Living in a Van: The Full Guide to Van Life (2021)

Vintage Yellow Camper Van - Royalty Free Image from Pixabay

In recent years, there has been a huge surge in the popularity of #vanlife. Living in a van might seem like a less than ideal way of life for some and a dream come true for others.

If you dream of living your life on your own terms, of traveling freely and seeing the world from a truly unique perspective… This guide is for you!

In this guide, we’re covering everything you need to know about living in a van – the good, the bad, the practical, and the whimsical!

We cover what vanlife is, some of the amazing reasons to choose vanlife, the challenges of living in a van, and 11 hacks to know for the perfect vanlife adventure.

Let’s kickstart your journey and jump right in!

What is Van Life?

In the simplest terms, van life is living in a van. Those who seek to do things differently, to travel freely and see the world from a unique perspective, that is unrestricted by accommodation locations and public travel routes, are increasingly choosing to #vanlife for their travels.

The popularity of #vanlife in recent years has blossomed into a huge community of nomads traveling, working, and experiencing a life that many of us only dream of.

The term ‘vanlife’ has grown to include everything from life in a tiny converted light commercial vehicle to RVs and huge busses converted to a home on wheels.

There is something radically free and bold about the minimalist and nomadic life, a romanticism that harks back to the 1960s and a desire to live on your own terms, with only the essentials and the values that mean the most to you.

Living in a Van - Open Doors - Screenshot from Instagram

In many ways, vanlife is the antidote to the pressures of our modern, consumer-driven lives. There is literally no space for needless consumerism and excess possessions (and posturing) when you live in a van!

Living in a van is not something that appeals to everyone and it certainly comes with some challenges and drawbacks.

Many opt to live in their van part-time while keeping a permanent residence or settling down for a few months at a time to save and travel again for a while. Others live in their vans full-time and even raise families and grow careers and businesses from their little nomadic van homes.

However, for those who take the leap and Do The Thing – the experiences they have and the personal growth they experience is well worth it!

7 Amazing Reasons to Live in a Van

The rewards of vanlife span the breadth of human experience. Living in a van means choosing a whole new way of doing life, letting go of many of the things we just assume are ‘normal’ and ‘necessary’.

It means deliberately choosing how you want to live, what matters to you and what you can leave behind.

Aside from the travel experiences and seeing the country from a truly unique perspective, those who choose this path find that it changes how they see themselves and how they see the world.

Here are seven great reasons to choose vanlife:

1. Living in a Van is Economical

Living in a brick-and-mortar space is expensive! When you choose to live in a van, you can drastically reduce your cost of living – rent alone is one of the biggest expenses you can drop.

Then there’s the fact that vanlife is by necessity a minimalist life. When you physically don’t have space to accumulate things, you spend less. You also spend on what really matters to you – the saying ‘buy experiences, not stuff’ has never been so appropriate!

Living in a Van - Dog and Laptop - Screenshot from Instagram

Living in a van, your biggest expenses will be the initial investment in the van and the conversion/build to create your rig. Thereafter, fuel, insurance, and accommodation in paid-for campsites will be your biggest expenses. How much these will cost will depend on where you are and what you do.

Check out this couple’s meticulous breakdown of what they spent on a three-month trip in the US to get an idea of what it might look like for you: Two Wandering Soles – Road Trip Budget & Daily Costs of Vanlife.

2. Vanlife is a Minimalist Life

When every inch of your living space is valuable, there is literally no room to accumulate things you don’t need or love.

The initial move into living in a van is a process of letting go and reevaluating what truly matters to you and what you truly need. For many, this process is a profound experience. It is deeply freeing and helps them hone in on what their true values are, what really matters to them, and who they are, right now.

When we have space, we tend to accumulate possessions for who we would like to be or who we feel we ought to be – boxes of hobby materials for that thing we love but never do? The mower for cutting that grass we don’t like cutting? Dinnerware for those exhausting family gatherings your mother-in-law likes? Let them go!

3. A Different Kind of Travel Experience

Vanlife is a great way to travel. You can take everything you need with you and you don’t have to carry it on your back. And you will always have the right pillow!

Vanlife gives you so much more freedom than other ways to travel. You will also see places you wouldn’t normally see and you can have those unexpected, spontaneous experiences that you can’t have when you have to go back to your accommodation for the night.

Living in a Van - Beaches - Screenshot from Instagram

If you see a sign for something interesting, you can turn off go there. When you meet some really cool people, who are heading off to something you didn’t know about, you can join them. If you find yourself in a place you love, you can stick around for as long as you like.

You’re in control and you have everything you need right there with you!

4. Living in a Van is the Ultimate Bonding Experience for Couples

When you’re living in a van with someone, you get to know each other very, very well. The physical proximity and long periods alone together, the range of situations you will experience together, and the challenges you will face together…  They will allow (or force) you to get to know each other better than years of ‘normal life’.

Living in a Van - Couple - Screenshot from Instagram

These experiences can make or break a couple. When you’re confined to a small space with someone for long periods, everything is amplified. You will either get over the sound of their chewing, or you won’t. Either way, you will know more about them and more about yourself, very quickly!

5. The Sense of Freedom

Living in a van, you are the master of your destiny. Where you go, the route you take to get there, where you do and don’t stop along the way – are all up to you.

Traveling on a plane, bus or train means you are forced to stop where they stop, and miss all the places in between. When you’re staying in a hotel, backpackers, or campsite, you’re forced to stop where they’re located.

Vanlife removes those restrictions and you can take any path you choose, as direct or as meandering as you choose. The sense of freedom that comes with that is amazing!

6. A Crash Course in Everything

Vanlife means becoming highly self-reliant. You will learn to manage things alone and be self-sufficient by necessity.

Living in a Van - DIY Plumbing - Screenshot from Instagram

You will learn all sorts of things on the fly, from servicing the van to setting up a solar array to sewing by hand or making campfires safely.

Aside from the practicalities, you will learn more about yourself, the country you’re in, the natural world, and other people than you could ever imagine!

7. Meeting Incredible People

The vanlife movement has taken off and just about anywhere you go in your van, you’re likely to meet some people who are on a similar journey. You will also meet locals in the places you visit and other travelers.

There is something different about the way you relate to others when you’re living a nomadic life, you’re more open and curious to new ways of doing things and different points of view.

You will never appreciate the kindness of strangers more, and you will never underestimate the value of your own kindness to others, once you have been on the road for a while.

Living in a Van - Meeting People - Screenshot from Instagram

You’re also more open to sharing what might be considered intimate experiences with strangers. There’s something about knowing that you’re moving off soon that allows you to be more vulnerable and open to others.

It’s difficult to describe but once you have been on the road for a while, the way you relate to others shifts and you become more at ease with being yourself and more accepting of others. Just meeting and speaking with such a wide range of people is a valuable lesson in itself!

5 Biggest Van Life Challenges

Living in a van is a wonderful way to travel and experience the country you’re in. You will learn and grow in profound ways, and you will make memories that you will cherish forever.

That said, it’s not all the super cute rigs, golden sunsets, and stunning #vanlife views you see on Instagram. There are practical and emotional challenges that can make living in a van less than ideal and far from glamorous.

Here are 5 of the biggest challenges you may face:

1. Bathroom and Toilet Access

A universal vanlife challenge is the toilet and showering situation. If your rig does not have an onboard shower and/or toilet, you will spend your life in search of one to use.

When you find one, you will be using a public one. In urban areas, you can find these quite easily. Most commercial buildings have a public toilet that you can use and public pools, beaches, and aquatic centers usually have a shower you can use for free or for a small fee.

Living in a Van - Paid for Showers - Screenshot from Instagram

Finding and using these facilities can be more difficult in rural or isolated areas. Here you may have to rough it a bit and do the necessary out in the open, or you can find a paid-for campsite and use the ablutions there.

If your rig has an onboard shower setup you can use, the challenge becomes water for the shower – finding spots to fill up your tank and spots to dump your greywater can be difficult. However, there are campsites and gas stations that will allow you to do this. You just have to do some research and find them.

Onboard toilets are another common challenge. Dealing with these can be worse than trying to find public ones to use!

However, there are some great options to choose from, such as composting toilets that make handling the mess much easier and less unpleasant. It pays to do your research and find the best way to handle the inevitable ahead of time!

2. Living in a Van is Hard Work

As easy as it looks, living in a van is hard work! You’re driving most of the time and when you reach your next stop you have to set things up much as you would for camping. Depending on your rig and how it’s set up, this can mean moving things around to make your bed, unpacking water containers, and connecting your cooking setup.

This means every stop and every start takes some physical labor. You also don’t have the convenience of letting things build up before you deal with them – dirty dishes, laundry, leftovers, and unused food items need to be dealt with right away so you can reuse them because you don’t have others and you don’t have the space to keep them.

Filling and packing your water alone can be an ongoing task that takes up a lot of time and energy!

3. The Weather

Living in a van means spending a lot of your time outdoors – you simply don’t have space to be inside all the time. This means the weather can be a huge challenge! Rain and snow can limit your options for what you can do outside the van, as can very high temperatures. You also don’t have the space to lug the gear you might need around with you so you’re limited there too.

Living in a Van - Snowed in Camp - Screenshot from Instagram

Another challenge is controlling the temperature inside your rig. Insulation and ventilation help but they’re not always enough to combat extremes in temperature. Knowing the climate and weather forecast for your next destination is essential!

4. Not Having Time and Space for Yourself

Traveling with someone else is great – you have someone to help you and you have someone to share the incredible experiences with. But… You have them ALL THE TIME too. Spending 24/7 within a few feet of someone can be a huge challenge. It will certainly test your relationship with them and can bring out the worst in the very best of us!

5. Earning a Living While Living in a Van

For those who can work remotely, a nomadic life can make earning a living challenging. This is especially true when you’re traveling in a van, as opposed to traveling from a fixed location to a fixed location. In a van, you don’t have a lot of space for your equipment or a great desk setup. Cell signal coverage can be poor, wifi might not be available often and you’re constantly on the move. Where there’s a will, there’s a way… But it definitely isn’t easy to work on the road!

Living in a Van - Mobile Workspace - Screenshot from Instagram

Living in a Van – How Much Does it Cost?

The costs of living in a van, just like the costs of living in a building, vary hugely depending on where you’re located and the lifestyle you choose to live.

Vanlife can certainly save you a ton of money if you do it right, but it can also be downright expensive if you’re eating out a lot, staying in paid-for accommodation spots, doing activities in the area, and moving on from each location quickly/using a lot of fuel.

Again, this comes back to your lifestyle and what you’re aiming to achieve by living in a van. If saving money is your goal, it is definitely doable!

The cost of living in a van varies widely across locations based on the cost of fuel, the type of insurance you need, and how accessible things like ablutions, wifi, and laundry services are.

Living in a Van – What to Budget For

When you’re budgeting for your vanlife, you need to consider the essentials and the non-essentials that you need to make your life in a van viable, sustainable, and fun. Here are some common items to budget for:

  • Fuel, oil, and day to day vehicle running costs
  • Water for non-consumption purposes
  • Food and drink
  • Personal items and toiletries
  • Cleaning products and materials
  • Vehicle insurance and tax
  • Health insurance
  • Parking fees
  • Laundry services
  • Wifi/internet and subscriptions (Netflix etc).
  • Mobile phone costs
  • Propane/gas for cooking and heating
  • Eating and drinking out
  • Camp site fees/paid-for accommodation fees
  • Batteries and charging costs
  • Activities and entry fees for national parks/annual passes etc.
  • Postage for mail or goods sent to you on the road

These are just some of the common things that people living in a van spend money on and they will change depending on where you are and what you’re doing.

Cost of Living in a Van in the USA

To get an idea of how much it costs to live in a van in the USA, check out this video by Trent & Allie:

YouTube video

Cost of Living in a Van in the UK   

Van life in the UK is a little bit different, check out this video by The Indie Projects for a breakdown of their budget for traveling in the UK:

YouTube video

Regardless of where you are in the world and what you’re doing, you can always spend more or spend less. It really comes down to what you’re aiming to achieve and the kind of experiences you want to have.

11 Hacks for the Perfect Van Life

Living in a van is rewarding, and challenging, and everything in between! If you’re keen to get your life on the road, here are our best hacks to make it the best it can be:

1. Try It Before You Buy It

It’s easy to be drawn in by all the incredible photos and vlogs you will find on the internet but the reality isn’t always as rosy. Test it out – vanlife isn’t easy and there are a lot of variables that can make or break the experience for you.

Try it out for a short period first. Rent some different vans and see how it works for yourself. Do some short trips to see how you handle it and what is involved before you go all in.

Talk to people who are doing it and get their insights before you settle on a choice that involves giving up (almost) everything to start over. That way, you will know if it’s something you want to do and you will have an idea of what you need to make it a great experience for you and your needs, preferences, and values.

2. Pick the Right Rig for Your Unique Needs

Just like your car and your home, your rig needs to work for you and what you want your life to be like. It can have all the bells and whistles but not be well suited to what you need!

When you’re choosing the type of van that will work best for you, consider the following:

  • Does it have enough space for what we need to do in it? Think about what you need your space for and how well you can use it for the intended purpose. A rack for your kayak is great but you might need space for a desk more (or vice versa).
  • Can it go to the places we want to go? Bigger isn’t always better. A converted bus might have more space but be less maneuverable in certain terrain. Do you need a four-wheel-drive or will two-wheel-drive do? As much as it is your home, it also needs to be the right kind of vehicle for the job.
  • How much maintenance will it need? That gorgeous vintage van with all the character and the paneling you love might be a stunning option but if you’re going to need to do a lot of work on it, all the time, it might not be worth it.
  • Does it need specialized mechanical expertise to fix? Breakdowns are inevitable. Having a vehicle that can be repaired without specialist tools or expertise is an important thing to consider. So is the availability of spare parts – rare, old, or custom parts can take weeks to be sourced and delivered!
  • Can we afford it comfortably? Buying a new vehicle can be a great option for those who can afford it but if your repayments make your budget too tight, you won’t enjoy your time in it as much because you will be hamstrung by making those repayments every month.

3. Make Spending Time Alone Part of Your Daily Routine

If you’re traveling with someone, make sure that every day has a period of time that you spend apart. Being confined to a small space with someone 24/7 is one of the hardest aspects of vanlife. A great way to combat this and alleviate the strain is to make spending some time apart, every day, part of your normal routine.

Living in a Van - Girl Alone with Guitar - Screenshot from Instagram

Exercise, meditation, journaling, reading – whatever you do regularly to nurture your mental health, do it by yourself and they should do the same. Make it a daily habit, rather them something you do only when you’re upset with each other!

4. Take the Right Kit and Tools with You

Stock up on the essentials you will need to be efficient and comfortable on the road. Much like camping, having the right things with you makes all the difference. From comfortable camping chairs to storage containers that seal properly, make sure you have the right kit for the job.

The same goes for off-grid power for lights, batteries, and charging devices – having the right tools to keep you going is a must. Many rigs have a solar array on the roof and a battery and inverter inside.

Living in a Van - Solar Panels on the Roof - Screenshot from Instagram

This also applies to tools. Pack a comprehensive tool kit with everything you might need – even if you don’t know how to use it, it’s likely that someone there will know and be able to help you when you need it most!

5. Find Ways to Maintain Your Relationships Back Home

It’s easy to lose touch with important people in your life when you’re always on the move and constantly experiencing new things.

You can go days without speaking to people and then weeks and then suddenly there is too much to cover and you don’t have time for a 30-minute phone call right now so you put it off…

Travelling is wonderfully freeing and you will no doubt realize that there are some relationships you don’t want to keep investing in and some that you’re happy to see fading into the background.

That said, it’s important to keep investing in the relationships that do matter to you. Wherever you are, schedule some time every day for correspondence and keep those connections alive. That support system and the connections you keep with home can be a huge part of successful vanlife!

6. Get Tech Savvy and Get Connected  

The vanlife movement has resulted in some great groups and forums where people share their experiences, insights, and valuable information. Find those groups and your whole vanlife experience will change!

Everything from mechanical advice to directions and tips for the best showers and campsites can be found in minutes, from real-life people doing what you’re doing.

You can also use apps and websites for the info specific to your vanlife needs. Here are some useful apps to install:

7. Permanent Mailing Address and Having Mail/Goods Delivered on the Road  

In this digital age, we still get a surprising amount of physical mail. We also often need to fill out a permanent address on forms and applications. A friend’s or family member’s house, a Post Office Box or an Amazon Locker may the solution here.

If you need to get goods delivered, you can have items delivered to a nearby UPS location and collect them from there for a small fee.

8. Get Great Insurance

If anything happens to your van – it has everything you own in it. Make sure you have the right kind of insurance for both the vehicle and the contents.

Many vanlifers opt for vehicle insurance with an additional amount to cover the cost of the build/conversion, as well as renter’s insurance that covers the contents of the van and all their belongings. Specific, high-value items, may need to be insured separately too. Do your research on this one, it is well worth it in the long run!

9. Plan for the Weather

Having the right insulation, ventilation, and fans or heaters in your van can make the world of difference. However, they often won’t be enough to make up for the limitations of living in a tiny space in bad weather.

Many vanlifers choose to migrate with the seasons and follow good weather. Planning so that you can be where it’s warmer in the winter and where it’s cooler in the summer can make your whole van life so much better!

10. Hold Space for Flexibility and Flow

One of the best things about living in a van is that you can be flexible and go with the flow. You can take detours and you can stay in one spot longer than you planned, you can join people you meet along the way and do things you didn’t have on your itinerary.

Living in a Van - Group - Screenshot from Instagram

This is the beauty of having your accommodation and everything you need with you at all times. However, it’s also easy to miss out on this because we have carefully planned our trip and our budget, without allowing some wiggle room for spontaneous adventures. To make the most of your vanlife experience, factor some unexpected into your schedule and your budget – you won’t be sorry you did!

11. Learn, Grow and Adapt

Living in a van and traveling will change you in ways you can’t imagine. Your priorities and values will change over time and your needs will evolve. It’s important to factor that into your plans and allow your plans to change as you do.

You might start with a plan to go to specific locations and do specific things and then find that the experiences you have enjoyed the most were different from the ones you planned on. It’s ok to change your mind and it’s ok to take different paths and follow your heart.

If you find that you’re loving the mountains more than the sea or you’re enjoying the city more than the countryside, it’s ok to change your plans. Don’t let those Instagram pictures tell you what you should be doing and what you should be enjoying!

Final Thoughts

To wrap it up, living in a van is one of the most profound, life-changing experiences you will ever have. It will force you to change how you do everything and re-evaluate your choices, priorities, and values.

You will have the best of times and the worst of times. You will learn and grow and adapt, and have some of the most incredible experiences of your life. The people you’ll meet, and the places you’ll see, will form memories that you will never forget!

In this guide, we have covered what you need to know to plan your vanlife adventure – where will you start?

References and Useful Resources

Bearfoot Theory: How Much Does Van Life Cost? A Breakdown of Common Expenses (USA)

Chasing the Wild Goose: The Top 14 Vanlife Apps for the Ultimate Road Trip

Two Wandering Soles: How Much Does a Campervan Cost: Budget to Luxury Van Builds

Two Wandering Soles: How to Shower While Living in a Campervan

UK Van Life: How much does living van life in the UK cost

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Van Life?

Van life is living in a van that has been converted into a tiny mobile home. The popularity of #vanlife has lead to many great custom builds and commercial options for vans that double as a tiny home. Read the full guide for more into on what it means to live in a van in 2021.

What does it cost to live in a van?

Like living in a house, the cost of living in a can depends on your location and your lifestyle. Many people choose vanlife as a way to travel economically and save money. Check out the article for more into on budgeting and the cost of living in a van in the US and the UK.

What are the pros and cons of living in a van?

There are so many great benefits to living and traveling in a van! There are also a few major challenges. Read the full guide for more info on both, as well as hacks to make the most of vanlife!

 

 

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