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Van Lifers 

It's all in the freedom: freedom to roam, freedom from high rents

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Some see it as the ticket to freedom—whether that be freedom from high rents, freedom to roam, or otherwise. Here s what it s really like to live full-time in a van inBend.

In the past, the phrase "van life" brought to mind images of hippies with big sunglasses and flowy clothing, driving VW vans with smoke pluming out, headed toward the next peaceful protest. With the advent of Instagram and modern amenities such as solar panels, "van life" has definitely evolved.

Some of the stunning photographs you see when clicking #vanlife on social media show the beautiful locales visited by those calling a Sprinter or conversion van home; others feature product placement by van lifers sponsored by national brands.

click to enlarge screen_shot_2017-06-07_at_2.21.42_pm.png

In Bend, living in a van isn't all about capturing the perfect photo and filtering it just right—though the area obviously has plenty of enviable, picturesque backdrops. For those choosing to live in a 90 square-foot mobile space, they all seem to have one driving force in common: freedom. Financial freedom, the freedom of mobility, freedom from high rents.

"Freedom, for sure is the number one thing," Jeff, who goes by the last name, Pine, says. "You're always moving so it's not like you're going back to the same place. You don't go out for the day and return somewhere. You're always moving forward. In terms as freedom, it's about as free as you could be."

Pine, a Bend native, started living out of his van full time about three and a half years ago, buying a Ford E150 that used to be an old wheelchair van. To get the van ready to live in, he installed recycled cotton insulation, put in a bed and storage space and installed an isolator that charges two six-volt batteries. The engine charges the batteries, stores it and converts it to usable energy. The batteries provide enough power for a small fridge and whatever he needs to charge.

Jeff Pine - outside of the conversion - van that he calls home.
  • Jeff Pineoutside of the conversionvan that he calls home.

Pine considers his van to essentially be a garage with a loft above it. He has surfboards, a mountain bike and a skateboard in there, allowing him to pursue recreation wherever he parks.

For Bend native Tosch Roy, freedom drew him to van life as well, but more on the financial side of the spectrum. Roy started a Bend-based company call Free Range Equipment, manufacturing sport-specific backpacks for mountain adventures. He remembers first considering the possibility of van life after attending a Pub Talk by Meg Chun, co-owner of Kialoa, a Bend-based company that manufactures water sport paddles.

click to enlarge Jeff Pine inside his home
  • Jeff Pine inside his home

"The big thing she was pushing for was to lower your personal overhead," Roy says. "I moved into a van that summer. The reason I did it was for the financial freedom. Living costs in Bend are pretty high, so to be able to live here, I guess this was the only way that I could realistically start a business in Bend. This has always been home for me. I grew up here and I love it."

Roy started his foray into van life with a Volkswagen Vanagon two summers ago. He picked up an auxiliary battery, a solar panel and an inverter, and placed a deicer in the water tank. Roy recently added a heater that runs while the van is off. He's getting ready to sell the Vanagon. Roy bought and lived in a Sprinter last summer — a popular choice for vans these days. Right now, it's pretty bare bones, with a bed, a cooler and a file cabinet he uses as a kitchen.

"Being able to stand up inside, it is kind of a big deal," Roy says of the switch to a Sprinter. "That to me sort of turned it from a livable space into a home. It's definitely got a lot more space. It moves faster. Besides that, I could go with either one."

Alder Long, a transplant from California, moved to Bend for school. When his lease came to an end in March, he decided to forego the manic Craigslist search for a new apartment and try living in a van—an idea he'd always toyed with.

"I needed to find a place to live for a month until school went out so I figured I would buy a van and make a home out of it. Then I liked it, so I kept living in it," Long says. "I like that I don't have to pay rent, all my stuff is with me wherever go and I can sleep anywhere I want. And I'm forced to always be doing something, I can't just go home and sit on the couch and do nothing."

Long bought an old carpet cleaning van, removing the old machinery before he could live in it. He added insulation, plywood on the interior and a small raised bed. He bought a small cabinet from Habitat for Humanity's ReStore that fits nicely inside. He doesn't have a heating source like Pine and Roy, but if he decides to continue into the winter his brother welded him a small woodstove he could place inside for warmth.

The Business of Van Life

click to enlarge This sweet ride/home has plenty of interior sweet spots as well for those willing to live on wheels. - ACTION VAN
  • Action Van
  • This sweet ride/home has plenty of interior sweet spots as well for those willing to live on wheels.

Ian Beveridge and Curtiss Feltner started a Bend company called The Van Guys three years ago, specializing in van conversions. The two have seen an increase in van life, both on a living and camping scale.

"I think it's gained more traction in the last maybe five or six years," Beveridge says. "We got into it because we saw a need for people who wanted vans to camp and travel that weren't so expensive. Every year since we opened it's grown exponentially. It's just amazing how many people want to travel and explore and have more versatility, he adds."

"Just looking around Bend I've seen so many new vans in town," Feltner says. "I don't know if it's people in town that are building them by themselves, or if it's people moving to Bend in their van because they have nowhere to live. It's slowly becoming a van Mecca, it seems."

click to enlarge ACTION VAN
  • Action Van

Feltner left The Van Guys in the spring after breaking his back snowboarding, but Beveridge continues on in a new van venture. Beveridge recently partnered with William Myers to create the new company, Action Van. Action Van takes the most commonly requested van build-out additions from Beveridge's Van Guys days — beds, solar panels, insulation — and offers three packages for upgrading Sprinter and Dodge Promaster vans.

Cooking in a Van—or Not

Pine, Roy and Long all cite financial freedom among the benefits to van life, but depending on lifestyle, the true savings fluctuate. None of them have a rent payment, but all admit to eating out more. They all have Coleman camp stoves, but the convenience of eating out wins out most often.

click to enlarge A conversion van - ACTION VAN
  • Action Van
  • A conversion van

"I've been bad about cooking," Pine says. He splits his time between Bend and Santa Cruz, Calif., traveling south in the winter months. "When I'm down south and surfing in cold water, I need a lot of food. $30 a day is budget, sometimes less, sometimes I go way more. If you start thinking about it, my food budget is $1,000 a month. That's pretty ridiculous."

Pine says he has friends who do better with food preparation, going to farmer's markets late in the day or buying in bulk and spending half as much as he does on food.

"I always feel like I'm scurrying around for food, which is a little bit stressful, so it's almost like a rent payment," Pine says. "At the same time, I'm going to the grocery store and getting dank organic food already cooked. That has to go with the why you're doing it. I do it to save money, but I'm definitely doing it for the freedom of moving around, even if it's just across town."

Roy and Long both eat out more as well. Roy tries to find creative ways to keep it cheap, like eating lunch at supermarkets that have salad bars or hot options.

"It's definitely way cheaper," Long says. "Pretty much my only expenses are gas and food. So I obviously spend more on gas, but not paying rent balances that out. I probably spend more money on food since I'm eating out a lot, but it's not too much more."

The Downsides of Van Life

While the hardships of van life and living in a confined space may seem profound to those on the outside, these van lifers don't have many complaints. For one, these guys are doing it by choice—unlike many financially strapped people who are forced to live in vehicles or campers due to difficult circumstances. As reported in the Source's Housing Crisis series, many people live in campers, cars and tents in Central Oregon, forced there by financial or personal hardship. According to the Homeless Leadership Coalition's point-in-time homeless count conducted in January, 778 people were experiencing homelessness in the tri-county area.

click to enlarge Storage space galore
  • Storage space galore

Armed with a laid-back personality and cool demeanor, the van lifers we talked to look to the bright side, even through 90 inches of rain, which Pine experienced in Santa Cruz this winter.

"I've had days where I kind of get beat down by it and I'm like, 'What am I doing?'" Pine says. "Driving back down the coast, just in the rain and everything is really soggy. Then I'll see someone crawling out of a bush and think I have this amazing roof over my head. In the rain, I just embrace it, I deal with it, I kind of enjoy it. I appreciate it and appreciate the sunshine when it comes back out."

For Roy, he sees the hardships as being "small fry." In the Sprinter, it can be difficult to keep fresh ice in the cooler, which causes worry about whether the food will go bad. Finding parking spots near bathrooms can be tough, but none of the three van lifers seemed too concerned.

"I'd spend some time down by Miller's Landing. It's riverfront real estate for free," Roy says. "Someone comes and cleans the bathroom every day."

For Long, showers have been easy to come by and he can charge all of his devices at school. Getting up in the early mornings when he first moved into the van were really cold, but otherwise he doesn't have many complaints.

Just a Fad?

It might promise plenty of freedom, but Pine, Roy and Long don't foresee living in their vans long term. At three and a half years, Pine has been at it the longest, but could see moving into a house in the next year. He plans to stay in Bend next winter. Another tough winter could expedite that transition. Long, at it the shortest amount of time, hasn't decided what he'll do when winter comes. He may make his van more winter-ready or he'll find another apartment.

Roy spent last winter living with his girlfriend. The two recently purchased a trailer in order to continue the simple lifestyle he's devoted himself to the last two years. He said the next step may be a tiny house, but always wants to have a van for camping.

"I see full-time van lifers just fluctuate: it goes up and down, it's not necessarily growing," Pine says. "I see the amount of vans growing. I encounter van lifers all the time and it's a cool connection. Usually you have a lot more in common than living in a van."

With little data on the actual number of people living in vans by choice, it's hard to tell whether #vanlife is a growing trend or just a fad. One thing is for sure: The appearance of tricked out vans in Central Oregon is common.

Based on conversations with Long, Roy and Pine, it seems appealing for individuals seeking freedom, be it financial or in mobility. It takes a certain type, as river showers and confined spaces aren't for everyone.

"I think it's definitely romanticized, but at the same time it can be pretty romantic," Pine says of van life. "Depends if you're actually going to live in the van full time. Just like any way you choose to live life, there's going to be ups and downs. Some of them are magnified by not having a solid home base. I think it's rad."


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