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The rise of 'van life': Ditching homes for a life on the road

A new trend inspired by the pandemic, remote working and YouTube celebrities who tout the benefits of 'van life.'

MINNEAPOLIS — When someone says the words “van life,” what image comes to mind?

Do you immediately think of Chris Farley living in a “van down by the river” or Mr. T and the A-Team cruising around in a van stopping bad guys? Or do you think of luxurious apartments on wheels?

“Van life” means something different to everyone.

It’s a way of life that’s not for everyone; but during the pandemic, a growing number of people decided to try it out, ditching their apartments and houses for a life on the road.

Americans have been living in vans, trucks and RVs for several decades now, but over the last two years, this way of life has exploded in terms of popularity. A lot of that growth was fueled by rise of "working from home" with millions of people being forced to turn their basements and bedrooms into makeshift offices during the pandemic.

Some people decided to take this idea a step further. They thought, instead of working at home, why not work on the road and tour the country?

This nomadic lifestyle spawned an entirely new sub-culture that some people call "van life" or "van dwelling."

This new way of life has also inspired countless YouTube channels where the hosts show off the good and bad side of living a life on the road.

One of those YouTubers is Mavrik Joos, a Minnesota native who now earns a living through YouTube. His channel has near 2 million followers.

“It’s something you hope for, but never know if it’s going to work out for you,” Joos said.

His YouTube show is all about giving viewers a behind the scenes look at living a life on the road. He travels the country to experience everything the great outdoors has to offer.

“I do a lot of fishing,” Joos explained. “I love fishing. Especially experiencing different types of fishing across the country.”

Last year, he spent 173 nights in his pickup truck. He has since upgraded to a used 1992 Toyota Hiace, which is basically a small RV.

"The coldest I've camped in this one so far has been -12 degrees,” Joos said.

For some people, this lifestyle is a hard no, but for others, it’s a dream come true.

Ben Gleason and Jason Gilbraith are the co-owners of Vanna in Moorhead Minnesota. Together, they build custom vans that people can live in.

“I heard about this thing called 'van life' and I started looking into it more,” Gilbraith explained. “I went out and bought a van. I did the build myself and started taking it out on the road."

Before the pandemic, Gilbraith spent several months living in his van while he worked as a drone video operator for hire. He said everything was going well until the pandemic hit.

“That’s when 'van life' started to get difficult. The bathrooms, gyms and a lot of the restaurants started to close,” Gilbraith explains. “I didn’t have a bathroom in my van and so things got pretty difficult for me.”

That’s when Gilbraith decided to move back home to Minnesota. A short time later, he met Ben Gleason, who immediately fell in love with the idea of "van life."

“We began talking about van life as a business concept,” Gleason said. “We started meeting every week for coffee or food and we started laying out a business plan.”

The two men decided that "van life" could be more sustainable if they could make the vans more comfortable for people to live in. They started researching ways to build fully functional bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms so people can live a more comfortable lifestyle on the road.

Meanwhile, the demand for vans and campers was growing.

“During the pandemic the demand for campers about quadrupled," Gleason said.

After months of planning, buying equipment and securing a work space, the two partners opened their doors last February and they quickly brought in more customers than they could handle.

“We had to stop advertising, because we didn’t even have the time to sit down and do consultations with new customers,” Gleason said.

So they hired eight full-time employees, and rented out additional space to work on more projects, but even with those upgrades they still can't keep up. 

"We're booked through the end of the year," Gleason said. "Right now we're booking out for January of 2023."

This year, they're hoping to build 16 vans. But two years from now, their business plan is to have enough staff and space to handle more than 100 vans a year.

Every van they build is completely unique to the customer. Customers can also add amenities such as solar panels, high efficiency heaters, walk-in showers, and even a pet washing station.

"Our camper vans offer that kind of tiny home on wheels feel,” Gleason said.

That "tiny home on wheels feel" was the main thing that attracted Kathryn and Tom Gay to learn more about "van life." Their son grew up with Gilbraith and they were curious about his new company.

“We just thought it might be a cool thing to do, because we want to travel,” Kathryn said.

But before investing thousands of dollars on a van of their own, the couple decided to try it out first.

“We rented one of their vans last summer, and we were like, 'Yeah, we need to do this on our own,'” Tom laughed. “We liked it right away.”

The couple went out and bought a brand new van they could customize. The team at Vanna was able to create a 3D rendering of the van so that Tom and Kathryn could start coming up with ideas.

“We wanted to create some privacy inside, so we got these sliding doors to break up the van into rooms,” Kathryn explained.

The couple also designed a fully functional bathroom with a sink and walk-in shower. They also created couches that could fold into a king-sized bed. The couple then gave those ideas and notes to the team at Vanna, where workers are now building Tom and Kathryn the van of their dreams.

“We’re hoping to have it ready by June or July,” Tom said.

Haley Kramer, however, has been using her custom van for nearly a year already.

“I absolutely love it,” Kramer said.

She was one of Vanna's first customers. She works remotely and was looking for an affordable way to travel the country while she worked. 

"Some of my road trips are anywhere from two to four months long,” Kramer explained.

She loves the freedom to get up and go wherever she wants, but she says this lifestyle does come with some challenges.

"It's definitely small. And then like the water, you have limited water. Also, sometimes parking can be hard to find. Sometimes it's illegal to sleep on the streets. Things like that you have to deal with,” Kramer said.

That's why she recommends trying out "van life" for a weekend or two before buying your own.

Gleason and Gilbraith agree. "Van life" can be fun and exciting, but it’s not for everyone.

"Some people might say it's crazy, but there's a lot of people who want to travel in a new way and for them, it’s great,” Gleason said.

Building your own van or RV can cost as little as a few thousand dollars if you buy a used van and sleep on a cot in the back. However, some vans can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if you splurge on all the upgrades. Gleason and Gilbraith say a brand-new van from the manufacturer will cost you $50,000 to $60,000. The customization process at Vanna can cost $40,000 to $200,000 depending on the features and amenities you decide to add to your van. 

Gleason and Gilbraith say the average van they build will wind up costing the customer a total of $120,000 to $180,000.

If you’d like to learn more about Vanna, click here to check out their website.

If you want to learn more about "van life" and the process of creating your own van, check out our “360 Tour Van Tour” below or on our YouTube page. We also posted a behind the scenes video that will give you a behind the scenes look at designing your own custom van.


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