If you dig a bit deeper into the minimalist trend, you will find plenty of interesting takes on it. First came the tiny house movement. People started seeing the benefits of downsizing. Then came the small apartment with all the multipurpose furniture. Tiny house on wheels followed next. But now we have the smallest of them all – the van!

The #vanlife trend has taken California by storm, or so it seems. Back in the day, if you told people you live in your car by choice, they would think you have some issues. Now that passes for “adventurous”, “environmentally concerned” or something along those lines. Could we be having it all wrong though?

Is it possible that people choose the van, not because they want to “feel alive”, but to just not be homeless? May the whole trend be telling us something more about California’s housing situation now? Join me as I dig deeper to find the truth behind the van life hype!

A bit of van life history

History tells us that living in a van is not something new. The trend has been here for a while, even if it grew in popularity only recently. It has been known to exist since the end of the 19th century when it was called vandwelling.

The modern form of that movement has roots that are tougher to trace. Some say that it started as soon as RVs were invented. People supposedly expanded the RV idea by actually using it as their primary living space. Others claim that RVs were actually inspired by the vandwelling community. To me, this seems to be a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem.

Interestingly enough, the very reason vandwellers existed was because of poverty. They were forced to live in horse-drawn wagons because they could not afford housing. As it turns out, the van life hype today may have more to do with those roots than one would think!

Why do people choose the van life?

Social media can feed us a lot of misinformation if we let it. For example, most people have the impression that #vanlife is all about adventure and has negligible downsides.

It is easy to come out thinking that living in a van is the dream. However, a YouTube star, Jennelle Eliana, who has recently come to fame, actually speaks more openly about that. She mentions that although it is cool and you have a lot of freedom as a vandweller, the challenges can be daunting.

Let us first see some of the supposed perks though. Here are a few:

  • Physical Freedom – Being able to literally pick your home up and go wherever you want is what most people see as the main benefit of the van life. That being said, actually finding a place to park your van may not be the easiest thing in the world.
  • Mental health – Leaving behind the pursuit of earthly possessions supposedly gives you a sense of clarity. Materialism is claimed by many to be making us more depressed rather than happy. So the minimalism of this new way of living helps you with that side of mental health.
  • Environmental Impact – Many people who are into minimalism, also appreciate the fact that they minimize their environmental footprint. Not only that, but many vandwellers see themselves as active proponents of a more eco-friendly lifestyle. That is a bit of a necessity though. In order to make the van life viable, they have to utilize solar panels, produce less waste, manage with less stuff, and so on.
  • Escapism – While living in a van gives you freedom, for some, it is much more than that. They see themselves as digital nomads who are not only free to live wherever they want but also to exist wherever they want. That means they can work on the go, travel the States, and enjoy a much deeper detachment from the 9-5 culture.
  • Money – Obviously, living in a van is much cheaper than paying rent. You also hardly pay for utilities and if you are smart about it, you can cut down on your costs tremendously. However, this can actually be the main reason behind the problems with #vanlife as well.

The dark side of #vanlife

We can all agree that if your choice is to remodel a van and make it suitable for living, you should have that right. Maybe we can even commend such people for their efforts. That is all nice, but what happens if it is not a choice? What if the van is just the only passable alternative to practical homelessness?

It is not a secret that living in California is pricey. In fact, many of the young vandwellers say their number one reason to join the movement was the ever-rising housing cost. Not only were they making a subpar salary as young people in their respective fields, but they were expected to give it all just to have a roof over their head. And tragically, some older folks chose the van life, because they could no longer afford their homes.

That said, you will not hear a vandweller complain about their choices. They form a positive community that takes pride in perseverance. But even so, it is not hard to imagine that many of them would not have been driven to such a lifestyle if they could afford otherwise.

The whole situation is rather bizarre though. People understand that for some folks living in a vehicle is not a choice. So even when there are laws against using a car as your home, they are rarely enforced. Sure, a lot of that is empathy, but maybe there is something more. Maybe there is the unspoken realization that the housing situation is getting out of hand. I can see how #vanlife can become a social movement to spread awareness of that. Yet even if you only see it as a choice, the van life still comes with its challenges.

The disadvantages of living the van life

Do you know what the first thing is that came to mind when I heard people lived in vans? I wondered what they did when they had to go number one in the middle of the night. Then I realized this may not actually be the only problem if you want to join the movement.

Naturally, any kind of bathroom activity will be a challenge. Vandwellers have to use public bathrooms, gym showers, and similar facilities to take a shower or go number two. They have some ingenious solutions for number one though. You will have to do your own research for that if it interests you.

Another thing is that they need to learn how to camp. Seriously, living in a van is much closer to camping than to living in a small place. It is just that your tent is a bit more robust. You will still need to learn how to cook on a gas stove, how to filter water, and how to fix “the tent” so you can survive through the night.

Privacy, limited space and the need to constantly move are other obvious downsides. Surprisingly though, a hidden issue is productivity. Many digital nomads claim it is hard to get productive in the van, so they go to internet cafés and other places to work.

Yet even with these challenges, the van lifestyle is gaining traction. More and more people are joining the movement. This leads me to my final question…

Can California handle more people living in vans?

We are by no means at a point where somehow the streets are saturated with people living in their cars. But what if the trend continues to grow? Many companies may have to deal with a new kind of logistics issue. May we see some tech companies actually offering parking spaces for digital nomads? That would be kind of advanced, right?

Then comes the question of legality. Many people claim that living in a van is completely legal. However, it is not exactly clear-cut. Our laws have not been designed to offer commentary and guidelines on how to lead such a lifestyle. Some parameters will likely have to be set.

Naturally, this does not need to happen in an instant. If the lifestyle remains rather a niche, I doubt we will see too many regulations being ruled over it. Only time will tell though. If it turns into a social movement giving voice to housing problems, we may see swifter changes.

How do you feel about the #vanlife?

I have to say that while I enjoy camping, and maybe would like to spend a week in a van, I have no desire to join the movement. Maybe I am a slave to the comforts of our society, but I own that. In my eyes, humankind has not advanced to such a point just so we can leave it all behind. Yet, if people want to do it, all the power to them, I am not judging anyone.

What about you though? Do you hold a similar position, or do you want to explore #vanlife for yourself? If so, why would you do it – to escape the rent or for some other, more adventurous reason?


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