We’ve heard about how much fun van festivals can be so when El Campo aligned with our schedule this year, we decided that it was time to experience one for ourselves. It was the fourth year running for El Campo and like every year, it was held by Go-Van at Domaine du Radar, just south of Quebec City, Canada.
What is a van festival you ask? It’s a festival for anyone who is part of the vanlife community; an opportunity to come together and socialize, enjoy the outdoors, attend presentations, workshops and musical performances and of course, stock-up on some vanlife merchandise (you can never have enough stickers or toques).
We’d chatted with people who’ve attended van festivals and we’d seen extensive footage on YouTube but we still didn’t know quite what to expect. We showed up at El Campo with open minds and were rewarded with an experience that absolutely exceeded our hopes for the event. It’s an experience that’s hard to describe. The festival in some ways reminded me of conferences that I’ve attended as a professional, only instead of indoors it was outdoors, it went all day and all night (if you wanted it to), every activity was optional and the dress code was like, WAY casual! Reflecting on our experience, we’ve come up with 6 things that we think you need to know about attending a van festival.
1. So Much Diversity…
From our experiences travelling through North and Central America in our van, we know that there is a lot of diversity within the vanlife community. BUT, for some reason, I thought that a van festival would attract a narrower part of that community. I had imagined that attendees would be mostly young (read: millennials), driving Sprinter vans, planning extensive travels and generally wearing Carhartt toques, puffer jackets, jeans and Blundstone boots. I could not have been more wrong. People attending were of all ages and backgrounds, driving all types, sizes and vintages of vans, bundled up (it was a chilly weekend) in a huge variety of clothing types and styles and attending for a lot of different reasons.
It was fascinating to meet people with such different motivations for living and travelling in their van. Contrary to my expectation, not everyone is planning extensive travels. Some people are living in their van while working 9 – 5 jobs and spending most of their time in one city. Other people are living full-time in their van and choosing their travel route based on where they get contract work. And then there are those just using their vans for holidays and short vacations. Most impressive to us was that some people live in their van year-round in Canada and the northern US. These people are WAY tougher than we are and also have vans that are much better equipped to handle cold weather.
2. …Yet So Many Like Minded People
Despite so much diversity, it was amazing to us how like-minded we all are. Everyone has different reasons for living part or full-time in a van but independence, minimalism and intentional living were definitely common threads. Most vanlifers have previously lived much more traditional lives and somewhere along the way, decided that they’d be happier doing something different… and apparently living in something that rolls!
3. It’s ON, No Matter the Weather
When we gave up our Toyota Matrix and 3-man tent for a van, one of the new luxuries we valued most was being able to hang out comfortably inside the van, even if the weather outside was terrible. However, you don’t go to a van festival to laze on your couch and watch “The Crown” (to be fair… we did do that one rainy morning). You go to meet people, check out other vans, watch presentations and music performances, etc. And at a van festival, ALL of these things happen outside. So you need to show up ready for whatever Mother Nature might bring. At El Campo, we had one gorgeous, warm day of sun followed by two somewhat drizzly, cloudy, cold days. We were ready for the gross weather so we just put on our boots, toques and puffer jackets and got out there and enjoyed it. Walter (and as a result, the van) got very wet and muddy but it was totally worth it.
4. So Many Rigs to Explore
Just about everyone at a van festival is eager to show off their rig so it’s a perfect place to tour vans and draw inspiration for future renovations, a new build or some tweaking to your already perfect vehicle. YouTube is full of van tour videos but there’s nothing like poking your head into a real van and talking directly to the proud owner. We came away with much renovation inspiration and I can imagine that for anyone planning a van build, a van festival would be an ideal opportunity to gather ideas and information.
5. You Can’t Do It All
When we first saw the festival itinerary, we figured we’d attend all of the organized activities, spend some time socializing and also take advantage of the location to hike some trails or get out our SUP. After being at the festival for only a few yours, it became obvious that there was no way we’d be able to do it all. If you want to spend time socializing and visiting other people’s vans, you won’t have time to attend all of the workshops and presentations. If you do attend a lot of workshops, you’ll be foregoing some of the more informal socializing. We decided to prioritize the organized activities we were most interested in and forego any activity that wasn’t related to the festival. Hiking and SUPing is something we can do any time.
6. It’s Dog Friendly, but…
Dogs were permitted at El Campo and I think most van festivals allow dogs. After all, dogs are one of the reasons that so many of us choose to travel in a van. Walter had a great weekend. He met and played with many new dog friends, got to stick his nose in a bunch of other people’s vans (invited or not) and spent the whole weekend outside. BUT, it’s worth noting that bringing your dog to a van festival is not like bringing him or her camping. There is A LOT of stimuli for them with so many other dogs and people constantly in close proximity and loud music at times (if you’re in the main village area). If your dog is shy or doesn’t get along well with other dogs, you’d definitely want to come up with some strategies ahead of time for keeping them comfortable and calm.
What Do You Think?
Have you been to a van festival? If so, which festival did you attend? Did you enjoy it enough to do another event in the future? Is there anything you’d add to our list? Let us know in the comments!