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#VanLife: how a pandemic affects life on the road

By Martha Anderson
January 12, 2022
Van Life, Halle Homel
What happens when you’re ordered to stay home but your home is a van?

#VanLife. It’s been all the rage for a while now. Living in your van or car can provide freedom. Freedom from rent, freedom from the mundane, and often most importantly, freedom to travel the country.

But what happens when a pandemic hits, bringing travel to a grinding halt? What happens when you’re ordered to stay home but your home is a van? I spoke with two people for whom van life is the norm and learned some of the ways COVID-19 has impacted their community.

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Jen Nielsen, @jolly_jen, in the 2009 Toyota Matrix she calls home six months out of the year.


Where to Go?

When COVID-19 hit the fan in March 2020, going “home” to parents or friends was an option for some vanlifers, but not all. For many, traveling across the country to stay with friends or family would do more harm than good because they would be putting not only themselves at risk but every person they came in contact with along the way. Additionally, those who normally have someone to go to might not have that option anymore if those individuals are at a high risk of being seriously harmed by the virus. Then there’s the fact that some people don’t have friends or family they can stay with at all.

So what were vanlifers to do? Well, many of them chose to self-quarantine by camping on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or National Forest land. It was something they knew how to do safely, it stopped them from traveling, and it meant they would only be close to other people when they went into town for food or gas.

There were a few problems, however. One of these was time limit restrictions, usually 14- or 16-day limits in these areas. To make matters worse, some locations even closed down for people who were from outside the county. Halle Homel, a full-time vanlifer, summed up the situation in a blog post on her site: “We rely on public lands to be able to live in our homes when we have no other options [...] But lately, BLM and Forest land has been threatening closures too, and for those of us who live on the road, I have to ask the question: where are we supposed to go?”

A part-time vanlifer named Jen Nielsen experienced this problem first-hand. She quarantined in Utah on BLM land for a while before receiving an order to leave. Then she packed up her car and headed next-door to Colorado where she quarantined on more BLM land until she had to leave after 14 days. The constant need to move clashed with her desire to be responsible, shelter in place, and come into contact with as few people as possible.


Harrassment

Being a vanlifer during this time had other negative effects, one of those being in-person harassment. For example, Jen was yelled at by a local for having out-of-state plates while in Colorado.

Cyber harrassment was also a problem for many vanlifers who document their adventures. Halle was active in sharing her experiences online during this time and faced backlash. On Instagram, she would post photos of her secluded campsites and in exchange received negative messages from people telling her to go home.

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Halle Homel, @halleswanderingsoul, sitting on top of her van in California.


Tips for Van Life Travel Moving Forward

As restrictions now let up and tensions regarding the pandemic subside, vanlifers are starting to move again. With assistance from Jen and Halle, I gathered a few tips for helping vanlifers do so safely.

1.Plan ahead: Do your research to make sure campgrounds, roads, and recreation areas are open before you head there. Also, utilize apps like iOverlander, a community-based tool, to find a place to sleep before moving.

2. Seek out unpopular areas: Many national parks are being slammed with visitors as they reopen, which makes it difficult to social distance while exploring these locations. Focus your travels on less well-known areas of the country.

3. Avoid bad roads: As there are less people traveling than normal, there are also less people going down remote, unpaved roads. Therefore, if you get stuck on one of them, there’s a smaller chance that someone will pass by and help you out of the mud. Furthermore, these roads are often in no-service zones, so being unable to call for help may leave you stranded.

4. Consider your route, not just your destination: Routes leading you through large cities should be avoided. Not only does this allow you to evade the crowdedness that’s synonymous with these cities, but it also gives you the opportunity to support the economies of smaller communities.

Finally, I want to encourage you to share your own tips for traveling safely during this time in the comments below! This new environment is a tricky one to handle, but if we all help each other out, it doesn’t have to be dangerous.


Martha Anderson is a Budget Travel intern for summer 2020. She is a graduate of Kennesaw State University.

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Road Trips

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Road Trips

Road trip the Southeast on a budget

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Road Trips

The best Pacific Northwest road trip

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All editorial views are those of Budget Travel alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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Road Trips

How to road trip New England on a budget

The United States start in these six rugged states. And when British explorer Captain John Smith explored New England’s shores in the early 1600s, he grasped the charm and resilience of his surroundings – and officially made it the birthplace of a nation. Of course, in addition to all its fascinating history, this northeast corner of the country is a hotbed of beautiful nature, culture and family-friendly entertainment – encompassing a spectacular culinary scene and a wide variety of affordable accommodations to discover and enjoy. Want to spend more time exploring this diverse and distinct region? Here’s a blueprint to a reasonably priced road trip in New England – from Portland, Maine, to Mystic, Connecticut. From winding trails of the Appalachian Mountains, including eight mountains over 14,000ft in elevation, to the splendor of New Hampshire’s wild coastlines, you won’t have to miss a thing. Portland, Maine Come for the lobster, stay for… well, everything else. 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The town of Stratton is the perfect place to refuel and relax, and you can grab some comforting yet inexpensive options at the Looney Moose Café or head for burgers at the White Wolf Inn and Restaurant. The Mountain View Motel offers cozy rooms with full kitchen, and even allows furry friends to join you on your adventures. Though there is a lack of amenities, like a pool or restaurant, this motel makes up for it by offering gorgeous views and super-low room rates. Bucolic lakes and cottages await you in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom © DenisTangneyJr / E+ / Getty Northeast Kingdom, Vermont Head westward on State Route 16 to enter this out-of-the-way, northernmost region of Vermont. Shimmied up against the Canadian border and the upper Connecticut River, it’s known for its peaceful splendor. 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For budget travelers, the Willoughvale Inn and Cottages offers calm, stunning landscapes and a little history, with its accommodations named after historical figures and places, like The Robert Frost suite or The Songadeewin Lakeview Cottage. New Hampshire's diminutive coastline packs many surprises © mountinez / iStock / Getty Images Plus Seacoast and Portsmouth, New Hampshire From the Northeast Kingdom, head southbound on I-93, swinging left in Manchester, New Hampshire, to arrive at this state’s miniscule coastline. Enjoying an intoxicating mix of culture and maritime activities, this region straddles Maine and includes ownership of the Isles of Shoals and Star Islands. The entire Seacoast region covers 18 miles of the Atlantic Ocean, but head to Hampton Beach for family fun as well as a dazzling white-sand beach. Don’t want to go too far to lay your head? 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Head to Old Silver Beach for swimming in the calm, blue waters and views of Buzzards Bay and stay for the summer seafood dinners and vibrant sunsets at the beachfront Sea Crest Beach Hotel. Falmouth also offers further budget accommodations at Admiralty Inn & Suites and The Red Horse Inn, both of which have rooms for under $100 per night. Even if you've had your fill of lighthouses by now, you can never get enough fiery sunsets © Shobeir Ansari © Moment / Getty Narragansett, Rhode Island Trace the coastline westbound to arrive at this quaint and quirky seaside surf destination in Rhode Island, which offers access to smaller state park beaches like Roger Wheeler and Salty Brine. There you can watch the boats and local fishers, as well as the reliably vigorous waves of Narragansett Town Beach. Take a surf lesson from Warm Winds Surf Shop or just relax on the sand – or hop on the Block Island Ferry to do a little maritime exploring, including the Point Judith Light, a working lighthouse built in 1857. Because this is New England, historical landmarks abound and you can visit the 23ft Narragansett Indian Monument, carved from a single Douglas fir tree on Kingstown Road. To fully appreciate your surroundings here, tuck into the local seafood , and Aunt Carrie’s is known for its golden fried clam cakes ($5 for a half dozen) and chowders. The Anchor Motel is a budget-friendly choice, with 15 rooms directly across from Scarborough State Beach. Mystic Seaport is a great stop for families © Photo by Brian T. Evans / Moment / Getty Mystic Seaport, Connecticut No, cult favorite coming-of-age flick Mystic Pizza wasn’t actually filmed at its namesake restaurant in this sweet, seaside hamlet less than an hour west of Narragansett on US Route 1. But if you pop in for a slice and a selfie, you won’t want to miss the rest of this village situated along the Mystic River. Bluff Point State Park is home to over 800 acres of lush land for hiking, biking and fishing, and the historic district straddling the river has something for everyone, including the still-working Bascule Bridge built in 1920. The popular Mystic Aquarium was recently certified by the American Humane Conservation and makes a welcome home to sea lions, penguins and even sharks, while the Mystic Seaport Museum concentrates more on history, with a working preservation shipyard and recreated 19th-century village to explore. Ford’s Lobster is an affordable, BYOB treasure on the water, featuring fresh lobsters as well as lobster roll and lobster bisque. Stay at The Whaler’s Inn in downtown Mystic, comprised of five different buildings, each housing rooms and suites with a nautical theme. Produced by Lonely Planet for GEICO. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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