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A week hiking in Utah under the orange, eroded caverns of Arches National Park. A month road-tripping through the expanses of Colorado, with mornings in the shadows of picturesque mountain ranges. Afternoons spent sipping coffee near national landmarks and evenings spent watching sunsets from car rooftops.
Such is the existence of Dan Lieber, 31, and Mackenzie Hartrum, 24, a Philadelphia couple who traded a South Street apartment for a retrofitted Ram 3500 Promaster as their home.
Lieber and Hartrum are vanlifers.
What started as a niche culture for rugged nomads evolved in the 2010s into a lifestyle for millennial social media creators, spawning a cottage industry of tips on traveling solo, building a kitchen from scratch, and decorating your mobile home like a tiny Anthropologie. The vanlife hashtag on Instagram contains 11.6 million posts, many of them boiling down to the same elements: landscapes of the great outdoors, slideshows of diminutive homes, and musings about how remote work has provided the freedom to travel the world.
“This might be weird to say, but my dream is to live in a van,” Lieber remembered Hartrum telling him on their first date, back in 2019. With his full-time job in wealth management at Goldmach Sachs, it felt impossible. “Then the pandemic sprung up and allowed us to work from anywhere.”
Since August, the pair have been cataloging life in their compact living space on the Instagram account @vanziehartlieb (a portmanteau of their names), where their 11,000-plus followers get a sneak peak of vanside yoga, desert campouts, and all the previously mundane things that happen in between.
To be clear, the lifestyle that translates well to van influencing is a pricey one, suited best to people working flexible jobs that don’t require face time in the office. Vanlifers are entrepreneurs and advertising executives and full-time freelancers. For his part, Lieber now runs MERR Consulting Group, a boutique digital marketing agency.
The couple purchased their Ram 3500 in August 2020. Construction of the interior took two tries. Lieber and Hartrum spent a month and half building out their living space before showing it to her family, who immediately intervened. Winter was spent in the Poconos, working with Hartrums’s father and brother, a pair of carpenters, to make the van livable. The most challenging part was plumbing and electricity, Hartrum said, but her father watched a few YouTube videos and figured it out.
“After doing it, it’s really just like framing a house,” said Hartrum. Her favorite part is the lofted bed, which overlooks a window that makes “whatever’s outside feel like our living room.” As for Lieber, he likes their study nook (yes, inside the van), which he said has a coffee shop feel and plenty of wall art.
The everyday overhead for van life is pretty low — “just insurance, gas, and food,” Lieber said — but the upfront investment can be pretty steep.
The high end closes in on $100,000, and blog posts detail hunts for $25k retro Volkswagens and $40k contracts with van refurbishing companies to fit out interiors. Lieber and Hartrum’s DIY construction cost was around $16k, including solar panels, building on a new vehicle that set them back $50k with an extended warranty. The couple said they’re paying it off in $500 to $600 monthly payments.
No day is the same, but there is a rhythm
Hartum and Lieber have been on the road more or less consistently for about 9 months. They went south first, stopping in Asheville, NC, on their way to the Florida Keys, then turned west to explore hiking trails in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado.
While no day is the same, Hartrum said there is a pattern: wake up and head into town to work in a coffee shop until noon, take the afternoon to go on a long hike, and then use the evening to hit local bars and restaurants with other vanlifers camping out in the area.
“We really want to be immersed in the culture of wherever we are and what it feels like to live to there, not just visit,” said Lieber, who said they still make time for touristy moments, like sleeping under the stars in the deserts near Sedona, or learning how to boulder so they could see the Instagram-famous Funnel Arch in Moab.
Then there’s social media, which is almost essential to the van life experience.
The couple said they haven’t met “a single vanlifer who doesn’t have some form of public-facing Instagram or Facebook.” With @vanziehartlieb, Hartrum focuses on the creative, editing photos and writing winding captions, while Lieber uses his background in data analytics to build out a strategy for the account and partner with brands.
Lieber described their Instagram as more of a side hustle or passion project than genuine revenue stream at this point. To date, the couple has collaborated with brands like wellness beverage Oaza and solar generator maker AcoPower, but they’d like to break into partnerships that align with other facets of their life.
“I’d love to work with software companies,” Liber suggested, citing a perfect tie-in with remote work, “but those firms don’t yet see a market for creators like us.”
Hartrum said vanlifers attract a big following because the image they sell “is a realistic dream,” but she cautioned jumping into it without any planning. She and Lieber prepped by spending two weeks driving around California in an SUV to see how things felt.
“We’ve met a lot of people on the road who have only done it for like a month or two and put a ton a ton of time and money and resources into their van, but they don’t enjoy it,” she said. “Our lives may look beautiful online, but they definitely aren’t beautiful all the time.”
Lieber swears they didn’t set out to become Instagram influencers. The couple only started posting photos after their family and friends began “heckling [them] for pictures and updates all the time.” The account still reads a lot like a personal diary.
“We have a confession — we are awful at planning anything,” starts a caption for a Nov. 2 photo of the couple holding hands in front of a scenic desert backdrop.
Another hand-holding photo from mid-November riffs on battling the inherent loneliness of being on the road. It’s a recurring theme, but also part of the package.
“Being from Philadelphia,” the couple wrote, the week before Thanksgiving, “it is still hard for us to imagine an entire winter without snow and even harder to imagine the upcoming holidays without our family and friends. With that said, we are excited for all that is to come and the new experiences waiting for us ahead, under the sun.”