#VanLife: The Hashtag and the Reality

12-foot living spaces have become the Millennial ideal, but there’s more beneath the surface of the movement than the picture-perfect images on social media. 

Freya Wasteneys, Features Editor 

Driveways, Walmarts and the coveted-but-rare infinity parking spots all hold a seductive allure for the nomadic individuals who dub themselves “van lifers.” If you walk through any of the residential areas in Greater Vancouver, it’s likely you’ll see them – converted Delicas, VWs, Dodges, Chevy vans and Sprinters – with blanket-curtains discreetly drawn, and a collection of undisturbed leaves on all sides. These days mobile accommodations are not just limited to those who are drawn to them out of necessity, such as die-hard travellers, the homeless or migrant workers. In fact, the general manager of California-based GoWesty Camper Products, Jad Josey, traces the resurgence in popularity to the 2008 recession, when people started looking for ways to travel on a budget. It’s become an attractive option for students too. And while there’s no official tally, CBC estimates that the number of people living in their vehicles is on the rise.  

But it’s not all dream catchers, feathers and mason jars, as social media may have us believe. Reasons for downsizing range drastically from housing frustration and precarious employment to a desire for adventure and the possibility of social media fame. For some it’s by choice, but for others it’s a decision made by circumstance. According to a report published on PadMapper on Oct. 15, the average rent price for a one bedroom apartment in Vancouver has now reached $2,100, so it’s unsurprising that people are looking for alternatives. 

Meanwhile, on social media, the lifestyle has attained an almost reverent status for those with a bohemian flair, with the hashtag #vanlife used over 4 million times on Instagram. Thanks to businesses using influencer marketing, more than a few lucky individuals have been able to make a living from the lifestyle choice, and as a result, #vanlife has become a global community of sorts across social media platforms. Unfortunately, like most things that become popular online, there are also consequences. In this case, glamourising and commodifying the #simplelife has essentially gentrified what is in some cases an economic necessity.   

Like #minimalism, the portrayal of #vanlife has turned simple living into a brand. Where the core of both movements may be an authentic pushback against capitalist consumerism, the commodification of this lifestyle often acts as a perversion. Most popular profiles followed on social media are anything but simple. Close your eyes and call up an image of a van-dweller. You’ll likely imagine the same conforming aesthetic: an attractive heterosexual couple in a Volkswagen van, probably with surfboards on the roof, bikes on the back and obviously branded paraphernalia. The trope is tried and true, and it sells, but it highlights a need to observe our hypocritical tendency to endorse certain people’s lifestyle choices, while stigmatizing others. 

Alana Keleigh, who just turned 30, has lived out of her van for the past two years, but likes to keep it real on social media. Though she loves the freedom that her van provides, she feels the lifestyle is often romanticized to the point of being misleading. “I try really hard to show the ups and downs of living in a van,” said Keleigh, who goes by the Instagram handle @alanagasm. “But there are some people that set up their vans with blankets and rainbows. And I can tell that they took an hour to set up. So, I don’t think that is very realistic, but I don’t know what the goal of that is.” 

Lovingly christened “Carl Armageddon Alberta,” Keleigh’s red Dodge camper van is the result of a decision made in August 2016. Then a Political and Environmental Science student at Alberta’s Mount Royal University (MRU), Keleigh was tired of living with three roommates while still having to pay $750 a month. With tuition, rent and a mounting student debt, van living seemed like a natural choice. “My sense of adventure has been in play for a while,” she said in a mini documentary made by MRU journalism. “I’ve been tree planting and doing other forestry stuff since I was 19, so I’ve been running away from home every summer essentially, and now I just get to permanently run away from home.”  

The appeal of having her own customizable space acted as a motivator, and through her part-time waitressing gig, and money saved from work in a tree planting camp, she managed to save up $2500 to buy her new home. In September 2016, she took the plunge, embarking on what she has claimed a “social experiment.”  

While Keleigh managed to find a van at a fairly economical price, she has found that the expense of the lifestyle really depends on the vehicle, the insurance, the amount of gas used and the mechanical repairs needed. “In the past two years I’ve spent about three grand on the van, so with mechanical repairs it’s about $5,300, and if you add the cost of gas it gets pretty expensive,” she said. Keleigh’s expenses may not sound like a lot, and that’s because they aren’t in the grand scheme of #vanlife, where the standard of living and vehicle prices are on the rise. In an interview with The New Yorker, Harold Sitner, owner of the Seattle-based VW van repair and rental shop, Peace Vans, noted that the vans used to sell for “pennies on the dollar.” Now, as reported by Hannah Elliott of Bloomberg, vans sell for as much as $70,000, with new #vanlife retrofitted Mercedes Sprinter vans going for anywhere from $130,000 to $140,000. In an article in the National Post, Justin Fox pins the problem: “people with money ruin everything.”  

That being said, for those willing to put the time, effort and money into repairs, or who are committed to the nomadic lifestyle, there are still some affordable, though less glamorous, options available. For Keleigh, the rewards outweigh the cons, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Cold weather, parking, mechanical breakdowns and the lack of running water are just a few of the challenges she has faced since moving into Carl. Small things that we normally take for granted, like running water, showers and toilets, often require pre-planning and a close proximity to free facilities. “It really takes a special person to do it, it’s not for people who are clean freaks or like to shower every day,” she said. “Those are the two things that would get someone out of their comfort zone.” Even with the trending social media craze, Keleigh has noticed that there is still a stigma tied to living out of a vehicle. If someone is doing it because they want to, they’re applauded, but if the motivator is one of financial instability, it makes other people feel uncomfortable.  

In addition to the small inconveniences and mild stigmas, there are also, at times, security issues. In January 2017, soon after making the transition to van life, Keleigh was approached for an interview with MRU journalism. Afterwards, she had people knocking on her door and asking questions, and it made her feel a little vulnerable. “It was really weird because online there were positive and negative comments,” she said. “I felt like I gave a little too much information about my van.”  

Up until that point, Keleigh had been using her school parking lot as a home base, taking advantage of her parking pass, utilizing the electricity outlets, and using the running water at the school. But in February, soon after the interview, Keleigh received a warning notice from MRU, threatening to tow her home if she didn’t move. Tired of “the red tape,” she ignored the warning posted on her vehicle, but eventually moved after she received more press in an interview with CBC. 

Unsurprisingly, parking can be quite an ambiguous task. Campsites range from beautiful beaches in California to sketchy spots beside a Walmart, and everything in between. Sometimes vanners park legally, but in a pinch, it may be done on the sly. Long-term street parking in cities is especially hard to come by, and residents aren’t always thrilled by the idea of people living out of their vehicles so nearby. Most residential streets in Vancouver have three-hour time limits, and tickets can cost $40 to $100. “It can be very expensive if you go to a campsite, but otherwise you run the risk of being towed away,” said Keleigh. “It’s not like the authorities make it easy for you. But, if you can find a good spot out of the way, it can be really nice.” In Vancouver, there is currently no overall policy stating how to deal with the parking situation, and until a time comes when more clear cut rules are put in place, people will continue to live in the loopholes. Given the rental market, authorities in Vancouver have learned to turn a bit of a blind eye 

Van life is often portrayed as one extreme or another: either a romanticized dream, or a poverty-stricken nightmare, but the truth is that the highs and lows of the lifestyle are constant, and there are both positives and negatives that come from sharing them on social media. Exposure through press and social media may have presented Keleigh with some challenges, but on the flip side, it has also helped her out of a few tight spots. “It can be a great, supportive and lovely community,” said Keleigh. “I once had a problem, so I sent a message asking for help about my motor, and within two minutes I got a response from someone down in the US and he suggested how to fix it.” In many ways, the online van communities support fellow van-dwellers, providing tips through online forums, blogs and social media posts, but it can also commodify the lifestyle. The increase in support through social media can be a way to both fight stigma, while at the same time reinforcing selective societal values.  Like it or not, home isn’t just where you park it, it’s what you make of it on social media.

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