The drive behind van life

Leah Weisgal, a senior public health major, relaxes outside her home with her dog Atlas. Weisgal plans to live inside her vehicle after she graduates this month and said it’s important to not just live inside her car, but to live outside of it, as well, and experience outdoor recreation opportunities. Photo by Andrew Nassetta.

Leah Weisgal, a senior public health major, relaxes outside her home with her dog Atlas. Weisgal plans to live inside her vehicle after she graduates this month and said it’s important to not just live inside her car, but to live outside of it, as well, and experience outdoor recreation opportunities. Photo by Andrew Nassetta.

Though some people frown on the idea of living out of a vehicle, members of the millennial generation at Westminster College said this versatile way of life offers them a sense of achievement and opportunity. 

Vandwelling—living out of a car, van or motorhome as a lifestyle—was popular amongst free-spirited hippies in the '60s, according to VICE News. However, it seemed to have fallen fell out of favor until recently, when the idea of mobility and freedom piqued the interest of some millennials. 

Russel Brouillard, a recent University of Washington graduate, lives in Salt Lake with his van, a few possessions and a drive for adventure. 

"Salt Lake is an awesome place to be based out of," Brouillard said. "The van can take me to the desert in winter, the winds in the summer and to work five days a week." 

The Forum spoke with two Westminster College students about their future and present experiences van dwelling. 

Simple but comfortable 

Leah Weisgal, a public health major and outdoor education and leadership minor, came to Salt Lake from New York City in pursuit of an education that could provide opportunities with and access to the outdoors. 

"I have been obsessed with tiny homes since I was 15," Weisgal said. "I was fixated on making a down payment on a tiny home but I was like where the f**k am I going to put this thing?" 

With the purchase of a tiny home out of the picture, Weisgal said she decided living out of her vehicle was more feasible and would allow her to explore areas before she picked a location to settle down. 

"After college, I did not want to have to move somewhere," she said. "I wanted to be untethered." 

Weisgal said her current employer supports her post-graduation endeavors. 

"Planned Parenthood supported me fully," she said. "[Vandwelling] allows me to travel around the country and engage with different individuals who need health care and help with health issues." 

Weisgal said she wants her plans benefit everyone in her life. From taking her dad to baseball games around the country and her mom to the bluegrass festivals in Massachusetts, she said she wants those closest to her to be involved in her adventures. 

"My mom is an original hippy; she will get in her car and drive from Mass to Georgia without a thought," Wesigal said. "But my dad said he would rather jump off a mountain than sleep on it." 

Weisgal said she spent over $2,000 dollars on amenities for her Chevy Equinox—but not to be lavish. 

"It is not that I am making myself uncomfortable; I am thinking about what I need to be comfortable and live simply," Weisgal said, talking about her oven, heater, compost toilet and solar energy supply. 

Weisgal said she is excited for the road ahead and is looking forward to the simplicity and opportunities that on-the-go living provides. 

"People tell you to grab life by the horns one day and then to play it safe the next," Weisgal said. 

She chose the former. 

Opportunity overlooked 

Emilia Wint of Denver, Colorado, is a retired professional skier enrolled in the outdoor education and leadership program at Westminster College who said she knows the ups and downs of time spent living in a van. 

"My summer plans completely fell apart," Wint said. "But it doesn’t matter because my van facilitates my ability to go wherever I need to." 

Though Wint said her van creates opportunities for adventure, she said there are struggles that can slow progress — including mechanical issues, taking the occasional shower, finding a good wi-fi signal and cold weather. 

"It's cold as shit in the winter," Wint said. "But Salt Lake's temperature is somewhat moderate here." 

For Wint, the pros outweigh the cons. She said the freedom of taking your house where you go makes vandwelling worthwhile. 

"You are not tied down by anything," she said. "You can take opportunities when they are presented to you." 

Wint said vandwelling works particularly well for individuals employed in the outdoor industry, who typically work seasonally and follow sporadic work schedules. 

"I had a situation where I talked to an employer and she asked where I would live," Wint said. "I told her I have a van and she said a lot of their guides do that as well." 

Finding housing and a place to live can be difficult with seasonal employment, according to Wint. But candidates who don't need housing may have a better chance of scoring a job. 

"For a lot of seasonal jobs, the employers provide housing," Wint said. "If they don’t need to provide housing to you, then you become a more desirable candidate." 

Though van life seems like a hippie fantasy for some, it's some millennials' success story.