MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. --
Social media is saturated with glamourous, fit, adventurous people traveling to the world’s most beautiful places, snapping the nature or wildlife shot of a lifetime, all the while making a living – and a home – out of a van.
Lounge chairs, bikes, skis or stand-up paddleboards lean against a classic, bohemian Volkswagen or off-road Chevrolet Astro van. Look for a couple of cute dogs and a crystal lake in the background. Someone is reading while the sun shines down on people and sports gear paused for an overnighter in front of heartbreakingly beautiful mountains or waves in an exotic locale.
Photos of peak bags, natural hot springs, soft fog on the hillside, fresh caught fish on the hibachi – these images evoke thoughts of peace, time to oneself and solitude away from the masses. People who capture and publish this life on social media have earned some serious bragging rights and often thousands of followers.
This simpler life is seemingly opulent, enviable and affordable. It is an enticing invitation to buck convention and leave stuff, traffic, big houses with big mortgages and the 9-to-5 job. Most of all, it represents leaving the huge stressors of life behind.
Many people working in technology now don’t need a physical office space, so making money working from a computer anywhere – well, anywhere Wi-Fi is – has given people choices.
Trading in belongings for adventure, people are choosing to live in a 200-square-foot house or upgraded van, or a tiny, mobile house on wheels as their home.
“The freedom of not punching a clock and having more money from less bills has heralded a new way of living,” said Drew Schlieder, 341st Force Support Squadron Outdoor Recreation Center supervisory recreation specialist and outdoor adventure programmer.
“It’s definitely a free way of living,” he said. “You can be like, ‘Oh hey, there’s a cool rock climbing event in Arizona this weekend,’ or, ‘Hey, we can go to Alaska for the summer.’ And you just go. But, van life doesn’t have to be taken to the extreme.”
In the April 24, 2017, issue of the New Yorker magazine, author Rachel Monroe wrote about what began as an attempt at a simpler life living in vans evolved into a brand. Her article is titled “#Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement.”
“The movement is now a lifestyle, especially among outdoor people, around the world,” Schlieder said.
Have wanderlust, but also a job
“Montana is a haven for the van life,” Schlieder said. “But the average Malmstrom Airman has to be a weekend warrior because of work and school schedules.”
For people who can’t truly live the van life, it’s about finding the right activity to do to feel free and be connected to nature.
“Maybe van life can’t be lived where you have a job to show up to every day, but the van life is symbolic and should inspire folks to get out and not sit in their dorm rooms or on their couch,” Schlieder said.
Montana can be explored in basic to extreme adventures. A day trip can mean a scenic drive, or step it up and run the north or south shore trails in Giant Springs State Park.
Need more suggestions or hands-on help? Schlieder said visit the Outdoor Recreation Center at Malmstrom for gear, then head out for a wilder backcountry adventure and more striking wildlife.
“Locally, the more adventurous people can camp out in the Little Belt Mountains,” Schlieder said. “There are no facilities, no fee, no permit. Just sign the book at the trailhead and take off.”
To become a pro at exploring Montana, the Outdoor Recreation Center recommends finding an atlas that features topographic maps of the entire state with roads, trails and recreational opportunities.
Don’t be scared to get started
For some it’s easy to just to head out on the road and into the woods and camp out under the stars.
City slickers should take more care, though. Weather, roads, wildlife, private property and knowing what resources are needed are vital, Schlieder said. For those with little outdoor experience he suggests to first take a guided trip with Malmstrom Outdoor Recreation Center.
“Malmstrom outdoor rec trips are intros into activities that people will go on to build their skills in,” Schlieder said. These are outdoor sports like kayaking, caving or hiking.
Once a few bug bites are suffered, a rattler scurries off the trail and there’s a moose sighting, people are often ready for more advanced adventure.
Some activity ideas this summer include renting an inflatable SUP or inflatable double or single kayak. There are inflatable rafts – a six-man up to a 15-man – to take on the Missouri River.
“A really cool trip to do is through the White Cliffs on the Missouri,” Schlieder said. “It’s protected river, totally wild, about 50 miles of river that you can cover in three days. There are not usually dangerous rapids, but check the Bureau of Land Management website.
“Sluice Boxes State Park is close by and a great place to hang out for the day,” he said.
Want to sleep in a truck or van? Outdoor rec rents mattresses and sleeping bags, mattress pads with foam and sleeping bags. It’s just as easy to rent a tent and headlamp.
“Go listen to coyotes and owls at night when the sun goes down,” Schlieder said.
“Or check our trip schedules and hop on a van with us. Then start taking your own exciting pictures to post,” Schlieder said. “There’s always something to do around Great Falls.”