The Future of the Vanlife Movement

Photo by my husband Florian Roquais

I often find myself wondering about the future of the ‘vanlife’ movement. 

Since #vanlife became a hashtag, it seems like an endless stream of people are buying and converting vans to live in. Sharing carefully curated pictures to thousands of Instagram followers, certain influencers have created a ‘fashion statement’ around trading a home for a van. 

But what happens when their envious followers finally do hit the road? Will they get a nasty shock when they face the reality of living in a van? The claustrophobic winters being stuck inside due to bad weather, or the inconvenience of taking a stinky dump whilst your partner is in touching distance. 

Will this surge in van conversion homes take a massive dive when these new players get hit by reality?

I reached out to some other vanlifers, to see what they thought about the future of vanlife. 

Hundreds of people replied to my appeal, and I was totally blown away by their responses. Living in a van full-time myself, I thought I had a pretty good idea of the issues that arise from living an alternative lifestyle. Boy was I wrong!

Turns out I wasn’t even asking the right questions.

I should have been asking:

  • Do most people even live in their vans by choice?
  • Will vanlife be allowed to continue in a society that spurns the alternative?
  • How have travelling peoples been persecuted throughout history?

I am so grateful for the education my fellow ‘vanlifers’ have given me. Here, I share my much-needed privilege check with anyone who might be interested. 

Talking to other vanlifers gave me some much needed perspective

Vanlife Ain’t nothing new sister 

When we think about the future of vanlife, we have to think about its history too. 

As many people pointed out to me, #vanlife is nothing more than a hashtag. People have been living on the road since the year dot, and they will continue living on the road long into the future. 

Unfortunately, the world hasn’t always been kind to those travellers. 

There is a great amount of discrimination that comes up alongside a rise in transient communities. From gypsy peoples to nomadic wanderers and migrant workers – people living an alternative life are often rejected by mainstream society as ‘dangerous’, or ‘untrustworthy.’

After the great depression in the USA, many vulnerable people were forced out of their homes and travelled across the states in makeshift camping cars, in the search of work and shelter. These people soon became victims of extreme violence and social rejection.  Often, they were forced to live and starve in the Hooverville slums. (You can read about this in the breathtaking historical novel ‘Grapes of Wrath.’)

Many people reminded me of the way New Age Travellers were treated back in the ’80s and ’90s. I pointed out I was still an egg back then, but they helped me fill in the gaps. They explained how resentful mainstream society got towards those living in their vehicles. 

This isn’t the first time the so-called van life movement has happened. It has been stamped out once in this country already. Police will soon have the powers to confiscate vehicles like they were given under Thatcher’s parliament.  People will start losing their vans and the rest of society will be happy about it. It won’t be seen as a failure of the government to provide affordable housing, society will just see us as tax dodgers who don’t work hard – George (referring to the UK)

New Age Travellers were a movement of people who rejected the social norms of capitalist society and chose to set up life on the road. The New Age travellers, just like other travelling communities, experienced high levels of discrimination and life was made more difficult for them (and other people living on the road) at every turn. 

Our lovely friend Alex is a filmmaker living in his RV full time. Like us, he choose this lifestyle as a way to follow his dream profession. The picture isn’t the same for everyone.

A Culture of Mistrust

It seems like living in a van has become more socially acceptable now, just because young professionals can participate by working remotely. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with being a young professional on the road. I believe that everyone who can follow their dreams without hurting anyone else, shouldn’t be discouraged from doing so.

The ‘new face’ to van life has certainly changed some of the prejudices people feel about vehicle dwellers on the surface level. It’s not as easy to brush off people that live differently as useless bums when they are working skilled remote jobs. 

However, the mistrust isn’t buried deep. I learned this the hard way when I got quarantined in France, and some of the local people started to make my unwelcome unclear. It was illegal for me to leave, but they wanted me gone!

The so-called pandemic has proved that prejudices haven’t gone far away. And the government won’t be in a hurry to help out either….they like their citizens to be contained in little brick boxes! – James

Another Lash Back On the Way?

People that want to do things differently are not generally accepted. 

We can already see ‘No Overnight Parking’ signs getting more commonplace, and government legislation to tax people living in their vehicles is looking more and more likely to come to the table. Campsites have been increasingly told they are not insured for self converted vehicles, but parking outside of a campsite is becoming a lot more difficult too. 

As much as the #vanlife hashtag sees living in a van become more socially acceptable for some, there’s no doubt that another lash back is coming our way.

We are so grateful for a home that allows us to follow our hearts. We understand the reality isn’t the same for everyone.

Placing the Blame

The history of migrant living speaks volumes. 

Nonetheless, the majority of travellers I spoke to thought that the vanlife movement was only going to keep growing. 

As our economic system continues to widen the gaps between the richest and the poorest, fewer and fewer people are prepared to spend their lives working in a job that they hate, to pay for a tiny, overpriced apartment in an overcrowded city. 

Vanlife will get more and more common. Because people are less willing to work their whole life to just pay a landlord. Until we have once again a chance to purchase properties at a reasonable work effort price then vanlife will grow and grow. It’s already starting to worry governments that they have pushed millions into transient lifestyles, but the alternative is a form of slavery. When half your wages are spent just to see plaster and a lightbulb above your head then we have a problem. – Kevin

But here comes the privilege check...

Not everyone lives in a vehicle because they choose to. A hashtag showing young professionals lounging around in their shiny sprinter conversions doesn’t paint the whole picture. Scratch the surface, and you’ll find that most people living in their vehicles don’t have another choice. 

Miles is one of these people.

My van life experience began after becoming homeless. And after I bumped into a couple of full-timers for 20+ years, I made adjustments and slowly began van life. Never started as a goal, it kind of happened.

We know that a surge in nomadism walks hand in hand with rising government lash-backs and social rejection. This makes the future all the more uncertain for people that never had a choice in the matter. 

What’s going to happen to those who don’t have a plan B to fall back on? 

It doesn’t seem fair to criminalise people for their own poverty. Can we blame homeless people for the lack of affordable housing, rising inequality, and burgeoning unemployment?

The vast majority of land in the UK is owned by direct descendants of William the Conqueror and his mates. If the wealth of the nation can be traced back to a 1000-year-old king, I’m not really sure why people are getting angry at the homeless. 

Perhaps we can indeed blame the homeless for the huge swathes of empty houses in London that are boarded up as investment portfolios. Oh. wait. We can’t do that either. 

It cost my partner’s life time savings to purchase our van. It would be wrong to say that anyone could afford to live this way. At the same time, poverty forces some people into a transient lifestyle against their will.

A Matter of Choice

Some people, like me, chose to live an alternative lifestyle. We want to put experiences before wealth, and freedom before a career. Many others did not get the choice. They are living in their vehicles as a way to survive. 

At the same time, people have more freedom to choose their life path than they did in my parents’ generation. Society is accepting a nomadic lifestyle as something fulfilling and exciting, not just a pastime for ‘wasters’ and ‘bums’

A combination of poverty and freedom to choose means that alternative lifestyles are becoming more common all over the world. 

But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies…

Click onto the average vanlife Instagram page, and living on the road looks really exciting. 

You see photos of sunrises and mountains, beautiful women in bikinis and cold beers on the beach. 

As another vanlifer succinctly put it:

You don’t see people pooping in a bag on Instagram.

Personally, I poop in my camping toilet – but a good point well made nonetheless!

You don’t see the long hours of boredom. You don’t see territorial locals making passive aggressive comments, or local police forces knocking on your window at 3 am. You don’t see people doing an emergency piss into an empty tin of vegetables, or living off plain rice for weeks at a time. 

Although some people have 30 grand to sink into a vehicle, many people do  not. They live in a van because they have to. 

The majority of people who manage living in a vehicle long term are hardy. They don’t always have enough money to make their van look like a tiny apartment on wheels. No television, no shower, no hot water at all. 

For the people that are motivated to try this lifestyle down to Instagram photos alone, they are going to be dissapointed. 

We have so much more than so many. At the same time, we sometimes have to take cold showers outdoors in the snow. It’s good enough for us, but some people wouldn’t be happy living like that.

Of course there are fantastic things about living in a van. If there weren’t, I wouldn’t do it. 

My outgoings are only about £30 a week, so I can reframe my life around following my heart rather than desperately trying to make the next rent payment. I have a sense of freedom and lightness, and I have distanced myself from a lot of the things in our society that I find toxic. 

Fast fashion has gone out the window. I wear holey jumpers and second-hand trainers. I don’t feel caught up in toxic messages about my beauty, and I’ve realised how little I need to be happy. 

A lot of people are choosing this life because of the filtered Instagram posts about ‘#livingmybestlife  that they’ve been following. They are in for a shock. 

As I see it, “vanlife” has become a fashion statement!. Far too many vanlifer wannabes, in their flashy VW T5s and sprinters plastering themselves all over Instagram and YouTube that are just jumping on the trendy bandwagon. Of course,that’s their right to do so. But there are many full-time vanlifers, who have no choice but to be on the road. For them,the romantic notions go out the window. – James 

The good news is that the market is going to be flooded with van conversions in a few years, and people who genuinely do want or have to live like this, are going to have some pretty amazing homes to live in for a decent price. 

A transient lifestyle has allowed me to seek out work with horses all over the world. It make the long winters in confined space worth it!

Making Vanlife Sustainable

For the people that are privileged enough to choose this life, there’s only one way to make it sustainable in the long run. 

The key is to use your van as a tool to do the things you love. Be it surfing, snowboarding or hiking. Be it chasing fulfilling seasonal work in new countries, or connecting with like-minded people on the road. 

Living in a van isn’t an automatic ticket to a life you find fulfilling. 

Life in a van is just the same as life not in a van, unless you use it as a stepping stone to what you love. 

Personally, I love horses. Living in my van allows me to pick up seasonal work on ranches all around the world, and to learn horsemanship from the perspective of many different cultures. For my partner, the van is his photography studio. He loves taking pictures wherever we go and having a mini home/studio to work on his images. 

Living in a van full-time has been brilliant for my mental health. It’s also really bloody boring sometimes. If you are lucky enough to choose this lifestyle, make sure your van gives you enough joy to make the boring times worth it. 

If this article resonated, you might like to check out The Highly Sensitive Nomad book.

Or check out some related blog posts:

Thanks to Florian Roquais for the photos. 

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Published by rph_writer

Freelance writer and Journalist. Author of Highly Sensitive Nomad.

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