How
Vanlife
Works:
What it's
Really Like
Living
in a Van

a woman talks to her son from their VW Bus

By

These days it seems everyone wants to live out of a van. From Donald Trump, Jr. to that alien Alf, everyone is buying a van and becoming Instagram famous, then making a living off of it by handing out free stickers.

Or something like that. While we enjoy the freedom and affordability of traveling and living via van, perhaps it’s not for everyone? Or maybe society is headed to a world of no towns in favor of giant Volkswagen cities in the desert.

Let’s find out.

What’s it really like living in a van?

If you’re here, reading this, chances are you’ve already seen the pictures. Hot young people with perfectly groomed toes sticking out the backs of their $115,000 Sprinter van conversions with a grand view of the beach.

Truth is, there aren’t that many beaches where you can just camp, all alone, with nothing but you and the seagull poop to share the view of the water. Well, in Baja California you can do this. For the United States and Canada, views like that mean you’re packed in like grandma’s Precious Moments collection stuffed into a box on the way to a Goodwill after her dear funeral. That’s to say, you’ll likely be at an RV park and paying big bucks.

What you can look forward to, though, is parking just about anywhere up some forest roads, way out in the desert, and all through the great mountains covering this continent. You can expect it to be easier to fill up your tank, both logistically (when compared to an RV) and on your wallet. You can expect to have few things, and probably start to realize you never needed much more in the first place.

You can expect to shower less, your home will begin to smell like a gym sock, and you will unlearn how to notice these things. Every day really can be the chance to change your perspective, both literally and figuratively. But you may find that slowing down is as big a part of this life as learning to live with less.

Depending on how reliable your van is, you may even find yourself with a considerable drop in blood pressure.

a family doing school outside of their VW Bus on the beach
We lived as a family of five out of a VW Bus for years. So, it’s doable…

If you’re still curious about where you can camp, or where to even begin looking, we’ve written loads about it. For your perusal:

Living Off of Solar Power

Sure, you can camp at RV parks, or even some state parks, and plug in to their electrical hookups and pay a few (to several) Hamiltons to do so.

At some point though, you’re likely going to want to experience the sheer joy of living for free in the many, many places in North America where you can do so. Picture yourself beneath Sequoia forests in the Sierras or in the beachfront parking lot of some Mexican restaurant that never runs out of tequila. Compare that to looking out your window at RVs in every direction, not ten feet from where you sleep. 

Living for free like this requires that you either a) get by without any electric, or b) get a solar setup in your van. You can dabble with a little portable system like this Jackery.

 
a young boy rides his bike away from a sprinter van in which dad's sitting in the door
The Roaming.Nomads are one of the most recent interviews with vanlifing families here on Wand’rly.

It’s going to cost you around $2000 to get setup to where you can run a reasonable amount of electronics, a fridge, stuff like that and not be constantly stressed that your system is beeping warning sounds at you all day…or worse, just dead when you need it. Nothing says vanlife sucks like a fridge full of a fresh grocery run’s worth of spoiled food when your fridge died one desert day.

You can set this all up yourself, and that’s where the $2000 comes in. However, it’ll take some research, some know how, and probably some troubleshooting when your work doesn’t play out as you’d hoped. Still, it’ll save you tons of cash and open up an even more valuable freedom as you explore these open roads.

The Internet

Your cell phone is going to become your new ISP. Even if you decide to stay at campgrounds, their WiFi almost always, nearly every time, practically without fail, is going to be about as reliable as a dead dog, and twice as fast. 

You can always hop into a Starbucks, the one place that consistently seems to have blazing fast WiFi (provided by Google in most cases.) Restaurant WiFi, that which you’ll find at the library or a bar, can be equally as frustrating, and outside of libraries often requires you to buy something while you’re using it.

The good news is though, the speeds you’ll get from your phone are good enough to stream video, podcasts and certainly check your email. Or Instagram, whichever type of life you live. While speeds vary depending on where you go, you’ll no doubt be pleasantly surprised at how deep into the desert you can get and still have 2 or 3 bars of LTE. At the moment, you’re basically looking at AT&T or Verizon, as T-Mobile / Sprint just don’t have the same type of coverage yet.

We’ve written all about the different ways to stay connected, and their costs, here on Wand’rly.

And sites like Campendium offer reviews where campers before you will let you know just how reliable the connection was there.

Breakdowns & Hotels

Even brand new rides break down. So expect to find yourself in a hotel at some point. Or an AirBNB, whatever floats your budget. Sometimes we’ll stay in hotels simply to see an area that has no great camping options. If an AirBNB with two bedrooms and a pool costs $70 / night and the local RV park costs $50 / night, well one is significantly better. For us, anyway, RV parks are about the least desirable option in this whole traveling life, so while a hotel may not beat free camping in the woods, getting a hotel every now and then both helps the economy and makes for a nice break from the vanlife. 

On the other hand, breaking down and needing to get a hotel can be a pain in the gashole. Engines don’t always break down in cool towns. There’s not always a hotel within an easy walk of a hotel room. It sucks, so just realize that it happens, and you might not be as disappointed when the day rolls around.

The Worst Parts of Living in a Van

So, aside from break downs, which are a brown spot in the guacamole, there are absolutely some downsides to living in a van.

For example, taking long, hot showers with tons of water pressure is largely going to be a thing of the past. There are plenty of places to score a shower, of course. But like a “need to go situation” at a dumpy gas station, they’re just not going to be ideal.

There’s also the weather. I personally love being outside, and don’t mind living outside of the 68° of room temperature. You can also pack up and move when the storm gets to brewin’. That said, you’re likely going to experience cold and heat like you never will in a climate controlled home.

a family gathers in front of a VW Bus in the snow
The Bodeswell VW crew are not only our favorite vanlife family out there, they’re among the most badass travelers we’ve ever met.

Chores like doing dishes and washing clothes also come with a little more work. You will have a limited water supply. Laundromats are plentiful across the continent (and they even do your laundry for you in much of Mexico!) You’ll find yourself going to the grocery more often, since you won’t have a big ol’ pantry and five hundred cubic ice cube freezer.

Is it worth it?

Good question. Does seeing the world on your own pace, for a fraction of the cost, sound great to you? Does having more time to spend with your significant other or family seem appealing? How about working less because you have fewer bills and debt?

Of course no one can answer whether vanlife is right for you, but one thing is absolutely clear: it’s 100% worth it and better than any other option! For some people, anyway.