Van-Lifers Explain How They Embrace Life on the Road

Full-time or part-time van-lifers live, feast and adventure with their van as home base, camping with great views, solitude and low or no costs.

What is van-life? Defined by those who live and travel in Sprinter vans, modified Volkswagen buses and other van-based RVs including Class B or B+ motorhomes, many van-lifers maintain this lifestyle full-time, working remotely while on the road. Some may have money saved before leaving, with plans to work along the way or to return home to replenish their reserves.

van-life sunset

Van-life represents freedom from the earthly things that often seem to hold us down, whether they obtain a used van that someone else has traveled in previously, build their own van, or buy one from a boutique builder or RV manufacturer. Embarking on a van-life journey is an opportunity to learn, wander and reflect on life on the road. It also provides a multitude of ideas where to go and what to see on your next road trip, something many van-lifers have in common.

Full-time or part-time van-lifers live, feast and adventure with their van as home base, camping on BLM land (Bureau of Land Management) and in other areas where there may not be electricity or internet, but that offer great views, solitude and low or no costs. This lifestyle also allows participants to discover all sorts of things about the ups and downs of van-life. Exploring the outdoors is their passion, and van-lifers believe the best way to do so is from the comfort of a van conversion.

Van-lifers are not in a single demographic. There are older RVers, young couples, families and a surprising number of singles that have embraced nomadic van living. One reason for van-life’s increasing popularity is the internet, which makes it possible to work, go to school and perform routine tasks from anywhere instead of needing to stay in one place.

According to Statista, the number of van-lifers rose from 1.9 million in 2020 to 3.1 million in 2022, an increase of over 63%. Statista classifies van-lifers as part of the digital nomad category who travel, live and work in recreational vehicles, vans or other motorized means of transport converted into roaming residences. Some common occupations for van-lifers include remote workers, entrepreneurs, seasonal or odd jobs. Nine percent are unemployed, and only about 4% are retired. Passionate for new adventures, people who adopt this way of life generally combine remote work and travel for various reasons and lengths of time.

Thrivemyway.com reports in their General Vanlife Stats and Facts for 2023 that 51% of van-lifers reside in their vans full time. Only 36% of van-lifers live alone and 44% live with another person. Forty-three percent of van-lifers live in converted cargo vans, and 18% in passenger vans. About 13% live in iconic Volkswagen vans, and 6% live in RVs. While some choose to have a van professionally converted, most van-lifers convert theirs themselves to save costs; 79% say they converted their vans themselves. Conversions can take anywhere from a few months to over a year.

van-life travel with pets

In a 2020 survey, millennials were the majority of those considering van life – 31% were ages 35-44, and 29% were 25-34. States with the most van-lifers include California, Colorado, Florida, Oregon and Washington. As of 2019, it was estimated that over 140,000 people were living in a van or other vehicles. Since the pandemic, it appears the number may have increased significantly; it’s unknown how many chose the lifestyle for recreation or because of housing pressures.

Fifty-six percent of van-lifers spend between $101 and $300 on gas every month, whereas 17% spend under $100 and 27% spend over $300 in gas each month. Thirty-eight percent of van-lifers spent nothing on campsites per month, and only 4% spent more than $300 on campsites per month. Half of van-lifers sleep in BLM areas or national forests or grasslands.

As the most common way to bathe, 28% utilize a gym membership, while 21% opt for a built-in van shower. Thirty-nine percent of van-lifers use public restrooms, while 35% have a built-in van toilet. Pets accompany about 40% of van-lifers.

While some people see van-life as an escape from consumerism and an alternative to get out and see the world, we spoke with a few van-lifers to get a better understanding of what van-life offers and why they decided to participate in it.

RV PRO: Why does van-life appeal to you? What about the lifestyle drew you in, either as a full-timer or a weekender?

George Gill: I went to college for photography and work now as a corporate pilot, so I’ve always had that drive to go out and explore. Entering van-life was a natural extension of that. When my wife and I moved to Oregon 10 years ago and started hiking more, we learned that getting to the trails early to avoid crowds was a big priority, but waking up early became a pain. That was when we realized being able to drive to the trailheads and camp out the night before would be highly advantageous, and boom, van-life! Currently we’re just weekend warriors, but in May 2024, we’re taking a 12-month van trip around the American West and British Columbia.

Scott Tydeman: I’m a 90% full-timer in my Storyteller Overland Beast Mode, which I nicknamed The Vaninator. I enjoy the freedom of unlimited travel where I can change direction or camping spots at a moment’s notice. With this van, I have visited 60% of all the U.S. national parks in the continental U.S. and numerous national and state forests to camp. Discovering and creating so many personal stories of my amazing travels and random discoveries is what I love and have done since I’ve had my rig for one and a half years now.

RV PRO: What aftermarket accessories did you purchase when you bought your rig, or did you add afterwards?

Gill: We bought a completely empty van directly from Mercedes and brought it to Overland Van Project to be outfitted. We put in a Volta lithium power system with a 2000 W inverter and 5.5 kW alternator. It has a 20-gallon water tank with a sink, indoor/outdoor shower and Timberline heat/hot water. An Isotherm 130 drawer fridge and a two-burner induction cook top, counter tops and cabinets were added. It also has a dry flush toilet, a Murphy bed and Starlink Wi-Fi. Other additions include a Backwoods adventure bumper with LED lights, Falken AT tires and more. It was a lot.

On a side note, I’d like to give a shout out to Overland Van Project. I was concerned with having so many different manufacturers of aftermarket products that we would have issues integrating all of it properly. But OVP’s installation was perfect, and we haven’t had a single issue so far.

Tydeman: I have purchased several upgrades that have made my travels easier and safer as a lone nomad. This includes a front winch, recovery tools, StarLink, 47-gallon fuel tank, full Shuksan Vans garage storage system with toilet pullout, Rolef side and back screens, accessories from Agile Off-Road such as their spare tire water tank and rear differential skid plate, and top and lower rear shock mounts. I also added an Expedition Essentials dash accessory mount, Overland Gear Guy custom storage bags and much more – too much to list here.

RV PRO: What features of your build do you like the most or can’t live without?

Gill: Having the Volta power system has been great. It allows me to charge up all my photo gear and power the Wi-Fi, the kitchen and the environmental control. It has really turned this van into a home away from home.

Tydeman: That’s easy to answer: It’s Storyteller Overland and their employees, who developed and crafted an awesome adventure van, but are always there to assist their owners, even after the warranty has expired, whether you’re having a problem or require parts. They treat each of their van owners like family. It’s also the Storyteller Overland owners, who have the same intense bond for the lifestyle as well as having a vehicle in common. From being so quickly available to answer questions via the Storyteller Overland Facebook group, to just having a great time hanging out together at numerous events as fellow van owners.

I like to think of it as B.O.G.O., which normally refers to buy one, get one free in promotions or products you purchase. I believe it started with buying a great van from an incredible company, and then being included in a group of supportive fellow owners that are willing to help out and get together to socialize.   

For those dreaming about the freedom and adventure of van-life or those already on their journey, your dealership should be a local resource for everything needed to succeed in the lifestyle. If anyone on your staff is a van-lifer themselves, they can provide invaluable insight along with the parts and accessories required to perpetuate this remarkable lifestyle.

Jason R. Sakurai

The author can be contacted at roadhousemarketing@icloud.com
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