Beginners Guide to Van Life

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The nomadic life is romanticized throughout literature and film, with visions of hitting the road and “leaving it all behind.” And with real estate prices high, and greater flexibility in the job market, more people than ever are choosing to let go of the property ownership model and live in remodeled vans. As the cost of living continues to rise, it can be an increasingly appealing idea. Still, while there is wisdom in letting go that which does not serve you, nothing is ever as easy as it seems. This article will go over the ins and outs of van life, to help you consider whether it might be right for you.

Van Life Pros

Especially if you're a free spirit, life on wheels has some major advantages to offer.

Save Money

Rents and mortgages are a major expense, and home ownership is a distant dream for many. A great way to pocket hard-earned cash is to eliminate the cost of a room, not to mention utilities, tax, and insurance. A temporary downsize and lifestyle change could end up saving you the amount needed for a down payment, or anything else you might have your eye on.

Travel

Some people put their home on wheels because it allows them to move around the world. Traveling while living in a van is a great way to explore new areas, meet people, and have diverse experiences. Some people can even work remotely by finding a café with free Wi-Fi, or a cell phone plan that lets them create a hotspot to connect a laptop to the web. If you do have to hold down a full-time job in a particular place, there’s always the possibility of hitting the road as a “weekend warrior.”

Minimalism

Minimalist thinking is a popular philosophy based on the liberation one can get from unloading unnecessary belongings. In a nutshell, it’s about buying or doing things with intention, and eliminating the distractions that tend to collect in one’s living space. The concept of paring down your worldly possessions can be daunting, but most people who do a big cleanse say they feel more peaceful with less stuff. Sometimes letting go can set you free.

Personal Insight

Trying out a new way of living can open up new thoughts and feelings about yourself. Van life can be a lifestyle experiment to test your perception of necessities. Not having to base decisions around a mainstream financial structure can allow you to act more on intuition, impulse, or desire at any given moment. If you think you are “too busy,” living in a van might give you some mental space to slow down and learn about yourself.

A woman reading in a van parked in nature

Reduced Screen Time

Chances are you won’t have a router or cable TV hooked up, and for many people that’s a good thing. It goes along with the idea of removing distractions from your daily life, forcing you to get creative when you do need to “connect.” It may open up more time to go to the movies or hang out with friends. Besides, there are lots of public places with free Wi-Fi, so you don’t have to completely delete your social media persona unless you want to.

Van Life Cons

Despite these appeals, life in a van is not all romance. Living in a small, mobile space comes with drawbacks and challenges you won't face in a more stable dwelling.

Expenses

Living in a van might mean no rent or mortgage, but there are still expenses to consider—mainly, the cost of the van itself. A new van with monthly payments will likely last longer and offer better mileage than a used one. If you find a cheaper, older van in decent condition, it will still require an upfront payment or lease. Other financial factors include gas, maintenance, insurance, licenses, and parking. Consider how long you see yourself living in the van, so you can figure out how these costs will compare to your current situation over time.

Set-Up

A regular van doesn’t come with a toilet, kitchenette, or bed, so if you aren’t getting a camper, adding those features can be expensive, depending on how “tricked out” you want your van to be. If it’s just a place to sleep, a mattress and bedding are easy to come by, but other items would have to be customized. A small hot plate and camping cookware can do the trick for eating, though they mean more overhead and storage. A “road shower” and compost toilet can be quite expensive, but they're potentially worth it, depending on your budget and long-term goals.

No Running Water

One of the biggest challenges is finding ways to bathe, wash clothes, and do your “dirty” business. One trick is taking along items like quick-dry towels and cloths, buckets, and a concentrated, biodegradable all-purpose cleaner. Some of those cleaners are safe to wash your clothes, dishes, and body with (not to mention the van itself).

In warmer temps, you can swim-bathe. If it’s cold, you can learn to spot-clean important areas instead of taking daily showers. Beaches and parks usually have restrooms and showers, and YMCAs and hostels may offer them for a small price. You could also consider getting a chain location gym membership that includes access to cleaning facilities.

van kitchen

Lack of Space

Any van will have space limitations, so you'll have to get used to living with all your belongings in one small area. If the idea is to get outdoors more, that’s great, but can you live without material comforts like a bed, sofa, or kitchen? It can be difficult to pare down your essential clothing requirements, too. Of course, you will need some items, especially if you're traveling or living in a variable climate, but be prepared to wear the same garments frequently, and without the luxury of a washing machine.

Parking Rules

Unfortunately, you can't just park your van wherever you want to. Parks and campgrounds charge a fee, and many city streets have hourly or daily rates, with limitations on time. If you decide to try “stealth parking” (abandoned/sanctioned parking lots, rest stops, welcome centers, friends' driveways) be aware of local laws, and remember to stay safe—parking overnight at Walmart might be allowed, but there is a risk to sleeping in your vehicle. Some neighborhoods won’t allow overnight parking at all.

Public Skepticism

While this shouldn’t deter you from following your dreams, you should be prepared to be judged by others, fairly or not, if you choose to live differently than most people. Family and friends might wonder why you want to eschew modern society’s way of life, and try to talk you out of it; authorities may have questions, strangers might give you weird looks, and homeowners might not want you on their street. Be prepared to hold your ground, or move on. Remember, it’s your life. If you want to live some or even most of it in a van, that's up to you.