Social media makes living in a camper van look like the simple life. The reality is a lot more complicated.

Van life isn’t what you see on Instagram. Shutterstock
  • I took a short trip in a camper van one weekend and realised the van life hashtag isn’t accurate.
  • Dan Lin moved into a van in 2008. He said photos of van life on social media don’t reflect reality.
  • Matt Watson said misleading photos on social media lead to high expectations and disappointment.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If you search “#VanLife” on Instagram right now, you’ll find over 9 million images of people sprawled out in luxury vans, wearing bikinis, and parked next to picturesque seasides.

The hashtag dates back to 2011 when photographer Foster Huntington used it for the first time. A decade later, the hashtag has grown to represent an entire lifestyle — a group of people who’ve given up traditional living to live in vehicles that have been turned into tiny houses.

As someone who has always been drawn to the fantasy-like world of van life, I gave the lifestyle a try for a weekend in January. I rented a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van and went on a mini road trip. Almost instantly, I realised the reality is nothing like what I saw on my Instagram grid. While sleeping in a Cracker Barrel parking lot and shivering thanks to the broken heater, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Why is this part of van life not anywhere on social media?

When I returned from my trip, I wrote a story about my experience and heard from people who have had similar experiences. Dan Lin, who has been living the van life with his family of five since 2008, sent me an email that really opened my eyes.

“This lifestyle has been so overly glorified on social media I’m surprised experiences like yours aren’t more common,” he said.

After speaking with Lin and a few other vanlifers, I quickly learned that the truth behind the famous van life hashtag is far more complicated than one might expect.

Frank Olito camper van
The van I rented for a weekend. Frank Olito/Insider

The images on social media are just photo ops and not a representation of the real van life

It’s no secret that most images on social media aren’t the full picture. What you’re seeing on your social grid is just a small, stylised snippet of someone’s life. The same can be said for the van life hashtag.

Lin and his wife, Marlene, started travelling in their camper van in 2008 — before the hashtag even began. Over the years, they have watched as their lifestyle became a social media phenomenon. They quickly realised the photos that were viral weren’t what they were experiencing in their daily lives. In fact, the Lins didn’t want to be associated with the hashtag because van life wasn’t a fad for them; it was their lifestyle.

“You’re not going to post videos of you falling on your butt skateboarding,” Lin said. “You’re only going to post videos of the tricks that you landed. That’s what hashtag van life is. These are all the tricks that these vanlifers have landed, and it makes them look like a pro.”

Lin said that the photos of vanlifers parked at a beach during a crimson sunset or in the forest during a beautiful day are just not the reality. It’s a photo op. Most times, these people park their van in a beautiful location for a few minutes to get the photo, post it on social media, and then drive to a parking lot or a campground to spend their night.

Dan and Marlene Lin camper van
Dan and Marlene Lin with their three kids in their camper van. Courtesy of Dan and Marlene Lin

Matt Watson, who started living the van life in 2014 in Canada, said he understands this pressure to perform on Instagram.

“I love the idea of painting the reality of van life, but me peeing into a jar one weekend isn’t going to get that many likes on Instagram,” Watson said. “No matter what filter I end up using.”

Watson, who posted a video on YouTube titled “How #VanLife is Ruining Van Life,” said at first, he enjoyed the popularity of the hashtag because it created a sense of community and validated his lifestyle. But quickly, he noticed that it wasn’t an accurate representation of his life.

On his social feed, he saw luxury vans decked out in high-end products, while his vehicle was cramped and basically only had a mattress. Watson said it bothers him that the hashtag has advertised this as a wealthy, comfortable movement. In reality, some vanlifers are living without high-end amenities in their vehicles out of necessity. Instead of designing their camper vans for Instagram glam photos, there are plenty of people who are really roughing it in their camper vans and living better for it.

“They’re missing the point,” Watson said. “I’ve been able to find joy in simplicity. I feel like the people who are living that comfortably [in a camper van] are missing out.”

Read more:
A couple has been raising their 3 kids and travelling the world in a 90-square-foot camper van since 2008 — here’s how they balance travel and school

As a result, people have an unrealistic expectation of van life and can be left feeling disappointed

When the Lins first started travelling, they didn’t have anything to base their lifestyle around. They didn’t know what they were doing or how to live this lifestyle, and now, they consider themselves lucky that they didn’t have to measure up to something like vanlifers do today.

“There were no expectations,” Marlene Lin said. “I didn’t need to wear a bikini and pose on the bed. We just had no expectations, so we just figured it out ourselves.”

Matt watson camper van
Matt Watson in his camper van. Courtesy of Matt Watson

Watson agreed. He said he feels like people are chasing the expectations they have seen in a social media post instead of learning about the lifestyle. When we chatted about my experience in the camper van for a weekend, he said my disappointment most likely came from my expectations.

“Had you not absorbed what the hashtag sold, and just gone out and lived out of your car for a weekend, you’d have very different expectations,” Watson said. “In fact, you’d probably have incredibly low or no expectations, leaving yourself open to finding joy in simplicity, which is what the culture is supposed to be all about.”

Read more:
I tried living in a luxury camper van for a weekend during the winter, and I’ll never do it again

Kendall Baggerly also had high expectations before deciding to move into a camper van with her boyfriend. After living the lifestyle for a year and travelling throughout Australia, Baggerly has come to realise the realities of van life is far different than what she saw on social media before becoming a participant.

“I thought it looked very easy,” Baggerly said. “I was never shown any downsides or bad times except the random flat tire, so I never thought it would be too challenging. I also assumed that I would always be waking up at a beach every day — if only that was true.”

Beyond the realities of parking, Baggerly said she was also surprised to learn that there are other “not so glamorous sides of life on the road,” including doing laundry, dealing with vehicle repairs, and fighting changing weather — all of which she aims to focus on in her YouTube channel that showcases the realities of van life.

The misrepresented lifestyle on social media is harming the larger movement

The Lins said these posts on Instagram are creating a harmful group of people: van life tourists.

Although there are people all over the world who have given up everything to commit and live full time in a camper van, Lin said there are van life tourists who think they can just jump on the growing movement for a moment because it looks easy and accessible on social media.

“They’re trying to do what took us five or six years to learn how to do,” Lin said. “They want the short cut. They want to be right in front of the line. They want to go from zero to 100 instead of learning it on their own.”

Van life
Van life isn’t as simple as one might think. Shutterstock

Lin said since they are taking the shortcuts, they don’t learn to respect their environments. Lin said he has seen some of his favourite boondocking sites close because of overcrowding and because tourists can’t manage their waste. People leave behind garbage, toilet paper, and even human waste.

“Just like tourists in any industry, they tend to have far less regard for others,” Lin said.

Even though I was a van life tourist for a weekend, I learned my lesson quickly. I had high expectations heading into my experiment, but the reality is that this lifestyle is difficult and takes years of practice to get it right. Those who do get it right understand the real beauty of the movement and that beauty can’t be captured on Instagram.

“When you’re scrolling through the hashtag and seeing the back doors open on a beach, it’s dreamlike,” Watson said. “It’s not real. If you go in expecting that, you’re going to miss out on the beauty of the journey that you’re actually on.”

See more:
10 things I wish I knew about van life before spending a weekend in a camper van