Vanlife, the hashtag


What does it mean to you? Do you want to quit your job and hit the road? Do you think it looks glamorous? Fun? Cheap? Is #vanlife your definition of freedom? We find ourselves wondering why #vanlife has become an enviable lifestyle brand; why it’s become popular subject matter for newspapers, magazines, YouTube channels, podcasts and books. Vanlife is now referred to as a growing movement of wanderlust-y travellers living out of vehicles.

If you believe everything you see and read on Instagram accounts that celebrate #vanlife it does look idyllic and like every single person is living their best life; definitely not falling into the boring old traps of a 9-5 work-a-day, consumptive lifestyle. Of course we’re all guilty of mostly posting the good times and editing our shots!

And now it also appears to be an easy and viable way to earn an income through sponsorships, product placements and brand alliances. Potato chip, dog treat and outdoor gear companies, to name a few, embrace the hashtag vanlife. Some vanlifers have lamented on how long it takes to get the perfect shot; about the negative feedback they receive from their followers because they appear to have ‘sold out.’ The thing is these very followers are the driving force for these sponsorships. These opportunities wouldn’t exist if corporations weren’t noticing certain vanlifer’s popularity and influence on social media. The millennials and post-millennial Generation Z communicate largely through their devices and through social media. They are more comfortable texting than speaking on the phone. As a result, they have been able to tap into income sources that reflect their daily habits. Vanlife is not new. The difference between now and say the 1960s is social media and Youtube which have changed the way all of us communicate and the way corporations approach sales.

There are a plentitude of vanlifers out there willing to share even the most mundane aspects of their daily life through vlogs and Inst-stories! And a growing audience gobbling it up! Some, we imagine, living vicariously through these vanlifers who were brave enough to escape the drudgery of corporate life at 22 or 25 years old, sell all of their belongings and give up their apartments for livin’, truly livin.’ Note: if you are a woman, the less clothing you wear seems to be optimum when it comes to an increased number of likes and followers. So, sexism and objectification seem to be alive and well in vanlife! And endorsed by chip, dog treat and outdoor gear companies. Just another reminder to us that humans of this world are not evolving.

And then there is the vanlife sans hashtag:

In reality there are many more people out there that are over fifty, not retired and maybe wish they were retired that are living #vanlife. Not all of these folks document their lifestyle or even describe it as a lifestyle. They don’t write blogs, pose for the perfect photo and share it widely on social media. Not all are living this way out of choice or defiance. It is simply their only option. We’ve met many folks who choose two locations in which to park: a winter home and another for spring, summer, fall.

For many workkamping is a necessary aspect of living in a van or camper, trading labour for a campsite. Cleaning bathhouses, firepits or working in the office doesn’t make for inspirational Instagram photos. However, for many retirees this is a choice that affords them the ability to spend the winter in a sunny, warm place.

And then there is the family demographic: couples raising children on the road. We’ve met many of these families in the past four years. One or more of the parents are able to work virtually from wherever they happen to be staying. Often one of them spends the day homeschooling the kids while the other works. We’ve also met families that live full-time at a campground. This was often a result of the 2008 economic and housing crash. For these families this is not a lifestyle of their choosing. The children, if school-aged, get picked up by a school bus and taken to school and both parents are then able to go to work. Incidentally these are some of the most intelligent, imaginative and engaging children we have ever met. They are unlike their contemporaries in that they do not have access to digital devices. Their main method of communication is old-fashioned face to face conversation. We wonder if they are, as a result, more creative and curious.

So is #vanlife just the latest lifestyle fad? Is it here to stay? Is it a necessary choice? As housing in cities becomes less attainable will living in a van or camper become a mainstream option? Humans didn’t always live sedentary lifestyles. They used to move with the seasons, hunt and gather, carry only as many possessions as they needed. Is it possible that the desire for a simpler, leaner life is a vestigial memory of an earlier way of life?

Suggested reading list:

The New Yorker: #Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement

Outside Magazine: The Unglamorous Realities of #VanLife and How to Make Life on the Road Work

Book by Jessica Bruder: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-first Century

New York Post: Social media stars explain why they love #VanLife

Book: Orange is Optimism

Early Vanlifers (1986-1997) who published a glossy magazine from the road: Monk Magazine