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Tuesday, April 16, 2024


Another BS travel blog phenomenon?

“#Vanlife” turns up over five million results on Instagram, the majority of which are posed, pleasantly tan, often filtered, classicly athletic young people poking legs out of open van doors. A subgenre of travel blogging, van life posts represent a growing trend of people living out of their vehicles by choice for anywhere between a few days to a few years. The “van life” movement has drawn in quite a few people and given rise to something of a community, making vans a staple at every national park campsite and BLM back road.

The draw is different for different people. For a lot of folks, it’s an affordable way to travel and be outside, allowing them to ditch rent and devote themselves to a romantic, very American idea of freedom upgraded for the 21st century. It also reflects the rising rents, increasing job turnover and the drive to get out of the isolated bubble of modern life. And of course, there’s an eco-conscious aspect to it — for many, the small carbon footprint is a major draw.

There’s something seductive about the whole thing. The aesthetic beauty of van life — of living small, traveling between beautiful places and not having a job — is ripe for the kind of “travel blog” category of internet content. It supports a lifestyle that allows every post to be from a new, dramatically beautiful place, creating the illusion that every day of the blogger’s life happens in an exciting new venue. It’s the kind of internet fakery that makes me simultaneously mad, sad and jealous, but it only gets under my skin because I’m a little seduced.

The van life aspect of travel blogging really bugs me, though. I know a lot of people who live out of vans either part or full time so they can do more climbing, skiing, rafting or whatever else they’re into. But I also know a couple people who live out of their cars or vans because they have to. It’s a big psychological difference. While it can be incredibly fun, living out of a car or van is hard work. There’s a lot of stuff that’s easy to take for granted when you live in a house: the ability to cook food when it’s raining, for example, or not getting woken up by a flashlight in your face at 3 a.m.

If it’s a choice, it can be fun. Last summer, I lived out of my family car for a few weeks road-tripping and climbing in Canada. There was a night on a back road in Squamish when a friend and I were huddled under a tree in the rain, trying to get our stove to light and laughing harder than I can remember.

But there was a night a few days later when I was woken up in my dirty, trashed car by a lady deeply furious I had parked in front of her neighborhood park. At the time it irked me — what did it matter to her if some 18-year-old kid slept in their car in front of a park? But I was a few hours from my house and days away from starting college, and my parents had enough money to rent a hotel for a night if I needed to. I think it would have felt really different if that wasn’t my situation.

Adapting road tripping and van camping into a lifestyle is an awesome way of breaking out of the monotony and loneliness that’s so common these days. In the age of the so-called “digital nomad,” I think it’s ridiculous not to take advantage of technology and changing culture. But I also think that the Instagram brand of van life comes from a place of selling lifestyle for personal gain.

It’s worth questioning what van life says about rent and stability in modern America. It’s also worth questioning why so many of the people who are able to sustain this lifestyle, which rests heavily on the kindness of strangers and skirting the law, are white.

Van life is cool, undoubtedly. If it appeals to you, go do it — it’s pretty much my entire plan after I graduate. But it’s way too interesting and complicated to sell out to Instagram models and advertising.  

Written by: Anna Kristina Moseidjord — akmoseid@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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