Skip to main content
Big Idea

The truth behind those glorious #VanLife images

The wanderlust was real. So was the lack of a bathroom.

By Jenni Gritters

The whole adventure started as a fluke. Annaliese Koltermann’s partner, Collin, bid on a Westfalia Vanagon on eBay and unexpectedly won it. They renovated the van, sold it, and eventually bought what she calls a “Frankenstein van”: the body of a 1983 Ford E150 Econoline Club Wagon set on the chassis of a 1979 Ford F-350.

Then they left their shared home in Morganton, North Carolina for a summer on the road.

This was their entree to Van Life, a trendy lifestyle movement that typically involves living out of a camper van for months at a time while driving around America. Van Life brands itself as an opportunity to find yourself on the road, and it has taken off among a largely millennial, social-media-friendly set that craves something besides the typical rooted existence.

The thousands of #vanlife images on Instagram have less to do with the day-to-day experience of sleeping in a van and more to do with advertising a lifestyle that seems carefree and idyllic: steaming cups of coffee against startling mountain backdrops; young men and women casually leaning against the hoods of their vans, half naked, looking into the distance; and epic sunsets seen through tinted van windows. But beneath that hashtag-friendly content and those life-affirming themes, the actual life part of Van Life isn’t always quite so pretty.

While Van Life is portrayed as a mostly-millennial journey on Instagram, it’s not just millennials who dream of living on the road. Harley Sitner, the owner of a thriving Seattle van repair shop, serves clients who span generations, including retired couples who are finally free to hit the open road and tech industry exiles who want to get out of the rat race.

Sitner himself is a 51-year-old who never intended to become a mechanic; he started his own career in tech, eventually working his way up to a Senior Manager position at Microsoft. He bought his own Westfalia Vanagon while working for the tech giant and took the van for frequent fixes at Peace Vans, his favorite van repair shop in Seattle. Then, six years ago, he heard the shop might close its doors.

Sitner had left Microsoft at that point and wanted to try his hand at something new. “If I buy this place, at least I’ll have somewhere to fix my van,” he remembers telling his wife.

Though he knew little about the vintage van repair market, Sitner says his business background translated well to his new project. Peace Vans is unassuming in appearance — sandwiched between warehouses and junkyards on a side street in the up-and-coming neighborhood of SoDo — but it has become something of an empire. Sitner says the business is 10 times larger today than it was when he bought it, making it one of the largest retro camper van repair shops in the United States and certainly the largest in the Pacific Northwest.

Today, the Peace Vans team repairs vans from all corners of America; the vans are usually so old that new parts are hard to come by anywhere else. The shop has a wait list of over a month for simple repairs. Sitner also rents retro vans, decked out with gear and maps of possible Pacific Northwest adventures, to curious summer tourists.

I visited Peace Vans one day last fall and found hundreds of camper vans, mostly Vanagons, lined up three-deep in a parking lot behind the office, glittering like seals in the afternoon sun, waiting for makeovers. The vans were tall, short, round, square, carpeted, wood-paneled, glittery, grungy, souped up and sometimes altogether decked out. Most of them boasted mini fridges, several burners for cooking quick meals, fold-down beds, and pop tops.

Sitner stood beside the lot, seeming to fully embody Van Life; the #VanLife hashtag was even emblazoned across his T-shirt. His hair was covered by a beanie and he wore dirty blue jeans with hiking boots. He’d just returned from Burning Man, where he slept in his own rust red Vanagon for a week.

“This is late stage capitalism, where the bifurcation of classes is so extreme that the top and the bottom meet again at a certain experience.

As I followed him around his busy workshop, it became evident that for him, this work is about more than just repairs. Sitner also serves as a Van Life guru — and at times, a spiritual counselor — for the wanderers who roll in. One older couple, sitting in the Peace Vans front office, peppered him with questions about their new Mercedes van. Could they get a trailer for their e-bikes? Could they install a power system that would support her CPAP ventilator? Yes and yes, he said. Happy to accommodate.

Later, Sitner got teary as he told me about the families who have repaired relationships in his vans, and the customers who have rediscovered their love for the outdoors. Sometimes he misses the tech world, he said, but those stories make his current work worthwhile.

Still, Sitner recognizes the discrepancies between the social-media-facing, idyllic version of Van Life and the reality of living in a van. Eventually, Koltermann came to learn about this gap, too. At 27, she seemed supremely eligible for an itinerant life. She works as a yoga teacher, life coach, and energy healer, and created an online school that teaches people how to apply these practices to their lives. So she was mostly able to keep her business chugging along while they drove across America — though she and Collin also saved money before their trip, knowing they wouldn’t be able to work as much on the road.

Koltermann says she joined the Van Life movement hoping to find the self discovery and connection often associated with a wandering lifestyle. But not long into her trip, she also discovered some unexpected hassles. As they traveled from North Carolina to Oregon, parking for days at a time at campsites and RV parks, Koltermann grew tired of the heat. Most cities were so sweltering during the summer months that she couldn’t leave her two dogs in the van alone, for even short amounts of time. The van guzzled gas. In Telluride, Colorado, it broke down multiple times due to the high elevation — and she and Collin ran out of money more quickly than expected because of expensive repairs.

This is a common problem for Van Lifers, Sitner says. Older vans cost at least $20,000 up front if you want something that’s in good shape, he says. A solid renovation can run you anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000. Repairs will be constant and expensive, too, especially if you buy an older van. Because Koltermann’s van was a hybrid model, finding replacement parts was that much harder.

Koltermann said she also struggled to cook meals, as taking all of the kitchen supplies out of the top of the van and then putting them back became a multi-hour chore. Living without plumbing, she discovered, was more tolerable on a short camping trip than it was for weeks on end. She pooped in dog bags on a regular basis.

“Personal hygiene was a real challenge,” Koltermann said. “You have to take your first steps of the day in public and you feel totally exposed when you get up and need to go to the bathroom.”

On top of it all was the guilt. Koltermann said she sometimes struggled with the ethics of living out of a van by choice, especially when they were parked beside people who were living out of their cars and vans by necessity.

This issue literally surrounds Sitner’s repair shop: Seattle’s homeless population is growing, and many people who have been pushed out of the high-priced housing market are now living in RVs and vans along the side streets, often packing in bumper to bumper at dusk. These people have nowhere to go, and can rarely afford the van repairs or luxuries that their soul-searching neighbors can. They also don’t get to leave the adventure when the experience wears on them.

“This is late-stage capitalism,” Sitner says, “where the bifurcation of classes is so extreme that the top and the bottom meet again at a certain experience. Capital-V Van Life is a choice. Lowercase-v van life isn’t.”

Once Koltermann and her partner hit Portland, Oregon, they cut their trip short, opting to stay there in the comfort of her uncle’s home for a month. Eventually, they sold the Franken-van and bought a Toyota Tacoma, which they drove back to North Carolina during the fall months. Now they live in Santa Fe.

Is she glad she spent those months on the road? Despite all the struggles, Koltermann’s answer is yes. “I think Van Life is about millennials testing their boundaries or lack thereof. It helped me see what I do and don’t like,” she says.

Sitner understands; he compares Van Life to a drug. “On a good day, there’s nothing better,” he says. “It’s addictive. But [Van Life] looks better [in photos] than it is. On a bad day, it’s not #VanLife. It’s just #badlife.”

Still, folks like Sitner and Koltermann believe the experience has staying power, especially for millennials. As the “gig economy” grows and more young Americans pick up remote jobs and contract work, by choice or out of necessity, a wandering lifestyle will become more feasible.

And the complexity of Van Life may be part of its charm, delivering on difficulty — which is arguably necessary for “finding yourself” — and occasionally, when the sun comes out and your van is parked in just the right place, a moment so perfect it belongs on Instagram.

Published on

Jenni Gritters is a writer based in Seattle.