Inside the real #VanLife, the growing movement of young Australians living on the road
Katie Cross packed up her family home to travel Australia in a caravan. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
What would make a family of five upend their comfortable lives and move into a campervan that’s smaller than most bedrooms?
Katie Cross described the life she led with her husband and three children in Bairnsdale, Victoria, as the best.
Surrounded by family and friends, she was kept busy with extracurricular activities and held seats on various committees.
But eventually they itched for a change.
“We got to a point where we kind of felt like we weren’t in charge of our own lives,” Ms Cross said.
“Even though we were happy, we thought there were things about our life that just needed to slow down.”
They found a solution by swapping their large estate for life a tiny caravan, and are now among the many young Australians to have turned their backs on conventional homes as they take to the road.
Life has no filter
It’s colloquially known as #VanLife: the growing movement of people living in vans, often gaining a large social media following while doing it.
There are four million posts with the hashtag on Instagram alone — it is no longer the domain of grey nomads.
But some van dwellers say the reality is vastly different to the highly curated, picture-perfect and peripatetic lifestyles that social media shows.
“It’s not the glamorous life that a lot of people make out van life is,” said Casey Hawkins, who joined the movement 18 months ago.
She recently travelled north to Darwin in her van, which contains a king-single mattress, storage space for clothes and a small kitchen.
“You can’t have a whole pantry full of amazing ingredients to cook for everyone,” she said.
“You are usually just cooking the basic things — you’re doing everything on a basic level.”
Flexible work, a lot of it done over the internet, has supported her as she has moved from location to location over the past year-and-a-half.
“What’s really great is the perceptions of people living in vans is changing,” she said.
“I think originally people would think that people who live in a van wouldn’t hold down a job, or there’s some sort of financial security there.”
“For me, it’s the opposite.”
So, do so-called van lifers find the freedom they long for?
A popular Facebook group called Van Life Australia has nearly 3,000 members, many of them asking anything about particular van models, modifications and good places to park.
“They are a happy bunch because they are getting to see our beautiful country with gypsy-like freedom and seeing it at their own pace,” the group’s administrator, Tyler Durden, said.
“There are pros and cons with #VanLife.
“Some of the difficulties are finding hot showers and local councils that are not van or RV friendly, but the pros far outweigh the cons.”
The Cross family had a similar experience; at first heading up and down the east coast before travelling north via Central Australia and landing in Darwin.
On the road they found a life that was free from modern distractions, however Ms Cross said this could be a double-edged sword.
“Everything’s exposed, I guess.
“There’s no distractions and you sort of look at your husband and think, ‘Gosh, do I love you?'”
Still, Ms Cross said the smaller space had had the unexpected effect of bringing the family together.
“Just to simplify things in our life and live in a small caravan, things just became a lot easier.”
Ms Hawkins says living in a van isn’t always as glamorous as social media suggests. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
Learning to live with less
Liberated from any housekeeping duties, this lifestyle also offers many participants a lot of free time.
“It’s a really interesting combination because you do have a lot of spare time, but then you don’t really have anywhere to go to use that time,” Ms Hawkins said.
“I have all this free time and it’s almost from sun-up to sun-down that I have to fill.”
But not having a home also means no fixed amenities, anxiety about breakdowns and no shelter from the stifling Darwin heat.
“It’s an absolute hot box,” she said of her van.
“It can get up to about 35 degrees in here, so during the day I have to seek somewhere else to work.”
“I think it will be interesting to see how I go moving back into the home, whether or not I feel that I need to fill it with stuff or if I can maintain this minimal way of living.”
“It means you have less to have to think about, I think.”