“It was scary, especially as a woman by myself,” Reyes-Acosta says. “But that’s the moral dilemma we’re all facing right now: Do we travel to find someplace more permanent, or do we stay put where we are and hope for the best?”
Reyes-Acosta, 35, is part of the van life community, a rapidly growing segment of the American population that has sold or stored its belongings and moved into a van. Some vehicles are stripped-down minivans with a mattress; others have ceilings so high the owners can stand inside and include sinks, mattress platforms, storage and occasionally a small bathroom. At press time, the #vanlife hashtag has more than 6.8 million posts on Instagram; the trend was trucking right along when the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation.
Van lifers opt for this lifestyle for the simplicity, minimalism and freedom it affords. Some simply travel; some work remotely from their vans as they roam; some take temporary gigs in the towns they visit along the way. Normally, they park their homes in fee-charging public or private campgrounds or in free campsites on public lands. If they need to pop into a city, they’ll post up on a street in front of a friend’s house or in the parking lot of a rec center, where they can also shower.
But now, the van life is stalled. Companies such as Roamerica Campervan Rentals, which cater to people on vacation or trying out the lifestyle, have suspended services in an effort to curb travel, refunding all their booking fees for March and April. Permanent van lifers are facing more serious issues, as states issue shelter-in-place orders and close public lands to stem the spread of the virus, and communities begin to resent the presence of outsiders, whether they’re van dwellers, hikers or vacation home owners.
Normally, van residents can park their homes in campgrounds or state parks. But as of press time, 45 of the 50 states have closed or delayed the opening of their state park campgrounds, and only a handful of national parks still have open campgrounds. A few states, such as Connecticut and Virginia, have designated privately owned RV parks as nonessential and ordered those to shut down, too. According to Gretchen Bayless, co-founder of Roamerica, many private RV parks are open, but nightly fees can be cost-
prohibitive for van dwellers. In some cases, she has heard of private parks raising rates to capitalize on the current situation.
With these closures in place, van lifers are left with two options: camp in free dispersed campsites on United States Forest Service (USFS) or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, or stay with relatives, some of whom may be elderly, until the crisis ends.
Full-time van lifers Isak Kvam, 27, and his girlfriend opted for the latter. The duo was in Moab, Utah, when the town closed all services to nonresidents. Their housesitting gig fell through, leaving them with no choice but to drive back to Minnesota to stay with his 60-year-old parents. Kvam says that he doesn’t feel good about the situation but that he didn’t see any other options.
Reyes-Acosta and her partner are fortunate to own a small parcel of land in southwestern Colorado, but she struggled with the moral implications of traveling more than 600 miles to get there. “It’s a very small, extremely rural community with virtually no health services for two hours,” she says of the area where their acreage is. “Traveling all that way seems like we could be putting everyone in that town at risk.”
Instead, she opted to hunker down on public land in Idaho, remaining in her van and away from people as much as possible. She goes into town once per week for groceries but otherwise rarely sees another person.
Grizel Williams, 28, is in a similar situation. She has been living with her boyfriend on the road in their Ford Transit Extended High Roof since February 2019. “For me, it was always about finding joy in things beyond consumerism and focusing on the things in front of me,” Williams explains. “It’s not about the travel.”
Before the pandemic, she and her boyfriend would spend the weekdays in Denver, where he snagged employment as a builder. As the virus spread, Williams says she could feel the stress level rising in the city. Their only family is on the East Coast, and they wanted to respect existing travel bans. So they found some quiet BLM land in southeastern Colorado and haven’t moved. Because their Ford Transit is equipped with solar panels, heat and a 35-gallon water tank, they need to resupply only every two to three weeks if they use resources sparingly. Williams hasn’t showered in 14 days.
Dispersed camping (which means camping outside a designated campsite, with no services available) on public lands may be only a temporary fix. While the majority of BLM and USFS land is still open to free camping across the country, van lifers worry that could change. In Washington state, the Department of Natural Resources closed all land to dispersed camping March 26. And wherever they camp, van lifers must venture into town on occasion for supplies, which is becoming more difficult.
In Bishop, Calif. — home to Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, a popular hot spot for van dwellers — the Inyo County health department has ordered that nonessential visitors stay away. On March 16, Moab closed all dispersed camping on surrounding BLM land for at least 30 days.
In some locales, public sentiment toward the van life community has turned hostile because of the perception that its members are continuing to travel. “It’s disheartening because there are so many people in their vans, trying to maintain that social distancing, and they are getting harassed anyway,” Roamerica’s Bayless says.
One van lifer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns, was in western Utah on a year-long campervan trip when the travel restrictions left her and her boyfriend in a quandary. They own a home in Wyoming, but because renters have a lease until the end of May, they can’t go back. The couple also owns a piece of land in California, but they have serious concerns about parking a “big white van with out-of-state plates” for fear of retribution.
“We got a hotel for a few nights and came out the next morning to see that someone had let the air out of our tires,” the van lifer says. “It was a clear message: We don’t want you here. What happens next time, they slash our tires?”
There are no associations to help van travelers on the road, so Megan Kantor, 26, created a solution herself. When the full-time van lifer and her husband heard of the closures, they high-tailed it Buena Vista, Colo., to stay with his parents. From there, she watched other van friends struggle to find a safe space to park. With the help of outdoor photographer Abbi Hearne, she created the Space for Road-Lifers Directory, a public Google document where anyone with a free parking space can add their contact info along with pertinent information such as available water sources.
“As tough as it is for road lifers, the reality is that we risk spreading the virus to small communities if we are dispersed camping,” Kantor says. “It is definitely better to find some private land to be on.”
Currently, the document has more than 120 listing of various parking spaces shared by homeowners. When a van lifer connects with the owner to use the space, Kantor deletes the listing. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is a welcome option in a rapidly changing world.
“We need to consider that some people don’t have a home to go back to,” she says. “It’s important to get van lifers off the road, so hopefully this helps.”