Van life may sound exciting, but it takes a lot of strategy and planning to make it work.
It was expensive, and the work of practicing social distancing in a big city during COVID-19 felt increasingly stressful.
“We were just incredibly restless,” says JennaLynn. “If we wake up every day in our little apartment in DC, and we walk our dog around the block, and that’s the scope of life, why do not we do it around a brewery in Vermont?”
That was when they decided to make a huge change. The federal government contractors agreed to what appears to be an increasing number of Americans converting vans to RVs to hit the road permanently.
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Strengthened by new external work arrangements and a desire to see the country at a time when conventional holiday travel is difficult, they bought a used Mercedes-Benz Freightliner Sprinter for $ 18,000 on Craigslist and retrofitted it for the road. In total, they spent around $ 8000 on upgrades, including bathroom equipment, shelves, bedding, water equipment.
“It looks like a completely different van,” says JennaLynn.
Since October, they have traveled the country, kept working hours on the east coast and used a mobile hotspot for WiFi. They have been to Niagara Falls, Chicago, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas and Colorado. When they were interviewed for this story, they were in Denver and planned to travel to Southern California, Arizona or New Mexico to “chase the weather,” as JennaLynn puts it.
“Van life”, or #vanlife as it is known on social media, has been around for years. But the pandemic has left it.
Not everyone is able to make it work, as many Americans are struggling during the pandemic. In the face of unemployment or reduced income, some have lost their homes and live in their vehicles because they have no other options.
But for those who can afford it, #vanlife is particularly well-suited for this crisis because it is socially distant, can be done on a budget, and promotes outdoor activities, which are safer during the outbreak than indoor environments where air does not circulate well.
“We felt it was the safest way to actually live our lives in a way that is natural to us, that is spontaneous, without having a big impact on people’s communities and is still very safe,” says JennaLynn.
Carmakers celebrate # VanLife trend
For the car industry, this is a welcome development. While old-fashioned passenger cars sold to the public have largely been phased out, brands selling commercial vans, including Mercedes, Ram and Ford, are celebrating the trend.
Mercedes, whose Sprinter van is the preferred vehicle for many #vanlife fans, seems to be the biggest winner. Mercedes-Benz US sales of goods increased by 22.5% in 2020 to 274916, although the brand’s total sales fell 8.9%.
“Everyone is trying to get a van,” says Stefanie Doemel, who manages equipment solutions for vans at Mercedes-Benz USA.
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To be sure, much of the increase is likely due to the growth in vans sales of parcel delivery packages.
But Rich Webber, general manager of product marketing at Mercedes-Benz USA, says sales of vans aimed at nomadic life are growing rapidly.
Car analysts at the research company IHS Markit, which closely tracks the car industry, do not have data on #vanlife. But IHS’s main car analyst Stephanie Brinley agreed that the evidence suggests that #vanlife has grown in popularity during the pandemic.
“Anecdotally, that has certainly been the case,” she says. “People want to travel, they still want to go out and do things, and the current pandemic situation has changed the way we are able to do that.”
Used vans a popular choice
Many Americans who choose #vanlife cannot afford a new van, which can cost more than $ 50,000. But they can often afford one.
The couple Abby and Cody Erler lived in a suburb of Boston and worked 9 to 5 jobs when they decided to shake things up. They hit the road in September after acquiring a Ram ProMaster van for around $ 25,000 and investing $ 10,000 in upgrades.
It was a classic do-it-yourself project, made possible in large part by YouTube lessons on tasks as technical as installing electrical wiring and insulation.
“We had to do just about everything twice because we messed up the first time,” says Abby. “It was a real learning curve.”
They have a dining area, a cooking area and a bed, but they chose to refrain from a toilet and instead chose to find public facilities, such as bathrooms on campsites. Many passenger cars are members of Planet Fitness, so they can use showers or toilets on a regular basis.
“In the worst case, we have a shovel in the back,” says Abby.
Life on the road appealed to Erlers in part because they love to travel, but had not been able to scratch that itch very often due to limited time off.
“In most places in the United States, your vacation is three weeks, two weeks, so it does not give you much time to go out and explore,” says Abby. “We live together, but we see each other two days a week with how our schedule matches.”
Camping without motorhome or tent
During the pandemic, camping has generally been popular. RV sales have risen and may reach a full-time high this year, as many Americans paved the way for vacations instead of getting on a plane.
But van-lifers prefer their smaller, cheaper cars because they can be taken anywhere and can serve as a daily vehicle if needed. Motorhomes can cost anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“It’s definitely not for everyone to be so cramped in a space, but we can park in a regular car park, which makes it super versatile when it comes to where you can go,” says Abby Erler.
Yes, it can be cramped to work a typical office job from a space of 60 square meters. But the lifestyle has enabled Erlers to visit destinations across America, such as Acadia National Park in Maine under fall foliage and Red River Gorge in Kentucky.
In Kansas, “we went all week without seeing another person, and we lived in a real campground,” says Abby.
Hitting the road during the pandemic has enabled them to escape some of the difficulties.
“You feel more relieved of some of the mental stress that others go through by being trapped in one place,” says Abby. “We have wheels so we can change our landscape, and after the work day I can get well in nature.”
While car manufacturers offer so-called “upfitting” options through third-party companies, most new vans are still largely equipped for commercial or government use.
Car manufacturers may be able to take better advantage of the trend by offering pre-equipped vans instead of forcing people to make aftermarket changes, says Brian Moody, CEO of the car buying site Autotrader.
Mercedes recently took a step towards catering for the #vanlife community by introducing the Mercedes-Benz Metris Getaway Van, which has a pop-top for camping, a sleeping area for two and a secondary battery for extra power.
But most commercial vans “are designed like vans” with a “tight interior”, says Moody.
Many of the vans that were equipped for life on the road had much stranger beginnings than vans.
A few years ago, the couple Natalie and Abigail Rodriguez converted a 2004 Sprinter van that had previously been used as a prisoner transit car. They paid $ 6,000 for it and have invested about $ 10,000 to equip it for the road.
“It was pretty beaten up,” Abigail says. They spent considerable time “tearing out the interior and fixing the rust. There was a big hole we had to patch.”
But their investment has paid off. They’ve been on the road since Natalie, a chef, decided to quit her job, and Abigail expanded her photography business.
“At the time, I was a chef who worked 55 hours a week and did not feel fulfilled,” says Natalie. “I was tired of it. I did not have many opportunities to travel. ”
They have made it work in part because of their affordable lifestyle. They pay a few fixed costs such as insurance and phone bills, while making money from Abigail’s photography and some sponsorship related to the Instagram account where they post photos from the road.
Destinations they have visited include California, New Mexico, Montana and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
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They installed solar panels together with a battery for electricity, a refrigerator, a worktop, a fixed bed and a water tank that lasts for two weeks before it has to be refilled.
Originally from Charleston, South Carolina, they paved the way before the pandemic, but say they are now more energetic in continuing to live this lifestyle, although they are currently taking a short break for further upgrades.
“We’re just getting started,” says Abigail. “We have no plans to stop soon.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.
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