Like the best marketing terms, “vanlife” is both highly specific and expansive. Credit Photograph by Jeff Minton for The New Yorker Latest beard styles for long face.
Emily King and Corey Smith had been dating for five months when they took a trip to Central America, in February, 2012. At a surf resort in Nicaragua, Smith helped a lanky American named Foster Huntington repair the dings in his board. When the waves were choppy, the three congregated in the resort’s hammock zone, where the Wi-Fi signal was strongest. One afternoon, Huntington listened to the couple have a small argument. Something about their fond irritation made him think that they’d be suited to spending long periods of time together in a confined space. “You guys would be great in a van,” he told them.
The year before, Huntington had given up his apartment in New York and his job as a designer at Ralph Lauren, and moved into a 1987 Volkswagen Syncro. He spent his days surfing, exploring, and taking pictures of his van parked in picturesque locations along the California coast. It was the early days of Instagram, and, over time, Huntington accumulated more than a million followers. He represented a new kind of social-media celebrity, someone famous not for starring in movies or recording hit songs but for documenting an enviable life. “My inspiration,” went a typical comment on one of his posts. “God I wish my life was that free and easy and amazing.” Huntington tagged his posts with phrases like #homeiswhereyouparkit and #livesimply, but the tag he used most often was #vanlife.
King and Smith left Nicaragua for Costa Rica, but the idea of the van stuck with them. King, a telegenic former business student, had quit her job at a Sotheby’s branch when she realized that she was unhappy. Smith, a competitive mountain biker and the manager of a kayak store, had never had a traditional office job. They figured they could live cheaply in a van while placing what they loved—travelling, surfing, mountain biking—at the center of their lives. When King found out that she’d been hired for a Web-development job that didn’t require her presence in an office, it suddenly seemed feasible.
King and Smith, who are thirty-two and thirty-one, respectively, had grown up watching “Saturday Night Live” sketches in which a sweaty, frantic Chris Farley character ranted, “I am thirty-five years old, I am divorced, and I live in a van down by the river!” But, the way Huntington described it, living in a vehicle sounded not pathetic but romantic. “I remember coming home and telling my mom, ‘I have something to tell you,’ ” King said. “She thought I was going to say we were getting married or having a baby. But I said, ‘We’re going to live in a van.’ ”
Huntington’s vanlife hashtag was a joking reference to Tupac’s “thug life” tattoo. “You know, it’s not thug life—it’s van life!” he told me. Six years later, more than 1.2 million Instagram posts have been tagged #vanlife. In 2013, Huntington used Kickstarter to fund “Home Is Where You Park It,” a sixty-five-dollar book of his vanlife photographs, which is now in its fourth printing. In October, Black Dog &, Leventhal will publish his second book on the topic, “Van Life.”
Scroll through the images tagged #vanlife on Instagram and you’ll see plenty of photos that don’t have much to do with vehicles: starry skies, campfires, women in leggings doing yoga by the ocean. Like the best marketing terms, “vanlife” is both highly specific and expansive. It’s a one-word life-style signifier that has come to evoke a number of contemporary trends: a renewed interest in the American road trip, a culture of hippie-inflected outdoorsiness, and a life free from the tyranny of a nine-to-five office job.
Vanlife is an aesthetic and a mentality and, people kept telling me, a “movement.” S. Lucas Valdes, the owner of the California-based company GoWesty, a prominent seller of Volkswagen-van parts, compared vanlife today to surfing a couple of decades ago. “So many people identify with the culture, the attire, the mind-set of surfers, but probably only about ten per cent of them surf,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to tap into.”
“You could buy these vans ten years ago for pennies on the dollar,” Harley Sitner, the owner of Peace Vans, a Volkswagen-van repair and rental shop in Seattle, told me. Sitner, who is forty-nine, said that his generation’s adventurous rite of passage was more along the lines of “backpacking through Southeast Asia, eating mushrooms on a beach in Thailand.” Around five years ago, he began to notice that young people were increasingly interested in old VW vans. “It’s men in their thirties with huge beards, and they’re pretty much all stay-at-home dads,” he said. “Their wives work office jobs and they work on the vans so the family can go out and vanlife on the weekend.”
Part of the fun of vanlife, Sitner theorized, is the old-fashioned, analog pleasure of tinkering. But vanlife, as a concept and as a self-defined community, is primarily a social-media phenomenon. Attaching a name (and a hashtag) to the phenomenon has also enabled people who would otherwise just be rootless wanderers to make their travels into a kind of product. “There are now professional vanlifers,” Huntington told me, sounding slightly scandalized.
Vanlifers have a tendency to call their journeys “projects,” and to describe them in the elevator-pitch terms that make sense to potential sponsors. While still in Central America, King and Smith came up with a name for their project: Where’s My Office Now, a reference to their goal of fusing travel and work. “We wanted to see if it was possible to combine this nomadic hippie life with a nine-to-five job,” Smith explained. After the couple returned from Central America but before they bought a van, King registered a Web site and set up social-media accounts. “The business part of me knew there was potential,” she said. Smith, who was still using a flip phone, was suspicious of his girlfriend’s preoccupation with social media, worrying that it would detract from the experience.
But there was never any doubt about what kind of vehicle they were looking for. Some vanlifers drive shiny new Mercedes Sprinter vans or practical Ford Econolines, but the quintessential van is the Volkswagen Vanagon, beloved for its bulky, unaerodynamic shape. “It’s the Swiss Army knife of the R.V. world,” Smith explained. “And the community is great. And it was going to look great in the photos.” That winter, while living in New England, he and King bought a cream-colored 1987 Vanagon Camper from a woman in upstate New York for thirty-five hundred dollars. The van was sturdy and full of personality, it had a rusty undercarriage and was wired with an external P.A. system that made animal sounds. They called it Boscha, because it sounded like the name of a German grandmother.
They gave away their business-casual clothes and sold their car. In January, 2013, they left New Hampshire during a snowstorm and headed south. Their first post from the road, a picture of the van driving through snowy woods, got ninety-seven likes.
On the first day, the van slid backward down an icy hill and had to be towed. They drove through winds so strong that they worried that Boscha was thrown out of alignment. Progress was slow, even in optimal conditions, the van couldn’t go faster than sixty miles per hour. King and Smith spent Valentine’s Day at a truck stop in Albuquerque, where a security guard accused them of being prostitutes. The uncertainty of life on the road was a constant low-level drain at first, particularly for King, who discovered that she was afraid of the dark.
“Who’s ready for some din-din?”
After the engine conked out in Arizona, a tow truck delivered them to an R.V. park in Sedona. They stayed there for a month while Smith replaced every ground wire in the van. One afternoon, he called GoWesty to talk through a puzzling repair situation. On a whim, he asked a GoWesty manager named Jad Josey if the company did sponsorships. By the end of the day, Josey had e-mailed Smith a one-page contract, asking for periodic social-media mentions in exchange for discounts and subsidized repairs.
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GoWesty’s sales have increased fifty-five per cent in the past five years, thanks in part to the vanlife trend. The company now sponsors fifteen vanlife projects, including one run by a couple selling crêpes and one by a touring folk musician. Smith, who had seen similar deals between cycling companies and mountain-bike racers, was familiar with this kind of arrangement. “I don’t think of myself as an employee of GoWesty but more like an ambassador for their vibe,” Smith told me. He began to see that the time King was spending on social media might have a point after all.
Smith and King slowly grew accustomed to their itinerant life style. They hiked the Grand Canyon and visited hot springs in Oregon. King’s stress abated. With every mechanical breakdown, Smith became more confident handling repairs. He also developed a repertoire of meals suited to the van’s two-burner kitchen. His specialty was a dish he called huevos vancheros: eggs fried in coconut oil, seasoned with turmeric, served over buckwheat with salsa and sauerkraut. The couple bought things to make the van homier and more comfortable: a fruit basket, a travel bidet.
Working on the road proved harder than expected. Smith took occasional part-time jobs—as a mountain-bike guide, as a P.A. for a television show about aliens—but King was the primary breadwinner. “I was working anywhere from fifteen to forty hours a week, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you’re driving around and having all that motion, and what I guess you could call the stress of vanlife—not knowing where you’re going to sleep that night—the anxiety was still there,” she said. “We could never really go deep into national parks or national forests, because I had to always be on call.”
A year into their journey, Smith and King met Zach Driftwood and Andrew Knapp, photographers who were touring in a van to promote a book featuring images of Knapp’s dog. Driftwood and Knapp made money from their popular social-media feeds, through product placement and partnerships with brands. In the course of Smith and King’s travels, their following on Instagram had climbed into the tens of thousands, but they had never been paid for a post. Driftwood encouraged the couple to focus on Instagram if they wanted that to change. “He made it clear it was very viable,” King said.
In August, 2015, King quit her Web-development job. The following spring, Where’s My Office Now posted its first paid, sponsored image to Instagram, on behalf of the water-bottle company Hydro Flask. It showed King heating water in a teakettle, a light-blue thermos conspicuous in the background. “Our bodies, the most precious vehicle for our journey here, run on water,” she wrote in the caption. “A big thank you to @hydroflask for creating durable water bottles that help shift the bottled/privatization of water paradigm.” King and Smith were now professional vanlifers. They began working more product placement into their Instagram posts. Since then, their sponsorships—which King prefers to call “alliances”—have included Kettle Brand potato chips, Clif Bars, and Synergy Organic Clothing. Last summer, the tourism board of Saskatchewan paid the couple seven thousand dollars to drive around the grasslands of central Canada with other popular vanlifers, documenting their (subsidized) kayaking trips and horseback rides.
On a drizzly Tuesday in February, I met Smith and King in front of GoWesty’s offices, in the chilled-out oceanside town of Los Osos, California. The parking lot was full of snub-nosed Vanagons in various states of disrepair. So many road-trippers make pit stops at GoWesty that the company has installed a public shower and bathroom.
Smith is short and broad-shouldered, with a mechanic’s scraped-up knuckles. He wanted me to see Boscha, which was up on a lift in the back of the shop, its undercarriage exposed, suffering from as yet undiagnosed engine trouble. Because Where’s My Office Now is one of GoWesty’s most high-profile sponsored projects, the company does some upgrades and any necessary repairs—which would likely amount to thousands of dollars of work—for free. This was GoWesty’s second major overhaul of the van, in 2015, it did a thorough upgrade, replacing the engine, the cooling system, the bumpers, and the wheels, and adding a bike rack.
GoWesty had loaned the couple a van so that they could get back on the road while Boscha was being fixed. They had spent the previous four months holed up at their parents’ homes in New England, as King recovered from an intestinal parasite she’d picked up on a backpacking trip in Montana. It was the longest the couple had stayed in one place—and not slept in a van—in four years, and the time off the road presented a problem. Where’s My Office Now has nearly a hundred and forty thousand Instagram followers and a dozen corporate sponsors, maintaining that kind of audience requires constant tending. King, who is largely responsible for the project’s social-media presence, had done her best to post images from older travels, but the archive was getting thin.
As the afternoon got progressively gloomier, Smith and King transferred their belongings from Boscha to the loaner van: two surfboards (bought at a discount from a sponsor), wetsuits, tins of red lentils and buckwheat, stacks of T-shirts and leggings (mostly from sponsors), a woven blanket (a gift from a sponsor), a hand broom, two yoga mats, three hula hoops in different sizes, a tool kit, a digital S.L.R. camera, and a bag of wheat-free kibble for their soulful, brindled dog, Penny. A sticker on their portable fridge read “It’s not a slow car, it’s a fast house.” The couple travel lighter than they used to—when they first set out, they lashed five bikes to the back of the van.
We didn’t pull out of the GoWesty parking lot until almost two the following afternoon, three hours behind schedule. A surfing app on Smith’s phone indicated that a promising swell was approaching Southern California, so he headed south on the 101. The borrowed van, a 1990 four-wheel-drive Syncro, made disconcerting noises. “You’re wrestling with the van, wrestling with the wind, every truck that goes by you vibrates you,” Smith said. King sat cross-legged in the back seat, replying to e-mails.
At a rest stop, a man in his fifties stepped out of a white S.U.V. and eyed the van hungrily. “I bet that can go anywhere,” he said. Smith, who seemed to have an infinite capacity for small talk, stood in the rain and chatted with him. King was fretful about the delay, sponsors were clamoring for posts. “We really need to create content,” she said. “And that’s hard to do in this concrete jungle.”
It had been an extremely wet winter in California, and more rain was expected. At sunset, we were stuck in rush-hour traffic near Santa Barbara, windshield wipers ticking, as a chain of red brake lights snaked up the freeway in front of us. It was after dark when we pulled into a campground by the ocean, outside Ventura. Smith found a parking spot between two hulking R.V.s, their generators thrumming.
On sunny days, with the doors wide open, the van seemed spacious enough that the R.V.s baffled me, what on earth did they need all that room for? But on a chilly night, with the doors shut against the rain, three adults and a dog made the van feel cramped. Smith and King seemed to have developed an unspoken system for sharing space, but everywhere I stationed myself I was in the way.
Smith made vegetarian chili that night. After dinner, King lit a stick of incense to cover up the mingled smells of cumin, damp dog, and unwashed human. Smith set up the Syncro’s pop-top and strapped on a rainfly. I clambered up to the loft and lay awake in the small wedge of space under the ceiling, listening to the rain pelt the van.
Ken Ilgunas spent most of two years living in a van when he was a graduate student at Duke University in order to avoid racking up debt, an experience he chronicled in a book called “Walden on Wheels,” published in 2013. Living in a van makes you thriftier and more self-reliant, Ilgunas told me. You learn to live with discomfort, a quality that he doesn’t see in the Instagram version of vanlife. “My van never looked like anything out of a Wes Anderson film,” he said. “It was difficult for me to wash my cooking pots. For a couple of weeks, I had mice living in my ceiling upholstery. There were times the van got so hot I thought I would die if I took a nap. And it was lonely. Just knowing that I would have to tell women where I lived deterred even the thought of dating.” In contrast, the vans on Instagram look like “aesthetically pleasing jewelry boxes,” Ilgunas said. “Usually with one or two good-looking people sprawled out in bed in front of a California beach.”
It’s true that the same vanlife pictures get taken over and over: the van’s back doors opening onto an ocean vista, a long-exposure nighttime shot of the van, cozy and lit from within, against a backdrop of stars, a woman on the van’s roof, in the middle of a sun salutation. (There are so many images of vans parked in improbably beautiful places—the middle of a lake, the edge of a cliff—that there’s an Instagram account called You Did Not Sleep There, devoted to collecting the least believable ones.) One vanlife trope, a middle-distance shot of a van on an empty, winding road, seems more self-consciously artificial than most: someone clearly had to hop out and run back to get the shot. The ideal vanlife image has something of the hazy impersonality of a photograph in an upscale catalogue, depicting a scene that’s both attractive and unspecific enough that viewers can imagine themselves into it.
There is an undeniable aesthetic and demographic conformity in the vanlife world. Nearly all of the most popular accounts belong to young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples. “There’s the pretty van girl and the woodsy van guy,” Smith said. “That’s what people want to see.” At times, the vanlife community seems full of millennials living out a leftover baby-boomer fantasy: the Volkswagens, the neo-hippie fashions, the retro gender dynamics.
But, for all its twee escapism, vanlife is a trend born out of the recent recession. “We heard all these promises about what will happen after you go to college and get a degree,” Smith said. “We graduated at a time when all that turned out to be a bunch of bullshit.” The generation that’s fuelling the trend has significantly more student debt and lower rates of homeownership than previous cohorts. The rise of contract and temporary labor has further eroded young people’s financial stability. “I think there’s a sense of hopelessness in my generation, in terms of jobs,” Foster Huntington said. “And it’s cheap to live in a van.” And so, like staycations and minimalism, vanlife is an attempt to aestheticize and romanticize the precariousness of contemporary life. “It looks like they’re having fun,” Huntington said, of King and Smith. “But they’re working a lot.”
During the couple’s four years on the road, hundreds of people have contacted Smith for advice. Last year, he began providing donation-based vanlife consulting, offering to help people “live [their] vanlife vision.” So far, he has had meetings on the phone with around a dozen people. “They never want to know what the most beautiful place is,” he told me. “They want to know: Where do you pee? How do you and Emily not kill each other?” The answer to the first question is relatively simple: outside, or in campground bathrooms, or—on particularly cold nights or stretches of road with little privacy—in a plastic yogurt container. The second is more complicated.
“Everything is magnified, because it’s such a small space,” King told me. “The trash is in our face, the dishes are in our face, Corey is in my face, I’m in his face. Any personality conflicts, ego conflicts, it’s all right there.”
Most of the couple’s fights revolve around organization: when and how often to sweep out the van, whether they can wait until the morning to do the dishes, if they’re posting frequently enough. Smith is neat, and a self-described “planner”, when stressed, he can edge toward control-freak territory. (One afternoon, he watched me tear into a bag of corn chips and shook his head in disappointment. “You open bags wrong, too,” he said.) This regularly brings him into conflict with King, who is more flexible and fanciful, and occasionally prone to sloppiness.
In Smith’s consulting sessions, he encourages couples to develop separate habits and to find small ways to spend time apart. While Smith cooks breakfast, King walks the dog, in the afternoons, he’ll go for a long bike ride while she practices yoga and writes in her journal. “Having good weather helps a lot,” King told me.
On another rainy morning in Ventura, the air smelled like salt and R.V. exhaust. King checked Instagram on her phone, her most recent post, a shot of a storm building over the Pacific, had been something of an aesthetic departure—most Where’s My Office Now images include King, the van, or Penny, the most popular tend to include all three—and it was underperforming. “I don’t think people are even reading this post, because it’s a picture of the ocean and apparently people don’t want to look at that,” she said testily.
King and Smith have posted more than thirteen hundred photographs to their account. Scrolling through the feed in chronological order, you can see King, who shoots most of the photos, become better at composing and editing images, and at tailoring them to what the audience wants to see. In the early days, she took pictures of flowers and sunsets. “I’d never post something like that now,” she said, looking at a closeup of ripening blackberries, from four years ago. As I thumbed toward the top of the screen, I had the disconcerting sense of watching a life become a life-style brand.
King clicked on the account’s most successful post, which has more than eight thousand likes. In the image, the back seat of the van is folded down into a bed, King faces away from the camera, holding a sheet to her chest, her hair cascading down her naked back. The second most popular post was of King wearing a bikini, standing on the van’s front bumper. In the next most popular, King is in a bikini, slicing lemons.
“People really want to see beautiful locations,” King said.
“They want to see Emily in a bikini, they want to see a sun flare, they want to see the van,” Smith said. “Ones of Emily in the van waking up with Penny, they crush it.”
“It’s real and it’s kind of moody—”
“It’s a naked female,” Smith said. “If I’m in that picture, it gets three thousand likes.”
“Sorry. I have no interest in being your gay best friend. Try human resources.”
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Later that afternoon, a rust-brown 1984 Vanagon Westfalia with a vanlife decal on its rear window pulled in to the parking lot. The driver introduced himself as Mike Hagy, a forty-two-year-old ad-agency art director from Santa Monica, and a fan of Where’s My Office Now. He had seen on Instagram that Smith and King were in Ventura and decided to come say hello. “In a vanlife-geek kind of way, they are kind of celebrities,” he said. “I live in L.A., so seeing celebrities is no big thing—I almost hit Leonardo DiCaprio surfing once. But I was all excited to come down here. My friend was, like, ‘You’re such a dork.’ ”
The collapsing distance between brand and life has led to social-media influencing, in which advertisers pay for endorsements from people with strong online followings. Celebrity endorsements aren’t new, of course, but influencer marketing expands the category of “celebrity” to include teen-age fashionistas, drone racers, and particularly photogenic dogs. Advertisers work with people like Smith and King precisely because they’re not famous in the traditional sense. They’re appealing to brands because they have such a strong emotional connection with their followers. Krishna Subramanian, the co-founder of captiv8, a company that has helped Where’s My Office Now connect with advertisers, said, “Their followers know what they’re doing day in and day out.” Accounts with between fifty thousand and two hundred thousand followers are considered “microinfluencers,” and tend to have higher engagement rates—that is, a larger share of their followers like, favorite, or comment on their posts—than those with millions of followers. “It’s very niche-focussed,” Subramanian said. “That’s really interesting to an advertiser who wants to promote something very specific to that audience.” One study estimated that the social-media-influencer market was worth five hundred million dollars in 2015, the market is expected to increase to at least five billion dollars by 2020.
Though King and Smith have worked out some of their branding partnerships directly, a growing number of companies serve as intermediaries between influencers and brands. Talent agencies develop entire social-media campaigns, tech startups, including captiv8, have built businesses around analytics platforms that identify potential influencers and evaluate the reach of digital campaigns.
Top social-media influencers receive tens of thousands of dollars for endorsing a product, but King and Smith aren’t there yet, they make between five hundred and fifteen hundred dollars for each sponsored post. Last year, their first year attempting to earn a living primarily through social media, they made eighteen thousand dollars. In the first two months of 2017, they had already lined up ten thousand dollars’ worth of endorsements. Smith and King told me that they work only with brands they feel connected to. “We try to leverage the power we have as influencers in the social-media world to bring light to companies that are doing good in the world, that are creating products we believe in,” King explained. “We see every dollar as a vote.” They are sponsored by several companies whose products they use every day, including TruthPaste, which makes clay-based toothpaste, and Four Sigmatic, a “superfood company” that sells instant coffee enhanced with mushroom elixirs.
We had been in Ventura for two soggy days. Smith described the waves as “garbage,” and, because he chooses where and when the couple travels, he decided that it was time to move on. He had heard about a hot spring in Los Padres National Forest that he was eager to check out, and King wanted to get back to the woods, where the opportunities for content creation were better. But, in the hour it took to pack up the van, the sun began to peek through the clouds and the wind shifted direction. Smith started casting longing glances at the improving surf. “We’re kinda breaking one of our rules,” he said, as we prepared to drive out of the parking lot. “Never walk away from good waves.”
He reversed back into the parking spot. As Smith pulled on his wetsuit, King unfurled her yoga mat and stretched herself into a long, luxurious forward bend. “This is what vanlife is about,” Smith said. They decided to use their extra day in Ventura to take a photograph for one of their newest sponsors, “Outsiders,” a WGN show about an Appalachian family living off the grid and battling a greedy coal company. The screener that the network provided had put King and Smith off at first. “It’s got quite a bit of violence in it,” King said. “We want to stand for peace.” But, the more they talked it over, the more they were able to rationalize the partnership. “We aren’t promoting violence, but we can’t ignore violence,” King said. It didn’t hurt that the company was offering triple their usual rate. But the collaboration had not been an easy one, King had exchanged more than seventy e-mails with the “Outsiders” reps, who asked to approve the photographs and the captions in advance, and wanted to dictate what time they were posted. (Engagement rates are the highest at 11
Smith had a particular image in mind: King sprawled in the back of the van, reading a book about Ayurveda with Penny nestled next to her, and an “Outsiders” decal featured prominently on her laptop. As Smith shot from the front seat, King tried a few different positions—knees bent, legs propped up against the window—and pretended to read the book. “Sometimes it’s more spontaneous,” she said apologetically.
“It’s about storytelling, and when you’re telling a story it’s not always spontaneous,” Smith said. “Lift your head up a little bit more, look like you’re reading.”
King positioned Penny at her feet, but the dog kept moving, distracted by grebes bobbing on the waves. Smith grew frustrated by the strong contrast between the dim van interior and the bright ocean beyond. King attempted to placate him. “Corey, this is O.K., this is O.K., this is fun,” she said.
After more than half an hour, Smith got a shot he was satisfied with. The next day, as he drove in the rain to Los Padres National Forest, King sat in the back and fixed the overexposed ocean in Photoshop. The post, when it went up, looked cozy and relaxed. King added a long caption, about how living in the van had made her reconsider what “work” actually means. “I no longer define work by money, instead seeing it as our focused action collectively creating our world,” she wrote. “Currently my work is storytelling and aligning with companies supporting our lifestyle and Earth.”
“Such a beautiful lifestyle,” one commenter wrote. “This looks like heaven,” another said.
Before we reached the forest, we stopped at another surf break, north of Ventura. A middle-aged man in a shiny Volvo station wagon pulled into the parking lot behind us. He’d seen us on the freeway and followed us, he said. He wanted to talk about vans, and self-sufficiency, and freedom. Just a few days into vanlife, I had become accustomed to this kind of encounter: the hunger in the eyes of middle-aged men at the sight of old Volkswagens, and how not entirely bad it felt to be a symbol that other people projected their fantasies onto. Smith smiled politely as the man kept talking. “You’re survivors,” the man said emphatically, thumping his steering wheel. “You’re living in reality.” ♦