Living or traveling in a van has exploded across Instagram. #vanlife is rolling up to a million posts, and the popular Instagram account, @vanlifediaries, has more followers than the Grand Canyon National Park, Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings, and Modern Family.
But is it really all sunsets out the back doors and little mint VW vans?
“Vanlife is very romanticized,” said Alexandra Ulmke who is currently five months into traveling Alaska, Canada, and the Western U.S. in her 2000 Eurovan. “I thought I was going to be camping in front of glaciers every night for free. That didn’t happen.”
While there are certainly stunning views and picture-perfect campsites along the way, long-term travel in a van or a car is not as glamorous as the Internet might have you believe.
“I knew that it wasn’t all going to be sunshine and rainbows and Free People ads, but I think that catches people off guard a bit,” said Erin Sullivan, a freelance writer and photographer who slept in the back of in her Honda CR-V while traveling the U.S. for seven weeks. “We don’t talk as much about the struggle that inherently comes with long term travel.”
Traveling in a van is definitely not smooth or glamorous according to Kirsten Bor, the blogger behind Barefoot Theory. Bor spent three months traveling around New Zealand before returning home and building a van of her own.
Stretches of loneliness, the tedium of setting up and taking down camp alone, and the stress of finding a new place to call home each night are often left out of the picture.
The loneliness can get overwhelming. After traveling through desolate areas of Alaska for months, Ulmke was struggling. She had traveled solo in a car in New Zealand, but nearly every campsite had been full of eager new friends.
The Alaskan wilderness was less friendly.
“I knew I wanted to go north into uncharted territories where you can go and be really alone with yourself,” said Ulmke. “I was looking for that space and that solitude to really listen to what I wanted to do with my life.”
Five months in, Ulmke was battling the loneliness and decided enough was enough. Now her family’s German shepherd Talkeetna (Tally for short) rides shotgun and makes it easier to start up conversations with people along their travels.
But the loneliness can also be a much needed respite. Kate Jackson quit her finance job in New York and took off in her Subaru to get away from the frantic city and to find a new home.
“I stayed in places by myself and I loved it,” said Jackson. “It was like magic when I was in a place alone.”
From National Parks to parking lots to hidden spots along Bureau of Land Management roads, home is where you park it or pitch your tent according to these ladies.
“I really admire women who can go to the middle of nowhere by themselves and be totally fine,” said Sullivan, “but I cannot. I just can’t sleep if I do that because I’m too anxious and nervous about all of these things that I make up in my head that probably in a million years would never happen, but I just have to listen to that.”
Despite constantly being asked if they felt safe traveling and camping alone, Jackson, Bor, and Ulkme didn’t seem stressed about it. While they all carried a combination of bear spray, a knife, or a GPS to send short check in messages to family when out of cell phone range, their gut instincts are what really made them feel safe.
“Intuition, especially as women, needs to be trusted. We need to listen to ourselves,” said Sullivan. “If something doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it. If a place doesn’t feel right, I don’t stay there. If a person doesn’t feel right, I stop talking to them.”
Not one of them encountered a dangerous or threatening situation, and being around other people, even strangers, could make a difference. Sleeping in a car or a van also added extra peace of mind, although Jackson was quite happy with her tent.
Vanlife is a break from the rush, from the soul-sucking jobs, from the physical stuff.
“When you are so self contained in there it makes your life really easy,” said Bor, “but the more stuff you have the more digging you have to do.”
While packing can be a nightmare and daily life can feel an awful lot like an exercise in space management, solo travel removes the clutter and creates space to slow down and soul search.
“I would never in my life trade vanlife for anything else,” said Ulmke. “The sense of freedom and independence, knowing that you don’t need stuff, that it all is just stuff, and living with less is one of the most beautiful things that this kind of life will give you.”
Jackson, Sullivan, and Ulmke all hit the road looking for what was next. Jackson quit her job and was looking for a new home, Sullivan was suddenly out of a job and reeling, and Ulmke set out on a quest to coax answers out of the universe.
“I was just rushing through my whole life.” said Ulmke. “You get such a stronger sense of time when you are in the van. You feel every day so much stronger because you don’t sleepwalk through it. You are so in touch with your surroundings and your home.”
But more than the adventure or the open road or the tear-inducing sunrise, it was the hardships and the frustration that made their mark.
“This trip changed my life” said Jackson. “I’ve always thought of myself as this strong, independent woman, but there were times where I felt like it was a facade that I was putting forth or that it wasn’t my truth.”
By the end of the trip Jackson felt truly independent and confident in way that she hadn’t back in New York, and Bor’s solo van travel in New Zealand taught her to be decisive and take charge. It also nudged her to give up her apartment and start living and working in her new 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter full time back in the States.
“The best part about traveling in a van alone is these moments where you look around and you’re like ‘this is my life and I manifested this and no one helped me pick this out,’” said Ulmke.
Is #vanlife really Instagram-perfect? No, and it’s even better than it looks because it’s not.
“Aside from the fact that there are all kinds of hardships that living out of your car for months on end produces,” said Jackson, “I wouldn’t change it for the world and I can’t wait to do it again.”
Mandy Ferreira is passionate about health, fitness, and the outdoors. She has written about natural living for Yoga Journal and Rodale’s Organic Life.
Photos are courtesy of Kristen Bor‘s Instagram.