#Vanlife is more than an Instagram Fantasy

Ed Note: My good friend Hannah is one of the founders of The Renaissance Woman, a project devoted to connecting and supporting women through their varied stories.  She asked me to submit one of my adventures, and I ended up writing a short reflective piece on living in the van.  I’ve reprinted it here for posterity. 

#Vanlife is a happening tag right now. From the photos on Instagram, you might think the women of vanlife are all body building rock climbers (or surfers) with degrees in interior decorating. They’re all dating male partners who are professional wood workers. #Vanlife hair seems to be mostly blonde and shockingly clean. Bikinis abound. Every photo looks designed for an outdoor enthusiast magazine.

It was hard not to jump into the Instagram world when I was preparing for this trip. Neither my partner nor I have any construction experience, so it was important to see as many van examples and build-out ideas as possible. While the life choice felt risky, vanlife seemed so romantic as I looked a VW’s, Previa’s, Sprinters with fancy kitchenettes, beds drowning in bohemian pillows, and smiling couples having the time of their lives. There were endless links to blog posts about what it was like to be a truly adventurous woman, and how living in a van makes relationships stronger.   I was both intimidated (how will I ever be that cool?) and inspired (life is going to be so easy and fun for a year!).

It has been six months on the road, and I can say that my vanlife experience has not been so glossy and romantic. First, vanlife is dirty. Not a day goes by that my van doesn’t look like a mudpit, and this problem is compounded by the winter season. Ski area parking lots and trailheads on gravel roads lead to a lot of dirt in the van. Showers are a luxury – although we are privileged to have an incredible network of friends and family who have hosted us regularly. Secondly, I just can’t manage “hip” or “cool” in the van. My clothing space is limited to one shelf, with most of it being layers for backpacking. I don’t have an eye for interior decorating, nor do we have room for lots of fancy design. We live in a glorified rolling gear closet. Finally, traveling can be hard – on our relationship and on us as individuals. It has made differences in communication styles transparent, and it has pushed us to consider each other, our values, and ourselves differently.

And yet, these are not complaints. These are the things that give flavor to this year of adventuring, not the social media worthy moments. It is the grittiness of this trip that allows me to push my comfort zone each day. I have always considered myself outdoorsy, but this is the first time in which I am consistently outside every single day. I plan more trips than I ever did while I was employed. I embrace microadventures with enthusiasm. I read more books. I create more space to simply think each day. I make time to talk to my partner, and I slow down to apologize when my patience wears thin. I try to be more present, and set worrying aside. I have also found that the people of vanlife are wonderful. The strangers we have met have been more warm, generous, and supportive than I could have possibly imagined. People are good.

These are the things I will reflect upon in future years, and I know I will be grateful that I made this strange life choice. These are the things I hope to incorporate into my daily life more fluidly once I settle down again. These are opportunities I hope to offer to others through volunteering my time. The wiser I grow through my van experience, the more I know that I don’t need to live in a van to embrace these things every day.


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