Forget the RV, this is Van Living
Less is more when it comes to trading roots for routes.
The idea of living a nomadic life, one where all your belongings travel with you as you roam from place to place, seems like a distant memory, but even in the midst of a pandemic, it’s a growing trend. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking these modern-day adventurers are doing so in traditional RVs. This is van life.
While some are weekend wanderers, there is a rapidly growing segment of full-time campervan nomads who are giving up their permanent addresses to live and work wherever they want. They are transforming vans into tiny homes on wheels, equipped with beds, kitchens, sitting areas and even bathrooms.
“People want to travel,” said Roxy Dawson, who has been a full-time nomad with her husband, Ben, since 2017. “Vans are an adventurous way to do that. Once you move into a van, the world rolls open. The entire continent becomes your outdoor playground. The obstacles of long drives, expensive hotels, and limited vacation time crumble.”
The Dawsons, who gave up their Denver, Colo., home, began van living while working as the road team for Elevation Outdoors and Blue Ridge Outdoors magazines. After making the magazine-publisher-owned van their residence for eight months, the couple decided to purchase and convert a 2018 Ram ProMaster High Roof 4WD into their full-time home and work vehicle. “After living in a van that was converted by somebody else, we had a great basis for how we’d like to build out our own,” said Ben. Modifications to the new $30,000 (U.S.) Ram cost $7,000, and the couple’s current living expenses average $2,143 per month, which includes a coffee shop budget so they can access free Wi-Fi.
To share their van living know-how, the couple wrote the book “Van Life: Every Essential for Nomadic Adventures,” set to be published by Falcon Guides this June. It shares insights from fellow nomads and gives practical how-to advice to help make the initial leap into the campervan lifestyle less intimidating.
“We often joke that our life is half adventure and half logistics,” said Roxy. “How much water until we run dry? Where can we get more propane? When will the rain stop so I can finally stand up without hitting my head?” She emphasized the importance of downsizing and stepping out of your comfort zone. “Letting go to live in such a small space was both terrifying and freeing at the same time.”
All the amenities of home
Modern campervans have come a long way since the iconic Volkswagen Kombi or Bus was first introduced on the market in late-1949. Today, manufacturers like Airstream, Coachman, Winnebago, and Panoramic RV offer ready-made campervans, but most encountered on the road are custom conversions, built using a commercial van chassis – such as the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter or Ford Transit.
These models are purchased new or used and can be professionally customized by companies like Sportmobile, TouRig, and Freedom Vans. The vehicle’s existing interior is stripped and then filled with wish-list amenities such as roof tents, double bunk beds, indoor-outdoor kitchenettes, full bathrooms, entertainment centers, security systems, and even (if you must) a bathroom TV.
Outside Van, based in Portland, Ore., stands out with innovations like the Air Roof Extension, a vaulted ceiling that makes it possible to set up a three-level sleeping area for four, while Panoramic RV, located outside Montreal, outfits its vans with large windows. Boho Camper Vans in Tempe, Ariz., is known for its high-end details and interior woodwork that makes every van feel like a tiny house. Boho even outfitted a Ford Transit with solar-power panels, a kitchen range, fireplace, hidden toilet, refrigerator that slides under the bed when not in use and a pull-out foosball table for one client.
The cheapest conversion option, even for first timers, is to do it yourself. Building your own van provides you with total control over the look and an intimate knowledge of your conversion, including its electrical and plumbing systems – which comes in handy when it requires a roadside repair. TikTok and Instagram are full of time-lapse and before-and-after and videos posted by proud owners.
“Honestly, it’s also a lot of fun,” said Roxy. “It’s time-consuming and can be extremely frustrating, but it’s exciting to work with your hands and build something that will bring you endless joy.”
But, even the most experienced van life devotees admit this not for everyone. Colin Boyd and Sofi Aldinio traded in their nine-to-five lives to move into an orange 1978 Mercedes conversion with their two young boys. “As a father I’ve gone from having four hours a day with my boys to 24, which was one of the hardest but most rewarding adjustments to make,” Boyd said. “It’s been the best decision we’ve ever made to do this together but it’s not all butterflies and rainbows. While it has worked for us, we do not recommend this type of experience to any other family, unless they really have a penchant for suffering.”
Interest in van living growing
The current COVID-19 pandemic seems to be a major factor driving the campervan trend; people are craving the freedom of travel. Ditching mortgages and boredom in favour of the open road is an attractive notion, especially since work-from-home jobs can be done from anywhere. As bad as the pandemic has been for car sales and the hotel industry, it has boosted the campervan market. Mercedes-Benz auto sales dropped 8.9 per cent in 2020, but Mercedes Sprinter van sales climbed 22.5 per cent.
In May 2020, Seattle-based Cabana launched its chic “boutique hotel-room-on-wheels” rental business. “It just happened to make Cabana a very COVID-friendly option,” said company CEO and founder Scott Kubly. “While the pandemic has certainly been a boon to the campervan and RV travel industry as a whole, it was already a trend that was increasingly gaining interest.”
He said nearly 70 per cent of his renters intend to purchase a campervan of their own because it allows for social distancing in ways a hotel and motel can’t. The company grew by 250 per cent after it opened its Los Angeles fleet in January, said Kubly, and it plans to expand to other U.S. cities by the end of the year.
The allure of nomad living is contagious said Ben during a phone interview a few days before he, Roxy and their terrier, Henry, set off in their Ram ProMaster for a backcountry snowboarding trip in Colorado. “We’ve experienced more in the past few years than we did for the decade before living nomadically,” he said. “It has changed us as humans for the better, opened our arms to a new community, and grounded us to the earth in ways we never imagined.”
Vicki Arkoff / Special to Wheels