I wake to the sound of footsteps crunching the gravel outside the van as my brother-in-law paces between the camp stove and the bin of supplies on the picnic table. He unclips the top of the percolator and shakes in some coffee, drips in some water, clicking the burner to life.
The smell of camp coffee makes me nostalgic for summer mornings too few and far between, waking up to the sound of a rushing river, the laughter of my friends reminiscing on the night before, and the warmth of the sun as it rises over our shaded site, rousing us from our sleeping bags, begging us to take on the day.
Then I remember that I don’t need to feel nostalgic. The rise of camper vans—transit or conversion vans outfitted with beds, storage and kitchen elements—has allowed recreational campers like me to extend our good-time-having seasons from the ease of long summer days into the cold, shortened days of winter. The vans serve as transport for adventurers and a warm and inviting already-setup campsite to which they can return after a day exposed to the elements. While most outfitted vans cost as much to purchase as a high-end SUV, the ability to rent them from companies like Boise-based Wandervans for as low as $90 per day makes an impromptu winter adventure easily within reach.
Wandervans began blazing the trail for camper van rentals in the summer of 2016. Chris Cook founded the company with three vans in Boise, and his partner, August Johnson, joined in the fall to streamline the booking and outfitting process. They now boast more than 30 vans between their Boise and Salt Lake City basecamps, the latter of which opened in 2018.
The company’s tagline boasts that the vans are the sweet spot between the tent and the RV, but the comfort and transportation elements are not the only conveniences. The online booking, fully automated checkin and checkout process, and freedom from the logistics of cleaning, maintaining and storing a camper van, is the real sweet spot. Other companies, like GoCamp, allow Idahoans to rent camper vans, but the model resembles Airbnb, with personal vans for rent that can lack consistent quality.
The Wandervans’ fleet includes small, medium, and large Ford transit vans. The small and medium vans sleep two, while the large sleeps four. Each van is outfitted with queen-size mattresses, fitted sheets, a cooler-style refrigerator, privacy curtains, a camp table, chairs, two-burner camp stove and counter area with a pump-style sink. Add-ons are also available, including kitchen supplies, solar showers, heaters, and a portable toilet.
Despite all of the amenities included in a Wandervan, the design is sleek and streamlined when compared to the tricked out custom vans that Instagram has spotlighted under #VanLife. Companies like Sun Valley’s SYNC Vans specialize in completely customized interiors, with amenities such as solar panels on the roof and studio-style audio systems. In comparison, Wandervans seem basic, and co-founder August Johnson says that’s the point.
“The underlying theme of van life culture is live simpler with less and spend more time outdoors and try to truly experience a free lifestyle, in the sense that you’re free to go where you want,” he said.
That freedom doesn’t end when the summer campgrounds close, however. Johnson says more renters are booking the vans for shoulder season adventures where a tent might not cut it and an RV seems intimidating. One such renter, Atlanta-based Alexa Lampasona, rented a Wandervan in 2018 for a trip to the Sawtooths to bike among the fall foliage. Her visit quickly turned into a snowy expedition when they reached Stanley and the roads became coated in snow.
While their biking goals were limited by the weather, the convenience of the van allowed them to easily change plans, with everything already packed in their vehicle.
“If you’re bringing bikes or skis, [the van] makes it a lot easier from a logistics standpoint,” Lampasona said. “All your gear is right there, so you’re able to pull off at a trailhead and go.”
Lampasona’s plans for biking single track turned into hiking snowy alpine lake trails, soaking in hot springs, stargazing in cold temperatures, then thawing out and sleeping in the comfort of the van. Plus, she said, adventuring in the off-season makes for fewer crowds than the busy summer months.
“It adds a layer of peace and quiet to your experience,” she explained. “We try to go in the off-season to avoid the crowds and to enjoy nature itself.”
While Wandervans aren’t outfitted with four-wheel-drive, the combination of dually wheels, snow tires, and chains temper fears of driving on wintry roads. For those renters who are overnighting at ski resorts, there are cleanly plowed roads to further ease the transit. Wandervans also offers propane-powered heaters to warm the interior of the van, and a diesel heater in some vans for all-night comfort. Preparing for cold weather remains paramount, however, so packing extra layers, blankets, and hand warmers will ensure comfortable conditions.
As adventurers rent Wandervans during all four seasons, Johnson said the team hopes to open a third location to continue growing the fleet and make camper van rental even more accessible.
Where to Wander
Renting a camper van for off-season vacations comes in handy for a variety of trips in Idaho and beyond.
Here are some ideas for trip inspiration …
Hot Springs: Idaho is home to some of the most spectacular hot springs in the country, so make a route and hit the trail for winter soaking. The crowds are nonexistent and the views are epic. Some favorites include Miracle, Banbury, Kirkham, and Burgdorf hot springs.
Ski Resorts: With overnight parking allowed at Bogus Basin, Silver Mountain, Grand Targhee, Brundage, Tamarack and Schweitzer Mountain resorts, you can spend the entire winter season shredding powder across the state. Just be sure to check the rules before settling in for the night.
Bruneau Dunes State Park: This will feel like a trip to the beach, er, almost. Bruneau is south of Boise and feels slightly warmer in the winter. The sand dunes are a sight to behold.
Castle State Park/City of Rocks Preserve: This well-known hot spot for rock climbing also offers great camping, hiking, and biking in the fall, early winter, and
Anthony Lakes: Just three hours from Boise, the Anthony Lakes area offers peaceful camping, hiking, biking, and watersports in the warmer months.
Glacier National Park: Glacier is a huge, spectacular park in northern Montana. Exploring it by van is a great way to experience one of America’s true wonders.
Visiting family for the holidays? Book a Wandervan to ease the pressure of close quarters during holiday gatherings. Having your lodging in the driveway is an easy way to add a bedroom to a full house.