Vanlife: Beyond the Hashtag

#itsnotaboutthevan

Like many of you, I was intrigued by the images of vanlife. Who isn’t captivated by a life punctuated with exciting adventures and beautiful vistas on a seemingly daily basis? But is vanlife feasible for those of us who don’t have a career as a digital nomad? After 14-months of van dwelling while maintaining a full-time career in healthcare, I can say with confidence that it’s not only possible, but I find it preferable to my previous way of life. While living out of a van may not be possible or even desirable for most people, many of the less popularized benefits of being a van dweller can be applied to more conventional lifestyles.


Vanlife isn't all about unicorns and glacial-blue lakes. Of course, I’ve had my fair share unforgettable adventures, but the basic responsibilities and challenges of life don’t cease to exist because I live out of a van. The moments and lessons that I value the most can’t be captured in an image on my social-media feed. I could be anywhere doing something as mundane as making my bed or chopping vegetables, and I get lost in the moment. I’m not thinking about the multitude of things that would have distracted me in my previous conventional lifestyle. Being content with the “tea and rice” of daily life also seems to have changed my motivation to travel. Now, it’s more about the experience and less about the need to “get away” from a hectic life. Why a van? Vanlife is just one expression of minimalism. It’s a means to deliberately simplify the external and internal conditions for the purpose of creating more time and space for experiential learning, service, and community. 

It’s an interesting paradox that living out of 76 square feet has given me the space to see what I value most. Reducing the external clutter and many of the possessions irrelevant to my chief purpose in life provides greater focus of my time and energy regardless of the type of roof over my head. How did I begin the process of decluttering my life? There’s concept in minimalism, coined by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, called a “Packing party.” This is when you put all of your possessions into boxes, label them, but only open the boxes as you need something. Whatever is left in the boxes after a year is either sold or donated. I struggled with letting go of certain things, but in the end it was just stuff. I think it’s human nature to have an attachment to material possessions whether for sentimental or practical reasons, but how many experiences had I traded for all of that stuff that bought in my 20’s and 30’s? One benefit of living so simply is that it’s the easiest way to gain control over the ever-elusive, work-life balance. Looking back, many of the things I was working to pay for were things I only “needed” because I worked. Some stuff was for convenience, but the majority of my possessions seemed to be a misguided way to represent the value of working. The partial restraint to consume and sacrifice of certain amenities has secured greater abundance in untold directions of my life. 

Would I feel differently about such an austere lifestyle if I hadn’t chosen it? Yes. Autonomy, the capacity to choose for oneself, is a major determinant of happiness. That’s the beauty of “voluntary simplicity”.  You decide what brings you joy and organize your life around that purpose. What’s my purpose? It’s too soon to tell what the next chapter of my life will be, but I’m confident that my talents and interests will continue to reveal themselves through my experiences. 

Has vanlife has been a radical change from my previous way of life? Absolutely, but returning to a life with the white picket fence would seem just as radical to me now. Spending my weekends making trips to Home Depot for a DIY project just doesn’t seem like living to me anymore. So it seems, any change is only as radical as the entrenched idea that opposes it. It’s a fitting cliché to say, “Home is where the heart is.” Home is where we go to get away from the craziness of our busy lives and find security. Whether I'm parked in a concrete jungle or a National Park, the van has become my home. How or where will I be living in ten years? I can’t answer that, but I'm becoming increasingly more comfortable with letting go of the things that don't serve me and bringing in more of the experiences that do. 


@acavemancandoit

Published: June 4, 2017

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations.

Jason Asleson

Park City

Trail-junkie; Full-time van dweller and clinical pharmacist based in Park City, Utah.