In recent years, the campervan of the 1970’s had a revival. Traveling with ones own mini RV is popular and, with the term Van Life, has also received a hip image. It’s both a lifestyle and way of travel at once. The campers live in their van and work from the road. The borders between daily life and traveling blur. Some travelers have a fixed address and just use the van for long and short trips. In the German-speaking scene, they are called “Teilzeit Vanlifer” – meaning living Van Life part-time.
Regarding the campervans themselves, there are plenty of different models. Besides older campers with DIY-interiors, there are brand new vans, professionally built to RVs. All brands and versions are possible. For example, a campervan can also be an old, yellow Deutsche Post van. The Van Life community is highly interconnected (#vanlife in the social networks). In many countries Van Life events are being organized to which all people who feel part of to the community travel. The well-furnished vans are presented and tips for reconstruction measures, campsites and travel destinations are exchanged. In Switzerland, there is even an official Van Life club.
On the internet, travelers present themselves on their beds in front of an open door, in most cases with a view to an impressive landscape. This implies being at one with nature, solitude, pleasure and tranquility. Travel in the Van Life style seems wonderful. But I ask myself: Is Van Life even Slow Travel? Many con arguments promptly occurred to me. For this article, I talked to the van owner Benjamin. As member of the Van Life community, he sees potential for Slow Travel in the campervan. The topics sustainability and mindfulness also play a major role in his life. He brought up the following pro arguments:
PRO. Van Life is Slow Travel
Sustainability: To get from A to B with a camper that uses up to 10 liters of Diesel per 100 km is not “eco friendly”, of course. But I see the overall balance while traveling. For example, my water and electricity consumption are lower than those of travelers who sleep in hotels. The waste is minimal and is being stored inside the van. Food is always eaten since it is hard to overlook in a small fridge. Plus it’s hip to build solar collectors on top of vans. Camping spots with electricity are yesterday news. What also makes an environmental difference is traveling alone vs. traveling with multiple people in one van.
Vacation in the nearer surroundings: This works very well with a campervan and it is a benefit of Van Life. You shortly drive a view kilometers and you are out of the city, in nature. With this possibility, who needs to travel far anymore?
Perceive transport as travel: The additional value of campervans is the feeling of freedom while driving and the love to go camping. The focus of travel is clearly on the method of transportation.
Breaks: When traveling with the campervan, there is time for breaks, to stop wherever you are at the moment. This is not possible while traveling by train or airplane. I love to celebrate breaks and like to consciously search for places away from the highly frequented roads. Van Life can be “slow”. There is no rule that campervans are banned from Slow Travel. Slow and mindful travel has many forms. I try for example, to travel at a pace where I can take in my surroundings and not constantly chase impressions.
Away of mass tourism: In Van Life you travel away from the beaten paths and you do not always stay on conventional campsites. The online map park4night.com offers for example many marked parking spots, which are not intended as camping spots. In Germany there is a rule for RVs and campervans: It’s okay to sleep somewhere at the side of the street but not okay to camp there. If the campervan has no tent or supports, it isn’t camping. However, staying at one spot for multiple days isn’t a good idea either.
Social contact: While looking for parking spots, I usually ask others. Van Life has a lot to do with communication. You also get in contact with the other campers pretty quickly. Isn’t Slow Travel about creating relationships with your surroundings? This definitely happens in a camper van.
Get to know the local life: There is also a great offer by the camping site guide Landvergnuegen. You get to stay on free campsites on farms, so to speak “a la ferme”. In return, the campers are buying regional products from the farmer. The membership is 34,90 Euro per year. Of course, the system does not work, if people use the parking but go shopping at Aldi or other low-priced discounters. Originally, the concept was about bringing travelers and locals together so that they basically get to know the country life.
Local products: I myself love to shop in these kinds of farms and street stands. I always bring along boxes in my campervan to buy products without packaging. The empty containers can be given back at most of the farms and street stands, too.
CON. Van Life is not Slow Travel
Sustainability: Like Benjamin already said, above all, campervans have a bad ecological balance. The passengers of a van are usually one to two people. Therefore, the capacity of a van is less used than a regular car with three taken seats. The old campervan’s exhaust emissions are especially bad, unless the owner gets an expensive built-in catalyst for the diesel motor. Ultimately, traveling by train or bus is, of course, better for the climate.
Social contact: Slow Travel is about getting in contact with locals. But people who are part of the Van Life community are usually among themselves while camping or attending Van Life events.
Get to know the local life: If they are not members of Landvergnügen, campers do not really use local accommodation offers. The travelers sleep in their own campervan. To save money or enjoy a beautiful place for themselves, they like to stay in side streets, forests or close to water. Staying overnight is increasingly being banned in a lot of these free parking spots. This holds potential for conflicts with the locals. Another problem is that there are usually no toilets or garbage cans on these parking sports, like for example at parking lots by the North Sea and Baltic Sea. The infrastructure is not planned for camping.
Mass tourism: Campsite owners are adapting to the Van Life community. By now, there are large campsites for over 100 vehicles. These are well used. Van Life threatens to become mass tourism. This also fits to the definition of Van Life, which for example Redbull gives. According to them, Van Life is about “self-realization” – another current trend to set ones self apart from others, which can be used to sell almost anything.
Environmental awareness and local products: The often-mentioned connection to nature Van Life brings is also questionable. Not everyone is traveling environmentally aware like Benjamin. Many do not separate their garbage nor do they buy local products. Because food is cheap in Germany, people rather buy food in the supermarket at home before going on their trip. At first, travelers live off their own supply. Local shops and farm stores are not frequented at all. Campers are also not very famous for visiting restaurants.
Technology and internet: While for Benjamin the ultimate goal of travel is peace and quiet, others look for good WiFi and TV reception. In Van Life, if Digital Detoxing is happening, it’s involuntary. How else should the beautiful pictures be uploaded to Instagram?
All in all, the discussion shows that the inner alignment of travelers is key. From the beginning, Benjamin’s travel is focused on environmental protection and mindfulness. He is doing many things according to the Slow Travel principles and at the same time contrary to the conventional Van Life travelers.
Van Life can be Slow Travel, if:
- The journey leads to nearby areas and/or the seats are used to their full capacity.
- Travelers focus on the journey not the destination.
- The travelers take their time for breaks.
- Public parking sites are left without leaving traces and garbage.
- The travelers are focused on environmental protection (water and electricity consumption, garbage separation and recycling, no chemical toilets, etc.).
- The travelers get in contact with non-campers and locals outside the Van Life bubble.
- Smaller, local accommodation offers like farm parking spaces are being used.
- Offers like local restaurants, farm shops, street stands and food markets are being used.
Article by Anika Neugart