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Vanlife hits a standstill during the pandemic

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Self-quarantining is tough — try doing it in a van

Photo: The Indie Projects

Theo Gove-Humphries and Bee Roper had their next two years planned out. They would fly — with their van, naturally — from the UK to Canada. They’d make their way across North America, dipping down into the Midwest US before cutting over to Alaska, and eventually ending up… well, somewhere that would let them ship off to Australia.

But shortly after getting their visas approved in early March, Canada banned most incoming international travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A day later, the UK began recommending that all nonessential international travel be canceled, too. Suddenly, they were stuck in the UK.

The couple, who share their travels as The Indie Projects on Instagram and YouTube, are used to moving around nonstop. Since leaving their house six years ago, they’ve lived in vans and boats, traveling throughout Europe and the US as part of the nomadic travel community best known under the hashtag #vanlife. But that lifestyle relies on being able to find places to park and sleep, fill up on water and food, take showers, and step outside to stretch your legs — all things that have become much harder to do over the past month.

“We’re used to living in a van and things changing all the time. So we’re used to having a plan B,” Gove-Humphries says. “But right now we’re like on plan E. It’s ridiculous.”

While vanlife has existed in different forms over the last century, its modern iteration began on Instagram. Vanlifers are known for dropping their office jobs, traveling the world, and posting picture-perfect (and sponsor-friendly) images along the way. It’s a lifestyle that looks beautiful from the outside — and, as many vanlifers’ positive outlook suggests, often is during their travels — but it comes with a great deal of less glamorous work that’s often hidden behind the camera. Photos show them surfing and sleeping under the stars, but that dream comes alongside hunting for clean bathrooms, running a business from the road, and finding a safe place to park their home each night.

The pandemic has amplified those inconveniences for vanlifers and taken some of them off the road, but many say the situation could be worse. They still have food, shelter, and a place to stay, even if they’re not moving around as much as they’re used to.

“Showers. At least for me, that’s been the big thing, like they’re nonexistent in my life right now,” says Lindsey Graham who lives in a van with her husband Danny to make it easier to move around to his travel nurse assignments. They’re currently near Los Angeles. “You can’t find it. We use Planet Fitness [for showers], but that’s closed.”

They’re also working with limited room to store food, Danny says, meaning more trips to the store — a problem when you’re trying to self-quarantine. Chris Fisher, who’s been living in a van with his wife Marianne since 2017 and broadcasting their travels on the YouTube channel Tread the Globe, made extra room in their van to keep food, clearing out three shelves and some under-foot storage compartments usually used for clothing and packing them wall to wall with staples like rice, pasta, flour, tomato paste, and canned corn so they don’t have to go to the store as frequently.

Chris and Marianne have been stuck inside a car park in Istanbul for the last month, far off schedule from a journey planned to bring them to the eastern side of Russia. They had debated taking a quick detour to somewhere more scenic to wait out the pandemic, but both say they’re glad to have ended up where they did. There are showers nearby for local soccer players that they’ve been able to use, and their situation has made the local news, turning them into celebrities. People have come by to say hi and bring them food.

“And we’re sort of saying ‘Stay there. Stay there. Just put it on the chair. But thank you. Thank you so much,’” Marianne says.

Some vanlifers have run into more serious predicaments. Several vanlifers were forced by police to move off of private land they had permission to stay on, CNN Travel reported. The police deemed their vans illegal campsites. Jezebel talked to someone who was stuck at a campsite he described as “packed in like sardines.” Since many vanlifers, like Chris and Marianne, don’t want to move around and risk spreading the virus, it means staying put in a location that may be less than ideal.

Finding places to stay has been a problem. Vanlifers will often park overnight at campgrounds and national parks, but those are largely closed down as a result of the pandemic. Wild camping — parking somewhere off limits or at an unofficial campground — is also out of the question, due to lack of access to clean water and showers. Many have ended up finding people who will let them stay on their property or have moved into houses temporarily.

With the borders essentially closed down, Gove-Humphries and Roper moved into the home of a friend stuck abroad to look after their cat. “We’ve always been transient, and this is probably the weirdest… it’s just weird,” Roper says.

There’s no singular way that people make money on the road, and stopping can be a problem when your job relies on delivering a constant stream of escapist photos and videos for fans. Not everyone has that problem, though: Chris and Marianne mostly live off of the home they rent out in the UK, Lindsey and Danny rely on his nursing jobs, and Bethany Nelson, who has been parked since November, has been working as a nanny, though her husband’s store has had to close.

Vanlife is necessarily less expensive than living in a traditional home, too, which has made the pandemic less of a burden for some in the community. Gas may be pricey, but they aren’t driving right now, there’s no rent to pay, and vans are built to conserve electricity and water. “So many people are worried about payments with lost jobs and we aren’t as financially stressed because we live so tiny,” Nelson, who lives in a converted school bus with her husband, tells The Verge in a DM. “It doesn’t cost nearly as much to live.” They’ve been parked on a friend’s property but plan to start driving again once the virus passes.

Gove-Humphries and Roper make enough off of sponsorships and YouTube ad revenue to support themselves, which makes the pandemic more of a problem. Sponsorship proposals have been slowing down, and like most YouTubers, they’ve seen ad revenue decrease. While stuck in a house, they’ve started writing an ebook — a travel guide to Scandinavia — and hope to recoup lost income through sales once they’re finished.

Another couple, Margaret Miller and Ladi Jecminek, make their money selling video tutorials on how to build a DIY electric bike. “Not just the pedal ones, but more like a lightweight motorcycle,” Jecminek says. They’ve gotten requests to build bikes for people in the past, but they’ve never been able to stop and build them since they’re constantly moving. They’ve been able to start taking orders since becoming stuck inside the Czech Republic, where Miller says they’re “fortunate and privileged” enough to be able to self-quarantine at Jecminek’s family’s home.

“Because people have more time online now, they keep watching more YouTube videos, and they have more time to research what these ebikes are about,” Jecminek says. “So it actually helps us out a lot.”

Despite being stuck in place, the vanlifers still seem to be having a good time. Nelson says she and her husband have had more time to remodel and plant a garden. Jecminek has been developing an upgraded e-bike with a higher top speed.

Before our call, Chris and Marianne asked if they could put a stipulation on our interview: they wanted it to stay positive. I told them I couldn’t agree to that for ethical reasons — but as soon as their Skype video popped on, it was clear our conversation could never have gone another way.

They appeared squished into the back seat of their van, arms overlapping, heads just inches apart, grinning at the prospect of having yet another person to chat with. “We’re positive kind of people anyway, so we always look on the bright side of life,” Chris said.

“There’s a guy here who ... put his hand on his heart and smiled at me and said, ‘You are my sister. You are my family. We will look after you. The world is in this crisis together and we will take care of you,’” Marianne told me later. “I cried.”