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It was evening when my former college roommate pulled up in his camper van. After months of arduous renovations and episodes of repugnant cursing, his 1983 Chevrolet G20 was on the road, puttering across the country at a snail’s pace.
As he opened and closed the driver’s door, an audible groan echoed through the frame that reminded me of the sound my grandfather makes when he eases into his favorite chair. Its original coat of paint, once bronze and creamy, began to fade. Rust found a home near door handles, rendering one of them entirely useless. And the radio was broken.
Needless to say, my expectations were low.
But as he opened the sliding door, I ducked my head into a sanctuary that stood in stark contrast to the van’s aging exterior. Cabinets were finished with natural wood trim, camping mugs hung from repurposed twigs and a queen-sized bed offered plenty of room to spread out after a long day on the road. In the blink of an eye, my desire to join him and the thousands of others living out of a van was palpable.
That is until I started searching for a van of my own. Older camper vans listed on Craigslist were money pits destined for a lifetime of repairs, while modern sprinters totaled more than a down payment on a new home. Frustrated by the barrier to entry, I moved on assuming vanlife would remain forever unattainable. That’s when a friend recommended Outdoorsy.
The Austin-based rental platform plays host to a fleet of camper vans, trailers and RVs across the country, allowing individuals to rent out their personal rigs that would otherwise sit unused in a driveway. Not unlike Airbnb, the service lets you wander just about anywhere on four wheels and offers a fun alternative to traditional rentals. And perhaps most importantly, you can finally realize your dream of living in a van, if only for a few hundred miles.
Compelled by my former nomadic fantasies, I caught a plane to Utah, rented a camper van of my very own and made my way into the mountains beyond Park City to see what vanlife was all about.
On the Road to Nowhere
The idea of hopping in a car and setting off towards someplace unknown has always appealed to me. It’s why I drove solo across the country more than once and the same reason I still take the long way home. But road trips, for all the allure and wonder they draw, aren’t easy.
Sometimes you’re looking for comfortable accommodations in a town with one dilapidated motel. Other times you’re stranded on the side of the road, wandering aimlessly in the hopes that you might find cell service to call AAA. When you’re not listening to a Spotify playlist, you’re scanning the local radio for a station that doesn’t embrace Christian rock. And then there are the constant bathroom breaks, which lead you to consider using that empty Big Gulp container as the car motors on in cruise control.
And yet, for almost every foreseeable road trip annoyance I’ve encountered, vanlife comes to the rescue. Bathroom breaks only require you to pull off the road before using the built-in washroom. Sleeping accommodations come standard. And if your van has all the bells and whistles, there’s probably a satellite radio that keeps you forever connected to agnostic tunes.
As I found a camping spot among other van-goers at an alpine lake in the Uinta Mountains, the innocence and effortless manner of vanlife became apparent. Every day feels like the trip of a lifetime whether you’re catching a sunrise from the van’s back doors or snuggling under covers in a roomy bed. Only hours into the journey, it was obvious why this transient lifestyle looks so appealing.
Welcome to My Crib
It didn’t take long to become acquainted with my van, a 2019 Erwin Hymer Group Sunlight V2. Social media would have you believe vanlife is essentially the same as living at home, but I would sooner compare it to living in a college dorm. The galley kitchen, for instance, featured a two-burner stove, microwave, sink and fridge with plenty of room for cookware, but you’ll need to adjust to the smaller space when preparing a large meal.
Beyond the kitchen, a set of benches offered enough room to relax after a day on the road, and a quick rearrangement of the sectional cushions transformed the entire space into a full-size king bed. As is the case with most Outdoorsy rentals, the owners of this rig stocked clean linens and pillows for added comfort.
The back of the van, to my surprise, featured a flushable toilet and shower, as well as a shower curtain and divider that made the space feel secure. With the flick of a button, the van’s powerful water heater could deliver a warm shower in minutes, and for those truly embracing the vanlife vibes, the shower could also be moved outdoors by opening the rear entryway.
Amenities are sure to vary depending on your wants and needs, but this one came with a few extras that travelers will love, such as a bike rack, awning, solar panels, television and audio inputs to crank up the tunes. After a couple of days in the van, learning its many ins and outs, I found myself entirely comfortable living with less.
All That Glitters
I remember reading an article published years ago by a couple that attempted vanlife after purchasing a 1995 Ford E-350 Econoline van. What began as a spirited effort to live on the road ended in headache, anxiety and two empty bank accounts that forced each of them to move home. Their experience, while valuable, stands in stark contrast to online coverage that paints vanlife as an idyllic state of being. For every backcountry drive, there’s an unforeseen repair; for every shower and flush, a waste tank to empty at the end of a long day. It’s a pressure cooker that tests your mental state, with no interest in whether or not you make it out the other side.
As I laid in the back of the van on my final night, hiding under covers to the hum of the heater, I realized that vanlife wasn’t all glitz and glamour. I thought of the maintenance, the repairs, the commitment to life on the road and wondered why I would ever buy a van when I could simply rent one instead. Sure, it’s not the same thing as #vanlife, and purists would sooner describe me as a fraud, but for most of us (myself included), it does the trick.
My advice? Live out your vanlife dreams through Outdoorsy. The brand’s online platform and emerging network of rentals offer the perfect solution for folks like me and for those looking to substitute a traditional vacation rental with something far more fun. The service is easy to use, the prices are reasonable and, in my humble opinion, it’s better than diehard vanlife ever could be.
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