Is Van Life Sustainable? The Reality of Eco-Friendly Off-Grid Living – Bloomberg

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Meet the Americans who live in their vans, buses and cars in pursuit of a simpler life using less energy.
By Leslie Kaufman
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Brian Gifford is so committed to fighting climate change that he purchased a compact 1977 motor home with wall-to-wall orange shag carpeting, installed solar panels on its roof and headed for the wilderness. He realizes his home is a gas guzzler. But he’s saving a lot of energy: Over the past 13 years he’s driven it only occasionally, mostly to switch camping locations.
The 315 watts of solar installed on the roof power all his needs: four-cup coffeepot, toaster oven, rice cooker, electric shaver, toothbrush, cellphone and laptop. Altogether he uses a fraction of the electricity the average US homeowner consumes. “This is like a tiny home on wheels,” says Gifford, an environmental engineer by training. “You are not heating or cooling a big space, and so I really have less of a carbon footprint than other people.”
Gifford, 50, is part of an emerging climate tribe: people who believe living in mobile homes is not only more sustainable but, eventually, also necessary as the planet warms and extreme weather upends sedentary living patterns.
The movement has resulted from a confluence of factors. During the Covid‑19 pandemic, the hashtag #vanlife surged on Instagram. More than 14 million posts celebrated the movement, which extols life on the road. At the same time, the US Census Bureau reported that 3.3 million Americans were displaced by natural disasters in 2022.
“Climate change is inevitably disruptive and will send more people permanently or temporarily to living in their vehicles,” says Sabrina Safrin, a professor at Rutgers Law School who studies vehicle dwellers and their rights. “This group are pioneers, and they have a lot to teach us on mobile living—how to exist using significantly less energy and water, and how to still find community and meaning.”
These days, Gifford works part-time jobs as a videographer and campground host. In January he parked his camper in the Arizona desert just east of the California border. He was there for Skooliepalooza, a weeklong event to celebrate and connect people who live in school buses that have been converted into mobile homes.
The location, not far from the Colorado River, has little to distinguish it from the uninhabited desert other than hundreds of buses, campers, vans and RVs parked alongside one another forming long, snaking avenues. It’s a desiccated landscape punctuated only by scrubby vegetation and purplish hills in the distance. There’s no running water, bathrooms or trash services. The main attraction is that authorities aren’t likely to bother the Skoolies here, even though the event is unpermitted.
Next to their vehicles, some people set up tables with wares for sale: homemade earrings, vegan baked goods. A van with a “Free Tea” sign draws a crowd. There are workshops for everything from crafts to bus maintenance.
Kate Nelson, 34, is here with her husband, Sam Nelson, 38. They quit their restaurant jobs in 2018 to travel internationally before Covid forced them to return stateside. Kate says she was always environmentally conscious. But when the couple decided to live full time in a school bus two years ago, she had no idea what she was really getting into.
“It was a big learning curve,” she says. Their school bus has more than 200,000 miles on it, and things are always breaking. One time, when they were camping in a national forest in Sedona, Arizona, the engine wouldn’t start. Instead of paying for a tow, they called a relative who’s a mechanic; he talked them through the fix over the phone.
Then there was the time their propane stove leaked and they couldn’t get it replaced, because they didn’t have a fixed address for the warranty or for the return. They lived off their Instant Pot for eight months. If they were parked in a sunny area, power was no problem, but after a few cloudy days they’d worry about their energy supply and keep it off. They subsisted on cheese and crackers or sandwiches.
The real challenge was learning to do with less daily, Kate says. She had to train herself to wash dishes using only a little water; otherwise they’d keep emptying their 30-gallon tank. They allow themselves no big appliances: no microwave, hair dryer or air conditioning.
When she lived in an apartment in Boston, she barely knew her neighbors, whereas on the road, nomads jump to help one another. “I love the community we’ve built out here,” Kate says. “We all teach each other how to be more resourceful with the things that we do have. Climate change is terrifying to me, but at least I know I am doing this.”
It isn’t possible to count how many Americans live in their vehicles. The US Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development lump vehicle dwellers in with the homeless. But groups that monitor the trend—including the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the Homes on Wheels Alliance Inc. and governments in greater Seattle and Los Angeles—all report that the nomad population is surging. The reasons can vary, including skyrocketing property prices and more frequent climate-driven natural catastrophes such as wildfires and hurricanes destroying homes.
Nomadland, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2021, introduced the public to people who call their transportation home. The film, like the 2014 Harper’s Magazine article that inspired it, was largely about older people forced by financial hardship to live on the road, making ends meet as seasonal workers.
Bob Wells, 67, who’s amassed hundreds of thousands of followers through his Cheap RV Living blog and YouTube channel, is the closest thing to a center and philosopher for the Nomad movement. He appeared as himself in the movie. And every January he comes to Quartzsite, Arizona, to host the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a gathering of his followers.
Quartzsite, about two hours west of Phoenix, fills with hundreds of thousands of recreational vehicles every winter. Many of the nomads are far from poor. They’re drawn by dry air, relatively warm temperatures and the long-term visitor areas (LTVAs) on vast, open public lands, at which the Bureau of Land Management allows them to stay for a nominal fee.
In Wells’s vision of the future, climate change will drastically alter our daily life, and these LTVAs will be valuable enough to go to war over. “If everyone in South Florida and the desert Southwest were going to have to move, where we would put them?” he asks as he settles into a camp chair at the edge of a fire pit with a sun-bleached log at its center.
Mathew Hauer, a professor who studies demography and climate change at Florida State University, says people usually migrate for a combination of reasons, including better job prospects or to be closer to family, but climate disruptions are increasingly the final straw. “By the end of the century,” he says, “climate migration in the US will be on par with the Great Migration,” in which roughly 6 million Black Americans moved from the rural South to the North and Midwest at the beginning of the last century.
Safrin, the Rutgers law professor, has rented a van and lived on the road for a bit, and she says she believes the great climate diaspora has already begun. “In the field and from my students in class,” she says, “I hear stories of people who have fled natural disasters, including the Paradise Fire and some of the Florida hurricanes, and are living in their vehicles. The future is upon us.”
For now, however, the biggest motivator for the climate nomads is not disruption but an older, more established worldview: anti-consumerism. The degrowth movement, which argues that economies should focus on securing the minimal basic needs of their populations instead of relentlessly increasing consumption, was founded 50 years ago.
Today’s climate nomads are far younger than the characters in Nomadland. Still in their prime earning years, they’re consciously eschewing the values of their parents. Many van dwellers say they started by studying the tiny home movement and then continued down the path to shedding their traditional house altogether.
As the nomadic lifestyle attracts more adherents, though, there are downsides. Wells co-founded the Homes on Wheels Alliance with another nomad, Suanne Carlson, 68. She worries about city authorities who are curbing the rights of vehicle dwellers because they see them as vagrants. And greater visibility can mean extra scrutiny.
Carlson has lived in a 2016 Toyota Prius for several years. The hybrid is prized by many nomads because it’s possible to leave it running all night on climate control—heating or air conditioning—running on the hybrid battery and turning on the gas engine only at occasional intervals so the fuel use is minimal. (Hybrids and many electric cars are both excellent for this situation, but the latter are relatively rare because they’re still very expensive.)
The seats in a Prius also fold down entirely, so Carlson can sleep on the right side of her car. She leaves the driver’s seat for that one purpose and uses the seat behind it for changing clothes and sponge-bathing if necessary. She has storage under the seats for appliances and clothes.
Carlson has heard from almost a dozen people displaced by climate-fueled fires in the Pacific Northwest who now live in campers and need help because they’re being run out of town by local authorities who’d prefer them to be housed. To her this isn’t compassionate—and runs counter to society’s best interests: “To be in a car and to have the whole of the wilderness be your abode is more of a fulfilling existence,” Carlson says, “than being cramped into someone else’s home.”
If there’s one obvious drawback to a nomad lifestyle, it’s that it can get lonely. That’s what draws many people to events such as Skoolie: It provides a chance to meet with like-minded wanderers.
Parked alongside Gifford is a school bus painted olive green with a roof deck on top. Its inhabitants are Ayana Otterman, 29, and Andy Forget, 35. They invite Gifford and others up to the roof to have cocktails and enjoy the waning afternoon.
After graduating from college five years ago, Otterman didn’t want a conventional job, because she didn’t think it would offer her a way to buy a home or have a pension—things her parents and grandparents could count on. She studied the tiny house movement as a way to live on a lot less, but then she met her partner, Forget, and they decided instead to purchase, for less than $5,000, a 2007 Chevy Midbus that a Texas school district had used.
They did all of the demolition, design, electrical, plumbing, painting and exterior carpentry themselves, but their renovation costs still totaled about $20,000. Supplies added up, and they splurged on some appliances, such as a composting toilet that can run on 25 gallons of water for a week and needs to be emptied only every six weeks. (It’s far more efficient than a conventional toilet.) They also hired a carpenter to put in interior cabinetry, including a tiny walnut countertop in the tiny kitchen.
Everything in the bus—water pump, refrigerator, Bluetooth speakers, lights, hood fan—is tied to house batteries, which are charged by three 100-watt solar panels affixed to the roof. There are simpler options for solar, including ready-made systems that come with a power station and outlets, as well as fold-up solar panels that can be placed outside at a campsite. The couple voted against them because they were more expensive and appliances couldn’t be permanently hooked up.
Forget says all parts of the build-out were challenging, but adding permanent solar was especially so. Parts weren’t readily available at local hardware stores and had to be ordered online. Then there was the installation.
“We learned most of our skills on the internet,” he says. “It still took weeks of me really digging to ensure we did it correctly.” (Making a mistake can mean damaging thousands of dollars in equipment or having an electrical fire.)
Otterman says life in a vehicle has given her a “tactical” understanding of consumption. “You can’t charge your phone and use the electric kettle,” she says. “And you’re constantly paying attention to the amount of water you use, because when that tank is empty, you have to go to town and get more.”
Every nomad shares this intense resource awareness. Each one speaks of knowing exactly how much propane they use in a week, how long they can charge their electronic devices on solar after a run of cloudy days, and how to stretch water by sponge-bathing and using a spray bottle for rinsing when brushing teeth. Many also use composting toilets and recycle items others would toss without a thought, such as paper towels from public bathrooms.
Colleen McLoughlin, 29, is on the roof of the olive green bus, too. Before Covid she’d been working for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, and her partner was working with an environmental nonprofit raising awareness of the low levels in the Colorado River. Then both lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic. They started out camping but moved to a van—which they’ve decorated with a Southwest motif of dried skulls and red clay dishes.
What she likes most about their new lifestyle is feeling in tune with the outdoors, but it also means grappling with a warming planet. “We are acutely aware of climate change, because we live it,” she says. “When there is a forest fire and there is smoke in the air, we have to move. When it’s too hot, we go up the mountain.”
As the sun goes down, the crowd on the bus roof rises to applaud it. The sunset infuses the crystalline air with a deep coral-colored light. At the rambling gathering, everyone pauses to watch.
•••
Visual media produced in partnership with Outrider Foundation.

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