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With #vanlife travel exploding, finding a van for summer is nearly impossible

Guy on a van. (Photo by Drew Bernard on Unsplash )

With flights and cruises canceled due to the pandemic, a lot of Americans have taken to the road over the past year and the #vanlife movement is exploding. These are luxury vans kitted out with kitchens and beds, used for trips centered on hiking, snowboarding, and biking, as opposed to a permanent home. But if you want in on the action, good luck buying one for this summer.

“Sales inquiries are up 300% as compared to last year, which is crazy,” said Nic Thoman, director of sales for Beartooth Vanworks in Montana, a smaller outfitter that plans to put 24 custom vans on the road this year.

Thoman says they have a backlog of orders, and the soonest a van would be ready for a new customer is November.

“In most markets that we deliver to, the wait time is at least 10 months,” said Jeffrey Hunter, COO of Alabama-based Storyteller Overland. “People have deposits down on vehicles that we will not be able to build for 10 to 14 months.”

In 2020, Storyteller built out around 300 vans. This year they’re on track to complete about 700, plus they doubled their workforce.

“Entirely new audiences are drawn into [van life], but it’s a lot of people who had been on the fence and had been like, OK, we really want this in our life but let’s wait ’til the kids get older, or let’s wait until we retire,” Hunter said. “When people were encouraged to work from home, they could be nomadic and they could hit the road and not have to shut off their engagement with the life they want to live.”

Beartooth only does custom build-outs, ranging from $100,000 to $200,000, not including the price of the van that you supply. Storyteller offers three different classes of vans for about that same price range. So Seattle’s Bryan Mills decided to build his own.

“I am going to be saving somewhere close to 50% on the cost of the van,” said Mills, who is learning to build out his Mercedes Sprinter, exclusively using online resources.

But tracking down a van can be a challenge right now, demand is high and production can’t keep up.

“I initially limited my search to the West Coast and there wasn’t a single dealer in any of those states that had the van that I was looking for, which is a very popular van,” Mills said. “So I ended up buying the van in Chicago and having it shipped out here because they were the first dealer from Seattle, moving eastward, that had the van I was looking for.”

Dealerships are also having trouble snagging new vans, so many are jacking up the price and charging thousands over MSRP.

“One of the things I found out very quickly is that not only is there an incredible backlog on the vans, but there’s perhaps an even bigger backlog on the parts,” Mills said. “I placed an order for the windows and it took them three months to show up. I started ordering other parts back in December and I still don’t have them.”

For Mills, the van is about freedom. It’s a comfortable way to explore the most beautiful parts of the country, to be close to nature, and if campsites are full, he can park on Bureau of Land Management land and be self contained. His employer gave him permission to work from anywhere in the country.

“The van will be equipped with power so I can plug in my laptop, it will have WiFi, and I can basically do all my work from anywhere in the United States,” Mills said.

Thoman says a lot of people have the same mindset.

“The biggest part of people wanting to get into a van, as opposed to a traditional RV, is the off-grid and go anywhere aspect of it,” Thoman said. “Traveling in a van is a lot easier than an RV. They look really big, but at the end of the day it’s about the same length as a pickup truck, at least wheelbase wise. So they’re really easy to drive, and I think people are drawn to that as opposed to going with a crazy Class A or Class C RV.”

If you want to try out #vanlife before you commit, you can rent one through a big company like Outdoorsy or a small, local one, like Peace Vans.

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