Jocelyn Lees never set out to live in her van.
The 30-year-old Manitoba native has been tree planting every summer in B.C. for the last ten years and until recently, spent every winter travelling — in places like Ecuador, Morocco and Australia.
“The nature of my job is that I’m always away from home, and then in the winters I was away,” Lees says. “So, when would I ever be in this house that I would pay to have?”
When her car broke down a few years ago, she decided it was time to make a life change.
Instead of paying for rent, she invested in a camper van, which gave her more mobility and a comfortable place to sleep during her summers in the woods. Her 1981 Dodge has been her home ever since. She plans to base herself in the Vancouver area this winter.
“Having my van is amazing,” she says. “I just wake up at the beach.”
Lees is part of a community of Canadians who often dub themselves “van-lifers.” They have a variety of motivations: a desire for adventure; frustration with expensive rental markets and precarious employment; and the possibility of social media fame.
Many Canadian van-lifers end up out West, often favouring Vancouver Island. Twenty-two-year-old Sacha Morin-Sirois described Tofino as “literally, the end of the road.”
When Morin-Sirois travelled with his family as a young boy, he would dream of setting off on his own, sleeping in his van and surviving the elements.
“It’s mostly a call for freedom, I think,” he says.
He and his girlfriend left Gatineau, Que., in June in a van older than they are — it’s a 1991 model — with plans that weren’t much more specific than “head west.” They both wanted to integrate their travels with their chosen careers: Morin-Sirois, a chef, took on seasonal work picking fruit in the Okanagan and developed dishes using whatever was in season. His girlfriend, a writer, started a blog about their experiences and worked on her fiction.
Lisa Felepchuk and her partner Coleman Molnar, who lived in Toronto until a year-and-a-half ago, also incorporate their work into their van life. They offer content and social media services through their company Li et Co Media and organize their travels around making sure Wi-Fi is accessible. That’s occasionally meant skipping out on some places they wanted to visit.
“Last year we were so close to the Mexican border, and I regret not going into Baja,” Felepchuk says. “But the Wi-Fi was a big question for us, and we weren’t sure if we got down there what it would mean for us and for our business.
“I think finding that work-life balance is tricky for most people,” she says.
Adds Molnar: “The only difference between us and somebody who has a regular job and lives in a house is that we’re able to just take our jobs on vacation with us.”
Other van-lifers prefer to unplug completely, using money saved from previous jobs to finance a work-free experience. Adrian Myles, 38, goes home to Perth, Australia to work as a sommelier every few years, which allows him to travel for a year or two without having to worry about money.
“People living this life aren’t sitting around talking about what was back at home,” says Myles, who was recently travelling through B.C.
“You can know someone for a month and never know what their job was, because you don’t ask, because it doesn’t matter.”
A New Yorker piece published earlier this year explored the business side of the #vanlife social media movement. A profile of Emily King and Corey Smith, who post under the Instagram handle Where’s My Office Now, demonstrated that their dreamy, aspirational photo feed — stunning cliffsides, starry skies, exotic vistas — was the result of hours of deliberate work in an effort to make their lives seem whimsical and spontaneous. Their social media following allows them, like other popular van-lifers, to monetize their travel experience. They receive money from companies to feature their products on Instagram or other platforms.
Canada has its own social media stars, including “Van Man” Philippe Leblond, a model originally from Montreal. He now lives in Los Angeles and travels out of his van, taking trips he documents to his 164,000 Instagram followers.
Felepchuk and Molnar know of King and Smith and describe them as “an inspiration.” But they also represent “a warning sign in (how you can) go wrong when you just advertise with whoever. They have these poems written about Kettle Chips, and it’s just like…” Molnar says, his voice trailing off.
For their part, Felepchuk and Molnar say branded content is only a small part of their income.
Others eschew social media completely. Myles says he used to take a lot of photos to document the places he visited. But he kept feeling that the urge to compose a perfect shot was distracting him from the natural beauty he had travelled to see.
“You would go somewhere and you were framing the photo,” he says. “What’s running through your head is, ‘How do I show this to somebody else?’ That by definition takes you out of it.”
Morin-Sirois says he and his girlfriend once got in a fight because she kept wistfully looking at other people’s social media photos while they were on their own trip.
“I told her, ‘Why are you looking at other people’s lives? Just be here and enjoy it,'” he says.
“People want what they don’t have, and that’s really not my mentality at all.”
Molnar is also happy to admit that van life isn’t always easy and that the photos leave out a lot of the less-glamorous elements. Vans break down all the time, he says, and old ones can sometimes be slow to repair.
“I like to say that there’s a thin line between freedom and homelessness, and we’ve walked that at a few points,” he says.
Myles once locked his keys inside his van on a cliff during a sleet storm. Lees’s van broke down after she and a friend had purchased about $400 worth of peaches for canning — luckily, it started up again soon, before the fruit started to rot. Morin-Sirois and his girlfriend had to throw out a lot of vegetables over the summer, when they took their non-air conditioned van to Arizona. Even in their small fridge, their food wouldn’t stay cool. In a van, “even if you’re inside, you’re still outside,” he says.
But those kinds of experiences promote self-reliance, they say. You get comfortable in a small space and you learn to fend for yourself. Lees says people tend to assume she’s sick of her van. There’s sometimes a pitying quality in the way people offer up their couch for her to sleep on, she adds. But even when she goes back to her parents’ house, Lees says she’d rather sleep in the bed in her van than the one in the house.
Myles says people sometimes think living in the wilderness is a rejection of society, but he doesn’t see it that way at all.
“My old English teacher messaged me and said, ‘You could write the next “Into the Wild,”‘” Myles remembers.
“I said, ‘Well, people only read books where people either die or learn something at the end, and I’m not really here to do that. I’m just hear to live the actual experience.'”
Maija Kappler, The Canadian Press