“I have to ask: Why are you interested in vanlife?”
As an occasional van-dweller, boat-resident and all around tumbleweed that’s often my initial response to the frequent questions of “how can I do what you do?” Because the reality of the matter is that anyone can live out of a vehicle. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. As I’ve pointed out before, simply by virtue of doing so, regardless of what you may have seen on various social media feeds, you inevitably dance the line between being perceived as a drifting derelict or a venturesome millennial. You often smell a bit off, your clothes are unkempt, and the norms of society (i.e. traditional career paths and nine to five jobs) quickly become stress inducing and bothersome.
In reality, committing to vanlife is a massive tectonic shift away from traditional comforts.
As would-be vanlifers prod me for info on my solar setup and how to score Instagram followers, I ask them more questions, too: Beyond the hashtags, why do you want to be a part of this community? Are you escaping or “in search of?” Curious or envious? Do you think it’s the reset button your life needs or that it will garner you the best sex they’ve ever had?
I ask myself these questions all the time. The answers are in flux, but over the years I’ve found that #vanlife, #boatlife, and #vagabonding are all different iterations of my desire to commit to a life of simplicity. They’re an opportunity to focus on immediate issues rather than existential crises. For me, being focused on gathering firewood or finding a campsite are clear-cut concerns with clear-cut solutions. They are short-term matters and don’t feel nearly as complicated as worrying about my eventual retirement.
Recently, I turned to my van-vagabonding friends with the same questions people always ask me. I wanted to hear the wisdom of the road worn “mad ones.” I asked folks I’ve met traveling, folks I stalk on Instagram, and folks whose adventures, world-views, and vehicles I’m infinitely inspired by: “What do you wish you knew going into this lifestyle? What would you tell someone planning to live in their vehicle?”
The resulting responses are as thought-provoking as they are empowering and, much to my surprise, no two answers are alike. They’re all deeper than any Instagram swipe can encapsulate. So by all means, commit to the life you see on your feed. Find your Pinterest-ready wood-grain adorned van, drive off into the infinitely setting sun, and gather your most loosely flowing vestments and adventure hats. But before you do, heed the wisdom of those who have re-built engines ten times over and weathered an Alaskan winter in a heater-less Vanagon-turned-bone-chilling-icebox.
I think the internet version of vanlife is deceiving. It perpetuates this idea that your problems aren’t going to follow you onto the road. There’s this idea that if you are frustrated with your job, or don’t know what you want to do with your life, or have an issue with your family, #vanlife is going to magically fix it. That once you drop everything for the van, it’s all flowers and rainbows from there on. That’s not at all how it works in reality. The problems you take into vanlife have to be dealt with while you’re on the road, or they will continue to follow you after.
And you’ll probably have less money to deal with them!
For me, the problems in my life that I wanted to address were learning how to slow down, spending more time in nature, and working on my crafts of writing and photography. In hindsight, I think I also needed to prove to myself that I could take a great risk — cut the cord from Silicon Valley (my previous life) — and things would be okay. I think it’s important to figure out what changes you want to make in your life, the things that probably drew you vanlife in the first place, and tackle those head-on. That way, you can actually create the tangible life you’re desiring.
Spending time out of the van is as important as spending time in the van. If you want to make it sustainable, for your sanity’s sake consider house-sitting over winter or get an apartment somewhere sunny and cheap. You’ll be super-stoked to be in the van when the season is at its best for exploring the great outdoors.
Vanlife isn’t for everyone. So how do you know it’s right for you? Do you crave discomfort, seek adventurous situations, enjoy getting dirty, like talking to strangers, think meals outside taste better, use nature as your playground, find problem-solving fun and have incredible patience? If you answered “yes” to more than one of these, I would say that there’s a good chance you might be ready to try living in a smaller space.
It might help to get a taste of what it might be like to rent a campervan for a few days. You can also try living out of whatever vehicle you might already own and seeing how it goes. Testing the waters helps you realize what you like and don’t like or what you might need to make life feel more comfortable. But I’d encourage everyone to give it a go! Trying something new makes us stronger individuals. You’ll never know until you know.
This morning I woke up to warm sun shining in through my dusty van windows for the first time in months. Not because its been a particularly cloudy winter here in Nashville, but because my van and I have been living in the back corner of a shop, broken, waiting on all sorts of things to fall into place before our engine could run again. Unfortunately, this has been our “vanlife” off and on for the past three years and from what I can tell, a truth to this lifestyle that isn’t often covered or brought up.
Otis, my 31-year-old Volkswagen is older than I am by two years, making him kind of an old vehicle. Romantic? Yes. Reliable? Not yet. Breakdowns are an inconvenient truth, no matter how old or new your rig-of-choice is, but how much of a setback that breakdown ends up being, if at all, can be completely up to you and your perspective. While my last few years may have been strung together by shop parking lots rather than nights around campfires, the relationships I’ve made with people I would never have met had I not broken down in Colombia, California, Idaho or Nashville have made all the frustration worthwhile.
To me, vanlife isn’t about the van as much as it’s about the experiences the van leads to, running or not.
One thing I wish someone had told me when I only dreamed of van living, is that it really isn’t unattainable to outfit a vehicle and just cruise. Before building out the Whale (2000 Chevy Express) alongside my very competent and capable partner, I heard voices all around me shooting down my dream of living on the road. “Too expensive! Not safe! Must be nice to have the money!” they said in chorus. These same voices are the ones that will tell you “you’re so lucky” to be traveling, or that you should enjoy it “while you can.”
I’m not saying it’s free or even easy… but if you feel drawn to it, just push to get your vehicle and get rolling, you’ll find your supporters and learn it has nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with simply trying and starting where you are. Your van might not be gram-tastic from day one, but when you have the whole world to live in, it hardly matters.
The other thing I wish I’d known is the most sage advice I’ve ever received, and in deference to the environment I almost never share it, so listen up: Regarding public bathrooms, drop some paper in before you get business in order to prevent backsplash.
You definitely see a lot more guys that pack up their lives or put their careers on hold to travel and explore around in a van. I think a lot of women think that fitting your life into a car means giving up on your personal hygiene or letting go — which I have actually found to be the exact opposite!
Sure, I may not get my daily shower or have access to hot water like I used to but I find myself more conscious and more savvy about cleaning both our home and myself (living in such a small space means you have to leave it pretty clean quite regularly). Also, constantly being surrounded by the outdoors means I usually stay fitter — either by hiking, walking or running on the beach almost every day.
I think you have to have a positive mindset when you first set off on your adventures. It’s all about the way you look and perceive your own experience, and there’s definitely a lot more in your control than you think. Ladies, if you want a clean healthy lifestyle, that can EASILY be done whilst living in a van — you just have to be ready to make the extra effort!
My best advice before settling into the van life for the long run is to start off slow. Don’t rush out and by the first ride
you see, and definitely don’t rush through a van conversion.
Take it slow, shop around for the right van and once you’ve found the one, take your time setting it up. Test it out first with just a mattress and try and discover the feeling of the van before forcing the space to be something that it’s not. Start off with a smaller trip and be prepared to start over from scratch.
When you are finally ready to hit the road full time, I guarantee that you’ll appreciate the fact that you spent a couple of extra weeks putting the time in the get things right. That being said, if you are taking things TOO slow, and just keep putting it off until you find the PERFECT van and the perfect time, that’s not going to work either. At some point, you’ve just got to commit and hope for the best.
The worst that’s going to happen is you’ll come crawling back to your boss begging for your job back… but at least you’ll know you gave it your best shot.
Kit Whistler & JR Switchgrass
Don’t plan your life around what you see on the internet. Inspiration is important, and you can get your imagination going with other peoples’ photos and words, but basing your life literally on blog posts and Instagram photos will wind up in disaster. Expectations can be lethal, and besides, living your own dream and not someone else’s is the whole point!
Here’s what we always tell people: There are a million beautiful ways to live. You don’t need to live in a van to live a gorgeous life, you don’t need to travel to be in a beautiful place. Pay attention to what you want and aim at that. Follow your own passions and intuitions. Also, train yourself to notice the magic in every moment. Keep an eye peeled for the flower on the cactus, the hawk in the sky. Watch more sunsets. Our greatest moments aren’t always the grandest…they’re often something as simple as hearing the call of an owl or noticing a beautiful purple pink on the clouds as the sun goes down. Neither of those simple pleasures has anything to do with traveling!
We’ve received some sad emails over the years from people who tried vanlife based on our images and words, and then were disappointed by the day-to-day of their newly found “freedom.”
You can’t see certain aspects of our lives in our photos. How do you take a photo of the moments that are tough? For example, the fact that if you’re traveling full time, that you don’t have traditional relationships. You’re not going to the bar with your buddies on the weekend or anything. That you never know where you’re gonna sleep that night. That we don’t know where our next paycheck’s gonna come from. Every life has its ups and downs…it’s all about choosing the right ups and downs for you!
Honestly, I wish I knew I was committing to vanlife when we hit the road! We thought we’d go out for a few months, maybe up to eight months, until we needed a job, but then, somehow, this became our life. I guess I feel like there’s a lesson in that…to be open to anything. Structure is good and useful but even the best-laid plans can be overturned. Remaining open to alternatives is important, and often necessary for us, as circumstances change daily.
Going back to what I said about “freedom” above, I guess I wish I knew that freedom doesn’t truly exist. We live on our own terms to an extreme, but, still, that freedom comes with an incredible amount of responsibility. When you are in charge of your own life, you become the boss and let me tell you, being the boss your own life is a heavy weight to carry.
All right, how about we go ahead and get the hard part out of the way first. Now, this may sting a little, but it’s for your own good, guys: VanLife ain’t all the sunshine, daydreams, and idyllic moments that filter their way across our social media channels nowadays. So, my first piece of advice is to be realistic! When I first moved into our van, I was blinded by visions of an empty road stretching out upon the horizon and the thousands of worry-free miles which would lead me to new experiences in exciting places. But, as with any other lifestyle choice, van-living comes with its own unique list of pros and cons.
I’m sure most of us are already familiar with the “pros”: Waking up to a new backyard every morning, having the freedom to explore the world around you, living with less in exchange for experiencing more, and all that good stuff. But the “cons” of a life lived on the road, in a van, and off the beaten path, are rarely advertised — doing many aspiring travelers a disservice by painting an unrealistic picture of what such a life entails. For example, a few real-world “cons” of vanlife (that I wish someone had told me all those years ago) are: Going number two can quickly become your number one biggest inconvenience. Also, your vehicle will break down or even get broken into, and thus your home will be broken down or get broken into. This can make repairs a challenge and feeling “comfortable / safe” in your personal space a little more difficult. Finally, the one “con” that often gets overlooked is the pressure that living in such a small space puts on interpersonal relationships. Whether that pressure is between you and a significant other, a travel buddy, family, or even upon your own mental health. Life on the road can get lonely, so it’s important to keep an open mind and not to sweat the small stuff. Because when you sit down and do the math, the pros of vanlife will almost always far outweigh the cons.
This leads to my second piece of advice: Always, and I mean ALWAYS keep an open mind! There are very few things aside from brewing up our morning coffee that remain “routine” while living on the road, it is a lifestyle choice that requires oneself to not just accept change, but to embrace it each and every day. Keeping an open mind, is vital to maintaining a healthy and exciting life in the van and out on the road. Say “YES!” to new experiences, don’t shy away from them when they show up knocking at your door. Take the unpaved road, don’t whizz by the world on an interstate highway. Embrace invitations to sit by another’s campfire — don’t think that your stories are not worth sharing. When someone recommends a place to visit or free place to camp, even if it is a bit “out of the way,” go out of your way to make it happen! And finally, look at every experience (both positive and negative) as an opportunity to learn something, or make a new friend … I can’t tell you how many times a really hard situation, like a catastrophic vehicle break down, has led to us learning something new about ourselves, our vehicle, or has led to us making new lifelong friendships with people we may have otherwise never met.
So always stay positive and keep an open mind!
Final piece of advice… Work with what you got and don’t get too hung up in what gear you have or don’t have. When I first moved into the van, I naïvely thought that the quality of my gear dictated the quality of my experience and how comfortable I would be. Oh, how wrong I was… Yes, I downsized and sold off most of my stuff before taking the plunge, but I also invested a good amount into some silly, silly things that I thought I would need, but most of which just ended up on Craigslist within a week of being on the road… So, my advice here would be to keep it simple and focus on making it work with what you have and what you truly need… Which brings me to my final point here: responsibly weighing one’s “NEEDS” vs “WANTS” is a big part life on the road and the definition of those two ideas differ for everyone. So again, just remember to keep it simple and constantly ask yourself “Do I need this? Or, do I want this?” Living with less can allow oneself the freedom to experience more, if done the right way, so work with what ya got and don’t be afraid of not having something you may “need” because figuring out your own personal “needs” vs “wants” is half of the fun and adventure of vanlife. Trust me, It will teach you things about yourself and others that you never knew before. It will help you grow as an individual and quickly illustrate how much we truly need to be happy and comfortable in life. Because despite what society and all those commercials on TV will try to sell you, the beautiful truth is, we don’t need all that much…