Looking out on Mirror Lake, BC, and the surrounding mountains, from the back of a van camping setup. Photo: Irina Lipan

Van Life: The Ultimate Guide To Living In A Van In British Columbia

Flashback to August of 2021. The world was in a funk, and it was time for a radical change. My girlfriend and I hatched a plan to sell everything, move into my Toyota Sienna, chase the last bit of Canadian summer through British Columbia's interior, and then start traveling the world (which as I write this on a plane, over a year and a half later, is still an ongoing adventure). There was something romantic about the notion of a fresh start, something inspiring about creating a trip with minimal means, and something unapologetically exciting about taking big risks when the perpetual marching orders were to "stay safe." Vanlife is officially on the rise. Everyday I see vehicular vagabonds pop up on YouTube – using the digital landscape to fuel their adventures. We didn't have a decked-out sprinter van, but we had a lot of heart. Here's how we made it work. 

 A picnic table overlooking a beautiful river.
A parking lot picnic table and our trustee cooler bag. This was our basecamp while in Fernie, BC, for a few days. Photo: Irina Lipan

The Vision And The Van Conversion

The Canadian portion of the Rocky Mountains divide the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, before heading even further North. The former was our long-time home base, and gets the more rugged and frigid mountain experience. Crossing into BC typically brings milder temperatures, especially as you move Southwest. So while we did linger in Alberta for the first few days, ultimately, as we shifted into September, it was clear that we needed to chase the milder conditions in order to live comfortably. Plus, after so many interprovincial border shut downs, a change of scenery was particularly welcomed. 

A blond woman giving the peace sign next to a white minivan and a picnic table full off camping goodies.
Irina preparing dinner at our typical mobile kitchen at Premier Lake Provincial Park campground. We're also trying to dry our clothes after a trail run and a swim - a common challenge while living in a confined space. Photo: Andrew Douglas

I'm no handyman, but I always find a way to make things work. A minivan isn't exactly the sexiest of rides, but its wider back end provided just enough space for two people, and the bare essentials. I folded the back seats down, ripped the middle ones out, got a carpet from Ikea to pad the floor (and make it more homey), popped in an inflatable double mattress from Canadian Tire, picked up a lockable storage trunk and a cooler off a sketchy guy on Kijiji, and somehow, without measuring anything, it all fit (but just barely). Whatever didn't go in the trunk, we hung around the windows (which created some privacy and stealth), and tucked into glove boxes, those little storage spaces in the doors, and wherever else we could fit it on the day. Lastly, Irina peppered in some loving touches, such as a faux-vine plant, a string of battery-powered lights, and a cup-holder succulent. It was a tight squeeze, but given the string of favorable weather, and the recent opening of indoor public spaces, we knew it would mostly just be for sleeping. 

A dirt parking lot with a few vehicles, with the large, blue Kootenay Lake in the background.
Our trustee minivan has a front row view of Kootenay Lake at a parking lot in Kaslo, BC. We had a lake shower and then used the pavilion to cook some grub before stealth camping on a residential road. Photo: Andrew Douglas

The Camping Options In British Columbia

British Columbia has a blend of provincial and national park campgrounds, privately-owned sites, crown land (which is similar to BLM land in the United States), and roadside rest stops, which have a time limit of eight hours (i.e. a good night's sleep). We utilized all of these, as well as a healthy blend of "stealth camping" – a subgenre of the blossoming vanlife scene that is exactly what it sounds like. Basically, this entailed finding an inconspicuous spot somewhere that didn't have a "No Overnight Parking" sign, lay low, and hope that we didn't get "the knock" at some point in the night. The major advantage of squeezing into my minivan was that it literally just looked like any old vehicle that should be parked on any old road in any old town. So neither the residents nor bylaw officers were wise to us. Score one for the bad guys! 

A man swimming in a large blue lake surrounded by lush forests.
Going for a swim in Premier Lake, BC. 

Each camping option came with a set of trade offs. The rest stops were free, and had bathrooms/garbage bins, but no showers, a bit of road noise, and a relatively tight time limit (which I doubt is ever strictly enforced, but it still keeps you moving). Government parks are well-equipped and beautiful, but expensive (and non-negotiable). Private campgrounds are also well-serviced, crop up in some pretty amazing locations, and because they are independently run, we were able to swindle better prices (or extra firewood) as the off-season loomed. This usually worked if we reserved multiple nights and flashed out best "we're totally broke but loving life" smiles. Crown land is free, but difficult to access (especially in a low-clearance van) and without any ammendities (beyond the occasional fire pit). Stealth camping is free, an exhilarating experience, and the ideal "stick it to the man" approach, but it is also unreliable. The sleep is choppier, and god help you if you have to pee in the middle of the night (we opted not to use "piss jugs" and thus spoil the smidge of romance in the arrangement).

A man in a black hoody reading a book beside a lakeside fire pit.
Reading a book beside a smouldering fire at a nicer than average crown land campsite outside of Fernie, BC. Photo: Irina Lipan

The Daily Routine Of Van Camping

Depending on where we rested our heads for the night, the morning would vary slightly. But generally speaking. it would go a little something like this. We quickly fell into a circadian rhythm with the sun. There wasn't much left to do after dark except crawl into bed and watch a previously downloaded show on a laptop. The early wind down naturally led to us waking up at dawn. The first order of business was always to get coffee and breakfast at some local cafe or diner, and wash up a bit in the bathroom. Irina would usually linger for a few hours, in order to stay on top of her freelance writing tasks, and I would go hit the streets (literally), as a busker. 

A man walks into a cozy, lakeside restaurant bar
Walking into a great little spot in Crayford Bay, BC, with my laptop at my side for some freelance writing of my own. A typical daily task. 

Quick sidebar on my backstory. For eleven years I had a corporate sales job. I started right out of University, and quit on March 1st, 2020, in order to pursue my musical passion (among other things). Unfortunately, about ten days later the pandemic hit and live music disappeared for the better part of two years. Not one to let the silly lack of a stage or microphone stop me, I dusted off my street performing skills, (which is not strictly legal in most spots) in order to pick up the slack. Thankfully, most audiences I encountered were grateful to hear someone singing their heart out, were cool about not reporting it, and also generously contributed to the gas fund. I did also have lots of mishaps, not just on this trip, but throughout the years and various countries, but that's a story for another time. 

A man playing guitar in a parking lot as the sun sets over beautiful mountains.
Playing guitar and singing to the Rocky Mountains and the fine people of Canmore, Alberta. Photo: Irina Lipan

So after doing our best to eke out a living, we would then sync up, get supplies, and drive onwards to the next town, trailhead, or campground. Once we had an idea of where we would sleep, all that was left to do was explore the area, go for a hike, brave a swim, rustle up some grub, and watch the sunset from a patio or picnic table before crawling into the back of the van. This routine quickly became addicting, and I look back on it fondly. In my opinion, traveling in this fashion is the best way to get to know the real rhythms of a place, while also reaping the freedom of transience. 

My Top 3 Recommended Locations In Western Canada

Having a basic home setup in the back of a minivan allowed Irina and I to go wherever we wanted, and at whatever pace we deemed fit. The sweet spot seemed to involve regularly shifting locations, but never going too far in a day. This meant we could absorb a broad area by taking in multiple perspectives, and feel like we were accomplishing something by "making miles." Often, we would visit multiple lake communities, or a cluster of mountain towns before pressing on to a completely new spot. Since pictures speak a thousand words, here is a little highlight reel of choice spots. 

Alberta Rocky Mountain Towns

A woman making dinner by a campsite fire beneath an overhang.
Our favorite drive-in campsite is at a place called Exshaw Community Campground in the tiny hamlet of Exshaw, Alberta. The site is cheaply priced, includes unlimited firewood, and a communal cook. We set the slack line up at this one. Photo: Andrew Douglas
A pedestrian street in a sunny mountain town.
Another busking session on Canmore, Alberta's pedestrian-friendly 8th Street. Photo: Andrew Douglas
A shoulder-season, high altitude view on the Rocky Mountains in Banff National Park
An epic hike to break up the driving in Banff National Park, just outside of the Town od Banff, Alberta. 

Kootenay Lake Towns

A man sits on a rocky beach, meditating in the afterglow of sunset.
We not only got a great deal at a private campground in Gray Creek, BC, but the sunsets were also gorgeous. Photo: Irina Lipan
A serene lake in a Zen-like forest setting.
Waiting for the ferry to take us across Kootenay Lake, from Crawford Bay to Balfour. Photo: Andrew Douglas
A dirt trail heads up a gradual hill in a tranquil forest.
A taste of the exceptional trail network in Kaslo, BC. The more we drove, the more we wanted/needed to counterbalance with hiking. Western Canada can't be beat for beautiful hikes. 

The Western Shore Of Okanagan Lake

A woman in a bikini emerges from a lake on a sunny day.
Irina returns from her lake shower while we were stealth camping in Peachland and Summerland, BC. Even though fall had set it, the Southern interior of British Columbia forms a climate bubble that extends the fair-weather. We continued on to Penticton, at the Southern tip of Okanagan Lake, and then worked our way further Southwest to Osoyoos, where we ended our Westward trend. 

Once the cooler October air officially settled in, we briefly returned to Calgary, sold the van, said goodbye to our friends and family, and then flew to Guatemala – the first of many new countries we would explore (and still are) over the next two years. If you would like to follow along with our travels, please explore the links below and stay tuned for more adventures. 

The Globetrotting Begins:


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