In my daily, mindless scrolling of social media, “#vanlife” posts began creeping into my Instagram feed.
The wanderlust-inspiring images of people not giving a crap about anything carried a strong allure; however, I couldn’t help but be turned off by the stereotypically beautiful bohemians dominating the movement. This throwback hippie lifestyle seemed to reek of privilege for people who don’t have to work for a living. I had no idea that—within a year of discovering the hashtag—I would become part of this movement, a lifestyle far more sincere than I had realized at first glance.
What is van life?
While popularized via social media, van-dwelling, van-camping, or van-lifing isn’t a new thing. The most obvious precursor to van life now can be found in the 1970s. Think floor-to-ceiling carpeted Ford Econoline vans, Volkswagen buses, etc. On the whole, these build-outs were simpler than their modern counterparts. Van life today includes vans of all shapes and sizes, ranging from super-technical to very basic. A lion’s share of these van dwellings are colloquially referred to as “Sprinters.” This type of van is taller, often providing more living space than normal, low-roof vans. Sprinters dominate the fleets of commercial businesses, and they are produced by brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Dodge, and Nissan.
Looks crazy. Sure, I’ll try it.
Erin and I hadn’t been together for very long—maybe two weeks—when she mentioned in conversation she wanted to live in a van with her dog and travel the United States. I feigned interest and support in my initial reaction, but having a person bring this up in “real life” somehow made the idea far more tangible than before. I started looking at the popular hashtags on Instagram; I stalked the accounts of notable van-lifers; I even looked at vans and how people built them out. Soon enough, I caught the bug. I began running the numbers in my head: “How long would I have to save to take a year off and do this? What would my monthly budget look like?” I found that saving ahead of time for a whole year of expenses was probably off the table if I wanted to go on this adventure sometime this decade. Maybe if I would’ve gone to school for economics and not communications I would have the cash flow necessary, but no, I knew I would need to find remote work and take a job on the road.
I was sold on the idea, and once I am sold on an idea there is little that can get me off it. Erin and I were in a fairly new relationship, so I had to figure out how to say: “Let’s go halfsies on a $35,000 project and make this massive commitment to each other even though we just met” without the part where I sound like a naive nutcase. I think it ended up coming out something like “Wow, I just ran the numbers on what it would cost to save up for van life, and it’s way more doable than I thought…” What happened next was pretty simple. We agreed to go for it.
We went for it.
After about a month and a half of deal-surfing online and test-driving a couple of vans, we found ours. It was at the top end of our price range, had low mileage, and was a “high roof, extended-length” model, which are hard to find and sought after by van-lifers. On April 27 (neither of us will forget that date), we drove up to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and picked it up. That’s when the hard work began.
We built it.
The van was a bare cargo van, so we were truly starting at square one. The first three steps were: install a plywood subfloor, install a roof vent fan, and insulate the interior of the van. We logged over 50 hours on those three projects alone—mainly on insulation. We had to make sure the van was insulated to retain heat in the winter, and ventilated to repel heat in the summer. Once the insulation was complete, we installed wood paneling on the walls and ceiling and began building the living space. It took at least another 40 grueling hours to install a bed, cabinets, solar panels, and other essentials. Finally, the van was coming together. We were feeling pretty good.
What I learned when I actually looked into van life is that the glamorization of the movement isn’t really the fault of the people in it. Social media just has that effect. The reality of van life is that the aforementioned privileged, bohemian beauties are living in a dirty, tiny, cramped, often-uncomfortable living space. (I am writing this paragraph at night, sitting in a lawn chair at the front of our van with a massive head cold. My feet are buried in the dog’s bed for warmth, and I am thinking about throwing on some gloves because my fingers are getting numb.) Even if your van has all the amenities, there is still a unique set of challenges associated with occupying such a small, off-the-grid space—especially if you are doing so with another person.
Megan and Matt McMonagle—widely known in #vanlife circles as @dirtydarlings—are a married couple who have lived in their Mercedes Sprinter van for 14 months and say their nomadic stint may be coming to a close. Megan is an accountant and took her full-time job on the road. Matt quit his job and does photography and other freelance work now. Megan eventually decided to quit her job also, but she wants to continue doing remote work of some kind.
“I worked at this job for a year on the road, doing everything from 10 to 40 hours a week trying to find the right balance between work and our traveling lifestyle,” Megan says. “For now I’m living the, ‘I saved up money for a long time to enjoy a few months of unemployment’ life.”
So work is a thing, and van-lifers must work (unless they are fabulously wealthy, which I am not).
Another challenge to the social media phenomenon is personal. The lifestyle will test your relationship. It is not always rainbows and butterflies.
“Let me just tell you,” Megan says. “No matter how much you love another person, spending 24/7 with one other person in a very tiny space is hard. Another challenge has been the lack of independence in our relationship. Our days and schedules are so closely tied together that we sometimes forget we need to take time for ourselves and spend time apart.”
Erin has a dog, Yadi, that she definitely loves more than anything on the planet, and she has jokingly shared her fear that one of us would get so tired of hearing the other speak that we would drive the van straight off a cliff. She claims she wouldn’t do such a thing because she has Yadi to live for—which means I better come up with something, too, or I will never get to drive.
Seems like it isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, so what gives?
Things that go viral on the internet seem to exist on one side of a digital dichotomy, like representations of “real life” that only exist in social media: Are there really kids who eat Tide Pods? Do people really do yoga with goats? Do Instagrammers really live in vans? (The answer to all those questions is “yes,” but representative individuals add up to statistical outliers from the general population.)
Being an outlier is OK with me, and we are evidence that #vanlife isn’t just for hipsters (I’ll admit that I tend to wear my long hair in a so-called “man-bun” on occasion, but don’t call me a hipster!). Van life is real, and we have the receipts and debt to prove it. After hundreds of hours—and tens of thousands of dollars—my girlfriend and I are embarking on this lifestyle. We don’t know how long the open road will be our domicile, and we don’t have an exact timeline for our journey—but we know it’s happening.
Van-dwelling, van-living, van-camping, whatever it’s called this decade, is not easy. It stands in direct opposition to some major American ideals—particularly the ones that have to do with collecting lots of things, living in a big house, being well-established financially, etc. It may not impress your grandpa’s golf buddies, but who cares? America is also rooted in the ideals of individual liberty and personal freedom. In a way, van life is as American as it gets. So, excuse me while I take a selfie…before my fingers freeze and my phone battery runs out of juice.
Follow the author on Instagram at @runnerbikersprinter for updates from his #vanlife experience.
This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.