Van life has got quite a bit of attention in the past few years and many people rave about it. But if you only ever learn about it from Instagram, it can give you a pretty skewed perception of how great it actually is. I wanted to hear real stories from van lifers who could be honest, and open, about their time on the road and hear some sensible advice on whether others should get into it. To help with that, I put out this query:
We’re researching the so-called Van Life, a unique mobile lifestyle where you live out of a van, and would like to hear stories from people who have tried it. Why’d you try it, was it a fun experience for you, and would you recommend it to others? Looking to hear personal stories, the more detail the better.
I got some fantastic responses to that, including from a couple of very well known van lifers who have published some great content helping advise people on van life. To make a quick summary of the advantages & disadvantages people talked about in their different stories, I’d say they’re as follows:
- Total freedom of being able to go wherever you want whenever you want
- The wonderful sense of adventure and getting to experience amazing places
- Very low cost once you’ve brought the van (often just food and gas, though as with ordinary apartment living, there will always be unexpected expenses)
- Meeting wonderful and like-minded people along the way
- Potentially builds new survival skills
- Develops humility
- You won’t always be in beautiful scenery – there are also mornings where you “wake up in a Walmart parking lot” (to quote one contributor below)
- Some days will be taken up with mundane and/or frustrating tasks like fixing issues with your van or getting supplies
- Any number of things can go wrong (locking your keys in the van, getting towed, breaking down, having health issues when in remote areas etc)
- You may have to get rid of a lot of possessions
- Showering/pooing can be an inconvenience
But for every person who submitted a story, the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. Below are the van life stories we’ve received so far, 100% of which are positive for van life and which I really enjoyed reading, and hope you will too. 🙂
Vanlife is awesome, I definitely recommend people try it. I currently live in the 3rd van that I've ever owned and I love the simple life that it forces upon you, the healthy habits of going to bed and waking up early and the freedom to be able to go literally anywhere I want and already have somewhere to sleep.
Of course, there are struggles, but for the most part, they are satisfying when you overcome them and facing them forces you to get creative in the way you solve problems.
I'm a big advocate of the vanlife movement and think living in a van is a good way to learn a lot about yourself and challenge some of your boundaries.
I was a bit hesitant to try it initially, but once you get yourself set up and figure out a bit of a routine, you really come to love the freedom.
There's something really satisfying about having a full day at the beach, doing a bunch of exercise, eating great food and having a fun time in the process knowing that the only money you're spending is whatever you spend on food. It's really cool.
Whether you just plan on borrowing or renting a van to try vanlife for a weekend, or you want to buy one to set up to live in full-time, vanlife will be some of the best memories in your life when you get older.
--Marty Spargo, Vantelligence
My wife and I lived in a van full time with our two dogs for nearly three years. We purchased and built out our van in 2016, hit the road in early 2017, and fall 2019 we purchased a middle-of-the-woods home base where we are currently hunkering down in preparation for our next excursion.
We decided to try vanlife because we felt like we were stuck in a rut. We were married, we owned a house and two dogs, we had full-time jobs that paid the bills, but behind it all we had a sinking feeling that we were not happy, that this was not what we wanted. We knew that there had to be more to life than giving most of our week to our employers while barely having any time or energy for the things that make us feel alive.
Somewhere along the way we discovered vanlife. We've always been avid travelers and campers, and we had started talking about taking a break from our jobs and traveling around North America with our pups. In our minds, this meant trading in our cars for a small SUV and tent camping our way around. But then a friend told us to check out #vanlife on this thing called Instagram (which we had never used before), and we were instantly hooked.
We saw the cool and unique things people were doing to make a humble van into an enviable living space. We saw the beautiful scenery that vanlifers seemed to be surrounded with on a daily basis. We saw the freedom and adventure of this lifestyle, and we knew this was what we had to do.
After that moment, we began searching for a van - at dealerships, on craigslist, on Facebook Marketplace, you name it. After weeks of searching, we found the perfect van for us: a 1996 Chevy Express high top conversion van, which we bought for all of $1500. We then got to work converting the interior into our new home.
Converting a van into a living space was a whole lot of fun, but at the time we were doing it there wasn't much consistent, solid information out there on how to do it. We spent hours watching Youtube videos, reading blogs and forums, dreaming, and planning. Over the course of a few months, we turned our van into a cozy home with cedar wood paneling, a full kitchen including a fridge, and solar power.
It was at this point that we started our website Gnomad Home - to show others in detail how we converted our van so that we could make it easier for the next person. Since then our website has grown into quite an epic resource on building out and living in a van, and it also helps sustain us financially.
We hit the road in 2017. Over the previous 10 months we had discovered vanlife, built out our own van, sold everything we owned, and quit our jobs. It was a monumental period in our lives, and we were ready for our next adventure.
Did we have fun living in a van, and would we recommend it to others? Yes, and yes, wholeheartedly. That said, vanlife certainly may not be for everyone.
The reality of vanlife isn't exactly how it's often depicted on Instagram. Sure, there really are mornings where you wake up surrounded by the most stunning views that nature has to offer. There really are days where you're in total control of your own time, with no one to answer to. But there are also mornings where you wake up in a Walmart parking lot, and days where your time is completely taken up with getting supplies or figuring out some mechanical issue on your van. And if you're someone who needs to shower every day (or even every week), then you'll have some serious adjusting to do before undertaking this lifestyle.
But every day is an adventure. Every day is filled with possibility. Your life is spent chasing the horizon rather than locked in a cubicle. And it's an incredible opportunity for personal growth.
Living in a van was an absolute blast, and it completely changed our lives for the better. Vanlife can be filled with hardships, but we found that it's these very hardships that lead to those moments when you're forced to come face-to-face with yourself. And in those moments you can choose to grow and become a better, more resilient version of yourself.
During our time on the road, we met many like-minded people who have become lifelong friends. The nomadic community is vibrant, accepting, and close-knit, and is an incredible force for positive change. Since 2018, we've hosted the Midwest Vanlife Gathering, a weekend of community and vanlife education for nomads of all types. The event is also a fundraiser, and we've raised nearly $20,000 for various nonprofits. The vanlife community is truly inspiring!
--John Serbell, Gnomad Home
My husband and I actually spent seven months living out of a compact cargo van last year as we traveled to all 62 National Parks.
It was an amazing experience that I would definitely recommend to anyone considering trying it. Having a real full-size mattress instead of just foam pieces made for much more sound sleeping, and we didn't have to worry about any set up or break down unlike other vans which often have to convert some space into a bed. It's all we really had in the back, but it was so nice to just pull into a parking stall and crawl into the back after a long day of driving or hiking.
Our van also really cut down on our costs for lodging and accommodations. By our estimations, living the van life saved us upwards of $15,000 over the course of our trip. We probably spent six out of the seven months actually sleeping in the van because there were some cases where we weren't able to (like when we flew to Hawaii, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands to visit the parks on those islands, and some nights when it was either too hot -- 70+ degrees -- or too cold -- below 25 degrees -- for a comfortable sleep in the van since we didn't have hook ups or insulation).
While we thought we'd sell the van after we got back from our adventure, we've actually kept it so we can use it for trips (although travel is on hold at the moment due to the coronavirus). Because it's got great gas mileage, we actually use the van as our primary (and only) vehicle. We've definitely received a few funny looks when loading groceries on top of our bed in the back of the van when running errands.
--Lauren and Steven Keys, Trip Of A Lifestyle
*Why'd you try it?*
I was craving something new in my life and had recently entered a stage in my life where I was more money conscious - moving into a van instead of a new apartment when it came time to move that year just seemed like a natural progression at that point.
I started The Van Life Coach as a resource for those considering making the jump into van life, or just want to try it as a way to learn something about themselves to apply to their non-vanlife. There are many, many lessons to be learned on the road.
*Was it a fun experience for you?*
I thoroughly enjoyed it. I've tried two types of van life: the roadtripping van life and the backcountry van life. There are unique benefits to both but I must say that my memories of backcountry van life win out a little bit when I reminisce.
I learned a lot as I prepared my van for all that I'd put it through. I learned the fundamentals of electricity using solar and installed solar panels, a lithium battery, and a fridge and cut my electricity costs to zero. By designing a solar setup that could keep a freezer running 24/7 under most conditions, I was able to comfortably take long trips out into the wild. Armed with a propane camping stove, I was able to eat much like I normally did. Besides all the technical skills I picked up by living in my van, I learned a lot about myself and what makes me comfortable and what I actually need versus just want.
As a backcountry vanlifer, I was able to experience prolonged periods off grid life in a way that most people only dream of. Of course, this includes the less glamorous stuff that people rarely want to highlight - but I don't mind highlighting it. One moment that stuck out to me was when I was sitting outside on my 5 gallon bucket toilet to use the restroom in the middle of a blizzard. When nature calls, you have to answer. Even though I was cold, the view was beautiful and I distinctly remember thinking to myself that this wasn't nearly as bad as it might seem to nearly everyone that hears that story.
As a roadtripping vanlifer, there were a lot of nights spent in WalMart and truck stop parking lots. Unlike while staying off grid, restroom trips were almost always to public restrooms. I quickly learned which spots were friendly to vanlifers and which spots weren't. One time, I was taking a nap in my van and I woke up because I noticed that my van was suddently on an incline even though I clearly remembered parking on flat ground. Turns out, I was in the process of being towed. I jumped out of the van and a scared towtruck driver apologized profusely and quickly let my van down because he didn't have a right to be towing me.
I took my van all around the continental United States and am happy to have been able to see so many different corners of America. One time, I accidentally locked my keys and my phone in my van while I was filling up on gas in the middle of Nebraska. I was quite upset with myself for making such a newbie mistake and walked into the gas station to ask to use their phone, fully expecting to have to call a pop and lock service like I was used to in the city that would cost me a few hundred dollars. Within thirty minutes, a local police officer arrived and opened my van for free. I didn't even know that was a thing and it gave me a greater appreciation of the different paces of life that exist in the states.
*Would you recommend it to others?*
Absolutely. The best part about living in a van is the humility that it forces you to develop. It's a great way to experience more - both because you can stretch your dollar faster and because it throws you into what others consider an alternative lifestyle. Because I took a route in my Van Life planning where I made sure my foodie life wouldn't be sacrificed, I was able to live with much of the same comforts that I was used to in my non-Van life. Van Life is fully customizable and can be done on any budget. The more amenities you don't want to sacrifice, the more it will cost.
--Caleb Chen, The Van Life Coach
We got the keys to our secondhand self-contained Toyota Estima 2002 in a Pak’NSave supermarket parking lot on a sunny afternoon in Auckland 2 years ago.
The owner, Benjamin was Malaysian like us. By mere coincidence as we only got to know this when we met him in person!
He had built the van up by himself after importing it from Japan. The van had a collapsible wooden bed frame, a fridge behind the driver’s seat, a kitchen unit (with sink) at the back and a solar panel on top!
His was the first van we saw and it was (as cliché as it sounds) love at first sight! We bought it on the spot!
Our decision to get a van was not spontaneous:
Since we were going to be in New Zealand for a while for our working holiday, it made sense to get our own vehicle! Thankfully, it did not turn out to be a “lemon”. And we ended up doing a total of 25,000km round New Zealand. Even taking it with us across to the South Island and back via ferry!
It’s been everywhere – the countryside, national parks, mountain passes with windy roads, little towns, big cities, etc. Everywhere except the ninety-mile beach!
And you can bet there were all kinds of scares in between!
Like forgetting the keys in the ignition the whole night until the battery is dead the next morning! Or something unknown breaking down when you’re at the remote (but stunningly gorgeous) French Pass!
But there were also some moments of pure bliss:
Starry nights, cooking hamburgers right from the back of our van, listening to the waves (or storm) right outside, and cruising along marvelous gorges and coastal ways!
Even something like knowing that you saved few hundred dollars on accommodation can bring unexpected joy! 9 months was over too soon, and we eventually passed our van to a French couple. One of them was mechanic. And while we were heartbroken, we felt better knowing the van would be taken care of well!
We wanted very much to bring it back to Malaysia if not for the tropical climate that would have made it an oven on wheels!
So if you’re not too afraid of leaving your comfort zone, you should definitely give van life a try at least once! It was the first time either of us had done so and we still miss it sometimes!
Cause other than the boundless freedom, van life makes you realize that you don’t need a lot to be happy!
--Janice Yong, travelswithsun
Back in September 2019, my boyfriend and I quit our corporate careers in Chicago to embark on a van life adventure across the U.S. and all the way to South America. Our goal is to drive the entire Pan-American Highway and explore countries and new places along the way.
*Health Issues and Doubts*
Unfortunately, in November 2019, my boyfriend started having some life-threatening health issues, stemming from a surgery he had a decade ago. He was unable to move and unable to travel. We stayed with his parents for a few months waiting for him to get better. In February 2020, we had him hospitalized where we were told they can't do anything for him but we needed to wait it out. I was worried that our trip had ended before it even started and that our dream was foolish and a mistake. Fortunately, doing a lot of alternative medicine (think massage therapy and micro-current treatments), we managed to get him back on track and were finally able to start our dream of van life in March 2020!
*Finally Setting Off*
We started by crossing the border from Canada to the U.S. and first drove through Washington state, chased waterfalls in Oregon, drove the loneliest road in America through Nevada, and made it to Utah and Arizona. (We have a lot of photos about our first month on the road here
Even though we have only been on the road for 1.5 months, we completely love our new lifestyle. Living in a van and being self-sufficient gives you the freedom to explore any place you want and camp wherever you want to camp. We are now able to access places we would not be able to see otherwise. We get to explore the most remote corners of the U.S. and enjoy being in the rugged nature.
*Life-Changing Moment at Alstrom Point*
We had heard about this unique place called Alstrom Point in Utah. It's a viewpoint overlooking Lake Powell and surrounding monuments and it is very difficult to access. Only 4x4 high clearance vehicles could get there and you would need to be self-sufficient as there is no electricity, no water, no anything. It's just nature. After a long drive, we finally got to the viewpoint which was our new campsite for a few days. We could not believe our eyes! We got out of our truck, pulled out the camp chairs and sat on the edge of the cliff, staring at our view for hours. It was incredibly quiet. So quiet that our ears were ringing. We could hear the odd bird flying by and the wind blowing through the rock formations. We could see the sun reflection on the lake and the wind dancing on the water surface. It was very peaceful. We couldn't see a single other person, car, road, or house. It was this moment that made us realize how small we are in the grand scheme of things. Here, where only nature matters, where not many people have gone before, there was no threat of a pandemic, unstable political situations, war, or anything else. It was just pure nature. We felt like we were the only people in the universe and that the only thing that mattered was this moment right there. And we would never have experienced this immense life changing moment if it hadn't been for van life.
*Van Life Challenges as a Girly Girl*
That being said, van life does come with challenges. I am a very girly girl to say the least and love having a full-sized walk in closet and an extensive shoe collection. Making the change from a full-sized home with everything a girl could dream of to a van with capacity to hold 4 pairs of functional shoes and 1 pair of heels is something I'm still adjusting to. The biggest challenge for me though is the lack of plumbing. We have a sink and a kitchen in our van, but no bathroom or shower. This means that every morning, when I need to go to the bathroom, I grab our shovel and dig a hole which is my bathroom. We have limited water supply which means I can only wash my hair every week or 10 days. As you could imagine, dry shampoo has quickly become my best friend.
*Recommendation and Looking Ahead*
Despite all the challenges we have faced to live our van life dream, it is completely worth it! I would recommend it to everyone - even people who are not avid campers. Having a van provides the luxury of having a home with a fridge and water and it provides some shelter from the cold, rain, snow, and wind. It is the perfect compromise between camping and city living. The best thing is, there are a lot of companies that rent out vans or RVs and let you test if van life is for you. We can't wait to explore more of the U.S. and hopefully continue the Pan-American highway through Central America and South America once the travel bans are removed.
--Bettina Staerkle, The Next Trip
I’ve always dreamed of owning a van myself. After renting one with my boyfriend, we decided it was time to buy one ourselves. First we only went on short trips, but from the beginning we knew we wanted to become real van lifers. Last year we made the decision to try it out for a few months and I can tell you it was one of the best things we have experienced so far. Life in the van is easy and simple. It brings you back to the basics of life and makes you realise that you really don’t need much to be happy. Of course it is challenging sometimes, on rainy days the van is super tiny and sometimes you end up on an ugly parking lot to spend the night after you’ve been looking for water for hours. But these moments are nothing compared to the countless beautiful moments, cool adventures and mesmerising places you wake up on all the other days. Not to forget about all the beautiful souls you meet on the way. Now we are doing some upgrades on the van, so we can soon leave for more adventures!