Courtesy Kartik Vasan and Smriti Bhadauria
When Erica Horn received a business email in May 2020 stating that her company would be completely isolated for the next year, she knew immediately that it was time to realize her long-cherished dream of living in a van.
“Nothing made more sense than life in the van when that reality came true,” said Horn, who lived in Oakland before moving into her van. “I had no reason, nothing, to commit myself to this particular place or this rental.”
Horn is not alone. Many workers with jobs that enabled them to work remotely during the pandemic left their sedentary living situations behind and moved to delivery trucks full-time. These remote workers drive from place to place in their homes, work from internet hotspots in their vans, and spend their free time in nature and exploring new places.
As the vaccines roll out and states open up, some workers are returning to their offices. But many workers who have adopted the van life do not want to give it up.
“It has become a way of life,” says Smriti Bhadauria, who lives in her van with her husband, Kartik Vasan, and their dog, Everest. Bhadauria and Vasan have been riding their 1977 Dodge B200 Tradesman since leaving Toronto August 2020.
“We are very happy with this life and the freedom that it gives,” said Bhadauria. “No deadline in sight.”
As with backpacking overseas, the van life appeals to those who love travel or the outdoors, who have the privilege of working remotely, and the budget to spend thousands of dollars buying and setting up their vans. You can convert the money from rent and car payments into an endless travel lifestyle.
“I’ve always been someone who loves to travel, but at the same time I’m definitely a couch potato,” says Cailey Dillon, who works remotely in customer service for Outdoorsy, a van and RV rental company. “I really like that you can always be on the move with the van life, but always have your home with you.”
Courtesy of Kenzo Fong Hing
For some, working in a van is less of a journey and more of an alternative to renting an office.
Kenzo Fong, CEO of tech start-up Rock, started working in his van in May 2020 after his children did their homework at home during the pandemic. Fong still lives in his home in San Francisco, but during the day he gets into his van and picks a new place in town. Fong spends his day working at the desk he’s set up in his van, taking breaks to enjoy the variety of places and gather his thoughts.
Fong prefers this to a one-hour drive from San Francisco to Mountain View, California, as he did on his previous job at Google.
“I just can’t see myself doing that again because there’s so much flexibility to work from anywhere,” said Fong, whose company makes software for remote workers.
Courtesy Kartik Vasan and Smriti Bhadauria
“Internet is the most important thing”
Buying and setting up a van can be a quick process. But people who really get into it can spend months or years getting set up.
For example, Fong bought and financed a converted van and pays a few hundred dollars every month.
“Much less than getting office space in San Francisco,” he said.
In contrast, Horn worked with her father and a contractor on her van for months, setting up the van to the specifications she wanted. By the end of the project, she’d spent about $ 60,000 – $ 25,000 on a used van and about $ 35,000 more on construction.
Van Life Vehicles need a few basics: a place to sleep, a desk or table, kitchen equipment and some kind of bathroom equipment.
But perhaps the most important thing is the computer and internet equipment. Some vans only need a laptop. Others have more complex setups with multiple monitors. However, most have at least two hotspots from different carriers so they can pick up the signal from at least one of the services when they reach new locations.
“Internet is the most important thing,” said Fong, who has a hotspot for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. “I have basically all of the major airlines in case I need them.”
These internet requirements sometimes call for innovative solutions. Horn says he found a great campsite in Sedona, Arizona, but couldn’t find a good signal. So every morning she drove to a nearby town for 30 minutes and parked in front of a Staples store where she could finally establish a strong connection.
“It’s not always glamorous,” Horn said with a laugh.
Having a nine-to-five job can be a nuisance for van life workers too. For full-time workers like Horn, a typical work schedule means they may be parked in a beautiful location without being able to enjoy it until the weekend.
Because of this, many are freelancing in the van lifestyle, said Jess Shisler, the founder of Sekr, an app that helps people who live in vans find campsites or WiFi locations.
“A nine-to-five is difficult, but doable,” said Shisler, who also lives in a van. “The kind of remote careers that give you more flexibility in your schedule are easier to do in this lifestyle.”
Bhadauria and Vasan, for example, work on a project basis.
Vasan works in information technology while Bhadauria has a job in digital marketing. The two spend the early hours of the morning outdoors and then get to work straight away. In the afternoon they take a break from work and explore their surroundings or drive to their next location. No matter what, they make a point of catching the sunset every evening. Ironically, much of their real work is done on Saturday and Sunday.
“We almost never do any activities on the weekends because it is usually crowded, so weekends are work days for us,” said Vasan.
Disadvantages are dirt and loneliness
There’s a lot of work to be done to make a living out of a van too.
Dillon said she was surprised at how dirty her van gets. She spent the first four months of 2021 on the streets and now lives in Platte City, Missouri. and preparing to buy an upgraded van so she can travel again sometime this summer. She would clean and clean while she lived in her van, but the van would get dirty again as soon as the wind blew. At some point, said Dillon, you just learn to live a little dirtier.
Another major challenge is dealing with the loneliness that comes with living on the street. Dillon said she felt very lonely on the street for the first three weeks, and it wasn’t until she got her dog, Koda, that she began to get over it.
“I like to be a loner, but sometimes it gets a little lonely,” she said. “Getting my dog really helped with this loneliness.”
Horn said she spends part of her day doing van chores, like cleaning and making her bed every day. She also has to empty the van’s gray water tank and portable toilet, and refill her with fresh water and propane.
“Most of the moments are not the epic moments when you sleep in the most amazing place and wake up with the most amazing view, there is very little of it in the vast majority, especially when you are working,” said Horn. “But these moments make it worth it.”
Bhadauria, who travels with her husband and dog, says she doesn’t get lonely, but sometimes she misses the friends that living in one place brings. For example, Bhadauria said she wanted to throw a big party for her husband’s 30th birthday, which happened during her time on the street.
“Such things are missing when you want a big gathering or a sense of community,” said Bhadauria.
Although she and Vasan love the life on the street and plan to continue for the foreseeable future, they understand that the lifestyle is not sustainable indefinitely.
“In anything, you get to a point where things feel boring or burn out at some point,” said Bhadauria. “When we get to this stage, we’ll be happy to return to a home base somewhere.”
Despite the challenges of living on the street, those who spoke to CNBC said they plan to continue their nomadic lifestyle until their companies stop working remotely or until they burn out. Horn said she originally planned to live on the streets for at least a year, but that has now changed.
“At six months old, I still feel like I’m just learning this, just getting the hang of it, and just getting started,” she said. “I could imagine doing it for almost two years, and who knows, maybe longer.”