When 22-year-old Gabby Petito set out on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, in July, she was hoping to chronicle her travels online and increase her social media following. Since then, her following has grown enormously; her Instagram account just surpassed 1 million followers—but for the grimmest possible reason. After Petito’s family reported her missing earlier this month, her case became the subject of fervent national interest and online sleuthing. Her remains were discovered earlier this week, and Laundrie, who returned home without her, is now considered a person of interest in the case.
Petito had hoped to become a travel influencer, and more specifically, a van-lifer: one of the growing number of people who live in their vans as nomads and document their travels around the country on Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms, often using the hashtag #vanlife, which Petito affixed to many of her posts. This content often features dramatic vistas and photogenic couples with tricked-out vans. (And more lately, funny TikToks about how van-lifers stay hygienic.) Even though Petito didn’t have a large following as a van-lifer at the time of her disappearance, her disappearance has affected and rattled the #vanlife community all the same.
Sydney Ferbrache, a 26-year-old van-lifer who has more than 800,000 followers on TikTok, said it was hard not to become “super-consumed” by Petito’s case. “I became pretty obsessive over it the last week or so,” Ferbrache said. “I just felt like I should be doing something. Before they found her, I felt like I should be going to Yellowstone.” Sunny Flaherty, another van-lifer who has more than 100,000 TikTok followers, said she also considered and had even started on her way to the area where Petito was last seen to aid in the search for her before authorities announced that they were no longer seeking help from volunteers. They became just two of the many van-lifers who posted updates about Petito on their social media accounts.
Ferbrache’s TikTok about the case has received almost 300,000 views. In it, she faces the camera head on and begins, “Hello friends, I am a female that lives on the road in a van, so I’ve had a lot of people reaching out about the Gabby Petito case.” She preceded to go over the basics of Petito’s disappearance.
“We need to talk, and I’m on the road,” Flaherty started her first video about the case, which was viewed 2.8 million times. “We are going to be going to the Grant Tetons to see if there’s anything that we can do to help in the search of Gabby Petito. If you guys don’t know her story, this is her”—a picture from Petito’s Instagram popped up on screen—“She’s part of the vanlife community, and she is missing.”
Some of the van-lifers turned into amateur sleuths, trying to solve the case by applying their particular knowledge of the nomadic van lifestyle. Nikita Crump, a 30-year-old van-lifer of two years who has 1 million followers on TikTok, told me, “Before her body was found, we were all sharing maps of where her destinations were, where she was planning on going. We were sharing where her tattoos are.” They hoped that “because we’re more a part of that community, because our followers are more into hiking, maybe they’re over there, [and] we could be more involved and have more of an effect.”
For van-lifers, especially female van-lifers, it was easy to see themselves in Petito. Crump said she couldn’t help but notice that Petito was traveling in a Ford Transit Connect, just like her.
Billie Webb, a 22-year-old who has more than 500,000 followers on TikTok, said that she felt the instant kinship with Petito she would feel with any van-lifer: “This isn’t just something small like, ‘Oh, we can connect because we have the same type of dog.’ #Vanlife is our entire life. It affects everything we do: how we shower, how we interact with each other, how we interact with other people who aren’t van-lifers.”
Flaherty, 24, could also count the ways she identified with Petito: “She’s from Florida, I’m from Florida. She was traveling with her significant other; I’m doing the same.” Even Petito’s father reminded Flaherty of her own dad. “When I heard the news break, I was on FaceTime with my parents. They happened to be watching the news, waiting for the FBI to go on and announce what had happened. So we watched it together, cried together.”
For #vanlife couples, there’s also the particular pressure of projecting an idyllic relationship for an online following that is highly invested in you as a couple. Ferbrache said she did “solo female #vanlife” for three years, but she has been traveling with her boyfriend since January. After Petito’s death, she’s seen her own followers turn on her relationship. Now, she said, ”I have been bombarded on TikTok specifically about how I need to distance myself from my boyfriend. ‘After experiencing what’s going on with Gabby Petito, how could you ever trust him again?’ ”
Ferbrache and others said they were also very affected by the bodycam footage that circulated online of police in Moab, Utah, interviewing Petito and Laundrie outside their van; someone had called 911 to report seeing a man of Laundrie’s description slapping a woman. In the video, Petito told police, “I just now quit my job to travel across the country and I’m trying to start a blog. … I’ve been really stressed and he doesn’t really believe that I could do any of it.”
For van-lifers, the anxiety of trying to grow an online following on the road felt achingly familiar. “I’ve thought a lot about how insanely lonely that must have felt for her,” Ferbrache said. “You leave all these people behind at home who don’t really understand what you’re doing. You also don’t have any van friends yet because [in her case] you’ve only been on the road for a month.” Ferbrache said it took her three years before she was able to make enough money through #vanlife content to support herself. Flaherty said one thing the case has brought to the fore is that the public misunderstands how hard what they do is: “People think that if they live in a van now, they’re just automatically going to get a following and be an influencer.”