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Van life has found a home in the Bay Area.

In the past five years, at least a half dozen companies renting kitted-out camper vans or RVs have taken root here, and more are on the way. Each does it a little differently: Some are marketplaces that advertise along the lines of “Airbnb for camper vans,” while others emphasize luxurious amenities or round-the-clock assistance with trip planning.

But all seek to capitalize on surging interest in the nomadic, self-sufficient #vanlife culture popularized on social media and compounded by concerns over traveling in the era of COVID. They deal primarily in large vans — campers, cargos, sprinters — customized with bedding platforms, kitchenettes and gear storage and designed for couples or small families who don’t mind hunkering down in cozy confines each night.

If the trend continues, it represents a new evolution of the classic American road trip.

“I really think the camper van rentals and lifestyle is in its infancy stage, so it’s interesting to see all these startups filling different niches and needs,” said Camila Ramirez, CEO of Go Camp, a peer-to-peer rental service founded in Portland, Ore., in 2017 that lists San Francisco as a top market.

The Bay Area boasts a burgeoning cottage industry of these companies.

Simple Camper renter Keith Fletcher settles Lola into her bed before they leave for a getaway in a camper van.

Simple Camper renter Keith Fletcher settles Lola into her bed before they leave for a getaway in a camper van.

Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

Budget travelers can rent garishly colored cargo vans with beds, sinks and stoves from Escape Campervans, a New Zealand company with 13 locations in North America, including a depot in Hayward. For a mid-tier option, there is Trekker Vans in South San Francisco, which launched in 2017 and rents 15 customized Ford Transit cargo vans. Nascent San Francisco startup Campago is rolling out a small fleet of “flexible” campers whose interior platforms fold out into bunks, desk space or a single large sleeping area.

In terms of peer-to-peer marketplaces where vehicle owners rent out campers and RVs, the largest player is Outdoorsy, which operates nationwide and lists about 2,000 vehicles in the Bay Area. RVShare, where you can find Winnebegos and the like, lists over 1,000 RVs here. Go Camp offers about 30 vans in the region, with more in Sacramento and Fresno. Turo, a car-sharing company launched in San Francisco in 2009, lists just a handful of campers — largely because insurance premiums for this type of vehicle can be pricey, according to chief data officer Albert Mangahas.

European company Indie Campers opened its first pickup center in Los Angeles last year and started offering rentals in San Francisco a few months ago.

It’s no wonder rental companies are setting up shop here.

The Bay Area is an ideal launchpad for outdoor travelers, being within reach of world-class destinations like Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks, and the redwood forests in Humboldt County, not to mention Highway 1. And while Northern California is peppered with campgrounds, camper vans allow travelers to bypass the battle for campsite reservations, which often get snapped up months in advance within moments of opening online.

“California is definitely our largest market,” said Claire Walsh, director of brand marketing for Outdoorsy.

The next to enter the Bay Area market is Cabana, a luxury camper van service based in Seattle that expanded to Los Angeles last year and is coming to San Francisco this summer. It operates a fleet of 40 camper vans and plans to enlarge that to about 200 by the end of the year, according to founder and CEO Scott Kubly. His company’s vans are outfitted with showers, toilets, refrigerators, sinks and small safes.

“The idea is, taking all the hard things about travel out so you can focus on the experience and be totally in the moment,” Kubly said.

Jason Sibley-Liddle, owner of Simple Camper, shows Sophie Fletcher some of the shower controls of a camper van Keith Fletcher loads their belongings.

Jason Sibley-Liddle, owner of Simple Camper, shows Sophie Fletcher some of the shower controls of a camper van Keith Fletcher loads their belongings.

Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

It’s not just European visitors renting out camper vans. There’s brisk business from aspiring Bay Area van lifers — the “try-before-you-buy” crowd testing out life on the road. There’s the newly remote demographic of laptop workers who’d prefer to clock in from the base of a mountain (internet permitting) rather than their city apartments.

Some people use camper vans to build personal vacations around, say, destination weddings or music festivals. Others rent them to celebrate anniversaries, babymoons or even breakups.

“We had five Stanford MBA students who took five of our vans out to Nevada for their own little mini Burning Man spring break trip,” Kubly said.

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