Ever since Alana Keleigh moved into her van nicknamed Carl, she hasn’t had to worry about coming up with rent at the beginning of every month, or choosing between tuition and a place to live.

By finding free places to park at or nearby Mount Royal University (MRU), Keleigh no longer has to pay property fees or utilities, or put up with a string of unfortunate roommates.

The #Vanlife trend is allowing millennials to live small, wild and relatively free. Produced by Nora Cruickshank & Hannah Willinger

Keleigh goes between parking her van in the MRU day-lots- only leaving when the gates are open and on the streets around the nearby church. She said the security guards at MRU haven’t approached her yet, but she doesn’t want to draw too much attention.

By showering at the gym, charging devices during classes and refilling her water jug at the campus pub, Keleigh is making full use of her proximity to MRU.

But even with a five-minute commute on foot, Keleigh still struggles to get to school on time. “Sleeping in will always be my fault,” she said.

Living the #Vanlife

Even after Keleigh graduates in the spring and will no longer have to choose between tuition and rent, she’s confident she will keep Carl. “He’s the first home I’ve ever bought,” she says.

“I’ve been running away from home every summer essentially, and now I get a permanent run away from home.”— Alana Keleigh 

With the nature of Keleigh’s degree in Environmental Sciences, as well as the forestry and tree planting she does in the summer, living in her van means she can easily take her home with her everywhere she goes.

“I’ve been running away from home every summer essentially, and now I get a permanent run away from home,” Keleigh says.

Although Keleigh admits while her mom has had doubts about her living in van, she has done everything to try and be supportive- including buying her a carbon monoxide detector.

“My mom just wants me to not get poisoned…or freeze over the winter,” said Keleigh.

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On the other hand, Keleigh’s stepfather thinks Carl is the, “coolest thing in the entire world” and wishes he had done something similar when he was Keleigh’s age.

Living in a van is not without its challenges though and the challenges Keleigh has faced in the short time that she’s lived in her van are already adding up; a broken heater on her first truly cold day of the season, figuring out what material possessions she has to give up, and even a break-in after a night out.

After coming home late one night from hanging out with some friends, Keleigh said she found the door wide open the next morning and her purse missing. Since the incident she’s been more cautious about her safety.

“I have a couple of weapon-like things I am willing to use if need be. There’s a shovel near the door, I’ve got bear mace in the bottom drawer and if I were to be broken into, they are close at hand and ready to use,” Keleigh said, while also pointing out the knife rack by the stove. “I wouldn’t want to have to stab somebody, I hate blood and there’s white carpet.”

An emerging trend

Traditionally, the idea of the living in a vehicle has brought up ideas of financial instability, poverty and homelessness.

Keleigh recalls an encounter where a fellow student kept apologizing to her after she jokingly told him she was homeless and living in her van in the parking lot. “So there is some stigma surrounding it, but I don’t let it get to my head,” she said.

Recently, there has been a surge in popularity of people living in vans, RV’s and other vehicles Keleigh said.

In 2011, Foster Huntington quit his New York based design job to live life on his own terms and out of a VW Vanagon. After hitting the open road, he met many other people living out of RV’s, campers, and other vehicles and documented their stories with the #Vanlife.

The hashtag has since blown up all over the Internet, with communities of ‘vanners’ posting how-to manuals, videos, and encouraging messages online to fellow and potential van dwellers.

An online community

Keleigh said having a community that supports your way of life is comforting. A simple search online will reveal all the struggles and challenges fellow ‘vanners’ have fallen upon, as well as the stories of others who choose to live in alternative ways.

‘The Vanual’ is a “complete guide to complete freedom.” It explains any and all questions potentially asked about living in a van. The website, run by filmmaker Zach Both, covers topics from how to convert and renovate various aspects of a van, to how to stay safe in your van.

Both calls his site “an opinionated right-hand man who provides insight to those interested in converting a van into a camper and living a mobile lifestyle.”

Another resource to find stories of more people living in alternative ways is the website and YouTube Channel “Exploring Alternatives,” created by Mat Dubé and Danielle Chabassol. Their online platforms are dedicated to sharing the idea of living large with less. Self-proclaimed minimalist nomads, the couple has been living out of their small camper van since 2012 and is passionate about sharing tips and advice they’ve learned along the way.

The duo also travels around to find other people living similar lifestyles. In their channel trailer video, the couple says “[we] meet and interview people who are living in small spaces like tiny houses, vans, RVs, sailboats and who are exploring long-term travel, minimalism, zero waste living, renewable energy, and much more.”

Their main goal is to inspire others to “live life to the fullest, but with a smaller environmental footprint.”

The #Vanlife trend is also starting to penetrate pop-culture with movies added to Netflix like, The Lady in the Van, starring Maggie Smith. Along with media attention focused on professional baseball player, Daniel Norris, living out of his VW Camper during his off-season.

Many of these pop-culture and online stories of ‘vanners’ show off the glamorous and adventurous side of the #Vanlife trend.

“I feel like a lot of those profiles are the travellers and they are the ones who romanticize van living. You don’t really see the day to day, it’s not like their going to post a picture when the roof is leaking or like when they have to go find a [place to] poo in the morning and there’s like nowhere you can do it,” said Keleigh.

But despite the challenges those daily annoyances present her with, Keleigh said she doesn’t plan to give up her full-time #Vanlife any time soon. Keleigh still thinks rent is a scam and she loves having her own space even though that space has recently added another occupant: her boyfriend John.

“I’ve had people offer me or tell me when rooms open up, but I’m not interested in that,” Keleigh said. “I’m very stubborn, I want to prove to myself that I can do it.”


The editor responsible for this article is Cassie Riabko and can be contacted at criabko@cjournal.ca

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