8 Reasons Vanlife is Perfect for Thru-Hikers
After hiking the Appalachian Trail, I became one of many thru-hikers to get involved with vanlife. As is often the case, getting back into the swing of “real life” wasn’t an easy transition after months of dogging the white blazes. I felt perpetually out of step with the pace of modern life. I found the return to an ordinary routine jarring and claustrophobic.
Moving into a van would be a radical paradigm shift. But in many ways, it felt like a completely natural transition from trail life.
After years of working and planning for my AT hike, I could throw myself into the challenge of outfitting the old van for full-time travel, an encompassing passion project to focus my attention. Without rent and utility payments, I could save money toward another adventure.
And I would have wheels. I could uproot my life on a dime and travel anywhere in North America, hike, see new places, reconnect with old friends. Keep moving. Just like on the trail.
Thru-hiking and vanlife are similar in many ways, and experience with one tends to prepare you well to take on the other. Since those early days, I’ve encountered lots of fellow thru-hikers and outdoorspeople on the road. Plenty of trail folks had come to the same conclusion I had: that vanlife is perfect for thru-hikers, that swapping white blazes for yellow ones, the trail for the open road, is a great way to nurture that spirit of adventure that got you out to the trailhead in the first place. Here’s why.
8 Reasons Vanlife is Perfect for Thru-Hikers
1. Vanlife is luxury living for thru-hikers.
It’s worth remembering that many people are forced into vanlife by financial hardship and the looming specter of homelessness. But for those who are first embarking on the vanlife adventure by choice, moving into a vehicle generally means letting go of most of the comforts and luxuries of daily life.
It means learning to make do without 27 pairs of sneakers, your Instant Pot, and your DVD box sets of every season of Friends. It means pooping and showering in public bathrooms or in the woods and not knowing if you’ll have cell service to call your sister on her birthday.
This is a daunting sacrifice for most people. But for hiker trash, it’s Tuesday. You’re already used to this stuff, guys. You can do it. And downsizing? You probably got a good start on that before leaving for the trail, and chances are you’ll be eager to continue paring down upon your return.
In fact, moving from the trail into a van will probably feel like a luxury. A van is basically a steel tent on wheels. It’s windproof and waterproof, and you don’t have to carry it on your back or set it up each night or take it down each morning. Far from needing to downsize your daily life, you can carry a lot more stuff than you could ever fit in your pack.
2. You can stay on the move.
One of the best things about thru-hiking is the sensation of always being on the move. Passing through an area once and savoring it all the more because you know you won’t be coming back to this place again, at least not any time soon. Setting a destination early and moving, constantly, toward that goal. New sights and sensations every day, every hour. Constant stimulation.
It’s the same in the van, or at least it can be. Whether you embark on an epic road trip or base yourself in one locale, you’ll always have wheels underneath you. And you’ll always be on the move to a greater or lesser extent. You’ll have the physical ability to bolt to the mountains for a week or ten if your itchy feet get unbearable, and that’s crucial.
3. You can save money for your next hike.
Thru-hikes are like potato chips in the sense that it’s tough to limit yourself to just one. However, entirely unlike potato chips, they’re also damned expensive. Once you’ve completed a long hike, it’s pretty normal to start thinking about the next adventure. But it can take months or years of scrimping and saving to afford it. Well, eliminating your rent and utility payments in favor of gas and car insurance isn’t a terrible way to help that process along.
Look, I’ll be honest. I just put the finishing touches on my latest van build, and it is a full-stop vansion. You know the kind: high roof, obnoxious number of bells and whistles, Insta-worthy. It’s awesome. But before moving into this would-be Amazon delivery van, I was in a 2006 Toyota Sienna minivan sleeping on a simple plywood bed. I didn’t have electricity, standing room, or running water. Yet my partner and I lived full time in that van quite comfortably and took it all over North America.
Vanlife can represent a scaled-down version of an expensive, trendy lifestyle. On the flip side, it can also be deliciously cheap and straightforward. It doesn’t take a lot of money or skill as a builder to make it on the road. You don’t need to be retired or unemployed, either. You can work remotely, take temporary or seasonal gigs on the road, or stay in one area and hold down a regular in-person job.
4. You can do fantastic trail magic.
Just saying. My new rig has a refrigerator, an oven, and enough solar power to charge phones for an army. I absolutely cannot wait to post up on a long trail and give out ridiculously elaborate trail magic. Fresh-baked cookies. Ice cream. Fancy casseroles. Smoothies. Rides for days. Oh yeah. It’s happening.
Thru-hiking alumni know that trail magic is one of the best ways to stay plugged into the trail community and continue living vicariously through current thru-hikers. Which probably isn’t a healthy way to deal with nostalgia, I will admit, but let’s focus on one problem at a time here.
5. You can hike all over.
Most importantly. Isn’t that why many people choose to live nomadically in the first place, whether as thru-hikers or otherwise? To have adventures and explore and do the things they’re most passionate about in a bunch of different places? To make their love of nature the priority, rather than squeezing it in the cracks around work and routine?
When you live in a van, you automatically become ten times more mobile and agile than when you lived in a house. Time to cross some items off your outdoor bucket list (no need to be coy about it. Everybody has one).
Destinations on the other side of the country suddenly seem in reach. If you live on the road, you can go anywhere, hike anywhere, any time you want. In my first year of vanlife, I took advantage of my newfound mobility to backpack in about a dozen national parks in the US and Canada.
This included some bucket list hikes like the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim and the Wonderland Trail. The latter was hiked on a walk-up permit, which was no big deal to acquire because the van gave me the scheduling flexibility I needed to be willing to roll the dice on permit availability.
The best thing about living in my van is that I always have my backpacking gear in the car with me at all times. So any time I pass a cool-looking trailhead or the mood strikes me to take to the backcountry for a few days, I can jump on the opportunity without missing a beat.
6. Thru-hikers can find a new community through vanlife.
One of the best things about trail life is the people. You meet all kinds of characters, but everyone’s united by a common goal and love of the trail. People look out for each other in a way that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
It’s the same with vanlife. You don’t get as many vanlife equivalents of trail angels, granted, but they do exist. I’ve had total strangers let me come over to their house to recharge my electronics, refill my waters, and use the shower, for instance. And the community of vanlifers and people on the road is just as strong, if more dispersed, than the thru-hiking community. People keep in touch and swap useful information about campsites, water, and other vital resources the same way thru-hikers do.
And like hikers, when they part ways with fellow vanlifers, they trust that their paths will eventually cross paths again without the need to lay concrete plans. Goodbyes are easygoing and understood to be temporary.
Also, a large contingent of the vanlife community comprises fellow hikers, climbers, and nature enthusiasts. You’ll find your people out there.
7. It keeps you in touch with nature.
We’ve all had those days when we laze around inside and don’t get out to see the sun all day. It’s a major bummer. When you live in a small metal box, the temptation to sit around inside all day is significantly lower. No matter how well-appointed your rig is, you’ll be motivated to take as many of your life functions out-of-doors as possible: cooking, stretching, pooping, working, you name it. For people who like spending months traversing mountains and sleeping in the dirt, this is the opposite of a problem.
8. It keeps you on your toes.
Murphy’s Law holds sway over thru-hikers. Equipment fails. Unexpected storms roll through. Chipmunks chew small holes in every single one of your Honey Buns. Norovirus strikes at inopportune moments. Nothing ever seems to go to plan, but that’s part of what you love about thru-hiking. You’re always on your toes, adapting to situations you never imagined you’d find yourself in, and your confidence and satisfaction grow with each obstacle successfully navigated.
For resourceful folks who love a good challenge, vanlife has a similar dynamic. After years of budgeting, researching, training for, and eventually completing an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I felt rudderless after it was over. The AT had been such a big part of my life for so long, and suddenly, it was over. Pivoting into vanlife let me channel all that passion and energy into a new puzzle.
It was a new world to discover. I developed new skills and had to navigate weird mechanical and logistical problems I’d never foreseen. I learned how to install an electrical system, plumb a sink, and hook up propane lines. Much personal growth ensued, and I found my way again.
When I finished the Appalachian Trail, I shut the door on a significant chapter of my life. I was glad to be done but also regretful that it was over. I wasn’t ready to walk away from a community and lifestyle that I’d come to love and had only gotten to experience for six short months. Fortunately, the next door I opened led me down an exciting path that closely paralleled the one I’d taken on the AT: one short on comforts but long on adventure, camaraderie, and flexibility, one that keeps me as physically and emotionally close to the trail as I want to be. And that, my friends, is why vanlife is perfect for thru-hikers.
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