Crystal McLeod is a second year medical student at the University of British Columbia.Crystal McLeod

After a ten-hour drive, I arrive in the city as dusk begins to fall. I quickly check in at the North Vancouver campground office, make my way to my site, and begin setting up my tent, complete with an overhead tarp to protect from early morning rainfalls. I continue to make camp with rhythmic ease, it’s a routine that has become very familiar during this summer between my first and second year of medical school. I spent two weeks camping on the outskirts of Victoria for a plastic surgery workshop and am returning to this same campground for a second time.

I look around me and I see young families and older couples settling into a comfortable evening in lawn chairs and artificial fires that meet the British Columbia fire ban requirements. Some of the camp sites hold permanent mobile homes, which I imagine are like cottages to their residents. While other sites are hosting varying sizes of motorhomes that either scream tourist with CanaDream Logos or van lifer vibes. I daydream about where these folks will go while in the city. Perhaps they will cycle around the Seawall, check the Grouse Grind off their bucket list, ferry over to Granville Island, or just relax on a nearby beach.

Finding myself in this scene makes me chuckle. I am not here to relax or see beautiful Vancouver, I am pursuing cardiac surgery. I am tenting it so I can get into the operating room and earn some shadowing experience. And when I think of it, my experience seems like a funny juxtaposition to my fellow campers.

Do not get me wrong, this park is a wonderful place to camp. The views of Burrard inlet and the Lions Gate Bridge from this park are stunning. The camp features the best amenities, including showers, a pool and free Wi-Fi hotspots. I will have everything I need when I come back from the OR each day. And, at $350 a week, this site is the best rental anywhere in the city hands down. However, this isn’t what I imagined when I bought my camping gear at the start of first year, I thought I would take up off-the grid style treks that, as a native Ontarian, I associate with BC. I never thought that camping would become a strategic financial move so I could afford my medical education.

I am a medical student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), but I am also a student of the Northern Medical Program in Prince George. This means that I attend UBC but complete all my schoolwork and basic clinical placements in the northern part of the province. The cost of living in Prince George is relatively affordable compared to other cities in Canada, and I am thankful that I currently can afford to live where I train. I recognize that the large majority of UBC students who train in Vancouver face sky high rents, inconsistent leases, and public transit challenges. I have had only a short exposure to life in metro Vancouver (and even Victoria) compared to my peers who train there all year around.

However, I think it is fair to say that I must travel to Vancouver on a semi-regular basis to supplement the education I receive in Prince George which, as the hub of the Northern Health Authority, offers a variety of health care services but not in every medical specialty. The only path a medical student can take to continue residency training entirely from Prince George is family medicine. To gain exposure to a variety, or even spend time in a specific specialty, I must go down to the lower mainland. If I am to pursue cardiac surgery in BC (or any other specialty for that matter) I will need to relocate to at least one of the province’s cities and manage on the fixed income of a resident. Short-term rentals vary tremendously, but a good deal will often run you upwards of $1600 for a 6-day stay (more than a month’s rent in Prince George).

In the spring of 2022, the CBC released a short film featuring two UBC students avoiding astronomical rent by living in a camper van in Kitsilano, a trendy neighbourhood of Vancouver. The film highlighted how students and others with limited means are often forced into these circumstances because of the city’s climbing cost of living. I remember viewing the film and thinking that is wild, why would anyone live in Vancouver? I had no idea that in just over a year I would be accepted into UBC, struggle to locate reasonable housing, and be sleeping outdoors in the city too.

On the banks of the Capilano river, I begin to snuggle into my tent and contemplate what the next steps in training will look like for me. I already have a plan for my winter stint of shadowing; I will couch surf with a childhood friend who has also relocated to the west coast (I don’t freeze and she gets some help with rent: a win-win). As for residency, I want to become a cardiac surgeon and am willing to make almost any sacrifice to get there. And maybe, just maybe, living in a camper for a 5-year residency might be one of them.