Anyone who spends time on social media has probably noticed the van living craze that has swept the nation. It is easy to see the appeal— who wouldn’t want the freedom to roam wherever your wheels can take you? If you jump on board the van life trend, you can say goodbye to the expensive rent prices of large cities and hello to a growing savings account. I have lived in a van on and off for six months and counting, and I have noticed that van life always looks blissfully simple on social media. Online photos display a trendy van against the backdrop of a mountain range or pristine beach, with a carefree couple basking in the sun. For all its social media glamor, living in a van is not always the stress-free existence seen on Instagram. Before committing to a van, step on the brakes and consider a few things that you may not know about van life. These 10 tips will help you prepare and plan before you hit the road.
1. Sleeping spots are difficult to find
The bottom line with van life is that you can expect to move around a lot, and if you’re a homebody, this can get old quickly. You’ll have to be crafty and creative to fly under the radar as you hunt for new camping spots, but unfortunately it is not as easy as it used to be. For example, most national parks no longer allow overnight parking at pullouts or trailheads, and will ticket violators that do so. Always have a back-up plan just in case the campground you planned to stay in is booked solid. There is nothing glamorous about getting a hefty ticket in the middle of the night! And if you’re staying in the city, it may seem like a good idea to set up shop on that quiet residential street, but the residents may not appreciate it and are within their rights to call law enforcement. Instead of roaming the streets late at night looking for a place to stay, try to find out early on what other van dwellers in the area do. Walmarts can be a hassle-free camping option, although the fluorescent lights and proximity to noisy highways means it is not the most serene spot. If you are new to an area or just passing through, peek at the map on free campsites to see if there is a free spot you can snag.
2. Internet access will be spotty
Sparse internet access goes hand-in-hand with moving frequently and spending time in remote locations. Learn to go without your nightly Netflix binge, take advantage of your data plan, or rely on small-town coffee shops with their minimal hours of operation. Even though campgrounds and coffee shops in small towns advertise free WiFi, it will not always be the high-speed, dependable internet access of the city. You will often hear complaints from van dwellers who work online and have trouble finding a solid internet connection. If you have an online job, consider purchasing a mobile hotspot to limit the stress of searching for internet access.
3. Showering can be complicated
Things that we take for granted in the city are often more difficult to find access to while on the road. Showers, for one, are difficult to come by. Van lifers might bathe in water pumps, icy rivers, public gyms, or just not at all! Get used to irregular showers or be OK with paying for a campsite with a shower or a daily gym pass. If you plan to be in one area for a while, it is worthwhile to purchase a monthly gym pass. Bonus points if there is working WiFi at the gym!
4. Have a plan to support yourself
This is the golden ticket to making van life sustainable and enjoyable, although maintaining a steady income while on the road can be difficult. Living in a van is cheap, but you need a basic plan to support yourself and the inevitable van repairs, flat tires or unexpected expenses that crop up. Working a seasonal job in a beautiful place is fun, but what if you don’t like the job and want to quit? What if you get injured or sick, and need recovery time? Those missed paychecks can hurt if you don’t have some cushion in your savings account. If you have a little wiggle room, making money on the road can be a fun adventure and a great way to make new friends. Get creative, ask around, and if you are willing to hustle, you’ll find opportunities for work where you least expect them.
5. Purchase a reliable vehicle
The single most important thing to consider when buying a van is if it is mechanically sound. You don’t want to sink thousands of dollars into a van to keep it running, and it can be a huge inconvenience if your home and mode of transport is often in the shop overnight. Knowing that your van may break down at any moment can be stressful, especially if you are in a remote area without cell phone service. You don’t need a brand-new Sprinter to live on the road, but the less money you spend on repairs, the more you can put toward a solar panel, vehicle upgrade, or a ticket to your dream vacation destination.
6. Buy the type of van that’s right for you
There’s no single “right” type of van to purchase, but consider your space needs before you purchase something that’s too small. Will you feel claustrophobic if you can’t stand up while you cook? How much outdoor gear will you be carting around? Try to balance comfort and cost, and make sure you aren’t paying off your van while on the road. The best van for van life is probably a cargo van like the Mercedes Sprinter, Dodge Ram ProMaster, or Ford Transit. The high roof allows you to comfortably stand while cooking, and there is plenty of room for storage space, a lofted bed, and a kitchen. Trendy vans like Volkswagen’s Westfalia are popular, and although they look great in pictures, spare parts will be more difficult to find when they break down.
7. Start out with the basics and work upward
There are so many fancy van build-outs, and it can be overwhelming to know what is essential and what is not, or even how to build out your van in the first place. Spend time perusing blogs, Reddit and van forums for ideas, and use YouTube for step-by-step building instructions. Make sure you have a bed that won’t rattle apart on bumpy backcountry roads, black-out shades to shield you from fluorescent city lights, and shelving units to keep your things organized. Depending on your budget, the next additional add-on should be a sink system with a pump, faucet and filter. A solar-powered refrigerator is a lifesaver on hot summer days. And although a swanky swivel seat is hardly vital, they open up space in the van — perfect for hanging out inside on a rainy day.
8. Things to skip
When looking at vans for sale, it’s easy to be swayed by extras like a shower, toilet, or solar panel. Simplicity is best, and for the most part, you’ll find that the inconvenience of having to go to dump stations far outweighs the benefits of a toilet. Solar panels are not necessary either — simply use a secondary battery and a battery isolator, and let your car charge the battery while it runs. You’ll have enough power to use lights, charge phones and computers, all without draining your car battery. You can also skip the four-wheel drive: it can be a helpful safety feature but it will decrease your gas mileage and raise the overall vehicle cost. A good set of tires is all you need to keep you safe and help you feel confident in the backcountry.
9. Space is limited
Vans get cluttered very quickly, so the less you bring on the road, the better. Do you really need wine glasses or shoes for every possible occasion? Pack away your winter or summer clothes at a friend or family’s house until you need them, and if you have extra space in the van, stock up on food staples like rice, beans, or tea. Make sure that the clothes and shoes you do bring are durable and versatile, and will shed water on rainy days. Waterproof trail shoes are a staple for me on the road. Shoes like the Salewa Women’s MTN Trainer GTX® or the Salewa Men’s MTN Trainer GTX® are lightweight enough to be used as an everyday shoe or for hiking and they are perfect in wet conditions, too. They are equipped with breathable and waterproof GORE-TEX fabric, ensuring that your feet dry while you explore.
10. You might get lonely
When you move to a new destination every week or every season, life can get lonely. It can take an effort to make new friends, but it is always worth it. Keep in touch with old friends and family, but get out there and try new activities, camp and hang out with other van dwellers, and who knows — you may make a few lifelong friends. If you are traveling with a significant other, you will have the opposite problem, and it is a good idea to find ways for both of you to have space from each other every now and then. Go on a solo bike ride or run, read a good book, or spend the afternoon alone in a coffee shop.