The van movement is having a moment. Major life decisions are being made. Jobs quit. Furniture sold. Leases cancelled. People are opting to live in their vehicles…for pleasure. Hell, I’ve been doing it for two years now. The road calls. Something exciting is waiting out there for you and an old VW or Chevy might be your key to finding it. Time to chase freedom!
Wait. Pump the brakes for a second.
Yes, life on the road is breathtaking. Yes, there are moments of pure bliss. The photos you see, the stories you hear, they’re real and they paint a vivid picture that you’d be crazy not to want to be a part of. But what about the other times? The breakdowns and the pouring rain. The flat tires and the break ins. In order to appreciate the wonders of the good times, you might have to plow through a fair amount of sh*t.
To get those #vanlife photos that others lust over, you need to shell out money that most don’t have or spend a lot of time researching, repairing, and designing. When I first set out on the road, I wasn’t happy all day every day the way I expected to be, the way social media told me it would be. I wasn’t shooting photos of scantily clad nymphs dancing in the breakwater. What the hell was I doing wrong?
The fact of the matter was, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I just wasn’t aware of all the intricacies involved in living in a van. Some, in hindsight, were super obvious. Others took time to recognize. In both cases, the now needed to be appreciated. Planning and spontaneity need to be balanced, in everyday life and van life.
So, before you quit your job and buy that beat up old Econoline or Vanagon that you hope will slake your wanderlust, let me offer a few points worth considering:
1. Your Daily Staples
Really think about them. Those two a day showers. That endless wifi. That dishwasher. Oh damn that dishwasher is handy. What about those clean clothes? You can do without underwear, but you might not have a fresh shirt every day, that’s for sure.
When you move into a van, things change. Your routine changes. It needs to in order to make this whole thing work. You learn to do dishes with little to no water. You learn that a wardrobe of two shirts and a pair of pants can be stretched through a few months. Check the feed of any vanlifer and you’ll be able to pinpoint the entirety of their wardrobe within 12 images.
Like most people living on the road, we’ve showered in rivers, lakes and waterfalls––just like the Herbal Essence commercials. Unlike the commercials, however, we’ve also showered in Starbucks bathrooms, with a moist nap while working on borrowed wifi. On that note, think about how often you use wifi. Are you willing to spend that much time in a Starbucks?
Of your top 10 “must do’s” in a day, think about being able to do them in a van, in the woods, when it’s raining. Could you make it work? Could you live without them if need be?
Showers, wifi, coffee, exercise, all of your routines. The way you access those things changes. Having a space and the tools to do all of these things requires forethought. Showering every day usually cost money, more importantly showers at camp sites cost money, which leads me to my next point…
2. Think Long And Hard About Your Budget
Campsites range from $10 to $100 a night (we’ll talk more about campsites, specifically, in a moment). Those costs add up quick. Think about gas. Vans in general are not known for their gas milage. Think about surprise repairs, old vans tend to have problems. Hell, oil changes. can you do them yourself? If not, that sh*t adds up.
Christopher Many famously said that he could live on $6,000 a year. That’s because he was inching along at a glacial pace and had a system worked out in which he cooked every night and bought inexpensive, local, ingredients. He almost never stays in campsites.
How bad do you really need that beer at the end of the day? It sure feels good, but, over time, it’ll cost ya. If you’re moving into a van to live cheaply, know that it will be cheap, but not free. If you’re not someone who is able to cook, going out to eat every night is costly. Unless you plan these things out, it adds up fast. Cooking every night is important, you can eat healthier and you’ll feel better. But how and where are you going to keep those groceries? And does your van have the means to cook every morning and night comfortably?
Because of campsite expenses, this photo costs us $20.
3. Let’s Talk About Campsites
Yes, Walmart parking lots are free and they usually don’t kick you out. But, who wants to stay underneath florescent lights in the middle of a city every night? It is a point of pride that we’ve never stayed in one. Rest stops? Sure. Walmarts? I just can’t do it.
Get a map, or download one. Learn to get to your campsite before sundown. If you’re staying out west, free camping is relatively easy to find with fire service roads and removed turnouts. If you’re staying back east, things are a little harder and run the risk of being more expensive. Matt McDonald writes about this topic brilliantly. You should check it out.
You can surely park your van in a nice looking neighborhood, but keep in mind that living in a vehicle, by definition, makes you homeless. Residents of that nice looking neighborhood are well within their rights to ask you to leave or call the police. If such a thing happens be respectful and don’t test people’s comfort. They will call the cops. The van I own is home to myself, my girlfriend, and our dog, but I sometimes forget that a lot of other people don’t see it that way. Respect those who don’t appreciate what you’re doing and avoid looking like a menace. People tend to ask menaces to leave. Be respectful, you’ll be doing us all a favor.
In order to avoid the 3 a.m. police lights, do some research. Data is expensive here in the states. Internationally, as an American, you won’t have any. So when you have internet, use part of your web browsing time to plan out your moves. Traveling with someone, be prepared for the daily “where are we sleeping?” conversation. If you’re moving regularly, it is a topic that will consume a fair bit of your morning and evening talks if you’re unwilling to discuss that topic, chances are you’ll end up sleeping in a Walmart parking lot. There are a few apps/websites to help you out, freecampsites.net is a great network that is primarily U.S. based and iOverlander covers the states, as well as international roads really well. Use them and feel free to contribute when you find a spot of your own.
4. Be Ready To Change Plans
Once upon a time, we were racing to the Northern California coast to find a place to sleep before sundown. It was raining, as it often does in Northern Cali. I was driving. While cruising through the woods, I spotted a particularly pretty beam of light. I stopped the van and reversed excitedly thinking of the photos we could shoot in that light. Our ’87 G20 is not lifted and at the time had very small tires. I blinked and…*SHEEEE-THUNK*
The corner of the road gave out and we slipped into a ditch. Just like that, we were grounded.
Another time, I got back from a surf to find a flat tire that we then needed to patch up, because of the setback I missed the wind switch and couldn’t get another surf in that day. Soon after the van had a funky smell and we needed to investigate, the parking lot where we were parked became “home” that night. Two weeks later, we were leaking coolant…from somewhere that coolant wasn’t supposed to be in the first place, $600 later we were back on the road.
The reasons aren’t always all bad, you might see friends on the road and want to stop or realize there’s a show nearby you really want to see. Other times the problems are an easy fix. If it’s super windy and raining, cook inside: