Living the #vanlife. It's a trend, it's a meme, it's a parody; it's one of the most popular hashtags on instagram with over 9 million posts and counting. And it isn't just for vans anymore. You can drive an RV, haul a trailer, sleep in a rooftop tent, or cruise around in a boat on wheels and still be living the van life.
Instagram has been a major player in popularizing this movement, but nomadic life certainly isn't new. The movement, masterfully conquered by hippies in the 1960's, has been around for centuries.
Right now, however, van life is truly having its moment in the sun. It's become an appealing escape from the chains of societal expectation, and what we're seeing online projects a life of absolute freedom.
But like with anything we're subjected to on social media, what we're being sold isn't the whole picture. So I'm here to tell it to you straight. As always, this view is from my experience alone. What may be a downside to me, may not be to the next nomad.
I'm breaking this blog up into pros and cons, but some of the negatives could easily be considered "just plain realities," They aren't necessarily good or bad, they're just an adjustment to consider. Ok, let's get started.
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Experiencing the Best Views/Proximity to Nature:
This is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the main reasons so many people are drawn to this lifestyle. There's much to be said about waking up to a new and beautiful view out your side door every morning. It's exhilarating, it's refreshing and it gives you a solid reason to get out of bed every day. There's a benefit to casually camping at a trailhead of your own making. You can step out the door, lace up your shoes, and go for a run, a bike ride, or a paddle, straight from your own doorstep.
All the Freedoms:
Having the freedom to travel year round, on your own schedule, and to do it cheaply, holds undeniable appeal. When you have everything you need in your tiny home on wheels, you don't have to think about packing bags, booking Airbnb's and renting cars to explore the countryside in. You have all those things rolled into one, in your camper van. That adds a layer of ease and familiarity that most don't have while traveling.
The financial freedom that comes along with van life also carries major mass appeal. In fact, sometimes it's the main motivator. Some van lifers aren't interested in traveling the country, they're just hoping to save money on rent and utility bills while living and working in an expensive city. With the costs of rent skyrocketing around the country, who could blame them? This was one of my main motivators for moving into my van. I was tired of being solely responsible for paying the mortgage on my house. It was a lot of pressure! When I sold my house in 2019, I was able to go completely debt free and that was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. It lifted a huge weight off my shoulders and allowed me to remain a freelance illustrator without the fear of going broke each month. Of course, this became even more beneficial when work dried up during the pandemic. I've been able to skirt by without stressing about my finances. That doesn't mean there aren't any expenses that come along with van life. There most certainly are, especially initially. But overall, you can live pretty frugally in this lifestyle, depending on how much you drive. This opens the door to saving more money or it allows you to work a lot less. Whichever you prefer.
Simplicity and Sustainability:
This is one of my favorite advantages to van life and it honestly deserves its own blog post. But that will have to wait. Until then, let's talk about these unexpected benefits.
Moving into a van feels like a nod towards minimalism. It was a real challenge for me to pare down a whole house's worth of belongings to fit into the tiniest of living spaces. Although I do have a small storage unit for the furniture I couldn't bare to part with, overall I got rid of a LOT of stuff. It's far too easy these days to accumulate unnecessary things, especially when you have a whole house to fill.
This brings me to my next point: breaking the shopping addiction. Since my van is packed to the gills, I don't have room to haphazardly pick up new items. I have to be incredibly intentional about every single purchase. Generally speaking, if I shop for something new, I have to get rid of something old. It feels silly to get rid of perfectly good belongings, so I just don't do a lot of it. Before I moved into the van, I was a pretty heavy Amazon shopper. I was addicted to the ease and convenience of shopping online, as well as the little dopamine boost it gave me. So I did it frequently and without much thought. I honestly didn't realize this was a problem until I stopped. Looking back, I can see that I was trying to fill some voids with unnecessary stuff and shopping had become a way of lifting my spirits when I was feeling emotional. Now I see what an unhealthy coping mechanism that was for me.
Since then, I've learned how easily I can live with fewer items, and how much I enjoy the simplicity of it. Sure, I wear the same clothes all the time and I have to go back to Portland between seasons to raid my storage unit and switch out my gear, but I really don't mind. Turns out, I much prefer living this way. The less I consume, the better I feel.
Which brings me to my next point. Consuming less of everything and reducing my carbon footprint. I receive all my electricity from my 400ah batteries that are charged by my 350 watt solar panels or through my van alternator while I'm driving. Using renewable energy not only makes me feel like I'm doing something good for the planet, it also feels good on my pocket book, since it's free beyond its initial installation costs. It's hard to imagine myself going back to being on the grid after experiencing this kind of freedom.
I consume a lot less water than I did as a homeowner. It's easy to mindlessly leave a sink running when you're stepping across the kitchen to grab a dish or turn to talk to your partner. The gallons add up. In the van, I have a foot pump system. That means I never needlessly run water, every pump counts toward something. I'm able to go a week on 15 gallons of water for myself and my dog, Huxley, while an average American consumes 88 gallons PER DAY.
Because I have to deal with all my own trash and recycling, I'm much more aware of the plastic I bring into the van. Every non-organic item that comes in will have to be thrown away at some point, and my garbage can is REALLY small. So when I'm at the market searching for groceries, I pay close attention to how much packaging items have and whether it's worth the garbage it will create. I end up eating a lot more whole foods because of this, which is an added health benefit.
Adventurous Dogs and Cats Love It:
The absolute look of joy my dog, Huxley, gets whenever we arrive at our destination is so contagious. She can roam freely in wild open places, smelling all the unfamiliar smells, rolling around in the dirt or sand or snow, and just zooming around me in circles. I truly believe I am giving her the best life ever, and her excitement adds so much value to my own experience. She reminds me to stay stoked, stay in the moment, and not to sweat the small stuff. Our lives are much richer together, exploring all the nooks and crannies of the United States' vast wilderness.
Living in the Moment:
This brings me to my next benefit, seizing the day! Living on the road jolts you out of your routine. It wakes up your senses. It gives you a heightened awareness of the beauty and fragility of life. You're actively chasing your dreams and building a life that aligns with your desires. No single day will look the same. In fact, one day can look drastically different from the last. So you take it day by day, trying not to stay too hung up on the past or worry too much about the future. You learn from experience not to plan too far in advance, because something will always throw a wrench in your plans. Remaining flexible and going with the flow is such an important trait for thriving in this lifestyle. Thankfully, you're the one who's in charge, making each decision for you and only you, and being flexible is part of the fun of van life. Because you never really know where each day is going to take you.
I can't write this blog post without mentioning the van life community. When I attended my first Descend on Bend in Oregon, I had the stark realization that these were my people. Everyone's friendly, open and welcoming and always willing to lend a hand. The friends I made at Descend on Bend are people I still talk to all the time, and ones that I still meet up with on the road. So if you're looking to get into this lifestyle, I highly recommend attending a van gathering. They take place all over the country. You'll build lifelong friendships with like minded people. Heck, you might even find new friends to travel with!
And if you see other van lifers on the road, give a wave or stop and say hello! You never know who you'll meet.
You'll notice that my cons list is a little more extensive than my pros list. This doesn't mean that the bad outweighs the good, quite the opposite. All of these things, although frustrating at times, are ultimately manageable for me. The pros and cons are not of equal weight or value. I'm still out here because the beauty and potential of this lifestyle makes all the negatives worthwhile. But I want to be totally transparent about van life. It is not as glamorous as everyone makes it out to be. I won't beat around the bush, there are some pretty harsh realities that come along with living on the road and it's so much more than what's presented to you on social media. So without further ado, here are the cons.
This could also be considered a positive, depending on how you look at it. Regardless, it's important to remember that this lifestyle is a huge commitment. It could require a pretty hefty financial investment, no matter what kind of rig you end up purchasing. It also means abandoning your old comforts, switching to a completely unique and new-to-you lifestyle, and embracing the hard times. You should not take this jump lightly. It's a process that requires a lot of time and plenty of research. It's one you should absolutely try before you buy. Rent a camper van and travel for a short duration before you commit to buying your own rig and committing fully. It's imperative that you know that this life is right for you. Hold onto that drive and motivation to help get you through the more challenging moments.
Before you move into the van, you should be prepared to:
know how you will make money on the road
get health insurance that will cover you while you travel
figure out how you will receive mail, do taxes, pay bills, etc.
have extra cash in case of emergency and vehicle maintenance/surprise repairs
Be ready to make some sacrifices when you embark on this new journey:
space (this seems obvious, but it really is a major adjustment)
relationships with friends, family and partners
a consistent and stable income
any sense of normalcy or routine
privacy or alone time if you travel with a partner
So if you're prepared to make some sacrifices, and you've done your research, here's a little of what to expect once you hit the road:
Everything Takes Longer:
The tasks you took for granted in your old life will be a much bigger chore and possibly take 2-3 times longer once you move into your vehicle. When you live remotely, running an errand as simple as grocery shopping requires a lot more planning. If you're camping in beautiful places, you're most likely far from town, so planning for about a week's worth of groceries (or however much will fit in your fridge) is vital. And while you're in town, you should also think about:
filling up on gas
refilling your water supply
dumping gray water
picking up mail
dumping your toilet
Speaking of toilets and showering...
Keeping Up Hygiene:
The two questions I'm asked most are "where do you shower," and "how do you go to the bathroom." Each nomad is going to have a different answer to these questions, depending up what you've armed your vehicle with. Personally, I kind of fall into the "dirtbag" category of van-lifers. I don't feel the need to shower very often. If you're SUPER into personal hygiene, you're going to have to make some major adjustments or heavily invest in methods of staying clean.
I've set up my van with a Thetford cassette toilet that slides under my bench seat. Lots of folks opt for the composting toilet because it's less messy, but it's a lot more expensive at around $1000 and doesn't fit into everyone's budget. I know a lot of folks aren't comfortable with emptying a cassette toilet and having to deal directly with their own poo (nobody likes poo splatter!), and therefore only use it for #1. However, I am not one of those people. I don't mind dumping the toilet a few times a month for the convenience of having something available during the middle of the night or in case of emergencies. It just takes some adjustment, as with everything van life. Most of the time I go to the bathroom outside, however. So if that feels uncomfortable to you, a toilet will be an absolute must. And also worth noting, there are some places in America where you aren't allowed to camp unless you have some sort of toilet on board.
I don't have a shower set-up in my van, nor do I have a gym membership. So shower's are far and few between. Nomads tend to approach this in a myriad of ways, depending on personal needs. Here are some examples of how to find showers on the road:
Campgrounds-the more expensive campgrounds or RV parks usually have showers, just make sure to check with them ahead of time. I love using these campgrounds because it offers me an opportunity to refill my water, dump garbage and deal with some other chores all at once. Also look out for RV parks that will let you come in and pay for a shower without staying overnight.
Gym Membership-there are a few options when it comes to cheap memberships, including Planet Fitness and Anytime Fitness. This works great if you picture yourself being outside metropolis areas. This would be an inconvenience for me, personally, because I normally camp as far away from cities as possible. And to be honest, it has had zero appeal to me during the pandemic.
Solar Shower-there are several different options when it comes to solar showers. You just have to find the one that's right for you. It may not be the most comfortable way to shower, and you have to make sure you're out of eyesight of other humans, but it's a quick fix and it does the job.
Installing a shower-if you have the space, the budget and the water storage, this would a great option for you.
Sink baths and wet wipes-this is my tried and true method of keeping "clean." I wash my hair in my sink and do a "pit and ditch" wash, which means exactly as it sounds. This can get me by in the winter months with the occasional campground visits and in the summer months I just spend more time swimming in natural water sources, like lakes and rivers.
I had a really hard time getting into the work flow. When I first moved into the van, it felt like a permanent vacation. I was constantly in "go mode" and I wanted to see and experience everything I could. Since I'm self-employed, I hardly got any work done. It took several months for me to figure out how to balance exploration and adventure with work and self-discipline. To add an extra layer of difficulty to that equation, I was struggling with finding good wifi/cell signal.. With the closing of indoor seating due to the pandemic, coffee shops and libraries were no longer a viable option. However, once it's safe for businesses to open up again, those are two great ways to find reliable wifi and the peace and quiet to get work done.
A few months into living on the road, I purchased a WeBoost signal booster. Because it extends my cell signal reach, I can stay put for longer periods of time and give myself a chance to work more intensively, rewarding myself with hiking or adventure once I'm done.
Don't believe what you see on Instagram, living small means your space gets dirty FAST. No matter how often I clean or tidy my van interior, it doesn't last. I usually sweep, shake the rug out, wipe down walls and tidy up every single day. I use the front seats of the van as my dumping zone and things accumulate quickly! But always keep in mind, every time you need to drive, you have to secure everything in your rig, so it really is a practice in space management.
I've also learned that living in a home that frequently moves along bumpy terrain means that screws will come loose, wood will split, and water will find a way to leak. It took me a long time to realize that I had to keep in constant check of bolts and joints to make sure everything stays in place. No matter how much you monitor your vehicle, however, some things are bound to go wrong.
Expect the Unexpected:
Since I've moved into my Ford Transit, I've already slid on ice and gotten stuck in a ditch and busted out a rear window backing into a tree. You have to learn to relax, breathe and take things as they come when you live in your vehicle. It adds an extra layer of anxiety when all of your posessions, your pets, the place you call home, are all wrapped up into this one vehicle that's chugging down the freeway at the mercy of all oncoming traffic.
So drive extra carefully, always be aware of your surroundings and be sure to have money set aside for emergency repairs. It cost me $500 to replace my rear window.
Mice. I haven't talked to a single nomad that hasn't had to deal with a mouse infestation at some point. I had a couple stow away in my vehicle when I was in Colorado last summer. They ruined the majority of my dry food and kept me awake at night, gnawing on anything they could sink their teeth into. Since I was outside a small town, I didn't have access to humane traps and had to resort to setting kill traps. I was horrified to have to take those measures, but I was worried that if I didn't rid of them quickly, I might be dealing with chewed wires or nests in my walls.
I've found that if I arrive at a campsite just before dark, opening up the hood of the engine eliminates that dark, warm environment that rodents look to build their nests in. That's worked for me since my Colorado incident, but there are also plenty of products on the market to deter mice. Sometimes it's as simple as keeping your food in plastic bins.
Flying bugs, like mosquitos, flies and gnats, can also be extremely problematic and irritating during the spring and summer months. There are mesh screen doors you can find online similar to this one that help address this problem. You merely have to trim them to fit your doors. I didn't use mesh screens last summer, and I seriously regretted it. When it was buggy outside, I had to close my doors, and in doing so, closing myself off to any possible cross ventilation. And it gets REALLY HOT in a van. Cross ventilation is crucial during those stifling summer months.
Finding a safe place to park and sleep can be a nightly challenge and one that’s occasionally left me scouting for somewhere to park for hours on end, which is exhausting. There will undoubtedly be some places you travel that have so many restrictions for van lifers, you'll wonder how anyone camps there. Various cities don't allow overnight street camping and other parks and trailheads are restrictive as well. Make sure to check local regulations before you go. Some people choose ignore the signs and camp stealth anyways, but then you're running the risk of getting a knock on your window in the middle of the night from local law enforcement. No thanks!
Camping in the wilderness can feel a lot safer than on city streets, and it most likely is. But it's normal to have some anxiety about camping alone in the middle of nowhere without any cell service. This is why I'd suggest having a satellite communicator device, like the garmin inreach, especially if you're flying solo. I use mine to send a pin to my parents when I'm out of cell range and want to make sure someone knows my exact location.
My advice for staying safe as a solo nomad is:
try not to attract too much attention to yourself
don't tell strangers you're alone or where you're camping
keep a weapon of some kind with you. I keep a large knife near my bed at night
make sure all the doors are locked, and lay pretty low
have your vehicle keys accessible and know your escape plan
I allow myself the freedom to move camps if I'm feeling creeped out by another camper, which has honestly happened a few times. I would much rather take the time to find a place to camp where I feel safe, knowing I'll have a worry-free night of sleep ahead of me if I do.
Leaving your friends and family in the dust will seem like an exciting adventure at first, but once the novelty begins to wear off, the homesickness will inevitably settle in. If you're doing this solo, it takes time to adjust to being on your own all the time, making all the decisions yourself. I'm an introvert, so this lifestyle comes pretty naturally to me, but it didn't always feel that way. I remember how, during my first two weeks in the van, I was getting so lonely that I spent some nights crying into my pillow. Meanwhile, back at home, life was chugging along as it always was, and most people probably weren't thinking all that much about me.
It requires a really concerted effort to stay in touch with friends from home when you live on the road. Your schedule is unpredictable, you don't always have cell service, and you may be easily distracted by the myriad of things you're doing when you're living out your dreams. But if you aren't willing to put in that extra effort, you may end up losing some friends.
For me, staying in touch with my closest friends has gotten me through some of the tougher moments. We talk on the phone and text often. We even FaceTime occasionally. Without this thread to my "old life," I think I'd feel pretty disconnected and lonely.
Is It Worth It?
For me, it's a resounding YES. I have no long term plan, no timeline. I'm taking it day by day. I'm allowing myself the freedom to go for another 5 years, or to quit tomorrow. My only plan is to do follow this path as long as it feels right to me.
I hope this blog post has helped you see the full picture of van life. It isn't just beautiful views and boho interiors. It's so much more. Is it right for you? Only you know the answer to that.