Working from the road: ‘Van life’ trend gets a pandemic bump

Why We Wrote This

With its social distancing protocols, the pandemic has tested people’s resiliency while living in relative isolation. Here’s how one growing community is finding some release – by getting homes they can take on the road.

Courtesy of Isabelle Richard and Antoine Gagne
Isabelle Richard and Antoine Gagne sit in their van, which they've been living in since 2017. The Canadian couple have been documenting “van life“ experience on a website that has seen traffic double during the pandemic.

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Mary Mickler is looking to roam. She works as a nurse in Arkansas, and always planned to put down roots. But after the pandemic began, she started to rethink travel nursing as an option – spending three-month stints working in hospitals around the country. 

It was pretty simple: “If I’m going to buy a house anyways, why don’t I buy something that’s mobile?” 

She is having a van custom-outfitted for this new lifestyle – joining the ranks of a growing “van life” community across North America.

The pandemic interrupted vacationing, socializing, and freely interacting with others, but van life offers a way to have new experiences and feel part of a community. And for many like Ms. Mickler, the appeal is also about the peacefulness of spending time in a van parked on open land.

“The pandemic is really accelerating it,” says Jonathon Day, an associate professor at Purdue University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “People are keen to travel [and] frustrated with being stuck at home. When they’re traveling, they want to control as much as they can.” 

For Carly Kraft, Justin Bartlett, and their dog, Maggie, a new and more mobile life is coming into view. As musicians with bands and day jobs in technology, the couple recently purchased a “skoolie” – a school bus – to convert into a camper-meets-tour-van. Eventually, they hope to live in it and tour the country playing music. 

For now, they’re staying in West Virginia as they outfit it themselves, and are in the early phases of demolition.

The pandemic has in a way propelled them into pursuing a longtime dream.

“We didn’t want to be tied down to any specific place [and] we wanted to be able to tour America playing music,” says Ms. Kraft. 

Her job and Mr. Bartlett’s were in-person before the pandemic, but now they’ve both been told they’ll be working remotely indefinitely. For them, that was ideal. “COVID provided the perfect storm,” says Ms. Kraft.

And even though they don’t have much experience with creating a home on wheels, “there are so many forums online, there are so many Facebook groups, and people are just incredibly helpful,” says Ms. Kraft. 

A niche community before the pandemic, the number of people devoted to what many call “vanlife” is now growing rapidly. For many, this lifestyle has appeal as a relatively safe way to travel and to prize experiences over home ownership. The pandemic interrupted vacationing, socializing, and freely interacting with others, but van life offers a way to have new experiences and feel part of a community. 

“The pandemic is really accelerating it,” says Jonathon Day, an associate professor at Purdue University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “People are keen to travel [and] frustrated with being stuck at home. When they’re traveling, they want to control as much as they can.” 

The trend comes in many flavors. Sometimes exotic destinations like Bermuda are marketed as places from which to work remotely. Sometimes the nomadic life is coupled with full-time work; sometimes it’s more of a part-time lifestyle – finding respite in rolling vacations or weekend getaways. But a common thread is the goal of blending quietude and community in a mobile lifestyle. 

And Dr. Day sees van life as a subset of a larger trend during the pandemic: Local travel and road trips are parts of tourism showing a strong recovery, as opposed to travel by plane or to crowded places like big cities.

Mary Mickler is one of the people looking to roam. She works as a nurse in Arkansas, and always planned to put down roots. But after the pandemic began, she started to rethink travel nursing as an option – spending three-month stints working in hospitals around the country. 

It was pretty simple: “If I’m going to buy a house anyways, why don’t I buy something that’s mobile?” 

She found an outfitter in her town and is having a van custom-outfitted before she hits the road in January.

She figures that if her travels land her in a spot she loves, she’ll settle down there. Or, she’ll return to Arkansas. Ms. Mickler is keeping her future open. For now, the “off-grid” aspect and peacefulness of spending time in her van parked on open land is appealing.

Travelers across the board want to spend time with loved ones, are prioritizing nature and avoiding crowds, and are pursuing relaxation and peace of mind, finds an Aug. 24 update from Destination Analysts, which tracks travel and tourism data. 

 

Courtesy of Isabelle Richard and Antoine Gagne
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van owned by Isabelle Richard and Antoine Gagne shows a "vanlife" penchant for customizing the interior to make the most of tight space.

“Relaxation is always important in travel,” but it’s valued differently right now, and people are seeking peace of mind through nature, says Erin Francis-Cummings, the firm’s president and CEO.

“The wariness of other people is a big consideration,” says Ms. Francis-Cummings. “Sprinter vans – that’s an easy way to achieve these things.” 

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, along with some similar competitors, are more affordable than recreational vehicles but large enough to be called a home on the road.

Not every community rolls out the welcome mat.

Van life is growing “to the point where it’s getting [to be] an issue in popular destinations,” and cities like Squamish, British Columbia, are passing bylaws to ban van life within town limits, say Antoine Gagne and Isabelle Richard, who were interviewed by email from their life on the road. 

Three years ago, the Canadian couple quit their engineering jobs, sold their house, and hit the road in a Sprinter van. They’ve been loving “van life” since, blending remote work maintaining their website, faroutride.com – a go-to resource for people interested in converting vans – with mountain biking and other adventures. The website has seen nearly double the traffic since the pandemic.

For a time they rented an apartment in British Columbia, partly because of travel restrictions within the province. “As opposed to what you would think, it’s easier to isolate in an apartment than in a van. Indeed, we need to go more often to the grocery store and access facilities when in our van,” they wrote.

Amrit Bhavinani always loved camping and cherishes the memories that come with it – like the time a bear looted his family’s provisions for s’mores.

When the virus held his travel plans at bay and grounded his work in events and online marketing, confining him to his home in Atlanta, Mr. Bhavinani started his own livestreamed show on StreamYard, Camp Quarantine, as a way to connect people, encourage outdoor activity, and raise money for charities. 

Courtesy of Isabelle Richard and Antoine Gagne
The backdoor view of the van owned by Isabelle Richard and Antoine Gagne. They're able to store equipment for a favorite activity on their travels – mountain biking.

But he yearned for more person-to-person interaction. And in June, Mr. Bhavinani realized the pandemic may continue to alter life for some time, so he purchased a van. He’s found a new community in van-lifers. “Everyone wants to help each other” with their van projects, he says. “I’m reconnecting with people ... and seeing things that I definitely otherwise wouldn’t have.” 

Many millennials are purchasing vans, but so are retirees, and rental demand is up substantially too, says Janet Pace, marketing manager at Warner Vans of Utah, an authorized Sprinter dealer. 

For Rafi Caroline in Houston, van life has long been appealing, but his wife is training as a physician – not the most conducive to life on the road. They like to travel, but are avoiding planes right now, so using a van for weekend getaways is a good solution. Plus, their dog can join them. 

Mr. Caroline worked from home before the pandemic, but now that his wife is working and studying remotely as well, he plans to use his van as an office during the day. Since he and his wife aren’t planning on living out of their van, it’s more of a luxury item. “It makes sense, because otherwise I would have to rent an office space.”

It’s also appealing to have a change of pace, says Dr. Day of Purdue University. “This notion of the pandemic being Groundhog Day and being stuck in your home, doing the same thing every single day – the ability to get out and explore a little bit with a camper or a car” is popular. 

National and state parks have had strong attendance since the pandemic, so “I think there’s a real need just for people to get short breaks and still be safe. The van sort of gives you the ability to do both.” 

Ms. Mickler from Arkansas, who considers herself a “people person,” is excited for what the future may hold. “My favorite thing is meeting strangers and hearing their stories,” says Ms. Mickler. “I can’t wait for the people I will meet in that way.”

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