By Ian Ferguson
From ski area parking lots to highway pull-offs across the continent, the van lifestyle made popular in the ’60s is experiencing a massive resurgence. Adventure hounds of all ages have found that the lack of rent afforded by a home on wheels allows them to chase powder all winter and live at the base of their favorite crag all summer. Weekend warriors are branching out from the off-white RV to more quirky, stylish or cheaper options for family getaways. Meanwhile, droves of people are downsizing to tiny homes to eschew big mortgages and enjoy a life that is simpler and less driven by consumption.
Several of these enlightened nomads circled their rigs for a gypsy-style gathering at the 5Point Film Festival’s “Van Life Rally” in Bellingham in October. Here’s a look at a few of the rigs that were there, along with some thoughts from people who have left mortgages, rents or hotel rooms in the dust of their rolling home.
The sports car of camper vans
Vehicle: 2004 Sprinter 140 with five-cylinder diesel engine.
Setup: Mercedes Sprinters are the envy of every van-lifer because they’re so well made.
Pros: Dependability, performance, comfort, aesthetics, safety and low cost of maintenance.
Cons: Steep sticker price. May induce drool from onlookers.
Owners: Chad and Brooke Wurtz and two sons.
Use: Family mountain biking, skiing and climbing trips.
Advice: “For us, modular is better. Being able to push things aside to fit bikes and gear is helpful. Also, save money by doing the work yourself.” – Chad Wurtz
Vehicle: 1971 VW Vanagon converted into a camper.
Setup: Along with the unique style and quirky air-cooled engine comes admission into the friendly VW community.
Pros: Efficient, reliable and modular German design with plenty of comforts and hippy vibes.
Cons: Can be pricey to purchase and fix. Speed and safety are limited by old school technology.
Owners: Dylan and Jen Kilmer and 1-year-old daughter Hazel.
Use: Weekend and vacation adventures.
Ace-in-the-hole: Dylan is a mechanic.
Advice: “Remember, it’s about the journey, not the destination… ‘cause the journey takes a long time!” – Jen Kilmer
The school bus
Vehicle: 34-foot Blue Bird bus with Chevy 450 four-block engine
Setup: Short or long, buses provide a bigger space than vans to customize for your needs
Pros: Room for activities
Cons: Poor gas mileage, hard to park
Owner: McKai Morgan
Time spent living in bus: Seven months
Cost/benefit analysis: McKai got a great deal up front, paying $3,500 for a good running bus with wood interior paneling already installed. This is offset by the increased cost of road trips at 7 mpg, but without a monthly rent payment, McKai comes out way ahead.
Future plans: A winter trip up the powder highway for skiing, and a summer trip to Haida Gwaii for surfing.
Advice: “Find a bus that has been fleet-maintained by a school district to make sure it’s in good shape mechanically.” – McKai Morgan
The bed on wheels
Setup: A simple plywood platform in the bed of a pickup truck, with a canopy for a roof, gives you a sheltered bed with storage space underneath.
Pros: Simple, efficient and cheap.
Cons: The space is your bedroom, making the world your living room. Or is that a pro?
Vehicle: Ford F-150
Owner: Kelsey Ball
Vehicle name: Pepper
Use: Home, kitchen, gear shed and ongoing art project.
Time spent living out of the truck: One year.
Word to the wise: “Check for leaks! My topper was a junkyard find and the gaskets were shot (something I found out under heavy rains while camped out in the redwoods last winter). I have had good luck with silicone sealant lining the window gaskets and roof rack bolts. You’ll need to replace the sealant after about a year, as it tends to shrink in the summer.”
– Kelsey Ball.
The Truck Shanty
Setup: A rough and rugged truck bed camper built with scrap 2x4s and plywood.
Pros: Quick and cheap to build. Standing room, a wide bed and many homey comforts in a 5’x 6’ space.
Cons: Meticulous construction takes a backseat to getting it built before the rainy season.
Vehicle: 1996 Mazda pickup.
Owner: Stamati Anagnostou.
Use: Home and base for climbing trips.
Time spent living out of the truck: Four months.
Favorite climb sent at Index while living out of truck: “Model Worker [5.11c] for sure. Sonny Trotter saw me on it and said that it looked awesome. Huge compliment.” – Stamati Anagnostou
The craft project
Setup: Fine woodworking and creative designs maximize space and lightness on a pickup truck bed.
Pros: Light and leak-proof; conversation starter.
Cons: A time-consuming labor of love that is never truly finished.
Vehicle: 1998 Ford F-150.
Owners: Seth and Elise Daily.
Use: Former home.
Time spent living out of truck: 2 years.
Story behind the round door: “One buddy was a big Lord of the Rings fan, and he said to build a round door. Another buddy said it would be a huge headache, and to just build a normal rectangular door. I flipped a coin and the round door won.” – Seth Daily
The camper truck
Setup: Prefabricated camper trucks are as varied as their homemade cousins.
Pros: Built-in plumbing, heating and furniture add convenience and luxury to the go-anywhere 4×4 transporter.
Cons: Can be pricey to purchase and maintain.
Vehicle: 1982 Toyota Chinook 4×4 Diesel Pop-Top.
Owner: Dana Thornton.
Use: Adventure assault vehicle and home base.
Quote: “It gets great gas mileage and it can go anywhere. It needs a little work, but that’s part of the adventure.”
– Dana Thornton