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Table by the camper
970 VW Camper

Van-dwelling or vanlife is an unconventional lifestyle of living in a car, van or other motor vehicle. A person who lives in such a manner, either on a full or part-time basis, is known as a van dweller, car dweller or vehicle dweller. People who live this way by choice are typically seeking a more self-sufficient lifestyle characterized by freedom and mobility. They may perceive it as being a less regulated form of housing, or one that offers a lower cost advantage over standard housing, especially in regions susceptible to housing shortages.[1] Other van dwellers may be one step away from living on the street or in a shelter.

In 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,[2] an idealized version has been popularized through social media with the hashtag #vanlife.[3][4]


Van-dwelling is a compound word that denotes the fact that motor vehicle living takes place typically, but not exclusively, in a van. Many different types of motor vehicles have been used for vandwelling, either permanently or only on a temporary basis. Some of these are former public buses or school buses ("skoolies"), campervans, recreational vehicles (RVs), travel trailers, motorhomes, sport utility vehicles (SUVs), decommissioned ambulances, and cars. The vehicle is typically modified with basic amenities, such as house batteries,[5] solar panels,[6] a bed platform,[7] some form of toilet,[8] sink, and storage space.

A person who engages in van dwelling is known as a van dweller,[9] car dweller[10] or vehicle dweller.[11][12][13] Sometimes, a car dweller is known as a car sleeper. If the residence is temporary, it may be referred to as car camping.[14] Cars (including SUVs and cargo vans but typically not pickup trucks) with the seats folded flat/down and a mattress placed inside is referred to as "床车" in China, literally translates to "bed car".[15]


The history of vandwelling goes back to horse-drawn vehicles such as Roma vardo wagons in Europe, and covered Conestoga wagons in the United States. One of the first uses of the term "vandwellers" was in the United Kingdom Showman and Van Dwellers' Protection Association,[16] a guild for travelling show performers formed in 1889. Shortly afterwards in 1901, Albert Bigalow Paine wrote The Van Dwellers,[17] about people living on the verge of poverty having to live a nomadic life in horse-drawn moving vans. After the introduction of motorised vehicles, the modern form of vandwelling began.[citation needed]

Mobile wheeled homes became popular in the US following the Great Depression in the mid-1930s as house trailers first entered mass production. This expanded availability beyond the domain of hobbyists and small-batch builders. A New York Times article in 1936 described "hundreds of thousands of families [who] have packed their possessions into traveling houses, said goodbye to their friends, and taken to the open road."[18][19] Through 1960, approximately 1.5-2 million Americans acquired house trailers. In the 1960s this trend ended with the development of mobile homes, less expensive but less mobile alternatives to the earlier traveling houses.[18]


United States[edit]

In the US, individuals who lack a permanent address and stable living situation, including vandwellers, are technically considered "homeless".[20] Of the 60,000 homeless people in Los Angeles, approximately 25% were living in a vehicle.[21]

Many municipalities have laws prohibiting overnight parking and/or sleeping in vehicles. Even in such areas, some retailers in the US such as Walmart, Cracker Barrel[22] and The Home Depot often allow people in RVs and other vehicles to stay in their (private property) parking lots overnight.[23] In Los Angeles, living in a vehicle is prohibited on most streets.[21] The city has municipal codes regarding times and places where someone is authorized to live in a vehicle.[24] Non-profit organizations in a number of California cities sponsor "safe parking" intitiatives, which offer limited facilities and some security in designated Safe Parking lots.[21] In the Western United States, the Bureau of Land Management allows vandwellers and other campers to remain in many areas of their vast administration for up to 14 days at a time.[22]


The vandwelling lifestyle can allow for significant autonomy and a lower cost of living than having a mortgage or lease as in a more traditional living arrangement. Assuming they have the means, vandwellers are free to travel as much or little as they would like. Some vandwellers choose to remain in one general area, and work full-time or attend school while living in their vehicles. Others travel full-time while working remotely via the Internet or finding seasonal or short-term employment opportunities in various locations.[25]

Since vandwelling consists of living in a vehicle with a footprint no larger than a parking space, there is usually little to no space for bathing or doing laundry. Some vandwellers in the US use gym memberships to access showers at establishments such as Planet Fitness.[22] Others rely on campground or truck stop showers, or, when no other options are available, cleaning wipes.[26] For washing clothes they may use a bucket and the van's vibration to agitate the water, or will go to a laundromat or use friends' or family members' washers and dryers.[27]

#vanlife on social media[edit]

Converted Ram Promaster 3500 with four 100 watt solar panels.

Various depictions of the van dwelling lifestyle are presented on YouTube and Instagram, using the hashtag #vanlife — ranging from starkly realistic appraisals to heavily idealistic depictions.

The hashtag #vanlife was first used and popularized by a photoblogger named Foster Huntington in 2011.[28] Many depictions illustrate idyllic natural scenery, sometimes framed by the open back doors of the van, or with the van prominently visible in the landscape. Others depictions feature spotless, stylized interior views of the living space. The people pictured in the images might be young, attractive and outdoorsy millennials.[22] The depictions are often set in natural areas, particularly in the Western US.[29]

Other notable contributors to the #vanlife movement included the Vanlife Diaries blog and Instagram account. In 2019, the founders of Vanlife Diaries would release a book called vanlife diaries: finding freedom on the open road which pulled content from its blog and Instagram.[30]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some social media users promoted the #vanlife lifestyle as a way to stay safe and avoid illness.[31] The movement attracted many newcomers to the lifestyle including younger and more diverse people than the initial promoters of the lifestyle.[32]

A less idealized, more stark depiction was presented in the 2021 film, Nomadland.[33]

Vehicle modifications[edit]

Van conversions consist of a wide range of possibilities. A conversion can be as simple as a few personal items thrown in the back, such as a sleeping bag or folding bed along with a few pieces of clothing, while using only the engine battery for power.[9] It escalates all the way up to vans that function like micro-apartments on wheels with complex power setups, a kitchenette, and even simple plumbing. Vehicles like the Volkswagen Westfalia, a regular passenger van, or a cargo van, can be modified for day-to-day living by a professional conversion company. Upscale van conversion can provide most of the amenities of a conventional home including heating, air conditioning, a house battery system, a two-burner stove, a permanent bed, and other conveniences that make the vehicle fit for full-time living.[22] School bus modifications ("skoolies") are also common among vandwellers.[34]


Since many vandwellers lack a permanent address, they sometimes use mail forwarding services, instead of a simple post office box, in order to receive packages and other mail. This is beneficial because the forwarder can then send packages to an address which the vandweller can access. Vandwellers often pay their bills and conduct business online through the use of public Wi-Fi,[35] which they can access at libraries or in eateries such as Starbucks.[22]


Vandwellers will usually work seasonal jobs, ranging from national parks to warehouse jobs. Some vandwellers work only part of the year then use the money earned to travel.

Vandwellers have been known to be digital nomads who work remotely from workplace or have a job that does not require working at location.[36] Some of them are self-employed entrepreneurs, photographers, youtubers, writers or translators, or do arts and handcraft-related work. Their job sometimes can be related to travelling or work done at location wherever they currently are.[37] Some of them work normal day jobs and occasionally travel.[38] Alternatively, some vandwellers have permanent employment at Silicon Valley tech companies and choose to live in a van to both save on high rents and take advantage of generous company perks that include free food, on-site showers, and laundry service.[9]

In popular culture[edit]

Actor Chris Farley's character Matt Foley would often describe himself "living in a van down by the river" in Saturday Night Live sketches.

Notable vandwellers[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Blevins, Jason (2021-05-17). "Vanlife is booming in Colorado as housing costs climb and work-anywhere appeal grows". The Colorado Sun. Retrieved 2023-11-16.
  2. ^ Bomey, Nathan. "#VanLife takes off during COVID-19 as Americans convert vans for a life on the road". USA TODAY. Retrieved 2021-09-19.
  3. ^ Bowles, Nellie (2020-07-03). "The #Vanlife Business Is Booming". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-09-22.
  4. ^ Pietsch, Bryan (2021-04-02). "How Veterans of #Vanlife Feel About All the Newbies". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-09-22.
  5. ^ "Battery Isolator". Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  6. ^ "100W Solar Panel Install". MTB Van Life. 4 June 2018. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  7. ^ "The Rig(5/30/13, updating Nov 2017)". SwankieWheels. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  8. ^ "Toilets". Retrieved 3 October 2018.
    - "Sanitation". SwankieWheels. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  9. ^ a b c Kotecki, Peter and Bendix, Aria (October 27, 2018) "50 Disappointing Photos Show What Converted Van Living is Really Like", Business Insider. Retrieved November 23, 2023.
  10. ^ Car Dwellers Could Get The 'Boot' Under Proposed Parking Law, Joshua McNichols, KUOW News, [1]
  11. ^ Palo Alto Deals With Vehicle Dwellers, Wall Street Journal, Deborah Gage, 7-12-2012, [2]
  12. ^ Who are the vehicle dwellers?, Vickie Boone, Palo Alto Weekly
  13. ^ City of Palo Alto on a collision course with homeless vehicle dwellers, Chad Brunswick, Palo Alto Free Press, 8-5-2013, [3]
  14. ^ "What is Car Camping?". Retrieved 2023-09-27.
  15. ^ "什么是床车-太平洋汽车百科". Retrieved 2023-09-27.
  16. ^ "Introduction to the History of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain and the Regional Divisions". University of Sheffield. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  17. ^ Paine, Albert Bigelow (1901). The Van Dwellers (Ebook). New York: J. F. Taylor & Company. Retrieved 3 October 2018 – via ManyBooks.
  18. ^ a b Bruder, Jessica (2017). Nomadland : surviving America in the twenty-first century (First ed.). New York, N.Y. ISBN 9780393249316.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  19. ^ Miller, Clyde R. (20 December 1936). "Trailer Life Seen Good for Nation, Aiding Instead of Displacing Homes Creating Social Problem". The New York Times.
  20. ^ "What Is the Official Definition of Homelessness". National Health Care for the Homeless Council. Retrieved 1 November 2018.
  21. ^ a b c Simon, Dan (December 23, 2019) "Living In Her Car, She Was Afraid and Harassed. Then She Found an Unexpected Refuge", CNN. Retrieved February 7, 2022.
  22. ^ a b c d e f Andrews, Jeff (Apr 3, 2019). "The Business of Van Life". Curbed. Retrieved May 19, 2022.
  23. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". Walmart. 2 October 2015. Retrieved 6 February 2021.
  24. ^ "Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) 85.02 – Vehicle Dwelling". City of Los Angeles. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  25. ^ Trujillo, Stevie (September 13, 2021) "What I Learned From Living Five Years In a Van", The Guardian. Retrieved February 7, 2022.
  26. ^ "Bathing". Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  27. ^ "Laundry day". Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  28. ^ Heyden, Dylan. "Foster Huntington's New Book Is a Collection of Van Lifers' Stories that Continue to Inspire Him". The Inertia. Retrieved 1 November 2018.
  29. ^ "#Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement". The New Yorker. Retrieved 1 November 2018.
  30. ^ Morton, Dustow and Melrose, Kathleen, Jonny and Jared (2018). Vanlife Diaries: Finding Freedom on the Open Road. Ten Speed Press. ISBN 9780399581144.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  31. ^ Houlis, AnnaMarie (2020-04-17). "How to Survive a Pandemic from a 30-Year-Old Van in the Australian Bush". Gear Patrol. Retrieved 2022-08-11.
  32. ^ Pietsch, Bryan (2021-04-02). "How Veterans of #Vanlife Feel About All the Newbies". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-08-11.
  33. ^ James, Caryn (September 14, 2020) "Nomadland Review: 'Overflowing With Humanity and Tenderness'", Retrieved February 8, 2021.
  34. ^ Liles, Maryn (October 2, 2019) "You'd Never Believe This Beautiful Home Is a Renovated School Bus (And Their Skoolie Just Hit the Market for $80K!)", Parade. Retrieved February 8, 2022.
  35. ^ Rodriguez, Salvador (June 20, 2021) "As Offices Shut Down for Covid, Workers Bought Vans and Hit The Road — And Some Don't Want to Return", Retrieved October 17, 2021.
  36. ^ Withrow, Brandon (February 18, 2022) "What Vanlife Is Really Like", Retrieved February 20, 2022.
  37. ^ "Make Money Traveling - How to Support a Digital Nomad Lifestyle". October 22, 2018.
  38. ^ Vantastic (Oct 4, 2018). "Van life meets work life". YouTube.
  39. ^ Hochschild, Arlie Russell (November 17, 2017). "In 'Nomadland,' the Golden Years Are the Wander Years". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved October 17, 2021.
  40. ^ Lowther, Alex (Summer 2011). "Less and Less Alone: Alex Honnold". Alpinist. Archived from the original on October 5, 2020. Retrieved October 13, 2021.
  41. ^ Boboltz, Sara (October 14, 2015) "Jewel Speaks Out On What It Was Really Like To Be Homeless", Retrieved October 15, 2021.
  42. ^ Nolasco, Stephanie (August 29, 2019) "Jay Leno Slept in his Car, Squatted in Empty Houses Before Finding Fame", Fox News. Retrieved July 28, 2023.
  43. ^ Whitcomb, Dan (September 22, 2021) "Timeline - 'Van life' Road Trip Ends in Death of Gabby Petito", reuters. Retrieved September 24, 2021.
  44. ^ Fennell, Marc (October 15, 2015) "I Was Living Out Of a Truck For a While After Star Trek", Retrieved October 15, 2021.
  45. ^ Semley, John (January 27, 2020) "This Albertan YouTuber Is the Bob Ross of Stealth Camping", Vice. Retrieved February 15, 2022.
  46. ^ Bergstein, Rachelle (September 23, 2017) "America's Forgotten Men and Women Are Becoming 'Vandwellers'", New York Post. Retrieved September 24, 2021.

Further reading[edit]