For the past 20 years, Thomasina Pidgeon, the first Canadian woman to climb V10, V11, and V12, has lived below British Columbia’s Stawamus Chief in her van, working at the local climbing shop, the Ground Up Climbing Center gym, and as a climbing coach. Though she’s a longtime local and an employed, contributing member of the Squamish economy, a recently proposed Squamish County bylaw could push her, and dozens of others living in their vehicles, out of the area.
Earlier this year, Squamish County proposed Bylaw No. 2679, containing regulations that would prohibit all overnight camping, whether in a tent or a vehicle, in public spaces. It allows for two exempt areas more than seven miles outside town, down 4x4 roads; anyone caught camping outside these zones could be fined up to $10,000. While the bylaw, which needs to go through three readings (it has been through one already) is still under review, it has faced community opposition throughout. A lot is at stake: The outcome could create a template for not only Squamish but other outdoor towns across North America.
For van dwellers, many of whom are unable to drive down 4x4 roads, the bylaw effectively negates why they live in their vehicles. Like many who choose this lifestyle, Pidgeon does so in part to save money. When her daughter, Cedar, 12, a double-digit bouldering crusher like her mom, was younger, Pidgeon rented a place in Squamish. “It was $600 a month, and that was reasonable,” she says. “But now that same place is, like, $1,600 a month”—well out of reach on Pidgeon’s modest salary. Instead, she and Cedar live in a 1998 Toyota Sienna.
Across North America, van dwelling has increased in popularity, exemplified by the 5.2 million #vanlife posts on Instagram. In towns like Squamish, dubbed “the outdoor recreation capital of Canada,” the population of people living in their vehicles is rising, with the 2016 Canada Census finding that 330 permanent residents live in moveable dwellings. Moreover, according to the town’s mayor, Karen Elliot, 3,000-plus people visit Squamish every summer, many of whom stay in their vehicles or camp. These large numbers can cause campgrounds to fill up and seasonal van dwellers to overflow into town, or park in wilderness areas or on the sides of roads. In an interview with The National Post, Elliot, said, “The density is starting to have an impact on some pretty environmentally sensitive areas.”
Increased development within Squamish is another factor. Julie Ellison, a contributing editor at Climbing, experienced this in summer 2018. She tried to park at a lot near Nexen Beach, a spot locals have frequented for years, but after an hour was told to leave. “The lot was now owned by a private developer, and you couldn’t stay past a certain time,” she says.
With population density and visitor numbers swelling in desirable outdoor towns, Squamish is not the only place experiencing growing pains. Canmore, an Alberta town with a large population of van dwellers, recently passed a parking ban in municipal lots between 7 and 9 a.m., a preliminary measure to, in the ban’s language, “discourage repeated overnight parking.” South of the border in the United States, some 39 percent of cities have laws against living in a vehicle, while 33 percent prohibit public camping anywhere within city limits, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. While many climbing areas allow dispersed camping, van dwellers, like everyone else, need to make money, often in urban areas.
“It’s hard in a city because one of the main strategies that people use is to find BLM land,” says Connor MacLennan, the lead route-
setter at Central Rock Gym in Boston. “[And] … there’s just none of it around here.” Prior to his career at Central Rock, MacLennan worked at another gym, whose meager pay scale plus his desire to save money for climbing trips meant living in his van outside Walmart, Home Depot, etc. However, the difficulties of van life—finding places to park coupled with mechanical issues—eventually forced him into a house.
After 3.5 years on the road, Ellison has also moved into an apartment, in Idaho, reserving her van for trips. Striking out on finding good overnight parking in Bishop, California, prompted her to reconsider #vanlife. “I realized this thing I was doing that I thought had little impact and was sort of ‘on the fringe of society’ was actually the same as what thousands of other people were doing, and thus probably had much more impact than I thought,” she explains.
For Pidgeon, moving into an apartment is not a solution, though—she would rather see a rethinking of van dwellers’ role within society. Pidgeon points out that other Squamish locals typecast van dwellers as freeloaders who leave trash and excrement, a misperception she attributes to the influx of summer tourists. “People are coming out to the woods to party, and they’re usually the one who don’t pick [garbage] up,” she says. Furthermore, the county’s solutions are simply not tenable for her. For example, staying at one of the campgrounds, which start at $10 a night, would add up quickly and, “You don’t get anything—just a parking spot.” Likewise, the exempt areas are so distant that her costs would increase through gas expenses and lost time.
Instead of placing restrictions on Squamish van dwellers, Pidgeon suggests educating residents and van dwellers with county-placed Leave No Trace signs and mandatory low-impact-camping trainings—much like the visitor-education system at Hueco Tanks. She would also like to see the county grant annual right-to-roam permits that would require van dwellers to pay a property-style tax on their vehicle. This could incorporate van dwellers into the larger community.
The Squamish City Council has so far been responsive to the community’s opinions on the bylaw. Van dwellers and district staff are in conversation, and will hopefully reach a solution that works for everyone. In the interim, Pidgeon urges her fellow van dwellers to be respectful. Too often, she’s noticed vans with miscellaneous items spread all around, and she worries that the new initiates to this lifestyle neglect to remember they exist within a larger context. She wants van dwellers to—like any good neighbors—be cognizant of their trash and their noise level, to stay incognito when appropriate, and to keep in mind that, “Nobody wants to see that you live in your van.”