A few years back, married couple Breanne Acio and Lacey Mayer found themselves with a rather excellent sort of dilemma. Capitalizing on their work schedules (Acio taught at San Diego State University; Meyer wrangled a classroom of fifth graders), the two had visited something like 26 different countries over the years—but they hadn’t really spent any time traveling around the U.S. While backpacking was a great way to cover ground cheaply and efficiently overseas, how could they best see a country as vast as the United States during their summer break?
The two figured an RV might offer an economical solution. After tooling around in one for a bit, however, they discovered that it was less a ticket to freedom than it was an unwieldy, gas-guzzling, electricity-dependant nuisance. The two hadn’t yet heard of #vanlife, then still a somewhat quiet countercultural movement yet to be fetishized by mainstream media—that is, until Mayer’s dad showed up at their Christmas party with a Ram ProMaster and announced his intentions to convert it into a campervan.
Acio and Mayer were intrigued by the idea of creating their own home on wheels. They took the plunge and bought a van, spent several months building it out on weekends and days off (they’re now in an extended 2018 Ford Transit named Lady), and hit the road that summer. But once again, things weren’t quite right. “It was just this weird thing—we’re having so much fun, we’re exploring, we’re out in nature,” says Acio. “But we’re lonely.”
They knew there were other people like them out there—they’d started following other vanlifers on Instagram—but had no idea how to connect. Then Acio and Mayer heard about a gathering in Neah Bay, located on the Makah Reservation on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. They were already pointed back toward San Diego, but decided to whip around and drive eight hours in the opposite direction to see what they might find.
As it turns out, Acio and Mayer discovered the kinship they’d been lacking. “It ended up being a pivotal moment for us because we found this community of people that we just immediately belonged to and connected with,” says Acio. “It was just incredible—all these people who are kind of going against the grain and pursuing their dreams.”
Back home in San Diego, the couple figured that if they were lonely during that maiden voyage, other people must be, too, so they began hosting their own meetups. The first one, held in the fall of 2017, attracted fifty vans. The most recent event, which happened at the end of March in Santa Barbara, drew seven times that amount.
As their community began to widen, both via Instagram and through in-person gatherings, Acio and Mayer realized that beyond a cure for loneliness, people were also looking for far simpler things: A place to park. Showers. Restrooms. Cell service. Water fill-ups. What if they could do something about it?
The opportunity arose when Acio signed up for an incubator program through her university. She first conceived of something more akin to a network of millennial-focused KOA campgrounds, but after conducting thousands of surveys and interviews, realized that it wasn’t a network of locations that people wanted, it was a network of resources—and a network of fellow vanlifers.
So Acio shifted gears and focused on developing what is now The Vanlife App, which was released this spring. It offers multiple functions, including the ability to share your location and connect with other road trippers, an event database featuring gatherings and campsite cleanups, and a sustainability guide with tips for practicing Leave no Trace on the road. And of course, the app features a wide assortment of road travel resources contained within its interactive maps—campsites, wifi hotspots, water spigots, restrooms, and more—constantly enhanced with data and reviews shared by app users. The result is a road tripper’s dream, an all-in-one app that’s not just for people who identify as vanlifers, but for anyone who travels, whether it be a family out for a weekend trip or someone bikepacking across the country.
It’s an impressive effort, and one that Acio wasn’t alone in achieving. There was the support of Mayer, of course (who now runs the couple’s other business, an affordable van conversion company called SD Campervans), but she also had buy-in from other vanlifers. “The whole idea was that this app is for the community, by the community, and with the community,” says Acio. “It’s a co-app instead of a co-op.” This includes co-founder and COO Jessica Shisler, sustainability experts Noami and Dustin Grevemberg, and partnership gurus Amanda Winther and Matt Swartz.
The team also includes a slew of “founding members” who help guide the app’s continued development. One of these is Noël Russell, who lives part-lives part-time with her husband, Jonnie, and pup, Fin, in Francis Ford Campola, a 2009 Ford E-150 high-top that once served as a medical transport vehicle. Russell and her husband have both spent considerable time working with San Francisco’s houseless population (he currently runs a shelter) and her perspective on the app’s usefulness is that it doesn’t just make life on the road easier, it actually helps breaks down barriers to alternative living.
“When Bree and Jess told me about the app, I was really moved by the mission and the approach; making that lifestyle accessible was way more important than just, like, bolstering everyone’s ability to create great Instagram content,” she says. “It’s really empowering and dignifying. It allows people to have the tools and resources to live the life that they choose to live.”
Acio, too, sees the greater potential in the app—and in the feedback she’s received from its users who’ve found both community and a way to more easily carve their own path in life.
“I have this vision: I want to change the world. I want to make it easier for people to go outside and live this lifestyle, but I can’t just snap my fingers and make that happen. It takes a long time to build a business and build a product that’s really complex,” she says. “I’ve had so many people come up to me saying that their entire life has changed because they were able to connect with people at an event that I put together. Starting a company is really difficult, but it’s those stories of how we’re helping people that keep us going because it reminds you that, okay, I am making a difference.”