A strange sight greeted Hugo Unwin as he walked into a friend’s garage one night in Revelstoke, B.C. Arranged into a makeshift hangout space were roughly six sets of passenger seats from Dodge Grand Caravan minivans.
The seats were from numerous friends who had converted their minivans into mobile housing by installing flooring, shelving, a bed and even sinks. The seats had to be left somewhere, and his friend had found a use for them.
As the price of used cars skyrocketed during COVID-19, so did the cost of vehicles traditionally used for “vanlife,” the nomadic lifestyle where people live out of cargo vans such as Dodge Rams and – the crown jewel of the subculture – the coveted Mercedes Sprinter. The cost of buying and building these homes on wheels can stretch to the six-figures for top-end products, and even used vans from the 1990s with heavy mileage were being posted online for tens of thousands of dollars at the height of the pandemic.
As a result, people such as Mr. Unwin made a minimalist style of living even more minimal by turning to smaller vehicles such as the Dodge Grand Caravan or Toyota Sienna. The models (and similar ones) come with lower costs beyond the purchase price. People looking to spend months travelling and living out of their cargo van spend usually complete a setup for around $10,000. Mr. Unwin spent less than that on a 2008 van ($6,500) and customizations ($500) combined.
Another benefit: With vanlifers disliked in certain neighbourhoods, and outright banned from some municipalities, minivans are stealthier because they blend in better.
Martin Anderson, who lived in a minivan while travelling around Canada, said he often woke up to the sound of shoppers pushing carts past his doors, completely unaware that he was camping in the parking lot.
“Don’t get me wrong, Sprinters are so much better, but it’s like living in a house versus in a shoebox apartment,” said Mr. Anderson, who considers the cheaper costs that come with a smaller space a perk.
Autotrader.ca, one of Canada’s largest vehicle-selling platforms, saw its inventory of minivans decrease as the average price increased between January, 2020, and January, 2023, mirroring other vehicle classes.
Jodi Lai, Autotrader’s editor-in-chief, said the strong demand for minivans was particularly notable because of the stigma that formed against them as SUVs became popular. While the sales numbers can’t be directly attributed to vanlife, Ms. Lai said attitudes toward the vehicle class are definitely changing.
“As traditional adventure vehicles like SUVs and even mobile homes became harder to come across or more expensive, people likely moved to the next available options – vans,” Ms. Lai said in an e-mail.
“The generational stigma around minivans is dying, so vintage and retro minivans are now seen as cool again.”
Mr. Unwin says minivans are also a great option for people who can only afford one automobile but want a recreational option for getaways. They’re still good for everyday tasks such as getting groceries and don’t use as much gas as larger vehicles, and some builds allow rear seats to be reinstalled easily. They’re also much less of a hassle when spending time in larger cities.
Mr. Unwin’s van is fairly simple: It features a wooden frame attached to the car’s interior, with two mattresses stacked on top of each other, and storage space to stash essential items, including a camping stove. For decorations, there are flags on the roof and fake electric candle lights in the interior.
He managed to spend three months living in that setup while working on a farm, where he’d occasionally sleep indoors as well.
Mr. Anderson, who helped Mr. Unwin with his build, has completed six minivan living setups for himself and his friends. He’d like to create a simple online manual to help people who generally don’t work with their hands.
“For the right person, if you design it correctly, the Dodge Grand Caravan kind of has everything you need,” Mr. Anderson said. The only thing he’d like to add to his latest setup is an awning for when he wants to spend time outdoors.
His first van featured flooring, a small sink, a folding bed and shelving. The bed could fold up into a couch and a table could attach to the kitchen sink, giving him a comfortable hang-out space. It cost $3,500 to buy the van and less than $1,500 to transform it into a living space.
Today, he’s back in his home country of Australia, where he built another vanlife setup despite living in an actual apartment. He ditched the sink since he washed his dishes in a tub most of the time. With the help of his dad, he hooked up a refrigerator and an extra battery to the van’s electrical system, allowing him to keep the fridge running for days without the vehicle moving.
Both of his vans are modest spaces, but they’re comfortable enough for playing host to company as he did in Western Canada, where he met many others with similar van builds.
“Once you pass a month I feel, one month turns into two, and then three,” Mr. Anderson said. As he got used to the lifestyle, he added features he felt were necessary, such as a storage solution for laundry.
For Mr. Anderson, the beauty of the minivan build is the simplicity. He managed his first one armed without any experience other than a high-school woodworking class. Building a Mercedes Sprinter, on the other hand, can be a much more complicated project that would be very difficult or unfeasible for a layman to do without some sort of professional help, he said.
Of course, there are sacrifices when you pick a vehicle as small as a minivan to live out of. Finding public washrooms and showers is a constant challenge. Not being able to stand up is frustrating if you can’t go outside because of rain. An indoor kitchen is also missed on bad weather days.
But if you’re thinking that it’s a completely unsavoury way to live, consider this: Mr. Unwin met his current partner, Kate Winbaum, after he picked her up in his van while they were both travelling more than two years ago.
Today, the couple live in a home in the Sunshine Coast of B.C., where they both appreciate the luxury of a full kitchen, toilet and shower.
Still, they have kept their old Dodge Grand Caravan as their sole vehicle. When they’re doing a trip into nature, they can camp with a little more comfort. And when they’re waiting for the ferry to the Vancouver area, they’re pleased to have a little private hangout space.
“I do love it everyday, even when I’m in the ferry lineup and looking at a Tesla. I think obviously it would be a lovely vehicle to own,” Mr. Unwin said. “But I’m 6 foot 3 and I can’t fully stretch out and relax in a Tesla.”