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Jess Stiles and Greg Williams live full-time in a camper van, pictured above in Baja, and document their experiences on the Drifter Journey blog.
Courtesy of Jess Stiles and Greg Williams

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Sheltering in place when your home is a camper van

“Our quarantine is this five-foot-by-six-foot van. Yours has got to be better than that”

Throughout the U.S., at least 200 million Americans in 22 states have been asked to stay home in an attempt to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. But whether it’s called “shelter in place” or “safer at home,” the stay-at-home mandate has thrown some nomads into a crisis: How do you “stay home” when your house is mobile?

For decades, people have chosen to live full-time in RVs, often as “snowbirds” who travel south to avoid harsh northern winters. But since 2011, an increasing number of younger Americans have swelled the ranks of full-time nomads. And many of them travel in smaller, more sustainable off-grid camper vans, finding in #VanLife both a way to maximize made-for-Instagram adventure and a solution to rising housing costs.

Now, both savvy van lifers and traditional RV snowbirds are facing the realities of life on the road during a pandemic. The details of stay-at-home orders vary across the country, but in general, they dictate that people can only leave their homes for necessities, like going to the grocery store or the doctor.

At first, it felt like life as usual, said Amber Baldwin, a digital storyteller who documents her travels on a YouTube channel and her website Story Chasing while living in a 2018 Hymer Aktiv Class B camper van. “We felt like we were already self contained, it’s easy for us to move around, we can just change spots,” Baldwin said. But as the news kept coming, “Everything changed. We heard that cities were closing, and that there weren’t enough supplies.”

As cities closed restaurants, stores, and schools, a mishmash of messages flowed to the outdoor community. A March 18 announcement from Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt asked the National Park Service to waive entrance fees until further notice. According to Bernhardt, parks offered the opportunity to “recreate, embrace nature, and implement social distancing.”

But while the federal government encouraged recreation, some local campgrounds started to close. The rationale? Although camping seems like a proactive way to distance from others, campers are still reliant on services like water, toilets, showers, visitor centers, and dump stations—all places where, if they remained open, the virus could spread.

The closures of campgrounds and basic facilities—both public and private—had an immediate impact on the RV community. Isaiah Photo and his wife, Karin, went full-time in a Dodge Ram van 11 months ago in order to travel and save money on rent. Normally, the couple uses a gym or campgrounds that allow them access to showers and bathrooms. As Photo documents on his YouTube channel, closures meant “I have no running water, I have no shower, I have no toilet, and I have a very limited supply of food, because, well, I live in a van.”

Most camper vans and RVs don’t have much storage for food. Kitchens can range from the most basic (like a camping stove and a cooler) to more built out vans with small refrigerators and pantries. A lack of space means that stocking up on supplies can be difficult, necessitating more trips to the grocery store—and more exposure to the virus.

Baldwin, meanwhile, was camping on land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management when the announcement of closures began. She left and went to the Thousands Trails Campground in Palm Springs, where she has a membership, because she was worried about maintaining access to water and dump stations. While that campground has remained open, the idea of not having the resources Baldwin had come to rely on was upsetting. “We need [the campgrounds] the most right now,” she said. “We need to stay put.”

To date, at least 29 states—including places like California, Colorado, Florida, Washington, and New York—have closed or delayed opening their state park campgrounds. And as restless urbanites flock to the open spaces that haven’t yet closed, there are growing calls that a shutdown of all national parks will be necessary to protect park employees and avoid straining nearby small towns, many of which have limited medical resources.

As the entire country copes with increased anxiety and stress stemming from COVID-19, the normally free-wheeling RV community is also feeling the strain. “We’re all making plan B, plan C, plan D in case things close,” says Baldwin. “I woke up bawling; I was terrified, because it’s so surreal.”

Normal van life actually doesn’t involve a ton of time inside the camper—people often use biking, hiking, and exploring to counteract the small spaces. Now, as Photo puts it, “It’s hard to stay home when you live in a van ... Our quarantine is this five-foot-by-six-foot van. Yours has got to be better than that.”

All of the people interviewed for this story agreed that sheltering in place in an RV is a drastic lifestyle change and can get claustrophobic; each of them is doing what they can to find solace in the outdoors, whether that’s surfing at a secret beach break or walking around a campground at odd hours.

There’s also acute financial stress. Jess Stiles and Greg Williams left successful careers in the outdoor industry in Colorado to pursue van life in December 2018. They have been living out of their camper van and working at a ski shop in Southern California in the winters to afford their summer adventures. When the shelter-in-place orders came through, they both lost their jobs.

“The market is a mess right now so we’re watching our savings dwindle,” Williams says. “I don’t think we’re rethinking van life, but it’s forcing us to stay in it. Our savings have been hit so now we have to wait it out. We don’t have any money to buy a house.”

Finally, another basic question looms large in the face of a pandemic: What will van lifers do if they get sick? Stiles and Williams wonder whether their Colorado health insurance will work if they are out of state. Baldwin, who often travels solo, is looking to her community for help. As the weather warms up, she has plans to head north with a group of trusted friends—all in their own rigs—while maintaining social-distancing requirements.

“It’s great for people like us to have someone around to help out or get me to a hospital,” Baldwin says. “We will also consolidate things like going to the grocery store, so only one person is going and getting exposed.”

For now, one of the greatest challenges for these roaming nomads is staying put.

“I get a little restless. It’s one thing to be here and be stationary by choice,” says Stiles. “It’s a whole other thing to be told you can’t leave. It’s a mental struggle to feel like you’re trapped. We’re kind of drifters, normally.”

The consensus is to pause and to take stock. “If I knew that there was a pandemic about to happen, I would have probably preferred to be in a house,” Photo says. “But if I had to give up all of my van life experiences to have a house during the coronavirus, I wouldn’t do it.”

Like the rest of us, full-time RVers are anxiously awaiting news and trying to navigate a new reality.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Stiles says. “We have a responsibility to stay in place. We’re taking it one day at a time, just like everybody else.”