Dream vs Reality: Van Life

A true paradise?

Whether you live in a van full-time or own one for weekend exploration, having a modest-sized home-on-wheels lets you shack up anywhere that’s accessible by road. Built-out camper vans are popping up in Bozeman almost as rapidly as housing developments, as endless droves of outdoor enthusiasts flock to our corner of the state. We’ve all seen the Instagram photos: lying on a plush mattress, gazing out at a beautiful sunset, cold beer in one hand while petting your dog with the other. But is #vanlife all sunshine and rainbows? Nothing but green grass, fragrant wildflowers, and an unmatched feeling of freedom? Let’s find out. 

You stop in a large, flat pullout off a nicely-graded gravel road. After killing the engine, sounds of songbirds and a nearby stream sift through the air. The sunset casts vibrant pinks and golds on a backdrop of snowy peaks as you step outside after a long day’s journey. There’s not another soul in sight, except for a curious muley doe hiding in the brush. You gather some firewood and easily start a modest campfire to ward off the chill as stars begin to shine. You grab your favorite coffee mug from its secured cabinet in the van’s tidy kitchen, pour a double shot of bourbon, and nestle in by the flames in your favorite camp chair. Crickets chirp and frogs croak from the riverbank. After enjoying a meal of fire-roasted sausages with fresh accoutrements from your stop at the farmers’ market back in town, you sprawl out on your luxurious four-inch memory-foam mattress and gaze out the back window. This is what it’s all about. Your trusty steed, through thick and thin, has allowed you the ultimate: life on the road. You try to enjoy the glimmering sky for as long as possible, but a productive week of outdoor exploration brings easy sleep as the wind and the whispering pines sing their lullaby. Van life couldn’t be better.

After bouncing up a rocky road for nearly an hour, your dirty dishes fall off the counter and your favorite coffee mug shatters on the muddy floor. You arrive at the campsite to find it overrun by a band of boisterous college students. All the flat parking is taken, beer cans litter the ground, and three different portable speakers blare music of completely different genres. You squeeze your rig into an uneven clearing, branches screeching against the exterior. You’re more than ready to kick back next to a crackling campfire, but the rambunctious partiers ruin the mood. You climb inside and fire up the propane stove, which hisses and sputters as it runs out of gas. A sudden rumble shakes the van; a massive thunderhead is building. You tuck into your sleeping bag, ready to be lulled to sleep by a sweet spring rain. Resting your head on the pillow, the van’s off-kilter incline and thin, lumpy mattress force you to re-situate. When you finally find a comfortable spot, a bead of water lands on your cheek. The rain is leaking through your ceiling vent, onto you and the bed. At 2am you’re still awake—cold, wet, and miserable, wondering why you spent your entire savings on this stupid vehicle. Van life couldn’t be worse.