- COVID-19 and subsequent social distancing has forced people to stay home – but for some, home is on the road.
- Megan Kantor and her husband are van-lifers, and they – along with many in the van-life community – found themselves stuck once campgrounds closed.
- To connect van-lifers with places to stay, Kantor created a Google spreadsheet – and the response to help was overwhelming.
- Hosts are former van-lifers, outdoors lovers, hikers, nature enthusiasts, and just generous, kind people in general, offering their driveways or extra rooms to those in need.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In February 2019, Megan Kantor and her husband packed their world into a vintage airstream van and hit the road for a life of adventure. With cameras at the ready, this husband-and-wife photography team made a living shooting elopements and weddings across the American west.
That is, until March 2020, when COVID-19 turned their world upside down.
“We were in the process of emailing one of our couples to let them know about Moab closing, and in that conversation I realised the mandate also applied to us,” Kantor told Business Insider. “We were camping on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and realised they were closing down camping to anyone who wasn’t a resident. It felt like we didn’t have a home. We had to get out.”
The Kantors found refuge with family in Colorado, but many van-life peers weren’t as lucky. One pair of van-lifers tried to get up to their family’s spare cabin in Canada, but they were turned away at the border. Those attempting to hunker down at RV parks and campgrounds faced closures left and right.
Are these shut-downs necessary? Yes, Kantor said. With small rigs, most van-lifers can’t stockpile groceries and supplies. They rely on community resources – and therefore local interactions – almost daily. That’s a lot of close contact with a lot of different people which easily can lead to the spread of diseases, particularly with the highly contagious COVID-19 virus. Most van-lifers recognise that, but it doesn’t make their situation any easier.
“This is all changing so quickly; it’s a confusing, hard time for people on the road,” Kantor said. “People want to hunker down and stay put, but they don’t know where to go.”
Finding temporary homes for van-lifers
While talking with panicked van-life friends, Kantor got an idea. What if people could share their open, unused spaces with those who need shelter?
“People are desperate to help other people, but we all have to isolate, so we don’t know how,” she said. That’s how the Space for Road-Lifers Directory was born.
This grassroots, community-built directory on a simple Google spreadsheet connects van-lifers struggling to find shelter with people generous enough to offer up their land. Hosts can provide driveway space, side yards, lots, or spare rooms. Many share water access, electricity, bathrooms, showers, and WiFi with guests as well.
When she started the directory on March 20, Kantor expected a handful of kind souls would sign up. Four days later, it was up to 90 hosts and growing, with locations all over the US and Canada. She attributes the sign-up spike to the road-life Instagram community; popular accounts like Van Life Diaries and outdoor photographer Abbi Hearne (who’s also helping Kantor manage the directory) have shared it with followers.
“It’s all volunteer based,” Kantor said. “The hosts may ask for people to pitch in on yard work or helping with kids, and maybe contributing a bit to pay for bills like water and electric, but that’s it.”
Expanding to hikers
And it’s not just for van-lifers: Many through-hikers preparing for journeys like the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (the trek that Cheryl Strayed made famous) found themselves stranded during the outbreak too. The Pacific Crest Trail Association is asking hikers to cancel or postpone all treks to keep themselves and local communities along the trail safe. The Kantors, who spent three months hiking the PCT in 2016, know the widespread stress this is causing.
“When we hiked [the PCT], we moved out of our apartment, sold everything we owned, and quit our jobs,” she said. “If we were in that position now and we were being told not to hike, we’d have nowhere to go. It’s cool because this shelter resource isn’t just for driveways. I’ve seen people post offering vacant Airbnbs and spare rooms for hikers, too.”
Becoming a host
Kantor launched the Space for Road-Lifers Directory in a flurry – that’s why the application process is ultra simple. Those with free space fill out a Google form with their contact information, location, space, utilities, and pet-friendliness. Once reviewed, their information is populated in the public Google spreadsheet. Those seeking shelter reach out to the hosts and take the conversations from there.
So who are these gracious hosts? According to Kantor, some are former van-lifers. Some are outdoors lovers, hikers, and nature enthusiasts. And others are just generous, kind people.
One host, Aileen Gardner, is welcoming multiple van-lifers to park at her home in Bend, Oregon. Gardner is not just sympathetic to the van-life community, she’s part of it. She and her husband lived out of a Sprinter van for years, and they’re excited to trade travel stories with their “new neighbours” over morning coffee and late-night bonfires – while social distancing, of course.
“I feel a sense of responsibility to take care of our community,” Gardner told Business Insider. “We feel for people who are being told to go home when public lands and campgrounds are home to most road-lifers. If we were ever in a situation like this, I know someone would show us the same kindness.”
Gardner’s first guests, Alyssa Bean and her husband Dan, live full time in a renovated school bus named Lucky. These two quit their jobs to travel across the US, and were doing just fine until the campgrounds and public lands shut their doors.
“Being from Massachusetts, we were a long way from family, so we found Megan’s document in our nomad community and immediately emailed Aileen,” Bean said. “It’s a huge wave of relief knowing we have a place to anchor in uncertain times. The generosity is overwhelming.”
Boulder photographer Jess Drawhorn and her husband moved from their first newly-wed apartment into new digs right before the pandemic hit. Drawhorn couldn’t let the empty apartment just sit there. She signed up as a host and offered her room to a road-life couple and their two dogs. In these trying times, even the simple act of handing over apartment keys – which she did by setting them six feet away on the footpath – sent Drawhorn on an emotional rollercoaster.
“This apartment meant so much to us, and it felt like our civic duty to share resources right now,” she said. “We chatted a bit about the area, I asked them to water my plants, and told them where they could take their dogs. They thanked me again and again, and we all kind of wanted to cry. The strangeness of the situation is dizzying.”