If you search the popular hashtag #vanlife on Instagram, you’d think that living out of your car was a sepia-hued, glamorous dream. But as you’ve probably learned by now, Instagram only showcases what we want each other to see.
For Canadian freelance wedding photographers Shelby Lisk and Simon Stiles — creatives who have been living out of their van for over eight months — they wish they’d remembered that sooner.
*All photos are courtesy of Shelby and Simon.
“It all started by finding a book by Theron Humphrey, who was traveling across America in a truck with his coonhound Maddie,” 23-year-old Lisk told Tech Insider. “Then we found some more [Instagram] accounts, Andrew Knapp for instance, traveling in his yellow VW bus. We may have been a little driven by the cute puppy factor.”
Along with their dog Champ, the pair moved into a 1992 Dodge B350 van back in August 2015, convinced that the new adventure would make them better people: more creative and more in-tune with themselves. They saved up enough money to pad their bank accounts before ditching their tiny apartment in Ottawa, selling most of their possessions on Kijiji (the Canadian version of Craigslist), and tricking out their van with a WiFi antenna, solar panels, and space for everything they thought they’d need to live comfortably.
Inside the van, they had a table — built by Lisk’s dad — as well as a stove top and a fridge which were original to the vehicle. After adding a fold-up cutting board for added counter space and decorating the ceiling with maps, they were ready to drive across Canada and the United States. They were ready to live the #vanlife.
Or so they thought.
Quickly, the couple realized they were sacrificing their quality of life — big time.
“We started getting hooked on [the idea of living out of a van], all those Instagram pictures that we saw of people parked in state and national parks,” 26-year-old Stiles explains in one of the couple’s videos about life living out of a van. “And then we got into maybe like the first week of it and we were parked in the Walmart for like, the third time.”
Their world shrunk from a studio apartment to an even smaller space for two people — one of whom is 6’6’’ tall — and their dog. Some obstacles they created themselves, like when they removed the shower so they could give themselves extra space, thinking it would be really easy to find YMCAs or gyms in the area. When there were no YMCAs or gyms to be found, they were forced to clean themselves with a jug of water in a public bathroom.
And not everyone else is as into the #vanlife as Lisk and Stiles are. While their van can fit into parking spaces and on the sides of neighborhood streets, the couple found they weren’t always welcome. Instead of parking in national parks and on cliffs with sweeping vistas of the ocean like they often saw on Instagram, they found themselves parked outside a McDonald’s that offered free WiFi. Once, when they were staying in a wealthier neighborhood, someone called the cops on them.
As if that weren’t enough, the van itself has given them a lot of grief.
For starters, the roof of the 20-year-old car leaks and needs constant re-caulking. When it’s cold, the couple turns on the propane radiator, which can cause condensation not only on the windows, but on the ceiling, their bedding, and their pillows.
Mold is a constant issue.
“The one unifying constant of this trip has been the raw exposure we feel living in a vehicle,” Lisk told us. “We can’t zone out and hide inside. We’re always aware of the weather, the repairs that need doing, the plans that haven’t been made and the uncertainty we feel can be staggering if we don’t rise to those challenges.”
And yet, Lisk and Stiles are finding the positives in their less-than-perfect #vanlife.
But there are up sides to all of this. Strangers invite them into their homes where they’ve received meals, showers, and even a place to sleep. They’ve had free city tours, met others in the van community, and connected with fans and friends through social media.
“We’ve made instant friends with people we feel like we know from following online,” says Lisk. “The internet has played a really vital role in our travels.”
So while their life may look unbearable when they’re, say, emptying their septic tank or spending tons of money on gas — Stiles estimates they spend about as much on gas as they did on rent for their former apartment — Lisk and Stiles agree that living in a van has taught them a lot about themselves.
“What we didn’t realize was that you can’t run or hide from your problems,” Lisk said. “If you had anxiety before moving into a van, you’re still going to have anxiety, it just might not be about the same things. If you were having a hard time making art, changing scenery doesn’t automatically make inspiration hit. You have to work for it, crave it, go after it.”
The couple is currently on the way back to Ontario for wedding photography season and will work for five months before going back on the road next winter. They say they have a two-year plan to live in the van; after that, they want to travel the world and eventually build a tiny home.
“We may end up house-sitting in Europe, volunteering or working jobs in Asia, backpacking or biking across the US,” Lisk said. “Who knows! The possibilities are endless.“