The Truth Behind VanLife

What is the #vanlife really like?

If you scroll through Instagram, you’re bound to see an image about the #vanlife – but what is life really like when you’re living on the road, out of a van? We’re going to take you behind the scenes of all those glamorous Instagram shots and give you a taste of the real van life.

It is just a leap of saying you are going to do it and then jumping in and going for it.

We talked with van-dwelling adventure photographer Andy Austin to find out. The 26-year-old, 6’ 5” Montana-native decided to downsize to pursue his dream of becoming a full-time outdoor photographer. He had a good job with southeast Montana Tourism, a slick apartment, and a college degree from Montana State (where he played football).

So what was the upside of tossing all that security aside for living in a van? Read on to find out:

How long have you lived in your van?

I’ve lived in van for a year and four months. It is a long time to go without a shower…..

Actually, that was our next question. Where do you shower?

I have a membership for a gym that has hundreds of gyms across the country. And Montana has a lot of lakes and rivers. Editor’s note: be sure to use only biodegradable, non-toxic soap when you are bathing in rivers or lakes. 

Editor’s note: be sure to use only biodegradable, non-toxic soap when you are bathing in rivers or lakes. 

How did you get started?

It came out of necessity. I’ve always wanted to do it. When I was growing up, living in a van always looked cool, even before the van life culture existed. I quit my job, and wanted to pursue photography. I was doing social media and PR for southeast Montana. I had clients lined up, but knew I needed to cut back on expenses. I got rid of my apartment, and started living out of my Subaru Outback. As I’m 6’ 5”, it was a tight squeeze. I knew that was not going to last long. It was like primitive camping–I had no fridge or power, and certainly didn’t feel like home.

I started shopping for vans and stumbled on one that looked good on craigslist. It was already built out, which is what I was looking for. I was only in town for day, and called the guy up and checked it out and bought it. It was everything I needed and dreamed of. I wanted to have a mechanic check it out, but there was another potential buyer arriving later that day with his mechanic. I offered cash on the spot, and was a homeowner before I left town. I invested every dollar I had—when I did have a mechanic look at it, all I needed was new shocks, struts, and coolant.

What type of van?

It’s a 2006 Dodge Sprinter Van. A Sprinter is a luxury in the van life community, but it is an older model. It had 200,000 miles when I bought it and I got a great deal. People are buying new Mercedes Sprinter vans these days—just the shell costs about $60,000!

I am in Montana about 75 percent of the time.

What custom work have you done?

The guy who sold it to me did the work. It has a solar a panel on top, a stove, sink, fridge, off-grid deep cycle batteries. They run different than a car battery and are meant to be drained and recharged. The cabinetry is all reclaimed wood, which I love. The one thing it has that wasn’t on my radar is a diesel furnace, which is amazing. All last winter, when it was -20 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside, I kept it 60 degrees inside. It is super efficient and runs off diesel and electricity. And everything in the van—the fridge, furnace, my camera equipment—all are charged by the solar panels and the van’s alternator when I’m driving.

How often do you drive around versus staying parked?

It depends on what I am doing and what work I’m doing with clients, but I average two nights in a location before I move on. Most of my movement patterns are in the state of Montana. This winter, I will head south a bit more. Last winter we had temperatures that dropped down to -40F for weeks on end.

Where are your favorite places to go?

I am in Montana about 75 percent of the time. I spend about one third of my time around Billings, as that’s where I’m from. I spend another few months in the Bozeman/Yellowstone area. And I really love the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park. I have a good core group of adventurers who I can climb peaks. With Kalispel and Whitefish, you get it all—a tourist town, the ski mountain, a cool funky town, but really an Aspen of Montana. Kalispell is bigger—22,000, one of bigger cities, but it is definitely more of sprawling city than Whitefish. The whole area is shy of 100,000 people, but it is massive.

There are so many trails in Glacier; it is insane.

What is your favorite tour in Glacier?

The park is unbelievably gorgeous. You can pretty much point a camera in any direction and get an amazing photo. This summer I’ve been getting into climbing peaks in Glacier; there are no people on them. And there are so many trails in Glacier; it is insane. It is a wonderful hiking park. My current fav is Grinnell Trail. It is a terrific opportunity to see a glacier and to see how much they are receding. By 2030, they may all be gone. There are not many left in the park.  Grinnell is a good way to see the impact the impact of the earth’s warming up, and what it used to be like in the area. There are giant cliff walls and color of water is an insane Gatorade blue. It is glacial sediment and gorgeous.

Is it hard to get traveling companions? Is van life a loner prospect?

It is interesting, as it is probably the most social I’ve ever been. Which is not what I expected. But I can roll into any place in Montana and find a group of 10 to 30 friends who are happy to see me and happy to have me back. Because of the nomadic lifestyle, I don’t think you develop those super-close, best friends that you would if you were living in one spot, but I’ve made a lot of friends that I see whenever I’m in their neck of the woods. I have a lot of really good friends, but not a lot of best friends.

Relationships are almost impossible. It is hard to develop one when you are in town for one or two nights. Telling a girl, “I’ll see you in maybe a week, month, or six months,” does not really compute. A lot of couples do live the van life together. But to develop the normal standard girlfriend is almost impossible—especially with one who has a job keeps her in one place.

You learn how to appreciate being alone.

What have you learned?

I have learned a lot…it has been a process. You learn how to appreciate being alone. There is a lot of time spent by yourself, in the middle of nowhere, sitting by yourself, reading, watching a movie, just thinking. You learn how to appreciate yourself, who you are and where you are coming from. There are days when I don’t talk with anybody. I’ve developed more patience. There is a lot of downtime. With a house…you go to work, make dinner, and relax for the evening. In a van, you are on the move most of the time. In the wintertime, the sun sets at 5 p.m….

I’ve also learned that strangers, friends, and family can be incredibly kind and thoughtful. Friends who give me a set of keys and tell me to drop by anytime to show up or hang out. It is sometimes great to be in a house and feel like a normal person for a day. And so many people have cooked me a homemade dinner, as they know I haven’t had one in a while. The whole kindness thing has been interesting; it is really a good perspective for me on society. There is so much negativity in world, but when you break it down to an individual level, you don’t see it.

I’ve also learned that strangers, friends, and family can be incredibly kind and thoughtful.

The other most surprising things I’ve learned is how accepting people are of my living situation. I expected some negativity—feelings that I am some hippie, freeloader, or person who doesn’t want to work. But I haven’t had a single negative encounter or reaction. I’ve met cowboys in small rural towns in Wyoming and Wall Street professionals. I think they sometimes envy what I am doing, or are at least curious. People usually say one of two things. That they wish they would have done something like this when they were my age, before they settled down with a job and family, or people who say “I did that. I’m glad I’m not anymore, but I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.”

Do you have any tips for someone considering van life?

Just do it. Just commit and go for it. At some point you have to go from an idea to just musing about it. Every person is going to have different needs and experiences. It is just a leap of saying you are going to do it and then jumping in and going for it.