Everywhere is home with life on the road

Chester Schendel stands outside his Mercedes-Benz Sprinter which he has adjusted for van life.

Life on the road has been continuously gaining popularity as more people crave a freer way of life with more time spent in the great outdoors. Accessibility to adventure vans has expanded as more people are working remotely due to COVID-19. Additionally, awareness of van life has increased dramatically due to people sharing their van adventures on social media. Such factors make it possible for more people to experience their van life dreams.

Austin Cox is a marketing manager for Automotive Designs and Fabrication (ADF), a company based in San Fernando, California that specializes in customizing and renting adventure vans. Cox said a huge reason for the recent increase in van living is general awareness. Social media allows people who are living life on the road to share their experiences and inspire others.

“I started seeing it on Instagram and that’s where I first became aware of [van life],” Cox said. “The awareness factor is number one.”

Although ADF has been around since the 1980s, Cox said they first started renovating adventure vans in 2005, and now convert over 200 per year. The COVID-19 pandemic has also caused a surge in adventure van purchases. He said the wait time for ADF’s clients to get a customized van is currently longer than ever. 

Cox explained that COVID-19 has fueled many’s desire to spend more time outdoors. People were given an excuse to do just that when the pandemic made exploring the great outdoors one of the only safe activities outside of the house.

Many Southwestern states are a hub for van lifers. According to a survey conducted in 2018 by Outbound Living, a website that produces content about the outdoors, Arizona was the sixth most populated state for van life, following California, Colorado, Florida, Oregon and Washington.

Chester Schendel has been living in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van since late August. Originally from Mesa, Arizona, he has been living in his van in Flagstaff after selling his house in the valley. He decided that he wanted to live in a van in 2019, during a difficult period in his life. 

“I went on a spirit quest in August of last year,” Schendel said. “I was on the beach in Oregon and I realized I could do whatever I wanted to. I saw a Sprinter parked in the parking lot. I thought it was super cool. I had no idea how much it would cost or if it was even feasible, but I started looking into it and I made it happen.”

Schendel started working on renovating his Mercedes-Benz Sprinter last October and just recently finished it. He said the amount of time he had to put into it equated to more than a full-time job. He did almost all of the renovations by himself, which he said took extensive planning and preparation. Schendel explained that making the van his home is his greatest achievement in life so far. 

Schendel said he plans to see as many national parks as possible as well as visit Canada, Mexico and family and friends that live across the country. While he hasn’t been on the road for long, he explained that living remotely has already impacted him greatly. He explained that since living in his van, he is happier and produces better work. 

Schendel said he was lucky in the sense that he had already been working remotely for Drawbackwards, a software design company, for years before converting to van life. He plans to continue working for the same company from wherever he may be on the road.

Cox also lived in an adventure van for 10 months last year. After he and his wife quit their jobs, he said they visited over 30 states and 22 national parks. His wife was a teacher and he was moving up the ranks in the company he used to work for.

“I quit a very cushy job before I did this,” Cox said. “We took a risk, but the reward was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had.”

While there is a big allure to travel outside the country and check places off of one’s bucket list, Cox explained that being able to really explore his own country was an amazing experience in itself. For him, van life took him back to the old days of going on a road trip. He was surprised that one of his favorite destinations ended up being Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place he might have never visited if he wasn’t living in a van. 

Although many people would love to be able to follow in Cox’s or Schendel’s footsteps, there are many factors that might hold them back. The first obstacle is the financial aspect of converting a van. According to the Mercedes-Benz website, a brand new Sprinter van costs around $40,000. That doesn’t include customizations like the four-wheel drive Schendel installed. In total, he said his new van cost him more than $100,000. It is possible to reduce that cost drastically, but Schendel explained that he had certain demands that had to be met for his new home on wheels. 

“You can do this for way cheaper than I did,” Schendel said. “I wanted to be able to stand up in it, I wanted a four-wheel drive and I wanted a diesel engine, and the only way to get that was with the Mercedes Sprinter.” 

Schendel explained that his van also features a 32-gallon water tank, innovative designs for storage, a toilet and more.

While all the bells and whistles of a home on wheels can be exciting, Cox said the biggest obstacle for people who want to live their lives on the road is fear. 

“The biggest thing holding people back from doing what I did is just fear,” Cox said. “Not wanting to take that jump or leap of faith. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.”

Both Cox and Schendel said they agree that living on the road is a life-changing experience.

“This van kind of saved my life in a way,” Schendel said. “It gave me purpose, which is important when you’re going through a hard time. A lot of people want to do this but they probably feel like they can’t or it’s out of reach for whatever reason. It’s probably cliche, but if you want to do something, you set your mind to it and do it. That’s it.”