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Beyond the hashtag: A love letter to #VanLife

Musings on the highs and lows of life in a camper van

A Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van with surfboards on the side sits in an old-growth forest in Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
I travel with my husband, kids, and dog in our custom Mercedes Sprinter van, which you can read more about here.
Photo by Megan Barber

Peruse the 5.6 million posts about #VanLife on Instagram and you’ll find no shortage of grand vistas, towering mountains, beaches, and (of course) vans. Sprinters, Transits, Westfalias—they’re all there. Big and small, new and used, brightly colored or covered in dust, these vans explore the world with each new bend in the road. Love campers and trailers? Come join our community group.

But behind each Instagram-ready photo lies the real people living in a van—probably not down by the river—maybe for a weekend or perhaps for a few years.

In true millennial style, I take photos and post on Instagram, too (you can follow me at TheTrueVanLife), but it’s always struck me as a bit disingenuous. These photos don’t tell the real story, the highs and lows of what life is really like living in fewer than 200 square feet. They are only snapshots, choreographed to look the best and earn more likes.

After my recent two-week trek around British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, I couldn’t help but wonder: Do people really understand the van life phenomenon?

On the one hand, living in a van entails going without some of life’s essentials. We don’t have a bathroom in our van by design, so with two kids, we spend some time each day managing that. Each week we also need to do laundry; one night on our latest trip I ended up doing three loads of dirty clothes at 10 p.m.—when the campsite’s washers finally became available.

Refilling our van’s water tanks and figuring out when and where we’re going to shower also takes up time. We had to ration our water for a few days upon arriving at a campsite on remote Hornby Island when we realized we wouldn’t be able to refill.

And then there are the occasional frustrations and disappointments: Circling a grocery store for 20 minutes in search of a parking spot; trying to quell the shrieks of tired kids while also figuring out directions; arriving to a campsite you booked months ago to realize it’s hardly more than a tired-looking parking spot.

Van life isn’t always as glamorous as it seems. What the sunset and forest photos don’t show, however, are also some of the best parts.

My van carries a lot. We haul four Stand Up Paddle boards, five bikes, myself, my husband, two kids, and the newest member of our roving circus: Cirque the puppy. We started our trip exhausted—the kids from the hot days of summer camps and playing, my husband and I worn out from the stresses of work and vacation prep.

Ever so slowly, however, the rhythms of life in the van soothed our souls. We often all fell asleep by 9 p.m., waking refreshed and ready to start our day. We ate almost all of our meals in nature, setting out breakfasts and dinners at an ever-changing parade of picnic tables. The kids established their favorite “van jobs,” usually setting up or taking down our beds and helping to walk the dog. We had almost no screen time, opting instead for audiobooks, jokes, and stories.

But the most impactful thing we gained from our latest trip is how active we were. At home, as a mom and writer chained to my laptop, I struggle to squeeze in a mountain bike ride, take the pup for a walk, and conquer my 10,000 steps. In the van, everything becomes an adventure, from walking to the vault toilet to finding wood for a campfire.

My happiness climbed in conjunction with our activity level, growing each day until I was well-balanced, content, and logging 20,000 steps. We just felt better at van life pace, filling our hours with leisurely hikes, bike rides, ice cold river swims, and fireside chats.

And while my Instagram posts show our van surrounded by trees in a gorgeous old-growth forest, the photos couldn’t capture what was really happening on our trip: a family recalibrating, grounding themselves in each other and in what we love to do most.

I’m sure other families or couples find ways to do this in hotels, Airbnbs, yurts, or some other kind of getaway. We prefer vans.

For now, we can only live in our van part time, taking short trips every weekend and longer trips every few months. But the gentle reminders of the past few weeks have stayed with us.

Even though our Sprinter sits in our alley driveway, we’re holding on to that van life magic.