How a Year of Self-Reflection Inspired a New Wave of #Vanlife
“This is what I did in 2020. This is who I was. This is what changed,” narrates author Mark Manson about a crowdsourced essay from 1,273 people who spoke out about the iconic year.
There’s no need to rattle off yet another list about the quarantine, the politics, the virus…you lived it. Instead, let’s talk about a potential new normal, abandon those small things that never really served us anyway, and talk about what’s next.
One voice from the crowd wrote:
A year ago, if you told me that my favorite restaurants, half my friends and gym would be taken from me, I would have freaked out. But not only do I not miss them, I think I might actually be happier without them.
One thing we’ve learned as a human race is that a global pandemic can completely shift your reality. This might include your job. This might include your house. This might include how much toilet paper you think you need. But, for the majority, the crisis wasn’t there to hurt you, but to lift you up.
A crisis amplifies who you are, allows you to rise to the occasion, and lets you create a new origin story for yourself. We’ve seen it time and time again, be the Spanish Flu or the 2008 financial crisis. Things change. Life is hard. Get a helmet, sure, but don’t fear the change that will inspire you to grow.
Just as the post World War II society brought about an exodus to the suburbs life, the era after the Great Recession brought about a reversal in the desire to live in the suburbs taking part in the so-called American Dream.
Spending time in unique eateries or experiencing the best Old Fashioned of your life felt better than struggling to pay for an oversized home. But now that’s gone, for the most part, and there’s a new void to fill.
Ironically, to look forward, we may actually need to look to the past, to our nomad ancestors, to our expedition seekers, and frontier pioneers. It’s time we stop buying vehicles with names like Expedition, Pathfinder, or Explorer, and actually work to create that nomad mindset from the inside-out.
Now that more people share this perspective, what’s next? Where do we begin? I decided to start my new journey by looking to a handful of people who made this decision years ago…those in the #Vanlife community.
A New, New Frontier
According to a 2020 survey from Move.org, fifty-two percent of Americans said they would consider moving full-time or part-time into a van due to COVID. Likewise, van-style RV sales shot up ninety percent, custom van builders are all backlogged, and it’s nearly impossible to find a used van on Craigslist for a reasonable price.
On Instagram, the hashtag #Vanlife has now been used over nine million times, from weekend warriors, would-be travelers, and of course, full-time explorers.
“It was a slow process,” said former NFL Center Joe Hawley. “When you play football, your body starts breaking down. I started thinking about what I want to do next, when football was finally over. I decided I had a unique opportunity to go travel and focus on myself and enjoy my freedom.”
Under the original avatar ManVanDogBlog, Hawley showcased how he had completely changed his life. He focused on a minimalistic lifestyle, changed his diet (to drop well over 50 pounds), and completely reshaped his mindset. Hawley told me:
The rule basically is, if something doesn’t add direct value to your life, then it’s taking up space in your life and it’s important to get rid of those things. I found a van, rescued a dog, and hit the road.
Hawley certainly wasn’t the first person to make this journey. In fact, a lot of couples are actually choosing the lifestyle, and the new wave has been in motion for some time, but the pandemic pushed the lifestyle into a new realm.
So what does it mean to live a minimalistic life on the road?
A Concentrated Life
When you describe the lifestyle to those who haven’t heard of it before, there are typically two types of questions: 1. Why? 2. How? Both of these questions reveal the mindset of the person asking the question, but putting the reason “why” aside for a moment, let’s talk about the logistics of the lifestyle, or the “how.”
As Hawley said, everything needs to serve a purpose, and while it might seem daunting to sell off everything and move into a van, as most minimalists discover, this doesn’t increase stress, but reduces it. It highlights the things that are most important. As writer Lorrie Moore says, “Life is a field of corn. Literature is the shot glass it distills into.” Vanlife is what you get after the distillation process.
When I spoke to ActiVan founders Chris and Megan Feulner (@the.activ), they told me their van remodels take 6–10 weeks depending on the customization options and upgrade features. After living the lifestyle, they decided to help others choose this unique path.
The van designers told me:
We are pretty much booked up for the year. We saw a big surge of traffic due to COVID and the fear of commercial travel. You can be in your own enclosed unit in a converted van and still go wherever you want to go, make your own food, and breathe fresh air.
Along with the build, the Fuelners are really the first encounter for many on how to live the lifestyle. “We get all kinds of requests, but people typically differ to us,” they said. “Many people ask to fill the counter tops with fixtures such as stoves and accessories, because that’s what people are used to in their homes, [but] we like to shy people away from that to maintain counter space.”
In addition to custom designs from the Fuelners, there’s also a new book on DIY van conversions from UK Vanlifers Charlie Low and Dale Comley. In The Van Conversion Bible, the duo from @climbingvan provide a fixer-upper approach to their own distillation process.
“This is the first truly definitive book about how to convert a campervan,” said Charlie. “We wrote this book because we wanted to provide self-build van converters with a trusted single point of reference when converting a campervan.” Their book includes a deep dive on design, a step-by-step build guide, electrical and gas diagrams, and step-by-step illustrations.
“We found that eighty-three percent of people looking to convert their own van were doing so because of personal preference rather than cost.” Both of these options help people wrap their heads about the lifestyle, and both show that even though builds are small, that doesn’t mean they can’t be beautiful, and serve those who wish to move inside.
Since we’ve discussed the “how,” let’s get back to the “why.”
Why People Choose Vanlife
Choosing the DIY approach, Jess and Mike (@van.there) spent six months on their build. “We were pushing as much into our weekends as possible,” Jess Shisler told me about her first year of marriage in 2016. “Hiking, backpacking, biking — doing all the sporty activities, but always feeling like, There’s never enough time.”
In an effort to take back their time, Jess requested “remote work” from her employer, but her boss essentially told her to take a break and come back, not understanding she wanted a true lifestyle change. “We managed to negotiate a contractor deal and they were one of my big clients in the beginning,” she told me. “Remote work is the future and you don’t have to be anywhere in particular, so why not be someplace amazing?”
Jess and Mike have been on the road for a few years now, so they’re essentially experts on the lifestyle, in terms of where to visit and where to avoid. In fact, the couple even created an app to help newbies on the road, along with veterans looking for connections while traveling. “People are fatigued. People miss gatherings. Gatherings were a big part of our lifestyle,” she said.
Our culture, as nomads, is having these moments of space and time as humans. Virtual events can facilitate some sort of connection, but there’s nothing like a big hug from a stranger…
In an attempt to help travelers make these connections, the duo designed @thevanlifeapp, which helps people find free campsites, facilities, and people on the road, sort of like Yelp for the vanlife community. This type of crowdsourced content is particularly valuable during the quarantine, when many locations shut down with little warning.
This type of information is helpful for anyone on the road. “My favorite part of being a solo female vanlifer is meeting strangers and connecting with people from all part of this weird and wonderful country,” Lisa Jacobs (@lisamjacobs) told me. “COVID makes it so much harder to connect with strangers and the opportunities for spontaneous adventure look very different in this post-2020 world.”
Vanlife During the Pandemic
Solo traveler Lisa Jacobs also described this lack of connection as a “hunger,” where she has actually began a mentorship program to help people jump into the “location-independent life.” She said:
We connect at a distance these days, but we’re all so much more appreciative for each human connection we can have. My personal travel plans have shifted from self-exploration to education and community support.
As for the quarantine, many vanlifers like Lisa are spending more time in friends’ driveways than they are on the road, while others are finding warm places to hunker down for an unknown amount of time, as regulations and quarantines shift across the country. All in all, the overwhelming advice post-2020 is to avoid heavy tourist areas, plan ahead when possible, and focus on lesser-known locations.
“I think people will be amazed at just how many stunning spots there are to explore much closer to home,” said the crew from @climbingvan. “We are naturally big planners, and so normally we spend a long time working out exactly what we’re doing and when we’re going to travel. The pandemic has meant we’ve had to really learn to take things slower and let go of planning — as you can hardly plan a week ahead at the moment.”
In terms of new travel accessories, obviously there are masks and extra sanitizers, but Jess Shisler also recommends travelers to pack portable power station (Jackery), solar powered lights, a camp stove or camp kitsch, a cast iron pan with utensils and bowls, shade structure or a canopy, window insulation, and a decent cooler. But, right now, she’s making extra space for excess Purell. She joked, “I’m a biochemist, so I’ve always been a germ freak.”
While no one could have planned for the pandemic, the vanlifers perhaps had the right mindset going into the unknown. Once their basic necessities were taken care of, many simply hunkered down to focus on the things they care most about.
Alive Time vs. Dead Time
During the pandemic, author Ryan Holiday wrote about Alive Time vs. Dead Time, which was advice from his mentor Robert Greene. Essentially, there are times in life when you’re essentially stuck, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the most of this time. A small example might be reading a book while waiting at the DMV. A large example might be writing a book during the quarantine.
“We jumped into this life by watching other people on YouTube who were doing it,” Taylor Cluster (@taylorcluster) told me, after her boyfriend Scott proposed they sell everything and move into an RV to travel full-time. While on the road, Scott also encouraged Taylor to pursue her first love: writing. The former teacher decided to give writing another shot and actually created her first novel, The #Vanlife Murders.
Earlier in life, Taylor kept a journal, wrote a little in high school, but really didn’t experience the freedom of writing before she chose to be a full-time vanlifer. “I always had that itch in me to write a book, but it was really hard to do with a full-time job. I didn’t have time to just sit down and start writing, but once we hit the open road, Scott brought it up, and I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’”
Following the write-what-you-know method, Taylor pulled real events from their travels on the road, and combined those with the setting of a murder mystery. “I love reading suspense novels. Luckily, we did not witness any murders on the road,” she joked, “but I wanted to put those two things together to combine a mystery and traveling on the road.”
Throughout these interviews, it’s clear that the freedom of vanlife invites creativity and new pursuits for those willing to take the leap…
- Taylor Cluster (@taylorcluster) sat down to write her first novel.
- Jess and Mike (@van.there) created an app to help vanlifers — and Mike (@drawn.there) is also an artist.
- Lisa Jacobs (@lisamjacobs) is helping with a new TV series about VanLife.
- Charlie and Dale (@climbingvan) created their own how-to book on DIY van conversions.
- Joe Hawley (@joe.hawley) started a deep-thinker podcast called Quantum Coffee.
- And, Megan and Chris (@the.activ) are currently rebuilding their sixth van for a client eager to experience the lifestyle full-time.
For those readers who are considering making a change in life, be it living full-time in a van or simply pursuing a creative process, the key is to face those fears head on, and focus on what matters most.
As author Taylor Cluster told me, “Something that helps you get over those fears, and depending on how drastic of a change you are trying to make, you should do some research, but look to other people who are already doing it.”
The author added:
When you look at these other stories, where people are having a hard time, but willing to do something new, you just have to do it. You have to have that one day where you try it and know, maybe it’s not going to work out, but maybe it’s going to be the best thing I ever decide to do.
In my own personal journey, I took a similar trip about a year after college, where I sold my personal vehicle to fund a trip with a college roommate in his SUV. We spent eight weeks on the road, traveling from North Carolina to Oregon, and spent an equal amount of time planning and answering “why” and “how” questions from friends and family.
In the end, however, whether you choose a full-time life or an extended trip, the travel mindset is what will change you. Call it Essentialism. Call it Minimalism. It doesn’t matter which label helps you get started. Reduction is the first step to becoming a focused, creative person. It’s about doing more with less, fighting for your time, even if that means missing out on seemingly urgent matters.
“The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials,” wrote Chinese Inventor Lin Yutang. People have always been worried about distractions, but these days, we voluntarily choose to be overworked, overcommitted, and overloaded.
Choosing what’s important in your life is really everything. You’re looking at limitless options and eliminating everything that doesn’t fit. Aside from the chaos, the quarantine offered us all a glimpse into the moments and choices that are not only precious, but fleeting.
Take advice from all the people interviewed for this piece and don’t look envious upon others, but be inspired by them. As for yourself, however you choose to share your life, strive to be someone who inspires your fellow travelers with the decisions you make each and every day.