Nomads Of The 21st Century: Rise Of The Van Life Movement

As van life gains popularity across the globe, droves of avid adventurers are moving into homes on wheels to freely and inexpensively travel the open road.

Without the hassle of costly reservation fees, tourist traps, and the limitations of conventional travel, van life offers an unrefined, minimalist adventure to those willing to give up their comfortable, rooted existences at home. Instead, van travelers construct their own homes from backroads and byways, grounding themselves in overnight parking spaces, making families among friends in distant places, and living full-time in ten-foot sanctuaries.

van life
Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic gave traction to the already flourishing community of van-goers as traditional methods of travel became inaccessible due to public health concerns. As the world slowed to a halt throughout 2020 and into the early months of 2021, van travelers carried on, quarantining in their own personal vacation homes while freely navigating popular destinations without the bustle of tourist traffic. While expert van dwellers kicked back to enjoy the familiar pros of their off-the-grid lifestyles during the pandemic, a survey by showed a 312% increase in interest for van life across the U.S. as thousands of new voyagers took to the road.

The Oscar-winning drama Nomadland based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book also provides an intimate view of van life and its raw attraction through the lens of Fern, a woman in her sixties who embarks on an itinerant journey after losing everything in the Great Recession. Fern’s character (played by four-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand) sheds light on the rationale behind van life and provides a penetrating glimpse into the tight-knit community of nomads drawn together by a shared sense of liberation, wanderlust, and resilience.

When Jordy McArthur and Mattea Carson (@75vibes_ via Instagram) first set off in their VW Kombi named Stella in 2019, they took on a nomadic lifestyle to freely explore the sunny coastlines of Australia. The couple frequently gives an aesthetic glimpse into the enchanting yet rigorous world of van life on their Instagram account, where every stunning shot edited with their own preset packages features their charming orange home on wheels. After meeting in 2015, Jordy and Tia were instantly connected by a shared passion for the outdoors, and they soon found that their mutual sense of adventure was perfectly accommodated by van life.

When we met back in 2015, we camped in the sand dunes of Western Australia while on a surf trip. In the following months, we got together every weekend exploring different beaches from Margaret River to Perth. Since then, we never stopped looking for the next place to sleep under the stars. It was our shared passion for exploring the outdoors which brought us together. So, buying Stella and road tripping Australia full time was a natural progression for us and our journey.”

van life
PHOTO Mattea Carson

Almost two years after making the switch to full-time van living, McArthur and Carson are slowing down to a relaxed pace of travel, allowing them to live like locals wherever they stop and to fully enjoy the hidden treasures of Australia that most tourists might miss.

In the past, we worked corporate jobs, which meant we took our two week vacations each year or took off on the weekends to travel about. Now we head off for months at a time to drive up the coast. This has given us a completely different view of travel, and as time goes on, the slower we go. Now we get to enjoy simply being in each place and experiencing it the way the locals do. We seek out the secret spots away from the popular tourist areas, and if we like a place, then we extend our time there without worry.

Though their on-the-go lifestyle is inherently accompanied by moments of frustration and discomfort, Jordy and Tia embrace the unexpected and find ways to get back on track regardless of breakdowns, lack of resources, or any other obstacle they encounter along the way. Rather than being deterred by the hardships of van life, the duo views the unpredictability they face as a catalyst for the adventure and freedom they have long pursued.

“We never really know where we will be tomorrow or where we will sleep each night. We only carry with us what we can fit in the van, and our decisions are often made around what the weather is doing that day. We always say our plan is to have no plans, and although this makes us uncomfortable at times, it has allowed space for many amazing things to happen.” 

Mattea Carson- Stella
PHOTO Photo by Mattea Carson

The uncertainty that drives Jordy and Tia has become universal motivation for van living during the COVID-19 pandemic, which left behind no stranger to adversity and provided a crucial reminder of the joys of travel and exploration. With relief from the pandemic at last in sight, millions of jobs remain virtual and weathered adventurers are overdue for a break from idle, mundane days in quarantine. The van community is likely to welcome even more arrivals in the next year as thousands reconsider their priorities and change their lifestyles to make up for lost time stuck at home.

Though the attractive photos and trendy hashtags boosting the social media popularity of van life reveal many pros of the getaway lifestyle, its reality is often far less glamorous than the sensationalism portrayed by Instagram influencers. For some van-lifers like the subjects of Jessica Bruder’s book, the switch to van living is a sole alternative for stability and inexpensive living. Others who have joined the trendy movement seeking flexible tourism have instead found an uncompromising way of life. For those who can see past the photo ops and filters to instead find joy in simplicity, van life can be a journey of evolution and a grounding adventure despite its restless demands.

For van travelers like Jordy McArthur and Mattea Carson, a “go with the flow” attitude is key to success on the road, and they have found that their greatest experiences come without expectations. The entire van life movement is characterized by challenge, adventure, and liberation with a growing community of travelers eager to step beyond their comfort zones, to break away from convention and routine, and to live spontaneously and authentically.

Layne Deakins

Content Editor Associate

Layne is a Pennsylvania native who enjoys adventuring in nature, traveling, writing, eating, and spending precious time with her cat. Fluent in Italian, Layne jumps at every opportunity to explore the world around her, and she’s always planning for her next trip back to Italy.

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