“It was the freest I’ve ever felt,” says 24-year-old Shalee. "There’s no barrier, no timeline, no deadline – your body just feels it.” No, she’s not tripping out, she’s talking about her recent road trip around America in a renovated cargo van. “Sometimes I look back and think it was a dream.” But it wasn’t – it was a life-enhancing adventure. And more of us are making it a reality, too.
Last year, road-trip travel rose 39% in the US and millennials were in the driver’s seat. “The majority of our renters are people aged 25-34 looking for an off-the-beaten-path experience,” says Katie Hubbard from leading US van hire company Escape Campervans. Our generation now makes up 38% of all RV (recreational vehicle) users in the US, while STA Travel has seen a 25% increase in American camper van bookings over the past two years.
Yes, we know: the freewheeling notion of travelling the US in a van is nothing new. But the movement that represented self-sufficiency and freedom for the Beat Generation of the late '50s, and was popularised by the hippy trail in the '70s, is having a resurgence among millennials looking for inexpensive and Insta-worthy experiences. These include 30-year-old Katie, who quit her job in London last year and went driving around America for 90 days in a rusty Chevy camper with her boyfriend Dom. “We were drawn to the rose-tinted nostalgia of endless empty roads, old-school diners, random roadside kitsch shops and just going wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted,” she says.
Taking the pace of life down a few gears is a big motivation for us #busyAF millennials. Julie Murrell, a community manager at Hipcamp (a company that connects campers with private landowners) says she meets many people in their 20s and 30s every week, who’ve bought or rented a van for a multi-month trip around America because they’re “yearning for a tech and city detox.” People like Liz, 32, who says that when you’re travelling in a VW that only goes 50mph, you’re going to slow down, physically and mentally. “I work in tech so, for me, it was about not looking at a screen for as long as possible. Driving for hours without WiFi or phone reception means you get to stretch your eyes. You can’t beat that kind of headspace.”
Although, ironically, social media has been the key driver of the trend. Ever since Foster Huntington swapped his design career for an American adventure in his 1987 Volkswagen Syncro, and started posting photos with #vanlife, the hashtag has accelerated across the 'gram. Now, there are almost 2.5 million #vanlife posts showcasing (mainly) classic vans against beautiful backdrops, with equally beautiful van lifers doing sun salutations by the sea and having campfire dinners under starry skies, with a cute dog thrown in for extra likes.
Likes aside, Shalee says her seven-month trip across 44 states went deeper than aesthesis. “The news can give a depressing view of America sometimes, but I met kind and inspiring people from all walks of life. It showed me that the world is mostly good.” Katch, 29, a wedding photographer from California, loved the lifestyle so much that she and her partner Ben moved full-time into their Mercedes Sprinter. “I’ve learnt that I'm just much happier living a more minimal, less cluttered life.”
For all its stripped-back, Insta-perfect escapism, many experts believe the trend was born out of the recession. “It’s a reflection of the economy and the stunted earning power of many millennials,” says Taj Bates, founder of The YOLO Guide to Travel and the Travel IQ app. Something Lisa, 30, who moved into her van permanently can relate to.
“Law school left me with $120,000 of debt,” she says. “I left my corporate job and now I do legal work remotely while exploring the country. Having to pay for rent helps pay my student loan and I still get to do things I enjoy. It turns previous ideas about success and happiness on its head. Yes, I’m sleeping in a van but the world is my living room and every day really is a new adventure. It’s allowed me to embrace a completely new concept of work, travel – and home.”
Experts agree with a significant shift in generational attitudes. “Silicon Valley tech has boosted the trend away from owning ‘stuff’ and more towards valuing our time and shared experiences,” says Justin O'Brien, co-director for student experience at Royal Holloway University in London, who has studied and published on VWs. “Originality and authenticity are at the core of the road tripping lifestyle, which appeals to many millennials seeking to add an affordable, asset-light but experience-rich essence into their life – and their feeds.”
But is it that cheap? “We budgeted $20,000 for two of our six-month trips,” says Liz. “Although we were lucky to have the disposable income to do that.” Shalee argues that it’s the most affordable way to travel. “We bought our 2001 GMC Savana for $2,100 and lived on less than $400 a month,” she says. “Plus, we’re living in a digital age and there’s loads of web-based and freelance opportunities to make money when travelling long-term, if that’s what you want to do.”
The phenomenon has even enabled people including @dontforget2move blogger Christine, 30, who refers to her and partner Jules as “vanlife influencers”, to turn their American road trip into a brand. “Our last trip was to Yellowstone National Park to partner with Michelin tyres on their sustainability program,” says Christine, who has 240,000 followers across her social channels. “Sustainable travel is a huge focus for us. Jules installed solar panels on the roof of our van so we don't need electricity and we've cut down massively on our consumerism and waste. We also have to think of unique ways to get a wash: a dip in a river or ocean, finding a local hot spring or a gym that has free trials. But on the flip side, it encourages us to be outside. Why eat indoors when you can have lunch among the redwood forests or dinner under the stars?” And she has the stunning Instas to prove it.
The social sharing aspect, especially from influencers, has indeed elevated the experience. “It used to be about not-so-cute-to-look-at vans being just a practical way to eat, sleep and explore the open road,” says Taj. “Now, posting polished travel photos in creative, FOMO-inducing ways that rival even the biggest celebs has upped the ante for #vanlife to look even more beautiful and enviable: it’s less hippy, more chic.” And as people race to build bigger followings, #vanlife is also getting slated for creating a hyperbolic version of reality.
But while there are plenty of gorgeous spots to take in from a cosy camper bed along the way, long-term travel in a van or a car isn’t always as glamorous as our feeds might have us believe. “Social media romanticises life on the road,” says Kristen, 34, the blogger behind @BearfootTheory, who has spent 14 months driving around the western US and Canada, mostly solo. “As free as you are, people rarely show the reality of a cluttered and cramped van or the late night, and sometimes stressful, search for campsites, the gas station bathrooms, having to use McDonald's WiFi, the greasy hair, the dirty clothes and being stuck inside because of bad weather.”
Kristen is quick to add that these challenges are also important parts of the journey. “The van is slowly chipping away at the Type-A me, and teaching me to go with the flow. Some of my best experiences have been the unplanned ones, and it’s often the little things like eating a simple, home-cooked meal outside during an amazing sunset, or finding an amazing, secluded campsite. That’s what you live for out here.” There’s also a strong community within those millions of road-tripping hashtags: “#vanlife gets slack for painting an idealistic picture, but as a solo traveller, I know I can reach out to people wherever I am and connect with cool people doing what I’m doing,” adds Lisa.
Bottom line: Whether it’s a way to cut down on living costs, a backlash against corporate life or simply a deep-seated desire to see more of the world, Instagram has repackaged the '70s movement of ditching societal norms, hopping in a van and going wherever the wind takes us – and made it desirable to the mainstream. “Short and long-term road travel gives you the opportunity to experience new places and you learn exactly where your priorities lie,” says Kristen. The best thing it teaches? “That we don’t need a lot to be happy,” says Shalee. “Sometimes the simplest life is the best life."
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