An unusual lifestyle comes with a lot of questions. I really love when I get asked a unique question, but today I’ll start with the top 10!
TOP 10 FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT VANLIFE
10. How much does a conversion van cost?
I’m going to start with my least favorite question. Talking about money is always awkward and I worry that when I blurt out the cost of my van it will give you sticker shock. I also understand this is an important question for people looking to start Vanlife so I’m going to answer it. First however, I will preface it with, I have seen van build price ranges all over the place from 30K to 130K. It comes down to how new/used your van is, the amenities you want in the van, and if you are able to do the build yourself.
All in, I spent about $80,000 on my van and van build combined. To break it down: the van itself was about $40,000. I wanted a newer van so I wouldn’t have to worry about breaking down in a remote place. The van had never been titled to anyone so I got to finance it as new, but it had 7,000 miles on it when I bought it. The van had previously been used by the dealership as a loaner vehicle and that’s a good place to start if you’re looking to keep costs down on a newer vehicle. I also hired out my build so that was an additional cost I had to pay. The labor came out to about $20,000. I know that seems like a lot of money, but a lot of work goes into a van build….plumbing, electricity, carpentry. If you are able to do this work yourself and with the help of friends, you will save quite a few dollars. The material for the build was another $20,000.
DON’T GET STICKER SHOCK - There are definitely ways to do a van build cheaper. Since this is my only home, I upgraded on a lot of things. You do not need a $1000 toilet or a stainless steel fridge, there are other options. Getting a slightly older van with more miles on it is another way to lower the total cost. My van is a Mercedes which also comes with a higher sticker price. The Dodge Sprinter, Promaster, and Ford Transit are all popular options and don’t cost as much. Lastly, this is my only home; I’m not paying rent or mortgage somewhere. I was living in Boston before Vanlife and paying $2000/month on a mortgage. Now I’m paying $377 a month for my car payment, which I consider rent. You do the math and tell me I’m not saving money.
9. Where do you sleep and how much does it cost?
There are a lot of options when it comes to sleeping and the free ones are my favorite. I find almost all of my campsites using the apps iOverlander and The Vanlife App. You can filter for free camping or established campgrounds. The app will either use your location to show you what’s nearby or you can search for the area you want to look in. You can also use the apps to filter for propane, dump station, and many other options. Users will leave reviews of the campsite, which are handy, because they will say if something occurred to make them feel unsafe, if there is a cell signal, if you need 4WD to get there etc… If you find a new spot, you can also add it to the apps which is fun and helps out another Vanlifer! If you’re starting Vanlife, download the apps now.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land is your best friend. Camping on BLM land ranges from free dispersed camping to established campsites with amenities such as bathrooms, potable water, fire rings, and picnic tables. A benefit of BLM land is it's usually in unique landscapes, beautiful mountain backdrops, or a peaceful river flowing through. You can find BLM camping on the apps I mentioned above or a simple google search will also tell you where BLM land is.
Not all Vanlife nights are spent in Instagram worthy picturesque spots. When that’s not possible or you’re looking for a quick stay when passing through, Walmarts, Cracker Barrels, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s generally allow overnight parking. iOverlander and The Vanlife App will usually have these places pinned as well. If I’m looking for a place to stay that’s not far off my route, I will use Google Maps on my phone, and use the “search along route” feature to find one of these stores that doesn’t deviate far from my route. Not all locations allow overnight camping though. For Walmart, I use this link, which can be filtered by State and City and will tell you if overnight camping is allowed for each Walmart location. Or you could call ahead.
So now that I’ve talked about the free options, paying to stay at an established campground is always an alternative. I will usually only choose this option if I have no other choice or I need to use multiple amenities that campgrounds offer such as shower, laundry, and using a dump station. Campgrounds within the National Parks typically range from $15-$30/night. Privately run campgrounds will probably cost you between $30-$40 a night, but I’ve also seen prices skyrocket to over a $100/night in very popular destinations like Key West.
Another option that will cost you, but usually less money, is to pay to park in a parking lot overnight. I’ve had to choose this option a few times and that will usually range from $10-$20/night.
Personally, I like the free options and have almost made a game out of seeing how long I can go without paying for a place to sleep! Check out my blog post, Vanlife: Guide to Sleeping and Overnight Parking for a complete list of all the different possibilities you can stay at!
No matter where you stay, remember the Leave No Trace principles. Dispose of your trash and human waste properly. This is such a huge issue right now and a lot of places have already banned overnight camping because people are not picking up after themselves and disrespecting the land.
8. How do I make money on the road?
Nope, I am not a trust fund baby. That’s a common misconception that the Vanlife community is plagued with. Most of us are doing whatever we can to keep our wheels turning.
When I hit the road in February 2019, I was able to transition my desk job into a remote job. I was a Healthcare Compliance Manager for a company I had been with for 10 years. Most of my work was already computer based and I delegated off the responsibilities that were not. It was the ideal situation. Asking your current employer if you can work remote is a good place to start; you never know what they'll say, especially right now with the pandemic, more people than ever are working remotely.
Unfortunately for me, my financial situation changed when the pandemic hit. Like millions of Americans I was laid off. I am currently looking for new remote opportunities and creating more content on my website. My website is still new, but through affiliate marketing I hope to make my website profitable. If you decide to buy an item that is recommended in my posts, I have an opportunity to earn a commission off it at no additional cost to you.
When I was working, I had to make sure I was in an area with good cell reception so that usually meant traveling into towns and cities. For the internet, I used a hot spot that was provided by work and used my phone as a backup hotspot through a different provider. I preferred to work in the van versus going into coffee shops or a library, but I know those are popular options among other Vanlifers.
7. How do I do Laundry?
Let’s be honest, I don’t do laundry very often on the road. I will wear an outfit multiple times, way past an acceptable level, before it goes in the laundry bag. My preference is to do laundry at a friends or family’s house if I’m able to visit with one along my route, but that is usually not the case. When laundry absolutely must be done I will google laundromats in the town I am in, read the reviews, and try to pick the best option. iOverlander and The Vanlife App also have a filter option for laundromats. I have found Tide Pods to be the easiest detergent to keep in the van and you just grab the amount you need when going into the laundromat.
I once went two months without doing laundry.
6. Is it scary to travel solo as a female and do I get lonely?
Being a female solo traveler, there is always the question of safety. If I’m being honest, the first few nights sleeping in the van in some random location were pretty scary and I didn’t sleep that much. Night after night, nothing happened and I became more comfortable with my new home. Now I sleep great! I keep a few weapons in the van should someone ever try to break in and I also took a self-defense course before I hit the road. Before I get to a town/city that I’m going to sleep in, I look up that location on Niche.com and to see the town’s crime rating. I only stay in a B- and above. I only park in places that I feel safe in. That means if I pull up to a place that I'm planning to sleep in and I don't get a good vibe from the location, I will leave. Use your gut instinct here. If I’m staying at a Walmart (or other parking lot), I try to go there later at night and immediately put my curtains on all the windows so no one can see I’m in the van alone. I also never post my location on social media until I’ve left that area. Additionally, my family can follow my location through an app on my phone. That also gives them peace of mind. In my experience, I’ve actually learned that people are pretty interested in what I’m doing and offer to help anyway they can such as letting me sleep in their driveway. For more information on safety, check out my post: Safety Advice for Solo Female Vanlifers.
Sure sometimes it can get lonely, but everyone I know gets lonely from time to time, right? When I first hit the road I was single and I would answer this question differently then, then I do now. So let’s start with when I was single. Honestly, I didn’t get lonely that often. I was so excited to finally be doing Vanlife that my excitement won over any moments of loneliness. I was also so busy, I rarely had time to think about being lonely. Between working, van chores, driving, and adventuring I didn’t have a lot of downtime. There was no time to feel lonely. I am a very extroverted person, but one that enjoys alone time, so being by myself a lot of the time didn’t bother me. That said, the times I felt the most lonely was after a Vanlife visitor had left. I usually fill the loneliness void with music, podcasts or watching TV. Whenever I did feel the need for human interaction, I would pop into a local brewery, sit at the bar, and I was bound to end up talking to someone (but that was also pre-Covid). Let’s not forget, you are going to talk to people in National Parks, on hiking trails, and people are always going to come up to the van and ask to see it, ask about your life, and ask the top 10 frequently asked questions listed here. When you are really lucky, you will meet other Vanlifers on the road and sometimes you might just end up caravaning with them. Check out my post: Combating Loneliness On The Road for more details on how I overcome and embrace loneliness.
Like I said, now that I’m in a relationship, I answer this question a little differently. But it’s not that I get lonely, it’s that I get lonely for one person and I wish he was with me and I wish I got to share the experiences I’m going through with him. Is that even loneliness?
5. How do I get water?
I have a 25 gallon water tank located in the storage under my bed. It is hooked up to a water pump and filter. I pretty much only use this water for dishes, brushing my teeth, and washing my hands/face. I can usually go 1.5 weeks on 25 gallons. To fill the water tank I keep two 25ft BPA free hoses in the van. I visit a lot of National Parks in my van travels and that’s usually where I fill my water tank. The campgrounds located inside the National Parks usually have a dump station and potable water which you can use even if you’re not staying in the campgrounds. If I need to fill up outside of a National Park, I will use the apps that I’ve already mentioned, iOverlander and The Vanlife App and filter for water. Sometimes you can find water spigots at gas stations and town parks. I also discovered that some Cabela’s have dump stations in their parking lots. Overall, It is usually not a problem to find places to fill my water tank.
I only fill my water tank with potable water, but I find it tastes funny so I don’t drink it. For drinking water I keep three 2.5 gallon jugs in the van. I refill those up by using water fountains. Most commonly I use the water fountains in the gym (I have an Anytime Fitness gym membership) or in National Parks. All National Parks have water fountains, usually in the visitor center, to refill your water bottles! Reduce your plastic use and buy a reusable water bottle!
4. How do I stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer? AKA do I have a heater and AC?
First of all, save yourself the headache, travel north in the summer and south in the winter. Regulating the van temperature is not easy and living in a van in extreme temperature, in my opinion, is miserable. One of the first steps of building a van is insulating it. How well you insulate your van will be key in regulating the temperature inside your van.
Winter - I was surprised to find that it is easier to control the temperature in cold weather than in hot temperatures. My main source of keeping warm is my heater. I have an Espar Heater installed under the passenger seat. The heater taps into my diesel fuel line and uses about a gallon every 24 hours - so it’s super efficient. The heater works great and heats the van up in no time, usually almost too hot. The Mr. Buddy propane heaters are a great cheaper option and have no install. These work great, but you can’t sleep with them on due to carbon monoxide poisoning and fire risk. In addition to my heater, I have a heavy down comforter on my bed and cozy up in warm clothes and thick wool socks. A cup of hot coffee does wonders in the morning.
Summer - I love summer, but controlling the temperature in the van is not easy and usually very sweaty. I have a Fantastic Fan installed on my ceiling and windows that open on the side of the van. This creates a nice air flow but does not cool the van down a whole lot. I have a 12 volt fan that I aim directly on me when it gets warm in the van.
For all seasons, I use my Moohah Creatives insulated, blackout curtains. They are really good for privacy, but also help keep the sun out in the summer or the hot air from my heater in, in the winter.
3. How often do you have to plug the van in? Do you worry your devices will drain your car battery?
The short answers are never and no.
My van, like most vans, is built for being off the grid. I have three 100 watt solar panels on the roof of my van, which are connected to a charge controller, which is then connected to two 200 amp hour house batteries (not to be confused with the car battery) located under my bed.
This is how it works: the sun shines on the solar panels which absorbs the light and converts it to electricity. The charge controller regulates the flow of electricity coming from the solar panels and uses it to charge the two house batteries. The batteries use the electricity to power the devices in my van at a 12 volt direct current (DC). Most of the devices in my van run off 12 volts (refrigerator, fan, toilet, usb ports etc..).
So what happens when I need to run something on the US’s standard 120 volts you ask? That’s where the inverter comes in. The inverter is connected to the house batteries and will convert the 12 volt DC to 120 volt alternating current (AC). I have one standard outlet in my van which I use to power my coffee bean grinder, charge my camera batteries, and occasionally use my curling iron.
Whenever possible, I use the 12 volt DC in my van because it uses less electricity. The inverter will require more electricity to convert the charge to AC.
So there you have it, nothing in the van runs off the car battery! But on the flip side, I also have a DC-DC charger installed in my van. What that means is when the car is running, after the car battery has been fully charged, the alternator it will switch over and charge my house batteries. This is really handy for cloudy days or when the days get shorter.
Ok, I lied when I said I never plug the van in. I do have that option, which is called Shore Power. I’ve never used it on the road, but when I go to my parents house I always plug it in to top off the battery’s charge.
Usually my system works fine and I always have enough power. I monitor the current coming in from the solar panels and what percent charge my batteries are at using an app through Renogy on my phone. You are not supposed to let your batteries go below 50% because that can ruin their longevity. I try to charge all my devices during the day or when I’m driving to help the batteries along. Pretty much everything in the van that uses power is also on a power switch so that it’s not using any power when it’s not in use. All of that said, last winter in New England, my batteries had a hard time getting a decent charge, even on sunnier days, and I found myself driving around for hours to give the batteries a little boost. I’m a little nervous for this coming winter. If and when I have to upgrade my batteries, I will go with lithium.
2. How do you shower?
I have an Anytime Fitness membership, which is a gym with thousands of locations all across the US. The gym membership allows you to use any location you want and they are open 24 hours. Planet Fitness is another option popular among Vanlifers and is slightly cheaper, but I prefer Anytime Fitness because the showers are in private, individual rooms, whereas, Planet Fitness is usually locker room style. For the most part, the Anytime Fitness bathrooms/showers are very clean. Using gym showers is the most common way I shower on the road, but occasionally I have had to use alternative resources.
You can usually pay for a shower in the National Park campgrounds, even if you aren’t staying there. This is typically under $5 and I don’t think I would ever pay more than that for a shower. Some privately owned campgrounds will also let you pay for a shower.
Sometimes you can find showers at the beach. I think this is meant to be for rinsing sand off, but I’ve definitely taken a full shower at the beach!
Jumping in a river or a lake is a great free option, but if you are going to use products, make sure they are eco-friendly and rinse the product off of you away from the main water source. I recently learned that even the eco-friendly products are still harmful to bodies of water and can promote algae growth. Personally, when I “bathe” in a river or lake, it’s more of a rinse off and I don’t use any product.
Lastly, I have an outdoor shower installed in the back of my van. I don’t use it a whole lot because it uses a lot of water from my very limited water supply. Remember, I only carry 25 gallons which I need to make last a week and a half at a time, but the option is there if I need it.
If I’m in a town that has an Anytime Fitness, I can shower as often as I want, but that’s usually not the case. I usually shower every four days. On days that I shower, I blow dry and curl my hair and that’s just my hair till the next time I shower. If I need to make it look not-greasy, I will use dry shampoo, wear it in a bun, or wear a hat. I do normally wash my face once a day in my sink.
I will make a note, that finding a place to shower has been more difficult during Covid. Not all gyms have their showers open and I have been turned down at campgrounds where you can normally pay to shower. I have had to use my outdoor shower and river/lake options more frequently lately.
1. How do you use the bathroom?
Yup, the #1 question asked is how do I go #2. Well pretty much the exact same way you do - in a toilet. Ok, maybe it’s a little different.
My van has a Nature’s Head Composting Toilet hidden in the bench. I go over in great detail how to use it on Instagram saved in my highlight reel, so if you need to learn, I recommend watching that. But to sum it up, the toilet separates the liquid from the solid so it doesn’t smell. I have to dump the liquid container every couple days and the waste container every couple months. The Nature’s Head is my personal preference, but the Thetford Porta Potti is a popular cheaper option among Vanlifers. Pre-covid, I was using public restrooms whenever I got the chance, but now I’m mostly using my toilet.
This isn’t my style, but a lot of Vanlifers just use the great outdoors and keep a pee bottle in the van for those middle of the night emergencies. If you are going to use the bathroom in the great outdoors there is a certain etiquette to follow and I’ll give the short version. Make sure you are 200 ft away from lakes, rivers, and trails. Dig a cat hole at least 6 inches deep for your solid waste and bury it when finished. Carry out all toilet paper.
Well there you have it. The Top 10 Frequently Asked Questions. Do you feel ready to move into a van yet? If you want to see specific products that were used in my build, click here: My Van Build. If you have any other questions, head on over to my contact page and message me there!
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