Creative ways to live without a house

Two years in a box van with Ryan Daly

With Big Sky struggling to provide affordable housing and little inventory available in the real estate market, workers and local folks are turning to creative solutions for finding a place to live.

Ryan Daly, originally from West Virginia, works for a large employer in Big Sky and lives out of his box van. Daly has lived out of his home on wheels for the last two years, working in the summers as a river guide. He hopes to live out of his car at least for five years.

The main reason Ryan lives in a van is to save money during seasonal work, avoid a lease locking him into one place, and for the freedom. Daly’s van is equipped with a refrigerator, diesel heater, propane stove, bed platform and sink, cupboards, solar and storage space for all his belongings. He brought his kayak, skis, and dirt bike out from back East.

“It’s nothing like Instagram. Most of it kind of sucks, but you get so used to it. …Of course, going to the bathroom, you can’t just like all the sudden have to go to the bathroom. You have to almost plan it,” said Daly.

“Even things like running water—you really think about conserving your water because you carry every little bit of water you use in and out of the van and you have to drive somewhere to pick it up. So, brushing your teeth, that’s a little bit of a hassle in the morning. You are, like, pouring water out of a water bottle or a jug.”

Because solar power does not cut it in the winter, Daly runs a generator once a week while he sleeps to charge his batteries. For about one dollar per night, he also turns on a small diesel heater he bought off Amazon.

“It’s the real difference maker between being able to live in Montana comfortably and freezing,” said Daly.

Over the past decade, living out of a car or van took on new meaning (see #vanlife). What used to be a simple lifestyle based on the freedom of the open road, or for people living with little funds on the edge of poverty, now is idealized through social media.

Converted sprinter vans, for example, can cost anywhere from $40,000-$150,000 dollars. The classic Volkswagen Microbus like the Westfalia, which became a symbol of counterculture in the 1960s, range from $20,000-$130,000 dollars. And for the ultrawealthy? The Colorado based company EarthRoamer builds out an F-550 truck for $590,000- $1.5 million dollars.

“It has become so normal. In a bad way, it has almost become too idealized as such a great thing, which it is not. It’s just another way to do life. It’s definitely not what you see on Instagram all the time,” said Daly.

For Daly, membership for a nearby gym with showers and extra space makes life out of his van possible in the middle of winter. He tends to do his laundry in town at Sit and Spin, a creative combination of laundry and bar.

Ryan bought his van from a previous owner who spent time in cold places—the van had a lot of insulation when he first got it. With little experience, Ryan started renovating his new home. Now, looking at the walls, an electric battery panel blinks like a thermostat and pumps tick in the background. It is hard to imagine how someone could figure this all out while sitting in the little space.

“It’s just one thing at a time, right? You figure out one thing and then you watch a Youtube video of the thing you just bought and how to install it basically. It didn’t feel a whole lot different then probably putting Ikea furniture together,” said Daly.

One of the biggest challenges of living out of a car or school bus used to be finding a place to park it overnight or long term. These days, phone apps provide a shortcut. They let people see where it is okay to stay overnight and where folks have run into trouble, explained Daly.

Although living out of a custom-built Sprinter or minivan is not accessible or acceptable to the majority, finding creative ways for folks to live in a mountain town like Big Sky is worth highlighting.

“I see myself eventually getting a place. I hate the idea of paying tons of money for rent and then really getting no benefits out of it. Now do I see myself getting a place in Bozeman? Definitely not. That’s way out of the realm of possibility,” said Daly. 

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