With over 8 million #vanlife posts on Instagram, you’ve seen enough to be intrigued by its ever-increasing popularity.
If you’re seriously considering van lifing for yourself, congratulations for allowing your mind to break away from the societal expectations of what a successful and normal lifestyle “should” look like.
Van life is an incredibly rewarding, enjoyable and unique experience unlike any other. It’s also not for everyone.
Secondly, heed the points below seriously, because transitioning to #vanlife is not a walk in the park, so to speak. But if you’re willing to lean into the unknown, van lifing can be a life-changing experience.
Read on for the real deal of what van life is all about.
Here Are 8 Things You Need to Know About Van Lifing:
1. Vanlife Is Not Always Cheap
Of course there are the up-front costs of buying the van and converting it, but once you’re on the road, costs that you may not have previously thought about start adding up.
To name just a few: going to the laundromat, staying at campgrounds, buying a national parks pass, going out to eat, buying ice every few days, paying north of $50 to fill up your gas tank, adding a mobile hotspot to your cell phone plan, getting a gym membership for its amenities, buying AAA . . .
Before you know it, your monthly costs may match what you were already paying when you were living at home! And these costs still don’t include the heavy-hitters, like if you had a big mechanic bill or a medical emergency.
The unpredictability of van life creates a lot of opportunities for fun, of course – but also unexpected costs.
2. Establishing a Routine is Critical
One of the best things about van life is how freeing it is – the day is always yours to explore. But with that freedom comes the overwhelming need for time management, because it’s very easy to waste a day stuck in analysis paralysis.
All of the things you took for granted being at home are now daily micro-decisions that can be mentally exhausting. Figuring out where you’ll sleep that night, where you can go to the bathroom and bathe, how to leave your van in a safe place while you explore – even making meals requires a new level of prep.
Expect to be exhausted by the end of every day!
3. Van Build Will Determine Your Comfort Level
Whether you’re doing the van build yourself, buying it built-out, or hiring an outside company, make sure you’re realistic about your everyday needs.
Especially if doing the build yourself, it’s easy to cut corners and convince yourself you don’t really need things like a sink or fridge. Or you want to save a couple grand, so you opt for the van without a high-top ceiling.
The problem is, you end up with a home on wheels that doesn’t really feel like a home. Instead of viewing it as your sanctuary, it becomes a headache that you don’t look forward to being in.
Reflect on your current routine and figure out what’s necessary and important for you for the van build. There are things you can do without, just like there are certain things you won’t want to.
For example, maybe you sleep best sprawled out across your bed – so opt for a full-size bed instead of a twin-size. Or maybe you’re tall or feel claustrophobic in small spaces, so opt for a van with a high-roof top.
4. Finding Overnight Spots Can Be Hard
Behind just about every gorgeous #vanlife Instagram view is the unseen trek down bumpy dirt roads that lack cell coverage and absolutely coat a van in dust (or mud!). And even then, it’s a gamble if that spot isn’t already taken or even exists!
Moral of the story? Those views are earned, not handed over!
Many van lifers rely on camping or overlanding apps, where other campers list their own experiences at dispersed camping locations. Sometimes, a listing may only have one review that’s a year old – and it’s situations like that where making your way down miles of dirt road could end up being a bust.
If you aren’t relying on free dispersed camping locations, then be prepared to dish out at least $10 a night at official campgrounds (and twice that at national parks!). But especially these days where road travelers and van lifers are at an all-time high, you’ll have a hard time finding camping spots if you aren’t first reserving them.
Lastly, if campgrounds or free dispersed camping aren’t options, then you have the tremendously scenic views of . . . hotel or Wal-Mart parking lots! But beware – not all parking lots allow for overnight parking.
5. Hygiene and Healthy Food Will Be the Ultimate Challenges
You’ll quickly develop a new-found appreciation for real toilets and showers. When you’re on the road, you’re sort of in “survival” mode where the relaxing parts of a hygiene routine become just about necessity.
A “shower” could range from wiping yourself down with baby wipes, jumping into a chilly river or using a couple-gallon solar shower bag. Like it sounds, none of these things are usually as relaxing as a good ol’ fashioned shower.
Similarly, anything you once found relaxing about going to the bathroom is replaced with brevity and discreteness. Whether you use a camping toilet, a public toilet, or are going in the great outdoors, more prep time is required.
When it comes to mealtime, be prepared to be tempted by fast food or take out very often. Especially on the days that involve lots of driving or exploring, it’s exhausting to then think about setting up (and cleaning up) a homemade meal.
What’s more, keeping perishable groceries sufficiently cool can be a challenge and can often go to waste if not used quickly enough.
6. Traveling Solo Means You’ll Eventually Feel Lonely
There are many benefits of traveling solo; choosing your own pace, your own locations, and your own style of exploration.
But at some point, you may wish you had a passenger to bounce ideas off of. This can serve as a life-changing opportunity to dig deep within yourself to learn how to manage those lonely feelings.
Perhaps it means going out to dinner by yourself, facilitating meetups with other vanlifers, or taking the time to really focus on reaching personal goals.
Even beyond the need to share experiences with someone, is the need to feel safe and secure. Sometimes, your explorations take you to remote forests or questionable towns that put you on high alert. Inevitably, you’ll scare yourself at some point – but hopefully in a way that prompts you to leave from wherever you’re feeling uncomfortable.
For all you solo female travelers – Here Are 8 Do’s and Don’ts for #VanLife Living From a Solo Female Traveler
You’ll learn a new limit, and it’s always important to trust your gut. Which brings us to the next point . . .
7. You’ll Learn to Trust Your Instincts
It’s an incredibly empowering feeling when you know exactly what you’re capable of – because it allows you to reach past that. After so much time in the van, the daily micro-decisions become second nature and you’ll trust your instincts more confidently than ever.
Analysis paralysis about where to sleep for the night, or if you should do work or go explore for the day, or if/when to leave a sketchy area, will dissipate into quick-acting decisions where you feel like the “driver” of your life, so to speak.
8. It’s Ok to Take a Break From the Road
At the end of the day, van life is not there to make your life harder or miserable. Will it pose new challenges that feel tough in the moment? Absolutely – but overcoming them should be viewed as an opportunity to learn about yourself; not a chance to “prove” to anyone that you can “successfully” live this lifestyle.
While van life can provide the most incredible views, learning experiences, and opportunities for self reflection, it is a lot of work. Sometimes, curling up on a real bed after a real shower, to watch a movie on a real TV, can help you recharge and be the comfort zone we all need once in a while.
The Takeaway on Van Life: Is It For You?
While this article highlights the reality of day-to-day van lifing (which can sound challenging and maybe even overwhelming), it’s also here as a guideline of what to expect if you do take the van life plunge.
Van life is an incredibly rewarding, enjoyable and unique experience unlike any other. It’s also not for everyone. Some people absolutely love it and thrive in this lifestyle, while others find a happy medium of occasional van lifing. Still others find that it’s ultimately not for them.
Whatever you discover in your own van life journey, keep these things in mind while also maintaining an open mind, and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime!