How Van Travel Became a Sustainable Tourism Phenomenon


Photo by Caleb George

Motor vehicles have brought us from one place to another for decades now, with an estimated 1.4 billion cars currently in our garages, roads, and highways. In the world of tourism, however, more and more people are using them not just as a means to an end — but rather, as part and parcel of the entire tourist experience.

This is what van travel is all about. Taking small space living and placing it on wheels, van travelers are responding to the call of the road. And in doing so, it becomes so much more than the sum of a van’s customized parts. It’s about what you can do, and where you can go.

Case in point: Try scrolling through the nearly 12 million Instagram photos tagged #vanlife and you’ll see picturesque mountains, starry skies, sunsets at the beach, and dogs roaming free in the great outdoors.

But just how did it become a sustainable tourism phenomenon? Let’s take a quick stroll down the van travel memory lane.

Van Travel, a Brief History

Living (and traveling) in vans has been around for a while now. As far back as the ‘60s, people were transforming full-sized vans to be personal living spaces one can take from spot to beautiful spot. With the introduction of minivans in the ‘80s, coupled with economic growth and the popularity of all things bigger and better in terms of homes, full-sized vans became more of a commercial vehicle. They became a staple for electricians, couriers, caterers, and the like. It wasn’t until the early 2010s that van travel started picking up, alongside minimalism, flexible work arrangements, a hunger for travel, and ever-rising rent.

The new version of the van movement, centered around the #vanlife hashtag, is widely credited to Foster Huntington, who, at 23, quit his job and left his New York apartment to live in a van. Freedom from a nine-to-five meant that he could chase waves, meet new people, camp in the most breathtaking of sceneries, and, through social media, share all this with the world — and young people followed suit.

Today, one can live and travel in vans full-time or in short periods away from a regular home, which might be more suitable for families or those who still need to report to an office. And though van life attracts people of all shapes and sizes, most tend to call themselves a digital nomad, or someone who does not have a permanent fixed address, and whose work can be done online. The pandemic also paved the way for more people to turn towards van life. It is, after all, a socially distanced and budget-friendly way to get out of cramped apartments and big cities with poor air circulation. Plus, it’s a great way to see more of the outdoors now that international travel isn’t as viable

Van life has also grown outside of just full-sized vans, with people converting old buses into affectionately named Skoolies. These days, people hold van and Skoolie events like meet-ups and festivals.

Green on Wheels

This renewed interest in van life comes at a time when more and more people want to lead a greener lifestyle, which is why popular hashtags like #vanlife and #homeiswhereyouparkit often appear next to #livesimply or #renewableenergy.

At first glance, van life might not seem eco-friendly. Most vehicles, after all, produce a lot of greenhouse gasses. But the same is true for regular homes, and when done well, van travel can actually be pretty sustainable.

Part of this is the movement’s emphasis on tinkering with old and used vans, like the Volkswagen Vanagon. Those with more cash might opt for new hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles in the interest of cost and energy savings down the road, and companies looking to cash into the trend are studying ways to create fully electric camper vans in the near future. Moreover, living or traveling in such a small space means that people are encouraged to be more mindful about the things that they buy. This means less clothing, less clutter, and less shopping for things that tend to end up in landfills.

People who travel in vans also tend to be more conscious about their water use, because there’s only so much water they can carry on wheels.

All this makes it much more economical for travelers, too. Wherever they choose to park, they tend to get better views and fresher air for a lower cost than those who rent hotel rooms or tiny apartments.

How Van Travelers Are Going Green

People who travel by van have a few unofficial rules. Many of these are centered on ensuring that everyone, including those in future generations, can enjoy the same beautiful world van travelers want to explore.

It starts with careful route planning. Burning fossil fuel to get to different places is the number one source of emissions for those traveling by van, so it makes sense to pay attention to how this can be minimized in how they drive.

For instance, studies show that the most fuel efficient speed for driving is between 55 and 60 mph (88-96 kph), and so most van travelers tend to stick to this. Aside from avoiding waste, it also means they get to enjoy the views a bit better. It also helps to stay in one place for longer. There is, after all, no rush to get back to a regular home and a regular office, and this helps lower emissions.

Another focus among van travelers is a zero-waste lifestyle. No one likes to travel in a van full of trash, so it makes sense to avoid single-use plastics and to use reusable bags and water bottles.

With solar energy becoming more accessible, more vans are also being fitted with solar panels for van travelers to truly go off-grid while still being able to power their devices to stay connected with the world.

Last but not least, van travelers have a very strong honor code about leaving no trace. Many go the extra mile and pick up other people’s trash. Keeping sites clean means more people can enjoy them, and that national parks and other attractions will stay open to van travel today and in the years to come.

So, Where To?

In van life, a lot of the same rules apply when traveling green — it’s just much smaller and you’re a lot more free to plan out where to go and when. Whether you’re looking to explore the Hippie Trail to Morocco or take in the sights of Mexico’s Pacific Coast, the open road awaits.

Sea Going Green is a sustainable tourism consultancy that works with clients to create unforgettable and sustainable experiences for guests.

Ready to take your sustainability journey on the road? Chat with us.

 This week’s blog is all about van travel. Try scrolling through the nearly
12 million Instagram photos tagged #vanlife and you’ll see picturesque
mountains, starry skies, sunsets at the beach, and dogs roaming free in the
great outdoors.

Do you want to know more about how van travel became a sustainable travel
trend? Read on!Read MoreSustainable LivingBlog – Sea Going Green


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