As housing crises, mental health issues, pandemic-era economics and environmental concerns plague America’s young adult population, a recent social media phenomenon known as “van life” claims to present an unconventional escape from these stressors. Van life influencers have risen to fame on a variety of social media platforms by posting vehicle renovation, travel, and lifestyle content. A search of the term “van life” on TikTok produces results that include videos of “van lifers” smiling in Yosemite, listing the environmental benefits of the lifestyle, and even showing off the dogs and families they bring along as they travel. At first glance, van life is picture perfect; but is the reality all that it’s cracked up to be?
Instagram van life creator Rachel Sanchez (@beboldlittleones) travels in her van with her husband and their four children. On the pros of van life, Sanchez says it is “cheaper to own a van than it is to pay mortgage and property taxes”. TikTok user @queerntravelling agrees, asserting that living in a vehicle can provide another lifestyle option for those who prefer non-traditional careers or for whom finances are lacking. Additionally, the Sanchez family believes van life is an opportunity to meet “incredible people” and learn about the environment. Traveling out of a van has brought nature “to our front door”, Rachel Sanchez explains, saying the family has “slept in stunning places” and has even woken up to a moose right outside the doors of their vehicle. She argues that nature is the true home of “van lifers” and that the lifestyle therefore requires environmental consciousness and respect for nature.
Rachel Sanchez says that those interested in van life should chase their dreams, but she also cautions that the lifestyle has its fair share of cons, which include a lack of alone time for van lifers who travel with others, the environmental flaws of the lifestyle (burning diesel, driving off established roads, and encroachment on wildlife), racial stereotypes that her biracial family has experienced within the van life community, and price issues. The recent increase in gas prices has made long distance travel much harder for Sanchez and @queerntravelling. Both creators emphasize that van life is a privileged lifestyle– Sanchez clarifies that van life is not always cheap, and converting a van can cost well over $100,000. @queerntravelling dives even further into the privilege associated with van life, arguing that the van life movement “is a very recent portion of the traveling community, the most privileged portion for sure, but they are not the only people who travel nomadically and live in vehicles”. In fact, @queerntravelling does not refer to themselves as a “van life influencer” as they align more with the many young people who have been forced to live in vehicles due to financial constraints. Many TikTok users agree with the general notion that the “van life” lifestyle that is seen on TikTok is “glorified houselessness” and that socioeconomic status is the factor that defines the differences in how society perceives van life influencers and houseless people.
Social media users who have spoken out about the privilege associated with van life have also reflected on the real-world consequences of the widely popular movement, such as Walmart no longer allowing overnight parking and prices of used vans increasing. These users also agree that van life is inaccessible to people of color, disabled people, and low-income people and caters to financially stable white people who are culturally accepted across America and are seeking to ignore societal issues. Because van life is regarded by many as an exclusive space at this time, can the trend last beyond the era of TikTok? According to @queerntravelling and @beboldlittleones, the future of the lifestyle will be dictated by van lifers themselves, who have the platform to push for an expansion of the movement to include those financially struggling, policy changes such as giving amnesty to people living in cars, and an environmentally friendly way of living in a vehicle. Both agree that all who are welcoming, hospitable, and giving to nature and to other people, regardless of socioeconomic status, are welcome within the movement. Those who will sustain the future of both the van life movement and the environment as a whole, as Sanchez says, are, at their core, “genuine people that just want others to be happy”.