Inside the #VanLife Phenomenon: 21 Facts You Need to Know
Living in your van down by the river may isn’t just a reference to a famous Chris Farley sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” For a number of people both young and old, it’s also a lifestyle choice that’s growing in popularity. An Instagram search of #VanLife returns over 5.4 million results. And that number is poised to rapidly grow.
More people are learning about living in their vans and are actively choosing to give up their previous tethered lives to go on the road regularly. For some, it’s a part-time gig. For others, it’s something they want to try out but know it won’t be forever. And for still others, it’s a seemingly indefinite full-time lifestyle choice.
If you’re new to the #VanLife movement or simply curious about it, here are 21 facts that will help enlighten you.
Van life is, in many ways, exactly what it sounds like. You choose to live in a vehicle rather than in a traditional foundation-based home. Whenever you consider a van your home, whether it’s for the weekend or for the long-haul, you’re living #VanLife.
The distinction between being forced to live in your car because of your financial situation or some personal issues and choosing to live in your car for various reasons is one of the major differences between the seeming glamour of #VanLife and the stark reality of homelessness.
And yes, in case you’re wondering, it is legal.
A Brief #VanLife Timeline
Though it may seem like a new phenomenon, living on the road certainly isn’t something brand new. In fact, in 1880, the first luxury “land yacht” was created by Englishman William Gordon Stables. It allowed him to travel in comfort (albeit very, very slowly).
At Woodstock 1969, the Volkswagen “hippie” vans first made their way onto the scene and became both a lifestyle choice and a symbol of anti-consumerism, which appealed (and still appeals) to many people who choose to downsize their living situations. In 2001, Sprinter vans became popular thanks to their new non-commercial availability in the United States and because they were still spacious yet more efficient than the traditional RV.
The Hashtag Origins
The origins of #VanLife can be traced back to 2012, when a former corporate employee Foster Huntington gave up his lucrative life in the concrete jungle to live in a van full-time and documented many of his adventures on Instagram. Though he no longer lives fully in a van, the hashtag’s popularity has grown.
You can technically live #VanLife in things that aren’t actually vans. The most popular choices for people who want to spend more time exploring the world in their vehicle are Sprinter vans and Volkswagen vans.
There’s plenty of research and opinions available to help people decide what might be best for them, and most of it centers around your budget, what you’re willing to do yourself and what type of lifestyle expectations you may have for your new “home.”
The Cost of Creation
There’s a huge range in costs when it comes to the creation of a livable van. According to one recent survey by Outbound Living, over half of people who live full-time or part-time in their vans spent between $1,000-$10,000 on converting it and just under half of those same people said it took between 2 to 6 months to do so.
Costs can vary widely depending on what types of amenities you want and what you might be willing to live without. Even simpler conversions have run people upwards of $20,000. Some people cut corners with used vehicles and less space, which can be done with success for $6,000-$8,000.
Of course, if you’ve got the budget to go even higher, there are plenty of available options, too. At a certain luxury or size level, these vans can be arguably considered RVs, a distinction to be addressed later.
The Different Ways People Experience #VanLife
That Outbound Living Van Life survey suggests that almost exactly half of the people who live out of their van do so part time (49 percent), while the other half are full-time (51 percent).
Many people who do live in their van (full or part-time) encourage people to think long and hard about if this lifestyle choice is for you and how to optimize your joy before you just jump in and “do it for the ‘gram.”
The Number of People per Van
Just under half of the surveyed people who live in their vans do so with one partner. About a third live on their own, and a significantly smaller percentage have more than two people in the van. Though it may seem crowded, one family with three children actually live in a van and seem to make it work for them. This doesn’t include pets, of course. About 60 percent of people surveyed don’t have a pet.
The Cost of Upkeep
Aside from setup and initial installation costs, plenty of ongoing costs are associated with #VanLife, most of them involving basic van maintenance, gas, tires and miscellaneous adventures (like having to get your van towed if it gets stuck somewhere or getting major repairs if something goes awry).
There are also some complications in renewing your vehicle’s registration without a physical address. And, of course, where to get a nice shower (gyms were the most popular choice, which means an ongoing gym membership) and maybe accessing some WiFi, which often seems to happen at Starbucks.
The Problem of Sleep
One thing #VanLife people are regularly concerned about is finding somewhere safe to sleep (for both your personal safety and the safety of the often expensive items in your vehicle). There are ways to cut costs and stay in free spots, like Walmart parking lots. But sleeping in a large parking lot under fluorescent lights isn’t exactly what many people who choose to live in their van envision for their adventure. Campsites costs, which typically range between $10 to $100 per night, can add up. Of course, you can find free campsites.
Many people are attracted to the idea of living in a van for financial reasons. You can pay less than you do in more traditional living situations which involve rent, gas and electric bills every month (just for starters). Depending on where you live (in the United States or elsewhere), it’s hard to argue that van living isn’t a smart economical choice. Even with ongoing daily costs, you’ll likely spend less overall living in a van than you will for an average living situation. Much of it, again, will depend on the amenities you have available and the type of lifestyle you desire.
Even with the ongoing costs associated with living on the road, #VanLifers save a lot of money in ways you may not expect. Aside from not having to pay many of the basics every month, minimizing your space means you also minimize your needs. #VanLifers think long and hard before adding anything new to their space.
The Difference Between #VanLife and RVs
RV trailers tend to be bigger and more luxurious. They often have many basic camping amenities included in their cost, without the need for conversion (though you can if you want to get really fancy). Things like showers and bathroom facilities are typically standard in RVs, but not as often available in vans. Vans are also less spacious but allow for a little more travel ability. They tend to be smaller, so space is more limited. But that means they’re also a little more economical on gas and easier to find parking spaces in metropolitan areas.
The Difference Between #VanLife and Tiny Homes
The Tiny Home movement shares many of the same values people who choose #VanLife, like minimalism and financial freedom. But their structures are significantly different.
Tiny homes are exactly what they sound like – everything you’d expect from a home but just significantly smaller. They have all the amenities you’d want or need in a home, it’s just small and usually able to be moved around. They can be built on a foundation, but are often able to be attached to a trailer. This means they can also be detached from a trailer, but they’re less mobile than converted vans.
Vans are more for traveling to remote places and seeing the world, even if that means you have to be more creative about where you find your shower.
People who have experienced #VanLife (and who still live it) generally speak honestly about their lifestyle and how it may not be as glamorous as the pictures you see on Instagram.
First of all, it’s hard work consistently maintaining a working van. Lots can go wrong and derail even the most enthusiastic adventurer. And you are at the whim of weather conditions since you spend so much time outside of the van (and sometimes even within it depending on the insulation).
The main complaints include being sick while in the van, always needing to find a safe place to sleep and spending a lot of concentrated time driving or with your partner in a small space.
But the biggest drawback many people who have experienced #VanLife warn of is the uncertainty. It’s uncertain where you’ll be sleeping any given night. It’s uncertain if something may go awry in the van or engine itself or the structure of your living situation within it. You’re constantly facing uncertain weather and driving conditions. It’s uncertain if the plan you had mapped out for the day is doable.
All sorts of uncertainties can cause some personalities to thrive while others may have anxiety attacks.
The Best Age for #VanLife
Based on the content of some of the most popular Instagram accounts and much of the news around motivations behind choosing #VanLife, it may seem like millennials are the most likely people to choose to live in a van. But between the families that live in vans with younger children and seniors who choose to retire and live out a more simplistic lifestyle, the demographics of people who live in vans are all over the place.
Thanks largely in part to the popularization of the lifestyle (thanks social media!), there is a huge amount of specific culture surrounding #VanLife. They have lifestyle blogs, their own magazine and even their own vocabulary.
The Social Media Frenzy
Every refresh of the Instagram search for #VanLife will show an ever-growing popular hashtag filled with people living seemingly picturesque lifestyles very close to nature (and often doing yoga poses). Twitter has its fair share of #VanLife posts, as well. Both social media outlets are often filled with people who are showing the beauty and excitement of their lifestyle, and many times attempting to get you to follow their journey on their personal sites.
Despite the fact that it’s a lifestyle that’s seemingly off-the-grid, plenty of people take time to share their adventures on it.
The Lifestyle Portrayal
It’s understandable why #VanLife is so popular. There’s beauty and glamour associated with the open road. Many times, #VanLife and #BestLife are used together to further associate only positivity to van living.
Even though deeper research into choosing to live in a van will reveal many of the harder truths and hardships associated with it, social media makes it seem like this lifestyle is the everyman’s accessible way to see the world in comfort.
A West Coast Phenomenon?
Van living is worldwide, but a large majority of the people who choose #VanLife live in the United States. And many of those people are concentrated in California and the West Coast. Much of that is likely because of more temperate weather conditions and ease of finding places to park your vehicle.
Of course, the thing about living in your van is that you can actually live anywhere you want, like the people who completed a road trip from Chile to Alaska. A group of #VanLifers dedicated five years of their life, survived twelve engine rebuilds, and traveled along the coast of South America and all the way back up north. They documented their trip for YouTube and wrote a book about the adventure.
The Businesses Involved
With a growing number of people living full-time or part-time in converted vans, plenty of businesses offer services and amenities to help that lifestyle. Companies will help you convert your vehicle to a livable (or maybe more luxurious) environment. Some businesses are bigger, while others are small and more specialized. If you’d like to add a showerhead (or even a shower system) to your van, or a better sound system, or maybe you want to have a fridge installed so you can save some leftovers, there are companies that can do these things for you.
Or, much like an interior designer on a home, if you’d like to change the general look and layout of your home vehicle, designers and craftsmen are able to do that so you can maximize your space while keeping it looking sleek.
Other companies offer products that are specifically geared for people living in their vans like rinse kits or portable laundry devices. There’s even specific health insurance available for people who live nomadically.
The Financial Sustainability
One of the most pressing questions people have for people living a more migratory lifestyle is how can they afford it. For those who save up huge amounts of money or come from wealth, the answer is more obvious. But for some who want to maintain this lifestyle seemingly forever, or who have more average financial means, a balance must be struck between living completely off or on the grid.
The most popular answer to how people who live in vans, according to the Outbound Living survey, make their income was in the “other” category. It seems that many online and freelancer opportunities allow people who can work anywhere to do just that...to work from literally anywhere.
That means web developers, graphic designers, social media managers, e-commerce specialists, bloggers, online marketers and freelance writers are some of the most common vocations of people living in vans. There are also artists, photographers and people willing to do miscellaneous seasonal work.
Of course, with so many people in love with #VanLife as it’s portrayed on social media, it’s no surprise that a handful of people live off their popular Instagram accounts through partnerships, sponsorships and becoming brand ambassadors.
The priority for people who want to live #VanLife seems to be to focus on what it takes to live a happy, balanced life out of a van and consistently carve out a lifestyle that supports it.