Viva La Van Life: The New American Dream

So maybe liv­ing the #van­life isn’t every­one’s idea of “the Amer­i­can Dream,” but there is def­i­nite­ly a rapid­ly grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of dirt­bags, week­end war­riors, pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes, and out­door writ­ers & pho­tog­ra­phers that are opt­ing for life on the open road. Although Insta­gram and oth­er social media plat­forms are like­ly respon­si­ble for the most recent wave of inter­est, ear­ly inspi­ra­tion for our mod­ern view of van­life dates back to around the 1950s, and maybe even earlier.

Pho­to: R‑J Dyer

In the 50s, Volk­swa­gen arrived in the Unit­ed States and brought with them their icon­ic line of vans. Many Amer­i­cans were slow to respond, poten­tial­ly due to lin­ger­ing post WWII feel­ings and VW’s Ger­man her­itage. Although ini­tial­ly intro­duced as util­i­tar­i­an pas­sen­ger and car­go vans, peo­ple quick­ly began con­vert­ing VW vans into campers. Cus­tomized VW vans served as a great alter­na­tive to the large trav­el trail­ers and RVs that had pop­u­lar appeal lead­ing up to the 50s. Vans were more afford­able, eas­i­er to dri­ve, and con­sumed sig­nif­i­cant­ly less fuel. While VW vans slow­ly gained pop­u­lar­i­ty in the Amer­i­can main­stream, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, the van quick­ly became an icon for Amer­i­can coun­ter­cul­ture. The 60s were a lib­er­al renais­sance. Inspired by lit­er­ary heroes like Jack Ker­ouac and Neal Cas­sady, a sub­set of cit­i­zens began to veer away from the safe­ty of the white-pick­et-fence Amer­i­can Dream. Whether you were attend­ing a Rolling Stones con­cert, par­tic­i­pat­ing in an anti-war/­civ­il rights ral­ly, camp­ing at Wood­stock, or hang­ing out in Haight-Ash­bury, you would have cer­tain­ly been sur­round­ed by a pletho­ra of vans packed with “hip­pies” both young and old. As the momen­tum of the cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion that start­ed in the 60s began to taper off dur­ing the late 70s and ear­ly 80s, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of vans con­tin­ued to grow. By this time Amer­i­can auto­mo­tive man­u­fac­tures like Ford and Dodge had already began pro­duc­tion of vans aimed to com­pete with VW. In the decades fol­low­ing the 60s, vans of all shapes and sizes began to pop up across the Unit­ed States, rang­ing from ded­i­cat­ed camper and con­ver­sion vans to the ear­ly ver­sions of mod­ern mini­vans. In the 80s and 90s com­pa­nies like Volk­swa­gen, Toy­ota, and Mit­subishi pumped out what are now some of the most cov­et­ed 4x4 adven­ture vans.

Pho­to: Theodore Trimmer

At this point you’re prob­a­bly ask­ing your­self, what does this brief his­to­ry of vans have to do with adven­ture and the out­doors? Well the answer is sim­ple: climbers and surfers. Close­ly inter­twined with the cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion of the 60s, climbers and surfers, the orig­i­nal dirt­bags, were some of the ear­li­est adopters of van life. It was­n’t uncom­mon to see a van with half a dozen surf­boards strapped to the top on the Cal­i­for­nia coast or a van packed full of climbers head­ing towards Yosemite. Vans were the best way to get a bunch of gear and peo­ple from point A to point B, and were quite com­fort­able to live in com­pared to a tent. Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patag­o­nia) and the late Doug Tomp­kins (founder of North Face) per­haps made the first notable “van expe­di­tion” when they drove a van from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia to Patag­o­nia, Chile in search of surf and stone in the late 60s. Ear­ly rock climbers and surfers made it cool to live in vans, to pur­sue hap­pi­ness in the form of unspon­sored out­door enjoy­ment. The 60s and 70s were the gold­en years for vans and out­door pio­neers that set the stage for us mod­ern-day explorers.

Pho­to: @rayphungphoto

We have all seen and been inspired by the epic film pho­tos from the gold­en years of climb­ing and surf­ing, but in the 80s and 90s “cool” seemed to take a turn in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion. While there were cer­tainly still peo­ple doing cool things with vans, his­tory seems to have got­ten dis­tracted by things like dis­co, bag­gy suits, cocaine, and Wall Street. But then the inter­net came and every­thing changed, espe­cially the way we enjoy and doc­u­ment the out­doors. Pri­or to the rise of social media, mag­a­zines were the pri­mary way that infor­ma­tion about out­door sports was dis­trib­uted. The spot­light was always on big expe­di­tions, house­hold name explor­ers, and well-estab­lished out­door gear man­u­fac­tures. Social media democ­ra­tized the way infor­ma­tion was dis­trib­uted. The first decade of the 2000’s brought us Face­book, Insta­gram, Twit­ter, and many oth­er social media and blog­ging plat­forms. Indi­vid­ual every­day explor­ers for the first time had a sim­ple way to share their adven­tures with a large audi­ence. Social media opened the spot­light to ama­teur out­door ath­letes, pho­tog­ra­phers, and writ­ers, shift­ing the sphere of influ­ence in the out­door industry.

Pho­to: @adventureswithmuddy

Prob­a­bly the most notable exam­ple of an indi­vid­ual that rose to fame through social media is Fos­ter Hunt­ing­ton. The man behind the pop­u­lar hash­tags #van­life and #home­iswherey­oupark­it, Fos­ter has inspired mil­lions to hit the road through his pho­tos and videos of his trav­els and DIY projects. Fos­ter’s sto­ry res­onates with many of us, he took off from his full-time design job in NYC in 2011 to hit the road in pur­suit of free­dom in his van. In his book “Home Is Where You Park It,” he doc­u­ment­ed like-mind­ed folks and their vans he encoun­tered along his way. He quick­ly accu­mu­lat­ed over 1 mil­lion fol­low­ers on Insta­gram alone, and it took years for even some of the biggest names in the out­door indus­try like Jim­my Chin and Chris Burkard to catch up. It’s safe to say that Fos­ter Hunt­ing­ton had a huge impact on mil­len­ni­als’ desire to get their hands on any van they could. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly the pop­u­lar Pol­er Out­door Stuff, who also attrib­ut­es much of their suc­cess to social media, pop­u­lar­ized the hash­tag #adven­ture­mo­bile. Addi­tion­al­ly, many of the biggest names in out­door sports, like Alex Hon­nold (pro­fes­sion­al climber) and Cyrus Sut­ton (pro­fes­sion­al surfer) to name a few, have opt­ed to live in vans instead of set­tling down. Peo­ple in the out­door indus­try became obsessed with vans and oth­er adven­ture­mo­biles, and for good reason.

Pho­to: @kyleoutside

Whether it’s the stress relief you get from work­ing on your DIY adven­ture­mo­bile project after a long day of work, escap­ing in your mobile base camp for a week­end adven­ture, or tak­ing your van across coun­try while on funem­ploy­ment, vans pro­vide us with a sense of free­dom. They are our mod­ern-day cov­ered wag­ons, ready at a momen­t’s notice to bring us on our next adven­ture. The his­to­ry of vans is so close­ly tied with that of climb­ing and surf­ing, the sports that for­ev­er changed the way we enjoy the out­doors. There will always be jokes made about peo­ple who live in and dri­ve around in vans, just as many peo­ple will poke fun at us van lovers with terms like hip­pies, hip­sters, and dirt­bags. But hey, that just keeps the coun­ter­cul­ture alive and thriv­ing, and noth­ing beats the view of swing­ing open those back doors in the morn­ing with nature’s play­ground at your feet. So my advice to you, if you don’t already have an adven­ture wor­thy vehi­cle, hop on Craigslist, find a fix­er-upper, jump on Pinterest/Youtube for inspi­ra­tion, and start tinkering.