You’ve probably seen the pictures pop up on your Instagram feed: a gorgeous slice of landscape framed by the open back doors of a camper van. Beautifully designed, minimalist interiors complete with chic bedding, hardwood floors and a shocking amount of hidden storage. And, of course, perfectly composed shots of the people who live (and travel, and often work) in them. There’s no data on exactly how many Canadians have ditched their mortgages or rent in favour of living out of a van, but news coverage suggests the number of people embracing a nomadic lifestyle spiked during the pandemic—whether due to remote work opportunities, soaring home prices, the itch to travel, joblessness or all of the above. Below, four Canadians share the ups—and downs—of living the #vanlife.
Emily Soon, Sunshine Coast, B.C.
Emily Soon laughs about it now, but she didn’t realize people actually lived in camper vans at first. She had rented them for vacations before; she just never thought it was possible to make a van a home. But after the pandemic forced her to move back home to Canada from Australia, where she had lived for close to eight years, she felt ready for a new adventure. “I wanted to travel and didn’t want to have to rely on booking a place to stay in each location, so the thought of having my own vehicle and built-in accommodations was exactly the flexibility I was looking for,” she says.
Soon ended up buying a 2014 Ram ProMaster van in May 2020 and hired an Alberta company to outfit it for her. She picked it up that October and moved in by November—but still hasn’t really travelled anywhere, except for the odd day trip.
“I just live in my van year-round,” she says. “When I realized that I couldn’t travel across Canada [because of COVID-19 restrictions], I was knee-deep in renovating it. I thought, ‘I have it, so I might as well live in it while I figure out what I want to do.’” Her plan was to stay put for a few months, and then go on an extended trip. In the meantime, she would be able to spend time with family and friends, whom she hadn’t seen often while living abroad.
A year later, Soon has a full-time job on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, where she works in the tourism industry. She has set up her van on the same property as her company’s headquarters; in addition to having a very short commute, she uses the on-site shower and washing machine, and she doesn’t have to worry about running afoul of city bylaws. (Even before the pandemic started, cities across Canada and the U.S. began enforcing existing laws that prohibit vehicle camping, or even passing new ones in a bid to deter overcrowding.)
And she loves small-space living. “For the last dozen years, I’ve lived in very small apartments or I’ve rented a room, so I’ve always lived minimally,” she explains. “It’s actually a lot more space than I need. I’ve got so much storage!”
In fact, her cubby holes, hidden drawers and other clever design decisions—not to mention her real-talk videos on what #vanlife is really like—have gained her more than 32,000 followers on Instagram. Recent posts have covered less-than-glamorous (but very necessary) behind-the-scenes tasks, including winterizing the van’s pipes and cleaning her composting toilet. She also shares the safety features that give her peace of mind as a woman living alone: a heavy-duty car alarm, a satellite phone in case she finds herself without cell reception, and carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.
If there’s a challenge to living this lifestyle, it’s prioritizing what’s important to you over what’s commonly done. Soon made design decisions rarely seen in other vans: Her bed is permanent instead of convertible, and she incorporated a full-length closet so she can hang her clothes. She also sacrificed some precious under-bed storage because she wanted to be able to sit up with a high bun on her head. (She measured!) Minimalist she might be, but to make it work, she has a storage locker where she stashes her off-season clothes and other bulky items.
“The lifestyle is so glamorized on social media, but everyone’s version of van life is different—mine doesn’t involve travelling,” she says. “My biggest tip is: Don’t try to do someone else’s version just because that’s what you think it should be.”
In April 2021, not long after Emily Inson packed up her life in London, Ont. and headed out on a cross-Canada trip with her miniature dachshund, Marty, something went wrong with her 1977 Ford Econoline. First, the van wouldn’t start. Then, gas began pouring from the engine. Worse, she was in rural Quebec and whatever French she’d learned in school had long deserted her.
“This was during the pandemic and, unfortunately, the people around me wouldn’t help,” she says now. “I also had a language barrier working against me. I shared the whole experience with my Instagram followers and soon I had thousands of people giving me suggestions. It was incredible!” One follower’s advice stopped the gas from flowing, and Inson soon found a local who could give Marty and her a ride to a hotel. The next morning, her van was towed to a mechanic, who was able to fix it. She was on the road again quickly, hooked on the sense of community she had found online.
For Inson, a freelance social media manager and consultant who bought her fully converted van in January 2021, the connections she’s made by sharing her experiences with her social media followers are one of the best parts of living the way she does—and not just because they’re always ready to offer mechanical suggestions.
She decided to embark on this adventure in 2020, not long after her mom was diagnosed with a serious illness. “My mother, who worked so hard her whole life as a registered nurse, finally retired with big dreams of travelling, only to get sick with an incurable lung disease. Life is too short not to live the life you want,” she says. But it was her own journey toward self-love that spurred her on to make a change. “I used [the beginning of the pandemic, when we were all in quarantine] to work on myself, my self-worth and my self-confidence. I stopped telling myself I couldn’t do things because I was a single woman.”
Instead, she took a chance. She bought her van from a Red Deer, Alta., seller, sight unseen. On paper, it was perfect: It came outfitted with a fridge, a four-burner stove, an oven, a deep sink, plenty of hidden storage and even a projector for movie nights. Best of all, there was a full-size convertible shower. And, luckily, it more than lived up to her expectations; aside from a paint job and some minor tweaks, the van didn’t need much to make it feel like home.
The next month, she took possession and drove the van from Calgary to London, Ont., with Marty as her co-pilot. The duo has since driven across Canada and much of the U.S., including a six-month jaunt from Ontario to San Diego, California, which Inson says has been her favourite stop so far.
From her first posts on social media, Inson hasn’t just been sharing the unvarnished truth about van life, like how she handles late-night bathroom breaks or what she does when the van just won’t start; she has also been taking her followers along the bumpy road to self-discovery and acceptance. And they have responded enthusiastically to her honest approach. “Living in my van and travelling from coast to coast has empowered me and reassured me that this is the exact journey I am supposed to be on,” says Inson. “I have recently started accept- ing my body and, for the first time in 34 years, I wore a tucked- in T-shirt. I’ve never felt more confident. I was blown away by the response and support I received from my community. I feel so fortunate.”
Back in 2016, Joanie Goyette had a dream: to build herself a tiny living space somewhere in her home province of Quebec. As a singer, she was often away from home for weeks or months at a time, and it seemed more practical to go small. It never happened. Instead, she joined the touring production of Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza and put her tiny-home dream on hold.
When the world shut down in March 2020, Kooza was between stops in Seville, Spain, and Lyon, France. Goyette didn’t know it at the time, but it would be more than 600 days before the production could begin touring again.
“When the pandemic hit, I knew I needed a project. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I realized I would still like to live in a tiny house,” she says. “And I still wanted to travel. I had never really travelled across Canada—that’s how the van life idea started.”
Goyette bought a deep-red 2020 Ram ProMaster and set to work converting it herself with her dad’s help. “It was a nice father- daughter project,” she laughs. She opted to take the DIY route because she wanted something very specific: an interior that could function as both a living space and a music studio. In addition to bright shiplap walls, variegated butcher block countertops and a warm wood ceiling, the van, which she’s dubbed Joyce, has a convertible area at the back that can function as a bed, a couch or an “office/keyboard holder/dinner set-up,” as she described it in an Instagram post last year. There’s also a “terrace” on top of the van that serves as a stage for outdoor performances.
But while the final product is beautiful, Goyette might be most proud of a more practical feature: the electricity, which she wired all by herself. “This was the most challenging part of the build, which is why I was so happy when I saw that everything worked! And now I know a ton about electric wires, wiring, electric circuits, solar energy, all kinds of batteries—and patience.”
Goyette did enlist a professional to install the rooftop solar panels necessary to provide the van with power. But it was worth the investment, she says, because it gives her the freedom to live totally off the grid—in all types of weather. (The van has a heater that runs using the van’s gas tank, which has been a lifesaver during the freezing winter months.)
After four months of building, Goyette set out toward Vancouver Island, documenting her journey on Instagram with shots of sunsets, nature and photos of Joyce “in the wild,” parked in front of snowy landscapes, forested backdrops or alongside new friends she made along the way. Some of the trip’s highlights include driving through the Rockies, and visiting Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan and the Okanagan Valley in B.C.
“I started this journey during the pandemic, when I was alone,” she says. “I’ve met incredible nomads while crossing the country, and others on social media. This community is amazing—everybody is willing to help, give tips, share experiences. And I love that it’s super diverse.”
Now that Kooza is back on tour, Goyette isn’t spending as much time with Joyce. But she’s hoping she can live in the van full-time when the tour heads to the U.S., because she’s been missing van life. “The freedom is amazing,” she says. “When I left Quebec, I thought my trip would last for three or four months, but it turned into a new lifestyle.”
Katie Caron, Hamilton, Ont. and Vancouver
Back in 2007, musician Katie Caron, who performs as Kathleen Lockhart, was on tour in the U.S. when they fell in love with life on the road. They began researching camper vans, only to realize there was a whole nomadic community of people out there living the #vanlife—and they wanted in.
“I’m really attracted to freedom, physically and financially,” they say. “The typical North American life path doesn’t really make sense to me. All people do is work, spend money, burn out and repeat, all the while dreaming of an escape. I love a good day’s work, but I need freedom too. I like living in a van because it’s simple—it’s like being on a constant road trip, seeing and doing new things every day.”
Since that fateful tour, Caron has lived in a succession of vans, though they’ve usually had some sort of communal home base, too. But in 2017, they decided they wanted to build their dream vehicle, designed exactly to their specifications. It took two years to save up enough money. Then, in October 2019, they moved back to Ontario from Vancouver, where their dad helped them gut and renovate a Ram 3500 camper van, a process that took the better part of a year. The final look is reminiscent of a seaside cottage on wheels: there are beadboard ceilings, floral curtains, oak accents and dimmable pot lights. (“I like mood lighting!” Caron said in an Instagram post last summer.) To keep the interior of the van airy, they avoided installing upper cabinets along the length of the vehicle, instead opting for hidden storage under a bench seat in the kitchen and under their bed.
“I wanted the van to feel warm, beachy and calm,” Caron says. “Once the cupboards were built, it gave me a vibe and I went with it. I tried to use what was around and not have to buy too much. I added the oak details because my dad had extra oak boards laying around. And I’m pretty sure my water pump is from the 1970s—we pulled it out of an old camper and it works amazingly well!”
In some of their Instagram posts, Caron hints that the reality of van life, while perfect for them, isn’t always as polished as it appears on social media. In a post from earlier this year, they pulled back the curtain to show what the van looks like most of the time—in bed mode, with “30 coats hanging from the back of [their] seats” and clutter in all corners.
And there’s also the contradictions of the lifestyle to contend with: van life is glamourized, but for many people who have fallen on hard times, it’s a necessity—something Caron acknowledges. “I am lucky because I am well-suited for this life and I live in a van by choice. Is it my dream living situation? No. I’d very much like the van and a home. The reality is that I can only afford the van. To be honest, I’d be screwed without it—it’s the best investment I’ve ever made.”
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