What it's like to quarantine in 160 square feet (or less)

For many with unique living quarters, a stay-at-home order presents a specific set of challenges.
chasingthewildgoose/shannonsoine/ Instagram
By Courtney Gisriel

The coronavirus crisis has forced many to confine daily life to the four walls of their home. But what does this experience look like if those four walls are really close together — or aren't even walls at all?

For some young adults, the allure of a nomadic lifestyle sparked a movement away from living in traditional homes in favor of living in a retrofitted van, a lifestyle known as #vanlife on social media. Others have chosen to live in other intentionally small spaces known as tiny homes.

We checked in with several members of these communities to find out what unique challenges a stay-at-home order poses for their living situation.

The challenges at hand

Annie Colpitts built her tiny house on wheels in 2018 and has been living in (and loving) the 160-square-foot space ever since. But when her office started working from home, the experience was an adjustment.

"I think one of the reasons living in a tiny house works for me is because I work a 9-to-5 job. I am away from my house for a good chunk of the week," explained Colpitts, who documents her tiny home space on the Instagram account @PocketManor. "I also travel a decent amount so it's very, very rare that I am in my house 24/7."

"I had to stop checking my step count because on days that I didn't make an effort to go outside and go for a long walk, my step count was so distressingly low." she continued. "It takes probably six steps to get from one end of my house to the other."

Shannon Soine and her husband have lived in their tiny home for six years and just added a baby to the family in January. The small space hadn't been an issue, even with a newborn, until her husband started working from home.

"I was like, 'Oh cool, he's gonna be home? This will be great.' But then the first day that he worked from home, I was like, 'Oh, my God. This is terrible,'" Soine shared. "I was so used to my routines here ... and then once Tim started working from home, I realized he's on conference calls all day, and I can't be just making a bunch of noise."

Van life presents an even more unique set of obstacles. The nomadic lifestyle inherently leaves members of the community more open to exposure from the virus (or potentially exposing another community on their path of travel) and finding a safe space to hunker down for a long period of time has become increasingly challenging as some public lands have closed.

The space constraints for both communities have also made preparing for a long stay at home difficult.

"It has just given me so much anxiety," explained Alexandra Cotoulas, who creates content with her partner David Marcus and runs the van life travel blog, And They Travel. "Even though we're in the van and we're not normally near people, we do go to gas stations a lot. We have a small fridge, so we have to frequent supermarkets more often as opposed to when you have a full house kitchen."

The decision point

Over the past month, the guidelines on social distancing have become a regular part of daily life and stay-at-home orders have made several members of these communities rethink where home will be for the foreseeable future.

In mid-March, Cotoulas and Marcus decided to take their van off the road. Based on the recommendations at the time, they found an Airbnb rental where they planned to stay for three weeks. With guidance evolving since then, they've realized the short-term rental would not be long enough to last through the crisis and have decided to look into a long-term rental near their current location.

"It takes out a lot of the stress of driving around this way," Cotoulas explained. "At least we can focus on work."

Others have decided to return to their childhood homes to weather the pandemic.

"It's been interesting with gyms closing and that's how I shower," Kristin Holden told TMRW. She moved into her van full time in June of last year and writes on her blog Where The Road Forks. "Then you consider the fact that you may be taking the virus with you to a smaller town for those outdoorsy places you know you have to be even cognizant of that. It really just put it into perspective — wow, there's really nowhere I can go but home to my parents' house."

After quarantining for two weeks to ensure she wasn't carrying the virus, Colpitts also made the decision to return to her parents' home.

"I realized I literally did not come into contact with anyone else except for the one time I went to the grocery store. I was trying to do FaceTimes with my friends and call people on the phone and really kind of keep a good level of social engagement, but I think I was starting to suffer a little bit from not communicating with people on a regular basis," she explained.

"I'm planning on alternating (between houses) because I still like to have some time by myself and I don't really want to fully move in with my parents for a couple of months."

No place like home

Still many have chosen to ride out the situation exactly where they were when it began.

Despite the initial challenges, Soine and her family continue to live in their tiny home, with just a few adjustments. Each night, they run through her husband's work schedule so that Soine knows when it's OK to do louder tasks like vacuum, and her husband also tries to take calls from the car if complete silence is required. Given the lack of storage in their small space, they've also taken to using their cars as overflow storage for groceries and other essentials.

Brie Goumaz, a van life blogger at Chasing the Wild Goose, has been staying on public lands that remain open along with her partner Shawn Strasburg.

"We're close to a big town. That way we're keeping ourselves safe. We're not going out except when we absolutely have to," she told TMRW. "And we're being as cautious as we possibly can. I think the decision most van lifers are having to make is: what's the safe decision not only for me, but for people in the surrounding areas."

"I feel very similar to someone that would be stuck in a house and is only walking around like their neighborhood," she continued. "We're doing OK. We're used to living in a small space together."

Looking forward to a return to normal

Of the people we spoke with, not one said this change of circumstances has made them rethink their living situation post-pandemic. If anything, their commitment to the lifestyles they've chosen seems to have been strengthened.

"We've put so much love and work into this house and making it functional and making it what we need that I'm just grateful to be in a space that feels like such a happy place for me," Soine said.

"I don't see myself stopping anytime soon. I can't imagine living in a house again," Holden said. "But four years ago, I didn't imagine selling everything and moving into a van — I would have told you you were crazy."