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Van Life Has Changed But Some Things Stay The Same

Van life is still associated with adventure, but in 2024, it more importantly eludes steep rent.

A minivan in front of a Utah sunset and the Bonneville Salt Flats.
There were 3 million vanlifers in the United States in 2022. Credit: Shutterstock/Laura Dean

Eight years ago, following in the footsteps of the man who coined #vanlife, Foster Huntington, the decision to swap a New York apartment for a Volkswagen Vanagon would be in favor of living life on your own terms.

Packing all your belongings into a van and converting its plywood load space into a makeshift bed isn’t all Jack Kerouac allusions and novel nomadism. Any glorified fantasies of DIY fixer-uppers are quickly dispelled by RV encampments and dilapidated vehicles.

The state of van-dwelling depends on whether it’s out of necessity or choice. Sometimes it’s both.

A van lifer’s fantasy and choice

Hipster couple with cute dog traveling together in vintage minivan transportation.
The quintessential #vanlife image typically features a fresh-faced, hipster couple and a warm morning glow. Credit: Shutterstock/View Apart

Foster Huntington, author of Van Life: Your Home on the Road, was at the source of a hashtag now attached to over 16 million posts. His surfer spirit and noncomformist edge inspired the vintage travel aesthetic now pervading Instagram communities. The boho van lifestyle is painted across accounts such as @campervirals with dreamy homes on wheels that would put some hotels to shame.

But how much of this fantasy is real?

DIY or conversion

@projectvanlife

Meet the brilliant duo, Edden + Ram (@nicoleandedden), turning campervans into mesmerizing works of art! 😍🎨 Their all-wood, cozy interiors create the perfect home on wheels. 🚐✨ True masters of their craft, these builders have us in awe! πŸ’― Don’t miss out on their incredible DIY van conversion journey. Follow their page for endless inspiration! πŸ™Œ #vanconversion #vanlife #homeiswhereyouparkit #vanlifers

♬ original sound – Project Van Life – Project Van Life

Digital nomads like @nicoleandedden are documenting their van builds and subsequent wanderlust-driven journies. Have a van or the means to buy an old school bus? Well, with a bit of manual labor and recycled materials or the help of a conversion company, your ride can be pimped up to a level of luxury. And if you’re not overly partial to the artful ways of a standard toilet, van life can be a breeze.

There’s never been a better time to downsize to a 17-foot-long home. Portable projectors are the size of soda cans—effortless screening. Solar panels come in all shapes and sizes—stay sustainable. Easily adjustable mounts—keep dining practical. Furthermore, for the highly adaptable and gutsy Generation Z, van-dwelling is an aspiration.

The meaning of “living life on your own terms”

Beautiful Mediterranean views from inside a cosy bohemian van.
Fully converted vans have everything, from insulation and windows to sinks and fridges. Credit: Shutterstock/Razvan Dima

In December 2023, CondΓ© Nast Traveler predicted “The Biggest Travel Trends to Expect in 2024“. Astro tourism, “coolcationing” (chasing the cold as opposed to the sun), gig tripping, and silent travel appear on this listicle. But, what do they have in common? They foster a spirit of freedom. Stargazing, reaching cooler heights, catching concerts, or planning for a mindful trip is always possible for the van lifer, with a fitted skylight of course.

The original idea of #vanlife paints a picture of having the initiative to quit the rat race. Linked to the 60s and its rejection of the conventional, to own a conversion van is to rebel against societal constraints and expectations. Filtered images of sea views, woodland, eating outdoors, and steam floating from a freshly prepared pour-over coffee are part of the romanticized experience.

Although the movement is showing no signs of vanishing, it is certainly changing. The pandemic did two things for van life; proved the functionality of remote working and worsened housing crises worldwide.

Necessity

Nov 4, 2019 Mountain View / CA / USA - Campers and RVs parked close to each other on a public street in Silicon Valley; symbol of the housing crisis existing in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In 2019, an estimated 10,000 people were dwelling vehicles. By late 2023, this figure had risen to 14,000. (LA HSA) Credit: Shutterstock/Sundry Photography

James Truslow Adams’ original American Dream doesn’t have a place in 2024. It is outdated and unattainable for most young people. More Zoomers are living with their parents instead of choosing to belong to the fact that an estimated 12.1 million people in the United States are spending more than 50% of their income on housing costs. White picket fences and manicured lawns are also blurred by the rise in vehicular homelessness.

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s most recent homeless count, 3,364 people are living in vans. Campers or vans parked bumper to bumper with clothes or towels serving as resourceful window covers do not have simple side doors waiting to reveal a homemade oasis. They, among tents, cars, and other make-do shelters, are the last options for too many people, before sleeping on the street, both in and outside of the United States.

What does all of this mean?

It means that van life is not all social media makes it out to be.

When William Gordon Stables, a Scottish surgeon in the Royal Navy, commissioned his “land yacht”, a horse-drawn van, in 1880, he was planning on leisure travel. Whereas, when the RVs halted on Forest Lawn Drive in the San Fernando Valley, the people inside were hoping to stay put for as long as the No Parking signs would be ignored.

As a result, a confusing symbiotic relationship exists between need and want. Even the envied pilgrims on their free odysseys are subject to judgement, fuel prices, a lack of safety, engine trouble, and winter. Is there anything glamorous and noble about van life today? Or is it just a cheaper alternative?

Written By

Hi there! My name is Anna-Maya and I'm from Ireland. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in English Studies, I moved to Barcelona to discover a different pace of life. Writing, good company, food, and travel, in that order, form my list of priorities.

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