How vanlifers and RVers are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic

Shari and Hutch were sitting in their truck outside of a closed library when they received my email. The wifi was still on in the empty building, and they could just reach the signal from their makeshift office in the parking lot. Finding creative, not-always-comfortable ways to do work online is nothing new for this nomadic couple.

They’ve been living and traveling in a 1957 vintage “canned ham” trailer for over six years — a home of just 72 square feet, plus the truck that pulls it. But when shelter-in-place orders were issued across much of the country in response to COVID-19, life became a little trickier. 

A custom lavender Sprinter van is parked in front of a matching Craftsman house in Portland, Oregon
Finding ways to maintain connection and community even while social distancing is something we all have in common © Meghan O'Dea / Lonely Planet

Madeleine has only been living in her school bus since November. Prior to her current big yellow rig, she spent several years in a converted van, living and parking stealthily around the Bay Area. She was attending a meetup of nomadic folk in Arizona when word began circulating that localized lockdowns would happen soon. As vans, RVs, and buses dispersed to park at the homes of friends and family or secure long-term camping spots, Madeleine wasn’t sure where she should go. 

Martha, who also lives in a school bus from which she operates a custom swimsuit business,  typically parks on forest service roads or BLM land. When she realized things were getting bad, she drove to her 92-year-old grandmother’s house in California where the two have been sheltering in place for several weeks. 

Two friends standing by campfire at night while camping in Alabama Hills Recreation Area, Lone Pine, California, USA
Many travelers dream of having national and state parks for their living rooms, but that's hard to achieve as parks shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic © USA Getty Images/Aurora Open

“I feel blessed to have access to a bathroom and running water to keep my hands clean,” she tells me. “I have consistent electricity to continue my work, all while being available to help my potentially vulnerable family member with shopping and cooking in these difficult times.”

Most members of the nomadic community — those who live and travel in vans, RVs, buses, and various rigs —will say that freedom was a big motivator in abandoning a fixed address for a life on the road. But shelter-in-place orders have come down hard on this community of travelers who often treat public land and outdoor spaces as an extension of their home. 

Where does one “hunker down” when the road is home? 

I reached out to several full-time nomads to find out how they’re coping and what information might be helpful to fellow vanlifers, RVers, and “Schoolies.”

Shari and Hutch in their rig, including a canned ham trailer and pickup truck
Shari & Hutch are eight year veterans of the vanlife, but social distancing is still an adjustment © Shari and David Hutchison / Lonely Planet

Finding a place to stay

The goal of shelter-in-place orders is to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from person to person. Traveling from place to place right now poses a risk to both the traveler and the locals they might encounter at gas stations, grocery stores, campgrounds, and more. When you travel from place to place as a way of life, staying put comes with all new challenges. First is finding a place to stay. 

The options for safe places to camp are dwindling as local governments increasingly limit access to outdoor destinations where travelers often find the best spots. Multiple counties in Utah have gone so far as to prohibit camping on public lands, which is typically dispersed and free. But an influx of spring break visitors proved that people were not keeping their distance, even in the wide open wild. 

Campgrounds are being deemed “essential businesses” in certain states, and shut down in others — but many campground owners who are allowed to keep operating are choosing to close as a precaution.

A short yellow school bus against a brilliant desert sunset
Even the most comfortable vanlife rigs present social distancing challenges like storage space, bathroom access, and long term parking © Madeline Klein / Lonely Planet

“Every day I hear about more vanlifers being asked to leave RV parks, campgrounds, or the public lands they were staying on that are closing,” writes Christina Hadley in a recent article for Outside Magazine

An article on The Dyrt is being regularly updated with information on campground and park closures. The state by state guide is a detailed resource for anyone still looking for a camping spot. 

Closed campgrounds means no access to dumping stations, and the closure of businesses like cafes and coffee shops make public toilets hard to find. This is making road life not only risky, but unsustainable for many. Hadley lives in a school bus herself, and chose to travel from Colorado to Texas to stay with friends during this time. 

Jess Co Founder The Vanlife App, Quarantine Parked.JPG
Jess Shisler Co-Founder of The Vanlife App stands with her Mercedes Sprinter van © Jess Shisler / Lonely Planet

Founders of The Vanlife App are encouraging their community to find a place to be stationary. For many nomadic people, the best option is staying with friends or family. Others have turned to AirBnB or Craigslist for temporary rentals. 

For those with fewer options, a crowd-sourced list of people offering space to park has been circulating on social media. And developers at The Vanlife app are working to add this list of private properties to their platform so users can search for these places to stay. Premium features of The Vanlife App are now being offered for free, including the ability to message fellow users. 

Shari and Hutch are now camping in a national forest in Virginia where they have access to plenty of water and distance from other people. They’re self-contained with solar power and cooking supplies, so they’ve been able to stay in one place while making occasional trips into town for groceries. 

Madeleine is parked on BLM land in Northern Arizona for now. She recently connected with a friend in the Bay Area who has offered her some land to park her bus. “I think it’ll be the safest option for now,” she says. 

Martha put travel plans to Mexico on hold while she stays with her grandmother. At this point, she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to hit the road again. 

Missing community and staying positive

Living nomadically is a very intentional way of life. It allows people to prioritize travel and experiences, and make a home wherever they are. But suddenly those experiences are all but impossible. That’s both a logistical and emotional challenge. 

Social media has always been a powerful way for nomads to connect, find new friends, and share advice for road life. And it goes much deeper than the #vanlife hashtag. Facebook groups like “Solo Female Van Dwellers” and the “Vanlife Diaries Social Forum” regularly facilitate new connections, both online and off. Spilling into real life, meetups facilitated by Vanlife Diaries and Women on the Road have further strengthened the community, and while all in-person gatherings are canceled for now, they remain valuable resources. 

Madeleine poses with a Mona Lisa smile in front of her yellow school bus
Life on the road usually gives opportunities to meet like-minded travelers, but not so much during a pandemic © Madeline Klein / Lonely Planet

Madeleine says she was still in the process of finding “her people” on the road, so this has been especially hard. “I struggle with waves of anxiety,” she says. “I’ve been reaching out to friends over text a lot—people i haven’t spoken to in awhile.”

Humor helps, too. Madeleine has been enjoying all of the late night talk shows lately. But she’s also trying to address her loneliness head-on. 

“When I’m feeling lonely, it usually means that I’m disconnected from myself,” she says. “If I’m feeling needy, it’s because I need to spend some time inside, poking at the why. As opposed to needing to be around people.” 

Shari and Hutch generally spend significant portions of the year volunteering, which is no longer an option. 

“We struggle with the idea that we could be of service to others right now, but can’t be,” writes Hutch. But they’re still finding ways to help out. 

Shari and Hutch in truck.JPG
Shari and Hutch have been living on the road in a solar-powered, '57 canned-ham camper named Hamlet since 2012 © Shari and David Hutchison / Lonely Planet

“We’ve been reaching out to family and friends via phone and email, posting encouraging videos and images on social media, writing articles which serve as a resource for other full-time RVers, and doing trash pick-ups to clean up the area. We are doing what we can from where we are, though somehow it never feels like enough.” 

Martha finds the power of community via social media reassuring. With a large Instagram following and a sewing business, Martha has been able to reach a significant number of frontline workers for whom she’s offering homemade face masks.

“I’m a person who needs to physically work out my anxiety, typically by sewing or making things, and the most powerful thing for me lately has been making masks for literally hundreds of essential workers I’ve connected with on Instagram,” she says. 

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Vanlife by nature exchanges some conveniences for others - but that puts many at a disadvantage during a pandemic © Meghan O'Dea / Lonely Planet

“People are scared and overworked and lacking in personal protection equipment, while here I am with a bus full of sewing machines and fabric and plenty of free time. It’s humbling and heartbreaking and simultaneously gives me a lot of hope.” 

It seems that despite the massive disruption to their lifestyles, nomads (like everyone else) are finding ways to be resourceful and responsible. And while there will always be those who don’t play by the rules, the community overall is seeking out the best options in a difficult situation—waiting patiently to get back on the road. 

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