Last summer, 18-year-old Emma Campbell made a wood-furnished 2005 Chevy Express her home, loading it with solar panels, a bed, a fridge and other necessities.
She has been travelling for weeks at a time — the solitude and independence allowing her to explore her resilience.
“It has really improved my individual sense of self. I have more confidence now,” said Campbell.
Social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok burst with posts where van lifers wake to sunrises across beaches, morning coffees and hikes. Campbell believes it depicts a glorified rendition of van life and says it isn’t always “sunshine and rainbows.”
While her morning views can often be noisy Walmart parking lots instead of pristine oceans, Campbell said she doesn’t consider the social media exaggerations to be harmful.
“Without the positives, [the lifestyle] wouldn’t have sparked interest,” she said.
Campbell accommodates practical needs — like showering, Wi-Fi or heating — by drawing from community resources and consulting “van lifer” apps. She purchased an unlimited data plan, uses a gym membership for showers and will possibly buy a heater for the winter.
She emphasizes planning ahead, saying it “helps keep structure in a life that is completely unpredictable.”
Campbell said the lifestyle can be just as expensive as living in an apartment.
“You’re paying in gas what you would pay in rent,” she said.
“When I built my first fire by myself and then I sat there and ate my dinner, it was a good moment to feel that I did this all on my own and didn’t need any help,” she said.
Campbell initially went to university to study astrophysics but she said that university was “not for her.” She reallocated her funds and worked a time-consuming summer job to sustain a lifestyle on the road.
She has always been passionate about seeing the country by her own means and intends to live this way for a few years.
Her travels have spanned Vancouver, Victoria Island, Vernon, Lake Cowichan and Loon Lake, and she longs to see Québec’s Winter Carnival and go scuba diving among shipwrecks in Tobermory, Ont. But her most prioritized trip is to see her sister, Elizabeth, with whom she adventured to Edmonton in the summer.
“I actually really want to visit my sister,” said Campbell. “I love the independent side of [the lifestyle], but I enjoyed going with my sister and being able to experience this thing that I want to do with someone that I really care about.”
Campbell said she would recommend van life to people who have a strong sense of self. She admits it can be a “big mental game” and said people have to be fully immersed to enjoy it properly.
“I think everyone should take some time to either see their country or see nature,” said Campbell.
“It’s a good reset – to be off the grid.”