Is there anything that makes you want to quit your job more than scrolling through #vanlife on Instagram? Staring enviously at perfectly tanned couples as they lounge on top of their renovated vehicles in front of a Californian beach – the sun setting in the background and a dog frolicking on the sand. If there is, I don’t want to hear about it. Despite the fact that I can’t drive and live alone, it is one of my ultimate dreams to one day purchase a van and explore the Australian coast, never waking up to the same view and never belonging to anyone. Pure bliss.
Unfortunately, however, I have to admit that this desire is primarily based on a highly romanticised version of the lifestyle that has been perpetuated by travel influencers with particularly good photography skills. So good in fact, that they’ve sustained one of the most popular online travel trends of the past five years, with interest in van travel peaking in August 2020 – which is fair considering international travel was – and still is – restricted. But while promoting the best – and more photogenic – aspects of vanlife (the views, the tan, the freedom), many omit the less glamorous parts (the constant van repairs, the financial stress and the lack of bathing facilities). This is about to change.
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Despite its increased popularity during the pandemic, renowned social vanners such as Jinti Fell and Craig and Aimee from Kinging It, have stopped travelling. Local lockdown restrictions meant many had to stay within a few miles of their homes and even once they were lifted, adventures were then confined to the influencer’s country of residence. A big part of the van life aesthetic is breathtaking landscapes – it’s a crucial element, confirmed by vanners Emily King and Corey Smith in an interview with the New Yorker. Take that away, and the truth behind how hard living in a van truly is takes precedent.
That was the case for YouTubers Eamon and Bec, who released a vlog in June 2021 hoping to return to van life (they previously had to abandon their former van in Morocco last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic), before admitting that travelling under Canadian lockdown rules just wasn’t the same. This massively impacted the kind of van content they were able to create – a normal van vlog for them would usually feature a different scenic beach with shots of the couple swimming and doing yoga in perfect lighting. One of their latest van vlogs is littered with mechanical problems, trips to the hardware stores, tears over their beloved dog Lee who passed away, as well as the sad realisation that their roaming adventures will be delayed a little longer. It’s a far cry from their usual lighthearted and refined videos.
So will that picture-perfect one-man (and woman) nomad life eventually return? Of course. But in the meantime, avid #vanlife followers such as myself have had to accept that there’s more to the lifestyle than just surfing all day and reading all night. It’s takes a lot of work to organise your whole life within the confines of a small space, to plan where to go, and then to deal with the upkeep and maintenance that such a vehicle requires (ie. a lot). Also lifting the curtain are vanners such as Sian Anna Lewis and Gabe and Pau who used the pandemic to document the renovations of their vans, while The Other Side uploaded a video in 2021 sharing their top 10 reasons why van life sucks. As Eamon has said multiple times, “If you don’t like fixing things, then don’t get into van life”. Never have truer words been spoken, and now is the time for the truth.
The pristine illusion of van life has been shattered, but this could be a good thing. The trend is evolving to provide a more nuanced representation which could open up doors for a different kind of narrative that’s still dreamy, but now also relatable. It might also help me (and others) to think twice before spending all of their life savings on a broken-down van. I’m not a dab-hand at DIY and am still no closer to passing my driving test than I was at four-years-old, so being confronted with these realities was important for me (and my bank account).
As more and more travel influencers start revving up the campers again, brands need to be prepared for the technical and emotional setbacks that are likely to occur as these vloggers and bloggers navigate their way through unfamiliar terrain. From here on out, van life is all about being open with these struggles, and celebrating the moments that bring peace. The road less travelled is never easy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be worth it.
By Lucinda Diamond, food and travel editor of CORQ.