The pandemic has prompted more Americans to try the van life
IN 2019 LUCY JACOBSON and his colleagues at Rossmönster Vans flew to San Francisco with “suitcases full of money”. They were about to buy five retro Volkswagen vans made in the 1980s to bring them back to Longmont, Colo., And turn them into custom adventure mobiles. The trip home took them to Las Vegas (“to let our monster flag fly”), through the canyons of Utah and over the Rockies. It was the kind of expedition that more and more Americans wanted.
Around 140,000 vans, VRBoats or boats were counted as housing units in 2019 according to the Census Bureau, up from about 102,000 in 2016. The circumstances of people who live in their vans can be very different. On one end of the spectrum are those who, like the folks in Jessica Bruder’s book “Nomadland,” have little alternative. On the other side are the van lifers or “digital nomads” who covet a bohemian, all-purpose lifestyle. Type #VanLife into Instagram and over 10 million posts appear. Most of the photos feature pristine western landscapes, some sort of van or mobile home that looks like a Manhattan studio on wheels, and at least one smiling person in their twenties. Dogs are a popular accessory.
As social media influencers spread the gospel of the van-life, a lucrative industry has grown. A custom van refurbishment in Rossmönster costs customers between $ 50,000 and $ 100,000, not including the cost of the van itself. Dave Walsh, the founder of Vanlife Customs in Denver, says he has seen his income increase by at least 50% every year since his company was founded in 2016.
When the pandemic hit, things looked bleak. National parks are closed, leaving fewer scenic places to camp. Jeff Cavins, co-founder of Outdoorsy, an Airbnb-esque marketplace for van and motorhome rentals, says 95% of the company’s reservations have been canceled. Then business exploded. Outdoorsy’s bookings soared 4,000% between April and October 2020 as parks reopened and Americans fled downtown areas for greener places. Dave & Matt Vans in Gypsum, Colorado has grown from five employees at the start of 2020 to nearly 30 today. Rossmönster cannot accept new customers before September 2022. The trend is expected to continue. Soaring house prices and the standardization of remote working could push more budding nomads onto the road.
Ask any driver in perpetuity why they decided to swap their roof for wheels and the word “freedom” will inevitably come up. “I wanted to travel, I was single and free and I was like ‘Why not try this?’ Explains Mr. Walsh. But the lifestyle that has gone viral on Instagram is a brilliant version of what can be a dusty existence. “There’s a lot of butt and thongs with great views behind them,” adds Mr. Walsh, “but that’s not always a true representation of life in a van.” The endless search for parking, toilets and wifi may not be so alluring.
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Vanity Projects”