Photo by Brad Butterfield | Outside a vanlife setup

Van life on campus is not for the weak


by Brad Butterfield

It was Spring semester’s first Monday, 11 p.m., 40 degrees fahrenheit. I was strumming through a sloppy chord progression in an empty campus parking lot with a fellow student I’d just met named Ryan Kelly. We tag-teamed a pasta dinner topped heavily with Egyptian hot sauce that sent me into a sweat. 

Kelly’s right-hand-drive Toyota Hius van was parked next to my home on wheels – an all white Chevy 3500 christened ‘The Dump Truck.’ We are both student vanlifers. This unplanned, laughter filled jam session only tells a small aspect of what it means to live in a van. 

In fact, my first week on campus was mostly colored by a lack of showering and being cold. This is to be expected. I have owned The Dump Truck for nearly three years now and have weathered a number of uncomfortable days in some strange places. 

By week two on campus, I had found the best shower locations and was pleased to meet a handful of other fine folks choosing the same lifestyle as me. Vanlife is a lifestyle that attracts vastly varied characters with differing goals. 

Wildlife major Steven Childs put it bluntly to me one evening in Bigfoot Burgers. 

“It shows sheer willpower, and some intelligence,” Childs said “You don’t do this by fluke. Its not like one day you happen upon an RV or a van and are like -oh fuck it im going to college. You plan it out. You’ve thought about the things you need to do, and some people are willing to go a little further than other people to make it happen. Or their situation puts them in that position.” 

Childs said there are also financial motivations behind his lifestyle choice. 

“A room, which is about 500-600 dollars a month and utilities…that’s going to really put me in a financial bind,” Childs said. “On top of tuition and books -and then trying to juggle that- I’d put a bigger burden on my wife. And so, the idea was born.” 

Obviously, it isn’t just frugality that leads to sleeping in the back of a van. 

Ryan Kelly explained his sleeping setup to me, which consists of an inflatable camping mattress laid diagonally under his table and thermal undergarments to stay warm. 

“I’m more mobile, it’s convenient,” Kelly said. “I want to see places and be able to travel and save money. Living in a van is the way to do that.”

When I pressed him on the lack of creature comforts afforded in our chosen way of life, Ryan doubled down without hesitation. 

“If you want to live in a house and be comfortable, that’s fine,” Kelly said. “I don’t need much. Just got to have the bare essentials. A place to stay dry. Something to sleep on is good.”

Students are in a unique bubble here in Humboldt county. There is a lack of housing and lack of jobs. What jobs there are, are often low paying, particularly when compared to the jobs that students have left behind. 

“I had come from bartending in San Diego in a very rich area and was making really good money and then came here,” said Bobby Howser, another vanlifer.“I passed out resumes for two weeks, didn’t hear back from anybody for two months and then got a bussing position at a spot. I was more experienced than the people that worked above me.”

Howser is content with his situation.

“Camping is my favorite thing,” Howser said. “I don’t need a lot to be happy. A comfy bed and I can figure the rest out. It’s about perspective.” 

Of course, there are the unavoidable inconveniences that come along with sleeping in a vehicle. Vanlife is about perspective, as Howser said, but it is also about reality. And reality can be a gross beast. 

“When you have an all metal interior, it’s the condensation that gets you,” Howser said. “Things don’t ever dry out here because it’s so moist. When it’s really wet outside, and my breathing is causing condensation on the walls, mold can grow. I had that happen last semester which sucked. And water will drip off the ceiling and hit me in the face while I’m sleeping, you know… Like super fucking cold.” 

Walking up a cold, steep hill in the morning just to take a piss is less than ideal. I don’t want to have a conversation through the shower curtain either. These are the sacrifices that come when one doesn’t pay rent though; acceptance of these trade-offs was the common theme of all of the conversations I had with van dwellers this week.

In the past, I’ve used a propane heater to take the edge off of freezing nights. They don’t burn very efficiently and the safety of using one in an enclosed space is highly questionable. Arcata nights are cold, but thankfully not freezing. I have a few fluffy Costco blankets (thanks mom) that keep me comfortable through the night. 

All of the vanlifers I spoke to were dealing with the chilly nights in a similar fashion. Layers, layers, layers. Of course at some point in the morning one has to depart their blanket cocoon and face the Humboldt dawn hour.

Childs has served in the military and is no stranger to sub-par sleeping situations. Still, sometimes the reality of the current situation drowns out perspective.

“When you wake up in your vehicle in the morning, that’s the snap to reality,” Childs said. “That’s when shit gets really real. When you wake up there’s no escaping that you’ve slept in a vehicle. The most challenging thing is to put on chilly pants in the morning.”

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