Life in a Vanagon

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For more than year, T and I have been living in a 1989 Volkswagen Vanagon. The choice to live in the van wasn’t dictated by financial hardship, nor inspired by a perpetual road trip. Rather, we wanted to try spending our money on better things than rent. Instead of renting an apartment, we rented a parking space.

We bought the Westy in fall 2015 and moved in a month later. Before moving in, I added some amenities. First, I added a solar power system so we’d have a way to grind coffee, charge laptops and run lights. I spent a lot of time doing my research and ended up with a pretty awesome 265 watt system with 310 aH of storage (12V) along with a 2000w inverter. The other big upgrade was a propane heater mounted under the van. Since we planned to live in the van year round, we wanted to stay reasonably comfortable in the winter.

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Overall, living in a city in a van was tough. It didn’t take us very long to solve most of the obvious problems, like where to go pee, but there were still big changes involved with a living space this small. The single biggest downside was the lack of diversity. When you’re a city-bound van dweller, you can choose between hanging out in a coffee shop or hanging out in the van, but not much else, especially in the winter with dark evenings. Somehow van life always looks cooler in photos than reality. Regular things like whipping up some new gear on the sewing machine, or jumping in the shower can’t be done on a whim. We did settle into a groove that worked pretty well but eventually got a bit old.

The weekends were much better. A van in a city is constraining, but once out on the road it’s a lot of fun. We got out of town almost every weekend and had a lot of good times surfing, hiking, exploring and climbing. Surfing in particular is enhanced with a van. Having a warm place and hot coffee is so much better than coming out of the cold water surf to the amenities of a car.

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I started surfing on Vancouver Island fairly regular over the last year. I’ve gotten good enough to regularly catch small waves but it’s obvious to me that progressing any further would be difficult and slow. I’m quite content to retire from surfing and leave the Vancouver Island waves to the grumpy surf locals. More so than anything else, the actual surf culture is disappointing. The cutthroat culture in the line up is quite off-putting and unlike any other outdoor sport.

Giving up surfing is also easy because T and I took up climbing last summer as well, and we’ve been doing that 3-4 days a week all winter. I’ve progressed in the gym from being destroyed after two 5.9’s, to climbing over twenty 5’11’s in one session and notching my first 5.12b (on gym plastic). I bought a full trad rack, most of which hasn’t touched rock yet, so we’re stoked to get out on the real Squamish rock and see if any of those gym moves translate.

Back to vans, I do like camper vans for weekend style adventuring, but I’m still unconvinced the Vanagon is the right choice. Here in BC, Vanagon’s are unbelievably expensive, at 10-15k for a decent one. They don’t depreciate much, but it’s still stressful having that money tied up in a vehicle that could blow a motor, or be slowly chewed apart by our dog, which did eat both headrests, part of the dash and the steering wheel, but thankfully never made it to the seats. It was a major de-stressing the day we sold it.

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I also don’t like how you can’t stand up in a Westy unless the top is popped, which isn’t a good idea in the rain or around town where sleeping in vehicles is banned (even on private property). I didn’t mind at first, but after 6 months of not being able to stand it gets a little old. So I think the ideal choice in a van is something much cheaper and with a hard top. Something cheap enough that if the motor blows or the transmission drops half the gears, you can just drop it off at the wreckers and say “well that was fun”. Some of those old GMC and Ford vans go for real cheap and would be good if they weren’t so darn thirsty for gas. A Sprinter would be awesome but it doesn’t solve the up front cost problem and adds depreciation.

We lasted 15 months in the Vanagon, from Nov 2015 to Feb 2017, which is what we planned from the start. For the last two months we’ve had a short term apartment rental to prepare the rest of the year spending all that money we saved.

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With the past 2 apartment months, we got our lives re-shuffled for the rest of the year. We sold the van, bought a new vehicle and prepped. Our plan is go backcountry skiing for all of April, climb in Squamish for all of May, and then attempt the first yo-yo thru-hike of the Canadian Rockies via the Great Divide Trail. We’re going to hit the trail June 1 to what will likely be very snowy conditions, and hopefully finish up sometime in September. After no long walks since the PCT in 2014, we’re stoked to be getting back out there.

So we’re now homeless in Squamish, BC and about to get after it.


  1. Dan, I wasted the first one or two years of my university study surfing, the highlight was hanging five, never quite managed ten. Surfing had a devastating effect on my grades. Surfboards when I started where 9ft 6″, then they started to shrink considerably, before later lengthening again. Once a shark swam under my board, while I was waiting for a wave.
    Later my surf buddy, who had the sense to actually focus on his Uni studies while surfing every weekend, left for South Africa after marrying another friend; they worked there for some time, then took their van and traveled all the way thru Africa, into Europe, and to Britain. This was many years ago, maybe ’69 or ’70. They took many many photos en route, which they later sold; they took their time and toured all the way.
    Maybe ’73 I was traveling in Asia, India thru to Turkey (Afghanistan, Iran), and was envious of the Europeans I met who were driving their vehicles from European cities all the way overland to India and Nepal; some continued further to SouthEast Asia I think, but that was rather difficult at the time. Enjoy your (comparative) youth! Do it all!

  2. Young and adventurous, that is what you two are! More power to you! Many years ago when I was young I might have tried the Vanagon for a short while, but I am way past that at this time of my life. However, I commend you for your drive and stamina to seek out new adventures and once in a life time experiences! If you must know, the bathroom/shower thing was my downfall. Happy Trails – be safe out there!

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