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  • Writer's pictureAudrey Jaber

#VanLife: What it's Like to Live on the Road During a Global Pandemic

Newly laid-off, overwhelmed with student loans, and facing a global pandemic, Bret Hauff decided to prioritize fun and freedom by embracing the trend that is van life. With the aid of dozens of YouTube videos, Hauff got to work converting a 2001 Chevy Astro Van into his new home on wheels. Complete with a sink, fridge, and composting toilet, his van had everything he needed to both live and travel, despite being too small for him to even stand.

After three months of hard work, Hauff and his 13-year-old Boston Terrier, Georgie, took off driving. From the Black Hills in Tennessee to his hometown in Michigan and the mountains of Colorado, Hauff lived out his wanderlust dreams. Although the sights were unmatched, and his boredom was cured, COVID restrictions and a broken heater made his introduction into van life less than ideal.

Like many van lifers, Hauff was forced to rely on public spaces. Without the comforts of his own home, places like gyms, coffee shops and laundromats became essential to everyday life. But in 2020, this wasn’t so simple. Colorado was in a state of emergency, public gatherings were limited to 10 people, and those from out of state were far from welcomed with open arms. Even so, Hauff had no choice but to make do.

“I sat outside of a library in the van with my dog for eight hours and used my phone as a computer for stupid Zoom meetings,” says Hauff. He also got a membership at the local rec center in Colorado. “I went there for showers and to work out, just to kind of keep myself sane.”

Hauff isn’t the only van lifer who has struggled to maintain this lifestyle amidst the ongoing global pandemic.

Kevin Culver, an aspiring YouTuber, began his journey into van life in March of 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning. "I didn't really realize the weight of the situation and what was happening, but the further we traveled, the more that I felt like we were doing something wrong and like we made a mistake," says Culver. "It felt like we were standing around in the apocalypse."

The biggest struggle for Culver, and his girlfriend Dallas, was finding public bathrooms. "We would basically have to stop and find a restroom when we needed it, and that was super challenging because everywhere they wouldn't let you use the bathroom. They said it's for employees only," says Culver.

As time passed, public bathrooms began to open up, but a new problem arose: finding a place to shower. "We bought gym memberships and went to the gym and they turned us away because the showers were closed," says Culver.

Sara Randall—who has a TikTok following of 288.9K based on her videos documenting her experience with van life—has faced similar problems. While traveling cross country in her converted 2006 Ford Escape, she ended most days searching for a nearby Planet Fitness where she could shower and get ready for the next day. But during her 2020 journey from California to New York, she found that many Planet Fitnesses either closed their doors or at the very least their showers.

Both Randall and Culver found ways around this inconvenience. "When I’m at the beach most of them have public showers,” says Randall. “When it’s warm enough, I have a portable shower and tent that I can prop up and take a shower in.”

Culver and his girlfriend found an alternate option. "We did find a place that has hot showers," says Culver. "It's actually a truck stop, believe it or not. I was really worried going into it, but we went there, and I was kind of blown away at how nice it was."

Although this may sound like the perfect solution, it presented its own problem. The truck stop, which Culver described as "a hotel room, but minus the hotel room, just the shower and the bathroom," charges $15 a shower. For a couple traveling on a budget, $15 showers every day is simply not sustainable.

It's obstacles like this, as well as the maintenance that comes with owning and living in a van, that actually caused Hauff to return to a more conventional lifestyle. "I just got a job recently," says Hauff. "So, I'm trying to sell the van to get something a bit more practical."

Still, many who have chosen this nomadic lifestyle prefer it over traditional living, despite the many difficulties that COVID has imposed.

“I don’t have a solid home with four walls," says Randall, "and if I’m being honest, I don’t want one.”

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