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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.