How to Live in a Van in Five Steps
Your Instagram feed is full of tiny squares of people’s feet sticking out the back door of a van, some magical mountain vista framed off in the distance.
Maybe you’re burnt out on cubicle life, or tired of walking your hometown’s same old streets, or maybe you just have a serious case of wanderlust. Whatever your reasons, you’re thinking of living the vanlife. We can help. :)
So, who are we?
Well, we’re now a family of five who has lived out of their VW Bus in Mexico for over a year. In many ways, we’ve been living the vanlife full-time since 2009. For a brief background, you know, so you know we’re the real deal, here’s our timeline in a nutshell.
2008 I bought a 27′ RV and traveled the US for a year.
2009 The RV was a beast, sluggish, and hard to fit into the kinds of places I wanted to camp. So, I bought a 1978 VW Bus, and convinced my college sweetheart to travel around in it with me.
2013 Now with three kids, that lovely lady and I, plus a dog and a mother-in-law, we put our beloved Bus into storage. I bought a Ford E-350 and an Airstream. The former would serve as the bedroom for us parents, and our youngest, while the rest of the crew would sleep in the Airstream.
2016 Fed up with hitching up a giant trailer, and not being able to go–once again–everywhere we wanted to go, Grandma and the dog went back to stationary life while my lady and I, along with our three boys, climbed back into our VW Bus.
This isn’t about how we do it, though. It’s about how you can make the vanlife happen for yourself, whether you’re a single woman, a retired gentleman, or a young family. Without further ado, how to live the vanlife in five steps.
1. The Mindframe
This may seem silly to some, but folks will tell you that the idea of living in a van does not sound particularly appealing. If you’re already set on doing it, great! That is literally the first and most important step. Even if you do think you’re ready for vanlife, there may be some aspects you’re not entirely prepared for mentally.
Telling Your Friends & Family You’ll be Leaving for a Life of Full-time TravelThe best advice we can give you on how to break the news to friends and family that you'll be leaving for a life on the road.
Like weather. Yep, good old mother nature can be a bitch. Consider the difference between an afternoon spent hiking a trail, followed by an evening’s worth of campfires with friends, and sleeping with your door open one cool summer night, to that of getting caught in a freak snow storm or needing to sit inside of your van all day because it’s been raining…for a week.
We love to visit California’s Redwoods, because they’re fantastic. But it can rain for a week straight. For one person to sit inside all day can paint your brain with cabin fever, let alone two or five people doing it. You may think to yourself, “But I would never get myself into a situation where there would be snow.”
No? In much of the northern half of the United States, it can snow–out of nowhere–in September. September!!! Autumn is barely beginning and already the white stuff is falling. You’ll also, after a few years of spending your Winters in Arizona or Florida, realize that you want more from vanlife and traveling than simply going to the same places for months at a time, year after year. You’ll start to skirt the seasons (after all, that’s when places are the best, after the tourists have left because the weather isn’t perfect).
So, vanlife can result in cabin fever.
Next up? You’ll only have as many friends as you’re willing to make on the road. Sure, you can live in your van in your hometown and keep all of your old friends…but what’s the point in living in a house with wheels if you sit still all of the time.
There is a thick community of vanlifers, and even other travelers–from backpackers to RVers–you can meet on the road. Caravans and meetups and random encounters at campgrounds all lend to the more social aspect of this life, but there is also an amount of solitude you can expect. For some people (including us!), that’s a positive, but for others, it may come as a bit of a shock.
Breakdowns also suck. whether you’ve got a brand new 2017 Sprinter van that you spent $100k on the conversion alone, or are plunking down the road in a 1966 Volkswagen Bus, you will eventually have some mechanic problem. And, you will eventually have some mechanical problem that can’t be fixed in one day. When that happens, you will not only lose your car, you’ll lose your house.
Sure, some mechanics will be cool enough to let you crash in your van while it’s parked in their lot overnight, but others won’t. Other times, the wheels will be off or the tranny torn out or something that prohibits this from being realistic. Every now and then, you’ll lose your home. That’s why god made hotels, though, so it’s not the end of the world. Just be prepared that it can happen.
There are other things you may want to ready yourself for as well, like the social stigma that comes along with living in a van (which, by the way, means you might be idolized by some while stirring up quite the opposite type of feelings in a few others), or the reality that you may not be able to bring along a ton of stuff. These are things that can go either way though, and are largely dependent on your own personality.
So then, what’s the biggest thing you need to prepare for when it comes to getting into the right mindset for living in a van?
One day, undoubtedly, you will be standing on some ocean cliff or at the base of some grandiose mountain, and the thought will come into your head… “Shit, I live in a van. This life is awesome.”
2. Ditching Your Junk
If you live in a house, you have way more stuff than you need, and certainly more than will fit into even the most deluxe Sprinter van. Folks who live in an RV think they have it tough. When I began this life, though, it was actually relatively easy for me to get rid of the clutter in my life and trade it for what could fit into an RV. As noted, I found that RV to even be too large, and opted for vanlife instead. Not merely because it would be much easier to drive around and find places to camp that were truly serene, but because of the promise of a lack of excess junk in my life.
How to Get Rid of Your StuffA short tutorial on how to rid yourself of all of the stuff, aka junk, that one can accumulate over years spent living in a stick house, with the ultimate goal being to hit the road full-time.
So, how do you know what you need and what you don’t?
There are formulas and theories on how you can do this. I like to keep everything as simple as possible though, so I merely follow a tried and true test:
- Look at everything in your home. Start putting things into three piles. Pile one, things you haven’t used in a year. Ditch it. Give it to Goodwill, sell it on Craigslist, whatever, just get rid of it immediately. Pile two, things you’ve used within the last month, or maybe seasonal things like winter coats (if you’re leaving in the summer) or swimming shorts (if you’re heading out come the first snow). Hold onto that pile for now. The final pile, number three, should only be the things you use every single day. Neatly arrange that stuff on a table or something. Realistically, if you’re being honest, it will all easily fit on a table.
- Now back to pile two. Look at every object in that pile. Are any of them duplicates, or provide a functionality, of something that’s already in pile one. Ditch everything that meets this criteria. Now, are any of them duplicates of one another. Do you need two winter jackets? Do you need two pair of shoes? Really, though, do you? I own two pairs of pants, a pair of boots, and some sandals. The second pair of pants is there so I have something to wear to the laundromat when I was the first pair. The boots are good for hiking and double as a decent shoe for going out on the town, and the sandals are for the beach, kayaking or playing in rivers. Duplicate items are a vandwellers downfall. They cost gas money, precious space, and take away from some of the ease that makes living a minimalist life so simple and fulfilling.
- Okay, pile three, the things you use every day. Are any of these duplicates? Do you need five forks if you’re a single guy? How many cutting knives do you really need? Underwear, socks, guitars, skateboards, books…these are the types of things we could realistically do with much less of each. Ditch as much as you feel comfortable getting rid of, knowing that you’ll likely need to downsize a little more come move in day.
That’s it! You shouldn’t have much more than a table’s worth of stuff that you’re still hanging onto. Sure, maybe you’ve got some bigger items like a surfboard (hey bro, if you can’t surf any wave with any board, look at vanlife as a way to truly step up your skills) or a bike or kayaks. These are the kinds of things you can likely attach to the outside of your van–and plenty of really outdoorsy types (yeah, basically all vanlifers are outdoorsy in one way or another) have all three or more of these things–but you may also need to start picking sports. Kite surfing, paddleboarding, kayaking, mountain biking and surfing may all be things you regularly do, but once you start hooking all of that gear to the top of your rig, well, goodbye easy living, hello 5mpg.
One last final note here, on sentimentality. Tourists collect souvenirs, travelers collect memories. We’ve got a little patch collection for most of the national parks or similar places we’ve explored. They easily fasten to our curtains, don’t get in the way, and make for a fun way to remember places with the kids and play games like, “Where is the cougar patch with the sunrise on it from?” Some people do the same with magnets. Neither is really necessary. Your iPhone will be 10,000 pictures full in no time, and that should be souvenir enough, because in the long run, you’ve transformed your life and soul into something that can never be lost, broken or sold when money gets tough somewhere down the road. Memories fade, the but the impact they leave on us is part of everything we’ll ever be, ever do on down the line.
So, that said, get rid of it. Or send a box to your mom’s house or something.
3. Choosing the Right Van
To sit and discuss every possible type of van that exists would be pointless. One man’s VW Bus is another’s broken down hunk of junk, and where one 1995 Chevy G20 may run for 200,000 miles, another might drop a tranny (is that really a thing?) after 30,000 miles. There are a few truths we vanlifers do tend to hold self-evident though.
Used is cheap, old is cheaper. That’s an upfront expense though. Where our VW Bus only cost us a fraction of what a new Sprinter would, we easily made up for in repairs, time and frustration over the years. For us, old is better, because it’s recycled, full of history, charm and worth the time it takes to get to know how it runs. You may want to go further, more reliably, and be willing to pay the upfront fee or make payments on your ride.
New does not mean perfect. Every vehicle has mechanical problems at some point. Every single one.
Bigger is better, except when smaller is best. The difference between driving a Sprinter van and a Vanagon is that you can park one anywhere. Both are better than an RV, but only one is guaranteed that last spot usually reserved for tents only. Then again, only one of them will have sufficient room for a bed and a couch, not a couch that turns into a bed.
Hightop vs. poptop, who the f*ck cares? While there’s a debate about what’s better, a high top (where the roof is always tall enough to stand up) or a pop top (where you put the roof up and down, like on the infamous Westfalias), one thing that’s almost universally accepted is that having one or the other is essential. You know, for when you want to actually stand up to put on your pants, cook some food, or just not constantly be kicking your head to the right, permanently fusing your neck to your right shoulder.
Choose your stealth mode. If you’re a young couple who’s really into partying it up in the city, and then retiring to your van parked in the street where you’ll sleep off the Jager bombs with the lights off, passersby none the wiser, then going really stealth may be important to you. What’s stealth? It’s not having a poptop up in the air, your camping chairs out in the street, lights casting your silhouette onto the sidewalk and any other glaringly obvious signs that say, “someone is living in this van!” In this scenario, having stuff that needs to be removed (think a big plastic bin full of camping gear) every time you want to live in the van vs. just drive it around isn’t really an option.
Then again, if you’ve got a family and don’t intend on spending your days in the street, or in Walmart parking lots or the like, there’s nothing wrong with having a bin or two you pull out every time you get somewhere. Hell, it might even make a nice end table.
4. What You’ll Need to Live Full-time in a Van
Sure, you can pop a futon in the back of your van and call it a day, but if you really plan to live in the thing full-time, here are a few essentials, and then a few nice-to-haves.
Essentials for Living in a Van
A cooler may seem sufficient, but soggy bell peppers when the ice melts get old quickly.
While many a vandweller recommends top loading fridges, we swear that a solid, low draw, front loading fridge is the best way to go. Personally, we use an Engel 60 quart front loading AC/DC mini-fridge and it works really well with our 100watt solar system (see below on solar). With five of us, we need to go to the grocery store every two to three days, which is a bit annoying, but that’s more because we can’t store large amounts of things the kids eat every day, like yogurt and milk. And there’s a chance we try and fit too much beer in there…occassionally.
Cooking on an open fire sounds amazing, delicious, and very rugged. Making a fire every morning before your first cup of coffee gets older than a banana peel lost behind your fold down couch, though.
At the very simplest, just buying the same old two burner Coleman campstove you’ve seen countless times at campgrounds will do, and will do nicely. If you get tired of buying those green propane canisters, though, you may want to upgrade to something like the diesel heater / stovetop combos companies like Wallas are creating these days, or get an adapter for the Coleman style stove you might already have so that you can plug it into a larger propane tank (which you’ll also need room to store, and be safe hooking up those lines!)
If you enjoy freedom, and plan to have a fridge, or even just a place to charge your phone, the having a solar setup will change your life. Essentially, the most basic solar system that can power a fridge and more involves:
- A 100w panel. We went with Renogy’s 100w solar panel and it’s worked well for us, once we got beyond the learning curve of setting everything up. They’re extendable, too, so you can always buy another one down the road if you have greater solar needs. That said, we’d opt for flexible panels in future, as they have a sleeker profile and theoretically can be moved and placed around your campsite for greater flexibility. For example, you may want to park in the shade but have your solar panel(s) in the sun, much easier to do with foldable, flexible panels. Then again, we have heard these are more prone to a shorter lifespan than rigid ones.
- Cables from the solar panel to your charge controller, and from the charge controller to your batteries.
- A charge controller. We’ve been through three now, so can’t recommend one just yet, but this is a small box that regulates how much power comes in from the panels and into the batteries. Not having one can, apparently, mean you’ll blow up your batteries.
- 12v deep cycle batteries. We opted for the gel type, as they’re safe to stack in ways that normal batteries aren’t, but still aren’t incredibly expensive.
- 30amp fuses for every positive wire.
If you want to mount the solar panel to your roof, and not cut holes in your pop top or tin, look into 3M VHB double-sided tape. We used it to mount our 100w rigid solar panel over a year ago, then covered the edges with caulking, and even over 1000s of miles of bumpy Mexican roads we haven’t had a problem with it slipping off.
We also roll with four 12v deep cycle batteries. It may be overkill, but we were having problems initially which lead us to amping up the system, and aside from charge controllers breaking, we haven’t had any other issues.
When it comes to choosing wires, if you don’t buy a panel kit that comes with them, 6 – 8 gauge seems to be the recommended way to go.
If you buy a stove that works “three-way” (12v and 110v power + propane), or just want to keep a gas grill going, you’ll need propane. We have a small 2lb tank (or something like that, the stock one) that came stock with our VW Bus, and we primarily use it for cooking. It lasts over a month, sometimes many, many months, depending on how much we leave it burning or how many pots of coffee we make per day.
If you end up installing a propane heater, a 2lb tank won’t last you more than a night or two (depending on the efficiency of your heater, and how well your van is insulated, of course). Larger vans mean more room, and you may be able to swing a 20lb tank somehow, which can easily last significantly longer (up to a month as reported by many an RVer).
Eventually, you’ll want to sleep. If you’ve got a larger van, like a Sprinter or an extended cab Ford van, for example, you may be able to build a bed that’s independent of your couch or any other items in your ride.
If you have less space, you can build your own bed by purchasing a kit from somewhere like BusDepot.com, or salvaging the metal, folding portion out of an old Volkswagen Bus or Vanagon. From there, you’ll need two pieces of plywood, some high density foam, a needle, thread, maybe a staple gun, and the fabric of your choosing. Note that you may want to buy a thicker type of foam than feels appropriate in the store, because they tend to smash down a bit, and significantly more so over time.
Utensils, Plates, Pots & Pans
…unless you enjoy eating with your fingers. We keep a minimum amount of each, typically only one or two extra of each item more than we have people (because you never know when a kid will drop one in the mud or lose one somewhere, or you’ll have the occasional guest). When it comes to pots and pans, anything that can serve more than one purpose is a bonus. We picked up a set of pots that all fit into one another, with their lids doubling as pans, to maximize space.
A tire, at the very least, will come in handy. If you’ve got an older vehicle, you’ll likely find yourself boasting an assortment of spare parts–spark plugs, hoses, and anything else that might be less than likely to find at the closest NAPA–in order to prevent you from spending extra on something silly when you find yourself broken down in the middle of nowhere with nothing but the local gas station / garage / supermarket to supply you with what ails ya.
A spare tire is useless without one.
Cellular Data Plan
What to Expect from the Internet while Traveling: Updated 2022We review several methods of connecting to the web, rate them, and discuss the pros and cons of each. From tethering your iPhone to coffee shops and more.
Unless you’ve saved money for a specific amount of time, and this is just a life break rather than a new way of living, being connected to the web makes finding work off or online much easier. It’s also nice for when you want to grow that massive Instagram or blog following that’ll someday make you your millions. Let us know when that works out, and how.
Verizon is hands down the most reliable carrier in the US for cell connectivity. AT&T is a close second, and certainly have better coverage in some areas than even Verizon. If you plan to travel into Canada or south of the US border, T-mobile’s unlimited talk, text and data in nearly every other country is absolutely the way to go. Many full-timers who can afford it, and particularly those who rely on the web for income, have some combination of two or all three.
If you don’t want to lug around a toolbox, at the very least snag a solid leatherman. Hell, at least you can open bottles and cut your toenails with it.
You very well may find yourself in a situation where you desperately need to urinate, yet can’t do it outside. Should you never be in this position, we salute you, but we’ve found it more than handy to always have something to pee inside (especially with young kids who rarely fail to need to pee the second you pull out of any place and start heading down the road).
If you go solar, you should set as much as you can up for USB. Our cell phones already need it, and every thing from lanterns to speakers are available with USB hookups these days. Never buy batteries again, always have power and harness the raw gorgeous might of the sun!
Additional Niceties for Vandwelling
While certainly not necessary, having a water tank, the ability to fill it, and running water through a sink makes life a lot easier.
Brush your teeth, wash the dishes, clean your hands before taking out your contacts…you’ll likely find it beneficial to have some type of water setup on a full-time basis.
Suitcase or Backpack
We keep all of our clothes in suitcases. Unlike drawers or closets, they’re easier to move around when you need. You can also more easily make the transition from vanlife to the occasional hotel room, or hop on a flight, when you can move your possessions from your trusty home on the road into a suitcase or van.
This may seem like a luxury to some, but having a way to keep the mosquitos out of any doors or windows you regularly keep open will one day prove a lifesaver. It’s as simple as buying screen from a hardware store, sewing or duct taping magnets in, and cutting it to a perfect fit. Or you can just buy a mosquito net, like they sell for beds, and figure out how to pin that up.
One day, there will be mosquitos. Be it in New England or Old Mexico, at 8000′ in Colorado near a particularly murky swamp or at sea level in Everglades National Park, they’ll make any a well-traveled adventurer suffer at some point.
We used to roll with a Coleman propane lantern. It required purchasing (and discarding, as recycling those proves incredibly difficult in many parts of the country / world) propane cylinders, keeping your mantles fresh, and not breaking the glass in transit. So, when someone stole ours from our campsite a few years back, we switched to USB lanterns and never looked back. Easy to recharge, just as much light, and nothing extra to lug around aside from a USB cable.
While you’re at it, get a USB headlamp too. It’s nice to be able to see in the dark sometimes.
While you’re at it, if you’ve got the solar power coming in, why not USB everything?
Lanterns are just the start, but anything that requires batteries. A speaker that Bluetooths to your iPhone? Why not? That’s our next step. Whatever you can imagine, whatever you need that takes batteries–electric toothbrush, beard trimmer, poi balls–if it needs a battery, USB + solar power will give you years of life out of your gadgets without the expense of toxic, moon-killing batteries that probably, and this is just an educated guess, eventually turn us all into the fast zombies than can climb ladders. No one want that after all…
Living in a 40 year old VW Bus, with no air conditioning, we find 12v fans invaluable. They can run while you’re parked or driving, take very little power to operate, and make a helluva difference on a hot summer day.
You can find decent ones at auto parts stores like Autozone.
Absolutely not a requirement, and given the small size of many a propane tank that will fit into vanlife, not always realistic for longterm stints in the cold, having a small heater can still save the day on the coldest of nights.
Then again, a great sleeping bag can prove just as effective for keeping you warm at night. Still, you may not want to spend your entire day in a sleeping bag, or run your engine just to keep your house cozy.
These water bottles work better than any we’ve ever tried, at a reasonable price. Even in the heat of a Mexican summer, we could fill ours with ice and expect that to last all day and into the next. Water is an essential ingredient to life, and cold water is super tasty.
Maybe you’ll buy a brand new van and it’ll never break down (or it’ll be so high tech, you can’t work on it anyway). If you get anything a bit older, it’s definitely useful to make a little room for an in-depth manual on how all of the major systems of your vehicle work. Something more than just the book they stuffed into your glove compartment when you bought the thing, a good manual can help you understand how your home works, and maybe save your ass down the road somewhere.
You can buy firewood, or you can make it yourself. Just don’t chop down live trees, they don’t burn. Even if you do buy your own wood, having an axe to make kindling and resize the logs they give you will make those fires burn longer, with less wood.
GPS doesn’t work everywhere, and despite the rumors, real men use maps these days. Plus, it’s fun to highlight everywhere you’ve been, right?
Again, even if your engine never breaks down, you’ll still need a screwdriver or a wrench or two to fix little things that break around the house, from loose cabinets to sticky doors.
After all of that, there are certainly a ton of other things you could buy, and that many a vandweller swears are essential. Maxtraxx, a spare can of gasoline, a portable toilet…these are up to you. We get by without any of them.
A shovel often comes in handy though…
5. How to Make & Save Money
This is the big one. Many a traveler will simply sell everything they own and travel for as long as that lasts them. Some people will get tired of living in a van, and so this doesn’t matter. Many others will want to learn how to make some money while living.
Personally, I’m a web designer by trade, and it’s a perfect position for traveling. As long as there is an Internet connection, I’m golden (plus, I bring my own). You’d be surprised where the web extends these days, but even my reliance on the Internet doesn’t mean we never get to explore the more remote corners of nature.
James and Rachel of Idle.Theory.Bus make a living as migrant farm workers. The Van with No Plan (on Instagram) work odd jobs to fund their lifestyle as they go. We’ve met folks who sell art they find on the road, naturally do work that lends itself to travel (inspectors, oil workers, etc.) and others who trade stocks to fund their lives. Some people invest in property, which then becomes a passive source of income as they can not only rent it out, but have someone else manage it all for them as well.
You’re only limited by your own creativity. Happy trails and merry vanlife to you!
PS: Check out the “Related Posts” below for links to a plethora of additional resources on how to make and save money while traveling!