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Freedom Vans employees work on three conversions at the Freedom Vans garage in Bellingham. A full build can take anywhere from two to six months and can range from $10,000 to $180,000.  Photo by Nick Baca.

Van life, the minimalist lifestyle, makes a home in Bellingham.

By Nick Baca

As classrooms and offices transition toward remote workspaces, some still have the urge to travel and spend time outdoors. Many of those people have turned to van life.

Van life may include wearing the same clothes for days at a time and embracing the uncomfortable, but that’s the price tag for a life of freedom and gratifying minimalism, said Johannah Hendrickson, marketing manager for Freedom Vans. Freedom Vans runs out of the Puget neighborhood and has been in Bellingham since opening in 2015.

Although not a new concept, a home on wheels has gained new traction across the country for those looking to enjoy the journey rather than the destination.

“When I started working here, I’d say we would get five emails a day,” Hendrickson said. “Now I'm getting about 30 from all over the country, even all over the world.”

People can choose to live a life on the road for several reasons such as travel, recreation, money, environmental reasons or just wanting a life of solitude. For Jill Kintner, a 25-time national champion mountain biker and 2008 Olympic medalist, van life is all about getting out to the trails.

Kintner bought and built her first van in 2009 and recently finished her second van conversion with the help of Northwest Conversions, a van conversion company based in Bellingham.

“I designed it, and that’s the fun part,” Kintner said. “It’s where you get Pinterest boards going and get the absolute minimal stuff that you need to make it efficient.”

Kintner and her fiance built their van so they could continue with their biking and camping lifestyle. This allowed them to spend a couple months traveling around California earlier this year.

Van life is versatile — it offers so much to so many in a way that builds off the foundation of tiny homes and is now a part of biking and outdoor culture, Kintner said.

For Jayde Hartman, a Bellingham resident, it was a fascination with tiny homes that started her interest in vans. Hartman and her fiance have been living in their van for about a year.

“What appealed to me was the idea of owning a home and not owing a mortgage — not really owing anyone anything, really,” Hartman said. 

Along with this is being aware of your personal boundaries and conservation efforts, she said. What many fail to realize is the need to watch and be aware of the resources they use, Hartman said. 

“We have a foot pump for our van, so you have to be very careful with the amount of water you use so it’s not used up in one day,” Hartman said. “You have to be resilient.”

Van life isn’t for everyone, no matter how nice their van build is, Hendrickson said. Now on her second conversion, Hendrickson upgraded from a minivan to a Ford Econoline. 

“The lifestyle is definitely glamorized all over social media,” Hendrickson said. “What social media doesn’t show is the not-so-glamorous stuff.”

The hidden reality is having to change a tire on the side of the freeway, finding a place to park in an unfamiliar area or going to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

“It’s not all easy, but it’s worth it. You have to do your research,” Hendrickson said.

Living in a travel home comes with inherent challenges, one of those is personal safety. There is also safety to consider. The risks of break-ins, crashing or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time can be increased in a van, Hendrickson said. 

“Lots of things can happen when you’re not safe at home in your house, but crazy things can happen in your house too,” Hendrickson said.

There is also a plus side of the glamorization of van life, Hendrickson said. She has noticed the attitude change from viewing van-lifers as strange to looking at them in awe. Hartman also sees two sides to that coin.

“There are a lot of people who get very interested when they see a van, but there are also people who make assumptions about people who ‘live on the street,’” Hartman said. “There is a stigma against homelessness, and you get that same kind of situation from a large group of people about van-lifers. It can be frustrating.”

Despite the struggles, van-lifers choose to enjoy the little things and the positives that triumph over the negatives, Hendrickson said. 

“It’s such a good way to travel, great for budgets and for people looking to dirtbag it a little,” Hendrickson said.


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