The call of the open road and cross-country adventuring are more attractive when you have a place to sleep, a place to cook, a place for all your gear, even a place for your pups, right there in the back seat. And more attractive still when it's in a vehicle that's easy to drive and easy to park anywhere (even stealthily on city streets), that doesn't require towing, and that doesn't require a trip to the DMV for a special license.
There's a reason why I've been completely and all-consumingly obsessed with the new generation of camper vans—and #vanlife dreaming. Whether part-time or full-time, both are made more accessible and more aspirational by these nine Instagram accounts that celebrate all the newest, swooniest camper van designs (that you can drive with a basic commercial driver's license or CDL, just like a car).
Like many kids born in the '70s and '80s, when I picture idyllic beach and surf scenes or woodsy adventures I always see some sort of VW bus or Westfalia camper taking center stage. I don't know why, but the idea of a pop-up camper or Sportmobile never really caught my imagination, but this new generation of camper vans, with interiors built out just like tiny homes but inconspicuously tucked into typical utility vans—like the Mercedes Sprinter, the Dodge Ram Promaster, and the Ford Transit—certainly has. My head is on a swivel as I drive around, and I seem to be pointing out vans to my husband every few minutes (probably to his chagrin and delight, in equal parts). They seem to be everywhere. Yesterday, I counted three on my street alone, and more than a dozen in my neighborhood.
Whether or not that's a case of frequency illusion, they are now also dominating both my Instagram feed and my Pinterest account while we gather the financial and DIY wherewithal to invest in our own. (Primarily so that we can escape the Texas heat each summer and take our dogs back to New England with us without having to check them as cargo, which we would never do unless it was an emergency or we were moving abroad). But perhaps more importantly, so that we can venture out on more Great American Road Trips to see more of our state and national parks, maybe even drive into Mexico or Canada, while these pristine, wild, wide-open conservation spaces are still available to us all.
To DIY or go pro?
If you don't feel confidently handy enough to tackle a DIY build, or if like us the idea of doing the electrical, plumbing, and ventilation scares you, companies like Vanlife Customs in Colorado and Off Grid Adventure Vans in Maryland offer some of the more popular custom-built, luxury-end camper vans starting at around $65,000. But many of these prolific van-venturing Instagrammers do thoroughly document their DIY or "self-converted" build processes (costing about half that), breaking down the technical aspects and design choices in seriously approachable ways. Try one out before making the investment through a crop of new rental services like Outdoorsy, Native Campervans, Book It RV, GoCamp Rentals, and Road Trip Campervans, all of which allow you to test the waters for a weekend, for a week, or even just for a tailgate. You can even book an all-inclusive adventure tour and van-life experience through Le Grand Nomads.
Where to park
By overwhelming majority, van-lifers around the world seem to swear by the iOverlander app, which is crowd-sourced. There's also a new subscription-based app called Harvest Hosts that will connect you with cool, one-of-a-kind experiences and free places to park at rural businesses like farms, wineries, breweries, and museums. I found all of these resources just by following these nine-plus #VanLife accounts on Instagram and YouTube over the last year—even found resale listings for at least five secondhand, road-tested vans so far. (This one and this one are still available.)
One thing has become abundantly clear to me, as well: Whether you rent or you buy, there's "so much more room for activities" when home is where you park it. If wanderlust is more than just a welcome change of pace, or something you also try to max out to the fullest whenever you actually get to use those two weeks paid vacation, here are nine daydream-inspiring accounts to get you started on the journey to solving that eleutheromania, wherever you may roam:
Sara, Alex, Nugget + Bambi at @40HoursofFreedom
Not gonna lie, this Instagram account first caught my eye and caused me to hit the Follow button because of their two adorable Italian Greyhounds, Nugget and Bambi (our two whippets are the main reason we're contemplating van life for ourselves). But I also stayed because of their professionally curated and consistent color palette. These social media professionals are living and working full-time in their second "self-converted build" (a.k.a. DIY tiny home in a van in vanlife-speak), and the level of thought and ergonomics put into their design is nothing short of jaw-dropping. While they'll be the first to point out that their van is a luxury-level experience, they also break down their build costs ($56K) in fine detail on their YouTube channel—pointing out that it took them nine to 10 weeks of eight-hour days, full time DIY, so that only includes materials and not labor. The most useful and intriguing features of their van design center around how they truly road-tested and seemingly perfected the electrical, solar, lighting, plumbing, and living space layouts. The kitchen prep area and full shower/bathroom are particularly swoon-worthy, too.
Eamon and Bec at @Eh.Mon and @RebeccaMaroney
These two Canadian entrepreneurs had previous experience living in a van in New Zealand, after falling in love while managing a coffee shop together in Australia. So when they found the Toronto rents and travel expenses too high to scale their chai tea company, Chai Wala Chai, which they were also inspired to launch after backpacking around India together, there was a simple answer: Live full-time in a converted Sprinter van while they expanded the business into new markets. The accidentally-viral couple are approachable and adorable, making it obvious why they've gained such a following on Instagram and YouTube—where they frequently collaborate on "real talk" insider videos with other van adventurers, giving honest yet actionable and uplifting advice. Their "tiny condo-level" van is pretty inspirational, too.
Liz Bryant at @WildByTheMile
One of the more visible single van-lifers, Bryant is also a former NBC News reporter in San Diego who has now gone full-time freelance reporter and video producer from her roaming home. Both her Instagram and YouTube channel are empowering for any woman considering van life alone, and her beach-inspired Sprinter van interior is absolutely aspirational. Broken out in detail on her video tour, some luxurious design highlights Bryant incorporated include a quartz countertop, a marble subway tile backsplash, a "rescued" olive wood and resin table from San Diego Urban Timber, shelving and storage organization from the Container Store, and Turkish towels—which, she says, are actually super practical for #VanLife because they take up little space and dry quickly.
Cam, Emma + Flynn at @6ReasonsWhy_TravelBlog
Particularly for anyone who has doubts about how van life could possibly work for a young family, this family of three documents their adventures living full-time with their newborn, Flynn, in their self-converted Sprinter camper van in Australia. They also maintain a Vlog on YouTube, which seems to be updated even more regularly—but catching sweet, candid moments like bathing the baby in the van sink (as well as posts about the reality of being in a van with a baby with a stomach bug), is a must for anyone contemplating nomadic adventures with little ones in tow. They also address safety concerns, like where the newborn sleeps and where they install the carseat when the van is in motion.
Trent, Allie + Frank at @TrentAndAllie
Fitting more of a traditional van-life demographic, Trent and Allie are mountain bikers living full-time and sharing the realities in their second self-converted van build (a regular-gas Dodge Promaster called Pamela Vanderson) with their Blue Heeler, Frank. Not only are they entertaining and seemingly unassuming people, but their van is also refreshingly colorful (especially all the painted millwork) and designed to the hilt for active, outdoorsy living—including a dirty laundry chute and a thermostat, things most people would take for granted but that they're sure to quickly point out for anyone considering van travel. If you're drawn to van life because of a love for outdoor adventures like hiking, surfing, and mountain biking, Trent and Allie's "garage" and three-part water filtration system are things you need to copy in detail.
Bryce, Paul, Finn + Arlo at @LaducB
These animal rescue ambassadors and Camping with Dogs trailblazers are the poster example of weekend van life champions—utilizing a self-converted Sprinter camper van to fully answer the call of the mountains. Bryce and Paul recently lost their first dog, Tonto, then rescued Arlo from a shelter to come and enjoy all the joys and love he left behind with them. This is the account to follow if spending more quality time outdoors with your pups and living your best life together is your #1 motivation for considering van travel—especially if you've ever loved and lost a truly remarkable adventure buddy.
Max, Lee + Occy at @MaxAndLee_
These truly nomadic van life adventurers have criss-crossed the Americas, traveling from Canada down into Central and South America in their self-converted van with their Aussie, Occy. If traveling overland internationally is one of your goals, this account is a must-follow. Max and Lee regularly post about real-world-problem topics like safety concerns driving into Mexico and Guatemala, how to travel internationally with your dog (including veterinary emergencies), confessions like how to have a sex life living in a van, and the all-important downsides of day-to-day van life—including the lack of personal space or toilet and shower (especially when sick), the inability to wash your hair daily, the sustainable sadness of going without recycling and compost, when to splurge on a hotel room, and how to handle the anxiety of leaving your van unsupervised.
Forrest Stevens at @ForrestTheFilmmaker
While he doesn't currently live in a van himself, Stevens spent the last year producing a 40-minute documentary on YouTube called "The Reality of #VanLife," which was released last week. It's a fun, informative, well-researched, and often tongue-in-cheek look at the resurgence of van living and adventuring culture—from a millennial who grew up vacationing in a van with his parents and then chose the van life, twice, as an adult before Instagram became a phenomenon. From social media superstars to traditional nomads, Stevens presents a wide spectrum of input ranging from the inherent isolation, lack of conveniences and comforts, and clutter (or "living amongst your own junk most of the time") to the backlash, negativity, and trolls brought out by those who chronicle their adventures online and gain huge followings. Also, underscoring the fact that many people who choose to live in a van full-time only do so for a year or so, many of the people featured in the film have since changed their lifestyles to be more stationary—or are now limiting their van adventures to the weekends—such as @TheLifeofChance, @AdventureDorks, @DylanMagaster, and @MollyJWilder.
Savana and Wesley at @Our_LandYacht
An illustrator/designer and a renewable energy engineer, Savana and Wes are an engaged couple living and selling solar panels for tiny home living full-time from their converted van—all while building their business and planning their wedding next year. For the first six years of her life, Savana grew up living on a sailboat with her family and is more accustomed to out-of-the-box small-spaces like their life in the van than any traditional lifestyle. Van life "reminds me of dropping anchor on the sailboat in different coves and beaches, it's how we decided on the name Our Land Yacht because it can take us anywhere we want to go on land," she writes on their website, Tiny Watts Solar, where they blog regularly about their van life experiences and the solar installation projects they do for other extreme small space living clients. Wes's actual given last name is Watts, something he attributes to guiding him into an environmentally friendly lifestyle and industry while growing up in Santa Cruz, California. They shared the van with their pet hedgehog, Hermit, whose adventures they chronicled until he sadly passed away from cancer earlier this year.
For more camper van inspiration, follow the hashtags #VanLife, #SprinterCamperVans, and—my personal favorite—#DogsofVanLife to be inspired by van life adventurers literally around the world. Stay tuned here, as well, since I'll be reporting back with all the best of the new, the sage, and the veteran wisdom about "living tiny" at the National Tiny House Jamboree in Austin this coming weekend.
If you have any burning questions about van life or living tiny in general, please leave them in the comments below and we'll do our best to get them answered for you by the experts at the conference!