A Letter to all New and Future #vanlife #vandwellers


My name is Reed Rombough, I hold no authority in this community of van dwellers.  My opinion and my message hold no weight.  This message is not designed to command you to do anything, I speak merely of suggestions and wishes. I speak out of fear and worry of what will happen to this community of travelers and adventure seekers when this lifestyle becomes a trend.  So, I write you this letter. I use the word “van” but I refer to all of those who live out their days in any sort of vehicle. 

I write this at my little pullout table, from the wal mart parking lot in Lafayette, CO.  My dog Sadey is snuggled on my bed in the warm light of my flexible reading light. My exhaust fan is gently pulling the stench of my van life existence out into the cooling Colorado air as we near Fall.  I am a van dweller, and I have been off and on for four years now.  In the past year there has been an excessive number of van life advocates and celebrities growing on Instagram.  And just recently a video has gone viral portraying van life as the new “trend for millennials” and quite frankly, I’m afraid.

I’m afraid of what this means for the community and lifestyle I’ve grown so fond of.  You see, when activities that fall outside of societal norms, become mainstream, laws impede them from continuing.  As this trend of van life grows, some of you will abuse it, and draw negative attention to us as a historically quiet and hidden culture.  So I want to set a few things straight.

First off, have a purpose.  Van life is not new, you didn’t invent it, you aren’t hip because you think you’re so unique with your new existence and supposed freedom.  You’re just a new addition to an old culture.  The whole concept of living in a van began way before most of us were even born. It began with surfers, and climbers, chasing their lifestyle sports with vigor.   They realized early on they could spend more time chasing swells, or more time on the wall if they reduced their footprint, their living expenses and made themselves more mobile.  Van life is Yvon Chouinard and friends driving a VW Bus from California to Patagonia in 1968.  So, I say again, have a purpose.  If you’re sitting in your van right now, and your only reason for van life is that you thought it was cool. Sell your van, or get a hobby. 

The fun hogs expedition to patagonia

 The whole idea of having a mobile living space, a smaller footprint, reducing what you own, is to chase a passion! People in our world need more passion; more passion outside of Netflix binges, video game high scores or the number of followers on your fu&*ing Instagram account.  The best concept to adopt in van life, is how much time can I spend NOT in my van? 

If your purpose is to live cheaper and to dodge rent, make sure to have a job! I frequently go long periods of time without working, cool. But I also work a lot when I’m not traveling, and I pay taxes. If we become a society of freeloaders, we’re sure going to get shut down soon.  You can live the van life, and revolt against society, while still being a contributor to it.  And for the love of Biology, if you’re voting liberal, and you’re dodging taxes then you need to take a long look at what it is you truly believe in.  We are law abiding, contributing members of society who pay our taxes because we love and care about everyone and taxes go forth to help those that are even less fortunate than those who live in a van.  

Second, be quiet, be invisible. It seems like every week I park at a rest area or a Wal mart, or a BLM pull off or a climbing gym, that there are more transient vehicle dwellers.  Over the past four years of mastering the art of parking and remaining in the shadows, I have never seen this many people cramming into parking lots.  One thing I’ve began to notice is van dwellers playing loud music and making a scene in public parking areas.  It’s people like you who are going to make this harder for the rest of us.  I implore you to think of yourself as a member of a community, and every action you make is a reflection on the rest of us.  If enough of you began frequenting the same parking area, and being loud and drawing attention to yourselves then that parking area will most certainly be shut down.  That not only effects the other van dwellers using that lot, but anyone who could’ve used it in the future.  In the front range of Colorado, there are already Wal Mart locations who have outlawed overnight parking in their lots because it was being abused by travelers.  Don’t be the person who ruins it for the rest of us.  If more and more parking areas begin getting coplaints, eventually there will be more strict laws against our lifestyle, and before long the police will be banging on doors everywhere you park. 

the view from the sliding door of my van as seen from the Rainier climber’s parking lot

Third, be courteous.  There are two types of van dwellers: those who choose to live in a van, and those who have to live in a van.  Just because you decided it would be fun, or advantageous to your life to live in a van, doesn’t mean that all van dwellers are proud of their existence.  Be courteous to those van dwellers who are homeless due to unfortunate circumstances and only dream of being able to live in a home.  This may be some fun vacation to you, but this is a sad and unfortunate event for them.  Help them when you can, and don’t be a dick. 

Fourth, pay your way.  I can assure you that if you live in a van and travel and brag about your existence and then I find out you’re a trust fund kid, I will make fun of you.  If you are a trustafarian and living the van life for the sole reason of being a trendy dickhead then get a job, put daddy’s money in the bank and pay your own way.   I know a lot of incredible people living out of all types of vehicles who are getting up every morning and going to work.  A lot of their coworkers probably have no clue that they even live out of a car.  This is the way it should be.  If you’re in a van, and passionate about your lifestyle then FUND IT! Don’t get on a go fund me and have people pay for your trip, pay for it yourself.  Work hard, learn from this existence and bring it to your future.  Tell your grandkids that you lived in a van and worked your ass off to pay for the gas that put miles behind your van and kept you on the frontier of your adventures.  If you choose to live this life, then live a life! Move that van, see something, learn something, find love, find passion, find heartbreak, find new places, new hobbies. But pay for it.  Everything in this life holds more value when you earn it.  Please, if you plan on hopping your van and having pops pay for your travels, you’re only making the rest of us look like freeloaders as well.  

Finally, have fun and suffer a bit.  I started this lifestyle after finding that the 9-5 life didn’t suit me.  I worked 80 hours a week and could barely make ends meet living in Salt Lake City.  I was eating shit food, and living in a tiny, basement room in a house with 4 girls.  All I wanted to do was travel and climb.  Finally I sold everything I possibly could.  Whatever I couldn’t sell, I donated.  I took the memory foam mattress topper off the top of my bed, cut it in half, laid the halves on top of each other and stuffed it in the bed of my truck.  I parred my clothes down to what could hang from a tiny clothes hanger in the topper of the truck, packed a tote with all of my climbing gear and hit the road.  I had $1,800.  I stretched that for 4 months across the whole country. I visited family, climbed everywhere I could and I had a blast.  Soon I began to think of ways I could maintain a job and live the same way.  I worked on cell phone towers.   My company would put me up in hotels, so I stayed in them.  I found myself down to mere dollars multiple times in between jobs. However, I kept climbing.  I kept scheming of ways to keep this lifestyle ablaze.  I tried started my own cell tower company which went bankrupt two years later. Broke, I washed up on a friend’s couch in the dead of a South Dakota winter.  I took a job remodeling apartments for $10/hr and absorbed everything I could.  I went to Patagonia and traveled for three months.  I came home and lived in the truck spraying weeds 80-90 hours a week all summer.  Then I went to Nepal and Thailand to hike and climb.  I came home after that and finally bought the Sprinter van I’m in now.  Now I run a small independent contracting construction company out of my van.  All that I own and my construction equipment fits in the storage in my van.  I’ve worked 25 out of the last 28 days, and logged 328 hours during that time.

my original “van life” setup for three years

my new setup below the north face of Notch Peak in Utah’s west desert earlier this spring.

You know what the best part is? At any point in time, I have the ability to take what I’ve earned, and hit the road again.  That’s the beauty of this life.  I can truly work hard and play hard.  

I hope that you too, quietly, and with purpose, find van life to be as providing and fulfilling as the rest before you have. If this is just a trend to you, stick to long boarding and Skinny jeans, let the rest of us continue our peaceful van lives. 

Below are some photos from my four years on the road in two different vehicles, and one great pup. 

photo by Fiona Foster