The #Vanlife Business Is Booming

I do not own a car or a house or even a bicycle. Nor am I prone to following Instagram trends. Yet for weeks I have had an obsession: getting rid of all my possessions, breaking the apartment lease, and moving with my dog and my girlfriend into a tricked-out van.

The things I would do in a van! Coronavirus would be just a faint memory in a van on the open road.

As with most strange impulses that feel unique, this quirky-seeming urge is anything but. The #vanlife business is booming.

Dozens of new companies are popping up to rent or sell retrofitted sleeper vans, some now with yearlong wait-lists. Apps are surfacing to help these van dwellers find legal parking. Big R.V. park conglomerates, whose stocks have soared, are starting to eye the new interest and figure out ways to capitalize. And advocates for the rights of the homeless, who often end up living in cars out of need, are seeing potential new allies among the new professional class of car campers.

The last few months have felt chaotic, and the van living sell is that there can be stability in constant motion. “What we say is: We build your escape,” said Leland Gilmore, the founder of Benchmark Vehicles, which makes custom vans. “These are little escape vessels, escape pods.”

Mr. Gilmore typically sells custom vans for $100,000 to $300,000, not including the cost of the van, which is usually a $40,000-and-up Mercedes Sprinter. Demand has nearly doubled since lockdowns began, he said, and Benchmark Vehicles just hired three more people.

Vanlife has been an influencer trend on Instagram for years. It usually involved a good-looking young couple in a van posting gauzy portraits of each other and sweeping scenes of the places they visited. The fantasy life they sold is freedom and simplicity, a radical reduction in burden — but not comfort. For these are not backpackers looking tired and worn, with massive calves and wild hair. Vanlife is an aesthetic trend, closer to the tiny-home movement, yet even richer, lusher and typically sexier.

It is the minimalist fantasy, which is always in part a lie. The vans are 6,000 or more pounds of gear, and living very small and possession-free is often much more complicated than living big and sprawling.

But as the pandemic has worn on, it is a fantasy more people are finding themselves having.

Rohan Dixit, the founder of a medical device start-up called Lief, has decided to move full time — or close to it — into a van, as soon as his order from the van conversion company Ready Set Van comes this fall.

“Rent is really expensive, and I really like being out in nature, and now with coronavirus it’s like all in-person meetings are canceled,” said Mr. Dixit, 34, who lives in Berkeley, Calif. “I don’t really need to be in the Bay Area.” He said his plan was to “go between the mountains and the ocean and anywhere there’s a cell signal.”

Benjamin Fraser, who founded Ready Set Van in March, said he was “blown away by how deep the vanlife dream has permeated culture, and it made me realize we’re actually selling a lifestyle, a whole new way of living.”

He gets about 20 inquiries a day for vans. People have offered to throw in an extra $10,000 to cut in line, which he does not allow. He is soon moving the business into a 15,000-square-foot facility near Lambertville, N.J.

Before vans, he was into cryptocurrency trading, and the van boom times remind him of that heyday, he said. He worries it could disappear just as quickly. “Is it just going to evaporate the moment we have a vaccine?” Mr. Fraser said.

Of course, the dream of getting rid of stuff and hitting the open road has existed for many years. That is what drove the R.V. movement. So I asked Mr. Fraser what the difference between R.V. culture and vanlife was.

“It’s red versus blue,” he said. “It’s Republican versus Democrat.”

Vanlifers see themselves as free from restrictions and rules, he said. They do not want to be in R.V. parks. They want to be in the wilderness or on the streets of beach towns. Some of their parking behaviors — they will park for days in beach parking lots and residential streets — are illegal. This is becoming a problem as their numbers grow.

“Some people go far trying to be stealth now,” Mr. Fraser said. “They won’t have any windows. They’ll put like a Joe’s Plumbing sign on the side of the van. They beat up the sides of the van to make it look authentic.”

Jeremiah Weaver, who turns Mercedes Sprinter vans into sleepers in San Fernando, Calif., is booked until the winter. He said many new clients came from cities, especially San Francisco and New York. They are drawn to #vanlife in part because of coronavirus quarantines, in part because of high housing prices, and in part because they want to escape what looks to be a summer of protest and unrest.

“Right now with coronavirus and the political instability, people want more control over their environment,” Mr. Weaver said. “If you’re in a van, you know who’s in it, you control how clean it is, and you know where you’re going.”

Jay Sfingi, a co-founder of Sync Vans in Bellevue, Idaho, whose services are booked through early-2021, said, “There’s this sense of wanting to control your own environment more.”

Plus no one would need to know. Many of us are working from home anyway. More companies are telling us we can work from wherever we want. So the question is why not live in a van for a while?

  • Updated June 30, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

“Your boss isn’t really paying attention to the background on your Zoom screen,” said Scott Kubly, the chief executive of the van rental start-up Cabana, whose orders have jumped 400 percent since lockdowns started.

Some van retrofitters are worried all the new interest from inexperienced van campers like me will bring punishment on them all.

“We’ve now seen basically everyone in this country want to get out in a van, but no one actually understands how to camp off the grid,” said Gretchen Bayless, who rents sleeper vans through her company Roamerica. “They think they can park anywhere and that there’s like facilities out there on the road. And we have to say, ‘No, doing this means you have to get a toilet from us and you go in a bag, and you carry that bag.’”

And park services are either limited or closed because of coronavirus shutdowns.

“People are just being dumb,” Ms. Bayless said. “So now we’ve been kind of vetting people who call in.”

Others watching the movement see potential for new political alliances. As more young professional urban dwellers decide to spend time in vans, longtime activists for the homeless see an opportunity.

Tommy Newman, a director at United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which supports the homeless, compared it to what’s happening with high-end restaurants. New accommodations for restaurants to serve on the sidewalks might end up also making life easier for street vendors.

“People in government are bending over backward to accommodate all these restaurants using sidewalks in a way they never, ever did with street vendors who have been making tacos and hot dogs and street-based food for years, begging for these changes,” he said.

These new vanlifers might push for changes that help those who live in vans out of need, not as a hobby, he said.

As with street dining, these new van dwellers raise questions of both impact and opportunity.

So I keep shopping for one of these vans. As I do, I go deeper, reading about the various specs and possible additions. How great would it be to have a rainfall shower head? A bed for four? A desk? Maybe even a television?

R.V. owners will realize how ridiculous that sounds. The Winnebago Intent is both less expensive (or at least comparable at $122,000) and sleeps at least five. No wait-list. But R.V. business owners know that eventually the hipsters in vans will find their way to the vehicles that were already prepared for them.

While vanlifer apps like Hipcamp and Harvest Host help van dwellers find farms and wineries to park in, Rich Stockwell, an R.V. park consultant, said a lot of investors were betting on vanlifers wanting parks pretty soon. People are talking to him about developing more youth-oriented parks for vanlifers with areas for children and pets, as well as elaborate business centers.

“The analogy I like to use for people with vans is they’re just like boaters,” he said. “They get foot-itis, and they just can’t wait to get one more foot, another foot, and pretty soon they’re in a big rig.”

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