If you’ve ever dreamed of leaving a mundane life behind and exploring the country in a van, the Florida Van Life Gathering is for you.
The event, hosted at Withlacoochee River Park in Dade City on the first weekend in February, promises “three days of peace, love and vans.”
There will be live music, vendors, food trucks and activities like a DIY van build contest and van tours. Workshops will cover topics like renting out your van for extra income and staying fit while living on the road. And for the less handy adventurers, professional companies will be around to discuss hiring someone to build out a van for you.
The target audience is nomads of all ages and experience levels. Newbies can explore van culture with a day pass for $15. More committed vanlifers (people who live full or part time in their vehicle) may want to splurge for a weekend pass, granting access from Friday afternoon to Monday morning.
Sarasota-based company Vanlife Outfitters is presenting the event. Co-founder Josh Theberge, 42, said the event is on pace to have over 300 camper vans present, with attendees coming from across Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Tennessee. He expects some will have a story similar to his.
Around 2016, Theberge had a totally different path. He owned a successful real estate business in South Florida and lived a comfortable life.
“I wouldn’t say I was unhappy,” he said. “I just felt like I was missing a little bit of adventure.”
He decided to sell his business and build out a camper van. He planned to live inside as he traveled the country and visited all of the national parks — before he got too old for an “extreme outdoorsy” lifestyle.
These days, vanlife is a mainstream movement. Young workers have taken advantage of flexible remote jobs and become digital nomads, working out of campers and changing locations frequently. A growing group of baby boomers have seized onto vanlife as an alternative retirement lifestyle, too.
This wasn’t yet the case when Theberge started.
“A lot of my friends in Miami thought I was crazy for giving up that lifestyle and kind of doing a complete 180,″ he said.
After the pandemic began, Theberge reconnected with an old friend, Zach Daudert, who had founded the popular website Vanlife Outfitters. Dauder had grown a following documenting the process of building out a van and was looking for ways to monetize his blog.
Before the end of 2020, the pair opened a store in Sarasota where readers and other nomads could purchase all things needed for vanlife. It was perfect timing.
“COVID put the fuel on that fire and took it mainstream when people weren’t able to travel internationally,” he said. “Van life has gone from being a few hundred to a few thousand people to hundreds of thousands of people. It’s been the perfect storm.”
The Vanlife Gathering will be the first event of this scale that Daudert and Theberge have put on together. Many vanlife events have been canceled in recent years due to the pandemic, and there weren’t as many gatherings on the east coast as there are on the west.
“We wanted to do something that was really intimate, really social, really celebrating the vanlife community,” Theberge said.
He was inspired by the central location of the Withlacoochee River Park, as well as its natural beauty — oak trees as far as the eye can see, hanging moss and huge field that could fit plenty of campers.
After all, he said, “van life is all about being in nature.”
If you go
The Florida Vanlife & Nomad Gathering takes place at the Withlacoochee River Park from the afternoon of Feb. 3 to the morning of Feb. 6.
Day passes for Saturday or Sunday are $15 per day, and weekend passes are $150-$200, depending on the size of the camper. Taxes and fees are not included. Certain activities and perks, like live music, take place at night, after the day pass attendees go home. Ticket sales end Feb. 3.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit floridavanlife.com. 12449 Withlacoochee Blvd, Dade City.