Van-dwellers share the perks and challenges of being 21st-century nomads

Andrew Seale
Daily Brew
Danielle Chabassol and Mat Dubé in front of their van, and home. (Supplied)

Danielle Chabassol and Mat Dubé aren’t off the grid. If you send them an email between the regular nine-to-five work hours, you’re apt to get a response. And like many freelancers, the coffee shop or library equates to home turf, a movable office space available on demand.

But while the average Canadian nine-to-fiver take their place in the transit or rush hour queue and points their nose towards home when the work day is done, “home” to Chabassol, 31, a curator at online marketplace Vegan Cuts and her husband Dubé, 38, a mixed media artist, is more of a general term.

“We have been exploring alternative lifestyles for the past few years and we’re always challenging ourselves to live with less and still try to do everything we love,” explains Chabassol. “Living in a van is something we always wanted to do and we love it because it allows us to travel but still sleep in our own bed, to work in a new city each week and then relax in a new place each weekend.”

They’re minimalists – you need to be as van dwellers, house sitters, couch surfers and backpackers – exploring the myriad options created by their ability to work anywhere and everywhere and blogging about it at Exploring Alternatives and through their YouTube channel.

And they’re not alone. Other like-minded nomads are eschewing home ownership in exchange for caravanning – albeit with a 21st century twist, using Wi-Fi and mobile devices to earn a living from wherever they are.

Chris Trenschel, 34 and Tamara Murray, 30, the husband and wife van-dwelling duo behind Nomads with a Van say it was the gradual encroachment of their careers into the rest of their life that spurred them to stop and reconsider a more flexible lifestyle.

“In 2013, we were your typical young go-getters living in San Francisco,” they told Yahoo Canada in an email. “Chris was a budget analyst for the City of San Francisco and Tamara was a vice president at a social-good PR firm – like most American kids, we grew up believing that success meant climbing the career ladder quickly, but to what end?”

They used their cash and non-retirement savings to travel Latin America for a year and experiment with new projects in an effort to find better balance in their lives.

“At the end of our Latin American sabbatical, we decided on van living,” they write. “It enables us to focus on the things that really matter to us, travel and work simultaneously, to be financially sustainable.”

Others, like Mathew Arthur, took to van dwelling to kick back against the rising cost of home ownership, spending 2013 living in a van.

Inspired by Vancouver’s inflated housing market, the digital designer bought a 1987 Dodge Ram van on Craigslist for $500, put a couple hundred dollars worth of upgrades in it to have a bed, shelves and sink, rented a $250 per month parking space and lived there documenting the experience at www.vanyear.com.

Arthur told Yahoo Canada the experiment ended while working on a Master’s degree adding that he “found the minutiae of van living too strenuous paired with school.”

He’s not unique in feeling the tension that can come with van living. Even Chabassol and Dubé’s curiosity-driven, less than sedentary approach, requires apt coordination. The pair divides their time between paying to park at campsites, parking in someone’s driveway with permission or parking in a Wal-Mart parking lot for free.

“We can easily find places to park but it’s illegal to actually sleep in a vehicle in most cities and towns so we have to be pretty sneaky sometimes,” she says adding that “stealth camping” can weigh on them, as it often makes them feel a bit sketchy. “We don’t want to scare anybody by pulling up in front of their house in a big white van and we also don’t want to be woken up by a Bylaw officer in the middle of the night, so we often park at Wal-Mart because it’s just easier.”

Chabassol says they also can park on Crown Land, which allow camping for up to 21 days in one spot.

“Last month we found a beautiful, free Crown Land campsite in B.C. and were able to park the van on the shore of a pristine lake,” she says. “It was a peaceful and quiet spot, and we spent a few days there living very simply, waking and sleeping with the sun, swimming in the lake and eating good food – we felt really connected to nature and disconnected from the crazy world outside.”  

In the absence of rent (aside from a few provincial park passes) the pair suspects it costs them around $1,500 a month to live, with a third of that going towards food.

“We could eat instant noodles three times a day but we’d rather eat fresh, organic and plant-based foods because we know that we feel better,” she says.

Understandably, living in a van also comes with unique hurdles.

“Heat has been a huge challenge for us this summer because we park in the sun to get power from our solar panels, but then the van gets very hot, even with all the windows open,” she says. “We’re probably going to install a roof vent soon to cool it down a bit.”

While laundry is hand washed in their recycling bin or at laundromats, going to the washroom and showering have proven to be the most tedious parts of living in a van. Since they spend the majority of their workdays in café and libraries, they have ready access to the facilities, but evenings are different.

“At night we can often walk across the parking lot to a Wal-Mart because they’re usually open late or 24 hours,” she adds. “Showering has been the most difficult but only because we’ve been trying not to pay to go to a gym or recreation centre (instead) we shower at campgrounds, we use our solar shower, we shower at friends and family’s places, etcetera.”  

For Trenschel and Murray, some of the biggest challenges have been psychological.

“It’s hard being disconnected from our peers, not geographically but in terms of lifestyle,” they write. “We have friends doing some amazing things, but we’re all on very different trajectories. It makes for good conversation, but it can be hard to relate.”

That disconnect has given them time to philosophize about how and why they embraced the van dwelling lifestyle.

“A lot of people think this life is about escaping or running away and to a certain extent, it is – we’re escaping the preconceived ideas we had about success,” she says. “Success looks different to us now, before, it was climbing the career ladder and having a cushy bank account, now, it’s challenging ourselves to thrive outside a traditional work environment while learning new things about this amazing world we live in.”