When you see more and more people online, particularly Instagram and Youtube who travel the country while living out of their van, it’s understandable to feel a pang of jealousy, mixed with a bit of confusion. How could anyone spend so much time in a van? Is it real? Is it comfortable? Is it even possible?
But most importantly, you’re probably thinking… is van life for me?
This guide covers van life essentials, how to spend time on the road, part-time vandwelling, how living in your van can save you money, the community, insurance, and so much more.
To commit to the van lifestyle is a huge decision, but if the nomad inside you starts jumping with joy every time you click on the #vanlife hashtag on Instagram, this article is JUST FOR YOU!
Part-Time Vandwellers vs. Full-Time Vandwellers
First thing first. Not everyone living the #vanlife spends every waking moment in their van. In fact, it’s very normal for people to spend half the year in their van, or just a few months or weeks out of the year.
These people are known as part-time vandwellers, since they own or rent a residence regularly, but occasionally live out in their van at certain intervals. Full-time vandwellers, on the other hand, live permanently (not necessarily a life long commitment, but at least consistently) on the road, often without a residence to return to.
Both of these lifestyles are completely valid! It all depends on what works best for you, your needs, your budget, and your job. In fact, many part-time vandwellers do the part-time lifestyle because their jobs are seasonal, or don’t allow them to leave for long periods of time. If that sounds like you, investing in tricking out your van for weekend getaways or month-long trips can be enough to satisfy your wanderlust!
How Much Does it Cost?
Let’s focus on the extreme end – living in your van. Too many, the idea of living in a van off the grid seems like a great way to save money. Then on second thoughts, it can look like a money pit that’s been based on a quick whim that you could regret for years to come. Both of these things can be true, which is why it’s really important to be well informed about the #vanlife.
Here are some somewhat obvious financial benefits to living in your van full time:
- No rent or mortgage
- No electricity payments
- No expensive heating payments (other than the cost of your fuel/gas)
- Minimalism, much fewer possessions
- No home repairs or maintenance
- No property taxes
- Less overall living costs
However, depending on the quality of your van lifestyle, you may end up pouring a ton of money into your new home. It largely depends on your tastes and the kind of vehicle you decide to buy.
The cost of the van itself depends on where you live, how important outwards style is to you, and how reliable your vehicle is. Giving the fees that can come with more destructible vans, you’ll definitely want to invest in reliability over style if you can.
Living in your van can of course be cheaper than a house, but that doesn’t mean it’s free. It’s extremely important to develop a proper budget so that you don’t end up blindsided by any costs.
How Do I Live On The Road?
How are you going to shower? Have you thought about that? It’s pretty important. There are so many things that you need to have a plan for if you decide to live in your van, especially if you plan on taking it for road trips!
- Basic Hygiene: There are a few different options for showering, teeth brushing, using the washroom, etc. Most cities have portable toilets available, as do many shops and establishments in any town. If you’re further out in the sticks, campgrounds have facilities available too! Another tactic used by many vandwellers is to get a gym membership to a chain that operates all across the country. That way, you’ll never be too far from a hot working shower!
- Work/Income: Maintaining a steady income while living in your van isn’t impossible, but it isn’t exactly simple. This topic is discussed later in this guide, but remember how important it is to have a solid financial plan before selling your house and taking off in your van!
- Garbage Disposal: A big part of minimalism is that you’ll probably be creating way less garbage than you did before. That said, you’ll still need to make sure you have a garbage storage system that keeps your van smelling good (and doesn’t tempt you into littering). Having garbage bags that you’re able to seal tightly until you reach public dumpsters and trash cans means that you won’t be dealing with any major cleanliness issues.
- Gas Costs: You may not have to pay rent or a mortgage, but you do have to pay for a ton of gas. It’s what keeps your home moving around after all! Thankfully there are multiple apps that help you find the cheapest gas prices near you. Just two of them are MapQuest Gas Prices, which lets you create settings for your fuel grade and favourite stations, and Gas Guru, which uses the Oil Price Information Service to continually update their app.
- Meal Storage: Similar to garbage disposal, you want to make sure that your meal storage system is efficient, effective, and won’t lead to any cleanliness problems. Using easy to store coolers, and just straight up purchasing foods that don’t spoil quickly, will make a world of difference to the amount of food that you may find going to waste in your home dwelling life. Installing cabinet space in your van will provide sufficient storage for canned goods, boxes, and more.
- Cooking: There are lots of options for portable cookware. Look into things like hot plates, portable toasters, and tightly packed measuring cups and cutlery, and you may find you don’t have to give up cooking the way you thought you might.
- Power: Will you want power installed into your van? This kind of hook up will raise your budget, but it’ll certainly be convenient. Doing research into portable generators, or even just small portable power sources can make this process more simple and affordable.
- Laundry: Dirty clothes can pile up quick! Not only do you need an efficient storage method for your laundry, but you also need to organize times to clean them. Thankfully, laundromats are affordable and available across the country. Make sure you always have a small fund of coins available for your laundry trips.
- Internet: You can’t exactly set up Fibre Op in your van. For internet access, you have a few options. There are plenty of public places that offer wifi, whether you’re at a coffee shop or a mall. All that being said, if you think you’ll want constant internet access, you can invest in an unlimited data plan.
- Parking: There are lots of places that you can park without having to pay. Walmart offers free overnight camping, as do many campgrounds. However, if Walmart or campgrounds aren’t really an option, you still have plenty of options. Streets with lots of occupants are a good choice, as are parking lots where lots of people are already parked anyway but make sure you’re not being obvious that you’re living in your van. Being in and out and always moving around means you’re less likely to get towed, or even just outright told to move.
How Do I Downsize Into a Van?
Going from living in an apartment or house to living in a van means that you’ll probably be downsizing A LOT. There are only so many belongings that you can fit in a van, and once you start narrowing it down, you’ll realize that not everything you own serves a genuine purpose.
Here are some tips on how to downsize your lifestyle into a van:
- Sort your belongings by needs and wants
- Sort your wants based on their usefulness or meaning to you
- Kill your darlings – it’s okay to let go of things you’ve owned for a long time!
- Ask one of your home-dwelling friends or parents to let you store some of your things in their garage/attic/basement
- Hold a yard sale and make some money from those belongings
- Donate your things so that someone else can get a whole new use out of them
It won’t be easy, but you’d be surprised just how peaceful it feels to let go of so much clutter. To be able to keep everything you need in a van, or even in a large backpack, is so incredibly liberating.
Van Life Living Essentials
With the above needs in mind, there are plenty of essentials you’ll need if you plan on living out of your van. Here’s just a short list of handy stuff you can store in your little home!
- Portable chargers: Charging your devices can be complicated when you live in a van. Charging at coffee shops is always a good idea, but for convenience, owning a portable charger will help you in a jam.
- Medical kit: Having a medkit in your van is absolutely necessary. In reality, everyone should have a medkit in their car anyway, but it’s a must for vandwellers. Whether you need some emergency Aspirin, bandaids and disinfectant, or have an accident or medical emergency, you’ll be glad you have a medkit if you’re not in a convenient place to access any medical facilities.
- Packing cubes: Available for cheap on Amazon, packing cubes are an organization miracle. These cubes are easy to fill up and stack together. You can label them and then load them into your van. Their size means that you can store large amounts in your convenient spaces, like under your bed or behind furniture.
- Spare tire: This one probably goes without saying. No one likes being stuck without a spare tire, but when you’re living in your van, it’s even more stressful.
- Flashlight/battery Lights: If you plan on relying entirely on the sun as a light source, that’s totally okay! However, it might be a good idea to keep a flashlight or another kind of battery-operated light with you. That way you’ll never be without a light source if you need one, and you won’t have to worry about plugging it into any kind of outside power source.
- Disinfectant wipes: It’s actually pretty easy to keep a van clean, especially given the minimal lifestyle. Disinfectant Wipes are a versatile, easy to store cleaning product that can help keep your van spotless (and keep you from getting sick if any of your co-vandwellers come down with something!)
- Hot plate: Fire pits are a cool natural way to cook food, but something like a hot plate is a lot more convenient. They allow you to cook food no matter where you’re parked. Make sure to buy hot plates that are easy to store, easy to clean, and easy to use!
- Aeropress: If you’re a coffee nut who doesn’t want to rely entirely on coffee shops while on the road, the Aeropress coffee maker will keep you satisfied every time. Aeropress, and coffee makers just like it, are portable, without sacrificing quality.
Designing Your Van
Decorating your van to suit you and YOUR style is just as important as the interior decorating of any house you live in. If you’re going to be in this van all the time, you want to be sure that it’s a place you actually want to be in. Here are a few of the most popular van life decorating styles:
- Modern and chic: Some people like to decorate their vans to look like typical suburban homes. This style tends to take up a bit more of your budget, but some glossy tiling and furniture can certainly liven up your space.
- Minimalist and rustic: Many people like to take the minimalist, nature-oriented lifestyle and incorporate it into their interior design. With lots of reused wood, red plaid, and dark green, the rustic van style is homey, cozy, and perfect for rainy days.
- Entirely usage based: Some vandwellers have no regard for style at all, and that’s totally okay! One of the reasons why a lot of us want to get away from living in houses is the constant pressure to personalize and decorate the space for other people. If you want to put your bed under a hanging surfboard, with a floor coated entirely in socks sewn together, you can do that! The freedom of van life is perfect for you.
Can I Make Money on the Road?
Yes, but of course that relies entirely on your job. Do you work part-time? Seasonally? Do you work freelance? Entirely online? These types of careers allow you the ability to live in your van and drive off to wherever you want to go!
Interestingly enough, many vandwellers make their money FROM living in their van and documenting it on their social media platforms. But plenty of people are able to work full-time in their vans depending on their field (including online writing jobs, certain tech professions, online tutors, ecommrece, affiliate marketing etc.)
If you work part-time or on a seasonal basis, you, of course, could plan to live in a home for a certain amount of time and then begin living in your van. This way of #vanlife is often referred to as part-time vandwelling.
The Joys of Van Life
There are so many positives to van life that call to the nomad in us all. It’s hard to put them all into words, but here are just a few:
- Freedom, freedom, freedom: The impulse to drop everything and take off is something that we all feel once in a while. Sometimes we get bored of looking at the same views day after day. The ability to drive to a new place and not leave your home or responsibilities behind is so uniquely valuable.
- Low-stress minimalism: Downsizing your belongings can be stressful at first, but the long term relief is more than worth it, I promise. Having so few things to look after, store, use, and locate, is remarkably more relaxing than living in a house full of stuff you don’t need or use.
- Traveling: Discovering new places all across your state, province, country, world, is just priceless. Traveling by van keeps you from hotels, but welcomes you into the arms of locals, opening up more opportunities for real adventure.
- You’ll never be bored: Those of us with a propensity for boredom know what it’s like to feel miserable, stuck in the rat race. With parking and driving to a new place every few days, and planning out your meals and stops meticulously, there’s also something to do and something new to see! Every day is going to be different.
The Struggles of Van Life
Living out of your van isn’t simple, and it shouldn’t be seen as an easy way out of responsibilities or finances.
- Less storage space: The aforementioned act of downsizing can be incredibly liberating, but fitting your belongings into one vehicle certainly takes time. For example, if you’re an avid gamer, instrumentalist, artist, or have any kind of hobby that takes up space, you’ll need to figure out how to incorporate that into your new home.
- New food plan: Cooler and portable mini-fridges (which can be expensive, large, and loud) can only do so much in keeping food fresh. If you’re living in a van, a diet of milk and cheese just isn’t going to work out. You’ll need to start buying foods with a long shelf life and planning meals carefully to be sure you don’t run out of food or overfill your van. It’s also harder to order a pizza in a van, which I think is important to tell you.
- Safety/laws: You’ll need to be conscious of the laws and safety levels in every location you go to, which of course you don’t have to deal with when settled in a house. Knowing where and where not to park, so that you don’t get towed (or robbed) is something you’ll need to be conscious of on almost a daily basis. This process will become easier as you go along and gain experience, but it’s something to be prepared for.
- Finances: While living in a van can save you a ton of money, you need to make sure you’ve developed a sound budget, financial plan, and reliable source(s) of income. Those who take on unpredictable careers, or begin documenting their van life on social media and are taken by surprise when they’re not earning thousands of dollars right off the bat, might get themselves into a regrettable financial situation.
The Van life Community!
The existing community for vandwellers is amazing. They’re all over social media, whether it be Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. The van life community also has a great subreddit. These are all great places to talk to other people interested in the lifestyle you’re interested in. Not only can you learn more about it, but you can meet like minded people who love to problem-solve together!
One of the great things about being plugged into the community is that if there’s some awesome new product on the market that enhances the van living lifestyle, you’ll hear about it! Sharing your own discoveries, whether it be cool places to park or any other variety of resources, means we can all look out for each other.
What Are People Going to Think?
Socially, the idea of living out of your van is still considered pretty unusual. In a way, it is, but the minimalism of it is becoming more and more understood by people as our world faces such massive environmental problems.
Your friends and family may not understand your decision at first, but encourage them to look at the #vanlife and other related tags online! Living in your van doesn’t mean living in squalor, or living unhygienically. It means freedom, minimalism, and adventure!
Living out of your van has become increasingly popular, especially due to these online tags. If you decide to go ahead and do it, please do it loudly and proudly! There’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Be Prepared for Anything
Van life can be unpredictable, and if I could give one piece of advice to anyone looking to do it, I’d say to be prepared for anything. Creating an emergency fund in your budget means that you’ll be ready for unexpected vehicle repairs, detours, or any other issues you’ll run into.
Remember that this van is your home. Like any home, it’s going to require upkeep and is going to face the occasional setback.
Having insurance is really important, whether you are traveling within your own country, or internationally. Laws are different everywhere, so be sure that your life insurance and auto insurance are accommodated to the needs of your new lifestyle.
While it can be understandably tempting to bend the truth a bit to auto insurance companies about the fact that you’re living in your van, it’s important to be real and honest with them to ensure that you’re getting the coverage that you need. There are plenty of insurance brokers who are used to working with people who live out of their vehicles, so remember that you’re not alone!
There are also plenty of resources in insurance tailored specifically to those living just as you plan to, so don’t accept a terrible deal because you’re afraid it’s the best you can get.
So…Is Van Life For You?
Only you can really answer this question.
For those too restless to live in one place 12 months of the year, constantly wandering, exploring, and looking for something new, the van life is just what we need.
For those who like to lay down roots and have larger amounts of space, living out of your van probably isn’t something to commit to long term, and that’s okay!
The most important thing you can do before making this decision is to DO RESEARCH. Learn everything you can about the van life and see if it accommodates your needs, dreams, goals, and lifestyle. If this article mostly stressed you out, remember, it doesn’t have to be a van, and it doesn’t have to be full time. Your life is yours, and the entire philosophy of van life boils down to living your life the way YOU choose to.