#Vanlife Collides With Costly Fuel

Would you like to live in a 10-year-old Ford Econoline with a Canadian man you’ve never met? High gasoline prices have Matt Watson looking for a roommate.

#Vanlife, a movement celebrating the thrifty, unencumbered life on the road, is cruising head-on into record prices at the pump. That has pushed devotees to get more creative about making ends meet.

“I’ll be beside you every step of the way—literally,” Mr. Watson says in a video he posted to his YouTube channel, showing off the Ford’s tight sleeping quarters.

The 34-year-old stand-up comedian, who has been living in cars and vans for about eight years, made the ad as a joke. But to many mobile-living enthusiasts, higher gasoline costs have become a serious headache.

A 50% rise in fuel costs is stretching the best-planned budgets in a free-spirited culture that enjoys decamping to scenic locales in converted vans and buses. That is posing a major test for a community that in recent years remade a once-marginal existence into an Instagram trend, turbocharged by the pandemic’s combination of indoor restrictions, remote work and cheap gas.

For Matt Bouthet and Meghan Huynh, higher prices mean less freedom on the road. Since last summer, the couple has lived together in a 2019 Ram ProMaster van that they converted into a camper. Once under the way, Ms. Huynh, 29, quit her job in financial-technology sales and the couple have supported themselves making social-media content for brands, keeping expenses low.

Gasoline, which as of Friday costs $4,215 a gallon on average in the US, makes up between a quarter and third of the couple’s costs. To avoid breaking their budget, Mr. Bouthet and Ms. You have been staying longer at campgrounds and driving fewer miles each week.

Rising gas prices across the US have led #vanlifers to cut back on their mileage.


Photo:

Meghan Huynh and Matt Bouthet

“We can’t really guess when gas prices will go back down, so we’re taking more time in each place,” Ms. Huynh said from a campsite in Moab, Utah.

It isn’t known how many people have taken up van life in recent years. Demand has jumped for models commonly used as campers, including the Ram ProMaster, which is also popular with logistics companies. US sales rose 25% last year to hit a record.

Businesses that renovate camper vans have been swamped with calls. Online tutorials have proliferated, teaching do-it-yourselfers how to add storage, showers or roof decks. The hashtag #vanlife filled social-media feeds a succession of well-appointed interiors stunning vistas on public lands, racking up millions of views.

Thor Industries Inc.

and Winnebago Industries Inc.

, two of the biggest recreational-vehicle manufacturers, notched their best ever sales in the latest fiscal year. Share prices for both have roughly doubled over the past two years.

Van dwelling’s rise coincided with a boom in US shale production that suppressed energy prices in recent years. Fuel consumption and prices then sank after the pandemic hit in 2020, when many people stopped commuting to work and airlines canceled chunks of their schedules. In April 2020, the average gallon of gasoline cost as little as $1.74, a four-year low.

Meghan Huynh and Matt Bouthet have lived together since last summer in a 2019 Ram ProMaster van that they converted into a camper.


Photo:

Meghan Huynh and Matt Bouthet

Economic reopening powered a rebound in energy prices, a climb supercharged by worries that Russia’s war against Ukraine would disrupt global supplies. Gasoline has topped records recently. In some parts of the country, prices above $5 a gallon have become standard.

Compounding the pain, vehicles big enough to live in tend to get relatively poor mileage. Newer camper vans can go 20 miles a gallon, similar to recent SUVs. But some older RVs and vans average closer to 10. Adding to costs, many camper vans use diesel—common for commercial vehicles but more expensive than gasoline. An average gallon of diesel costs more than $5 on Friday.

Monika Geraci, a spokesman for the RV Industry Association, said that high gasoline prices haven’t dragged down consistently down RV sales in the past. The industry group projects RV shipments this year will come in just below last year’s record levels.

President Biden said Thursday that he plans to release as much as 180 million barrels of oil from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the next six months to help tamp down near-record high fuel prices. Photo: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Catherine Ferrell, a retired accountant, bought a used mini school bus with her husband last year for recreational use. But with gasoline prices near their home in Greene, Maine, running around $4.50 a gallon, they canceled a spring trip planned for Washington, DC

“We are leery to drive our bus off our property,” Ms. Ferrell said.

It isn’t as though other living costs have gone down. Inflation rose at a 7.9% annual rate in February, its highest in four decades. Prices for hotel rooms and vacation-home rentals have surged.

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Still, higher gasoline prices are denting some of the appeal of a lifestyle based on frugality—and one that many already find surprisingly expensive. The cost of purchasing and custom remodeling a ProMaster or Mercedes-Benz Sprinter—popular for their relatively generous interior headroom—can top six figures. Some need electronic gear for boosting cell signals and connecting to the internet, crucial for both remote work and posting sunset shots to Instagram. Recurring costs can include all-inclusive memberships at gym chains (handy for shower access).

“Budgeting for this lifestyle is more expensive than it appears to be,” said Jonathan Dalman, who has done van conversions and runs a website that hosts sales listings. “I don’t think a ton of people save a lot of money by living in a van.”

Some van dwellers are planning itineraries around regional differences in gasoline prices. Kristen Bor, a 38-year-old who writes about vans and the outdoors and lives in a diesel-powered van seven months a year, said she might avoid states such as California this summer if costly fuel persists there.

“When we traveled across the country in our van in 2020, the gas prices were really cheap, so it made it affordable,” she said. “Now I probably wouldn’t do that, knowing it would be several thousands of dollars in gas.”

Catherine Ferrell of Maine canceled a trip to Washington, DC, that she had planned to take in her converted school bus, citing rising gasoline prices.


Photo:

Izrael Ferrell

Write to Matt Grossman at matt.grossman@wsj.com

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