It makes sense that the town with a strong vanlife culture would be where some homes on wheels are created. Alex Hoelk and Kate McIvor own Pura Vida Vans, in Squamish’s business park.
They transform customer’s vehicles from utility to homes — or campers.
They also live the life, travelling on their rare days off in their own custom van.
With the topic of vanlife a hot one in town, The Chief visited their busy facility for a chat about the lifestyle, what they do and what they would like to see in the future.
What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
Q: When did you both come to Squamish?
Alex: I have been in the corridor since 2001. I was a millwright and did my practicum at the Squamish mill, through BCIT. I have seen a lot of changes — all of us have. It is good, though it is happening quickly.
Kate: I have been in Squamish since 2009. I would say normally people don’t see change so quickly. But there are also opportunities for local businesses to start up.
Q: Are most people coming to you because they want to live in vans or are they coming because they want to convert them for recreational use?
Alex: A bit of both. Right now, two are being converted for travelling and two for living. The conversion is a little different for each. For living, there’s more sitting area, for example — two benches for a table to sit four people; a bit more living area, less space for recreational storage. For the outdoor lifestyle, recreational use, there’s more space for mountain bikes and that kind of thing.
Q: What do you think of the whole vanlife movement? Obviously, it is good for your business but beyond that?
Alex: It is an interesting thing. It is a fact of life. We aren’t going to get around it. It has been around since the 1960s, in places like California. It is more prominent now because of social media and because of the cost of living. If you look at where vans are prominent, they are all along the West Coast.
You will get some van builders in the east, but it is mostly the coast. Portland is really the hotbed in the U.S. We are starting to get pretty hot here and it is because of rent.
Big cities in the U.S. are realizing “we have to do something, people are living in these things.” It is a fact of life, we aren’t going to stop it.
I can see the appeal. It is affordable; it is convenient.
Kate: Even for us, we recently took our van down to Flagstaff, Arizona. We were gone for two weeks. It was just a sense of freedom to be self-contained, to be able to travel where you want, which I think more people want out of life. It is an affordable way to travel, too.
Q: You also service vans and finish off DIY conversions, right?
Alex: Yes. There are certain parts of conversions people don’t want to do like cut a hole in the side of a brand new van to put a window in or for solar panels. Or we will do the heater install. They do the rest.
Part of our goal is also to eventually stock things for the DIY person — there are a lot of those in town.
It is not easy to do that because most things come out of the U.S. We are trying to have all our suppliers here. It is starting. I work with Squamish manufacturing company Stoked Adventure Outfitters. He builds our bed frames and roof racks. We are trying to keep things local as much as we can. This is better for us, but also better for the community.
Q: You want to expand the company, then?
Alex: Yes, That is very tough to find in Squamish. There are only two spaces in town right now that might work. Eventually, we are going to need more space. Finding labourers is also a problem. The labour is very expensive and we have to compete against the other markets. My rent is higher and my labour is higher and my supplies are higher, when I have to order things outside of Squamish.
Q: What should someone be looking at spending if they want to convert a vehicle they own to live in?
Alex: Basic conversions start at $35,000. They go up from there. The sky is the limit. There are some who spend $150,000 just on a conversion. It really depends on the electrical system you choose, what you need, how long you will be sitting idle because that determines the battery system you will need. Most people don’t have $35,000 sitting around. You can do it bit by bit.
Q: About how long does it take to do a conversion?
Alex: There’s the design stage and planning stage beforehand, then typically I say two to three months.
The above article featuring Pura Vida Vans that was run in The Squamish Chief on May 21, 2019. See the full article here.