We travel the American continents in our VW Bus, and we also live in it. But what is it like to live in a car? What is the culture behind the hashtag #vanlife? And how do we find a place to camp every night?
This blog is about traveling. Up to the north of the Americas and then south, south all the way, south until there is no more road to go south. The traveling, the places we go and see, the people we meet and befriend, all the experiences that leave us in awe of the world we live in, that’s one aspect of the journey and it has been the main subject of our writing and publishing. But there’s another side of this trip: the way we live. Our bus, the 1975 Volkswagen camper – Big Emma – that we call home. The fact that we live in a vehicle rather than a house, that we don’t hop from one hotel room to another, or pitch a tent in the woods. As with most things that people spend significant time and effort with, there is a subculture, or at least a term for this kind of lifestyle: vanlife. To live out of a vehicle, most often a van, but just as well a passenger car, a truck, whatever feels like it could be home or is on hand.
This thing called vanlife is more than a way of travel. For a surprising amount of people, it’s a way of life.
When we decided to do this trip, to ditch our rented-apartment life and move onto the road, we did it for the purpose of travel. We knew there were people who did the same thing. But it was not until we actually took to the road and made our way west that we realized that this thing called vanlife is more than a way of travel. For a surprising amount of people, it’s a way of life. Sometimes by choice, because they want to travel or because the notorious 9-to-5 doesn’t fit their understanding of what life should be like; sometimes forced, because they can’t afford both a car and an apartment, therefore combining the two possessions into one.
Vans, as do vanlifers, come in all shapes and sizes. We have met those living, like us, in VW buses – some with pop-tops, some without. Others live in motorhomes, vehicles that seem gigantic to us. Vans, trucks with campertops or just caps that go over the truckbed. We met one couple who was living out of a Toyota Prius. Some have the luxury of a refrigerator, like we do; others we know have gone years without buying things that need to be cooled, and see a cold beer as an absolute luxury. Some have fourwheel drive; some have heat, or running water. Many don’t, or only a combination of these road luxuries. But every rig is home, one way or another.
As with everything that qualifies as a lifestyle, there is a place for it on the Internet. Hashtags like #vanlife, and #homeiswhereyouparkit bring up thousands of posts on Instagram and Facebook, shiny pictures of life on the road, in the woods, the backcountry, life out of vehicles in the most beautiful places imaginable.
But vanlife also has its very practical components, the simple tasks of everyday life, like cooking, showering, doing laundry, as well as a few churns specific to life on the road. Where will we sleep tonight? How can we stay warm? Where can we find clean water? What about decent Internet and reliable electricity? Where can we store all our stuff in a way that it is both accessible and practical for driving?
Before moving into our bus, I did not spend too much time wondering about these things. I was dimly aware of the fact that life would be different on the road, but the romantic outlook of waking up to a new place every day stopped me from worrying too much. Of course I would open my eyes to a blue ocean every day, or a lush forest with the smell of pine needles in my nose. But as with everything, it looses part of the romantic magic surrounding it once you start doing it. Surprisingly, vanlife also entails the daily problems of normal life – not every day is Instagram material. Our usual routine for finding a place to stay is following backroads and turnoffs into the wilderness until we find a spot for the night. But sometimes there is no spot for us. Sometimes we wake up in a Walmart parking lot, some days we are cold, some days the car doesn’t work, and some days we get pissed off at each other – and in a small space like a car, there is hardly any place to be out of each other’s way.
Nonetheless, vanlife is a magical thing. It connects people from different backgrounds, different cultural, political, or any other beliefs. It brings us to wonderful places, the ocean fronts and pine needle forests are part of our lives now. This new category on our blog should shine some light on this part of the trip, the culture that comes with it, and the good and bad times that we encounter along the way.