I woke up to the feeling of icy air slowly numbing my nose, but when I tried to bury my face in my sleeping bag, I found I couldn’t move. That’s what happens when you cram a small woman and three stinky climbers head to toe and shoulder to shoulder in a minivan.
That was my first experience with vanlife.
I was on a climbing trip to Bishop, California and despite two weeks of cramped quarters and testy tempers, something about vanlife resonated with me. First impressions aren’t necessarily everything.
As the trip came to a sad end, I went back to my home in Alaska the four jobs I held that regularly had me pulling 12+ hour days for weeks on end. After two weeks of waking up wherever I wanted, climbing, and driving somewhere else to do it all over again, my old life seemed suddenly unbearable. I could no longer ignore the fact that I lived in one of the most beautiful and wildly untamed lands left and I didn’t even have the time to get out and enjoy it.
So my partner and I indebted ourselves to an empty cargo van and started the long and arduous journey of building it out ourselves.
Over the next nine months of dark winter days, we did two things a) worked on the van; and b) worked to be able to afford working on the van.
It was the worst nine months of my life. For those who don’t know, van building is incredibly hard, and many people quit before they ever finish. Visions of endlessly exploring nature kept me moving, but as I shoveled snow off the roof of a ramshackled shed that served as our only workspace in order to keep water from leaking onto our lumber, I certainly didn’t have many kind things to say about nature.
As spring rolled around, our van looked more akin to a home, and by summer, it was the only one we had to our name. That final summer in Alaska we tread the delicate line between still working in the city full time and escaping in our home on wheels to the mountains at every glorious opportunity.
By the end of summer, we cashed in our final paychecks, said goodbye to stable employment for the foreseeable future, and hit the road. We were thrilled. Waking up somewhere new and living with a perpetually changing view was everything we never knew we had been missing. Nature was no longer something always second to life and work and whatever nonsense adult life had to throw at me. It was full time, full on.
The next few months were an endless learning experience. Aside from learning how to shower on the road and the ins-and-outs of van safety and repair, they taught us a lot about what it means to live naturally and intentionally.
Here are some of ways vanlife helps us connect with nature and live a more fulfilling life:
- Home is where you park it.
More than just a catchy hashtag, this is the vanlifer’s creed and the single biggest thing that attracts most people (us included) to vanlife.
Rather than getting stuck in one city you don’t really like by a job you like even less, vanlife allows you to explore all the places you’ve dreamed about without sacrificing all your belongings and a place to call “home”. You get to make whatever environment you love your home.
For me, that sometimes means lush climbing areas and others arid red rock deserts. I love both these places, and with vanlife, I don’t have to choose to live in just one. I get to move on as my impulses see fit and experience all kinds of nature in the oh-so-many forms in which it manifests.
- Your life is one big camping trip.
There’s a reason they call it a camper van. Vanlife means you are essentially camping (or at the very least glamping) 24/7. Camping is the most common way that people escape from their civilized lives and engage with nature, even if only for a weekend.
It’s only natural, then, that this aspect of vanlife is perhaps the biggest way it connects you to nature.
Beyond that, urban vanlife is simply not fun. It’s a lot harder to find places to legally park and can be a lot more dangerous. For that reason, vanlife pushes you toward the wilder, less inhabited reaches of the world. AKA nature!
- You’re more at the mercy of nature than ever.
No camping trip is complete without some Type II fun. Don’t think vanlife is all sunshine and rainbows. The reality of vanlife is less Gram-worthy over half the time.
Whether it’s the sweltering heat and bugs of summer vanlife or perpetual cold and mildew breeding dampness of winter vanlife, the whims of weather are notoriously harsh for those without a temperature controlled home to retreat to.
Vanlife comes with a lot of cursing of the elements, but if nothing else, you certainly gain respect for the power of nature.
- You become an outdoor steward.
If you’re not already an outdoor steward before jumping into vanlife, get ready to become one. Once you roll up on enough gross campsites and otherwise perfect boondocking sites ruined by litter, you can’t help but start to think of these assaults on nature a little personally. Public lands are the vanlifer’s and playground, so it’s only natural you start to want to defend these places as much as you would your home… because essentially, nature IS your home.
We started filling trash bags and packing out the trash of those before us, or demolishing rock fire rings in unestablished sites. When feeling particularly feisty, we would approach people and call out their unsustainable actions (like parking off road on fragile soil). Leave No Trace is just as applicable to hikers and campers as it is to vanlifers.
And it’s only one of many different ways you can make your vanlife more eco friendly and lessen the impact of your lifestyle choice.
I happen to believe that if more people lived in vans and witnessed how we treat nature, more people would be inclined to believe there’s a problem and it’s our responsibility to solve it.
- Nature in the now.
More than anything, vanlife helps you connect with nature simply because you have the time to fully take it in. Even if you work on the road like we do, vanlife comes with a lot of down time to sit and just be.
It shatters the illusion that we must always be doing “something”. Sometimes, the most fulfilling thing to “do” is simply nothing. Sit on your van and watch the sunset. Drink coffee while letting the ocean waves lap against your feet. Embrace the meditative, transcendental attitudes of the Romantics and appreciate boundless the beauty of nature.
What else do you have to do?
Final Thoughts on Vanlife and Connecting to Nature
We’ve now lived in our van for a year and a half and I still find myself breathless when I open to the door to have morning coffee in shadow of the Grand Tetons or with the company of a herd of antelope. I have always loved nature, but only now do I feel as though I can fully appreciate.
So why vanlife? The answer comes pretty naturally.