You've been drooling over the perfect Instagram Vanlife pictures for months, maybe even years. You finally pulled the trigger and either built out your own van or bought one fully converted and you hit the road. That's when you realize it's NOTHING like the Instagram pictures.
You've spent the last six nights in a Walmart parking lot. Your grey water has probably overflowed at least once. Your batteries are at 30%. There's flies coming out of your toilet. A new water leak springs each day. Everything is going wrong and you probably feel in over your head. If that's you, you've come to the right place. Because guess what, you're not alone. I was there too.
The first month or two of Vanlife are hard, really really hard, and not that many people talk about it. I'm here to tell you it gets easier and give you some tips that will make it feel more manageable and less like you're alone with these problems. Vanlife is definitely worth pushing through these hard moments. Before you know it, you'll have found that unicorn campsite as you sip on a glass of wine, overlooking beautiful mountains, and a wild elk grazes by.
If you're new to Vanlife or just getting started, here's my advice to you.
Do A Test Run
My builder handed me the keys to the van and all I wanted to do was head west. Luckily my friends and family convinced me to do a test run and boy, was I glad I did.
Pick a place close to home and spend a few nights living solely out of your van: cook, do the dishes, use the toilet, run the fan, the heater, stock the fridge; test it all. Learn how to use every component of your build. After your test run you'll have a general idea how each thing works and you'll be able to fix the things that aren't up to par before you head across the country.
Don't Over Do it Your First Few Weeks
When I hit the road, I tried to visit a million destinations, all while work working a full time job, and driving across the country. I was exhausted and every time something didn't go according to plan I was even further behind schedule and more stressed out.
You'll find that everything takes longer in the van; even simple things like getting dressed or making coffee. In addition to your normal daily routine, you also need to fill your water tank, dump your grey water, find a place to shower, maintain your toilet, and figure out where you're going to sleep. All of this stuff takes time and can take even longer when you're still learning.
Give yourself plenty of time in the beginning to complete your chores. Once you've been in the van a while, you'll have a better idea of how frequently you have to complete each chore and how long it takes you. It will start to feel like part of your routine and not extra responsibilities. Once you have the basics figured out, start adding in more of the fun stuff.
Get to Know Your Van
How many miles can you get on a tank of gas (or diesel)? How often do you have to refill water? How often do you have to dump the grey tank? How do your batteries hold up on cloudy days? What are the normal sounds your van makes?
I remember the first time my batteries dipped below 50% I freaked out because everyone told me, "Don't let your batteries go below 50% or they'll be ruined." But there I was in the cloudiest week ever and I needed to charge my laptop. I was already sitting in the dark with every other appliance off. My batteries dipped below 50% and trust me, they are still fine 2 years later.
Getting to know all the ins and outs of your van takes some time, so like I said above, don't over do it in the first few weeks. After two years, I know exactly what normal sounds my van makes, how long I can make 25 gallons of water last, and how frequently I have to dump the grey tank.
Don't Make Definite Plans
You've hit the road and you have all kinds of new freedom. You don't want to be tied down to having to be in a certain location on a certain date. I found when I committed to a set date, I often had to zoom through areas I wanted to explore in order to make it to my destination on schedule.
Of course you'll want to visit with friends or family along your route or have them come visit you. My advice is to give tentative dates that way you won't have restrictions. If someone is flying to meet you, plan it close to the date that they'd be flying out. Only commit future dates that are an absolute must, like a wedding or an event you don't want to miss.
Adjusting to Driving A Giant Vehicle
Prior to Vanlife I had only ever driven sedans and I definitely considered myself a nervous driver. I hated driving in cities and busy traffic.
My driving fears intensified once I started driving a giant cargo van. I remember sitting in the Mercedes parking lot once the van was officially mine and I was absolutely terrified to pull out onto the road. After I invested my life savings into turning the van into a home, my fears only got worse.
Then I started driving the van A LOT. I took it slow. I traveled during daylight and when traffic was anticipated to be lighter. Now, I've spent a lot of time behind the wheel and feel very comfortable driving it, but I also know what my limits are. I will not pull into a parking spot that has a car on each side of it unless it's the only spot available and I will always do 50 lane checks before switching lanes. If you are nervous to drive your van, my best advice is to drive it more often. Pick roads that don't have a lot of traffic and just take it slow. You will adjust.
It's funny, because now when I drive a normal car, I wish I was in the cargo van. I feel very unsafe driving small cars.
When I first started Vanlife, finding a place to sleep was very stressful to me. I would always plan out that night's campsite the first thing in the morning. Now, two years later, I usually don't think about it until I'm ready to unwind for the day. Of course, if there is a really neat location I want to stay in, I plan to get there early to make sure I get a premo spot.
Sleeping in your van in a public place or out in the wild takes some getting used to. In the beginning you'll probably wake up to every sound outside your vehicle and have nerves about the middle of the night knock. At first, I felt very exposed sleeping in unofficial campsites. However, after a few weeks it all started to feel normal. The key is finding a place to sleep that you feel safe in. This is different for everyone. I don't mind sleeping in parking lots whereas some of my friends don't sleep at all when they are in a parking lot. I also recommend making your bed really comfy. I love my 8 inch thick Sealy mattress.
Check out my post, Vanlife: Guide to Sleeping and Overnight Parking to learn more about finding places to sleep and where I feel most safe.
Working From the Road
Every Vanlifer's work schedule and commitments are different. It ranges from taking one year off to working full time from the road. My first year of Vanlife I was working a full time job and it had its challenges.
Obviously, I was grateful to have an income, but the biggest challenge for me was when I met up with other Vanlifers. It usually meant they all got to go out and do cool things while I stayed behind and worked my 9-5.
I was very determined to make my remote gig work, so I had to be self disciplined. It wasn't always easy, but I didn't want to lose my income so it was important. After I was on the road for a while, I even appreciated having to work during the week because I could not explore seven days a week; it would be too exhausting. Having a regular job brought normalcy to my abnormal lifestyle.
Most jobs require a WiFi connection, which brings me to the next challenge. There are multiple ways to connect to the internet and you have to find something that works for you. I found, with my job, that I needed a really strong WiFi connection for the VPN to work. That basically meant I had to be in a town on work days. On days when I couldn't get a strong enough signal, I had a second computer located at the company's headquarters. I would remote into that computer and then I still had access to all the files and programs I needed. Remoting into a second computer that was hooked up to the company's network seemed to need less of a WiFi signal to work.
For internet, I use a MiFi Hotspot through Verizon. As a backup, my phone's data plan also comes with a hotspot, but I found the connection through the MiFi to be stronger. Lastly, I have a WeBoost Cell Phone Signal Booster. The booster takes a weak signal and turns it into a stronger one. Just note, there needs to be a signal for it to work. It doesn't create a signal.
I prefer to work in the van with my hotspot rather than going into a coffee shop, but that's an option other remote workers choose.
I wrote some of this in the past tense because I was laid off during the height of the pandemic. I'm still figuring out my next career move, but hope to keep working from the van in the future.
You'll see a lot of working remote pictures like the one below. Don't be fooled. On my work days I was usually posted up in some parking lot, with a messy van all around, while I sat in my own sweat, with greasy hair on top of my head.
Have An Emergency Relief Fund
You never know when your van or a part of your build will decide to breakdown on you. It's a good idea to have a few thousands dollars set aside incase you find yourself stranded. Before you hit the road, make sure you've saved up enough money to get yourself out of an emergency situation. The last thing you want is for your trip to end early because of a breakdown.
Travel With the Seasons
You'll quickly learn that summer gets unbearably hot in a van and winter is a thousand times harder. The best way to beat this is to travel south in the winter and north in the summer. Even then, I still recommend being near the coast or in the mountains in the summer since it can get pretty hot in the northern states.
Check out my Guide to Surviving Vanlife in the Winter if traveling South for the winter isn't in the plans for you. Even if you are traveling South, you will, at some point, get caught in a snow storm or below freezing temperatures so check out my winter post so you're prepared!
Minimize Your Belongings
When I first moved into the van, I had it packed to the brim. I thought, since there's space for it, I might as well bring it along. I was wrong. Not everything had a home and I was constantly playing Tetris to get the one item I needed from the back of the garage or cupboard. When I had visitors, I didn't have any extra space to give them to put their belongings. Overall, the lack of space ended up being more stressful than the joy of having extra clothes or kitchen items. To keep your clothing organized, I highly recommend packing cubes. I have a different cube for each type of clothing.
Expect the Unexpected
Things will go wrong. If you bought a normal house, things would go wrong there too, but you're in a house on wheels, so things are definitely going to go wrong. It's all part of Vanlife.
If you go into Vanlife thinking its going to be Instagram perfect all the time, you're probably not going to enjoy Vanlife very much. Set your expectations to include that things are going to break, get delayed, and just go wrong. That way when something bad does happen, you're prepared to handle it, fix it, and get back on the road. I recommend keeping duct tape, electrical tape, plumbers putty, and super glue on board at all times.
Vanlife is truly awesome, but you're going to have some bad days that make you question this whole lifestyle. When those days happen, I recommend wine.
Just know that you are not alone. Every Vanlifer out there has run into hiccups. Some days suck really really bad, but other days will be the best days of your life. Each bump in the road has only made me stronger and more self sufficient. I will never regret making the decision to live in a van. I'm glad I pushed through the hard days to find the unicorn on the other side, because sometimes, Vanlife is exactly like the perfect Instagram pictures that you see and it's totally worth it.
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