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!
Hold up. Pump the brakes for just a second. Maybe two.
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 your vehicle. 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 failing. I just wasn’t aware of all the intricacies involved in living in a van. These days, on the other hand, I’m road tested. I’ve been on tiny byways and the five-land interstates and I know the pitfalls of this particular brand of adventure. Some, in hindsight, should have been super obvious. Others took time to recognize.
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 needs be? Showers, wifi, coffee, exercise… all of your routines. The way you access those things changes. Having space and the tools to do all of these things requires forethought. Showering every day usually cost money, more importantly, showers at campsites 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 mileage. 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, too.
Legendary traveler 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?
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.
In order to avoid the 3 a.m. police lights, do some research. Data is expensive here in the states. 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. Tragic, I know. Soon after the van had a funky smell and we needed to investigate. The parking lot where we stopped to track down the funk source 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 (without burning your van down or dying of smoke inhalation, which is a freaking art).
Point being, sh*t happens. If you’re planning to get from point A to point B, sometimes you need to drive around point F. You’ll eventually get to where you’re trying to go…or you won’t, but you need to be okay with that if you’re committing yourself to the elements.
For comfort, I’m the kind of person who needs to look ahead a little. Those random happenings are great and they do happen, but planning gives me a sense of purpose. More often than not, you’ll have solar panels as a part of your rig. They’ll keep refrigerators running and cameras and cell phones charged. That means you’re dependent on weather. You need sun. If there’s no sun and it’s cold out, you’ll learn not to pump your heat. Pumped heat leads to condensation. Condensation leads to wetness. Wetness leads to mold. Mold is no good.
Your world is smaller, but there’s still plenty to consider. If you plan to work from the road, that’s awesome. Embrace the digital age. But you’ll need to think long and hard about where that wifi is coming from. Coffee Shops will become a staple. If you can’t find them and a client is waiting, what are you going to do? Can you tether your data?
Being with your significant other on the road can be a great way to become closer, but the limits of your relationship will be tested. Plan to make time for each other and nurture that sh*t. They support you and you need to take the time to support them. The limits of your relationship will be tested — know that going in. Listen, be patient, and keep the conversation open.
Moving into a vehicle for adventure and fun is a beautiful thing. I’m hooked. I want to get other people hooked. The places you see, the people you meet. It’s awe-inspiring. But when I hear people say, “So and so is living the dream! They’ve been in their van for eight months now and their Instagram feed is unreal!” my skin crawls. Whoever you’re talking about is probably having an amazing time, but they probably worked their asses off for it.
Before you set out, give all of this some thought. Investing in a van is essentially the same as investing in a home. Preventative maintenance is key. Being comfortable is paramount. Plus it’s got a motor. Know what it’s capable of and what you shouldn’t do. If you want to romp around in the woods, spend the time and learn about lift kits and bigger tires. You’ll be grateful for it later when you’re in Baja bouncing down a desert road that the map described as “Modern Highway”.
6. Life Happens Off Instagram
Do you follow Mitch Cox and his partner Cleo Cohen? We tell people to follow them all the time. I interviewed them both. I dubbed them “the mad ones.” And their pics? Sexy, scenic, bright, and loaded with color.
But you know what they talked about during their interviews? Mitch detailed a break-in, during which all their gear was stolen and they almost had to go off the road completely. And Cleo shared her secrets for budgeting. They were thoughtful and considerate and wise. But you wouldn’t know their depth if you simply admired their butt-shots on Insta, right?
This is important to note. Because as cool as Instagram looks (butt shots are great!), it doesn’t tell complete stories. Is the #Vanlife all about the surf, the sun, and embracing the rustic ideals of a lost era? Sure, sometimes. Other times, it’s completely focused on oil changes, trying to keep your underwear from mildewing, and avoiding being treated like a creeper by the cops. It’s both. Travel contains multitudes.
The point is don’t get in a van, breakdown once, and start to despair. As with so so much of life, the best part comes after some degree of struggle. So yes, you’ll get some sweet shots, but also expect to have rough days. Make the rough days fun. If some off-Insta stumbling blocks don’t sound like “all part of the grand adventure” to you, this really might not be your vibe.
7. Know When To Get Off The Road
One morning, you are going to wake up on the road and feel flooded with bliss. Maybe your dog or your lover is curled beside you. The sun is shining. The wind is teasing your gauzy curtains. Real idyllic stuff. And you’ll say to yourself, “I’m going to do this forever.”
But then one morning, you’ll wake up and everything will just grind. Pooping is a hassle. Everything’s wet. There’s a dumb knob or vent that you hit your head on three times yesterday. And you’ll say to yourself, “I’m just… over it.”
Both these responses are natural. But when the negative feelings begin to really outweigh the positive ones; when the juice just doesn’t feel worth the squeeze anymore — it may be time to slow down for a while. Maybe you just need a trip home. Or a month of housesitting. But it also might be time for you to leave the vanlife behind completely.
No matter the situation, it’s okay. No adventure lasts forever. Life stages and desires shift and morph. I’ve known people who have given up their vans and people who have gone back to the vanlife. It takes all kinds. The secret of travel is to chase what you love. So if you stop loving the experience of hunting down a sleeping spot and brushing your teeth at rest stops, own that. No one is going to judge you.
So that’s it. Enjoy your time out there. Enjoy every damn second. And when you are bouncing down that road in Mexico and discover that that cactus you brushed up against poked a hole in your tire, take a second, collect yourself, breathe. Grab your patch kit out of the back and crack a cold drink out of your solar fueled mini fridge.
Things are all right. You planned for this.
Propane stove on a crushed-velvet seat, not at all a fire hazard.