Goodbye Dorm; Hello Camper Van


By Jock Lauterer

When you hear the term “off-campus student housing,” you’re probably not picturing a college kid living in a camper van.

But that is exactly how UNC senior journalism major Andrew Dundas of Fairview, N.C., has chosen to spend his final semester at Carolina.

Andrew says the notion grew organically out of his plans for a post-graduation cross-country documentary photography trip. Last summer, after purchasing a used construction van, Andrew, along with his dad and grandfather, converted the 2010 Ford E-250 van into a road-worthy rolling home.

After working so hard on the van, Andrew felt compelled to acknowledge its personality, naming it “Appa,” after the big white flying bison character from his favorite Nickelodeon TV cartoon series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

“Then, when COVID hit,” Andrew says, the notion of “living out of a converted van was accelerated.” With some luck, Andrew connected with Spence’s Farm, an educational farm which provided Andrew with a home base — plus a part-time job as a mentor to campers at the farm located just north of Chapel Hill off Eubanks Road.

The ideal set-up lets Andrew live and work off-campus, while allowing him to get to campus on the bus, which he accesses via bicycle from farm to bus stop on days when he has in-person classes at UNC.

I caught up with Andrew this week between his classes and farm work to find out more about his innovative and unique off-campus student housing lifestyle.

JL: What led you to make this leap from dorm life to camper van living?

AD:  It’s August 2020. COVID-19 clusters have arisen in nearly all of the dorms neighboring my own and, alongside many of my fellow students, I was being sent home to my parents’ house for the second time in a year. I should’ve been frustrated — my parents certainly were — but I couldn’t help but see opportunity in it all. For several months at that point, I had been dreaming of buying and converting a van after I graduated to better suit the lifestyle of the travel-hungry freelance photojournalist I hope to one day be. But why wait for graduation? I spent a lot to live on campus and, amid COVID-19, I couldn’t rely on staying there any longer.

JL: Can you describe your living situation? And what’s your lifestyle like?

AD: I’m working 20 hours a week (at the farm) in exchange for my parking space and the occasional use of their kitchen. I’ve been living out of my van for a month, yet it feels entirely normal.  I wake in the morning, crawl out of my sleeping bag, and turn on the lights (plugged into my solar battery) and my heater (plugged into the barn outside the van). I remove my cushions and fold up the bed, revealing the bench on which I take a seat. It’s only an arm’s length to my toothbrush, breakfast, change of clothes and my backpack. Stepping outside, I might grab my bike and head to the nearest bus stop or go into the farmhouse to clock in for work.

JL: What is it about this lifestyle that appeals to you?

AD: Van life is minimalism. That’s what attracted me to it in the first place. I knew I didn’t need three quarters of the things I owned and by letting go of them I opened up an opportunity to live in a cheaper and more environmentally friendly way. It also drives me to focus more on the world outside my home and how I can exist in it: studying in a café, going on hikes, meeting new people and so on.

JL: What are some of the advantages of camper van living for a college student?

AD: While the qualities my life has gained are more than worth the costs to me, there are certainly pros and cons to living in a van. I’ll go over a few below, given my experience with my van, Appa.

Cost: I invested about $11,000 into the van, including the purchase of the vehicle, repairs to it, construction materials and electronics. In retrospect, there are a lot of things I could have done to make it cheaper, but I now own my home! After a couple of years living in here, the money I didn’t spend on rent will exceed that which I used to make the van. Also, I have no bills. Or, at least, my bills are reduced to car insurance and gas.

Environment: Aside from my heater, the power I consume comes from my solar panels, and aside from the showers I take at the farmhouse, I don’t use much more than a gallon of water a day. Accordingly, my environmental footprint is really low and, taking up a single parking spot, my spatial footprint is quite low as well.

Freedom: This was a big one for me. It’s rather simple, too. One day I can live on a farm in Chapel Hill, the next I can sleep amid Appalachian mountains, and the next be crossing the Great Plains. If you want to see the continent, a van is a good option.

JL: And what are some of the challenges of van living?

AD: Tidiness: Such a small space gets cluttered and dirty very fast (especially if you’re parked on a muddy farm like me). I typically have to tidy the van a few times daily and deeply clean every other day.

Water: Most vans are not built to be lived in. This has impacted me the most in terms of water. Appa was a roofing van before he came into my possession. The roof was battered and, as I have discovered, prone to leaks. I am working to reseal the most problematic this week.

Temperature: While the above issue might be uncommon in other vans, you’ll struggle to find one that is made of anything but thin sheets of metal. I spent a lot of time and money insulating Appa and I definitely get a few hours of warmth after running the heater … but I will wake up in a freezing van.

Living Space: I have taken an extended trip with my partner in Appa. It was functional, but not necessarily comfortable. Beyond that, the casualties of limited space in a van include a kitchen, bathroom and/or workspace. That said, with a little creativity, I believe there is always room for what you value. Personally, I have an extra-large, folding desk that is able to hold my laptop and monitor, which I use for editing my photojournalism projects.

JL: What are your main takeaways from this experience?

AD:  First, that I really don’t need as many of the things and as much space as I used to. Second, that people, when they hear about van living, respond very favorably, but rarely do they fully appreciate what that means.  And third, it’s not a good idea to sleep within arm’s reach of your pantry.

I think van life could work for a lot of people, especially students struggling to find affordable housing in the area. If you’re interested in the idea, I encourage you to look into it. While living in a van certainly isn’t the picture-perfect life-style that Instagram would have you believe, there are a lot of practical resources out there that might lead you down a new path.  I, for one, am glad I find myself here.

JL:  You’re graduating in May; what’s next?

AD: A cross country documentary research adventure with my girlfriend.

For examples of Andrew Dundas’ photographic and video work:

For more on Spence’s Farm:

Jock Lauterer began selling newspapers for Jim Shumaker and Roland Giduz on the streets of Chapel Hill at the age of 8. For the last 20 years, he has served as a senior lecturer and adjunct professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, teaching photojournalism and community journalism.

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