Trading square footage for freedom: What tiny home vanlife is like during quarantine
If your house feels crowded during quarantine, imagine what it’s like for people who have chosen to live the tiny home lifestyle.
“I lost my job in 2016. It was a career I’d done for 15 years, so that was a huge deal at the time,” said Kristin Hanes. “I knew that I didn’t want to pay rent anymore in the San Francisco Bay Area.”
Hanes had worked as a radio reporter, including a handful of years at a Seattle radio station.
“Luckily, my boyfriend had recently bought a sailboat so I moved onto his boat, which is extremely affordable,” Hanes said. “Then two years later, in 2018, I bought a van because I needed somewhere I could work and where I could store my clothes and shoes because I had this tiny sedan and keeping all my clothes in the trunk was really not fun. Since then we’ve been splitting time between the boat and the van; we have these two tiny homes.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hanes and her partner had just docked their sailboat in the Ventura area of southern California.
“This whole area felt really busy to us, there were way too many people walking around, the stores were packed. We just felt really uncomfortable being near people. So we decided to go far away in our van and go boondocking, which is where you find free campsites on national forests and Bureau of Land Management land,” she said. “We did that in Arizona and eastern California exploring deserts and mountains and these off-roading, four-wheel drive routes just to stay away from everyone. We didn’t see a person for days sometimes and that’s how we thought we could be the safest.”
For Hanes, this is not just a lifestyle, it’s her job. She uses her journalistic chops to write a blog that is now her sole income.
“The Wayward Home is a website dedicated to people who want to learn how to downsize and live smaller,” Hanes said. “I cover everything from camper-vans to RVs, to boating to tiny homes, and ways for people to make an income on the road so they can make this lifestyle permanent.”
The couple’s average monthly expenses are only $1,500 combined, and Hanes makes between $6,000 to $10,000 a month from advertising revenue, affiliate income, and online courses she teaches on how to blog as a career.
“I just got an unlimited hot spot, which pretty much allows me to work anywhere; it’s been phenomenal,” she said. “One of my key considerations when I find a campsite is I have to have Internet access for my hot spot otherwise we can’t stay there. So we camp for the day and I sit outside in the shade of my hatch and do work, and I have these amazing views and it feels good just to be sitting outside in nature. I’ll work in the morning and then we’ll go on a hike, and then I’ll work more, do yoga, and then cook dinner.”
But even a nomad must dip into society every so often.
“Every time we go into Walmart to do our shopping, once a week, we come directly back to the van and immediately wash our hands with soap and water,” she said. “I think it’s still important to be really vigilant about cleanliness. We have a hand washing station in the van and we use the sanitizing wipes for our steering wheel and phones and use gloves to pump gas. I think as people go camping this summer and maybe try boondocking, they have to be really careful.”
Hanes and her partner traded square footage for freedom and adventure, which does come with its own challenges.
“We were in the Mohave Desert National Preserve driving down a dirt road. Suddenly I hear this loud hissing sound out my driver’s door and I looked out and we had deflated two tires at once,” Hanes said. “They were flat within, like, 30 seconds, which was absolutely crazy, and we were five miles from a paved road.”
Since the pandemic started, they’ve had a campsite crawling with mice and their van was swarmed by bees.
“What we had to do was start driving away with the side door open on the van and I was running along next to the van, swatting the bees, trying to get them out, trying not to get stung.”
But with a good sense of humor, these are just small blips in the big adventure. Hanes would rather deal with the occasional mouse and bee than wade through life in the city during the pandemic.
“When we were in the van, out in nature all the time, I felt wonderful,” she said. “The fresh air, I don’t have to wear a mask, I don’t have to watch every single thing I touch, I don’t have to worry about walking six feet away from anyone. We felt free and liberated and we were outside, and that’s where humans are happy, I think. But when we came back to the boat and this really populated zone north of Los Angeles, I started to notice my anxiety going up and everything starts to feel stressful and weird and I pay more attention to the news when I shouldn’t be. So I am looking forward to our next outdoor adventure somewhere, either in the boat or the van.”
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- Rachel Belle hosts the James Beard Award nominated podcast Your Last Meal and she's an Edward R Murrow award winning feature reporter. Follow Rachel on Instagram.