Full Time Van Life Is Not Cool. It’s Homelessness and Desperation.

Even the nomadic influencers who started the myth are starting to come clean. Van life for most people is housing of last resort, and it’s not “sustainable” either.

There’s a certain chic vibe that has taken hold around living and traveling in a van. I read an article this morning by one of those van life “influencers,” who as part of their remote gig work, have helped create the illusion of sleeping, cooking, pooping and having sex in a small metal box on wheels.

After three years, Raychel Reimer admits that living in a van with her boyfriend makes the simplest tasks “exhausting.” And may I point out, she’s not enduring life in what most people would call a “van.” She’s living in a converted ambulance. The total interior volume of the Chevy Express Cargo Van, for example, is approximately 239.7 cubic feet. A Class III ambulance has about 675.84 cubic feet. It’s a palace compared to what most people would call a “van.”

living in a van

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Unhappy Campers

Vans with mysterious occupants are suddenly everywhere. Last week, a woman who lives in my neighborhood in Portland, Maine, posted about a man who has been living in his van in front of her house for months. She’s starting to become irritated, because she says she pays thousands in property taxes, and he pays nothing. “What should I do?” she asks. “He even helped me start my car.”

What do you think she should do, if anything? I doubt he’s publishing any cheery blogs about finding a place to dump out his commode every couple of days. I bet he’s pretty miserable.

I’ve personally known people forced to live in their vehicle by high rents, including a good friend who was working as a firefighter who lived in his compact car for more than a year. It’s not as uncommon as you might think.

Several articles have suggested that the number of people living in their vehicles is rising nationally. A 2021 article from The Conversation mentioned that in San Francisco, about 35% of unsheltered homeless people live in vehicles. Another article suggests that more than 14,000 people live in their vehicles in LA County, California. We don’t have data for other urban areas, but anecdotal evidence says the vehicle-housed are growing.

The Van Living Fantasy Doesn’t Translate

One of the reasons we have such restrictions on tiny homes and manufactured homes in the U.S. is that people associate “rolling” homes with homelessness and low income living. But boutique blogs and books about the joys of van life don’t seem to be reaching public officials. 

They’re not causing cities to rethink their sidewalk parking codes, nor increase the availability of “free” overnight parking. Where you used to be able to live in an RV on your own property up to two weeks per year, now it’s down to a week or less. Nobody wants the transient.

It’s the same reason that finding places to “boondock” outside of a campground with an RV is becoming almost impossible.

I’ve noticed, for example, that many Wal-Marts on the East Coast used to allow RVs to stay overnight, but have added new restrictions.

In my experience, when you do “camp out” in these free locations, it’s common to be harassed by locals. I spent a harrowing evening in an RV in South Carolina a couple of years ago, with a half dozen pickup trucks circling our small group of RVs into the wee hours with engines revving and high beams flashing.

What I learned, after several years of RV living and travel, is that lots of the stories about being wild and free on the road are BS. We’ve only recently learned that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas contributed his own load of bull to that mythos. While he claimed to enjoy RVs and Walmarts, he was also being whisked away on luxury vacations by a billionaire donor.

What I’m saying is, trying to live a nomadic lifestyle in the United States depends largely (still) on your financial stability. Is it more affordable? Generally yes. But it’s fraught with hidden costs and personal sacrifices. The people living in Class A motorhomes in a well maintained community in St. Augustine have many degrees less miserable than the ones living in barely converted vans in Los Angeles.

Green Living, But With Big Caveats

What about the ecological impacts? Is nomadic living in a tiny house, van, or camper “greener” than operating and maintaining a full-sized home? The simple answer is yes, if you make the call based simply on the amount of space that needs to be conditioned. But that’s a best-use scenario in terms of ecological footprint.

A net-zero tiny house, for instance, with a heat pump and solar panels installed can operate for almost nothing. My coverage of tiny home ownership over the years, however, has found that many young people opt for tiny living specifically so that they can divert their resources to globetrotting. Their travel footprint quickly exceeds the pollution they would have avoided by staying put.

Let’s compare the CO2 footprint of heating and cooling a modest 1,500 square-foot home in New York with electricity.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average U.S. residential utility customer uses approximately 10,399 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, of which about 51% is used for heating and cooling. 

This would be approximately 5303 kWh for heating and cooling. The U.S. EPA estimates that for each kWh of electricity used, about 0.92 lbs of CO2 are emitted. So, the CO2 emissions from heating and cooling would be approximately 4,879 lbs per year.

The fuel efficiency of a Chevy Express Van can vary, but let's assume it gets about 15 miles per gallon (mpg). If you’re using it like a tourist versus a homeless person, driving 6,000 miles would require about 400 gallons of gasoline. The U.S. EPA estimates that burning one gallon of gasoline produces about 19.6 lbs of CO2. So, the CO2 emissions from driving the van would be approximately 7,840 lbs per year.

In other words, yeah, the van would create more pollution than a house, by a lot.

Let’s stop romanticizing a lifestyle built around living in a vehicle. It distorts the real societal issues forcing people out of safe and comfortable housing. Even the tiny fraction of “influencers” who are choosing this lifestyle find it wanting, and they have enough resources to afford cooling and other comforts.

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