What Does It Take to #VanLife as a Family?

Two couples with young children—road veterans and complete newbies—share how they make close quarters on the go work for them.
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Welcome to Roommates Week, an exploration of the highs and lows of cohabitation.

Having roommates can be challenging—especially when your roommates are your family, and you’re living in a van. But Leila Wilhelm Carlson and Cory Hanen decided to take a stab at the lifestyle anyway and purchased a school bus turned living quarters so they could hit the road with daughters Ryker and Hazel.

Tiffany and Kyle Willis, on the other hand, are clocking miles in tight quarters. The #vanlife veterans have been on the road with their daughters Tinley and Taytum since before the pandemic. They know what works and what doesn’t from personal experience, but also because they’ve made the lifestyle a profession of sorts, having custom-outfitted nine different Mercedes Sprinters.

Bernadette, a converted 2012 Mercedes Sprinter van, was the first one Kyle and Tiffany Willis built out for themselves. They’ve since done eight others between their own and their clients’.

Bernadette, a converted 2012 Mercedes Sprinter van, was the first one Kyle and Tiffany Willis built out for themselves. They’ve since done eight others between their own and their clients’.

Surprisingly, despite Kyle and Tiffany’s having young children along for the ride, living nomadically in a compact space hasn’t turned everyone against each other. In fact, the opposite seems to be true.

"What’s really come out of this is we understand how great it is to spend time with one another," says Kyle. "And we can’t go back. A lot of people would want to run from each other after that much time together. But we just love it."

The #vanlife phenomenon was well underway before the pandemic, with smartphones, solar panels, and battery systems making it easy to stay connected and comfortable in far-flung locales. During Covid, things got a little weird, but the conditions normalized videoconferencing and remote working, allowing many who were tethered to offices to embark. More companies offering van rentals and conversion kits started cropping up.

Cory, Leila, and their daughters, Ryker and Hazel, just purchased The Butter Bus in early April and are now on the road.

Cory, Leila, and their daughters, Ryker and Hazel, just purchased The Butter Bus in early April and are now on the road.

While many are headed out, things can come to a halt pretty quickly for traveling families. Leila and Cory are now the third owners of The Butter Bus, a 1999 Thomas Saf-T-Liner originally converted to a partially solar-powered bus in 2020 by Lauren and Van Jones. Lauren and Van traveled the highways with their young daughters, and the following year, sold to another couple, Kyle and Kristin Reid, who covered the American West with their 10-month old daughter and dog. With another baby on the way, they decided to sit still, if only for now.

The subsequent sale to Cory and Leila was announced on Instagram this April. The couple had almost purchased The Butter Bus last year, but hesitated. After selling their house in Sarasota, Florida, however, they sprung at the opportunity when it became available again.

"We were like, ‘This is the bus. It just is,’" Cory recalls. The family flew from Sarasota, Florida, to Mesa, Arizona, eagerly climbed aboard, and started their brand new life on the open road.

The bus’s open plan provides room for the family to move through the cabin.

The bus’s open plan provides room for the family to move through the cabin.

The Cory and Leila say they’re still getting organized, but storage in the sofa and shelving above helps.

The Cory and Leila say they’re still getting organized, but storage in the sofa and shelving above helps.

Different "zones" in the bus give the family space for individual activities, however close the quarters.

Different "zones" in the bus give the family space for individual activities, however close the quarters.

Already home-schooling Ryker (10) and Hazel (2), the couple see traveling this way as an educational opportunity. "We can teach them about different places and their history as we pass through," Leila says. "It's the best way to home-school." Most of their itinerary, such as a recent stay at an Alpaca farm and a lesson in milling wool into yarn, is for the kids. They also share their new adventures with The Butter Bus’s 14,000 Instagram followers, with hopes to use the platform as an income source through promotion.

Ryker enjoys a book in the sofa.

Ryker enjoys a book in the sofa.

Hazel takes the wheel.

Hazel takes the wheel.

The bus affords them a little extra space than a van would, but there’s also a nostalgia factor for Leila. "It’s been a personal dream for over 20 years, back to when I used to drive a school bus," she says. So far, she hasn’t let Cory do any of the driving. "It's not easy," she says. "It takes a while to come to a full stop. You have to take turns really wide. And the bus doesn't go fast up a hill. But the other great thing about a school bus is that it’s designed to protect children. I think it’s safer than an RV."

A skylight brightens the shower.

A skylight brightens the shower.

The private area in back includes a sink and composting toilet (behind the black door), giving way to laundry, storage, and the primary bed.

The private area in back includes a sink and composting toilet (behind the black door), giving way to laundry, storage, and the primary bed.

A window above the sink helps the parents keep an eye on the kids when they’re playing outside.

A window above the sink helps the parents keep an eye on the kids when they’re playing outside.

Still, Leila and Cory have had to make adjustments to live in such close quarters, even with a bigger vehicle. "The galley can get a little crowded at times if we’re all trying to walk through it," Cory says. "But really everybody’s patient enough and understands that’s what we’re dealing with. It’ll get a lot better once we get everything organized the way we want."

Organized or not, the 300-square-foot bus has everything they need. There’s a central walkway flanked by a long bench seat across from a small dining table and a children’s play area. The kitchen, including a farmhouse sink, full-sized refrigerator and a wood stove, forms the middle area, while in back are private quarters. The bathroom includes a composting toilet and a full-size shower topped with a skylight. The walkway leads past laundry and storage to a bunk bed and primary bed with more storage underneath each.

"A lot of people say, ‘Why don't you just get an RV?'" Cory says. "The problem is that they don’t feel like a real home. This bus, the craftsmanship was far above other buses, and more like a house."

The couple have plans for modifications, including a larger dining table, converting one bunk to two, and a roof deck. But when your home has a limited footprint, it’s going to have limitations that you have to work with. "It does take a lot of planning—your water consumption, electricity use. You can run out fast," Cory says. Adds Leila, "Our showers have to be a lot shorter."

A mattress fills out the back of the bus in the primary bed.

A mattress fills out the back of the bus in the primary bed.

Road warriors Kyle and Tiff tried out #vanlife for the first time in 2019 and haven’t looked back. A home inspector and interior designer, respectively, the Arkansas-based couple built out their first Sprinter (a 2012 model), christening it Bernadette. It was the first in a series of endearing "old-lady names" they chose for their subsequent van build-outs, which include Edna, Eudora, Florence, Cora, and now the in-progress Nelda (a 2016 model). It’s all documented on their Ramble & Revive Instagram for 16,500 followers.

One thing they didn’t expect when they first struck out was that their kids’ behavior would improve. While at home the girls had quarreled and resisted sharing; on the road they were open and even-keeled. "We were like, ‘This needs to be part of our life,’ Tiffany remembers thinking of their van, "because we could just tell such a change in their mannerisms and how they treated each other. It was like this whole veil had been lifted."

Tiff and Kyle’s most recent Sprinter conversion is called Eudora.

Tiff and Kyle’s most recent Sprinter conversion is called Eudora.

Thinking more about getting started, Kyle and Tiff recall how family members were skeptical about their new path. One warned that they’d ruin Christmas for their then two- and three-year old daughters. Kyle accepted the challenge. "I thought, ‘You know what? I'm just going to go absolutely crazy with Christmas this year and it's going to be epic,’" he recalls. He and Tiff surprised Tinley and Taytum one December night by decorating the whole van with lights and small trees with ornaments. "And it was the best Christmas we’ve ever had," adds Kyle.

While road life requires certain sacrifices, Kyle and and Tiff made sure that the holidays weren’t one of them.

While road life requires certain sacrifices, Kyle and and Tiff made sure that the holidays weren’t one of them.

The Willis girls took to van life naturally.

The Willis girls took to van life naturally.

A candid early-morning shot aboard Bernadette, including the girls in their bunk beds.

A candid early-morning shot aboard Bernadette, including the girls in their bunk beds.

Van life as a family means you share everything—even bedtime. "You kind of have to go to sleep when the kids go to sleep so you don’t keep them up, and they go to sleep way earlier than we want to," Kyle says. "You just adapt—and maybe that's the most important thing you learn with full-time travel. At the end of the day when things get stressful in a van, you look out and see a great view and you realize how the uphill battles are worth it."

The family occasionally takes breaks from the road to build out vans for clients, sometimes renting an Airbnb for a few weeks where they can park and stay in their Sprinter. More recently, they've been renovating a vintage manufactured home, wrestling with when to head out again on the road less traveled. "I would never knock anyone's lifestyle, but I know what works for us," Kyle says. "It’s having the freedom to spend time together."

Related Reading:

#VanLife Too Big of a Commitment? Rent the Lifestyle Instead

These DIY Kits Are Like Ikea for VanLife—and They Start at $5K

Brian Libby
Dwell Contributor
Brian Libby is a Portland-based architecture writer who has contributed to Dwell since 2004. He has also written for The New York Times, Architect, CityLab, Salon, Metropolis, Architectural Record and The Oregonian, among others.

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