How The Vanlife App Could Change Life on The Road Forever

The open road, a tank full of fuel, and no deadline for a return home; that’s a dream many travelers share. We imagine ourselves roaming the world from the crests of cascading sand dunes to the shores of remote mountain lakes, fulfilled by the vast riches our Earth has to offer and the memories we’re creating along the way. Unfortunately, reality can be a harsh wake-up call. The truth is that life on the road is far from perfect. Beyond the facade of Instagram’s rose-colored lens, you’ll discover countless stories of people grappling with disappointment and difficulty despite achieving their dreams of long-term travel. These struggles can take many forms, but the one that I’ve seen most, and is usually the hardest to solve is a lack of community and the loneliness that results.

According to one of Harvard’s longest studies, which spans over 80 years, community and relationships are some of the most important factors in predicting our health and length of life. In fact, the director of the study, Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, claims that they’re “better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.” “Loneliness kills,” he continued, it’s “as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

Unfortunately, recognizing the importance of relationships, and having the opportunity to form them are very different things. As anyone who has moved away from home as an adult will tell you, meeting new people outside of work can be difficult even under normal circumstances. Try meeting them while traveling the nation or world in a vehicle and you’ll find it nearly impossible. This used to be one of the realities of this lifestyle, but now a group of travelers is changing the way overlanders and vanlifers connect with a simple piece of software called the Vanlife App.

The app was created as a one-stop shop for all things van life. One side of it helps you locate secluded campsites, places to fill water, or interesting stops, while the other connects you with fellow travelers in your area who share similar interests and hobbies. Think of it in iOverlander meets Tinder terms, just without the bad pickup lines and awkward conversations.

Let’s say you’re into off-roading, hiking, fly-fishing, and hanging around Bozeman, Montana. You can search for people who share those same passions, then meet up at a local coffee shop to plan a trip. Traveling through Colorado and looking for a rock climbing partner? No problem, browse for someone in your area who enjoys climbing. Paddleboarding or yoga more your speed? No worries, they have that too. Even if you just want to grab a beer or talk vehicle build ideas, the Vanlife app can help you find like-minded people to do it with. All you have to do is set a radius around you in the app, and it will show you other users who fall within that range.

If you’re a more private type, you don’t have to let anyone know where you are. Users have the option to share their location with everyone, just with friends, or to shut down the social aspect of the app completely and only use the free resources like you would on iOverlander. These settings can be changed at any time, so it’s easy to socialize on your terms. But what about the other aspects of the Vanlife app? What else can it show you?

Inside, you’ll find all sorts of information on things like free and paid campsites, places you can find WiFi, take a shower, fill water, or buy propane. You can locate camps that require four-wheel drive to reach or ones that don’t, and ones with cell service or without. It even shows you gatherings and events and allows you to create your own. Just about anything you might need on the road can be found in this app, but there is a catch.

Like iOverlander, this app functions off of crowdsourced data, and that raises some major concerns. For starters, there is a curve to the accumulation of data. In other words, there must be a crowd for a crowdsourced app to work. The more people are using it, the more people add to it, but somebody must lay the groundwork. I’m happy to say that the Vanlife app founders were on top of that aspect, and integrated an existing database of resources to get the ball rolling. It’s still a ways off from being as substantial as iOverlander, but new users are logging on and adding their contributions every day. Yet that raises a second, and truthfully, larger concern: location sharing.

Geotagging and location sharing is already a black plague wreaking havoc on our planet. It has caused irreversible damage to countless natural treasures, led to the defacing of landmarks, and even cascaded delicate ecosystems into near annihilation. It may sound like I’m being dramatic, but the effects of just a few tourists can drastically impact fragile environments, and we have introduced them on a massive scale. This irresponsible sharing of locations on platforms like Instagram combined with a lack of proper education has led many travelers, myself included, to stop sharing locations altogether, yet our natural world is not ours to hoard. A balance must be struck between sharing this beautiful planet we call home and protecting it, and that’s a balance that the Vanlife app team takes seriously. In fact, it’s at the heart of their company.

Below left: Irie to Aurora on Leave No Trace best practices.

Below right: Matt from The Van Project teaches proper fire management. 

“The Vanlife app is dedicated to protecting outdoor spaces, and we are making vanlife synonymous with sustainability through education, financial contributions, and action. As a Public Benefit Corporation, a portion of all sales is donated to non-profit sustainability initiatives. We are Leave No Trace Proud Partners and require all members to abide by Leave No Trace Principles. We host regular cleanups of campsites and natural areas and have mechanisms in place for users to report troubled locations. Part of our Core Team are Dustin and Noami, Directors of Sustainability and Public Benefit. Dustin and Noami provide education to our community and the public about Leave No Trace, zero-waste living, and other sustainable lifestyle techniques.” – From the Vanlife app FAQ page.

So the app is packed with information that makes it easier to get outdoors and is helping travelers to become part of a supportive community of friends, furthering Leave No Trace efforts through education and sponsorship. Not a bad résumé, but does it all work?

After testing the app for several months, I can tell you it’s not perfect—not even close. This piece of software wasn’t designed by some tech conglomerate or funded by an eccentric billionaire. It was built on a shoestring budget through sheer passion and will by a small group of individuals, and as you’d expect, shows many of the side effects. It can be slow, the interface can be awkward, and at times the whole thing can be a bit glitchy, but from the perspective of someone traveling full time, I can tell you none of that matters. The Vanlife app is brilliant because it recognizes that the resources a traveler needs go beyond a place to fill your water tanks or a campsite to sleep in. Those are important, but a community you can call your own is vital. Thanks to the Vanlife app we now have a way to not only connect to nature, but also to each other, and for countless travelers living full time on the road, that will make all the difference.

You can learn more about the Vanlife App on their website here.

Information on the Harvard study cited above can be found here.

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Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Chris didn’t receive a real taste of the outdoors until moving to Prescott, Arizona, in 2009. While working on his business degree, he learned to fly and spent his weekends exploring the Arizona desert and high country. It was there that he fell in love with backcountry travel and four-wheel drive vehicles, eventually leading him to Overland Journal and Expedition Portal. After several years of honing his skills in writing, photography, and off-road driving, Chris now works for the company full time as Expedition Portal's Managing Editor.