park their campers are littered with toilet paper and human excrement. Despite those surprises, they say it’s “totally addictive.”
Vanlife is a popular choice for many. isIt’s all about rediscovering your self.
“Abi [Rodriguez] and I started the process of vanlife in early 2017,”Nat Rodriguez. The couple is @letsplayrideandseek and can be found on Instagram. Nat Rodriguez had been a sous-chef, but was open to a shift. “We did some research and purchased the van. We worked to save money and build-out the van in 2018. Abi ended the lease on her photography studio and I quit my job and we took off [in] February of 2019.”
“Unfortunately, the majority of what you see portrayed on the platform is a very small part of vanlife,” Rodriguez told me.
“That is by no means to take away from the luxury of getting to park up at a spot with stunning views while enjoying a beautiful sunset with your doors open. That absolutely happens, and Abi and I are fortunate to have called pretty much any landscape you can think of our backyard.”It is isHowever, it is a constant hustle every day, she said. She mentioned things like not being able shower for long, getting mail, and finding places to rest.
Still, they say it’s worth it.
“The other side of that is getting to have unique experiences,”Elle added “absolute freedom, gaining some of the most meaningful relationships you’ll ever have, seeing the beauty of the country and the world, growing as a person, and overall, living intentionally. Abi and I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.”
Van Life Pride was also started by the couple (@vanlifepride). “celebrate queer nomads”To create an account “safe space for LGBTQIA+ nomads & allies to connect.”
Planned events are a great way to form meaningful relationships with others nomads who travel. They hosted the Van Life Pride event in early 2022. This was followed by Skooliepalooza which brought together a lot of RVs and school buses.
Vanlife is full of diversity, but that diversity often doesn’t make it on those aggregate accounts, which leads to a serious gap in representation online. Diversify and similar accounts are available. Vanlife (@diversify.vanlife), are also stepping forward to represent underrepresented people in vanlife.
VanlifeThe world can then be one that allows people to focus their efforts on important local issues.
Melissa Moses is an Indigenous Canadian woman who got involved in vanlife when she purchased her 1993 Chevrolet G20 Chevy Van.
“I adore traveling and my van has all the elements of home,”She told me. She’s lived out of a suitcase, a car, a truck, a tall ship, liveaboard dive boats, multimillion-dollar yachts, and RVs.
Vanlife for her isIt was instrumental in her activism. “The reason I decided to begin my van life experience is because of my work in teaching self-defense to First Nations communities and advocating indigenous women’s rights. I returned home after traveling abroad for 15 years because of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.”
National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls isAfter years of calls from indigenous peoples for Canada’s attention to the large number of murdered and missing indigenous women throughout Canada, a Canadian government report has been released.
“My elders in my communities asked me to return home to teach self-defense to all our First Nations Bands in British Columbia,”Sie said. “The Union of BC Indian Chiefs elected me as their Women’s Representative. I represent over 150 First Nations Bands in British Columbia.”
VanlifeShe says that her job as a self-defense instructor makes it affordable and opens up new opportunities. “reach all the First Nations Bands in BC, see the world, learn about myself, and refocus on what really matters in my life.”
How can people live vanlife without sacrificing their income? Others, such as my cousin, become digital nomads through freelancing, or having a looser corporate policy that allows them to work on the road.
For example, the Jenkinses own an axe-throwing club in Northern Colorado. The business is run by one partner and then they take over the management from on the road.
Other people bring their core talents to the locations that they are visiting.
Nat and Abi both work as needed. Nat once set up a beach-side restaurant in Baja California Sur Mexico. “We camped for a month on this surfer beach and created a restaurant with two other campers we met. We became close friends. We would make a menu, sell tickets, and cook for an intimate sold-out crowd, cooking out of our rigs and over a fire while watching gray whales right at the edge of the shoreline.”
It is a good idea to keep it. isIt is clear that vanlife exists isIt’s not always possible to capture the perfect shot in the ideal setting. isAlso, it is evident that the van has many incredible moments such as these which keep people coming back to their vans.
“One good thing we’ve experienced on the road,”According to the Fosters “is how you suddenly become part of a community.”They also add while on the move “we were stopped by a family whose car was stuck in the roadside ditch. We were able to pull them out and we will never forget their happy and thankful faces. We know [that] if one day our van will have a breakdown, someone will help us out.”
Moses’s experience of last year was similar. The event was witnessed by her. “Commemoration Memorial Healing Totem Pole Raising on unceded Kitsumkalum territory, honouring Missing Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls/2SLGBTQ.”
The van she used to transport her was not heated at the time. The two shared traditional meals, including sockeye Salmon. According to her, the harvesting of sockeye salmon in their territory to south was stopped years ago. This made it a unique moment.
“I ate the sockeye salmon like it was my last meal,”She said “They all looked at me concerned because I was eating like I was starving.”They packed salmon for her to bring home with her to family before she went.
“My van smelled of fish for days, but it was worth it.”
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