Earlier this year I became very involved with something called van life. There are videos and instagrams and podcasts all about this new form of living. There is a broad spectrum of individuals doing this and posting videos and photos of their lives about it online. Some people do it by choice and some have the choice thrust upon them.
Essentially, what van life is all about is living in a van (duh!). I think of it as an extension of the tiny home movement, except these ones are on wheels and tend to be much more mobile than tiny homes which are often built on a trailer bed as laneway homes. In many cases, van life means, sleeping, working, cooking, and doing the washing up in the van. It may mean stealth living (parking on the street or in a lot) in LA, Toronto or another expensive city where the van lifer goes about a regular life (whatever that is) except sleeping in the van and showering at the gym. In other cases, it may be about driving around North America (and in at least one case — Central America) as the van lifer makes money online and/or remotely.
Van lifers often convert Mercedes Sprinter Vans, Dodge Promaster high-tops and sometime Ford Transit Cargo Vans into homes on wheels. Others buy a factory-built Roadtrek or Hymer, Winnebago or Airstream. Again, there is a real spectrum of vehicles and build quality, comfort, stealth and the accompanying rational/purpose.
On the surface, van lifers tend to be vegan, young couples and part of the minimalist movement. However, as you go further down the rabbit hole, you realize that there are middle-aged and elderly solo women and men and sometimes whole families living out of vans too. (It is likely only because the younger group are posting more through social media that they dominate the top of the awareness threshold).
Homeless by choice?
Although the van lifers I’ve come to know online gave up their apartments and homes by choice, there are a great number of people who have taken up living out of their vehicles as a means of survival. According to a recent Slate article, more people are sleeping in their vehicles than ever before. The automobile has become a new form of affordable housing. Cities are responding in some cases with safe parking programs — giving vehicle dwellers places where they can park overnight without the fear of being ticketed and towed or becoming victims of crime. When I was away in August, we parked our van in a free city-run site that included everything we needed, including hot showers!
Homeless doesn’t mean jobless. According to the article, “I have met people who are working at Amazon and rent an RV to live on the streets of Seattle while they’re saving enough to get into their own place.”
Van life and home appreciation
On the road with Roadtrek
Although I really wanted to buy a van and do my own conversion, instead our research led us to buy a two year old low-milage Roadtrek from a local dealer. It came in on a trade and it was a great choice. I always say to my first-time homebuyer clients, live in the house for a year of two before you make any big changes. I also say that if the house offers 80% of what you are looking for, buy it. You’ll never get to 100%
The 2016 Roadtrek Zion SRT was a very good choice. I would say that we are 90+% there. There are more things that I would take out of it than need to add to it.
My next project will be a full van conversion.
The Urban dictionary defines boondocking as: No fresh water, electricity or sewer utilities while camping in an RV. Living without conveniences such as municipal electricity or water, indoor plumbing, or grocery stores, especially when camping with a recreational vehicle.
- The first night we boondocked in our new van at a lighthouse on the Huron Coast.
- Then we took a two night trip down to Lake Erie and stayed at a couple of wineries.
- Then we hit the road on a 20-night trip to Lake Louise and back. Six days out of the twenty we boondocked.
The great thing about modern-day van life is that vans are self contained with solar power on the roof, propane under the chassis. You carry your own water and have a holding tank for grey and black water. At 19-feet long, you will fit into regular parking spots. You have electrical outlets and USB ports, a kitchen with a two burner stove, a sink and a bathroom with a shower, a bed, lots of storage space — everything you need.
There is a lot to be said about living out of a van. I liked pulling up to a Canadian Tire and then fixing a broken drawer right there in the parking lot. You can stop for an early or late lunch when you see a scenic spot and if you want to drive an extra couple of hours before parking for the night, you can. There are lots of apps that can help you find a place to camp or boondocks.
I’m good with the minimalist lifestyle, I don’t need much but living out of 60-square feet does come with its challenges:
- Fresh water fill up and grey water dumping needs to be done every three or four days. That means every third, fourth or fifth night should be at a campsite. Some are wonderful, other are kind of bleak.
- When you get back home you appreciate showers. On the road, showers are less than two minutes long with inconsistent heat and lousy pressure. I appreciate just how much water we use and waste living in a sticks and bricks house.
- You quickly learn that your home internet, no matter how much you dislike Bell or Rogers is pretty awesome. On the road you quickly realize that 10 gig of data is nowhere near enough. You also learn that there are a lot of places that have no internet service at all. Oh my God!
There are people online who claim to have been living out of their vans for more than a decade. I met a German couple that had a big rig that they were taking down to Patagonia. They said that their goal was to stay on the road for ten years too. Most of my online friends are into their second years of van life. We’ll see how long they last.
With van life, you can be as mobile and free as you want or you can stick to a very narrow geographical area. You can be as introverted or extroverted as you want too.
For me its the ultimate “pick up an go” experience and I love that. I also like the egalitarianism of it. Camping is the great equalizer. One night I am talking with a Montana Trump-voting survivalist, the next morning with a left coast liberal school teacher.
I’m not fond of camping but I love van life. Go figure!