Van Culture Flourishes on the Coast

For surfers, nomads and weekend vagabonds, vans provide a home, or a home-away-from-home

Vans fill a traveling and lodging niche somewhere between cars and RVs; they are large enough to live in, and are perfect for exploring coastal towns like Newport. Some people who have vans use them to travel to the beach on their weekends or vacations, and then return home when the trip is over. Other van owners have moved out of traditional houses and apartments all together, and have taken up full-time residence in their vans. Regardless of where van owners find themselves on this temporary to permanent spectrum, most agree that van ownership has given them a sense of freedom and excitement that is unique, and that van living is a lifestyle unlike any other.

You’ll notice a variety of vans driving along the Oregon Coast and parked next to the many beaches in Newport, but did you know that van culture has also become a nationwide sensation? The concept of van living has changed dramatically during the last 20 years; from SNL’s Chris Farley “living in a van down by the river” due to economic hardship in the mid-1990s, to modern times when van living is now a romanticized quest for simpler living. Over the last fifteen years, van culture has been documented and shared through blog posts, YouTube videos, and Instagram photos, with hashtags like #vanlife. Organizations, clubs and groups that celebrate van culture have also become very popular, with some that are all inclusive and others that cater to specific makes and models of camper or modified vans.  

Frequently, van owners customize the interiors of their vans to maximize all available space and utilize resources that are readily available. Meira and Louie Cole bought a 1988 Ford E350 4WD high top van almost three years ago, and although they don’t live in the van and they spend most of their time in Newport, they often travel up and down the Pacific Coast to where the surfing is the best. When they bought their van, they installed a rebuilt engine that runs on biodiesel that Louie makes, and added a propane on demand hot water shower. They also built a back bench seat that folds into a bed, storage shelves and surfboard racks, and even equipped the van with a solar panel that charges their electric cooler.

Meira explains how the van enables them to go into very rural places where there are no nearby stores, lodging or restaurants, like Baja, California, “As intrepid explorers, the van allows us to take everything we need to go beyond the limits of other people all in the name of surf.” Living in a van can also be difficult, and often challenging because of the lack of many basic functions that are included in traditional homes or even most RVs. Because of the extra work and effort it takes van owners to perform simple things like using the bathroom, cooking, or having clean laundry, Meira adds, “It takes a certain person to cruise a van. You have to be able to rough it.”

Other van owners, like Daniel Hasselschwert of Ossie’s Surf Shop, decided to live in a van and stop paying rent entirely. Two decades ago, Hasselschwert lived in a van for more than three years, because when he wasn’t teaching school in Corvallis, he was in Newport surfing, and paying rent was unnecessary. He eventually moved to Newport, changed occupations, and didn’t own a van for a long time, but really missed his van, or “rolling dorm room” as he refers to it. Hasselschwert’s most recent van reflects the changes in his life, and he says that “Customizing them (vans) is the fun part; when life changes, so does the van.”

Hasselschwert’s current van is a Volkswagen 1986 Syncro Vanagon 4WD, and is a rare find, as only around 40,000 were produced and distributed worldwide. Since acquiring the Syncro, Hasselschwert has added a dome on top and an outside rack, which he plans to expand further now that he has a young son. He explains that because the Syncro is 4WD, it can go off road to some of the hardest to reach surfing spots, or through the snow if he wants to go snow camping. Hasselschwert says, “You can take this van almost anywhere, you can also park it anyplace that you can park a car, and you can leave anytime you want.”

Van owners Ashley and Patrick Ward talk about the same freedom, “It makes it so we can be more spontaneous; we keep the van stocked so we can hit the road whenever we want.” The Wards own a 1980 Volkswagen Riviera, and take a lot of local and regional trips. Ashley explains that, “The van was pretty grungy when we bought it, but we transformed the interior by pulling out the old pressboard and installing cabinets and tongue-and-groove pine interior.” Patrick had worked as a Volkswagen tech for over ten years, and had owned a series of vans that he toured around in with a rock band when he was younger, so owning a van was second nature to him.

Ashley wasn’t so sure about owning a van when Patrick introduced the idea to her, but she quickly fell in love with the project when she posted Instagram photos or their van and people began to respond in record numbers. Ashley soon found herself in a community of likeminded van owners, and says, “Vans are cool. This has been a great project that we like to do together, from making it our own, to taking it on trips. We always look forward to running into cool people with cool vans.” The Wards are not part of any organization that meets with their vans, but they say that they are intrigued by the concept and might want to try it in the future.

Van owners are diverse and unique individuals, but they share some common traits and likes. They love customizing their vans to make them their own, the freedom to come and go as they please, and the ability to return to a simpler living situation, if only for the weekend. Owning a van as a hobby or lifestyle might be the next phase for your trips to Newport; there is already a van community here that is waiting to welcome you.