Living in a van

Rachael Garner/Senior Staff

It may seem inconceivable to set up shop inside a soccer-mom chariot when you can afford more traditional accommodation. After talking to UC Berkeley seniors Parker Stow and Carter Keeling, a couple of “vanners,” it was soon made clear that their living situation was not a defining part of their identity, nor did it seem as though they lead completely different lives than the typical student. “It actually hasn’t been radically different for me,” said Stow. “It doesn’t feel as big of a deal as it might sound.” He has lived in vans for almost a year and a half. “It’s very elegant: You just buy a van and put it on the street and you think weird stuff will happen to it, but honestly we just go in and sleep every night and wake up and that’s sort of it,” Keeling agreed.

Boarding at a co-op is the main consideration that makes van-living feasible for both Stow and Keeling. “Logistically, it just makes things easy because you get your food there, you have a place to charge your electronics, you can use the restroom, shower,” Stow explains. For both of them, the co-op also provides a social element when the van gets lonely — or too warm. “We don’t hang out there during the day because it gets too hot,” Keeling said. “It’s just the sun blasting down on your car, so we’re lucky to have the co-op to spend our days.”

In fact, it was through the co-op that both discovered the option to live in a van. Stow had spent half a summer living in a friend’s van, and when another vanner in the co-op unexpectedly had to move abroad, Stow jumped on the opportunity. “I found out about the dude leaving for Ethiopia and I was like, ‘I enjoyed the last few months, I like not paying money, sounds like an attractive option.’ ”

Keeling’s story is a bit more complicated. Having always started late on apartment-hunting, he consistently found himself in unideal locations that were expensive and far away. This year, he decided, would be different. Looking for housing with his best friend, Keeling was on a cost-efficient quest and found himself in a small, crowded room on Ashby. “We wanted to get out of there,” he said “I’ve always known about vanners, but I never thought about it for myself.” In fact, it was on Stow’s recommendation that Keeling and his friend purchases a van they found on craigslist for $900.  

The van came with a queen-size mattress, a belt, a fedora and 4 tabs of acid.

While the 1970s Ford Econoline provided enough space for Keeling and his friend, it lacked the typical function: properly running. “We drove it to Berkeley and the next day I had to move it across the street for street sweeping, but it didn’t turn on,” Keeling said. “It was literally the day after I bought this thing, and it just didn’t turn on.” The engine and circuitry could not be revived, leaving their van immobile ever since. “When we got the three-day (parking) notice in our first spot, we had to move it. So, we got eight people from the co-op to come and push the van. I was steering,” he said.

While this may seem like a stressful comedy of errors, Keeling takes solace in the silliness. “The whole process of the place we had to move out of in August: finding a van, the van breaking down, moving into the van, living in it,” Keeling explained, “It’s very absurd, it’s all very ridiculous. Every morning, I just feel that joy of the absurdity.”  


That absurdity mixed with a little clutter describes the van life pretty well. “Storing clothes in an organized manner is pretty tough,” Stow admits. On the other hand, because Keeling shares the space with his friend from home, a routine is in place, “I have left side and Joey has right side, and then we have two hampers and two bags,” he said. “We keep clean clothes in the hampers. Put dirty clothes in the bag.”

The van came with a queen-size mattress, a belt, a fedora and 4 tabs of acid.

This full-proof system didn’t always exist, “Before that, it was just toss, toss, toss, dig every morning, smell the underwear. Is it clean? I don’t know, it smells fine.” Clothes aren’t the only things of questionable cleanliness when you live in a van that’s separated from indoor plumbing. “I think I’ve been on a path the past year towards embracing the scummy lifestyle: not showering every day, not brushing my teeth twice every day and wearing the same clothes every now and then.” Worries about bad breath? “I just cover it up with black coffee a lot.”

Despite the scum, both are avid proponents of the lifestyle. It’s been an experiment in necessity and luxury. “It’s reinforced the fact that I can not have too much going on in my living space and still be perfectly happy and functional,” Stow said. It also gave Keeling new insights about daily life. “It helped me understand so much of how we are raised, how we live our daily routines and how stuff is kind of unnecessary — having a room and stuff in it. Having morning routines where you get up and shower, wear a different pair of clothes and you’re always super hygienic. You have a set time you go bed, set time that you wake up.”

Keeling also says he feels more free living in a van. “I never really enjoyed living in apartments,” he said. “It was very restricting, having one set place that you go to every night, about having one bed in one apartment and you have to go through the front door, at the elevator, through the hallway. Living in a van, I have the liberty to sleep in a room in the co-op, go up to the fire trails and spend the night. In a way, it’s freeing. My mind isn’t weighted by expectations of what my life should be like.”

And if this new perspective doesn’t entice you to the lifestyle, the financial benefits alone are pretty prime. “More people should do it.” Keeling said, “It’s cheap. It increases housing, technically, in Berkeley. Putting a van on the street is a new unit. And it’s just kind of fun.”

Contact Marlena Trafas at [email protected]