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.


For the past 10 years Cyrus Sut­ton, life­long surfer and founder of, has been liv­ing the van life; trav­el­ing around the Amer­i­can West surf­ing while liv­ing out of a cus­tom camper van. Recent­ly, he upgrad­ed his adven­ture mobile by con­vert­ing a 170″ Sprint­er Van, the biggest size avail­able, into the ulti­mate DIY camper van. The van itself has solar-pow­er, is lined with cedar wood, and has a built-in ham­mock, sink, and gas stove, to name just a few of the ameni­ties. Check out this video for some info on how his van was built, what resources he used to come up with the design, and how much the total cost came out to.

Cyrus Sut­ton’s Con­vert­ed Sprint­er Van // Pho­to @cyrussutton