Our love affair with the open road goes back 100 years, coinciding with the invention of the automobile itself. The ability to drive gave people the means to discover wide-open spaces, visit national parks, and experience life and landscapes outside of their own community. The romanticism of Route 66 and its roadside attractions added fuel to the fire.
Baseball and apple pie aside, there’s almost nothing as distinctly American as “the Great American Road Trip.”
Today, a young family might load up a vehicle for a cross-country visit to Yellowstone, utilizing motels or campgrounds along the way. Those who have the means can buy or rent a recreational vehicle (RV), which minimizes some of the worry regarding lodging and meals. But RVs and car camping aren’t for everyone, as each has disadvantages.
Enter the camper van, which, thanks to what The New Yorker calls a “bohemian social-media movement,” is more popular than ever. Simply searching #vanlife on Instagram yields over two million photos. The camper van and the lifestyle it produces has become a new-age hipster phenomenon, spawning online communities of so-called “vanlifers” and a multitude of twitter chats.
In most cases, camper vans are simple cargo- or sprinter-type delivery vans that have been renovated specifically for adventure travel. Camper vans should not be confused with Class B motorhomes, which are essentially mass-produced camper shells permanently attached to a van chassis. Camper vans combine the best of car camping and RVing, allowing access to areas that are impossible to get to with an RV while maintaining the creature comforts inherent in them.
There’s a certain amount of flexibility in living out of a van. If plans don’t work out, you can simply adjust your schedule on the fly. With the exception of public access restrictions, traveling by van allows you to go where you want when you want. If you didn’t see everything you wanted to see in Moab, staying an extra day or two in a van is easier than changing a hotel reservation.
Landon Faulkner and Shawn Parry customized a camper van for outdoor brand Teton Sports and traveled through the southwest in it. Faulkner noted, “The van maximizes your freedom. Stop and explore when you want. Sleep when you want. And do pretty much whatever you want.”
Paulina Dao, who runs the outdoor adventure blog LittleGrunts.com, rented a camper van for 10 days during her trip to Iceland this summer. “We wanted the flexibility of being able to camp wherever we wanted without finding designated campgrounds or pitching a tent on the side of the road,” Dao said.
Places like Iceland really lend themselves to traveling by van, where the natural wonders on the east end of the island are just a bit further than a day trip from Reykjavik and there are a ton of places to park a van overnight. Basically, if you don’t like to plan, van travel might be right up your alley.
Van life forces you to be uncomplicated in many ways. “It’s a great way to minimize,” said Parry. There’s only so much room for your clothes and personal items in a van. Plus, you’ll likely need to simplify your cooking gear and hygiene effects as well. Leave the baggage (literally and metaphorically) at home. “We stuck to very basic, one-pot meals, which made things easy,” said Dao.
Usually, the simpler you live the cheaper it will be. This holds true in a van. Cook your own meals, watch your gas consumption and make other cost-saving decision that help you create your own cost of living. Dao recalled, “Gas was expensive in Iceland, and that hurt our wallets. But it was still a budget option for us, since a rental car would’ve cost about the same amount, plus the additional campground and hostel fees we would’ve paid.”
Not everyplace is open to overnight van parking, but many are (especially if you’re stealthy about it). Driving halfway up a mountain road in order to soak in the morning views is probably better than the views of the neighboring tents in a traditional campground. Plus, as mentioned earlier, the more nimble camper van can get to places bigger RVs can’t.
In Iceland, Paulina’s van had 4-wheel drive, which allowed them to gain access to some off-the-beaten-path areas. However, if you’re renting, be sure to check your policy before leaving paved roads; travel on unimproved roads might be prohibited by the rental agency. “I’d say with a solid 4×4 van and some awesome all-terrain or winter tires, you’d be able to go all over the place,” Parry predicted.
The back of a van is a relatively small space. You’ll only be able to bring the clothing and gear that are absolutely necessary, and the ability to remain organized is a necessity. If you’re renting, make sure that the van setup meets your needs. “Some of the vans we looked at had awful build outs. That can mean a horrible, inefficient use of space when usable space is already at a premium,” said Dao.
Faulkner, who helped outfit the Teton Sports van, remarked, “In order to maximize space, almost everything should have dual functions, or at least fold away. The more things you can store or multipurpose, the better.”
Parry agrees and added, “the more bins and organizational tools you can utilize, the better.” Asked if he’d do anything different next time, Parry mentioned adding a roof rack for a shower and fold-down tent. “That way, the inside of the van could be a chill living area, and we’d sleep up top in the roof tent.”
Even car camping at campgrounds can net you amenities like showers, toilets and laundry. When you’re living the van life, many of those things require advance planning and your schedule has to allow for them in order for the trip to be a success. Faulkner’s van had WiFi and running water. “Not having access to certain amenities might be a big deal to some people, but they’ll find a way to make it work if they want to,” said Faulkner. “A lot of these van-lifers are used to toughing it out.”
Sixty square feet can feel pretty cramped sometimes. And although tight quarters could be an advantage, it’s important to remember that you’ll be in close proximity to your travel partners for the entire trip. That could strengthen your relationship, or cause a total blowout — especially if you’re a neat freak and they’re not.
Faulkner has some advice for staying civil: “Make sure to have a little time to yourself each day. Go exploring on your own, without your van-mates. It will help keep you all sane.”
Don’t have enough vacation time saved up to take a year off work to travel cross-country? Don’t worry. Van life isn’t always about living in a van full time. As Dao, Faulkner and Parry know, a week or so in a van can prove to be really rewarding without long-term commitments or the stress of selling your house.
The increased popularity of “camper-vanning” has spawned an ever-growing number of rental outfits where you can try out van life for a single overnight or a couple of weeks. Services, prices and mileage restrictions can differ greatly among rental companies — not to mention the style of the van itself — so be sure to shop around and ask questions.
Most of all stay flexible, have fun and enjoy the open road.