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Safe Spaces On The Open Road: Why More Women Are Embracing #VanLife

by BUST Magazine


All over North America, women are turning vans into tiny rolling homes and living life on the open road. Documenting their adventures with the hashtag #vanlife, these solo female travelers are claiming space and creating mobile communities.

With her bright magenta hair and matching striped shorts, 34-year-old Lisa Jacobs balances her DSLR camera on her kitchen counter inside her 2012 Nissan NV2500 High Roof van. Popping a fedora on her head with a grin, she strikes a pose with her hands above her head, projecting the happy, easygoing image of what’s been dubbed “vanlife”—the movement of people traveling and living in stylishly converted vans.

Later, Jacobs—who travels solo—live chats to over 30 thousand Instagram followers and is candid about the difficulties of vanlife: no running water, often no heat, always in search of a parking spot where she can sleep. Nonetheless, she’ll take it any day over her previous staid career as an attorney. In the same chat, her eyes water when she talks about how her mother’s death in 2014 propelled her toward a life on four wheels. For Jacobs, it was a wake-up call that her own life could be cut short. “I realized, I don’t want to just live to work and then die,” she told her followers. “I want to do something.”

There are plenty of other modern digital nomads like Jacobs on Instagram, where members of the #vanlife community broadcast their lives and connect with fans and each other. A search of the hashtag returns peak influencer fodder: gorgeous mountain backdrops, crystal clear tropical waters, and trailheads that scream possibility—often framed by the flung-open doors of a stylish van embellished with twinkly lights and succulents. At first glance, #vanlife is all nature photos taken during golden hour with ample lens flare, carefree women in bikinis, and of course, adorable dogs. If you feel stuck in your life, it’s easy to envy, and even easier to disdain. 

Peel back Instagram’s veneer, however, and you’ll find an inspiring community of women taking charge of their lives, supporting each other, and often grieving loss. While #vanlife as a hashtag broke into mainstream awareness sometime in 2015, solo women travelers have been less visible until recently. A 2018 survey by Outbound Living, a web resource for vanlifers, revealed that 36 percent of them live and travel alone. And while that study wasn’t broken down by gender, a dig through Instagram shows that the ranks of women hitting the road alone are growing. 

Like all vanlifers, women travelers must work out a myriad of logistics to live the van lifestyle: hygiene, cooking, electricity, making money. And of course, if #homeiswhereyouparkit, where, exactly, do you park it? Vanlifers take a variety of approaches: “stealth” camping (parking on the street where a van just looks like any other car); paying for campsites; parking on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, which is free; and, when a spot is tougher to find, utilizing Walmart parking lots. 

Most cook using propane on portable stoves and grills. Solar panels frequently supply electricity. Water tanks provide running water—some tanks are big enough to supply a toilet, a sink, or even a small shower. Those without large water tanks rely on gym memberships to get clean. Jacobs once got desperate enough for shower access that a Bumble date convinced her not to skip town by making the most romantic of vanlife gestures: offering use of his shower. (Yes, she vetted him extensively beforehand.)

vans1 cd6e3Inside Lisa Jacobs’ 2012 Nissan NV2500 High Roof van

For many vanlifers, converting a vehicle into a home offers a chance to significantly reduce costs. Jennelle Long, a 20-year-old full-time student in Silicon Valley, had never even used a power tool before she converted a 1995 GMC Vandura Explorer into a home. “My van is my baby,” she says. “It gives me a sense of pride; I built it myself. I watched nearly every YouTube video and read every Reddit post from people who already lived in vans for a year before I moved into my van. And people want to help you. When I have questions, I shoot them out on Reddit or Instagram.” The transition, she says, was relatively easy. “I bought my van for $2,500 and I’ve put about $5,000 to $6,000 into it, including a new paint job, mechanical fixes, solar panels, and the interior remodel. My conversion took me almost a year, and I’m still always changing things up, but realistically, I could have done everything in about a week or two,” she says. “I was just constantly building and rebuilding things until I got them right. But for the first few months in the van, I was practicing minimalism with just a small box of clothes and a hammock to sleep in.”

Long is anchored in Northern California, traveling part time while she works and attends school, and she’s not alone in paring down to reduce student debt. Anouk Wilhelm, a rock climber originally from France, also chose vanlife to facilitate travel and continue rock climbing while studying interior design full time. Like Long, Wilhelm converted her van herself and discovered she’s handier than she’d thought. “Cutting a hole in my roof was probably the scariest thing,” she says, “because then if something goes wrong, you have a hole in your ceiling.” 

vans2 b8296Jennelle Long in her homey 1995 GMC Vandura Explorer

Bionca Smith, an entrepreneur who travels with her 10-year-old son, Carter, gave up significant luxury to take to the road. “I had this nice condo on the Bay and a BMW. Everything was fancy,” she explains. “But I had a whole bunch of debt, my son was struggling with his reading, and I didn’t have time for friends and family. I was unhappy and stuck. I felt like I was drowning.” But thanks to a switch to full-time living in her 1989 Ford Econoline van, Smith and her son (who’s home schooled digitally via Connections Academy) are both happier, and she’s paid down a large chunk of that debt. 

Smith purchased her van with a kitchen, toilet, and even a shower—veritable vanlife gold—for $4,900, and she recently added solar panels for $400. “I have a son, and we’re too busy to chase down showers and toilets,” she tells me. “We prepped our van so we wouldn’t need to worry about water, food, and gas. And every Sunday, we refresh. That’s when we clean out and restock the fridge, do laundry, vacuum the van, and get our fresh water for drinking and bathing.” Sundays are also when Smith dumps her used sink, toilet, and shower water, usually at campsites, truck stops, or the occasional gas station.

That small bit of routine has allowed Smith and her son the freedom to go where they please, and it’s helping Carter to get a more hands-on education—even when things go wrong. “Our van broke down on the Pacific Coast Highway outside Malibu and we were stranded for a couple of days,” says Smith, who took the unexpected stop in stride. “We were in the most beautiful place. We witnessed the high and low tides and Carter would do his homework and then go down to the beach and learn about marine life.” Vanlife has also made Smith and her son more cognizant of their resources. “Now we know how much water we use in a week,” she says. “We grocery shop at farmer’s markets and we don’t have trash. Buying local lets us give back to the community where we are.” The pair also makes a point to benefit the communities they visit in other ways, whether it’s doing beach cleanups or speaking at local schools for Smith’s anti-bullying non-profit The Bully Barricade.

But even with minimal housing costs, how do vanlifers afford to live their nomadic lifestyle? Turns out, there are quite a few ways to continue working while on the road. For instance, Jacobs still works as an attorney via her laptop, using a hotspot and mobile booster for internet. Some cobble together several income sources, including leveraging their social media. (“How to” vanlife YouTube videos are practically a cottage industry, explaining every aspect from finances to loneliness to where and how to dump van toilets.) Liz Bryant, a former breaking news reporter originally from Tulsa, OK, not only runs her own production company part time, she also has a sizable social media following. And while she’s opted out of YouTube ad revenues, her online presence has led to sponsorships from outdoor goods companies. 

vans4 4f7a5Inside Bionca Smith’s van

It’s not surprising that marketers are eager to find spokespeople from among the ranks of vanlife women. Often viewed as attractive free spirits, they span a wide variety of occupations, ages, and backgrounds. There are students, photographers, illustrators, journalists, writers, athletes, and interior designers. Some are fully nomadic, some stick to one city, and still others take a part-time approach. Many are white, but the number of women of color taking up vanlife is certainly growing. Vanlifers don’t have typical days and that’s the point. Every one is different, depending on how quickly a person moves on to new locations and their degree of interest in the outdoors. 

While reducing bills and your environmental footprint are certainly huge upsides, many women vanlifers started their journey to travel and focus on what they felt mattered most. Many describe leaving lives that felt like just existing. For example, when 26-year-old Katie Larsen’s then-boyfriend suggested buying a van in 2016, she was happy to deviate from the usual life script. “I was working a corporate job, wearing heels and a suit and working weekends. I had no time for myself and I was miserable,” she explains. Larsen and her boyfriend lived for a year in a van they converted, but parted ways when he wanted to stop and she didn’t. “I felt suffocated after we stopped [traveling],” she says. “After deciding what I actually wanted to do each day, having freedom over my life, I couldn’t go back to a regular job where all of my time was someone else’s.”

This opportunity that vanlife offers women—to discover their own wants, desires, and interests free of pressures to please others—is a big part of its appeal. Bryant, the former television reporter, puts it most succinctly: “Vanlife has given me an extreme clarity of who I am.” Vanlifers spend significant time alone, whether on long drives or camping deep within the desert, and that can lead to some serious introspection and personal growth. “If you’re driving five hours on the highway, there are only so many podcasts you can listen to before your mind wanders and you start thinking about your own stuff,” Larsen says. “I’ve grown to like who I am. I never could have done that if I hadn’t spent so much time by myself.” That positive relationship to solitude is a common theme in this lifestyle. In fact, Long had the word “solitude” tattooed on her left foot. “I enjoy community, but I don’t need anyone else to find joy,” she says. 

vans5 51415Katie Larson in her 2016 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter stopped in Joshua Tree

Long is in good company when it comes to not needing any company. Smith describes the solitude almost as free therapy. “You have no choice but to find your true self,” she says. “You are gonna think so much and pay attention to things you wouldn’t normally, because you have fewer distractions.” Renee Blair (@ren.rover), 29, a construction project manager who spent seven months traveling in her converted van before she was sidelined by vehicle troubles, also stresses the mental benefits of vanlife. “When you take time for yourself, you feel re-energized,” she says. “Imagine that feeling, but for seven straight months.”

Many vanlifers hit the road after facing serious loss. Like Jacobs, an ailing parent set former CrossFit athlete Sloane Thomas onto the house-on-wheels path. In 2014, her father started exhibiting symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Thomas moved to Arizona to care for him, and he soon lost much of his mobility. “He had all these things that he waited his entire life to go do and then he was unable,” she says. It was a wake-up call to Thomas: she might not have time to waste. Thomas started building her van home while caring for her dad, and she soon had another brush with mortality—this time, her own. In December 2018, an MRI scan revealed an aggressive malignant tumor on her right glute muscle. “It was essentially a death sentence,” she says. To compound her trauma, Thomas’ father passed away as she was being rolled into surgery in January, 2019. By some miracle, her pathology came back benign, but the tumor she had removed was the size of a butternut squash. “The doctors said I should have cancer all over my body,” she says. “I’m a walking, living, breathing miracle.”

Thomas moved into her van shortly after her surgery and her father’s death, and vanlife has given her the chance to process her grief on her own timeline. “You’re not living by societal norms or following rules or regulations,” she tells me. “It gives you the space to accept your emotions as they come.”

vans6 7ce4dLaura Hughes recording for her “Woman on the Road” podcast

Before 2017, it was difficult to find solo women vanlifers online. “It was hard to see myself doing road travel since I didn’t see other women doing it, too,” says 30-year-old photographer Laura Hughes, who started her journey in 2014. Hughes’ desire to hear other women’s experiences led her to host the podcast Women on the Road. “There were plenty of articles online about gear and equipment,” she says, “but not enough about women traveling. Five years ago, it was still considered taboo and extremely unsafe if you’re female. There were people doing it, but they weren’t talking about it.”

It’s likely that female vanlifers weren’t sharing about their travels because of a widely held belief that women navigating the road on their own are in danger. In fact, the vanlifers in this story all reported that “Aren’t you scared?” is the question they get asked most. And Hughes concedes that there are times she’s felt frightened while traveling. “But there are also times I’ve been afraid at night in Seattle getting groceries,” she adds. Long’s take is particularly pragmatic. “Bad things happen regardless of whether or not you live in a van,” she says. “I feel safer in my van than in an apartment. If someone breaks in, I can either get out or drive away.” 

For women of color, safety concerns can be compounded by fears of encountering racial bias. “I was a lot more scared being a person of color traveling in certain areas than I was of traveling solo as a woman,” Blair tells me. “That was top of my mind. But once I got out there, it was not that bad. Maybe that’s because I was really cautious. But I want to encourage more women of color to try vanlife and get into the outdoors more.” 

The safety question is also just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to public debate regarding women’s competence on the road. When Bryant, the former television reporter, started posting her videos to IG in 2017 and YouTube in 2018, she quickly grew a social media presence, and that came with the internet’s inevitable negativity. “People said I was fake,” she says. “So many people commented, ‘Oh this is just some sponsorship deal. She has daddy’s money. There’s a production crew following her.’ People don’t want to accept that a woman did this by herself.” 

vans3 e8a0eAnouk Wilhelm and her 1990 Chevy G20

Though they love their solitude, women vanlifers are now reaching out to each other to form community like never before. Van gatherings are organized all over the world, and they have an intensity that’s likened to summer camp. In October 2018, Women on the Road held the first gathering strictly for women and non-binary individuals, and close to 200 people journeyed to Taos, NM, for the event. “In vanlife, you don’t have stability in your location or even a mailing address,” says Hughes. “The online community is one of the most stable things we have, and meeting in person solidifies those relationships.”

The night before the gathering, several attendees arrived early and a conversation about van toilets turned toward the subject of urinary tract infections on the road. Quickly enough, the attendees discovered several of them had recently dealt with UTIs, and they traded tips and resources for addressing them. “Then someone says, ‘This is exactly why we need an event just for women!’” Hughes recalls. “We laughed because it was so true.” 

“Because it was all women, we were able to talk much more openly,” says Jacobs, who co-hosted the gathering. Event attendees often recognize Jacobs from her Instagram account and want to talk to her about her mother’s death and other topics she’s shared about online. The conversations get deep fast and dozens of people have cried in her van in the year since she started traveling. “Everyone was so raw and vulnerable, people bonded quickly,” Larsen says of the gathering. “Some of my closest friends now are vanlife women I met there. Our conversations are never surface-level. I get a phone call in the morning, and it’s, ‘How are you feeling today? Where is your heart?’”  

Top photo: Laura Hughes and her 2013 Ford Transit Connect

By Erica Lies
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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