Van conversions and the van life (the latter often prefaced by a hopeful hashtag) have become two staples of adventure social media in recent years. Van conversions are all over the internet. And while we certainly don’t condone spending more time scrolling through adventure fodder online than actually getting out and adventuring, we have to say, we do love van conversions and the #vanlife feed. But how to start van life? Well... we'll get to that, and plenty more.
There’s something so beautiful and quintessentially un-materialistic about life on the road. You put changing scenery and skyline in front of you every single day, with no ties holding you back and everything you need packed neatly away in the back. That’s including (but certainly not limited to) the kitchen sink.
The van life lifestyle is a minimalist one. It’s one away from the stresses of work, council tax, flat inspections, broken boilers and setting alarms so that Dave from accounts can bother you about your pension scheme again. It's the life that many of us dream of. It’s so idyllic in so many ways (even if it seems a million miles away from where you are right now). Here, we’re going to provide a beginner’s look to van conversions, the van life, and the wonders that lie within…
What’s a Van Conversion?
A van conversion is exactly what it says on the tin, really. It’s the modification of a van of some sort. They can, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. In this article, we’ll naturally be focusing on van conversions for the specified purpose of travel and adventure. We’re not so interested in people converting vans for school buses or for ‘Fast & Furious’ reshoots. If that’s a thing. Vans don’t tend to be particularly fast, nor furious for that matter.
We’re interested in van conversions that turn a van into a house on wheels and allow people to jump into the driver’s seat, buckle up and explore the world at whatever pace they see fit. We’re interested in having a look at the #vanlife.
Normally this consists of purchasing a van - gutting the back so it's empty, and then building it up from scratch. You can put in a bed, storage, bookshelves, perhaps a little kitchen unit and so on. The best vans have a lot of personality.
The Rise of Van Conversions and the #VanLife
Van conversions have been going on as long as vans have been around, of course, but the rise of van conversions into the mainstream came hand in hand with social media and the #vanlife hashtag. The hashtag portrays the van as more than just a modified vehicle, but as a lifestyle and a mindset.
The origins of the hashtag can be traced back to a van dweller called Foster Huntington. In 2011, Huntington ditched his career as a designer at Ralph Lauren in New York and moved into a 1978 Volkswagen Syncro. He would spend his days driving about the Californian coast, stopping in scenic places, surfing his days away and tagging pictures he posted on a shiny new social media network called Instagram with the hashtag ‘#vanlife’. He quickly gained a whole lot of followers too (he now has just short of a million followers).
The hashtag was a play on rapper Tupac’s famous “thug life” tattoo and was often accompanied by other hashtags – the likes of #homeiswhereyouparkit, which is now the name of his book – but the #vanlife hashtag really stuck.
The New Yorker cleverly note, in their longread on the movement, how the #vanlife hashtag, like all the best marketing terms, is both “highly specific and expansive”. So it grew. At the time of writing, more than six million Instagram posts have been tagged with #vanlife and many of them don’t even feature a van. As long as the show nature, beauty and freedom, they’re in the right vein.
Van life is much more than just van conversions now. Like surfing, backpacking, mountain biking or skateboarding, it’s a lifestyle – and one which has spawned seemingly infinite Instagram accounts. Many of which are actually quite good. Below are a few of our favourites, and then once we're past the inspiration, we'll get onto a few beginner tips on how to get started in the van life!
Van Conversion Inspiration: Instagram
Instagram is very much the home of the #vanlife movement and if you’re interested in having constant van life inspiration at your fingertips, then there are plenty of people worth a follow. Here are five of our favourite van lifers on Instagram to keep you stoked – even while you’re sitting on your toilet.
1. Genevieve Jahn (@Joie_de_Vieve)
The eagle-eyed among you will remember Genevieve Jahn from our list of the best outdoor photographers and travel accounts to follow on Instagram, so it’d be remiss of us to leave her out of our recommendations for van lifers to follow. Genevieve’s account is full of big mountains, beautiful landscapes, her 1985 Toyota Bandit, and the wonderful Sailor, her pet husky.
2. Emily and Corey (@wheresmyofficenow)
Emily King and Corey Smith have been living the van life since they met Foster Huntington who, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know started the hashtag. They met way back in 2012 in Nicaragua. Huntington mentioned that he thought they’d work well in a van, and all these years later, they’re still doing it. So he was right. Emily was a web designer, giving her a possibility to work remotely and make it possible. The two now spend their life on the road, mountain biking, surfing and hiking around the world, all from the base of their 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon camper, which has been modified beautifully for the purpose.
3. Vanlife Diaries (@vanlifediaries)
Vanlife Diaries has become one of the most popular van life accounts on Instagram, with over 465,000 followers. Not only because it highlights beautiful pictures from van lifers around the world, but because it tells their stories too. It’s all about showcasing the beauty, art and community of van life, and it does a damn good job of doing so.
4. Sheena, Jason and Riley (@mavistheairstream)
Sheena, Jason and Riley run the ‘Mavis the Airstream‘ account. Mavis being a 1977 Airstream Sovereign which has been converted into a traveller’s dream, Sheena and Jason being a woman and a man – and Riley being a poodle. What a combo. This account is particularly good for any fans of interior design. Sheena and Jason have done an unbelievable job with their van conversion.
5. Joana & Eric (@desfenetressurlemonde)
‘Des Fenêtres sur le Monde’ translates to English as “windows on the world”, which is a fitting name for an account which seems to cover a lot of ground. French nomads Joana and Eric have been living the van life since 2015. Their converted van is a 1984 Volkswagen T3 Westfalia and they run one of the most beautiful accounts, in terms of nature and outdoor photography, that the #vanlife hashtag has to offer.
5 Tips for Getting Started with Van Conversions and Van Life
Alright, so you’re sold on the van life. Now you want to get going. You want to get yourself a van, convert it and get out on the road. But… where on earth do you start? It’s obviously a massive call, deciding to live in a van and travel the world. It’s not cheap, you’re giving up a home for a vehicle with much less space and, typically, unless you can work from the road, you’ve got to give up your job in order to do it. With all that in mind, we’ve put together a handful of tips for anyone considering getting involved:
1. Rent first to get a taster for van life
We fully endorse van life. We fully endorse working less, adventuring more and focusing on the beautiful scenery, people and places you love most. That said, it’s a huge lifestyle change from the everyday and it’s likely not for everyone. There’s a lot of maintenance involved, a lot less room to live in, a lot fewer everyday comforts and a lot of everyday issues you’ve probably not faced before if you’re a first timer – stuff like toilet use, sleeping space, cooking and cleaning (both your stuff and yourself).
You might love the idea of van life and living in a van conversion, but is the whole thing really for you? Even some of the most dedicated nomads only stick it for a year. If you’re not 100% sure, there are plenty of places you can rent a VW or a more traditional camper van for a decent period of time. It’s a great way of finding out if the life really is for you before, you know, selling all of your worldly possessions and then finding out you don’t like it.
2. Pick your van carefully and suit it to your needs
It shouldn’t surprise you to know that picking the van you’re going to live in is probably the most important part of van life. The most important thing is that you pick a van that suits your needs, rather than just picking the one you think is most aesthetically pleasing. If they match up, brilliant. A win for all concerned. But that’s not the most important thing. You’re going to literally be living in the thing. It needs to meet your functional needs too.
Do you want pop out beds, for example, and if so, are you going to have the space for them? How many people are you planning on taking in the camper van? If you’re planning on kitting it out and doing a full conversion in the back – do you have the room you need, and, err, do you actually know what you’re doing? Perhaps getting a camper van – typically already geared out – is something you should consider if not. Is the kombi or VW you’ve got your heart set on actually functional beneath the bonnet, or does it just look really pretty? You don’t want to buy something, then find out you need a bunch of spare parts to fix it that are discontinued.
If you’re going to be off-road a lot, perhaps an SUV is the better option. Though, of course, there isn’t as much space as a full camper van. Basically, consider every option before buying – with your specific needs in mind. They’re what’s most important for a happy life. Not Instagram likes.
3. Always travel light
On the note of selling all your worldly possessions, if you are going to go all in and really live the van life, you do need to have the mentality that personal belongings are not of as much importance as in the moment experiences. Sure, you can build in some storage space, and be clever about how you store
You should only carry what you absolutely need to live a healthy, happy and safe life. Otherwise, your van conversion will be full of stuff you don’t often use and you’ll have even less space. Being untidy or stockpiling while living in a van is not a happy combo. Once you get going, you’ll quickly find out what’s important, what you actually need, and anything else will just be taking up valuable space. Channel your inner Marie Kondo.
4. Don’t forget your hygiene!
Remember that it can get quite sweaty out there on the road. And you may not have any plans for a shower, or for how to wash your clothes? Well… we would advise getting some. Especially since a lot of the love of van life is access to stuff like surfing, mountain biking and hiking. As you’ll know, they all often leave you badly in need a shower.
A lot of campsites don’t have a shower, but a solar shower bag can be a cracking option for anyone getting started in a van. Keep wet wipes in abundance for times in between. And likewise, just keep an eye on laundry, and remember to do it whenever you can. In terms of clothing, you should also think about all-weather clothes that’ll do you in all conditions, and materials like merino wool which tend to smell less than others are always useful.
You should also think about your heating in advance. If you’re going to be living the van life in the UK in winter for example, you’re going to need a radiator to keep you warm.
5. Stock up when you’re shopping
The whole point of van life is that it means that you are able to get off the grid very easily. This also means that you you’ll likely also often find yourself far away from any everyday food supplies. So just make sure you get an abundance of snacks and make the most out of your shopping whenever you are in a supermarket. Oh, and toilet paper. Get that too.
If you’ve got your van but aren’t sure where to take it, check out our adventure holidays around the world now.