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What is it like when a camper van California road trip turns into a way of life? Tiny living has gained a lot of traction in the United States in the past few years, while other countries like Australia and New Zealand have long since cultivated a thriving tiny living culture. For those who scratch their heads at the phrase “tiny living," it’s an aesthetic and a lifestyle that supports nomadism, freedom and sustainability. People house their entire lives in vans, buses, tiny houses on wheels, RVs and stationary tiny houses. Everything you own has to be intentional. Think Marie Kondo’s minimalism, but in many cases more extreme.
Reasons for downsizing range from decluttering and lowering expenses to a desire for greater freedom and mobility. Every tiny living story adds a unique chapter to the movement. No longer considered as fringe or hippy as it used to be, the tiny living aesthetic has captured the interest of architects and contractors, who welcome the challenge to put every inch of space to use. Though some hire professionals to build their tiny homes, most prefer to renovate a van or DIY a tiny house. The intellectual and physical experience of building your own home is part of the tiny living aesthetic.
Van life on the California coast
There’s no question about why many tend to extend their camper van California road trip indefinitely. Coastal states often glom onto fringe aesthetics faster than others, and California is no exception. The vintage van with surfboards tossed on top and wet suits hanging over it snags a special place in California stereotypes. Van life’s popularity took off as a tiny living subculture in 2020 with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the retreat to virtual life.
Younger generations, already skeptical of the 9-5 work day, have blown up social media, particularly TikTok, with videos, stories and images of morning coffee in the back of a van decked out in macramé and succulents, van doors opened wide to a spectacular sunrise. Never before has living out of your van been so glamorized.
These van life advocates don’t always own a surfboard, though many of them prioritize their connection with nature through outdoor recreation. What could beat a morning of hitting the slopes in the mountains, a few hours of remote work, a drive to the coast and then a sunset surf?
Van life is more than an enviable aesthetic to drool over on TikTok. It’s an alternative lifestyle that requires relearning how society has taught you you’re supposed to live. It requires sacrifice in order to achieve the happiness and freedom with which social media fans associate van life. For some, van life symbolizes the resistance against an oppressive economic system, and for others it’s less political and more spiritual.
Obviously living out of such a small space presents challenges and breaks from the status quo. Skeptics question whether it can be maintained for more than a gap year? Can tiny living satisfy your needs long term? Van lifer Cody Lee Jurgen thinks it can.
Camper van tips for the new van lifer
Photographer Cody Lee Jurgens lives on the road with his 2019 Ford Transit 350. Inspired like many by browsing through social media and the internet, Jurgens found himself hooked on the idea of living for the now.
“I’d always looked at others who had done this … with envy,” Jurgens says. “I think that it is less and less attractive, especially for younger folks, to look at the lives their parents or peers lived … That way of life is dwindling as time goes by and as the mindsets of people change and adapt.”
Jurgens sees more and more people opt for van life and remote work in lieu of the “traditional work, work, work and eventually maybe someday you’ll have enough to ‘retire’ or live a good life later on.”
Unsure of where to start? A lot of aspiring van lifers are at a loss when it comes to bringing their vision to life. The practical side of van life, especially startup costs, doesn’t often make it to the forefront of your TikTok FYP. Jurgens began with research. He recommends the site ExploreVanX as a resource for finding van builders and companies that handle financing and insurance. Jurgens also connected with a local van builder once he’d answered his initial questions.
When asked whether van life lives up to the hype, Jurgens says that it’s “most definitely not all that it is made out to be.”
“And this is what makes it so beautiful,” he continues. “That there are moments where you are stuck in the small town of Tonopah, Nevada, sleeping in the parking lot of a run down casino, with traffic from truckers running by you all night long … and there are moments when you are able to sleep beachside in San Diego at the Torrey Pines glider park, watching hang gliders whiz by as the sunset drops behind them.”
So is the tiny living aesthetic a sustainable venture, or is it a temporary fad? “I really do genuinely feel that the tiny aesthetic is going to continue taking off and growing as time goes by,” says Jurgens. “Mainly for the freedom that it allows. Financially, not being stuck and in tons of debt. Minimizing and simplifying … not overwhelming your mind and body with so much unnecessary space and things that I feel more and more people are realizing adds more stress and anxiety to our lives than joy and peace.”
Looking for more info on Jurgens’ van life? You can follow his van adventures on Instagram @93vanlife. He’s planning a full DIY of a 4×4 Sprinter Van.
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