There has always been something romantic about living life on the road — no ties to brick and mortar, no boring nine-to-five, no final destination in mind. It’s a life associated with the Woodstock generation, populated by free-living, free-loving hippies more concerned with banking memories than cheques. It’s an existence glamorized by musicians, writers, Bonnie and Clyde-style love affairs, dusty roads, and sunset-filled landscapes.
The road-trip aesthetic has inspired countless movies, lyrics, and collections, with brands such as HUF and Stüssy hitting the road in recent years to display their latest garb in front of motels or hanging from ’70s Volkswagen campers. For many, however, van life is more than an image of freedom — it’s a reality, a way of life, a mindset, actual freedom. And it’s a hashtag, too.
Over the past seven years, the #vanlife hashtag has exploded on Instagram, having been attached to 3.5 million posts and counting. A swift scroll through the tag’s feed reveals polished, Scandi-style van interiors, retro campers parked before sprawling vistas, dinners under fairy lights, and beautiful people wrapped around each other, gazing out across the wilderness. Their lives are enviable, infinitely Instagrammable, and — for most of us drones — totally out of reach.
Or maybe not. Early in 2017, after countless months of scrolling, planning, and saving, I invested in a slice of #vanlife all my own: an old German police van, complete with (empty) machine gun holder in the driver-side door and 30 years of criminal memories in the back. I had grand plans for renovation, turning this rather conservative-looking green machine into a stylish holiday home on wheels. I would cut and install a wooden floor, insulate the sides, put in a bed, and within weeks my polizeiwagen would become the dream photogenic mobile home I’d seen thousands of times on Instagram.
It didn’t quite go to plan, of course. While I did do all of the above — with quite a lot of help — the van isn’t quite the picturesque creation I had in mind. Not yet, anyway. Instagram made the process look far, far easier than it actually is, and while assuming the conversion would be straightforward was admittedly quite naive, it made me consider the hashtag-slash-movement as a whole. Exactly how honest are people being about the beautiful lives they portray compared with how they actually live them?
So we talked to a few people who know the game more than most: Foster Huntington, who coined the #vanlife hashtag back in 2011 and then penned the 2017 book Van Life: Your Home on the Road; Laura Hughes, who runs How She Views It and the Women on the Road podcast; and Lisa Jacobs of Vacay Vans. Via email we discussed the honesty of the #vanlife feed and how the movement has boomed, as well as more practical advice for aspiring road warriors.
Do you think the transition into van life would have been easier back in 2011 had Instagram been the huge source of inspiration it is now?
My transition was pretty damn easy. I was so excited to do something new and take a chance that all of the hurdles felt like part of the process. One of the reasons I was drawn to living in a van was because it felt like some form of rebellion, a sense of adventure. “You’re going to do what? Live in a van down by the river!?” were the standard responses.
Do you think people portray their lifestyle honestly?
For the most part, the popular accounts are some hyper-stylized version of reality. It’s like comparing photojournalism with editorial, they just aren’t the same thing. Personally, I’m much more interested in photojournalism from the outdoors than half-assed yoga-pants van life. When I lived in a van, Instagram was a much different place. It wasn’t something people took so seriously or put so much emphasis on.
You worked at Ralph Lauren before leaving for life on the road. Did that help fund your new lifestyle?
Even though I had a good job, I wasn’t able to save much money. Originally, when I decided to move into my van, I thought I was going to have to save money for a few years. I ended up getting an advance to make a book of a photo project of mine, called The Burning House. Money from that kept me on my feet until I started making a living doing photo work.
What’s the main objective of your Instagram account?
To build genuine connections for myself and for the community. That means being vulnerable, sharing as much of the whole story as possible, and supporting people who want to build similar types of connections with others online. The van my partner and I own had its own account, which was more of an informational space for people to learn about how we built our van and how we live on the road now. [Now I have] my personal account, which is where I share travel stories and reflections as a woman in the outdoors. This account is a place to showcase my writing and share some of my own personal realities of working while traveling, living in a van, and creating a podcast on the go.
Do you think Instagram van-lifers portray their lives honestly?
In the Women on the Road community, there are a lot of females sharing what life on the road is truly like — from breakdowns to shaving their legs in public bathroom sinks to not being able to find a place to sleep at night. I don’t think a lot of that makes it to Instagram for the same reason someone who owns a home doesn’t take a video every time they have an ant infestation. When you’re doing chores or taking care of a miniature disaster, many people don’t feel the need nor have the time to document it.
How do you feel about #vanlife on Instagram in general?
I think that travelers need to always be careful about how they post online. Geotagging is a huge one and something Leave No Trace just issued a statement about. More often than most, van travelers are visiting obscure public lands because it’s easier to find free camping within them or nearby, and they have the time or ability to get there. Visiting these places is great, being advocates for these places is great, posting a trendy photo and telling everyone exactly where you are, as we’ve painfully learned in the past few years, is usually not.
Is there anything you wish you’d known before you started?
There aren’t that many accounts that focus on the day-to-day visuals: how you might often need to sacrifice a stunning camping spot because it doesn’t have service; how you might need to take a daily commute into a town to get work done. Also, a small home means that chores need to happen more frequently — washing dishes, emptying garbage, getting groceries — you can only go so many days before neglecting those [becomes] a huge problem.
How long did it take you to complete your renovations? And how do you fund your lifestyle?
We really took our time with the van build: two and a half years! For us, we intentionally went into the project knowing that we were new at this, that we wanted it to be an experience we had together, and that we were simultaneously saving for taking a year off work to travel while also funding the van conversion and paying for Seattle rent, student loans, insurance, and so on. We still had full-time office jobs the entire time, which was essential to being able to make all of that happen at once.
Any advice for budding nomads?
While I don’t believe the onus is on every full- or part-time #vanlife-r to make sure society understands how this way of life can look, the sheer amount of vacation-style #vanlife photos — even those of workspaces — can make it seem like living on the road is easier than it truly is. If you’re interested in traveling this way, I always encourage people to try it for themselves in small ways first before making big investments. If you’re interested, there’s really no wrong way to do this except to not try.
What’s your main objective in your van life? And has this changed since you started out?
Originally, my Instagram account was focused on sharing details about my van build. I thought I might start a business renovating vans, [but] when my partner and I parted ways, my story changed dramatically, and the tone of my account became much more vulnerable. My followers watched me go from being part of a couple to a single woman trying to figure out if I could live in a van on my own.
Do you think Instagram van-lifers portray their lives honestly?
I think it’s hard for van-lifers to know how vulnerable to be. Not everyone started a van-life account to share their deepest fears, insecurities, life challenges, breakups, and struggles. I didn’t start that way but it’s evolved to be that, and I’m grateful to have a platform where I can share my thoughts and goals. It feels good to share authentically, but it’s not something everyone is comfortable with or knows how to do. I have a lot of van-life friends who want to be more open online, but it’s honestly scary to put yourself out there.
Solo van life is a lot of work. I get mentally exhausted all the time and, though I try to stay positive, sometimes this lifestyle is hard. People think I’m “living the life” and it’s true, I have an incredible life with amazing freedom, but it’s not always rainbows and unicorns.
Any advice for budding nomads?
I would recommend to start living minimally now and to stop spending money now. See if you can survive for several months without buying clothes. Think about how much you consume, because your habits will dramatically change once you get in a van. Also, reach out to people and ask questions — no questions are too personal or off-limits. I always encourage people to reach out and ask away!
Are you tempted by life on the road? Let us know your thoughts on digital nomads in the comments.
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