Gen Z and the Resurgence of Van life in Edmonton

picture: vanlifer

by Analea Zimmermann

The idea of trading in a white picket fence for a Volkswagen Pop-Top Westfalia has been on the rise amongst those born in 1997 and later, with its numbers only increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shifting from the stereotype of hippies and hemp, these self-proclaimed ‘free-spirits’ have been setting a trend for generations to come.

Vintage, new, and used camper vans are flying off buy and sell pages and Craig’s list: Facebook currently boasts 51 ads under the search term ‘camper van’ in Edmonton, and Kijiji follows shortly behind with 49.

The question then becomes: why have Edmonton and Gen Z seen such a resurgence in van life, especially since the pandemic? To answer this, I will be sharing the stories of three Edmonton van lifers and my adventures in the pursuit of my perfect escape vehicle.

To begin, I have been obsessed with vans and the idea of creating a space (and in this case a vehicle) to call my own since my family began our long haul road trips to the coast of California when I was just 8 years old. Like the other van lifers we will be meeting, my love of the open road has its roots in a weekend get aways, s’ mores around the campfire, and good ol’ family fun with nothing but our RV and some Fleetwood Mac on the radio.

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However, it wasn’t until I had met and chatted with fellow van enthusiast, Ethan Bardsley, that I felt I could really make this life my own. Determined to find and convert a van in the same way I had seen so many others do on Instagram, I searched and searched and came up with… nothing. I believe the perfectionist in me refuses to buy a van until I can see it being one that I can live in, travel in, and be entirely content for the rest of my life in. However, after much self-reflection, I have found this perfectionism is entirely counter-intuitive to my love of all things vintage, my tendency to overwhelm myself with huge projects, and most importantly, my freedom.

At the end of the day, I believe freedom is what every van lifer searches for. After years of hearing their Baby Boomer parents reminisce on their adventure-filled youth and their description of the joy and love that filled their lives at the time, I believe Gen Z and its age of van lifers have realized that those exact experiences create the feelings we want to garner for the rest of our lives.

Zoë Hannah 1
photo: Zoë Hannah for Insider

With COVID-19 adding another layer of restrictions on our seemingly already regulated day to days, this environment has instead created a movement to explore locally, take time for ourselves, and find a project that makes things for Gen Z seem meaningful again. Where can you find all those things? You guessed it, van life.

#VanLifeYEG; an unknown, underground, and underused hashtag filled with Edmonton’s seemingly small and secluded Van Life population. The tag, and arguably the brand of ‘Van Life YEG’, is dominated by Van Lifer and self-proclaimed ‘nomad’, Kristine MacDonald, most commonly known as @kmacsmicle

Her adventures with ‘Big Blue’ (an A 2019 Mercedes Sprinter 4×4 144 wheelbase high roof, complete with stained wood walls, running water, and a retractable awning to shield from even the fiercest Albertan storm) are documented by an Instagram feed that makes even the most isolated introverts want to explore the open road.

MacDonald did note that there are few ‘full-time’ van lifers in Edmonton, mostly due to the winter weather. Despite Edmonton’s bitter cold, however, she does receive numerous messages daily from people who are interested in buying and converting their van in an attempt to travel locally, especially during the pandemic.

MacDonald made it clear that sourcing resources locally was nowhere near impossible.

As MacDonald and her partner James recall, “We made many visits to Windsor Plywood and Lee Valley this summer for materials! We wanted to do things locally as much as possible… we did get our battery from Battery World and fabric from Marshalls Fabric”.

If anything, MacDonald shows that regardless of full-time van lifer community presence, van life and its conversions are possible, and on the rise, within YEG.

However, it became clear that Edmonton van life was a lot less picturesque than her feed and the #VanLifeYEG tag might suggest. When recalling her roots in van life, MacDonald spoke about her childhood camping in trailers, her partner’s slow conversion into the van life world, and the way their build had brought them together.

But YEG has not been the most kind to her or other members of the van life community, with builds frequently getting stolen, including her beloved ‘Big Blue’. As MacDonald recalls, “one day near the beginning of the pandemic, we woke up and realized someone had stolen [Big Blue] out of our driveway… we had to start over and build a new van.”

For Edmonton’s 20-year-old Ethan Bardsley, van life also roots back to childhood and memories of camping trips on the open road. The mountains have “always felt like home” to him, leading Ethan to buy his 70’s Dodge Camper Van, Margo, and continue his adventures in a way that felt different and more exciting than a regular car. For many including Bardsley, the freedom and versatility of van life are what keeps them coming back for more: “wherever I park can be my home”.

He credits his inspiration for van life to a friend’s dedication for touring Canada in a ‘73 Westfalia to all parts of the states and Canada with nothing more than his bandmates and their instruments.

Bardsley’s conversion of his beloved Margo started at day 1 with changing the fuel pump and filters, as this is extremely important for carbureted engines. On top of this, his work entails solar panels, an entirely new and converted interior with wood paneling, bed frame, under bed storage for band equipment during show season, and wetsuits, clothing, emergency food, etc. during the travel season.

The versatility of the interior goes past just under the bed storage and includes a cargo net for surfboard storage on the roof, as well as a portable camping stove for hot meals after a long hike.

Although the shopping list has been long and expensive for Bardsley and his travel partner Kaeley – his receipts ring in at just under $8000 – he notes that the conversions and mechanical work along the way has allowed him to live completely off the grid in a place that “feels like home”, something he would have never been able to do before.

Given those costs, Bardsley’s story may seem unattainable for many Edmontonians. However, this could not be further from the truth. Like many others, Bardsley works a normal 9-5, saving money where he can during the year, and traveling during the summer. He does note that on his Tofino excursions, he can attribute a small portion of his van life funding to waxing surfboards for others on the beach. As he shows, the recipe to happiness is not necessarily wealth: instead, it is found in weekly savings and a ’79 campervan parked beachside.

Like MacDonald, Bardsley has experienced his fair share of van life blunders. Whether this is tickets from park rangers, blowing tires on the highway, or simply cooking and cleaning to keep his tiny home organized, he notes that things “are not always pretty”.

On top of his ability to navigate and problem solve in his everyday experience in van life, Bardsley attributes a large portion of his drive and motivation for freedom to being born as a Gen Z.

“Younger people want to explore more and they don’t feel too pressured into going to school and finding a job right away, which is definitely a lot different from other generations… I feel like a lot more people are in our generation are more independent and feel comfortable being put in situations where you’ve got to figure it out yourself”.

Edmonton would not necessarily be the first place to come to mind for van life, with its cold winters and dry summers. Most van lifers live on the West coast for its beautiful ocean side and pristine surfing spots. Bardsley, however, believes that the lack of natural wonder in Edmonton is the reason for our increase in van life.

“If you are a lover of adventure, Edmonton definitely isn’t the place for that. This leads a lot of people to get a camper or a van because it’s a cheap and easy way to explore whatever you desire”.

Bardsley says van life in Edmonton remains a tight-knit community. Learning about conversions from friends and family, as well as finding inexpensive RV parts through Edmonton based camper van part yard “Young Farts RV Parts”, has been the key to his success in the lifestyle. Without the aid of fellow van lifers, mechanics, and the RV part yard, finding parts for cheap would have “taken a lot longer and been a lot more expensive” for Bardsley and many others.

When asked about the effects of the pandemic , Bardsley admits that his travels have remained exclusively within the borders of Canada, leaving him and his travel partners unaffected.

However, business is not completely as usual: there has been inflation in the number of people at his local surf and vacation spots in Tofino, and in the prices of vans and parts.

“I have had someone offer me money for mine even when it wasn’t for sale, but I could never do that”. The freedom and community-based support of Edmonton van life have created “priceless memories” for himself and many others.

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Although MacDonald and Bardsley’s builds may be extravagant and time-consuming, there is arguably nothing more authentic than packing up and hitting the road. 20-year-old Ryan Taillefer decided that there was “no better time than now” to pack into his Toyota Matrix to head as far East as possible.

Like many others, I am guilty of being caught up in the Instagram aesthetic of van life, a problem that originally plagued Taillefer as well.

“I thought it had to be pretty and look like everyone else’s feeds… but that’s not what it’s about. The guys out here with the freest minds are the ones with the simplest builds… I have a mattress in the back of my car, a portable stove in my front seat, and 3 T-shirts in a bag but I still feel like I overpacked”.

He currently travels all across Canada with 12 others, even though he left Edmonton as a solo traveler. Taillefer notes (rather beautifully), that connecting with people is what van life has its roots in

“I have met so many people that I would stick my neck out for here. Not enough people realize the beauty in just connecting… just being with others”.

No matter how far and wide I search for a van, Taillefer reminds me that freedom and the true happiness of ‘van life’ extends past the aesthetic and build, and truly is about the freedom associated with just doing it, whatever it may be. Thank you for showing me that again, Ryan.

For Bardsley, MacDonald, Taillefer, and many other YEG based van lifers, the freedom that van life gives in a time of constriction and regulation are unparalleled.

From summer trips to Tofino to yearlong adventures in Edmonton and surrounding areas, van life is on the rise and its popularity amongst Gen Z is ever-growing.