Van life is a thing. It may not be as black leather sexy as biker culture or as mod cute as a scooter club or as waxed and retro as hot rod livin’, but #VanLife is having a heyday. A whole subculture of vanners continues to build – people who love, customize, and sometimes even live out of their vans.
America first fell in love with the van in the late 1960s when compact vans, patterned off of Volkswagen buses, were used to traverse our majestic 50 states.
Van of the era: The Mystery Machine, a flower power panel van premiered in the 1969 cartoon “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!”
The 1970s would rumple and hump the boho spirit, turning vans into bedrooms on wheels, i.e. shaggin’ wagons. Mega van customization began with people creating mobile sex-pits fulla plush carpeting, curtains, porno lighting, and other furry-mattressed wonders. The 1973 hit single “Chevy Van,” by Sammy Johns, even detailed the erotic transportation movement.
Van of the era: any van that had a “Sultan’s Den” featuring a lava lamp, advanced 8-track tape technology, and floor-to-ceiling shag carpeting that bodily fluids could blend into.
Movies and music ruled the Reagan era of van culture. Customization became about how epic you could airbrush your panel van. Magic mushrooms were replaced with unicorns, wizards riding lightning bolts, “Star Wars” homages, and brutal Iron Maiden or Kiss tributes. Vans were still, of course, sexholes, but now they were heavy metal parking lot sexholes.
Van of the era: The only non-airbrushed van of the ’80s was the best van of the ’80s - the A-Team’s red stripe and gunmetal gray action adventure van.
Brutal honesty, vans sucked in the 1990s. Customization went down and popularity tanked. Conversion vans turned into minivans that suburban parents carted off their a-hole kids to baseball practice in. Van life turned wholesome and dirtbags looked elsewhere for their hella cool auto culture, like hot rods.
Van of the era: Mutt Cutts, the 1984 Ford Ecoline van shaped into a big furry dog in the Jim Carrey classic “Dumb and Dumber.”
Perhaps the tiny house movement sparked it, mayhap it was just the van’s turn to shine again, but people have re-embraced van life from the 2000s until now. Only customization has gone full force. Millennials and Generation Y are so in want of affordable living that they are choosing to modify their vans to live in them fulltime.
Today’s van life can offer minimalistic, journey-centric living. Energetic, social conscious folks (usually with a bohemian streak) get into van culture. Old vans are bought for as cheap as $5,000 and revamped into road homes used for slow travel that minimize gas and general life costs. If you got the travel bones but not the work hands, new vans, like the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4, will set you back 52 grand before tricking out the interior as a living space. Either option can be as slapdash or solar-tech as a person is willing to reach for.
The theme of today’s van life is connection. Vanners connect to other vanners through social media. They connect to self through customization and connect deeply with the world by having less stuff and more a mindset of creation and activity.
Guess that’s what braids the history of #VanLife together, mavericks and free spirits searching for their own road.
Here are four snapshots of Durango vans and their owners:
The Rolling Fort: Jake and Annie Brooks
The van: 1977 Dodge TradesmanWhat are some upgrades you’ve made?
Annie: Put in a new starter. Replaced a headlight.
Jake: We bought it with all this paneling and everything. Annie’s decorated it all: the posters, the little deer on the dashboard, the ice cream cone. There’s some signature Annie treats in here.What’s the most unique thing/best feature?
A: I kinda like how the brakes are a button on the floor that you have to tap, like right underneath the brake pedal. I like how a lot of dials in the front are actual, just dials that you pull or push or twist, as opposed to, like, buttons.
J: I think all the natural light from these massive windows might be my favorite feature.How is your van a reflection of your personality?
A: It’s not incredibly practical. It prioritizes fun. More playful than practical.
J: It’s not perfect but it has all the right elements. It’s kind of janky and unplanned.What’s the most interesting/coolest place you’ve taken it?
J: Definitely this summer for the Fourth of July (Dallas Divide, outside Ridgway).
A: We took it up a pretty gnarly dirt road.
J: Pretty rocky.
A: Pretty steep.
J: Four-wheel-drive, but we don’t have four-wheel-drive, but we made it. And we drove it through a river.
A: It was so steep that you had to floor it the whole way up, and then, as a grand finale, there was a thigh-deep river crossing, maybe knee-deep.What do you like best about van life?
A: It’s a rolling fort, what’s not to love? It’s fun to be able to pack up your secret hideaway and just get outta Dodge.
J: The first day we were in the van, I was like, “I don’t feel like I ever have to stop.” There’s no pressure to get anywhere, but you feel like you can go anywhere. The first weekend we had it, we did a road trip up to Ridgway, Gunnison, then looped all the way through the Sand Dunes, and Alamosa and back around. It was one of my favorite road trips I’ve ever been on, just because anywhere we wanted to stop, we stopped and we camped in the van. You don’t feel rushed.What is your primary use for the van?
A: Fun. Like, if we’re going to do something fun in town, we take the van. So if I’m going to the bank, I’ll take our Jeep. But if I’m going to the movies, I’ll take the van.
J: And like camping trips up to the mountains, road trips eventually. Once we feel comfortable with it, we want to take it to Cali, go up the coast, trips like that.
A: My dream is to just drive it all the way to the beach and go to sleep in it. Now, sometimes we’ll rent out our house and just sleep in the van.
Functional luxury: Steve Ward
The van: 2016 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4What are some upgrades you’ve made?Big upgrades would be 1,500-watt inverter, diesel 2-watt heater, all the lighting, all the insulation, swivel seats, roof racks, complete solar, and it’s got an extra battery. Windows.
What’s the most unique thing/best feature?I wanted to make everything modular. I wanted to make it so that everything is built in and not super-heavy and you can take it in and out as you want so you’re not just hauling stuff around all the time.
This one in particular is 4-wheel drive, so you can take it up in the mountains in the winter time.
When I bought this thing, it was a cargo so it was just metal. There was nothing in it, not even windows. I wired everything and then insulated everything. Then, I really wanted to make everything so it was easy to pull in and pull out.
Basically the way it works is the (solar) electric, when the sun’s out, it’ll charge the battery for everything behind the seats and it also charges the battery in the front. But when the alternator’s running, it charges both of them as well. I’ve never even brought that down a quarter of what it can do. It’s a great system.
How is your van a reflection of your personality? I would say functionality through minor fits of grace. [Laughs] That’s probably about right. It’s not the prettiest, but I think the parts of it that are functional are good and functional and solid and the kind of stuff you need as a necessity to do what the van’s supposed to do. There’s lots of bells-and-whistles frilly, but this is more on the basics and just building it, as it makes sense to build it. Next it’ll be the kitchen, and that’ll be an add-on that makes sense.
What’s the most interesting/coolest place you’ve taken it?We haven’t gone nuts with this one yet. My old van was really small. We took an awesome family road trip to Moab, packed full of people and gear and bikes and the whole deal. That was probably the high point of that one. Really made everything kind of revolve around the van and all the stuff you brought with you and didn’t bring with you.
What do you like best about van life?The ability to be like, “OK, I’m going to hit the road and stay somewhere where, generally, you can’t stay.” In a van you can be stealthy. People don’t necessarily know that you’re camping out. So you can do it for free most of the time, especially if you’re van’s set up to be off-grid. So that allure is like, you got gas money and you go.
What is your primary use for the van?I end up using it some of the time for work. I’m a contractor so I’ve got a trailer – a big ol’ trailer – that I have to pull once in a while. And that’s kind of why I set it up so that I can pull everything out if I need to. But I try not to put a lot of miles on it. I want to keep this just for traveling and living.
The creative vision: Jesse DiMarco
The van: 1991 Volkswagen VanagonWhat are some upgrades you’ve made?Every single piece on this car, other than the engine, has been replaced. Every suspension bit from the springs to the shocks to the bushings to the rods, everything has been replaced and upgraded. [Coolant system, brake system, power steering system, electrical system, all upgraded. Water system, solar system, added.]
What’s the most unique thing/best feature?The interior. This whole thing was scrapped down to the metal when we got it, because it was just disgusting and super dirty. Took it down to metal and I built all the cabinetry into it. Everything in here has either been hand-cut, glued, nailed, or hand-sewn. This is all one-of-a-kind stuff ... Big for me because I’d never ever glued or nailed anything.
How is your van a reflection of your personality?Everything you see going on inside of here is a reflection of my creativity. You know, it’s a vision that I had that I executed. The fact that there’s floral fabric laid out on all the doors – that’s a reflection of me because I love floral print more than anything. I love art nouveau more than anything so I went the extra mile to search out fabrics that were a little more nouveau-y. Kind of a reflection of my tastes.
What’s the most interesting/coolest place you’ve taken it?It hasn’t gone a lot of places because it just wasn’t driving for like a year and a half. And the whole point was to go to Alaska and we didn’t make it more than a few hours away. Turned it around. It was neat. It was a thrill. [laughs] “Do you smell smoke? No? OK.” I plan to go cooler places. I don’t know when. She overheats a lot.
What do you like best about van life?The self-sustainability. You know, that you can just roll around and stop wherever you are and you don’t have to worry about putting up a tent or getting a hotel room. It’s a little more incognito than a roof-top tent. You can just show up places and if you get tired and you want to take a nap, you just stop your car and get in the back and take a nap. It’s not bad. Or if you get back from a hike, you can just plop down on a couch and drink a cold soda water. [taps electric cooler] It’s those small luxuries, but you don’t have to plan for them because it’s all inclusive. Where, if you’re taking your car, you’ve to put your cooler together, you’ve got to go put your tent in your car and your sleeping bag in the car. Dude, the blankets are in here, pillows – everything’s good to go.
What is your primary use for the van?Pleasure. Kicking around. Car-camping. Ideally, in the future, big old travel trips.
Simple and free: Charles Newmyer
The van: 1972 Ford EconolineWhat are some upgrades you’ve made?The Econoline is still new in the lineup, so I’ve only replaced the starter so far and done some interior work, but I’m about to replace the entire wiring harness and instrument cluster, then next will probably be radiator and a new engine.
What’s the most unique thing/best feature?That it actually runs and gets me from A to B. When I first bought it, I had it shipped out from Southern California to Denver, and it took me six days to get back to Durango. She’s still very much a work in progress, but I love her.
How is your van a reflection of your personality?It’s simplicity and freedom. It’s having that option of getting behind the wheel and going. I like things simple and I don’t like being tied down to a lot of things, so when almost everything I own is in my van, well, it makes it pretty easy to just head out. She’s the Trigger to my Roy Rogers.
What’s the most interesting/coolest place you’ve taken it?Well, I’ve had two vans, and they’ve both taken me to incredible places, but I’ve been around in the ’91 GMC the most. I would just have to say that each and every road trip, camping trip, weekend warrior van run, or just time spent in it with friends in a parking lot has been the most interesting and cool trip. I’ve taken these vans all over the States, slept on the beach in them, gone to truck-ins, driven through national parks, had them break down a million times, and every time out has had its own unique and amazing experiences.
What do you like best about van life?The freedom, man. Even with all the break-downs, cold nights in the winter, hot mornings in the summer, it’s all good. That’s just vannin’. As corny as it sounds, it’s hard to imagine life without a van. I’ve been in vans my whole life, and don’t see that changing.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity and space.Patty Templeton and David Holub