Van Lifers get stuck in Colorado during coronavirus outbreak




If you were to flip open the cabinetry on the inside of Cat and Eric Owensby’s Ram Promaster van, mixed among household items, clothing and gear, you would also find small stashes of dry pasta, loose fruit and other foods.

“We have a limited amount of space,” said Cat, especially since the couple has been cutting their grocery runs from once or twice per week back to once every two weeks. Space for the extra groceries is at a premium, so detailed meal planning, using everything on hand, and wringing every drop of additional storage from their home on wheels has been critical.

More than a year ago, the South Carolina natives quit their tethered jobs as a tax accountant and engineer in favor of remote and contract work and a roving life, chasing powder skiing, mountain bike trails and the outdoors. They had been in Colorado all winter, exploring the state’s ski areas, when the coronavirus exploded onto the scene.

“We were in Summit County when the stay-at-home order went into effect, so we just decided to hunker down here,” Eric said. The option to head back East became impractical and unsafe before they could even consider it, they said.

And the Owensbys aren’t alone. Colorado is a hot spot for van lifers and other mobile adventurers, year-round. While many of these nomads have made the decision to temporarily rent a home or move in with friends or family during this pandemic, for others like the Owensbys, that’s not the most practical option, and are left trying to decipher stay-at-home orders, business closures and difficult public lands situations for themselves.

According to Colorado’s Joint Information Center, “home” doesn’t necessarily mean an immobile structure: “In this case, that would be the person’s van or car,” and that should become the focus of their shelter-in-place plans.

For Cat and Eric, altering their typically nomadic plans in favor of staying put in one place is key, as is picking the right spot to park. They’ve been forced to balance land and campground closures, trailhead and public land crowding, access to the facilities they need, and respect for the local community. Rather than spending time in coffee shops, they have been working from the small van, have had limited access to public showers, and have had to conserve water and propane to limit trips to stores.

One of the biggest stressors of the pandemic has come from driving a van with out-of-state license plates during a stay-at-home order. “We’ve gotten really good at backing into spots,” Cat said.

While negative interactions with locals have been minimal, they’re conscious of their appearance. “I think a lot of people jump to conclusions that you’re on this massive vacation. But our situation is we don’t really have another place to go,” Eric said.

Their worry, however, has been offset by their growing self-confidence in how they are handling the situation: “I think we’ve been doing an extremely good job of staying in one place and keeping to ourselves,” Cat said. “We may be in a different situation from most people right now, but we’re handling it in a lot of the same ways.”

The Owensbys, as well as local health officials, recommend similar best practices for vehicle dwellers as the general population, with some adjustments:

  • Find a good spot to camp and double-down on it. Pay attention to land closures, avoid popular trailheads and backcountry areas, and find someplace you’re comfortable staying at for long periods of time. Avoid changing campsites and stay in that spot, unless you have somewhere else you need to go. “Go hide out,” Cat said.
  • Limit grocery store and other supply runs. Purchase more bins and water jugs (experts recommend carrying 10 gallons at a time, if possible), if necessary, to stay self-sufficient for longer.
  • “Get out and stretch your legs,” Eric said. Vans are small spaces, so if you can responsibly find a way to exercise and enjoy fresh air near your campsite, take advantage of your likely proximity to the outdoors.
  • Be extra clean in your van’s interior. Use disinfectant wipes to clean regularly-touched surfaces, and wash your hands as much as possible.
  • Steer clear of mountain towns and areas along Colorado’s Western Slope, which have seen high concentrations of reported COVID-19 cases, and have health care systems that can be easily overwhelmed.

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