Van Life: Steff Carter
The new influx of “van life” Instagram accounts may have you convinced that living in your vehicle is full of gorgeous photos taken out of the backdoor of your van overlooking a vista, ultra-sleek buildouts, and adventuring daily to somewhere new. For Steff Carter who first lived in her Subaru and then a Toyota Tundra, “van life” was more of a necessity and a lifestyle choice to save money, not something to be glamorized on social media. The avid skier, snowboarder, and rock climber from Ketchum, Idaho lived in her cars while working in the winter on the local mountain as an instructor and the summers working at the local YMCA as a climbing wall supervisor and climbing instructor. By saving money on rent, she was able to live her passions in an expensive ski resort—a purist when it comes to why she lived in her car. Steff has now “sold out” (her words) with a regular office job and she even lives in real housing, making her even more appreciative of the time she spent dirt baggin’ it in her cars.
Hometown: Ketchum, Idaho
Vehicle type: 1998 Subaru Outback, 2002 Toyota Tundra
Time spent in truck: 1 year in Subaru, 1 ½ years in Toyota Tundra
Average monthly expenses: Not sure, most money going toward gear and food
What made you move into your car?
Steff: When I wasn’t living in Ketchum full-time from after high school until I moved back in 2013, I would always come back for the summers and work. It was nice out and I had my Subaru so I always just camped out and slept in my car for the summer to save money. It just didn’t seem that important to rent something for the summer. When I decided to stay in Ketchum after a summer, I had read a book that summer called Walden on Wheels. I thought it was really cool and I could relate to his reasoning of how absurd it is spending money and going so far into debt to attend school, that’s part of why I didn’t finish college. He kind of romanticized it but he went full-out. It just kind of resonated at the time. I’ve never really been able to find affordable housing in this town. I just liked the idea of it. Then when I started doing it, I really liked it…for a while.
What did you do for food?
Steff: I made zero attempt to cook food, ever. Because I worked at the YMCA at that time [as a climbing instructor], I had a locker in there with all of my shower stuff and there was a fridge and a microwave. I usually kept food in there too. And in the winter, I ate at the mountain while I was working. In the summers, I think around that time I was working for Sun Valley in the Village so I just ate at The Place [the Sun Valley employees dining room]. I ate at The Place a lot.
What was the setup like in your truck?
Steff: The shell that I have is tall enough that the platform is heigh level with the bed so I had tons of storage underneath it. The sleeping platform was a little wider than half of the width and then I had drawers and little cubbies for more storage. I had a kind of coat rack. When I was in my Subaru I got a Paco Pad but because it was so scrunched in there I go the narrowest Paco Pad. I just continued using that and I usually just slept in a sleeping bag. When I was in my Subaru I used bedding but in the winter with the freeze/thaw, I learned how easily it all got moldy. I used a negative 30-degree bag in the winter because there’s no heat in my getup. There’s about an inch of blue board foam insulated underneath a laminate that we put on. It made a slight difference.
What were some ups and downs of living in your truck?
Steff: At the time as a snow sports instructor and climbing gym employee/climbing coach, I wasn’t making much money and I was happy with what I was doing so I’m glad I was able to make it work in the sense that, as someone who sold out and has a real job now, I got to do it and still live in a town like this. I would say other ups were just that it kind of made me be more social at times where I wasn’t really feeling social. After work, I’d go to the Y and climb if I wasn’t working and hang out with people. But when the Y closed and it was winter, I could either go to bed or go watch hockey at the bar. Because you can’t just stay—it’s not a house, there’s no restroom or shower or heat—you have to go out and interact with people. That was one of my favorite parts about it was the nights where it was really cold but I just wasn’t wanting to go to bed at 8 o’clock and I’d go to the Cellar [a Ketchum bar] and most of the time I’d just drink water and sit at the bar and talk to the bartenders and watch hockey.
After a while, I think it was my second winter in the truck and my third winter in a car that I was just so over it. I think what I had taken for granted or what people take for granted is how at the end of the day, just going to a house or an apartment and being able to relax. Sometimes just driving around when the tourists are clogging up Trail Creek and having to keep going and just wanting to be done...I’m glad I had unlimited data. I binged a lot of tv on my iPhone and consumed many a gig.
I will say the most annoying thing about living in your car by far is when people ask you to housesit or petsit because they think it’s doing you a favor. It sounds terrible but I’ve done a lot of petsitting and babysitting and plantsitting. The whole idea of, Oh, you live in a car so we’re going out of town, would you just want to stay at our house? Oh, and watch our three animals. It’s like, no, not really. That gives me more work to do than to just sleep in my truck. Are you gonna give me money or just a place to stay? It was always kind of the same tone of like, We were trying to think of somebody and we thought of you because you live in your car! People just assume that you’re homeless. But you’re not homeless. That however-many-square-feet was my home.
How would you say being a female living in your car differs from what you think or know the male experience to be? Did you feel like you had to take further precautions or were perceived differently than men who live in their cars?
Steff: My parents were not excited by any means. My dad was a little more understanding. I didn’t talk to my mom for over 6 months because it seemed like she was embarrassed by the fact and she wasn’t even living in Ketchum, she was living in L.A. She offered to pay for a condo for me to stay in over the winter and I was like, this is what I want to do, no thank you. It was hard too because there were people that I talked to that were not my parents that were like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool!’ Basically, I had three doors on my shell and I almost always had the two sides locked with a key and I would typically climb in and out of the back one. But at night when I was going to bed I’d have the back one locked with a key and because I could fit through the little slider glass doors, I would lock my doors in my truck and just climb through so I was locked in. That usually was enough to make me feel pretty safe. I feel like most of the times that I was not psyched was if I was about to get hit by a snowplow. What helped with the fact that my parents weren’t psyched was how intrigued and interested and almost proud some of my boomer homies at the Dollar Ski School were. They were just so into it. A lot of them couldn’t believe that I actually lived in my car.