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On the Road: Epic Trips to Tackle in Your Van

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Vanlife isn’t restricted to vans—lovers of Airstreams and teardrop trailers enjoy a similar lifestyle.
Photo by Airstream Inc./Shutterstock

Vanlife isn’t restricted to vans—lovers of Airstreams and teardrop trailers enjoy a similar lifestyle.

Or RV, or Airstream trailer, or motorhome . . .

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Since the term “vanlife” entered the lexicon in 2011—and went viral two years ago—the freewheeling, on-the-road lifestyle to which it refers has evolved from a fascination to a trend to a norm. Droves of Instagram-loving millennials and even boomers are following in the tire tracks of RV-loving retirees (those prescient first-adopters) and buying or renting motorhomes, Airstream trailers, or vans to hit the highways on extended trips and shorter “vancations.”

The increase in interest means that the resources available to these modern-day van-dwellers are also proliferating. The internet abounds with explainers on DIY van conversions and restorations. You can find cooking blogs geared toward road warriors, maintenance how-tos, and tell-alls about the lifestyle. And the rigs are getting better too. Companies like Nissan, Volkswagen, and Airstream have tailored their new releases to this wider audience with electric models, customizable and convertible interiors, and Smart Control Technology. Rental companies, too, are popping up to offer the curious a taste of vanlife.

The Best Tools for Planning a Road Trip

You could go from interested to outfitted in a matter of days. And once you’ve picked a vehicle—a retro Vanagon, sleek Airstream, Insta-friendly Sprinter conversion, or uber-luxurious motorhome—and geared up, the only thing left is to do is figure out where to go. Here, a few of the best places to start, including beginner favorites, the tried-and-true, and envy-inducing Big Trips.

The Pacific Coast

The western United States is a popular place for vanlifers—partly because the abundance of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offers so many free and attractive places to set up camp. California in particular, with its warm, sunny climate; 655.8-mile Pacific Coast Highway; and established RVer communities, is a magnet for road-trip enthusiasts.

California offers plenty of beachside camp spots perfect for parking and relaxing for a while.

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You could start at the Canadian border (or in Vancouver, if you’re ambitious) and wind your way through redwood groves, wine countries, and desert landscapes down to Baja. But if you’re new to the game, consider parking in one spot for a while; you’ll minimize the stressors of driving and instead simply enjoy the lifestyle. Ventura, a Southern California city with beachside RV parking, has hosted a vanlife community since long before the hashtag, and Baja’s on-beach camping and sparkling Sea of Cortez make it a popular winter escape for all types of overland travelers.

Route 66

An American classic, Route 66 is traditionally motel territory. But while you won’t find as many campsites full of like-minded road warriors as you would in California, there are still a number of KOA campgrounds along the way, as well as swathes of wide-open (and dare we say underappreciated) BLM land.

Road-trip friendly infrastructure makes this drive a great one for anyone attempting a first extended vancation. (Kitschy roadside diners can be a welcome relief after a few days cooking in a cramped campervan kitchen, and there are plenty of gas and service stations—some of which are even famous stops along the route.) Route 66 is a road made for moseying. Plan to spend two weeks or more exploring small-town historic districts like Galena, Kansas, and Amarillo, Texas; embracing your inner-artist in the VW van–loving Albuquerque; and stopping to photograph Oklahoma’s Milk Bottle Grocery and Blue Whale of Catoosa, as well as every other quirky landmark.

Put a New Twist on Route 66—Make It an American Whiskey Road Trip

National Parks Loop

There are 417 U.S. National Park Service (NPS) sites—parks, seashores, historic sites, battlefields, and more—and you could, like blogger and LGBT activist Mikah Meyer, drive your converted cargo van to every single one of them. A more reasonable, though still ambitious, route would take you to the 57 national parks in the continental United States (driving to Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa gets complicated). But the beauty of a national parks road trip is that you can customize it.

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Photographers might want to spend 10 days winding along the red rock–lined roads of canyon country in the southwestern states. Outdoor enthusiasts may drive their rigs to less-visited areas of Grand Teton or Glacier National Parks to explore lonely trails without shouldering backpacking gear. And while harsher climates and a density of cities make the eastern and southeastern states less obvious vanlife destinations, parks such as Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains, with their waterfalls and miles of wooded trails, have convinced plenty of road-trippers to turn their wheels toward that part of the country in late spring and early fall.

In countries with right-to-access laws, like Norway, it’s easy to pull your van over almost anywhere and camp.

The Pan-American Highway

For dedicated vanlifers, the Pan-American Highway is the “white whale” of road trips. A daunting, unwieldy, months- or years-long adventure, the route became popular after the couple behind the well-known blog and Instagram account The Bus and Us documented their journey from Alaska to Argentina and then back again. This is the kind of thing you do on a sabbatical, after quitting a job, or before committing to a new career.

Unlike Route 66 or the Pacific Coast Highway, this path is flexible. Whether you start at the northernmost point in Alaska or the southernmost in Argentina, the official highway is more of a guideline with plenty of opportunities for detours. Explore Denali National Park and the forests of western Canada. Lose track of time hopping from one charming mountain town to the next in central Mexico. You’ll have to ship your rig from Panama to Colombia because the Darien Gap interrupts the road. But once in South America, spend your time climbing into the Andes and down again into the salt flats of Bolivia, the Atacama desert, and Patagonia, before finishing your journey in Ushuaia, the city known as the “end of the world.”

Choose Your Own International Adventure

Once you’ve dipped your toe in international van or RV travel, it can be hard to stop. If you’ve gone all-in and your vehicle is your primary home, shipping it to your next destination may be worthwhile. But lots of places, including Australia, New Zealand, and many European countries, have a long history of campervan vacations, and as a result, it’s easy to rent a van for any length of time. Challenge yourself with an (educated) excursion into the Australian Outback. Exercise your (respectful) right to use and camp on the land and in Norway and Sweden. Or indulge in a mellow pace and good seafood along the coasts of Spain and Portugal. Who knows, the road may even lead you to Mongolia.

>>Next: The Little-Known Idaho Road Trip You Need to Drive

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