Oregon’s Exploding Boomer Population Is Flocking to the Vanlife, Turning a Once-Grungy Counterculture Into Big Business

The newest influx of van enthusiasts doesn’t fit either the new or old stereotype of van owners.

(courtesy of Outside Van)

Until six years ago, Melody Shapiro never imagined herself living out of a van.

She hasn't fallen on hard times, nor has she pivoted into a new career as an Instagram celebrity posing next to her Volkswagen Westfalia and posting selfies from national parks.

After retiring from her job as a psychotherapist in 2011, the idea of living on the road and off the grid began to sound like the dream life for the 73-year-old from Hood River. So she went online to figure out her options.

That's when she found Outside Van, a Portland-area company that turns Mercedes Sprinters from utilitarian cargo vans into mobile camping palaces.

(© Story Gorge/Sean O’Connor)

For $140,000, Shapiro bought a customized Sprinter, equipped with four-wheel drive, solar panels and a queen-sized bed. She speaks excitedly of traveling across the country, unplugging from the outside world, and getting lost in the splendor of the Wallowas and the canyons of southern Utah.

"I like to travel to more remote areas," she says. "The way it's set up lets me pull into anywhere and live off the grid without power for four or five days. The high [ground] clearance lets me go just about anywhere. I love the freedom of that."

Now, Shapiro is living what social media aesthetes have dubbed "#vanlife."

Heshers and hippies have been turning vans into makeshift homes for decades, of course—some by choice, others out of necessity. In recent years, though, the lifestyle has gone luxe. It has been called a full-fledged "movement" by The New Yorker, and inspired trend pieces everywhere from The Atlantic to ESPN. Search the #vanlife hashtag on Instagram, and you'll find 3 million-plus photos of sun-soaked 20-somethings doing yoga or drinking coffee on the beach near their rolling domiciles. Some of them have even managed to monetize it, effectively becoming professional vandwellers.

But the newest influx of van enthusiasts doesn't fit either the new or old stereotype of van owners. A new hashtag, #sprintervanlife, has started to catch on, and browsing through, it's increasingly common to find photos of sexagenarians on mountain bikes and standup paddleboards.

(courtesy of Outside Van)

Not long ago, someone with Shapiro's background would be living the RV life. But more and more, people her age are abandoning the traditional boomer retirement home, and opting to live more like their kids.

"I have friends who bought Roadtreks and smaller RVs—and they're all falling apart," Shapiro says. "They're putting more money into [keeping them] on the road than their actual house. I don't see the freedom in that."

Oregonians are old. The state's recently released June revenue forecast highlighted the state's looming retirement tsunami.

"The elderly population (65-plus) has picked up a faster pace of growth," wrote state economist Mark McMullen, "and will surge to record-high levels as the baby-boom generation continue to enter this age group."

Montana is the only other state west of the Mississippi with a greater percentage of its population aged 65 or older, according to U.S. Census data. Many people moved to Oregon when they were younger for the outdoor recreational opportunities—and their aging is proving to be a boon for the growing van-conversion industry.

(Katie Reahl)

Outside Van is one of about a dozen businesses in Oregon specializing in custom van conversions—there are five in Portland alone. But when owner Erik Ekman founded the company back in 2007, the market had not yet proven itself. A longtime proponent of avoiding money pits like Vanagons and Winnebagos in favor of more common and customizable vehicles, Ekman started Outside Van largely to provide aspiring nomads with an alternative to bulky recreational vehicles. It was a gamble, but it paid off almost immediately: While the RV industry reported a 33 percent dip in sales in 2008, Outside Van's sales grew by 30 percent.

Today, Outside Van does big business. While Ekman is cagey about disclosing exact sales figures—he claims this is to protect against a growing field of imitators looking to copy his success—the company's waiting list is backed up to next spring, and buyers from as far as Russia have flown to its factory in Troutdale to pick up their projects. Ford recently sent its own version of the Sprinter, the Transit, to get the Outside Van treatment, and will show off the results at the Los Angeles Auto Show this winter.

(courtesy of Outside Van)

And now that the #vanlife phenomenon has reached the boomer demographic, business is, well, booming even more: In April, Ekman told The Wall Street Journal sales have doubled in the past year, thanks to buyers in their 50s and 60s.

It's unclear exactly what's pushing financially comfortable retirees toward the vanlife. Some might argue it represents a further corruption of what was once a grungy subculture. But when you ask them about the allure, it's really no different than what led me to it.

As a millennial who graduated from college just a year before the Great Recession, I chose living in a van as an inexpensive means of leaving Ohio to start over in Portland. Sure, mine cost only $1,100. But by sleeping on darkened streets, scrambling to find a place to pee at night, and owning only what could fit in the van, I learned the same lesson in minimalism that folks my parents' age are just now catching on to—that the path to contentment is paved with the stuff shed along the way.

(Katie Reahl)

On a recent visit to Outside Van, a handful of Sprinters were parked with their doors wide open, while dozens of workers—many of whom look like people you'd find crashing in their own vans at Timberline or in Hood River—zip back and forth between the vans and sheets of detailed schematics that outline the buildout.

Ekman is excited to show off the progress of his current pet project. It features a stainless steel shower fabricated in-house, a diesel-powered water heater from Germany that works in subzero temperatures, and an array of 12-volt batteries he claims are used by the military to power weapons in Afghanistan. The price tag: $400,000.

A zen-like surfer dad whose thick blond hair and permanently tan skin belie the fact that he'll turn 50 this month, Ekman realized that selling vanlife to the masses could be big business long before it was a hashtag. But his own entry into the culture was much more modest.

A photo near the entrance to one of his company's four warehouses shows a younger Ekman waking up in the back of a cluttered white 1981 Ford Econoline. He bought the van in 1990 from a junkyard in Corvallis for $1,550 and transplanted the interior of a broken Westfalia shortly after. The home-on-wheels paired well with his migratory lifestyle, which included traveling the Pacific Northwest as a product rep for brands like the North Face and Rip Curl, and living in the van in a friend's driveway for $60 a month during downtime. When he sold the van a year later to a surf shop owner for a $3,500 profit, Ekman realized converting used vans into budget campers had potential.

(Katie Reahl)

He didn't quite know how lucrative it could be, though, until a chance meeting in 2006.

"I was mountain biking with these guys, and we ended up drinking a bunch of wine afterwards," he recalls. "We started drawing a van on a white paper tablecloth with eight different colors of crayons, and the guy tore it off and asked how much it would cost. I was kind of drunk and obnoxious, so I guessed and told him $300,000. He said OK, looked over at the other guy, and told him to mail me a check."

Since officially incorporating Outside Van in 2007, Ekman has dealt almost exclusively in Sprinters. A utilitarian alternative to trade vehicles like box trucks, trailers and cargo vans like the Econoline, their turbo diesel engine and high ground clearance earned high marks for reliability and economy when it entered the U.S. market in 2004. But what really appealed to Ekman was their tall ceilings and spartan interior.

"The first time I saw a Sprinter and realized I could stand up in it, I was like, 'Holy shit, this is so much better,'" he says. "In 2006, they got a lot better, and from then on, that's all I focused on."

(courtesy of Outside Van)

Since then, Ekman has poached design and engineering talent from operations like Rigid Industries, the U.S. Department of Defense, and Christensen Shipyards, a manufacturer based in Vancouver, Wash., known for building award-winning yachts that can easily cost over $40 million.

At Outside Van, an empty Sprinter costs $89,000, and the features get added from there. Common additions include solar panels, induction stove tops, and automatic rain-sensing roof vents. For more eccentric clients, the company's installed soundproofing, massage chairs and electromagnetic shielding. Go to the right events, and you might even see a Sprinter equipped with an outdoor pizza oven.

(courtesy of Outside Van)

But Ekman insists his product isn't exclusive to the well-heeled leisure class.

"We build a lot for [people] who live in their vans and don't have a home," he says. "They make 50 grand a year and have a job they can do remotely from a keyboard. People want nice stuff, but they also want less stuff. There's no waiting list at Camping World. Big cheesy motor homes with 10-year payments aren't floating a lot of boats these days."

The concept of "less stuff" might be what's indoctrinated retirees into the culture of vanlife.

(courtesy of Outside Van)

One such person is Ron Penner-Ash, a 61-year-old retired teacher and vintner who bought a Sprinter from Outside Van a month ago. Since selling his winery two years ago to Jackson Family Wines, he and his wife, Lynn, have taken on the goal of paddling 100 bodies of water in the U.S. throughout their retirement. When they saw what Outside Van was doing with Sprinters, they realized investing in a vehicle that could easily access rugged Bureau of Land Management sites was the way to go.

"We're more interested in being off the grid than a lot of the commercial campsites," Penner-Ash says. "There's a lot of BLM land out there that's free, and our van is perfect for that."

Penner-Ash maintains he and Lynn knew nothing about vanlife prior to purchasing their Sprinter. But now that they're on Instagram, they enjoy connecting with kindred spirits who appreciate living a minimalist life on the open road with the relevant hashtags.

(courtesy of Outside Van)

"I love it because it's a throwback to the bare-bones road trips I took back in my 20s in an old Volvo," Penner-Ash says. "Now, after working for 40 years, I'm glad to have something I know won't break down."

And that seems to be what vandwelling boomers are taking from their children—the idea that less really can be more. It's convenient for broke millennials that a leaner lifestyle now makes them seem cutting edge, but it makes sense for their parents, too. After all, tiny houses are now cool. But what's cooler than a tiny house that drives?

"I have a paved driveway on the side of our 1,000-square-foot house, and the minute we think we need an even bigger house, we just go out and live in the van for a month," Ekman says. "It's a First World problem to think you need an even bigger house. What you need is more joy, and more freedom."

(courtesy of Outside Van)

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