The Van Life phenomenon has been likened to the Hippie Era of the 60s and 70s – “free spirits,” “bohemian,” “counterculture,” are all terms applied interchangeably when discussing either movement. The massive disapproval of the Vietnam War served as the precipice for an intense reexamining and dissociation of American culture, and in 2020 the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated feelings of cultural dissatisfaction and restlessness; this time around, more Americans than ever are turning to the geographical mobility and freedom offered by their metallic, four-wheeled companions.
However, this shift is not without speculation; as with most counter-movements, there is a certain level of scrutiny that must be contended with: Is it truly a more economical lifestyle? Just how sustainable is it, really? What would society look like if everyone were to partake in #vanlife? Is it an all-inclusive culture? We did the research, and highlighted a few key points below.
The Paradigm Shift: Cultural Factors Behind the Decision to Become a “Full-Timer”
There is no single explanation for the mass migration to the nomadic lifestyle; as with any human experience the rationales and motivations behind a given action are multidimensional, there are, however, a few key subcategories these reasonings tend to fall under as they relate to van life: economic, environmental, and romantic.
The cost of living in major cities has increased exponentially, and many people are unable to allocate affordable housing options. Today, young adults pay drastically more for food and housing than their counterparts did decades ago, all while living on working wages which have flattened since the late 1970s. In 1990, when the median age of Baby Boomers was 35 years old, their generation owned nearly one-third of the nation’s real estate by value – in 2019, when the median age of millennials was 31, members of the generation owned roughly 4 percent.
According to the National Rent Report by Zumper, median one-bedroom rent has gone up 12 percent over the last year. This is a direct result from the pandemic which had disrupted rental patterns all over the country. During the onset of COVID-19, wealthy residents and young professionals fled the cities, sending real estate prices into a free fall. This, coupled with increased housing competition, inflation, and stagnant living wages may offer an explanation as to why 72 percent of Americans said they would trade their home for van life in order to pay off debt.
Faced with a reality of intense economic pressure, the promise of constant travel and adventure makes it easier to understand why people are pursuing van life. However, the economics of living in your vehicle full-time really boil down to how financially fiscal you are. To start, the average cost of a van which allocates space for the day-to-day necessities can range anywhere from $5,000-$10,000 USD – whereas a fully renovated van has the potential to go for more than $50,000.
Even if you scratch the idea of purchasing a new or preowned vehicle, you still need to be prepared to contend with the inevitable mechanical quandaries which are sure to arise. Most van-lifers recommend a nest-egg of at least $1,000 (and some beg you to err on the side of caution and be sure to have at least $5,000 saved up in case of emergencies).
Aside from the purchasing and maintenance of your mobile home, you also need to be prepared to have money for gas, food, water, hygiene and other necessities for day-to-day life. A rough estimate for monthly costs range anywhere from $800-$1,200 – and a serious minimalist could feasibly survive in the $800-$1,000 range. These numbers don’t include individual costs such as loans, insurance, healthcare, or other miscellaneous expenses.
Minimalist Living & the Environment
With intentionality, van life can be an eco-friendly way of life; the minimalist lifestyle it requires is often a huge decisive factor for many people who ultimately make the switch – however, if one isn’t mindful about their practices and output, van life can pose a serious environmental hazard.
The practice of downsizing is essential when it comes to moving into a vehicle. Minimalist lifestyle significantly reduces your impact on consumption and waste creation (clothing, shoes, accessories, entertainment etc.). It also promotes the investment in reusable products over single-use items.
The biggest caveat to being sustainable really boils down to energy use: The average van lifer will travel approximately 12,500 miles in a year (a little more than 3 ½ cross-country trips in the U.S.), and this alone creates 10,000 pounds of carbon. Comparatively, the average American is estimated to drive around 13,500-14,200 miles per year – but that’s only an important differentiation if you’re playing “lesser of the two evils.”
Even if you’re eating a plant-based-diet (which significantly reduces your carbon footprint), making sustainable choices, and taking the most direct routes while traveling, you’re still projected to contribute approximately 6 metric tons of carbon to the environment in a given year – and this is objectively more than the global average of 5 metric tons per person.
With that said, the average American footprint is estimated to be 16 tons per year – so the sustainable van lifer is still faring better in terms of output, but (there’s always a “but”), even if everyone on the planet produced 6 tons a year, we would require 1.5 Earths in order to sustain ourselves. So while the lifestyle ultimately promotes “living more,” while having less, this can often be easier said than done if you’re not mindful and consistent.
Van life has not only become a tagline for living a nomadic existence – it has also become an aesthetic, a product. A whopping 52 percent of people in the U.S. considered van life during the pandemic, and a lot of their insight stems from various social media accounts promoting the lifestyle. Social media has propagated, proliferated, and expedited the rate at which individuals can tap into this community, which has resulted in the rapid cultural expansion of van life. It has opened a whole universe of resources for people to share tips, find inspiration, and commiserate – it also has the potential to romanticize the realities of a life on the road.
In a recent article, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Living Nowhere,” author Chris Moody interviews various people who have taken to the van life culture. One couple from Texas recounted their time on the road as being, “miserable,” while trying to balance their nine-to-five’s with driving and traveling. Another woman reflected on how she had envisioned the lifestyle would be transformative, replete with sunrise yoga sessions and books – instead, she ultimately realized it would take more than a van, “I’m the same goddamn person on the road as I am at home.”
Aside from the romanticization of this movement, van life poses even more challenges in terms of its representation and inclusivity. A quick peruse of #vanlife on Instagram will bring you curated content that is undeniably and overwhelmingly white – using an analytical lens the representation becomes even more performative as your feed becomes wrought with white, cis, straight, and able-bodied people. Underrepresentation, inaccessibility, and exclusion in outdoor environments creates threatening spaces for BIPOC and people at all intersections.
The New White Picket Fence
It would appear that the American Dream is no longer situated in rootedness, but in mobility. What we’re witnessing is not just a material shift, but a paradigm shift which no longer holds the material above the metaphysical. However, as much as van life is presented as an escape from the crisis of capitalism, it’s still a choice that carries costs. As with most cultural phenomena, even if the intention is good it is up to the participants to actually make it good.
Want to learn more?
Millennials’ share of the U.S. housing market: Small and shrinking – The Washington Post
The Productivity-Pay Gap – Economic Policy Institute
Zumper National Rent Report – Zumper
Economics of vanlife: a map to affording life on the road – The Breeze JMU
I’m Planning To Live In A Van — Here’s How Much I Will Save – Money Under 30
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Living Nowhere – The New Republic
Waste-Free Vanlife – Gnomad Home
How Many Miles is the U.S. from East to West – Bike Hike
How Much Do Americans Drive? – Policy Advice
Is Vanlife Sustainable? – This is Range
What is a carbon footprint? – The Nature Conservancy
What is Diversify Vanlife? – Diversify Vanlife
The Case for Plant-Based – UCLA Sustainability