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Vandwelling: How to Live in a Van, Down by the River or Otherwise

Ever wondered what it's like to live in a van? Learn why a surprising number of people are now choosing vandwelling over home ownership.

Kate Folk

Kate Folk is a writer for Movoto. She's from Iowa and now lives in San Francisco. She also writes fiction.

11 articles, 1 comments

Drop the term “Vandwelling” around the Movoto Real Estate office, and you’ll inevitably hear references to Matt Foley, Chris Farley’s classic Saturday Night Live character. Foley is a motivational speaker–the worst motivational speaker ever–who uses his own experience as a cautionary tale. Keep going on the path you’re on, he warns, and you too might find yourself “living in a van down by the river.”

Courtesy of Bob Wells

Despite the mainstream perception of living in a van as a tragic last resort, there is a thriving subculture of people who actually embrace living in vans, be they parked by a river or on city side streets. Some are forced into it by financial necessity, while others choose the lifestyle for its freedom and affordability.

They call themselves “vandwellers,” though the term applies to living not only in vans, but in any movable home, including RVs, trailers hitched to trucks, and cars. Read on for an in-depth look at the life of a vandweller.

Origins of a Vanbassador

Bob Wells is one of the vandwelling subculture’s most prominent devotees. He has two sites: cheaprvliving.com and a newer site, cheapgreenrvliving.com. He also just released an ebook, “How to Live in a Car, Van or RV–And Get Out of Debt, Travel and Find True Freedom.” The book provides a wealth of information on the logistics and philosophy of vandwelling and can be purchased for $3 on Amazon.

Courtesy of Bob Wells

Wells entered the vandwelling movement in 1995, while he was going through a divorce. He bought a box van (think Uhaul) for $1500, and made the 8 by 12 space his new home. Though he now can’t imagine living any other way, the initial transition was difficult for Wells.

“I was going through a divorce so it was already emotionally traumatic,” Wells said. “I cried myself to sleep the first night. I didn’t know how to go to the bathroom, how to cook.”

The hardest part, Wells said, was waking up and not knowing where he was. After a few months, though, the initial discomfort subsided, and Wells began to embrace his new lifestyle.

“Every month when rent used to be due and I wasn’t paying it–that, I loved most of all. I overcame all the problems and fell in love with it.”

Vandweller for Life

After living in the box van for six years, Wells decided to move in with a woman he was dating. He didn’t think that returning to a “real” house would be a problem.

“I thought, everyone lives in homes, that’s the American way. I thought ‘this won’t be a sacrifice.’”

But Wells found that he hated living in the house, and all the burdens that entailed. When it snowed, he had to shovel the driveway. In the summer, he had to mow the lawn. He had to worry about utility bills, fixing toilets, unclogging drains.

“I despised every second of it,” Wells said. “She understood that I couldn’t live in a house and she couldn’t live in a van, so we parted ways.”

Next, Wells bought a four wheel drive pickup with a 6×7 foot camper, which is where he lives currently. With the truck, he can go wherever he wants to, no matter how remote.

Courtesy of Bob Wells

“I never plan to live in a house again,” Wells said. “I don’t want to live any other way than this way.”

A Simpler Life

The biggest challenge to becoming a vandweller involves getting rid of stuff. Wells believes that the average American’s dependence on material possessions is a form of mental illness. However, he realizes that the economy depends on people continuing to buy things.

Courtesy of Bob Wells

“Everyone should live this way, but if everyone lived this way I couldn’t. Who would grow the food? Who would make my laptop? If we all became emotionally healthy and didn’t depend on our possessions for our identity, the economy would collapse.”

Still, there is much to be learned from the forced simplicity of vandwelling. The movement is strongly aligned with a sense of ecological responsibility, and not just because it requires a rejection of the culture of consumption. Wells, for one, lives completely off the grid.

“Living in a van is the single most green way you could possibly live,” Wells said. He claims that he uses less water in a week than the average American uses in one day just by flushing their toilet. The “green” side of vandwelling is the focus of Wells’ second site.

Unexpected Communities

Vandwellers are stereotypically thought of as hermits, unable to function in society. Ironically, Wells said he’s made more intimate and deep friendships while vandwelling than he has in his entire life.

“Living in a city is completely alienating for most people,” he said. “You don’t meet a lot of people out here but when you meet them, you’ll connect, deeply and intimately. The hermits live in houses now.”

Courtesy of Bob Wells (pictured on right)

Wells, who grew up in Alaska and has always enjoyed camping, now splits his time between summers in the Sierra National Forest, and winters in the desert. Wells spends much of his winters in the desert town of Quartzsite, Arizona. While the town has just 3,400 year round citizens, in the winter, it becomes an RV campground, home to 1.5 million seasonal residents.

Two years ago, Wells started the “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous,” a gathering of vandwellers and other self-described nomads. The first year boasted 45 participants; the second year, 90. Wells is excited for the 2013 RTR, scheduled for January 8-22. He looks forward to the event as a way to connect with other vandwellers with whom he’s only corresponded via forums like the Vandwelling Yahoo Group.

Fighting Misconceptions

So what’s the biggest misconception people have about vandwellers?

“That we’re all crazies,” Wells said. “Honestly there are crazies who live in their cars and vans. I meet them. Let’s face it, they live there because they can’t live in society. But a lot of us, and many more of us every day, are doing it by choice. We’re just good average American citizens who are tired of the rat race.”

Courtesy of Bob Wells

In a nation still gripped by the effects of the housing crisis and recession, more and more people are defying negative preconceptions and considering vandwelling as an alternative to scraping together mortgage payments. Jesse, who preferred his last name not be used, is currently making the transition into the vandwelling lifestyle.

“When half to two-thirds of a person’s income is eaten up by a roof over the head, there’s something wrong,” Jesse said.

Though he’s convinced it’s the right decision for him at this point in this life, Jesse does have apprehensions about becoming a vandweller.

“My biggest fear is losing that freedom by being told I can’t do this, be here, sleep there . . . and of course my health.”

Sign prohibiting vandwelling in San Francisco's Sunset District

As for dealing with people’s preconceived notions?

“Not my problem,” Jesse said. “If they notice me, and ask, I’ll explain. Otherwise, I’ll pretty much confine myself to hanging with the existing vandwellers when I’m not somewhere in seclusion.”

Vandwelling’s Future

Wells, who is 57, believes vandwelling will be increasingly embraced by younger generations. He thinks that the traditional American dream of homeownership will soon be a thing of the past. In an increasingly mobile society, many people growing up today might never see the need to buy a house.

Courtesy of Bob Wells

For a surprisingly diverse segment of the US population, vandwelling could present the perfect housing solution. And with the internet making it possible for many people to work remotely, the vandwelling movement has enormous growth potential.

“I’m always astounded by how many young people are breaking out of the mold and living in a van,” Wells said.



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posted on: September 13, 2012
11,247 views, 18 comments

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18 Comments

  1. Pat

    As soon as I can, I plan to live in a Sprinter (cargo van) converted to my living standards. Do away with my mortgage and never mow another blade of grass. My back yard will be Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Rocky Mtns.

    • Tim Timothy in response to Pat

      Hello Pat,
      Just caught a post of yours relative to a “Sprinter” conversion.
      That’s exactly MY plan. I’ve owned a number of vans w/ pros and cons of each. I’ve looked back at all that I’ve owned and the Westphalia wins, hands down. My plan is to build a Sprinter very much like the old Westphalias.
      What part of the country are you in?
      Perhaps we can compare note on our endeavors?
      Let me know what you think
      Tim Timothy
      timcando222@yahoo.com
      Have Fun
      Tim

  2. Johnnomads

    I’ve lived the mobile lifestyle by choice since 1984, after i sold my last house. I worked for a city transit agency, and lived nomadicly within a geographical area. Now semi retired in my current van, a Chevy Express named Casper, i blog and help others who are new to the lifestyle, on Bob’s Cheaprvliving forum and the Yahoo Vandwelling group.

  3. Twokniveskatie

    I am so in love with vandwelling. I have been part-timing it for several years, but even when I am at my home base on a farm in PA, I still sleep in it and cook in it. It’s HOME. My closest friends are vandwellers, thanks to meeting up with them and camping together all around the country. We are a tight-knit community, a tribe.

  4. Van Trekker (Brad)

    Cool posting! Yep, I love living in a van. At the moment I’m staying in a fancy hotel in Kansas City and HATE it. While sleeping I keep reaching up to turn on the roof vent. This hotel room doesn’t feel like home. There’s no place like home – even if it has four wheels.

  5. Countrywriter7

    This is something I want to do. I bought Bob’s book. It is fantastic. He tells you in easy to understand language how to go about making the transition, along with the pros/cons. I recommend everyone read it if they are considering this lifestyle.

  6. Sky

    I enjoyed your article and pictures. I have a picture of me parked in front of one of the signs the city of Oceano Ca put up to keep van dwellers and such off the street. I have slept in front of that sign for approx on and off 6 months without one problem. I’ve lived like this since I was a young girl (former Circus Clown) and wouldn’t do anything any different.

  7. DrBill

    I lived in a van for two years and did love it for the comfort. I have graduated to a ‘Bangka’. The Bangka is a dual outrigger canoe. (Google Bangka) I had mine built in the Philipine Islands for $2500 complete with engine.
    I use the engine for short trips and I use Polynesian type sails for the longer ones. I have every cove and inlet as my camping spot, currently in Hawai’i, with almost nobody rousting me to run me off.
    I run an Amateur Radio Station from the boat and show the occasional movie in remote villages for extra cash though its not much money most times it keeps me in beer.
    I did have a runin with a U.S. Navy Carrier Group one time, they went shootin’ past me and it was a sight to behold.

    Van living has taught me a lot
    but boat living is Mo Bettah!

  8. Romeo Whiskey

    Good Stuff here. Been doing it for two years, and thought by this time I would have wanted to go back—Heck no—this is the life. I’m 57 Yrs old,– and I did sell everything and chose this path. I’m glad to find out that I’m not what I thought everybody would think of me—a wierdo. No more morgage to the banking institutions–I have my sanity—how about you?

  9. rudi

    cool article! I lived in a van in malibu. Till they beat my ass. thanks kate.

  10. Curtis

    There is a whole culture of us living in vans. We are the expediters that drive for such companies as FedEx and Landstar. We live in our vans and wait for a dispatch call to pick up freight in one spot and deliver it somewhere else. We cover the US and Canada. Some of us have homes that we see once every 2-3 weeks, other get home once every 2-3 months and then the rest of us have no home but just keep traveling. This allows us a paycheck and travel while living off the grid. It’s been going on for 30 years. Good, bad, or indifferent, it’s a life we choose.

  11. walt

    I loved your article on van living! I am retired Navy and also on SS. am a disabled vet as well. I could live easily out there on my pensions but am married and have a house (mortgage_) and my wife wouldn’t go for it. LOL!
    But I can only dream of that lifestyle. we do camp a lot in our little 17 footer. Best wishes. And Merry Christmas.PS: I drove a truck on long haul for 18 years-so I am used to shower and meals in a truck stop. But I love my homecooked meals better! Still love the travel howerer.

  12. Brian

    Kate great job …. I am a future van dweller and enjoy reading posts like yours. Thanks for taking the time. Brian

  13. China Mike

    When you see those signs about “living in vehicles prohibited” I just want to go and burn down an entire neighborhood of houses and say “OK! Now where you gonna go?” Laws that prohibit people from sleeping in, living in their own private property, i.e. their vehicle is not only against the law but against civil liberties on the whole. Again, this country is still becoming more and more about “The Haves” and persecuting “The Have (little) Nots”. Thank GOD ALMIGHTY I chose to leave this god forsaken hell hole of a nation and moved permanently to ASIA, where I can be me, and FREE.

  14. Romana

    Vandwelling isn’t just confined to the United States. Lots of people do it all around the world. In Australia there’s a big community of ‘Grey Nomads’ who travel around in vans and RVs for years at at time.
    I’ve written a guide on it which you can download at vandwellers.org

  15. Melony Candea

    My partner and I have travelled Europe and lived in a VW Westfalia (’95 T4) for over a year. We’re both digital nomads (he’s a film director, I’m an online writer/SMO) and we love our home.

    Pluses: travel, people, cultures we’d never have met if we had been ‘static,’ not to mention our work hasn’t suffered at all.

    Everyone who judges/thinks us ‘homeless’ or ‘crazy’ forgets how unhappy it makes you to struggle to pay bills monthly. The panic and the stress, the difficulties in making ends meet- always dreaming of travel, never doing it.

    It’s not for everyone, of course. But if you can, plan and do- if you don’t want to, stop judging. We each have our journeys, some of us are just a bit more mobile than others. Grin.

    Mel

  16. outlander

    great article on freedom of life. Vandwellers articles have more futuristic temptation to boldly go where no man has gone before and survive the fears of no-mans lands to live a life time of two hundred years.

  17. Warner Athey

    I have traveled quite a bit in my TransVan. We have also traveled by boat. I can see a lot of similarities.
    I think people to tend to treat you better when you are traveling by boat. Especially if it is a big boat.
    Most marinas have up a sign, fuel, ice, bait. When you pull into the marina someone will usually come
    out and ask if you need fuel. If you say, no we just need some ice. That’s fine. You buy a bag of Ice and
    some fish hooks and they are happy to let you use their showers. Some marinas sell groceries, some don’t.
    We have had marinas offer to lend us cars to do to the grocery store.
    When you are traveling by van sometimes people want to hassle you. It is not like a boat where you drop
    the anchor and expect to be left alone. Some times police like to bang on the sides of your van and wake
    you up so they can ask what you are doing there or they want to see your drivers license. I find that a good
    place to park is the rest areas of the interstate. Even is it says no overnight parking at 1AM that’s morning.
    You will gone before nightfall. Somehow I get the idea that some people don’t like it that you have the freedom to come and go as you please with out having to ask them, or pay them for that matter.

 

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