An honest guide to full time van life, by a seasoned supertramp.
Four vans and nearly ten years in (and recently, with a plus one), I feel that I’ve truly earned my van lifer badge! And – lucky you – I’m ready to share what I’ve learned about living that full time van life, for all who may be interested in, or even considering, this rather unique life choice.
1) Dignity? What dignity?
Prepare to let go of any and all decorum.
Accept that sooner or later a passer by will accidentally see you naked when you forget to close a curtain (or should they decide to be nosy and press their nose up to the van window).
You’ll wear the same clothes three days in a row. Best to get comfortable now with a baseline low level of musk.
You’ll think nothing of replacing daily showers with baby wipes.
And you will definitely sh*t in the woods at some point, whether you’re comfortable with that idea right now or not.
Locals and tourists alike will judge you just for being somewhere between; for bringing your entire home with you. For daring to be comfortable, pyjama’d, cup of tea in hand and laptop in front of you, in the beach car park.
I always find myself wondering to what degree it’s true distaste, and to what degree it’s actually jealousy; I suspect in many cases, it’s mostly the latter. We give society FOMO – that’s my working theory, anyway.
So, get comfortable with people seeing you in your PJs, and with every aspect of your life from sunrise to sunset, breakfast to dinner, feeling sorta-kinda public.
Learn to stop giving a crap what people think.
Learn to embrace the undignified. Trust me, it’s worth it.
And know that at some point, however steadfast your resolve, you will be tempted to pee in the sink when it’s busy out but the toilet tank is full.
2) Prepare to bang your head on things
And your elbow. And your knee. Especially if you are anything but exceptionally petite.
Personally, I do a short yoga routine in the van each and every morning.
It involves a combination of sun salutations, breathing exercises, and ducking, diving and scrambling into various compartments to locate toothbrush, hairbrush and coffee jar.
If I manage to complete said routine without acquiring a new bruise or three, I consider it a solid win.
Today will be a good day.
3) Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Or the big stuff…
Listen, there really isn’t any point getting too upset when things break (and they inevitably will).
It frequently feels like the bigger, fancier and more expensive an appliance in the van is, the more likely it is to break. History has proven this theory right, for me personally at least.
And then there are the dramas we create inadvertently for ourselves. These are often tougher to deal with, mentally.
I passionately don’t want to admit this publicly, but I once filled my brand new van’s freshwater tank with diesel.
Yes. Brand new. I had just picked it up twenty minutes prior.
And not just a little bit of diesel, either. Almost $100 worth.
After realising what I’d done,crying briefly at the sheer infuriating idiocy of the situation, I tremblingly accepted a cup of tea from the kind gas station clerk, and begun filling the actual diesel tank.
A few weeks, several hundred pounds, and a brand new water tank and inlet pipe later, ‘Dieselgate’ became a story I could almost laugh about.
Was is awful? Yes.
Expensive mistake? Yes!
Did it feel for just the smallest of moments like the world was ending? Well, yes, but that’s only because I’m admittedly a rather over dramatic human being.
But most importantly of all – did the world go on?
Was everything, van included, ok in the end? Yes.
Sure I still occasionally kick myself when I consider everything else I could have spent that money on, instead of a new water tank. But life goes on. We all make mistakes. and when you do, you know what you do?
You OWN THAT SHIT. You fix it, you let it go, and you move on.
4) Privacy becomes a distant memory
If you embark on van life with a fellow human being, be ready to surrender absolutely all of your privacy.
I do mean all of it.
You better be pretty damn comfortable with that person, because they are going to see, hear and smell things you never intended anybody else to see, hear or smell. And vice versa.
Full time van life with a twin flame is honest to god the truest and most brutal of any tests a relationship can go through.
If you survive it, you can be sure they’re a keeper.
5) Develop good people skills
Obviously it is sensible to strive for strong communication skills in life in general, whether you’re a house dweller, flat dweller, tent dweller, cave dweller…
But the reason I include this in particular for van life, is that despite being somewhat isolating by nature, life on the road demands a reliance on the goodwill of others to some extent.
You will break down in the middle of nowhere, and it’ll be the friendly stranger in the 4×4 who stops to jump start your battery.
You will need water and have to sweet talk the local campsite owner or service station clerk into letting you fill up.
You’ll find a whole community of like-minded and fascinating individuals at park-ups, beaches, forests and even laybys, so long as you know how to get a conversation started.
And finally, there will be times when you get “the knock”. Typically on the part of a local homeowner concerned that their street is becoming a hotspot for the vanlife community, and anxious that this may come with reduced parking availability and increased litter.
Your goal, in this instance, is to put their mind at ease. If you were somewhere you really weren’t supposed to be, then be sure to apologize, and move on without delay.
If you are somewhere that parking really ought to be OK, then explain that you only mean to stay one night (if that’s the case), that your vehicle is entirely self contained, and that there will be no litter, no noise and (if you’ll excuse the cliche) nothing but footprints left on your part.
Better yet, make sure they see you outside with the litter picker making the world a tidier place.
It’s difficult to stay suspicious of someone in the face of the litter picker, even for the most conservative of Karens.
6) Learn to deal with loneliness
This applies even if you’re traveling with somebody.
When you lack a single, solid geographical base, you tend to find a little loneliness creeping in around the edges, in the spots that were once filled with regularly seeing friends and family members who now you can only hang out with virtually.
Sure it’s great when you pull up to a spot on the coast of Portugal or Spain and instantly become bezzies with the couple next to you in the Fiat Ducato, or that dude with the tent box and the really cool dog. But whilst these friendships and relationships can be intense and in some instances long lasting, the very nature of vanlife is movement.
You will move on. They will move on.
Get used to people in your life coming and going.
7) Consider your van life income source
It goes without saying that the ideal situation is to have a job that you can do from anywhere.
Since the pandemic, remote working has become more commonplace, and in this respect there really hasn’t been a better time to transform yourself into a digital nomad.
Even if you’re still heading to the office daily, it’s always worth having that conversation with your boss and seeing if remote work is a possibility. For nearly all computer and/or telephone based jobs, it should be.
Of course, not everybody works from a desk – me included. And so for lots of us, the alternative is to plan to work for part of the year, and travel/spend that hard earned cash for the rest of it.
Personally, I work as a vet in England during the summer months (when the weather is tolerable) and prefer to head for sunnier climes when the seasons turn cold.
For example, it’s April 3rd today, and we arrived in France last night by ferry. We left England in the rain, and this morning I’m writing from a petite cafe in a sunny village Northwest of Paris. I have a tiny cup of coffee, and a truly giant pain au chocolate that cost only $1.80.
It’s at least five degrees warmer here; days away from T-shirt weather. Life is good.
So, find a way to make it work. Zero judgment from me if you’re selling foot pics on Seeking Arrangement, so long as you’re happy and able to live the life you want.
You do you, girl.
Update 3 days later: T-shirt weather achieved.
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