Below is a graph that charts the search volume for the topic “van dwelling” between 2004 and present day. Starting around 2008, during and right after the great financial crisis, is when things really started to pick up. Correlation is not causation, but it seems quite clear to me that an increased interest in van life is a direct response to both a housing and economic crisis.
If you aren’t willing to slog it out in an economy that makes reaching milestones like homeownership and family formation too difficult or too soul-destroying, putting your money into something that is both a roof over your head (that you own) and provides you with a means of escape/freedom is quite appealing.
Van life can be amazing, but there are some hard truths that any aspiring van dweller needs to confront. These are things you should keep in mind before you decide to both invest in a van and commit to a pretty major lifestyle change.
Some of these considerations have to do with personality traits that you should be honest about before you decide to make such a radical change in your life. Others are more concerned with the actual design and investment advice that can make van life more or less comfortable. They are:
- First Off, the Capital Costs
- How Clausterphobic Are You?
- Learn Basic Car Mechanics
- Know Where You’re Allowed to Park Before You Get Somewhere New
- Organization Makes Everything Possible
- Stick to Your Cleaning Routine
- Cultivate Some Mental Resilience
- You Need to Think About Security
- Have a “Return to Civilization” Plan
- Have a Purpose
- Know Where You’re Going to Use the Bathroom
- Exploit Every Storage Possibility Available
- Digital Nomads in Vans: What You Need to Make it Work
First Off, the Capital Costs
There is quite a large price range when it comes to camper vans. Professional van builds can run you over $100K, or you can DIY it for under $20,000, with plenty of price points in between.
What it really boils down to, as it does with any kind of skilled labor, is how much of the work you you are able and willing to do on your own. If you just bought a home and can do a bunch of the plumbing, electrical and carpentry by yourself (or with the help of some friends), you’re going to save a ton of money. If you have to pay a pro for everything, you’re going to pay through the nose, especially in our current period of high inflation and supply shortages.
You should plan for at least $5000-$15,000 for a basic DIY camper van conversion that will have enough amenities and comforts to make it feel like home. The typical features in most modern camper vans include things like:
- Vent fan
Your electrical tends to be your biggest upfront cost, and it will likely run you at least $1,500 and potentially up to $4K. The quality of the materials you use for everything else will also factor heavily into the final cost. Good quality hardwood, for example, is pricey. So are things like energy-efficient windows.
How Clausterphobic Are You?
Have you ever lived and slept in a small space before? If so, for how long? If you are completely new to van life, the smallness of it will initially come as a shock. This isn’t to say you can’t or won’t acclimate, but van life can be claustrophobic.
With that in mind, you should be realistic about how much time you think you will be spending in the Van. If you already know that your van is, in addition to being a comfortable place to relax and live, mostly a roof over your head, and that you will be out of the van a lot, then claustrophobia is going to be much less of an issue.
Learn Basic Car Mechanics
One of the things that you should think seriously about before committing to van life and investing in a vehicle is how much you already know and how much are you willing to learn about basic maintenance and mechanics.
Your home is your transportation and vice versa. At some point, as with any vehicle, you will have to fix something. As it is with the actual build, the costs involved depend entirely on what you are able to do on your own. Mechanical work, as anyone who has ever owned a vehicle knows, is expensive.
The other, potentially more pressing, variable is that you can’t just let mechanical issues slide as you might with an urban jalopy because your van is more than just a van.
Below are some of the tools you should consider investing in:
- 300 piece ratchet set
- Torque wrench and jack for changing tires
- Screw gun and bits
- Assorted wrenches
- Plumbing tools
- Jumper Cables
- Roadside breakdown kit
- Extra Fluids – coolant, power steering fluid
- Tow strap
- Extra gas canister
Not only should you have these on hand, but you should know how to use them. You might also consider taking a free car mechanic course that familiarizes you with the basic parts that make up a standard motor vehicle, why they require maintenance and how to maintain them.
Being able to fix and maintain your vehicle will save you a ton of money and hassle in the long run.
Know Where You’re Allowed to Park Before You Get Somewhere New
Van life seems very romantic in principle, and it certainly can be, but the reality is that finding a place to park overnight and sleep without being fined or harassed is a constant struggle.
The struggle is made so much easier, however, when you are always planning ahead. There are some great apps out there that make locating parking and sleeping areas so much easier, which will reduce a lot of stress.
- iOverlander: Great spot finder that also includes places to dump and fill your tanks
- Freecampsites.net: Exactly what it sounds like
- U.S. Public Lands: Find public land boundaries in places you want to camp
- Harvest Host: Connects you with rural properties and businesses that let you park on their land
- Campendium: Campground finder
- Hipcamp: Airbnb for camping
Before you decide to up and move somewhere, having an idea of where you are headed makes van life a lot less of a chore.
Organization Makes Everything Possible
Anyone who has ever lived in a small space knows that the more organized you are and the better your organization routine is, the happier you will be.
Van life depends on your ability to stay organized. Period. Not only is clutter bad for your mental health, but it is so frustrating not being able to find things in your van when you need them.
It might seem a bit counterintuitive, given the free-spiritedness of most van dwellers, but all of the people I have met who have made van life last the longest and are still happy with the lifestyle, are people who have been hyper-organized.
A good idea is to design a layout and organization plan that accounts for everything. Everything should have a place in your van and you should make consistently returning those things to their respective places a priority every day.
Stick to Your Cleaning Routine
Dirt, dust and grime are much more noticeable in a small space which is why you have to clean a small space more often.
You will need to get into a daily sweeping, dusting and wipe-down routine. Cleaning sucks, of course, but the upside to van life is that you don’t have much to clean. Wipe the counters and sink down, clean condensation off the windows (or you’ll get mold), shake out any rugs you have, make your bed, dust your surfaces and you will feel much better about van life every day.
Cultivate Some Mental Resilience
Not only will some of the places you are so excited to see potentially be less spectacular than you thought, but there is the day-to-day of van life that is far less glamorous that you don’t see on the Instagram feeds.
Filling water tanks, emptying toilets, parking in areas that you would rather not, bathing in places you would rather not, it all adds up. You need to be able to take the good with the bad.
I think cultivating mental resilience and preparing yourself psychologically for van life are two things that really make the lifestyle sustainable, and perhaps even possible in the long term.
You Need to Think About Security
Van life means that there is much less space between you and the outside world. When you live in a house or an apartment, while you may be just as vulnerable in reality, depending on the circumstances, you tend to feel less exposed.
Sleeping in a van means not only will you likely be sleeping in areas–rural or urban–that come with some risks, but there is nowhere to hide when you live in a van. In short, you need to have a self-defence/security plan.
That likely involves a combination of some kind of security system (e.g., a car alarm) as well as, potentially, some self-defence weapon(s). Depending on the country you live in, you will need to consider what is legal for you to own and travel with (especially if you are crossing state/province/national boundaries).
Security is particularly pressing for solo female van dwellers. Consider checking out our guide on tips for traveling alone as a woman. There are some broadly applicable personal safety tips that are useful regardless of where or how you are traveling.
Have a “Return to Civilization” Plan
Van life, and any lifestyle where you get to travel and see new places, is exhilarating, but it almost always comes with periods of burnout.
Do you have an escape plan (temporary or permanent) for when you need that inevitable break from van life? I have gone through a few periods of burnout over the years, and having a place you can return to in order to recharge and spend time with friends and family has always been key to reinvigorating my desire to keep going.
You might want to even consider making life on the road seasonal. Van life virtually everywhere in northern or central Europe, or Canada and the United States means dealing with some extreme temperature changes, and cruising the roads during the nice months and digging in somewhere fixed during the cold ones is a nice compromise.
Have a Purpose
I feel like this doesn’t get stated enough when advising both current and, more importantly, aspiring van dwellers. Van life, in and of itself, in my view, is not a purpose.
I’ve always seen van life as a means to an end. That end can certainly be travel and seeing new places, but travel for travel’s sake gets old.
Take someone like Alex Honnold, for example, the rock climber who free-soloed Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan back in 2018. His main reason for choosing van life was because it was the most practical and economical way to spend all of his time climbing:
In my case, my passion is nature travel and wildlife tourism, which is how and why I continuously travel. This is my driving force and, while it isn’t the only reason I go to new places, it gives my travel purpose, which is what has allowed me to do it for so long.
If I just felt disillusioned with modern urban living or simply couldn’t sit still, and that was it, I don’t think I would still be living like this, or at least enjoying it as much.
Know Where You’re Going to Use the Bathroom
There is no way around it, one of the most unpleasant aspects of van life is not having a comfortable modern bathroom.
With that acknowledged, a large part of your comfort (or stress) depends on how and where you use the bathroom. This includes both showering and more intimate things.
It helps to have spots for both planned out before you get somewhere new. This could be a gym, a rec centre, a library, or any number of places. The worst feeling is finding a parking spot for the night, only to realize you are nowhere near a viable bathroom. Or, finding a prime parking spot, only to then have to debate leaving that spot (and potentially being usurped) to find a bathroom.
Exploit Every Storage Possibility Available
Any time you live somewhere small, space is at a premium. To make van life work, you need to get into the mindset of constantly looking for new storage opportunities. Of particular importance are storage configurations that fully exploit all your vertical space.
This is a great article filled with DIY storage space ideas that will help you make use of every surface, nook and cranny in your van.
Digital Nomads in Vans: What You Need to Make it Work
If your plan is to work while living on the road, you need to know two things upfront: what kinds of jobs are suitable for this lifestyle and what kind of modifications your van requires so you can work.
A lot of people choose the van life because they want to lower their costs. And, while you will very likely be spending a lot less money as a van dweller, it’s not free and I highly advise against jumping into the life without having some kind of hustle. If you burn through your savings only to find yourself living in a van, you are still technically a van dweller, but you may also technically be homeless or “unsheltered.”
If you are planning to work or have a digital job that you can viably take on the road with you, consider that you are going to need to be able to guarantee a sufficient power supply to do things like plug-in laptops and other hardware.
You are also going to need a space in your vehicle you can work from. Coworking spaces, in addition to costing money, are not always available, nor is it really all that viable to work from a different cafe, bar or restaurant every day.
The Bottom Line: Van Life is Rewarding But Challenging
Van life is one of those things that is easy to glamorize and romanticize until you’ve actually lived it.
The upside of living and sleeping in a van is, for many people, unmatched freedom and adventure. The price you pay, if you aren’t prepared for some of the above realities, can be a much more stressful experience than you ever imagined.
Keep the above tips in mind and make van life, whether temporary or indefinite, one of the best things you ever do with your short time on this planet.