Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Photo illustration by Matt McClane

If you've been on Instagram in the past few years, chance are you're familiar with #vanlife.

Outdoors enthusiasts are particularly drawn to the freedom and simplicity of the nomadic lifestyle vans offer. Traveling anywhere outdoorsy types gather — such as national and state park campgrounds and ski resort towns — you'll likely see at least one converted van, and may be tempted to take a look inside.

You'd probably be obliged. Similar to the way car show participants line up and pop their hoods, many van owners will pull open their doors, and welcome the opportunity to show off their builds and talk shop with other van-lifers.

The already popular vanlife scene has grown even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more people having the flexibility to work out of the office and seeking a safer way to travel.

Vanlife is an inclusive culture in which all walks of life are represented, from kids just out of high school living in vans full time to families who like to camp on the weekends to 60-something empty-nesters who want to spend their retirement traveling.

Among the latter group is Dawson Wheeler, a Signal Mountain resident and lifelong outdoorsman who invested in a Mercedes Sprinter van nearly four years ago.

"The more you travel and the more you come out of the backcountry, and you're taking two days here and four days there and you're trying to figure out your next move on a long trip, you want to kind of get off the ground at night and not go to a campground and sleep in your backcountry tent any longer or in the back of your car or truck," says Wheeler, .

In those situations it's nice to have what's referred to as a "hard shell," such as a van or camper, to provide more security while you sleep. Wheeler says he found the van option most appealing because of its flexibility, being small enough to drive on a daily basis and fitting easily into most parking spots. He can drive up to the Smokies in January on a night when it's 0 degrees outside and spend the night in the van — with a bathroom, a stove, light, refrigeration and heat — before heading out on an adventure the next morning. On a weekday in Chattanooga, he can take the van to Enterprise South, ride his mountain bike and then take a 20-minute nap and a shower before going back to work. "

It really opens up what you can do 365 days a year," Wheeler says.

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Vans on the road

The concept isn't new. The VW bus was a central part of hippie culture for decades, and vans like the Sprinter and Ford Econoline have been on the roads for years transporting groups and making deliveries. But it wasn't until the early years of Instagram that van conversions and the associated lifestyle really took off.

Wheeler's Sprinter conversion was done by local company Site Seven Campers, started in 2017 by Justin Shipp, a former custom bike builder who grew up in a family that owned an RV business.

He gutted the 4WD Sprinter, insulated it and added a bed, a couch, cabinetry, flooring, a heater, fans, a rack on top, a solar array and a battery system that runs off solar power. The suspension was also improved to give it the ability to drive off-road on snow and gravel.

The Sprinter is revered for its diesel engine, which gets relatively good gas mileage and has a longstanding record of reliability — something that's particularly important when you're considering an expensive van conversion, with the cost of some high-end builds reaching into the $100,000 range. But arguably the Sprinter's best asset is the 12-foot roof that allows one to stand up inside.

The Sprinter's popularity is clear in outdoorsy towns like Bend, Oregon, where 12-foot-tall garages are considered selling points for homes, Wheeler says.

The process of converting a van is similar to planning a wedding or decorating a house, which begins with finding out what you want by searching for ideas on Pinterest and Instagram. Search for #vanlife on Instagram and you'll find thousands of photos for inspiration. Then you decide what you want and either DIY it or hire a company like Site Seven to help you with everything from planning the layout to the build itself. There are infinite options to choose from: Do you want room for your SUPs inside, or do you want to max out your living space and put a rack for your toys on the outside? Do you want bunk beds or a king-size bed? Do you want to cut extra windows or a skylight? Do you want to add a pop out awning or a movie screen?

Site Seven's vans are distinctive in their simple design and details like wooden shiplap roofs. Many of the things that make one van different or more expensive than another are invisible, such as electrical or water systems, or elements like showers that are intended to be hidden when you're not using them, Shipp says.

When you encounter other adherents to the van lifestyle, be prepared to display and discuss the details of all components. While Chattanooga has a strong and growing vanlife culture, towns like Asheville, North Carolina, and Bend host vanlife rallies that attract thousands every year.

Ready to start living the vanlife? Conversions have become so popular that you'll likely need to wait a while. Site Seven typically does about 10 conversions a year, and currently the wait is about four months. Shipp now employs three people but plans to hire a fourth and fifth soon to meet the growing demand.

"Especially with the climate right now, people are looking for a way to travel, to have their own space while they travel, and the flexibility that a camper van affords you is really amazing," says Shipp, who uses his own van every day to pick his daughters up from school but can also pack it up and head to the woods with his family for the weekend at the drop of a hat. "Just because of that, I think they're growing in popularity. I'm definitely seeing more vans around town and on the road, and we get inquiries from people all over the country."