Text & photos — Vanlife Sagas
A cross between traditional camping and spontaneous roadtripping, vanlife may just be gaining a lot more followers in Québec in 2020. It provides a ton of flexibility: you fit out the vehicle of your choice with the equipment you need for a specific lifestyle. These revamped vans are literally extensions of homes: tiny houses on wheels that give a surprising feeling of freedom to the people who embark on this adventure.
Interested? Here’s a quick guide to the basics of vanlife.
A Brief History of Vanning
Don’t be fooled: although photos of bare legs stretched out between the open back doors of a van are now everywhere on Instagram, vanlife was not invented by millennials — even if the hashtag was.
People have been travelling in caravans since the 1800s. In Europe, the Romani people adopted the covered caravan for their frequent travels. In North America, the first motorized RV was born in 1904, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the big auto manufacturers followed suit. Ford, Hymer, Airstream, and the famous Winnebago RVs spread across the continent. In the hippie heyday of the 1960s, any vehicle became a potential roof over your head: vans, trucks, cars, and the ultimate classic, school buses. Some baby boomers maintain that they’re still not sure whether weed or diesel fumes were the cause of the occasional buzz, and the mystery remains.
But it’s millennials who’ve laid the latest brick in the history of vanlife. Foster Huntington created the hashtag #vanlife in 2009, kicking off the trend as we know it today. We now stumble across all kinds of MacGyvered “homes on wheels” inspired by the improvisation and inventiveness of the ’60s.
In the end, the big difference is that the hippies didn’t have Instagram.
The 7 Vanlife Vehicles
There are an unlimited number of options when it comes to sleeping on the road. Especially today, you can convert just about any vehicle with at least four wheels — but I’ll give a Pop-Tart to the first person who converts a motorcycle.
To keep things simple, here are the most common conversions you see in Québec, along with a very rough estimate of your project costs, including the vehicle itself.
1.Cargo vans ($20,000 to $150,000)
Think Mercedes Sprinters, Ram ProMasters, and Ford Transits. You see these cargo vans every day in the city, since they’re the standby for many commercial fleets: some Canada Post vans, FedEx vehicles, or what Luke from Plumbing 2000 rolls up in.
The main advantage of the cargo van is its flexibility. You can install almost anything in them because they were designed for commercial use, and you can stand up in many high-roof models. Its main drawback: it’s small enough to constantly remind you that it’s not a luxury RV. So you can forget about 55-inch televisions, Bluetooth toilets, and stainless-steel stoves.
After making a few sacrifices around on-board amenities, we give these vans a 2/5 on the camping scale. Here’s how much ours cost us:
How much does a conversion cost?
2.Full-size vans ($5,000 to $60,000)
You see a lot of converted vans on Highway 20, south of Montréal. Just like cargo vans, full-size vans are intended for all sorts of commercial purposes — transport, passenger, construction — but they’re a little smaller and shorter. Think Ford Econoline, Chevrolet Express, or GMC Savana.
And yes, it’s unfortunately the van often associated with unsavoury men offering candy to children.
The main advantage of full-size vans is that they’re rugged and discreet. They go unnoticed just about anywhere, which comes in handy when you’re figuring out your road trip as you go. Their drawback? They’re even smaller than cargo vans, which often forces the owner to live around their vehicle — for example, with an outdoor kitchen.
Camping scale: 3/5
3.Minivans ($5,000 to $40,000)
Ah, the preferred vehicle of parents who drive their kids to soccer practice. Many of our Quebecer colleagues are vanning in this converted family standard and very nimble option.
Not only do they pass undercover in the city as ordinary minivans, people do find ways to be comfortable in the small space provided — sometimes just a large bed set on top of a set of drawers. It’s impressive!
One thing’s for sure, a minivan is … mini!
On the camping scale, it gets a 3.5/5.
4.Skoolies ($15,000 to $75,000)
The great ’60s classic, the school bus, is being revived, so you might see a few of these this summer. Some are as small as a minibus, others as large as a full-size cheese wagon.
With these guys, space is no longer a problem. Some converted buses have a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom — I dream of one day seeing a bus with a bowling alley. However, manoeuvring them is no easy task. Driving a 52-seat bus through the streets of Montréal is a challenge worthy of inclusion on Amazing Race.
Camping scale: 1/5
5.Cars ($5,000 to $30,000)
Like the minivan adherents, the people who live the vanlife in a car are among the most resourceful of them all. They’re masters of luggage Tetris and sleeping in the back seat. While it’s an easy and minimalist way to travel through Gaspésie, it’s not for everyone. Beware of back pain and windshield condensation.
Camping scale: 4/5
A catch-all category for old vehicles with a lot of charm like the Winnebago, the Airstream, and the famous Westfalia. Owners often refurbish these prefabricated vehicles, giving these adventure machines a second life.
Their undisputed advantages: they’re beautiful and smell like old leather in the sunshine.
Disadvantages: they’re temperamental and can end up smelling like gasoline.
7.Traditional RVs ($5,000 to $200,000)
“More traditional” RV enthusiasts have been part of the trend from the very beginning. Don’t exclude them.
You know those big tin boxes with colourful details parked at the municipal campground? Or those classic trailers that stretch up to 40 feet long? Whether trailers or fifth wheels, RVs offer the greatest number of amenities for all kinds of travellers: a shower, toilet, 50-inch TV, complete kitchen, or even all of the above. If you want to be able to walk around in your home on wheels, it’s a perfect option.
Interestingly, big RV rental companies are starting to invest in modified cargo vans — it seems like the older generations are beginning to develop a taste for adventure.
On the camping scale, RVs get a 0.5/5.
The perfect vehicle?
There’s no such thing as the perfect vehicle, because it depends on a multitude of personal factors:
– Your budget (I’ve got $20,000)
– Your needs (I want to sleep well)
– What you intend to do with it (I want to be able to cook)
– Your mechanical knowledge (I don’t know anything about cars)
– Your physique (I’m six foot four)
It’s no good to buy the first beautiful vehicle you find on Kijiji. First, make a list of your specific priorities (see the examples above). Your options will quickly dwindle, making room for your dream vehicle to appear. For example, if you’re six foot four and want to be able to stand in your van, you’ve just ruled out half of your options, making your decision all the easier. It’s almost magic.
Here’s a short video that explains how we decided on the Ram ProMaster:
The BEST van for vanlife
Now that you’ve got an overview of the different vehicles you can use for your adventure, here are some practical tips so that you hit the road ready.
You’ll note it’s not quite the same thing as camping.
How to Sleep
There are many ways to get some rest when night falls. While motels and hotels are generally people’s first options for getting some shut-eye on a road trip, vanlife opens up a vast range of possibilities.
Québec is chock full of a variety of campgrounds to help you get started with vanlife. Most of them charge a fee, but they come with amenities like water, electricity, washers and dryers, and even minigolf, if you’re lucky! They’re the perfect place to adjust to living in a small space while exploring the province.
We’re also very spoiled: between Sépaq and Parks Canada options, Québec is one of the best places in the country for summer camping.
By pit stops, we mean various public places where vans are sometimes tolerated overnight. They’re mainly parking lots, whether city-owned or that of a Walmart, a marina, or an arena — or any fuzzy stretch of concrete where overnight parking isn’t prohibited. Always make sure you inform yourself about the local regulations before settling in anywhere for the night.
Boondocking is wilderness camping, completely off grid in nature. These locations are generally more remote, with little proximity to any services whatsoever. Boondocking is generally reserved for people who want peace and who are able to get by without the usual services, such as running water, electricity, and washrooms.
To make your life easier, there’s iOverlander, an app that tells you the relatively official places where you can stop and rest. It’s like a secret Google Maps, and it will save you from searching for spots at three in the morning, or worse — like getting woken up by a police officer wondering what you’re doing in your underwear in the parking lot of an elementary school.
Dom’s favourite place:
Rue de la Croix, Les Escoumins. A point that directly overlooks the river. It’s the perfect spot to have a coffee at sunrise, seated on the rocks with the gulls.
It goes without saying that there’s a code of ethics for people who live or travel in vans, a series of unwritten rules for the whole community. Here are a few of them:
- CHECK with the owner of a business or site to see if you can set up before you do. You might otherwise end up in a little tiff, which is never fun.
- SUPPORT local businesses. Even if pit stops and boondocking are low-cost options for a night’s rest, try going to a neighbourhood restaurant or grocery store for your supper.
- BE DISCREET. Vanlifers should not become a nuisance for the people who live where we park. No noise, music, lawn chairs, generators, large groups, or tents near public places.
- DON’T DUMP. Not waste, food, liquid, blackwater, or greywater. Nothing should be left on site under any circumstances. Reusable containers are a great way to minimize the environmental impact of your stays.
- MAINTAIN a reasonable distance from host establishments. Walmarts are an excellent example: some owners are happy to let you park in their lot but don’t necessarily want you brushing your teeth in front of their store.
- LEAVE the place cleaner than you found it. It’s not uncommon for vanlifers to pick up any trash already on site. Do the same and encourage other travellers to do so too.
- DO NOT CLEAR. You may be strongly tempted to cut a bush, move a rock, or mow some grass to get your vehicle closer to the edge of a cliff so that you can wake up to a view of the river in the morning. Don’t! You have to stick to places that already have tire marks: that’s the rule.
Behaving well on the road allows the whole community to remain welcome in many areas across Québec. It’s important to follow these rules so that “No RVs” signs don’t start popping up everywhere.
When in doubt, use common sense!
The Future of Vanlife: Work + Travel
If the current crisis has taught us anything, it’s perhaps that we can be more efficient working remotely than we thought we could. A return to normal seems ever hazier and further off, and several Québec employees confirm that telecommuting has positively changed their relationships to their jobs.
Vanlife is ever evolving. First revived by millennials with no ties and a laptop, this trend is gradually gaining new followers: older people, professionals, families, and entrepreneurs are all criss-crossing the roads of Québec. They get up in the morning and sit at their laptops to answer a few emails, then set off in a kayak to circle Percé Rock, with their van parked back on the cliff at Camping Côte Surprise in Percé.
Work-life balance might just be on the horizon. When our parents dreamed of freedom in their flowered buses in the ’60s, they had no idea we’d seize it, inspired by them all these years later, with the help of a worldwide virus and a little technology called the internet.
Dominic Faucher has been the creative director and partner of the Orkestra agency in Gatineau since 2014. Mariepier Bastien is pursuing her Ph.D. in education at the University of Ottawa. Together, they form the pair behind Vanlife Sagas, a content creation project about North American vanning.