We’ve all seen those posts all across social media platforms of people who up and decide to ditch their apartments or homes and move in a van. While it all seems incredibly adventurous, brave, and totally cool, what is it actually like to live in a van full time? But more than that, what would motivate someone to give up the comfort of living in an immobile home? All of this and more will be covered throughout this article. The good, the bad, the agony, and the ecstasy of van life as it is, so you know what to expect if you ever decide to make this dramatic change in your life.
- What is Van Life?
- Influencer Trend
- Affordable Living
- Things you Need to Know Before Living in a Van
- Why Choose the Van Life?
Before we get into all the details about what van life is like, we are going to go over a few things just to cover our basis. Van life is not for everyone. You can not expect to move from a 900-square-foot apartment to an 80-square-foot van and not see any difference. That would be impossible.
Some van life creators are posting their van transformations and morning and evening routines across social media, and many might be left with the impression that van life is perfect. While there is an increase in content that shows the reality, there is still some romanticization of this lifestyle that promotes something closer to a lie. We are going to brush through all that online content and give you the hard cold truth. Some of you might jump at the idea, while others will take a hard 180 turn and go back to the shaky housing market we’re all dealing with, but it’s better to know the truth than find out the hard way. After all, starting your van life journey isn’t cheap, and the money and time invested in such a project can never truly be recovered.
While I can not say that I am an expert in this field, after several months of debating whether or not I would do this, given the fact that a home is not on the affordable spectrum for me and countless online content analyzed, I’ll give you my objective opinion on the whole thing, coupled with some things that you should know before you embark on this journey.
What is Van Life?
Those stunning photos on social media showcase the best of van life. And yes, with the right mindset and preparations, you can live your best van life and dramatically cut down your cost of living while you see the world, discover yourself and focus on what’s really important in your life. Still, let’s look at what van life is all about before you sell everything you own for this lifestyle.
Van life is a social movement for nomads who don’t want to be tied down to one place and reject the socially accepted lifestyle ingrained in us since we were toddlers. Those who choose van life give up on many of our modern-day comforts in favor of simplicity, minimalism, adventure, and the desire to find the meaning of life away from consumerism and capitalism.
Many people think either of the glamorous images they see online or the less glamorous lifestyle of vagabonds when they hear of van living. However, the truth is that while for some, van life is a hashtag they can post online with photos from those few breathtaking locations where they can sleep or the freedom to travel on a budget, in fact, van life is a movement. It’s all about living in harmony with yourself, a way of life that goes against the status quo of societal expectations.
The simplest way to explain van life is by taking control of your life fully and unapologetically. Many people turn to van life due to an unhappy normal life as it pushes you out of your comfort zone and gives you the amazing opportunity to rediscover yourself and what really matters to you. With such little space, you hardly have space for anything and whatever you put in your van has a purpose. There’s no space for all the baggage you’ve been carrying on your shoulders for most of your life. You don’t have a choice but to let go of everything that’s been weighing you down. This is why the appeal is so strong.
Most of us depend on the most unimportant things, but living in your van makes you realize you don’t have the time, space, or, most importantly, need for all those things. You focus on yourself more without all the unnecessary distractions, and what’s meaningful stands out; what’s not is left behind. You no longer follow a path that others created and walked before you. You invent your own.
Going back to the title, I would have to say that van life is a little bit of both. While generalizing isn’t something I tend to do, living in a van gives you the opportunity to create some unique content. If you are a creative person with a carefree personality and a thirst for trying out new things, a van life could give you some opportunities that a normal lifestyle just can’t provide. But a creative job isn’t a must. Many web developers, accountants, and other remote workers are delving deep into this lifestyle.
Nobody is interested in what you get up to in your 800-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn, Tampa, or San Diego. However, if you live in a van, you can go to Brooklyn, Tampa, and San Diego and start blogging, vlogging, writing, painting, filming, and literally anything else from different parts of the country or, why not, the globe. Plus, living in a van can be interesting, ups and downs included. People are intrigued by what’s interesting and different, and depending on who you are as a person, you can use this to spark your creativity into gear.
This is why, yes, van life can be seen as an influencer trend because you can become an influencer if you live in a van. But don’t do this if that is your goal because then you lose the whole concept of van life that we explained above.
In some parts of the country, especially in California, van life has been taking the roads by storm. The reason for this isn’t only the potential glamor of this nomadic lifestyle and the freedom it can bring. Sadly, seeing the state of the housing market in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, but not only, people turn to van living out of necessity. Having the ability to choose to live on four wheels is one thing, but having no other choice is another. With homelessness climbing year after year, it’s not a surprise that this movement is so powerful in the Golden State.
California’s housing crisis is pushing more and more people, particularly millennials, towards this alternative housing option as a way just to get by. If you go for a walk or a drive in these major California cities, you will see that those less fortunate create small tent communities as they simply can not afford to rent, much less buy a house. With Los Angeles having reached median rents of $2,700 and San Francisco going over $3,000, having this lifestyle trending on social media may give many California residents a more affordable and dignified living situation. We can not say that it’s ideal, but without other options available, it’s better to look on the bright side and then make the best of it.
The truth is that the cost of living is significantly lower, and as long as you don’t require all the indoor & outdoor amenities of a standard home, you may even save some money. If it weren’t for those glamorous pictures online, people might not be aware of their possibilities. But going beyond that, van life makes it possible to pursue bucket list experiences. Having a job that doesn’t require you to be in an office allows you to travel the state, country, or globe at your own pace, in your own time, and have nothing to hold you back. It opens up a lot of opportunities and is truly an affordable lifestyle that also makes you a problem solver.
The reason why I gave the state of California as an example is simple. The weather and the housing crisis. Seeing as no solution came from the government, the movement gathered more and more followers. Being unable to meet the market’s demands while working one, two, or even three jobs is simply preposterous. However, local governments across the state and country are imposing all sorts of restrictions on those living in vehicles instead of working out ways to fix the homelessness situation. Instead of making things better, they are making it worse for those with no other alternatives.
Regardless of why people choose this lifestyle, some compare it to the boomer hippie culture. Still, among those who go all into this lifestyle, few think of it as a good way of life, and those who do, tend to adhere to the minimalist lifestyle. Living in a van is all about making it work. We can say that it can be viewed as an alternative and more affordable living and housing option, but it’s not particularly cheap and definitely not free. Professional van conversion can incur costs anywhere between $30,000 to above $200,000. It all depends on the van, the level of comfort, amenities, and luxuries you choose. A more affordable option would be to DIY the hell out of it because skills can be learned, and investing your time is cheaper than paying someone else.
Things you Need to Know Before Living in a Van
Whenever you make a big life-altering decision, you do a lot of research to make sure that you know what you’re getting into. This is no different, as van life means living on the road, part-time or full-time, but either way, while you live in your van, things will be different than living in a home. One of the best ways to understand what it means to live in a van is to talk to those that already embrace this lifestyle. You can join many online groups where you’ll find a community willing to share their experiences with you and ensure that your transition will be as comfortable as possible. Still, if you want to know the most important things that you need to know, keep on reading and consider the following tips as you embark on this journey.
Buy a vehicle that works for you
Across every social media platform that’s out there, you will see many types of vehicles people choose to make their van life a reality. Using these platforms for inspiration has obvious benefits as it can inspire you to make a better choice for yourself. You shouldn’t get sidetracked or stuck on one model if it doesn’t suit you. It will be your choice and your van at the end of the day. This choice should be based on your needs. While some may thrive in a Chevy Express, others may prefer the new Sprinter. Firstly, you need to figure out your needs.
Another thing that you need to keep in mind when you choose the van is yourself. This relates to your needs in the sense that you will be the one dealing with the vehicle. It doesn’t make sense to choose an older model if you have no mechanical experience and have no intention to learn. Actually, when it comes to mechanical experience and the will to learn, if this doesn’t sound like you, you should stay away from the van life as this lifestyle requires at least some knowledge of how a car works. Still, you need to consider your skill levels, financial possibilities, areas you want to go to (road or off-road), travel speed, and the time you intend to travel in the vehicle.
If you want to learn how to work on the van, buy an older model as it is more straightforward, but if you want speed and to cover long distances, buy a newer one. Still, while aesthetics are important, seeing as this van will be your home, functionality comes first.
Pro tip: if you don’t mind using artificial lighting or you have a window on the ceiling, keep away from large side windows that aren’t standard for the vehicle you choose. Aside from the sun heating the van, you also don’t want people to be aware that someone is sleeping in it. Thinking of all the places you will park, you can make sure that they will all be safe, but most people don’t think twice when they walk past a normal-looking van at night.
Plan for parking and sleeping
One thing you don’t want to experience is driving at night in search of a place to park and sleep. Still, with planning, you can make sure that this is as rare an occurrence as possible. In time, you may be able to tell if it’s legal to park on a street or parking lot by simply looking at it, but until then, there are other ways to figure this out. You can easily find apps that can help out if you’re in an area you’re unfamiliar with. The most recommended apps are iOverlander, Campendium, Park 4 Night, Camp and RV AllStays, and FreeCampsites[dot]net. With these resources, you can find free campsites on public lands (National Forests or Bureau of Land Management Campsites) and figure out which businesses will allow you to park there overnight. If you find yourself in a pickle, know that Walmart, Cabela’s, Pro Shops, and Cracker Barel locations usually don’t impose limitations for overnight parking. If you’re unsure, either check these apps or talk to the establishment’s manager. The last thing you want is to have someone knock on your window at the crack of dawn to tell you to move. Figure out your sleeping locations ahead of time and always look for safe options. The establishments mentioned above have some form of security and well-lit parking lots.
Don’t overlook self-care
One of the things that people overlook when they embark on this journey is taking care of themselves. Living in a van can be incredibly relaxing due to the sense of freedom it brings, but it can also cause stress and mental strain, especially if you’re alone. Loneliness is not easy to deal with for everyone, even if some people thrive on their own. Because of this, it’s important to take some time and care for yourself. Get a pet because dogs, for instance, are great companions especially if you like to spend a lot of time outdoors – they also double as security regardless of the size. While self-care can mean different things for different people, some stretching exercises will be necessary, and yoga is perfect for mental and physical health. Living in a van means you will have to deal with limited space and few areas where you can stand up tall. If you’re taller than average, you’ll feel the need to stretch even more.
Make sure that you create a lifestyle that is healthy. Whether it’s the food you eat, the exercises you do, meditation, or a combination of these will improve your experience, decrease stress levels and make vanlife that much easier. When it comes to keeping yourself clean, if you can’t fit a shower in the van, you can get a gym membership and cover both your daily shower and exercises in one. If you don’t know what works for you, use the freedom gained from the van life and figure out a routine that meets your needs. Making time for yourself and your health isn’t something that you’ll ever regret.
Understand the financial aspects of van life
When you embark on your van life journey, you have to buy a van. That’s the first expense that you’ll encounter. But it’s the first of many. While I stand by what I said regarding the affordability of this lifestyle, anyone who says that additional expenses aren’t worth mentioning is wrong. These expenses can be split into two categories. Common expenses and unexpected expenses. The common expenses are anything that deals with consumption, from food to fuel and everything in between. Unexpected expenses come from everything that is unexpected, like repairs and service fees for your van. Still, the biggest cost will be the cost of the van itself. Let’s just cover the basics, so you know what to expect.
As mentioned above, the cost of the van can vary depending on style, conversion, and features, but the van itself can be between $33,000 and $56,000. From here, it all depends on the conversion.
- DIY van conversion – in this case, you’ll have to shop for materials and do everything yourself. The price can range between $10,000 and $30,000.
- Affordable conversion companies – these might be new on the market with limited experience. The cost can be between $40,000 and $60,000.
- Experienced conversion companies – with over a hundred van conversions under their belt. You can expect a charge upwards of $125,000, but if you want luxury, there’s no limit to how much you could pay.
Common expenses can be considered for the monthly van life cost. This also depends on how much you consume, but we’ll cover a few averages based on some categories, so you better understand how to manage your budget.
- Food & Groceries – $100-$500 per month.
- Fuel – between $50 and $500 per month, but it all depends on how much you want to move around and travel.
- Campgrounds – depending on how often you find areas where you can park for free, you can expect to pay anywhere between $0 and $600 per month.
- Vehicle Insurance – between $150 -$300 per month.
- Health Insurance – between $0 (if you don’t want any) and $450 per month.
- Phone Bill – $30 and $115, depending on how much coverage and internet access you want.
Unexpected expenses can come from any maintenance, repairs, or service fees you might encounter due to your van and the appliances installed in your van. If you have solar panels installed and they break, fixing them will cost. If your van breaks down, fixing it will cost. All these expenses are higher than the expenses you usually deal with if you own a car because this van will be your home. Maintenance costs can increase if you live in your van 24/7 and also drive it more frequently and on rougher roads. This also depends on how well you take care of it and where you’re driving it. But just so you know, replacing your brake system can cost $1,500, which isn’t something you can prepare for. It just happens, usually when it’s the least convenient. Some of these things can be fixed by yourself if you have some mechanical skills, but if you don’t, each repair will cost you.
Why Choose Van Life?
The reasons for which people choose the van life differ, and you don’t need to look at others to find your own. This nomadic lifestyle is a personal choice for everyone, and your mindset tends to dictate how your experience will be. Still, regardless of the reasons behind your choice, van life is rewarding, interesting, exciting, and can be tons of fun if you don’t stress too much about it and learn to enjoy the little things in life.
For those who want a bit of inspiration or maybe something to justify their reason being valid, here are some justifications behind this choice.
1. Push Your Boundaries and Grow
While Instagram may lead many to believe that van life is easy, it’s anything but. Besides the severe adjustments you have to make in your daily life, you also need to be a problem solver. This skill can be developed over time, but living in a van comes with plenty of challenges you don’t experience in a normal lifestyle. You will also spend a lot of time on your own or only with the person that you share the van with. This can be a challenge if you’re not used to being on your own.
Learning how to manage your van life financially can also be a challenge, but you’ll learn to live with less and be grateful for the things you do have. All this struggle comes with a bulky reward in the long run. You’ll understand the value of life and the lack of value of worldly possessions. You’ll also understand what’s really important to you and learn to cherish it like you haven’t known before.
2. Embrace the Unknown
There’s nothing certain about van life. You can not know for sure what will happen next or where you’ll be in a week’s time. Every day on the road will be an adventure that is terrifying and exciting at the same time. At any given time, something might happen that forces you to change your plans. You might be presented with new opportunities and adventures because you met someone new. When you don’t have any plans set in stone or can’t follow through with the plans you made, you’ll discover the excitement of going with the flow and just following the unknown path. This will make you feel alive and kicking, it will force you to live in the moment, and change will cease to be something scary.
3. Freedom and Adventure
Particularly that uncertainty is the reason why many people choose the van life. They want to be challenged, to get out of the comfort zone that their life provides for them. While you live in an apartment, it’s very easy just to do the same things day in, day out, but the van life takes all that comfort and throws it out the window. The sense of adventure you get when you don’t know where you’ll be tomorrow or what you’ll have to deal with in a few hours is scary, but at the same time, it’s exciting. You can not prepare for the unknown, but you’ll have to face it sooner or later.
The best thing about van life for those that like this absolute freedom and adventure is that no plan is set in stone. You can stay anywhere as much as you’d like. You can postpone a visit somewhere if you hear of a waterfall nearby. You can check a city, a canyon, or the ocean at any time. The possibilities are endless, and the only thing that could damper your plans is the weather, but even that can only affect it as much as you allow it. If you don’t like it, just go somewhere else.
4. Enjoy Your Hobbies
This is the most exhilarating reason for which people choose the van life. If you’re a hiker, a climber, a biker, a surfer, or anything else that is related to adventurous hobbies in nature, van life will allow you to do as much of that as possible. More so, if you want to focus on your book, paint amazing landscapes, or make an album, as long as you have the equipment necessary with you, you might wind up with a masterpiece in no time. Still, even if you don’t create the next “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Starry Night” you’ll still have a lot of fun and discover yourself along the way.
Even if you don’t have endless free time, you will still have more time to focus on the things you love than you normally would. Just think of all the distractions you encounter daily, either from the world around you, the news, or social media. All these will take the backseat, and you’ll be able to listen to yourself and your spiritual needs more.
5. Take Control of Your Life
As many people from the younger generations came face to face with their needs and possibilities in today’s world, the American Dream became just that, a dream that seems further away now than it ever was. Van life offers the possibility to live a carefree life with no mortgage weighing you down and the unreliable promise of easy retirement. We should value our time more as none of us have the certainty of the future. By choosing van life, you acknowledge that and take responsibility for the time you have on this planet by making the most of it. You choose to value that time and strive to enjoy it to the best of your ability.
Van life isn’t easy, but it is fulfilling because you’ll live your life for yourself and no one else. While vanlifers still work, they have more freedom in choosing how to work and are the only ones that can dictate their lives. They have no one breathing down their neck to come into the office, dress in a certain way, or simply live their lives according to a certain set of societal rules. They are their own masters, and that freedom is the delicious cherry on top of a delicious cake.
The bottom line is that van life isn’t for everyone, but anyone who will try it out will learn something new about themselves. However, van life is a lifestyle that makes sense for many people in the current economic climate. It just so happens that right now, besides the financial motivation that comes with living in a van, a series of factors have increased the appeal of this way of life. From the housing crisis to the social media trend, the rise in remote work and the gig economy makes it that much more accessible for many people who don’t shy away from a challenge. The internet made it possible for a community to grow and promote itself by becoming a worldwide phenomenon and the US population is all on board. Those that want to stray away from the system and the norm are willing to push their limits in search of the truest form of freedom legally available to them.
The constant connectivity provided by our modern lifestyle makes it incredibly easy to make this transition. In today’s world, you can live completely off the grid while being as connected as you’d be if you lived in the largest US metropolis. Similarly, you can be completely disconnected from the world but enjoy the necessary amenities at a much lower cost. What makes van life such an approachable alternative lifestyle is the digital economy that keeps the wheels turning.
Let us know in the comments section below if this lifestyle sparked your interest as much as it sparked ours, but also if you’re interested in finding out more about this or other alternative lifestyles. Like & Share this article with fellow adventurers that don’t back down from a challenge.