How social media inaccurately portrays van life

Many Van Life Influencers Are Over Glamorizing an Unglamorous Lifestyle

Living on the road requires a much bigger financial and time commitment than most YouTube and Instagram stars are willing to let on.
September 1, 2021
8 mins read

Van life became popular on YouTube for a variety of reasons — gorgeous nature, pleasing shots of long drives and dreamlike places where influencers set up camp for the night. It’s thus no surprise such content would inspire its audience to do the same. However, the average 20-minute van life video represents just a small fraction of a creator’s life, one that excludes the non-aesthetic difficulties associated with actually living in a van. As a result, audiences may easily forget the hard work it takes to sustain such a lifestyle.

YouTubers such as Anna’s Analysis criticized the lifestyle after trying it out themselves and finding it way less glamorous than portrayed on the internet. But is it really the vloggers’ fault for removing unappealing footage when their videos are there to be aesthetically pleasing in the first place? The harshness and unsustainability of van life poses a question as to whether the creator or the audience is ultimately responsible for enforcing the separation between expectation and reality.

The Discussion Presented

The discussion concerning the reality of van life began in Anna’s video “The Reality of Van Life on Social Media,” which currently sits at 2.6 million views and 80,000 likes. In the video, Anna uses her personal experience as a former van life YouTuber to speak about the lifestyle’s inability to live up to its portrayal on social media.

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Anna begins her video by stating, “In order to know if van life is for you, you have to be informed about all sides of the lifestyle; not just the beautiful views overlooking the ocean and not just the difficult border crossings and flat tires. You have to know about the smaller difficulties that don’t make the final cuts of anyone’s videos, and the things that don’t even get filmed in the first place.” Essentially, no influencer will ever be able to completely show what it’s like to live in a van. Some things simply must be experienced for oneself.

Two fundamental parts of Anna’s argument are, first, the impact of weather, and second, the ramifications of spending so much time in such a small space. In her video, Anna explains the money it takes to craft a livable van — including the inevitable exclusion of heat and air conditioning if following a budget. Because of this, Anna would not recommend the lifestyle to anyone uncomfortable in weather above 80-degrees Fahrenheit or below 60-degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, one must consider spending all their time in a space the size of a singular, tiny room. Anna describes it as akin to living in a college dorm room, except one rarely leaves it.

YouTuber duo Elsa Rhae & Barron best exemplify the conditions in Anna’s discussion. Their channel consists of videos showing life in their 13-foot Scamp trailer in both extreme heat and cold. Their video “No Water, Electricity, or Cell Service” portrays their life trapped inside during a snowstorm. Although vans are bigger than 13-square-feet, the space is still quite small. If people don’t think they could handle Rhae and Barron’s circumstances, they probably shouldn’t embark on the journey.

The Money Problem

An article from The New Yorker explores van life Instagrammer Foster Huntington’s experience, whose portrayal of van life is the epitome of unrealistic and idealized. The article describes how he quit his job as a designer for Ralph Lauren in New York to move to California and spend his days surfing, exploring and taking pictures of his van for his Instagram. Not many people’s lives will follow his trajectory, so those looking to pursue the lifestyle for themselves need to take their own financial situations into account.

It may be easy to fund a luxurious van life for those who already have money or for influencers who make their profit online. But what about the rest of the population wanting to try it out or those attempting it to save money? Of course, living in a van heavily cuts down the monthly expenses that would normally go toward a house or apartment, but one would still need funds for gas, food and other necessities.

No income is not an option, but the job market for someone without a steady zip code is tight. The job must be done remotely if the van lifer does not want to be a social media presence.

A normal 9-to-5 will prevent people from experiencing the endless vacation van life supposedly offers. Additionally, they would need to worry about acquiring their own Wi-Fi with very limited electricity or the need to always be near a place with free Wi-Fi.

Van-life YouTuber hannahleeduggan talked extensively about the odd jobs she took on before and during her life in a van. She posted a video discussing how she funded her van life through both short and long-term jobs, and she also shared a few other videos discussing her time as an egg donor. Duggan’s discussions about what she did to pursue van life prove her commitment to unconventionality — a commitment most people must make if they pursue the lifestyle.

Things Taken for Granted

One of the most fascinating things about van life content is witnessing someone living without the assets many take for granted, like a shower. In fact, a lot of van lifers gained prominence on YouTube for their videos about showering in a van.

One such creator is Jennelle Eliana, whose second video on her YouTube channel, “How I Shower Living in a Van,” garnered 18 million views, quickly raising her to the top of van life creators on the platform. Eliana showed her viewers how she showers on the side of the road using a 10-liter pocket camping shower and a giant jug of water. She filmed herself going to a nearby grocery store to fill the jug for 30 cents per gallon and the hard process of lugging the jug back to her van so she can finally climb onto the roof of her vehicle to take her hard-earned shower.

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Videos like Eliana’s are incredibly common for van-life YouTubers to create, and they show a more difficult side of the lifestyle. However, creators don’t often include mundane activities that already have full videos dedicated to them in their other daily or weekly vlog-style uploads. It can be easy for viewers to forget that the creators’ search for resources and a showering spot is a daily chore and may each take an hour or so to complete.

Expectation Versus Reality

Anna’s point in her video is that audiences should not be discouraged from trying van life if they truly want to. However, they need to be aware of all the little things that may make the lifestyle extremely difficult. Anna included a discussion from YouTuber duo Living ZEAL in her video; they express their wish for bigger van life influencers to be more transparent about all aspects of the lifestyle rather than focusing on the beautiful “back-window Instagram shots.” Research is necessary when undertaking anything new, and an important lesson can be learned here: One’s favorite influencers are not always the best sources for information.

Jayni Nielsen, Pace University

Writer Profile

Jayni Nielsen

Pace University
English Language & Literature

I am a student at Pace University’s New York City campus with a passion for all things concerning literature, psychology, art, nature and media.


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