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When he was a teacher, Matt Felser built his first van in the parking lot of Vail Mountain School, much to the chagrin of staff.

“I was a very good teacher but a very poor builder,” said Felser, who, through the help of friends and thousands of hours on YouTube, converted a used Ram ProMaster into a new home on wheels. 

Van life, once a niche experience for die-hard nomads, has taken root in communities across Colorado and the U.S. as people look for ways to combine more travel with environmental sustainability and affordable living. In 2019, the first year Felser began living in his van full time, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 140,000 vans, RVs or boats as housing units, up from 102,000 in 2016.

As van life communities grow, it’s hard to paint them with a single brushstroke. While the rise of #VanLife on social media has given some a window into the world, for most people, the reality of van life differs from its portrayal on Instagram. 

“The misperceptions are put into these extremes … it’s either for the ultra-wealthy … or for the outcasts of society and those pushed to the fringes,” Felser said. “The reality is it’s somewhere in between … it encapsulates so many different lifestyles.” 

A business takes hold 

Felser, who had taught seventh- and eighth-grade Spanish and coached high school lacrosse and soccer, left his job in spring 2019 after he reconnected with Dave Ramsey, an old college friend. 

Ramsey had been living in an RV for three years, and Felser had begun living in his ProMaster in order to afford a down payment for a house he bought in the Vail Valley, which he was renting out. The two both saw a need in the market for more affordable vans and decided to open their own business, Dave & Matt Vans, which they run out of Gypsum. 

With a team of 11 who all live in vans full time, the shop orders in “empty tin can” ProMasters that can be built out with livable amenities for a below-market rate. Costs for outfitted vans range from $65,000 to $90,000, according to Felser, who said his shop offers an alternative to vans, RVs and trailers that can cost between $100,000 and $200,000. 

“Van life changed our lives, and we wanted to give people that ability and option,” Felser said. 

Over the past three years, the shop has seen about 350 clients, Felser said. Much of their business came after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Felser said, with May 2020 seeing 10 times the amount of inquiries than the shop typically received. 

Felser attributes the boom to a desire for escape felt among the millions who were forced to work from home and socially isolate. For the first time in many people’s careers, they now have the opportunity to work from wherever they want. 

“That change and shift in paradigm have allowed people to pursue this lifestyle,” he said. 

Along with the pandemic, Colorado’s continued affordable housing crisis has pushed many to look for alternative means of housing that won’t break the bank. Felser said he’s worked with many clients who have turned to vans rather than renting or buying a home, which in Colorado is averaged to cost over $500,000. 

While Felser now lives in his Vail townhouse, he still takes off in his van whenever he finds the free time. 

“I go on week- and month-long adventures whenever I can,” he said. “The van is both my car and my vacation home.” 

‘My whole life in one place’

Since August, Austin Abelkis has lived in his ProMaster, which he purchased for about $60,000, with his girlfriend Alice Fors and their two dogs. There were several reasons why Abelkis, who is 26 and grew up in Boulder County, said he was ready for the change.

He was paying $1,000 in rent each month for an apartment he barely stayed at. He loved taking advantage of Colorado’s outdoor offerings, from climbing to hiking. And he had a job with an outdoor footwear company that required him to travel around the country for events. 

“I was just ready to minimize, have my whole life in one place,” Abelkis said. “It feels like a much smaller footprint you’re putting out into the environment.”

With a 20-gallon water tank that lasts the couple a week and solar panels on the van’s roof, the two feel they are making a difference in terms of conservation. 

“It’s just realizing that you don’t need so much and you can live with a lot less than you think,” Abelkis said. 

The couple has enjoyed various trips through the country including along the West Coast and in the Southwest. For Abelkis, the freedom to move your home to wherever you want it to be is one of the biggest rewards of van living. 

“Stop off for the night, light some candles, make some dinner, wake up and you’re at the Grand Canyon or you’re at the redwoods,” he said. 

But it’s not always easy. 

At about 80 inches wide and 236 inches long, managing life for two in such a space can have its challenges. 

“Our kitchen is next to our bed, so sometimes, tomato sauce gets in our sheets,” Abelkis said. 

And when utilities go awry, such as a light that’s out or a clogged drain, there are few opportunities to call someone when on the road, forcing Abelkis to be his own electrician and plumber. 

And having two dogs — one a pug and the other a pointer mix — only adds to the minimal space.

“It has its up and downs for sure … the small space can be very challenging for us,” Fors said.

But Abelkis and Fors said they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“That feeling of waking up in nature is just amazing,” Fors said.

Before COVID, many people centered their lives around their work, but now, more people are realizing there are new opportunities to consider, Abelkis said. 

“(Van life) is breaking out of that cycle,” he said. “I can live my life and explore the world — life is short.”

Chasing adventure and asking for understanding

For Juanca La Ross, adventure is what drives him in his van life. 

“I have this constant journey to keep traveling,” La Rosa said. 

Born in Lima, Peru, La Rosa spent his later teen years and early 20s in Florida. But after graduating from college, he yearned for a landscape of nearby mountains reminiscent of the ones he grew up in. Colorado seemed an obvious choice. 

In August 2020, La Rosa joined Felser’s company, working to build vans like his for others who wanted to experience the lifestyle. 

“As I started building them, it became clear that I could live in one of them and would be happy living in one of them,” said La Rosa, who began living in a ProMaster he purchased from work in July of last year. 

Now he spends his free time rock climbing, hiking, snowboarding and exploring the country’s Southwest. 

“I can continue to do the activities I love without having to sacrifice too much time commuting or too much freedom,” he said. 

Josh Ness, 33, also an employee of Dave & Matt Vans, said his choice to live more nomadically gave him a “more fulfilling lifestyle.”

Ness is an avid hiker and has climbed 47 of Colorado’s 58 14,000-foot-high mountains, also known as 14ers. 

“When it’s not freezing outside, you’ll find me on a mountain hiking,” he said. 

Still, for all its opportunities, van life comes with a misperception many are still trying to shake off. 

For Ness, he has had to deal with suspicious looks and the occasional questioning by police, even when he parks legally during appropriate hours. 

“We’re normal people just like everybody else, enjoying our life, living our lives as best we can,” Ness said. 

Abelkis said van life is often glorified through social media. 

“The Instagram ideal of it is not even remotely what it is at all,” he said.

For Felser, van life is not a one-size-fits-all identity, but a way of living that brings together a myriad of people. 

“Van life means something different to everyone — that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “To me, that’s an adventure — to go to the places I want to go and do the things I want to do.”