In the summer of 2011, Foster Huntington left his job as a designer at Ralph Lauren in New York City and moved all of his possessions into an off-white 1987 Volkswagen T3 Syncro van. It wasn’t long before Huntington started using the #VanLife hashtag on Instagram—in between surf sessions and campouts, he would spy a cool DIY camper van or vintage Volkswagen bus, snap a pic, and then post it to his feed.
Nine years later, the #VanLife hashtag has spawned a lifestyle movement, brought new blood into the RV industry, and inspired over 6 million Instagram posts. The past 10 years were, in many ways, the decade of the camper van.
Camper vans are not a new thing, of course. The tricked-out Sprinter vans of today have their roots in 19th-century land yachts that were pulled by horses and used for leisure travel. And the Volkswagen buses of the 1960s and ’70s popularized camper vans at a new level; retro VWs became a common choice for everyone from hippies to camping families.
However, the 2010s were uniquely positioned to help van life go from subculture to mainstream movement. Photo-centric app Instagram launched in October 2010, social-media use was on the rise, and a whole generation of millennials questioned what creating a home really meant amid a still-struggling economy.
Not many van lifers consider themselves part of the RV community—the DIY values, off-grid goals, and minimalist mindset don’t always mesh with a business still dominated by 30-foot motorhomes and giant fifth wheels. But camper vans have fundamentally altered mobile living over the past 10 years, and the #VanLife phenomenon shows no signs of slowing.
#VanLife: The birth of a lifestyle movement
It’s hard to know for sure which Instagram post originated the #VanLife hashtag, but Foster Huntington is widely credited with its creation. A close review of Huntington’s account (he couldn’t be reached for comment) suggests that he first used the hashtag on October 2, 2011, in Bolinas, California. The photo is a humble start to the van life craze, showing a DIY pickup camper with a popped roof with the caption, “Vehicular respect #vanlife.”
By November 2011—about five months into living full-time on the road—Huntington announced that he had started a photo project called #VanLife. “It’s a celebration of ships of the open road and the notion that, ‘home is where you park it,’” he wrote. One follower remarked, “Clever idea, I’m sure it will take off.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Huntington only lived on the road for three years—he eventually settled down in a treehouse in Washington state—but his #VanLife hashtag picked up steam. For some, living in a van was about living with less, a mobile Marie Kondo experiment that challenged users to squeeze their belongings into under 200 square feet.
For others, van life was a way to live debt free in the face of rising housing costs in the mid-2010s; some people left the corporate grind behind and moved into a van in order to reduce costs. And still others saw their VW Vanagans, Promasters, and Sprinters as a means for adventure and travel, a freeing conduit to unknown spots, unbound by the duties, constraints, and costs of city living.
All of this was documented visually on Instagram. And in time, long-term van lifers discovered that there was money to be made. Huntington accumulated over 1 million Instagram followers documenting his carefree life, eventually publishing a multi-edition, $65 book of van life photographs entitled Home Is Where You Park It.
Savvy van lifers can now make a full-time living on the road, taking on sponsorships that trade social media mentions for products, discounts, and even cash. And as more and more people made money off of van life, photos changed from showing one-off vans to carefully staged productions with product placements, drone footage, rigorous editing, and increasingly photogenic people.
Once van life became more visible, it also became more generationally diverse. According to the North American Camping Report by Kampgrounds of America, in 2018 van life popularity surged with Gen Xers and baby boomers, catching up to millennials’ enthusiasm. At least 14 percent of the camping population wanted to try a camper van in 2018, compared to only 8 percent in 2017. The percentage is likely even larger now, slowly gaining on the 24 percent of campers who would like to try a motorhome. By the end of the decade, van life had gone mainstream.
Making RVs cool again
What was the effect of over 6 million hashtags on Instagram—most of them posted by people under the age of 40? Van life has made living on the road hip.
“Traditionally when hearing the word ‘RV’ people tend to think about heading out in Grandma and Grandpa’s motorhome,” says Jonathan Feld, president of Sportsmobile West, a custom van conversion company.
But even though most van lifers don’t consider themselves part of the RV community, “the van life movement injected some youthful excitement into the RV world,” says Craig Kirby, president of the RV Industry Association.
Van life—and especially the glitzed-up version seen on Instagram—avoids many of the negative assumptions about traditional RVing. You park in off-the-grid, pristine forests or on ocean cliffs, not concrete-filled RV resorts. The vans are nimble and easy to drive (some are even four-wheel-drive capable) instead of requiring tow vehicles and turnouts to maneuver.
And perhaps most importantly for millennials, camper vans aren’t afflicted by the same boring, swoopy design and bland interiors typical of fifth wheels and Class Cs—DIY and custom vans alike feature bright colors and everything from stripped-down minimalism to apartment-like style.
“We’re seeing more and more Class B RVs and conversion vans on our campgrounds,” reports Toby O’Rourke, CEO of Kampgrounds of America. “There’s a resurgence of interest in road trips and the outdoors spearheaded by those seeking adventure and new experiences. #VanLife is giving people a whole new way to engage with the outdoors.”
New companies step up to meet demand
In response to the growing interest in camper vans as the 2010s marched on, small companies stepped up to meet demand. Although the decade began with very few manufactured camper vans compared to Europe, custom upfitters sought to fill the gap, and data from Nomadx shows that there are at least 164 van conversion companies—think Sportsmobile, Colorado Camper Vans, and Outside Van—are currently operating in the United States.
A growing number of companies, like Aluminess, Go Westy, and Van Specialties, also began to supply DIY van lifers with accessories and aftermarket parts. Outfitting your camper van—from seats to heaters to bedding—is now big business.
But the impact of van life goes far beyond those people who personally own a camper van. New, Airbnb-style companies like Outdoorsy have cashed in on the Instagram-ready appeal of camping in vans with peer-to-peer rentals. Other companies (like Moterra or Blacksford) operate their own fleet of camper vans that are available for rent at hotel-level prices, anywhere from $150 to $350 per night.
Van life in the late 1990s was viewed as bizarre or socially unacceptable—think Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live warning audiences not to end up “35 years old, eating a steady diet of government cheese, thrice divorced, and living in a van down by the river.” But by the mid-to-late 2010s, van life was not only cool, but also a driver for a small but mighty subsection of the RV economy.
Can camper vans rival other types of RVs?
Despite the enormous popularity of van life, North America’s largest RV manufacturers were slow to respond in the early 2010s. Initial attempts didn’t seem to understand quite what van life was all about; “It’s like when parents use their kid’s slang to try to be hip,” says P.J. Tezza, founder of the camper van company Modvans.
More and more, however, big-name RV leaders understand that van life is a force to be reckoned with. Craig Kirby, RV Industry Association president, says, “Inspired by the creativity of van lifers, RV manufacturers have been incorporating features to increase flexibility and affordability.”
Bob Wheeler, president and CEO of Airstream, agrees. “It took a little while, but van life is starting to influence product development in the RV space. We see this in greatly expanded product offerings in the small motorhome category, and more rugged, functional, no-frills interior designs.”
Winnebago has introduced three van life-inspired Class B RVs in the past three years: the Revel, Boldt, and most recently, the Solis. Some ideas—like the Revel’s moveable bed and the pop-top sleeping quarters of the Solis—are borrowed from DIY van lifers in the U.S. or innovative camper designs more often found in Europe.
The world’s largest RV manufacturer, Thor Industries, also knows that camper vans appeal to a younger group of potential RVers. President and CEO Bob Martin told Curbed in a previous interview, “We see the average age of consumers coming down drastically in all brands,” Martin says. “We’ve marketed to baby boomers in the past, and we recognize that the average age is diving.”
In an effort to appeal to younger generations, Thor Motor Coach (one of the Thor industries brands) debuted their first-ever class B camper van in 2019; in the past the company has only manufactured Class A and Class C motorhomes. With solar panels, bike racks, roof racks, and integrated tech, the new Sequence van boldly targets adventurous millennials. And at the most recent (and newly rebranded) RV industry trade event in 2019, a new award category was solely focused on van life.
Still, although the mobile-living world knows that camper vans are “a thing,” and that people like them, it will take the next decade for manufacturers and dealers to figure out exactly what to do with that information. Simply put, change is hard.
“For these dealers and the RV manufacturers that sell to them, the change from a ‘vacation home on wheels’ to something lighter, more versatile, and less expensive is too radical to consider.” says Tezza. His Modvans CV1 took home the top award in the van life category at the RV industry trade event this year, and yet Tezza has had challenges getting people to consider selling them.
“When I take a CV1 to a traditional RV dealer,” Tezza says, “sales reps come out, say the CV1 is amazing, and say that their customers ask over and over for something like it, but the managers and owners won’t come out of the building to talk to me or answer my calls or emails.”
Van life redefined what it meant to live on the go in the 2010s. To truly take advantage of the movement’s popularity, the RV world as a whole has to embrace—and work to understand—a younger, more diverse generation. “Us van lifers are just modern-day hippies,” remarks Sportsmobile’s Jonathan Feld. “That sentiment is slowly starting to cross over to the entire RV market.”