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The business of van life

How the RV industry is falling short, and how van lifers are filling the gap

Chris Pochiba and Sara Aho were living in Seattle when rapidly rising rents convinced them to join the growing van life movement, a contingent of nomadic millennials seeking refuge from office life by living on the road.

They bought a brand-new 2018 Mercedes Sprinter for $42,000, and then spent another $25,000 on materials to convert the back into a living space. It took three months of labor for six to eight hours, seven days a week, to finish it, he says, not to mention months of planning beforehand. The van now has a king-sized bed, a storage area underneath the bed with a 33-gallon water tank, a kitchen with a stove and oven, a shower, and an “office” with two iMacs mounted into a desk.

“Really we just watched a lot of YouTube and did a lot of trial and error,” Pochiba says when asked how they learned to customize their van. “The whole process was hard, but definitely well worth the effort. We learned so much.”

The details differ, but the couple’s story has played out countless times across the country as the van life movement has grown over the last 10 years. As van lifers seek vehicles that suit their needs, they’re also supporting businesses, from van conversion companies to the sellers of DIY conversion materials like insulation and solar panels. And sometimes van lifers find themselves creating small businesses, or using existing businesses in novel ways, to fill unexpected needs on the road.

The Mercedes Sprinter, a vehicle now made in America, at a new plant in South Carolina, has become a symbol of the van life movement and the vehicle of choice among millennials living on the road, in addition to the Ford Transit and the RAM ProMaster. But they aren’t getting these vehicles from traditional RV manufacturers. Those companies still cater mostly to retirees and baby boomers who want travel trailers or “Class A” motorhomes, which are much larger than a Sprinter.

Sportsmobile West is one of many van conversion companies that have taken off along with the van life movement, turning Sprinters into customized motorhomes for a wide variety of professionals and adventurers, including veterinarians, doctors, law enforcement officers, doomsday preppers, campers, hikers, electricians, and plumbers.

But the company’s most challenging jobs are for van lifers, a rapidly growing clientele that needs something durable enough to take off road but equipped with enough amenities to be able to live out of full-time, like bathrooms, showers, and refrigerators.

“You have to build a house that’s going to survive an earthquake every day,” says Jonathan Feld, the company’s president. “We have people going down to Death Valley and Baja. It’ll rattle the teeth out of your head.”

Feld says he’s noticed more new conversion companies popping up than he’s able to count, and according to data from Nomadx, there are at least 164 in the United States. His company alone does roughly 300 van conversions a year—all custom jobs like this one—and the waitlist to get a conversion done through Sportsmobile can be as long as a year and a half. The conversion itself takes two or three months, he says.

Joe Hawley, a former professional football player who hit the road in 2018 following his retirement from the NFL, recently upgraded to a high-roof 2019 Sprinter and had a conversion company in Florida equip it with a queen-sized bed, much-needed for a former offensive lineman.

“The one I got now I’m gonna be able to live out of a lot more comfortably for sure,” he says.

But like Pochiba and Aho, van lifers often do the conversions themselves as a show of authenticity. Kate and Ian Moore did the same to their 1996 Dodge Ram, using an older van so they could spend less on equipment—roughly $8,000.

“Our thought was if this fails and we lose the entire van, we’re not out that much,” Ian Moore says. “A lot of people doing this come from the other end where they build a $60,000 or $70,000 Sprinter, and they’re relying on the resale of that to fund the trip because when they’re done they have a big investment in the equipment.”

Lee Eisler, a native of Orange County, also did a conversion himself, but he began with an ambulance, not a Sprinter. The ambulance came preloaded with shelving, but Eisler built extra shelves out of old skateboards, in addition to a platform bed. To get power, he installed 100-watt Renogy solar panels, a common van life solution that he says are a good deal on Amazon—$100 per panel.

He has kayaks on the roof and a surfboard strapped to the side. The siren has been disabled. And while he’s happy with the ambulance—his third vehicle since embarking on van life almost five years ago—he’s planning a gut renovation because the original shelving is not an efficient use of space, he says.

“My first van I just did a battery isolator and a battery inverter,” Eisler says. “Then you could charge a back battery from the alternator of your car, just the same way you’re charging the front battery. There’s ways to get power without needing solar panels.”

With the economy doing well, traditional RV manufacturers have also seen sales rise since the financial crisis in 2008, when the industry took a massive hit. In 2017, the RV market was worth $54.6 billion and is projected to rise to $75 billion by 2025, according to market research firm Hexa.

According to data from the RV Industry Association, the industry remains largely focused on conventional travel trailers. In 2018, the industry shipped 327,101 conventional travel trailers and 88,570 “fifth wheel” trailers. But only 5,881 Class B motorhomes—which are the small type of motor home, usually built out of a van like the Sprinter—were produced last year.

Not captured in that data are all the conversions, whether done by a company or an individual, that van lifers tend to drive; nor are used RV sales included. While it’s not known how much of it is a result of van lifers, sales of the Sprinter, Transit, and ProMaster have all been on the rise, according to data from Car Sales Base.

The industry is dominated by three companies: Thor Industries, Forest River, and Winnebago. According to the RV Industry Association, Thor Industries produces roughly half of all new RV units every year. It owns 17 separate RV brands, led by iconic travel trailer manufacturer Airstream. Forest River represents another third of the RV market with seven separate RV brands. Winnebago, which also owns luxury brand Grand Design RVs, practically became synonymous with motor homes after its launch in 1958.

All three companies now produce a motor home made out of the chassis of a Mercedes Sprinter, either directly or through one of their subsidiaries. RV manufacturers don’t offer the same level of customization that the van conversion companies do, although most provide some options for buyers. But tapping into the van life movement is harder than simply making a vehicle.

Buying your van from a corporation that rolls out more or less the same product for everybody would seem to run counter to the van life movement’s underlying values of individuality and freedom from the very societal structures that are producing that van.

They can also be prohibitively expensive. Chris Pochiba and Sara Aho spent roughly $80,000 to convert a brand-new Sprinter themselves, $42,000 of that for the vehicle itself. The converted Sprinters that RV manufacturers sell all retail at around $150,000, including Airstream’s Interstate Nineteen, Winnebago’s Revel and Era models, and the Galleria from Coachmen, a Forest River brand.

That doesn’t mean the RV industry doesn’t try to take cues from the van life movement. Justin Humphreys, chief operating officer at Airstream, says his company and others in the industry have seen the movement unfold on social media, and where applicable they’ll incorporate ideas they see, particularly when it comes to decor. Winnebego’s Revel is a good example of this: It has a drop-down bed that’s proved popular in Europe and among DIY van lifers.

But there may be a limit to how far manufacturers will go, because the industry is bound by safety regulations—regarding seatbelts and access to airbags, for example—that some of the DIY van conversions violate.

”[We] see what people are posting, which are beautiful pictures of these vans, and you get to the details and realize, well, that’s not compliant,” Humphreys says.

Lee Eisler was working in a warehouse and was about to rent a house in Orange County, California, with a group of friends. But after one of the friends backed out of the arrangement, he started looking for alternatives and noticed a number of his friends had started living out of their vans.

“I was living paycheck to paycheck and I wanted a way out because rent was so expensive,” he says.

Almost five years later, Eisler, 31, is still living on the road, having traveled throughout the West Coast and as far inland as Texas. He generates income by selling art, jewelry, and stickers, and he started a digital media outlet about van life that he’s hoping to use to generate more regular income.

But van lifers often don’t quit their jobs, because working remotely has become a more common practice—all they need is a mobile hotspot to get internet, or simply a smartphone they can use to tether the internet to a computer.

Kate and Ian Moore hit the road in March of 2017 with the goal of visiting every state in the continental U.S., while also scouting cities for a new permanent home. Both worked from the road—Kate as a graphic designer and Ian as an industrial designer.

In addition to buying a cellphone signal booster, the couple subscribed to two different cellphone plans—Verizon and T-Mobile—to expand their coverage area. When their jobs required a better internet connection for uploading or downloading large files, they’d stop at a Starbucks, which a lot of van lifers rely on for internet.

“Normally if one person didn’t have [cellphone] service, the other person did,” Kate Moore says. “That helped us get larger coverage. The cellphone signal booster was worth its weight in gold.”

Using Starbucks for internet is just one of many van life hacks. Numerous van lifers told Curbed that they have gym memberships so they can shower at gyms, particularly if their vans didn’t have showers. (Planet Fitness, with locations all over the U.S., is a popular choice.)

Food is a relatively easy need to fill for van lifers, who say they use the storage spaces in their vans to stock up at grocery stores. When they’re not camping in more remote locations, many simply go to restaurants.

Scott and Jaime Sichler walked away from successful corporate careers in Los Angeles to pursue life on the road and use Amazon Prime extensively to have items they need shipped directly to camp grounds.

“I just had four 79-pound batteries delivered to an RV park through Amazon,” Scott Sichler says. “Had to make friends with the UPS guy that day.”

There are also clubs van lifers can join to help with the logistics of living on the road. Harvest Hosts gives its paying members access to campsites that include a number of wineries, breweries, farms, and golf courses across North America.

Travis and Melanie Carr, who are on the road for most of the year with their children, run Escapees RV Club, a support network founded by Travis’s grandfather in the 1970s. In addition to organizing social events for van lifers, Escapees helps its members with mail collection and provides instruction in RV maintenance and safety.

When the couple took over leadership of the group in 2010, they could already tell that a movement was growing around van life among millennials, and they tried to position Escapees to capitalize on it. They say the movement is predicated on breaking the status quo.

“You’re answering to somebody else and not yourself,” Melanie Carr says. “They want to create something that’s their own.”

From the outside looking in, van life can appear to be a 24/7 vacation where travelers move from one Instagrammable scenic view to the next, but like most of what people project on social media, van lifers rarely share the downsides.

Van lifers Curbed spoke to stressed that they were still working jobs and had to do the same chores to keep their lives afloat that everyone else does, and living in a highly confined space with other people while dealing with that stress can put a strain on relationships, according to Travis Carr.

“It can be really good for your relationship, or it can be terrible,” he says. “It’s one of those things that exaggerates everything in life. If something’s really good or going well, it makes it better. If it’s something kind of bad, it makes it worse.”

One of the harder needs to fill on the road is health care. Some van lifers told Curbed they got health care through an Affordable Care Act marketplace, but paid north of $800 per month for just a basic plan. Those plans don’t cover care outside of a certain region, limiting how far plan holders feel comfortable traveling. Others used a religious-based healthcare plan like Christian Healthcare Ministries, which isn’t locked to a location but might not cover something it feels conflicts with its values.

In areas that lack Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land—land owned by the government that’s open for camping and recreation—van lifers sometimes have to stay overnight in parking lots at big-box retail stores like Walmart or restaurants like Cracker Barrel—a popular spot among retiree travelers.

Some van lifers say they’ve run into trouble with law enforcement for sleeping in their vans. While they don’t always get a ticket, police or park rangers can complicate their travels by forcing them to move in the middle of the night. In response to being approached by authorities numerous times, Eisler started selling stickers that say “Van life is not a crime.”

But even with all the inconveniences, difficulties, and costs that come with living on the road, van lifers overwhelmingly say the good outweighs the bad. Eisler says he made a pros and cons list before embarking on van life, which helped him see that what he was gaining was worth what he was giving up.

”What I like to tell people is it’s a trade between comfort and freedom,” Eisler says. “I think I’ll always keep it on wheels at this point. I’ll always wanna be moving.”