#vanlife on Instagram brings up more than eight million posts which show vans fitted stylishly with luxury amenities or parked in beauty spots, rear doors opened to frame a beach sunset.
“There are two main customer bases,” says Emily Cotgrove, who runs Vanlife Conversions in Essex with her partner Oli, an Army veteran. Present the couple with a commercial van and they will convert it for you for upwards of £28,000.
“One [market] is like the 25 to 35s, maybe they work remotely and want to travel while they work. They might see they can now work from anywhere. And the other target market are the older generation who would have looked at motorhomes in the past.”
Emily thinks coronavirus has accelerated the demand for van conversions as staycations and remote working boom. “Before Covid, we had a six to eight-month wait list,” she says. “Now we are booked up for 18 months.
“People have realised there’s a lot to see in the UK and a lot of ways we can go around it. And it’s not the compromise you normally get with camping. It’s effectively an apartment on wheels. You really do feel that it’s a luxury way to travel.”
But for many, paying for a conversion is simply unaffordable. Scores of people are choosing to do up a van themselves – an option that can be far cheaper.
During lockdown, Chloe Nash, 25, from Keighley, West Yorkshire, sold her car and bought a second-hand Citroen Berlingo.
She had wanted to do it for a few years but couldn’t afford it. “The only positive of Covid for me is that I have managed to save more money,” she says.
For weeks she spent her evenings after work converting it; she insulated it, lined the sides with carpet and the floor with lino. Her most expensive purchase was the bed, which she bought custom-made for £575 because she says she didn’t have the “skills, tools or time”.
Chloe added a shower that plugs into the van’s rear cigarette lighter and hangs on the back door. It pumps water previously heated on the stove. The whole project, excluding the van, cost less than £1,000, she estimates.
“A few people asked if it was a good idea and now I can confirm it was the best idea I have ever had and gone through with,” she says.
Chloe – who is blogging her van experiences – says the project gave her more self-confidence. “Purchasing my van has made such a big difference in my life,” she says. “Now I totally have my freedom.”
Like Chloe, Meg is also attracted to the sense of freedom that van life provides – but she says it was also an opportunity to give daughter Marlowe new experiences.
Speaking from Portugal in the family’s Mercedes Sprinter – which they bought already-converted for £40,000 – she says: “I loved my life in the UK, I never felt like I was running away from anything. It’s not like we were desperate to get away from a life we weren’t enjoying.
“In the UK we found we were still having those issues that a lot of parents would have, like are we showing her enough, is she seeing enough different things, is she having too much screen-time? Whereas living in the van, she’s playing in nature every day. She speaks to children who are each speaking different languages.
“I get messaged on Instagram every single day, people saying I wish I had the guts to do what you’re doing, which I find so sad. You can do it. You don’t have to sell everything like we did. You don’t have to commit like we did.”
And of course it does not tell the whole story. For many people, living in a van is not so much of a lifestyle choice but a way of life.
Barny Erdman, who lives in Norwich, has been a full-time van-lifer since 2014. “My hand was kind of forced,” he says. “My relationship broke down and I had a small van I had converted into a little working get-around camper. I moved out into that as a temporary measure whilst I tried to make some savings.
“I got used to the smaller space, got used to this idea that this is your home so I thought I would make a go of it.”
Barny, 36, who is a key worker as a delivery driver for Sainsbury’s, is now on his third van – an old police wagon. At one point he was in an old mobile library but says that was “too big – trying to park it in places was a nightmare. Travelling any distance became too expensive.”
He enjoys the freedom and sense of community that van life offers. And while he has no hostility towards the recent boom in the van life trend, he suggests it is “the gentrification of van life”.
“I think each to their own, if somebody wants to do that they can do that, as long as they stick to the rules and respect other people,” he says, of the newer crowd.
“The whole staycation thing, for me it’s caused a lot of trouble. It brings people who don’t do this into it. So I have found a lot more people littering and emptying their toilets in a hedge somewhere which obviously gets the locals’ and neighbourhoods’ backs up.”
And he says he has noticed it has pushed the prices up. “For years it has been a way of life for people who are not so financially capable. Like the older vans and things people used to buy to live in, you would pick up for a few hundred pounds,” he says.
Auto Trader’s analysis also found this – the average price of a used commercial vehicle was up 20% this September compared to last.
As the UK prepares to face a winter of being cooped up indoors amid lockdown restrictions, the thought of spending any time in a even smaller space might not sound too attractive.
But on the flip side, perhaps van life chimes well with that shift to simpler living that many saw during the national lockdown?
“It’s a nice exercise to live in a van and live with less,” says Meg. “I would definitely recommend it.”