What it means to be a part of van life and van life culture
It can be lonely out there on the road in a vehicle carrying your entire life. Getting up in the morning, chasing the sun and frantically combing through mountains of maps before selecting the next adventure. It takes courage and a deep desire for adventure to live this life.
Women in van life can pose somewhat of a controversy. Some are shocked by it, especially by women who choose to travel solo. One of these women is Britany Freeman. Living in a van on and off throughout the year, she is often met with a familiar series of questions.
Britany Freeman and her mother hiking in Washington. Britany Freeman/Courtesy
“Honestly the most difficult part is hearing ‘wait you’re traveling by yourself’,” Freeman said. “The stigma of a solo woman traveling is probably the hardest part because it just creates uncomfortable and unfortunate situations sometimes.”
Freeman has been living on the road part time for three years now. She hopes to one day be full time, but for now, she feels committed to remaining available to loved ones at home, and she’s not the only one.
Karissa Hosek also lives out of a van two weeks out of each month, committing the rest of her time to her work in Los Angeles.
Karissa Hosek enjoying the outdoors. Linhbergh Nguyen/Courtesy
“We basically hustle as hard as we can until we can finally leave again and usually we try to get out two weeks out of the month, it just depends, or at least twice out of the month, even if it’s just for a short trip or something like that,” Hosek said. “Waking up in these remote places, stumbling across these remote places that you didn’t plan to go to. I would say that’s what I love is hitting the road, not really having an idea completely of what you want to do but then just discovering those moments where it wasn’t planned.”
Hosek and her partner Linhbergh Nguyen are both automotive photographers. They find they often lack the time to sit down and take life in. So when the time presents itself, they hit the road, looking for a new adventure and a break from the familiar “go-go-go” of their lives.
“I feel like, for women in particular, it comes down to wanting to step outside of your comfort zone,” Hosek said. “Also travel, I feel like that also drives women, you want to see the country you want to see the world. So I mean, what better way to do it than live in the elements of the earth and everything else and be exposed to it all and just enjoy it.”
Travel most certainly drives this desire to live on the road. There’s an allure to this associated concept of “freedom of the road” and with nothing to be tethered to.
Some of these travelers have permanent homes waiting. Others live full time in the van. Regardless, each maintains the drive for adventure.
“I love to be able to roam wherever and whenever I want,” said Becca Foss, self-proclaimed dirtbag and van lifer for more than six years now. “It’s also the cheapest way I’ve found to travel long-term.”
Foss is not the only woman with this train of thought. Wild Amanda feels the same, especially on the affordability part. Also on the road for six years now, she lives out of her van on a full-time basis.
“For me, the most appealing thing about van life was housing sovereignty,” she said. “I realized most of my income was going to pay rent for someone else’s second or third property while I was always one paycheck away from being homeless. The inequality became so apparent and I didn’t want to participate in a system that exploited our need for housing in order for some to profit.”
Amanda found herself trapped in jobs that strained both her physical and mental health. In moving into her van, she could take control of her housing. It also meant more time for adventures with her dog Frank.
“It was frustrating always feeling on the edge of poverty because I was paying for all of everything by myself,” Amanda said. “Van life allowed me to not only be able to afford a life I find fulfilling but to live in a way that is entirely of my own creation.”
In addition to financial freedom, some women also found peace in the simplicity of van life. While on the road, there is only room for the essentials.
The lifestyle may be cramped, but that’s where the freedom from the material comes into play. Verena Asser was immediately drawn to this concept.
“I knew straight away this life couldn’t be a ‘perfect’ one, but this was actually what appealed to me the most,” Asser said. “The rawness, simplicity and the not so perfect sides of it was what appealed to me most. It’s an alternative way to live where you go back to the basics and focus more on these basics in life.”
Asser lives on the road on a part-time basis with her boyfriend. Originally from the Netherlands, she works in sustainable fashion and he is a photographer. The simplicity is something they both enjoy, but there is a flip side to this.
Van life on Instagram, as stated by Asser, can appear perfect, filled with clean lines and only the bare minimum in stock. But on the other hand, there’s the association of van life with homelessness and uncleanliness.
Asser relates this to a time when she was working as a barista in Fremantle, Perth while living on the road. She recalls her coworkers taking a while before noticing she was living out of a campervan and being surprised by how put together her appearance was. However, it did not bring her down, but instead brought her new confidence.
“We as women are meant to look and live like something, and if this is not within the norms we can’t be pretty or anything,” Asser said. “Living in a campervan doesn’t make you look homeless, and you can still take care of yourself and your looks.”
Christine Reed agrees that there are norms to be fought in van life, especially as a woman. Living on the road, Reed finds an intense sense of independence with being able to go where she wants on her own time. There’s a strong feeling of rebellion as well in choosing this untraditional path.
Christine Reed sits in her van. Bill Reed/Courtesy
“A lot of women are starting to realize that they don’t have to do the things they were raised to do,” Reed said. “And van life is a symbolic letting go of those expectations. It’s the ability to wake up every day and decide where you want to be, who you want to be.”
There can be somewhat of a challenge associated with taking on the label of “van lifer.” Who should use it for identification and who shouldn’t. Hosek had this debate with herself, wondering if being part-time on the road qualified her for the title.
“My experiences are valid,” Hosek stated on her Instagram. “We don’t have to be at some particular level in life to be considered being part of something.”
In truth, anyone who spends any amount of time living out of their van could consider themselves a “van lifer.” That’s part of the central philosophy of van life, is that anyone can do it and be a part of the community.
Through the challenge and thrill of adventure, there is an irreversible addiction to all of the freedom van life provides, and at least for these women, they have no plans of stopping anytime soon.