For decades, people have found alternative ways to live in Whistler and the Sea to Sky, creative ways to be near the slopes and scenery. With limited land to build on and an affordable housing shortage that stretches back years, van life and Whistler life have often gone hand in hand. More recently, a new generation has been introduced to the van-life aesthetic through Instagram and TikTok. Influencers promise a life of freedom and adventure far away from the constraints of landlords and sprawling cities. Everyone has their own reasons for making their vehicle a home. For some, the romantic West Coast lifestyle is a chance too good to turn down. But for some trying to eke out an existence in Whistler, the van lifestyle is far from romantic and starkly contrasts with the shiny, sanitized content influencers put out. Sometimes, sleeping in a van is simply a way of avoiding sleeping on the streets. A new generation of social media consumers may associate #vanlife with peppy ’70s music and flawless photo filters. However, cold winters, leaks and bylaw officers knocking on windows in the middle of the night can turn a dream of freedom into a harsh reality.
‘You’re that bit closer to homelessness if you’re living in a van’
Mackenzie Button and her adorable dog Nova have been living in their van (nicknamed Nellie) since October. They came to Pemberton because of the mild weather. “Mac” was drawn to the lifestyle after seeing van-life videos on TikTok and hasn’t looked back since.
“I saw van life on TikTok two years ago and I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” she says. “I bought my van that year. My van has the original interiors from the ’90s, so I’ve just been living with it how it is. I’ve had to learn to adjust. It’s not the best set-up but we make it work.”
Mac was lucky enough to be able to move in with family during this year’s brutal cold snaps, an option she was grateful to have. She has no plans to move back into a house or apartment anytime soon.
“I think this will be a long-term plan for me,” she says. “It’s different. It’s not the typical timeline where you graduate high school, go to college, get a job, have a family and buy a house. I saw it as a totally different option. I like the freedom of it and the experiences. I’ve done more in the last year of living in the van than I have done in my entire life.”
Mac is eager to upgrade the entirety of her beloved Nellie and says she has had mostly positive experiences with bylaw officers. She rarely stays in Whistler as it is too risky.
“Whistler is hard to stay in. I got a knock from bylaw saying that I couldn’t park there. They were super nice about it, though, and gave me ideas of other places I could go,” she says. “It might suck sometimes but it’s worth every hardship ever. I go to the Pemberton [& District] Community Centre for showers or go to friends’ [homes]. The community centre is my ride-or-die.”
A 22-year-old Scottish man (who asked to stay anonymous for fear of facing backlash from employers) says the van life fulfils all of his needs. He had been living in staff accommodation and felt the party lifestyle often clashed with his personal priorities.
“I moved to Whistler at the beginning of last winter and I moved into a van in May. It fit in with my lifestyle. I like to do lots of sports. It’s easier because you don’t have to pay thousands of dollars in rent,” he says. “I’m 22, I should be able to have my own room while working in the outdoors industry. Staff accommodation was fairly cheap but it wasn’t nice at all.”
The ski instructor remained in his second-hand van throughout the winter, relying on a diesel heater to keep him warm. When his heater broke down, the young man had no choice but to find a house to stay in.
“You’re that bit closer to homelessness if you’re living in a van. If something breaks down, you’re fucked,” he says. “In summer, it’s genuinely better for me than living in a house. In winter, living in a house would probably be nicer.”
The young Whistlerite often reminds himself that things are not always as they seem, especially when they appear on your Instagram feed. He explained how there are varying degrees of van living, ranging from necessity to luxury.
“Things get wet and I’ve had leaks from the roof. Sometimes, it’s late at night and you’re dozing off when water starts dripping onto your bed. That sucks,” he says. “All the van-life people on the internet spent hundreds of thousands on a van. It’s basically a house on wheels. That’s entirely different to the younger kids who are at this.”
Dealing with bylaw largely depends on the season, the Scot says.
“In winter, they care less. I have been parking in the same spot and there are a community of people who are doing the same,” he says. “I got caught in the [day] lots twice when I first moved here. They knock on the window. They shout a bit. The first time, I answered but I just ignored it the second time. I disputed the fine and never paid it.”
He has found officers in Squamish far stricter.
“They woke me up with a flashlight at 5 a.m. in Squamish. I didn’t have curtains at the front at the time so I woke up with the light shining on me. That affected me,” he recalls. “They gave me a $100 fine as well, which I didn’t pay. You don’t feel safe afterwards.”
The young man doesn’t understand why you shouldn’t be allowed to park in nature or on public property.
“They told me I could go live at the Walmart. They are just moving everybody there, but Walmart doesn’t want the people in their parking lot,” he says. “I had just been parking on a dirt road somewhere. In Scotland, you could park wherever you want. It shouldn’t be a crime and it feels ridiculous to me.”
The man is currently working two jobs in Whistler and feels privileged to still have options when it comes to his own van life. For many others in the Walmart carpark, van living is simply a means of survival.
“There are a bunch of climbers from middle-class backgrounds that are here by choice. Then there are slighter older people that totally aren’t there by choice,” he says. “I just got another two-year visa. For as long as I’m here, I’m pretty happy to do what I’m doing.”
‘You make your own rules with this life’
Calgary-born Stevie Beans has made a conscious effort to make only relatable content since deciding to document her own #vanlife journey. Her decision to move into a van came from a want for independence and to prove to herself that she could do anything she set her mind to.
“I’ve always been the kind of person who was always waiting for people to go on trips and hikes,” she says. “This is something I wanted to do to be more independent and present with myself. I was definitely inspired by a lot of people online.”
Stevie’s loved ones were worried about her setting off on a journey around British Columbia on her own.
“Some of my family had safety concerns because I was doing it alone as a woman. They were also worried about my van catching on fire because that can happen with some of the older models. They can overheat or something bad can happen. I always call my family when I’m going to sleep somewhere. I’ll give someone a ring so that they know where I am,” she says. “I had to learn how to do maintenance on my van so that I’m safe. I keep bear mace and a knife. I keep a few things in my van, just in case. I have locks and screens so nobody can see that I’m sleeping in there alone. I just try to be very intuitive. People are capable of being far more independent than they realize.”
Stevie has a rule: she won’t park overnight anywhere without service and tries to stay close to other people and highly trafficked roads. She is also very cautious about the van-life content she post, as she wants to make sure people undersand the risks and pressures along with the positives.
“I wanted it to be relatable. I bought my van for $4,000 and I didn’t have expectations for the video to blow up. I just wanted it to be a boost to others who also wanted to be independent,” she says.
Stevie now has over 12,000 TikTok followers, something she puts down to her generation’s yearning for freedom in a time when the promises of life enjoyed by her parents—financial stability, homeownership, etc.—is out of reach for so many.
“We are expected to go on a certain trajectory. I think people want freedom, to live on their own terms, and have a sense of autonomy. Most of us are never going to own property,” she says. “People want to feel like they’re making their own choices and not being forced into a system. You’re van is your own space. You make your own rules with this life.”
An Australian woman in her 50s (who also wished to remain anonymous) understands that need for freedom all too well, having lived in a van for most of her adult life. The Whistler resident originally moved into a van when she first arrived in Canada to avoid being homeless, but has since travelled around several continents.
“What started as a very romantic thing became a survival lifeline. I’ve had some hardcore scary experiences, from being shot at in reservations, peppered with gravel from burnouts damaging my vehicle, and bruising myself. I’ve had uninvited critters entering the vehicle at night and getting stuck inside in a crazy frenzy. I’ve had graffiti, van parts removed, break-ins, theft, police harassment, tickets, slides. I was even chased down by a farmer in a tractor who was intent on mowing me down,” she says. “You name it, I’ve experienced it.”
However, the Australian has now come full circle, having recently become a property owner.
“I am experiencing the other side. I can’t cope with the few bad apples that have no respect for the environment or the struggling property owners paying insane costs and taxes in Whistler,” she says. “I now understand why I had all of those harrowing experiences.”
Rock climber Thomasina Pidgeon helped set up the Vehicle Residents of Squamish Advocacy Group after having lived in a van since she was 19. She fears things are changing for the worse.
“I started living in my van in Whistler in 1995. Back then, it was a little bit more free to do it. We used to stay in Day Lots 4, 5 and 6. It used to be legal then. We never went further than that,” she says. “We had our little community there and it was a simple way of living.”
Thomasina has also had her fair share of negative experiences with bylaw officers in Squamish “shining their lights in your face and making you feel like you’re a criminal,” she says.
It’s now not unusual for van-lifers to find notes left on their windows from locals urging them to get jobs.
“It’s just really unwelcoming all around, which is a real shame because it used to be about freedom. It’s a freedom that’s being erased by the bylaw. The ability to roam, to move and to change your scene is being penalized. It’s an erasure of a lifestyle that forces everyone to live the same way. It also penalizes the people who have no choice but to live in a vehicle,” she says.
A spokesperson for the Resort Municipality of Whistler said bylaw officers largely try to direct van-lifers elsewhere before issuing a ticket.
“Staying overnight is not permitted in Day Lots 1 to 5 between 3 and 6 a.m. from November 1 to March 31, so there is time to clear the snow and do necessary maintenance. From April 1 to October 31, the maximum stay is 24 hours,” the representative writes in an email.
“We post our information on Overnight Parking online to ensure both our residents and visitors coming to town can plan and prepare appropriately. It is very cold here in the winter. Our Bylaw Officers focus on directing people to the campgrounds or other community services to find appropriate accommodation, but fines are occasionally applied as we work to enforce our bylaws and ensure the lots are clear for maintenance.”
Jackie Dickinson, executive director of the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS), says there are a range of services available to help those living in vans. A snack fridge, new sleeping bags and temporary accommodation are just some of the supports the WCSS team can provide.
“We are trying to communicate to people that everyone is always welcome,” Dickinson says. “There is definitely an increase in access to all of our services. They have more than quadrupled since the onset of the pandemic. Our food bank numbers have gone up, and the numbers for food insecurity are even higher. Over 50 per cent of people coming into our food bank are spending more than 50 per cent of their gross income on housing. The majority of people coming into us are working in our community. Wet feet are a huge health concern that people don’t talk about when it comes to van living. Dry clothing to support their physical health is very important.”
Learn more at mywcss.org.
Meanwhile, Whistler Councillor Cathy Jewett feels that real change is needed to help those most affected by Whistler’s housing crisis.
“The last time there was a homeless count here was in 2018. We don’t really know what the numbers are,” she says. “Whistler is not alone. The whole country has been hit with this housing crisis. It’s so hard to build something that’s affordable without any kind of government assistance. There is a lot more that could be done to make housing more affordable by different levels of government. That’s not happening.”