If you are considering living in a van, whether full-time or part-time, this guide will give you an overview of everything you need to know to make the most of van life!
Van life has taken hold of people eager to see the world at their pace and leisure. From full-time van dwellers to part-time roamers, living in a van has become a cross-generational movement where you can save money, visit incredible destinations and be a part of a growing community of fellow wanderers.
We’ve lived in a van at several points in our life together and have loved each experience for entirely different reasons!
The van life movement has always existed, at least since the 1960s and 70s, when people took to living in classic vans like the Volkswagen bus and vans to see the world.
Combining a sense of rebellion from the status quo with that of unique adventures that could only be found in such a transient, mobile lifestyle, the early pioneers set the framework for what would evolve into this recent iteration.
The movement stalled for some time. But recently van life has taken hold of people – from millennials to retirees – and if you are one of those people who are intrigued by the idea of living in a van or want to know more about the kind of van life adventures you can find on the road, this post is for you.
We’ll break down everything you need to know about living in a van. From finding the right van to learning about overnight parking and packing the most practical van life essentials, to saving money and tips and tricks for living in such a small space – this post will break down the van life in detail for you!
We’ll also make sure that you understand that van life has some negative connotations associated with it. And our goal is to help you make the most of van life so that you know what you should and should not do as you pursue a life with so much freedom on the road!
Ready to find out more about the details of van living? Here we go!
The van life movement is nothing more than people opting to abandon what used to be called the “American Dream” of owning a house, working a traditional job and raising a family in a tight-knit community.
And the great thing about it is that it covers such a wide range of van lifers. While many van lifers are younger, opting to explore the world on a seemingly neverending road trip, there are also all sorts of people who range from young professionals who work remotely from their van in beautiful “office spaces” to retirees who want to visit national parks and other incredible landmarks without driving a huge RV around.
For some, full-time van life starts with a “gap year” in transitioning between one chapter in life to the next and turns into over a year of wandering. Others have started on an epic road trip to drive from North to South America along the Pan American highway and found that van living opened their eyes to a whole new world they didn’t realize existed.
And the van life movement does not specifically apply to just van living. While there are a few vans that are most common on the road, the van life lifestyle applies to virtually anyone who chooses to live from their vehicle – whether a recreational vehicle, mini-van, conversion van or even various types of vehicles.
If you are looking for a more carefree life on the road you don’t have to spend tons of money on a van build or the top-of-the-line model at an RV dealership. You can make do with what you have and learn to live the van life accordingly.
Read on as we’ll give you a few ideas about the best kinds of vehicles for living in a van.
READ NEXT: Check out our ultimate van build post to learn how to plan your camper conversion!
The answer to this question is as varied as the kinds of vehicles you could choose to live out of. For most van lifers, the thrill of the unknown combined with a more affordable lifestyle on the road is the primary reason to choose to live in a van.
For others, the main reason is simplicity. Having surrounded themselves with lots and lots of things over time, they realize that they can live in a tiny space and be perfectly content.
Still, others may be in pursuit of various adventure activities – whether surfing, rock climbing, mountain biking or more – a well-equipped van makes for the perfect adventure machine wherever you seek adventure.
Regardless of why you would choose to live in a van, as long as you enjoy the lifestyle and understand a few things about how living in a van is different from living in other RVs or a brick-and-mortar home, then there really is not a right or wrong answer.
There are lots of reasons why van life may be right for you. Here are a few of the reasons we think it’s pretty amazing.
We’ll break down the total van life cost in a later section. But the cost of ownership of a van is tiny compared to the mortgage on a home or paying rent.
And living expenses are significantly less, especially when you consider that you can park overnight for free in many places, can find free WiFi and shower facilities nearly everywhere and the maintenance costs for a van are usually much less than that of a house.
Whether you want to be entirely self-contained with a proper toilet, shower and kitchen or want to rough it a little with the bare minimums, you will find that your van will have everything you need, and nothing that you don’t.
Items you buy will serve multiple purposes. And at the same time, you’ll find that you won’t miss many of the things you leave behind.
There is nothing like waking up next to an ocean, mountain, lake, beach or other incredible landscape one day and a totally different one the next.
Whether there are national parks or other tourist attractions you have always wanted to visit, or you want to try and drive to every state or province, living in a van gives you the ultimate freedom to literally drive after your dreams.
Van life is not about skirting responsibility. For some, it may be! But for many people who live in a van full time and work remotely, not only does the office take new meaning wherever you happen to camp, but also you will find that you can work online and save money along the way.
We know people who have built successful businesses on the road and who ended up having more money set aside at the end of a few months or years than others who lived a more traditional life.
It is not all about money. But if you plan on working and can do so remotely, then van life could be great for you!
Sometimes it is nice to drive deep into the national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and find yourself away from other campers in the middle of nowhere. Of course, make sure you have prepared adequately for such an adventure.
But the idea that you can literally go anywhere and be entirely self-sufficient is a sense of freedom in itself. With proper solar panels and battery bank, and an adequate supply of water and fuel, there is no limit to where you can and cannot go.
Van lifers come in all shapes and forms. Some you will like. Others you may not. But most you will find are like-minded and amazing people.
Like you, they started van life for one reason or another and they have a long list of places to go and things to do that you may not have imagined adding to your travel bucket list.
You’ll come across someone in one place and may meet them again in another. Share tips, tricks, and, of course, delicious meals and conversation and your friendship circle expands outward every day!
Of course, van life is not all peaches and cream. There are lots of reasons why it may not be right for you. Or, at least, you can prepare for when things are not as you thought they would be. Here are a few of the biggest downsides to van life.
Living in such a small space for long periods of time can take its toll. This is especially true if every time you want to take a shower you have to move ten things here or there.
Or folding out your bed (or putting it away) each day can quickly become a tedious task. Cooking meals in small spaces can also be a challenge, as are washing dishes afterward. While living in a tiny home on the road is nice for all the above reasons, sometimes your tiny space is too tiny.
Depending on how you prefer to travel, you may find that much of your day is spent trying to determine where you can find coffee shops for free WiFi, overnight camping that does not include Walmart parking lots night after night, gas stations, dump stations, water refills and any number of other logistics you don’t have with a brick-and-mortar home.
A few hours spent driving around looking for free camping can take its toll on you when all you want to do is to find a place to sleep for the night.
While the van life community is pretty amazing, there are also the friends and family members you left behind that you will miss in a variety of ways. Whether it’s giving up a weekly happy hour get-together after work or missing major holidays, when you live in a van full time you trade one memory for the next.
But more than the memory is the time spent with other people. You have to be intentional about keeping up with the people you left behind. Because chances are, they are all too busy with their lives to remember that you are off galavanting around the world.
There is nothing more stressful than when your van breaks. Whether it is simply an appliance or hardware inside the van, or something mechanical, maintenance costs and the time spent trying to fix the issues add lots of stress to an otherwise carefree life.
We always say you can never choose when or where you will break down. But at some point, you will break down and not knowing how much money it will cost or who can help you fix the issue can wear you down.
The answer to this question is incredibly varied. But in general, it costs less to live in a van than it does to live in a traditional brick-and-mortar home. When you combine this with the fact that you will find yourself waking up in incredibly beautiful places from one night to the next, the idea of living in a van will become addictive!
Of course, there are always ways to spend more money if you want. But as we live full-time on the road it is our goal to make our money last as long as possible so we live well but within our means.
To give you an idea of some of the costs to expect, here is a simple breakdown of some of the categories you will want to build into your budget:
Note that one common additional expense is to purchase a Planet Fitness gym membership. With this gym membership you have access to hundreds of gyms across the country where you can work out if you want – but shower if you need!
Some planet fitness locations will also allow overnight parking – but confirm this with each location in advance.
As we already discussed, there are all sorts of vans perfectly suited for van life. And many of them are not even vans, per se. But these are the top types of vans that you are likely to find most common among those of us living in a van.
Cargo vans are the go-to van for van life when it comes to camper van conversion. If you plan on doing a van build then it’s highly likely you’ll want to pick one of the first three vans on the list as these are the most popular, common and easiest to build out to the specs you’d like.
You will also see a fair number of older mini-vans that have been converted to accommodate living in a van, although with less of the comforts of the larger cargo vans.
These are your classic camper van options for living in a van in style. While they don’t have nearly the space of more modern cargo vans, they combine a little of everything you need with the personality and style of the original van lifers.
If you don’t want to go all-in on a typical van, there are other options that will set you up for van life.
If you are just going on a road trip every now and then, buying a camper van may not be the best idea. Renting one, or looking at other RV options may be best for you.
But if you plan on living in a van for any amount of time then there are all sorts of benefits. Here are a few of the top reasons you should consider buying a camper van.
Of course, there are many downsides to van ownership. So you will want to consider a few things before taking the plunge to buy your next tiny home on the road:
If you are handy, or you want to learn to be, doing your own van build is a great way not only to save money in not purchasing one already built out, but also to literally know the ins and outs of your van.
We can’t tell you the number of times something went wrong in one of our RVs. In our first years on the road, we had no idea how the RV was built, so we just took a few stabs in the dark or had to pay someone to fix the issue.
But as we became handier, we learned to remodel RVs and with a van build you do yourself you’ll know where to look and what to do when things go wrong.
On the positive side of things, a DIY van conversion is also a great way to customize your camper van to include all of the appliances you want in the spaces that you want them.
If you are wondering how much money it costs to do a custom van build, this will vary. But you’ll find it will likely be well under the cost of purchasing a van already fit for the road.
Ultimately you need to familiarize yourself with every part of your van. But as you plan your build you should have an understanding of these key components:
You will also want to consider finding space in your build for common appliances and accessories such as:
When it comes to your build, the most important thing is to know that your tiny home must accommodate you and everything you think you will want or need for life on the road.
Before committing to a van conversion, it’s a great idea to live in a van for a few days or weeks under different circumstances. This is a great time to rent a van to get an idea of what you want to do with such limited space.
Or if you know anyone with a van who would be willing to let you take it out for a long weekend – you’ll quickly learn the things you like or don’t like.
Of course, you’ll also want to read a blog post (or 100!) and spend time checking out Instagram and YouTube to get all of the best ideas on what you want and will need to do to complete your campervan build.
But whether you have any experience or not in working with your hands, a campervan conversion is totally doable if that’s the route you want to take!
READ NEXT: If you’re thinking about converting your own van, be sure to check out our comprehensive Van Build Planning Guide!
Perhaps one of the most controversial topics in van life is the idea of overnight parking. Vans parked on the side of the street in a big city, or in front of a house in a quiet neighborhood have created a negative connotation that everyone living in a van lacks consideration.
The reality is, while sometimes living in a van calls for “stealth camping,” most of the time there is ample overnight parking in a wide range of camp spots. We have a few mobile apps we’ll cover shortly that help with this.
But in general, these are the kinds of overnight parking you will want to be aware of as you transition into van life:
Free camping is the best kind of camping in our opinion as one of the tenants of living in a van is saving money. These are some of the best free camping options you’ll find as you travel from the east coast to the west coast and everywhere in between:
Note: Each of these is dependent upon the governance of local laws so don’t assume that it is an absolute guarantee that you can park overnight. Check with the local laws (which are usually indicated on the signs in the parking lot and/or on mobile app reviews) to ensure you are following proper camping guidelines.
There is nothing wrong with paying to park overnight. In fact, we combine free camping with paid camping particularly when we’re looking for a nice hot shower, a place to do laundry and to give our solar panels a break.
These paid options offer camp spots at various expenses, so budget accordingly. Also, know that just because you are paying for camping does not mean that you will have the ability to have a full hookup. You may find yourself “dry camping” – basically paying for access to boondock.
But usually, these options are in beautiful national parks or where you have access to various amenities.
A great way to find free camping is by joining several camping memberships that will allow you access to overnight parking on private property or in discounted campgrounds.
Note that not all campsites listed in each membership are open to vans. Some require that you are fully self-contained – meaning you have your own plumbed toilet, shower and interior kitchen.
Now that you have an idea of the general idea of what van life is all about before you race off to buy a Sprinter van to build out be sure you have an idea of some of the practical details of what it is like living in a van.
There are lots of ways that you can save money while living in a van. Here are some of our top tips for saving money on the road:
In addition to saving money, here are a few of our top van life tips to make life on the road safer, more convenient and more enjoyable:
From having the proper safety equipment and tools in the event of a breakdown or emergency to owning items that serve multiple purposes, the right gear makes all the difference when living in a van.
There’s always room for toys – like surfboards, SUPs, kayaks and bikes. But make sure you have the essentials and know how to use them if necessary.
You likely know when something isn’t right inside your body. The longer you live in a van the more accustomed you will become to the sounds (or lack thereof), lights and other indicators that something may be off.
Knowing the basics of how to fix things is great. But if you’ve built your van then you are in even better shape when it comes to troubleshooting and solving issues on the road – mechanical or otherwise.
Staying healthy on the road is difficult. But it is super important. The best way to do this is to cook your own meals (healthy, not Ramen every day!) and to find outdoor activities you enjoy.
If you’re busy hiking 5 miles a day, paddling rivers or lakes or climbing hills on your mountain bike the chances of getting out of shape are slim (pun intended!). But many people living in a van neglect their health and this can cause long-term effects you don’t want to deal with later in life.
Nobody likes a mess. OK, some people likely do. But when your living space is so small you need to set aside time to take care of the mess on occasion. Whether that is once per day, or once per week is up to you and your preferences.
Having a small vacuum helps out tremendously, especially if you own pets. But just keeping up with dirty dishes and shaking out a throw rug can be enough to keep your tiny home comfortable.
It is tempting to imagine yourself needing everything you once owned in a brick-and-mortar home. But the reality is, we often wear the same clothes two or three days in a row. We wash the same 2 forks, spoons and plates daily.
And there’s no reason to haul our old collection of DVDs around anymore with all the great streaming services. Pack light. If you find you need something you can always buy it later. But we find we typically jettison more than we pick up along the way.
Van life apps will save you time and money in the long haul. Whether searching for free overnight camping, a library or a coffee shop that offers free wifi, shower facilities or a place to fill up on water or propane, these apps are designed by people who know what we need when living in a van on the road. We’ll cover a few of our favorites below.
This should be our biggest van life tip. Without a budget, you are lost. Most of us have limited financial resources on the road. So whether you work remotely and are trying to save money living in a van or are in a gap year or retirement and have a little extra to spend, keep track of your money and it will take care of you along the way.
There are always ways to cut corners if you ever do find yourself at a time when you’d like to splurge on a unique experience. But don’t live in the excess or you’ll find yourself selling your van before too long!
Most van dwellers enjoy cooking meals in places that overlook incredible sunrises or sunsets. And when you’re budget-savvy you’ll find all sorts of ways to save money on the road.
But every now and then you’ll want to splurge on something just to shake things up a little.
For example, we like to joke that anytime we splurge on a bundle of (expensive!) firewood we’re calling it “date night!” Whatever you enjoy, splurge on it from time to time to make the most of van life on the road!
Along with our top tips, here are a few of our top van life hacks that will make life on the road more enjoyable.
READ NEXT: Be sure to check out our post on all the best campervan hacks!
Well, this is a big topic. But if you and your partner are already interested in living in a van then that is the first step! There is nothing more incredible in life than sharing unique experiences with someone you love.
But van life can be difficult for couples in particular because your living space is cut in half and your decision-making is doubled.
Still, we find that we would choose no other life than one on the road where we can spend time enjoying beautiful scenery, exploring amazing places and living a simple life we both enjoy.
Here are a few of our top tips on how to prepare for and live in a van together with your partner:
If you can’t be kind to your partner then you need to reconsider your relationship. But life on the road can be stressful.
So kindness isn’t always the first thing to come to mind when you’re broken down, the camper van is a mess or you’ve been sleep deprived because it’s so cold/hot/windy outside the past few nights.
Still, take the time to think about how you feel about the other person and put them first and everything else will work out better for it.
This seems easier to say than do. But whenever any decision comes up, long before it needs to be made, communicate. And even if it is not a decision, but maybe an emotion or a bad (or good!) day, communicate.
We live in such close quarters that you’d think there were no secrets between us. But the reality is, there are still things taking place in our hearts and minds that need to be communicated.
Do so regularly and you’ll appreciate living in a van more.
When you are around your partner 24/7 it is easy to forget to compliment them. Some things become routine – like cooking meals, washing dishes or long and stressful drive days.
But if you take the time to tell your partner how much you appreciate them for what they’ve done, or remind them why you love them in the first place, then time on the road will become that much more special.
It would be nice to think that you can go a day, week, month or year without arguing. But the reality is that it will happen sometime. If you focus on the first few points above, then when the argument comes it should be short and not cause harm to your relationship.
Always make up, even if it’s after you or your partner needs to get out of the van for a while to clear your mind. Never fall asleep upset.
Whether sharing the chores or fixing a breakdown, working together with your partner is the best way to get through life on the road.
Van life has its share of challenges for any person. But if you are choosing to go into the situation as a couple, then be mindful that you can and should work together in everything you experience on the road.
Read Next: Check out our post on our best tips for living in a van with a partner!
Mobile apps make van life so much easier than ever before! Whether you need to find a place to camp for the night, a hot shower, a good hike or the most affordable fuel in the area there are apps to help you navigate van life.
These are a few of our favorite van life apps that we use on nearly a daily basis:
READ NEXT: Want to know about more useful van life apps? Check out our post on the top van life apps for your van lifestyle!
Living in a van is not for everyone. But if you’ve been intrigued enough by the idea of van life to consider pursuing this lifestyle then we hope we’ve been able to provide you with all sorts of great information to help you transition into van life.
Of course, if we left anything off or if you have any questions please feel free to leave us a comment and we’ll update this post accordingly!
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