Hot Bottles & Toothpaste-Stained Windows: Real Talk from a Vanlife Veteran

August 24, 2020
vanlife
Courtesy of Amanda KeohaneThe author in her 2004 Toyota Sienna, which was her home and adventure vehicle between 2018 and 2019. She says she learned vanlife was quite different from the polished image it’d developed on Instagram.

 

The first night is restless. I can’t stop thinking about how each person passing by the windows of my Navy blue minivan is thinking to themselves, something is off about this car, and will press their face against the tinted glass. Peering in, they will find me lying there, quilt pulled up to my nose, glassy eyes widened in fright.

Every car is a police officer, who will knock on my door to tell me I had violated a dozen laws. Every passing footstep is someone about to break in and drive off with me lying helplessly in the back.

But these fears would fade over the weeks and months I spent living in my van. I soon learned to cherish the moments of solitude and simplicity this new lifestyle afforded me—to say nothing of the outdoor adventures it would unlock—when the winter air stiffened my eyelashes and my breath covered the windows and softened the glow from the streetlights outside.

In total, I spent close to a year living out of my 150-cubic-foot 2004 Toyota Sienna, and for me, it was wonderful. But after pushing past the filtered Instagram posts and dreamy YouTube testimonials about #VanLife, I found myself in a reality that most of the time was quite different than social media. Floors were dirty, laundry was tucked in every corner, overnight parking was an intimidating task, and there were many moments when I looked down at my three layers of socks and the toothpaste-stained windows and asked myself, what am I doing?

* * *

 

Dream Big Live TinyFrom the outside, Amanda Keohane’s van looked like a typical Toyota Sienna. But inside, it was home.

I bought my van, whom I named “Lady,” in October 2017 with the intent to create a mobile dorm for my upcoming semester at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. I had lived in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest as part of AMC’s hut croo for a few seasons at that point and the thought of returning to the “real world” made my stomach ache.

I wanted to continue a life of adventure and simplicity. I wanted to curl up in my sleeping bag that still smelled like the croo room at Lakes of the Clouds hut. I wanted to read by headlamp and pee outdoors. I wanted to do something exciting and different. But, more than anything, I wanted to experience adventure, and van living seemed to promise that. As a bonus, it would save me thousands of dollars each semester in university housing fees or off-campus rent.

When I told my parents my plan, I was met with an expected hesitation. How will you eat? How will you shower? Where will you do your school work? Is it legal?

I had responses to nearly all their questions, but it was the details of legality that gave me pause. I read article after article and searched dozens of blogs on the topic, but it was difficult to find any concrete answers. That’s when I began realizing how the promised freedom of van life came with more than a few complications and caveats.

 

dirtbagger composite
Left: Courtesy of Josh Buonapane / Right: Alex AzabacheOutdoors lovers have been camping in their vehicles in parks and at trailheads for decades.

Van-dwelling dirtbaggers: a history

Dirtbaggers—those who opt for lives of outdoor adventuring and travel over more “traditional” existences—have called vehicles their homes for decades, especially in the outdoor community. Climbers, surfers, trail runners, and hikers have used their vehicles as tiny mobile dwellings to conveniently enjoy beautiful places.

These outdoor enthusiasts could camp in their vehicles at trailheads or near crags, cutting down on long commutes to early-morning adventures and lowering their living expenses. What’s more, the mobility van-dwelling allowed meant freedom to explore more places in less time and created a sense of deep-rooted connectedness to nature.

Social media brought this once niche and outcast lifestyle into the mainstream. The #vanlife social media movement began more than 10 years ago, according to a 2017 New Yorker article by Rachel Monroe, when Corey Smith—who had left his New York City job and moved into a 1987 Volkswagen Syncro—reposted the hashtag on Instagram as an appropriation of Tupac Shakur’s “thug life” tattoo. Almost instantaneously, Smith was propelled into a new kind of fame as a social media influencer. Today, it’s clear Smith catalyzed a movement, as #vanlife is tagged to more than 7.7 million posts on Instagram—and counting.

In the age of social media influencers, people idolize van-lifers. It’s a movement that’s been flooded with images of $60,000 converted vans, all spotless and surprisingly well-lit for such small, enclosed spaces with hardly any natural light. At a minimum, these vehicles contain some form of a bed and storage for clothes and possessions. The more luxe versions popularized on social media include working kitchens, running water, solar panels, a shower, or space-age electrical closets for easy gadget-charging. In many ways, the concept of vanlife has been co-opted into a high-end and unattainable lifestyle.

For many of us, though, van life is much more than a fad, opening a myriad of new ways to explore natural spaces.

“As I travel across the country,” says Kevin French, 25, of Concord, N.H., “I see more diverse outdoor and wilderness places than I would if I lived at home, that’s for sure.” French has worked as a seasonal employee for AMC and lived out of his 1987 Volkswagen Westfalia since 2015. “[Van life] is exposing me to more environments: the coast of California, the deserts of Utah. It’s allowed me to experience these places in a more affordable way. No renting cars, travel costs, hotels.”

A majority of vanlifers survive on a $50- to $100-per-week budget, or $200 to $400 per month. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans on average are spending closer to $5,100 per month. That’s more than 12 times higher than most vanlifers.

And while purchasing and converting a $20,000 Mercedes Benz Sprinter into a mobile home may seem contradictory to the low-cost living argument, there are many ways to make van life a reality without breaking the bank. I have seen people living modestly out of minivans (ahem, yours truly), Airstream trailers, pickup trucks, Honda Elements, and even a retired ambulance. One can purchase vans with an expert build-out (check out MangoVans) or create a custom space with a few tools and some plywood. The general sentiment seems: if there’s enough space to lie down, there’s enough space to live in it.

 

Measure twice, cut…twice?

I learned quickly that my funds, time, skills, and patience weren’t enough to afford me the vanlife luxuries I’d once imagined. In the end, I passed on solar panels, a sink basin, and even insulation, finding that a bed the width of my shoulders, a few storage bins, and a partially finished side table sufficed for my needs.

Every morning began the same way it did when living in a dormitory: I’d hit snooze every 9 minutes for close to an hour before so much as pushing a blanket off of me, never having been a morning person. The only difference now was having to pull back two layers of my grandmother’s quilt and unzip two sleeping bags before my feet met the freezing winter air. (Remember how I’d opted not to insulate my van?)

After brushing my teeth using the water from the hot water bottle I’d slept with for warmth, I would spit onto the cement of the parking lot where I’d overnighted and get dressed horizontally, on my bed. Before driving to work, I had to take down the black-out panels I’d Velcroed in the back windows for privacy and roll up the curtains—jagged, threadbare, slightly translucent fabric squares—on the sliding doors. These features only lasted the winter, however. As days grew hotter, so did my car, and I learned that using glue to adhere my curtains wasn’t the best idea.

And while I spent a majority of my vanlife in a campus parking lot, the real excitement set in Friday evening, as I turned onto I-91 and aimed Lady toward the White Mountains, trying to ignore the dividing curtain nudging my shoulder. (I’d hung it just behind the front seats by wrapping a rope from one side of my roof rack to the other, running it through the car.) For me, the ease with which I could escape into nature was the single best aspect of vanlife, and I took advantage of any opportunity to pursue adventures.

 

Courtesy of Samantha DerrenbacherSamantha Derrenbacher lived with her husband in a 2015 Mercedes Benz Sprinter—a mobile home base for outdoor adventures all year.

“The outdoors is your living room when you live in a tiny home,” explains Samantha Derrenbacher, 31, who lived with her husband, Perry, and pet dog for several years in a 2015 Mercedes Benz Sprinter before purchasing their first wheel-less home in 2019. “With little access to technologies and a tiny space to keep clean, the great outdoors become part of your living space. I’m personally way more apt to go exploring outside on a daily basis when I’m not distracted with house life. Plus, I’m never worried about packing to go on bigger adventures because I have everything with me at all times.”

Waking up surrounded by trails and possibilities is always exciting, but it was important to have a game plan, especially without access to a phone signal, and park close to or at the trailhead where I would be adventuring the next day. While much of my routine stayed the same in the woods, necessities like food and water were far less accessible. So, making sure I stocked up on essentials was a must.

Barring any Nor’easters blowing through, leaving Massachusetts at 5 p.m. could land me at a trailhead in New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch with plenty of time to slurp down an instant meal or two and read a book by lanternlight before falling asleep. I was now well-positioned to rise early the next morning, brew some instant coffee and assemble a peanut butter tortilla for breakfast, and set out to a ridge or two without fear of losing daylight.

 

 

A sudden speed bump

When COVID-19 lockdowns began in early March, the lives of most van-dwellers changed dramatically along with the rest of us.

Suddenly, public restrooms were scarce, campgrounds were shuttered, and coffee shop closures made WiFi a distant dream. Many vanlifers were forced to set up in the driveways of friends of family members so they could still work remotely and use the bathroom.

And while motor vehicle travel was among the safest methods of getting around, it presented a number of challenging variables. In much of the Northeast, roadside and trailhead parking bans made overnighting difficult when campgrounds were also closed. And even as New Hampshire and Maine began to reopen their recreational spaces, their governors for a time did not allow service to out-of-staters.

Still, the COVID-19 shutdowns did offer an opportunity for many to begin the van build-outs they’d always dreamed of. Payton Carroll, 21, of Rochester, N.Y., began converting a Ford Transit Connect this past March during the stay-at-home orders while she was out of work and living at her father’s house in South Carolina. Carroll intended to live out of it while doing trail work in Durango, Colo., a choice that many other seasonal workers in the outdoor recreation industry have also pursued in these wild times.

“I’d always wanted to do something like this,” Carroll says, “so it was the perfect opportunity.”

 

seasonal workers
Paula ChampagneMany seasonal outdoor workers—including a number of AMC hut croo—have found vanlife to be the perfect living arrangement to support their vocations and lifestyles.

The seasonal worker’s dilemma

I had long dreamed of renovating my own vehicle because of the intimate proximity to nature that it appeared to provide. But it wasn’t until joining the ranks of the AMC’s seasonal staff—which numbers around 300 during non-pandemic years—that I saw first-hand how accessible and entirely practical it was.

Living and working a full-time seasonal lifestyle can often be stressful. You move from place to place, following the seasons. Often, it’s summer out east, doing trail work, guiding, or in backcountry facilities and campsites, followed by winter out west at ski resorts or other tourist destinations.

The beauty of this lifestyle is that you are often learning about and recreating in some of our nation’s most beautiful natural spaces, but it requires the ability to be nomadic. That’s where vanlife becomes useful. I’d never have to worry about finding housing when I returned to school mid-year because I had a home wherever I was.

When I arrived at Gala—the yearly training for AMC’s hut croo at Mizpah Spring Hut—in May 2017, I met Samantha Derrenbacher, the first vanlifer I’d ever encountered. Derrenbacher quickly opened my eyes to how practical the lifestyle could be for nearly anyone who wanted to work in the outdoors—but especially seasonal outdoor staff like us. I knew I couldn’t afford to purchase and build a van at the same level as her Mercedes Benz Sprinter, whose market price runs close to $30,000 for the van alone; the more vanlifers I met, however, the more I realized how easy it could be to make any vehicle a living space.

 

AMC hut croo alumni Erica Lehner and Josh Buonapane retrofitted a 1998 Toyota Tacoma into a living space as they traveled between seasonal employment gigs.

Take Josh Buonapane, 26, and Erica Lehner, 28—both former AMC hut croo. The couple opted for an unconventional live-in vehicle for their travel between Montana and New Hampshire for seasonal work. In 2017 Buonpane spent $3,800 on a 1998 Toyota Tacoma with a camper topper, which encloses the truck bed with an elevated roof. “I knew I would be moving a lot as a seasonal employee, so it served as multi-purpose vehicle,” Buonpane explains. He says the build-out of his truck bed was done with only $40 of plywood and two AMC hut mattresses that were going to be thrown out. “I can slide six huge bins underneath the bed platform,” he continues, “and I’ve never bottomed out on backroads like I might have with a van.”

Buonpane, Lehner, and Derrenbacher influenced my own van build-out and showed me the full range of vanlife possibilities. For me, I realized, it was not about creating dreamy aesthetics like I saw on Instagram—like the orange antique van parked beach-side with freshly vacuumed hardwood flooring. We seasonal workers are adventure-seekers. Dirt and sweat are synonymous with our existence, and I have yet to meet a vanlifer that goes to a laundromat as much as they should.

We need to be prepared for anything, from losing our home for a week when we experience a breakdown to showering with a damp towel in a rest stop bathroom. Vanlife is by no means luxurious for most of us, but it’s achievable and opens new potentials for outdoor employment and recreation.

 

Tommy LisbinYearning to drift off to sleep under the moon’s soft glow? Do your homework before parking overnight.

Expanding accessibility

But some benefit more than others when it comes to vanlife. The more people realize the affordability, accessibility, and freedoms of vanlife, the more government officials appear to crack down on it with rules limiting the lifestyle. One town in British Columbia, Canada, threatened to remove the lease on a parking lot where people were being allowed to sleep and live in their vans. In Yosemite National Park, there has long been a struggle between the avid rock climbers and park authorities, detailed in the documentary Valley Uprising, over the adventurers’ near-constant overnighting in the park.

Even Walmart stores—which historically have let RVs and campers spend the night in their parking lots—are becoming less reliable for overnight stays, with more than 40 percent of stores now not allowing the practice. These restrictions aren’t only hurting vanlifers by choice; it’s hurting unhoused individuals who rely on these public spaces for survival, yet are being pushed out by the growing number of public camping bans across the United States.

And while that is primarily an issue of wealth inequality, the vanlife movement is not inculpable when it comes to issues of race, either. “There have been many occasions where I have felt extremely isolated as the only person of color represented in vanlife media and at social gatherings,” explains Trinidad native Noami Grevemberg, who founded #DiversifyVanLife to address some of the challenges she’s faced as a black woman living out of her vehicle.

The outdoors community has long been white-dominated and many organizations, including AMC, have announced or reaffirmed their dedication to making natural spaces safe for everyone. When one considers the fact that 50 percent of van-dwellers rely on the National Parks, grasslands, or Bureau of Land Management lands for sleeping, Grevemberg and others are beginning to call out the lack of racial representation in this outdoor-centric community as well.

Not only that, but I recognize that living in a car would feel a whole lot different if I wasn’t white. There were times I was afraid a police officer would knock on my window and ask me to move. But I knew the worst that would happen would be a polite conversation in which I relocated my vehicle.

“In cities across America,” Grevemberg continues, “black and brown vanlifers face police harassment simply for ‘vanlifing while black.’ Because vanlife is seen publicly as a white millennial trend, a black person living in a van is viewed as a criminal. The only way to counter this stigma is through representation.”

 

* * *

What I learned, as I fell into my solitary, yet soothing year as a van-dweller, was that it wasn’t the build-out of my new home or technicalities of living in a 180-square-foot vehicle that proved the biggest adversary. It was falling in love.

I had only built my van to fit my personal needs, and once I met my husband Joel in late 2018, we both realized that my chosen living arrangement wouldn’t work out for both of us. I continued living in Lady as I finished up my degree—a few years later than everyone else because I couldn’t get enough of the mountains—and relished traveling north each weekend to hike to Carter Notch Hut where we would shovel snow and stoke the wood stove.

But after my sixth and final season working in AMC’s huts, it was clear a 25-inch mattress wasn’t going to cut it anymore. We found a new home at the foothills of White Mountains in North Conway, N.H. It’s still tiny at 400 square feet, but it’s big enough for two. One day, we may rebuild Lady and set off to explore new outdoor adventures. For now, she stays parked in one place, a beloved playhouse for the children I nanny. When I see them standing inside, heads almost hitting the roof of the van, the space suddenly appears comically small. How did I ever live in here? I wonder. But as I clamber in, finding a seat on the wooden box that once held my schoolbooks, and join in their game, I remember how: quite happily.


LEARN MORE:

A Vanlife Beginner’s Checklist

For those looking to give vanlife a try, start by asking yourself some basic questions:

    • How many people will be living in this vehicle?
    • Will I need a vehicle that can travel off-road?
    • How many miles, on average, do I expect to be driving each month or year? If it’s a high number, then consider opting for a newer vehicle with better gas mileage.
    • How much storage capacity will I require for successful van-dwelling? Do I have a lot of outdoor gear? Will I need space for skis or climbing equipment?
    • Where will I be spending the majority of my time? Will I want something low-key for parking in more populated areas, or will I be near trailheads or other outdoor spaces with room for a larger vehicle?

Once you have an idea of the vehicle you’ll require, it’s time to purchase your vehicle! I recommend Craigslist. As unreliable as it can be, it actually seems to be the place to go to find used vans. It’s also very possible that you can find a partially converted one there.

    • Everyone’s build-out will be different. Make sure you have a plan and a budget before diving in, and make sure you’ll have somewhere to park it while you’re working on the build.
    • Here are some great resources for build-out ideas:
      • YouTube: This is the first place you should explore. There are tons of tutorials on renovating cars, trucks, and vans. The key is to search your specific vehicle because they will be relevant to the space you’re working with. Start with Jennelle ElianaEmerging Alternatives, and SUV Ring.
      • Blogs: Plenty of blogs discuss converting your vehicle into a mobile home. They often have step-by-step tutorials on how people are changing up their cargo space from building a bed, to setting up solar electricity. Start with Go NomadProject VanLife, and VanClan.
      • Social media: I would save social media for last. Most of the time, the examples you see are expensive and more for general inspiration than actual build-out instructions, but it can be a great place to find some inspiration. For starters, check out @irietoaurora@tinyhomenation, and @vanlifediaries.

—A.K.


FURTHER READING:

  • Get some outdoor inspiration for your vanlife adventure.
  • Be sure your van is loaded down with the 10 essential pieces of hiking gear.
  • Go behind the scenes at Gala, AMC’s annual training for hut croo.

 

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Amanda Keohane

Amanda Keohane is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she is studying English, journalism, and communications. She is currently working on her honors thesis on the communication of climate change in Iceland.