Living the #vanlife

Photo by Nick Dunlap

First things first: I’ve been gone for a while. I apologise. Life, eh?

Second things second: I’m starting a little mini-series (if you want to call it that). It will feature the same blogs as before but the next few are going to be focusing on a few fun alternative forms of housing that people are adopting and the micro-communities that form around these lifestyles. I hope you enjoy.

First up we have #vanlife

Note: In this blog I am specifically referring to the #vanlife community(ies) that have built up around the world and are prevalent on social media. I know there are communities around the world whose lifestyle is highly nomadic and yet who do not fit into this specific version of nomadic life.

We have all seen the photos, those envy-inducing Instagram posts about how incredible it is to live in a van. Just search #vanlife on Instagram or YouTube to see what I mean.

But is there really a subculture surrounding #vanlife? Is there really a community (or communities) that revolve around this way of living?

It is probably worth pointing out now that I’m not going to be focusing on the realities of life in a van. For that, I refer you to several brilliant YouTubers who talk about the subject. Just click their names to go to the specific video.


Sure, there are many stereotypes that come with living the #vanlife: anything ranging from hippy-living to lifestyle Instagramming. But if you look a little deeper you find an eclectic mix of people who all have their own reasons to take to the road.

For some it is temporary. If you are a travel photographer, spending several months at a time on the road might make a good deal of sense. Or maybe you want something more permanent. Stories of people who grew tired of their office-based lived are never far off when you dive into the world of home-on-wheels.

For more specific examples, world famous rock climber Alex Honnold chose to live in a van to be out in nature as much as possible, following the weather and climbing in the best spots around. And artist Van Lefan talks in her blog about opting for #vanlife in the city and how sometimes you can just park outside work and have the simplest commute possible.

There are so many reasons to choose to live in a van and each individual reason plays a part in the development of the subculture as a whole, lending itself to the complexity. While one person may have lived in a van for years and have experience and knowledge of the lifestyle, another might be joining with years of experience in another field of life (say, engineering). Nomadic living such as this is inherently communal and both lifestyles and skills can be useful in the spreading of knowledge.

Community that isn’t confined to one place?

The choice to live a nomadic life comes with its own challenges when it comes to community building. For starters, you are always – theoretically – on the move, so developing a community with others can be challenging. Your own personal community may consist of pockets of people all across the world (or at least your driving range), or you may be in community with the people you travel with.

Unlike those who live nomadically, many cultures and communities (although not many of the ones I discuss) tend to revolve around a geographical location and are therefore confined to that location. Someone from Los Angeles isn’t a New Yorker and therefore cannot feel that communal connection to a New Yorker. Similarly, certain streets and neighbourhoods have their own communities which are defined by their location.

While it just scratches the surface, this wikipedia article (click here) is a good place to start if you want to learn about the importance of geography – ‘place’ – in community. It has a few good links. Alternatively, a well-tailored Google Scholar search brings up some good academic articles on the subject.

But for those whose homes are mobile, like #vanlifers, this isn’t necessarily the case. Their community (communities) can span great distances. And because they include multiple #vanlifers, these communities can be continuously changing. Geographically speaking, this is an ever-evolving tapestry. And I for one find it fascinating.

Photo by Zane Līsmane

But don’t count out geography just yet

All this does not mean geographical locations are not important. They are, and sometimes in big ways. Across the world, usually at places where certain outdoor activities such as rock climbing and mountain biking are prominent, there are specific locations that tend to hold higher concentrations of people living in vans. Places like Yosemite National Park in the USA, for example, or Fontainebleau in France. Both are hugely popular among outdoor enthusiasts and attract people from all over the world. This includes people living in their vans.

It’s not the same

While these places are geographically specific, they are, more often than not, temporary. And so what happens is that while you have a specific location attached to a community, the community present in that location is constantly changing.

Each day vans can come and go, some staying a day, others much longer. The only stable element of this community is that it is changing. And this change creates, in its own strange way, a community. Just take a look at YouTubers like Nate Murphy, whose YouTube channel is full of videos on different people in different vans living different styles of life. Many of these people – at least according to the videos – he met while out and about somewhere. Some of these people were on the road for a month or two; others have been living on the road for years.

All hail social media

So while geographical locations are present in the creation and preservation of this community, the specific locations are highly flexible and open to change. And what’s more, with the prevalence of social media and online communications, this geographically-mobile community has the potential to be limitless in its scope as different #vanlifers reach out from around the world and connect with one another.

That’s a wrap

So there you have it. A very brief, and not at all exhaustive, look at the #vanlife life. I hope this gives you a glimpse into the complexity of the life that at times seems so simple. Before I go I will leave you with one more thing. I haven’t even touched upon the aspect of community that exists between bloggers/influencers and their followers. With social media users like Instagrammers or YouTubers communicating with their followers, a whole other element of the subculture can be seen. But I’ll just leave that there as food for thought.