Van Life: 13 Good, Bad & Strange Realities of Living in a Van

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

White conversion van for van life in front of a mountain range in Death Valley, California

Van Life: Realities of Living in a Van (+ Cost, Conversions, Packing List, YouTube & More)

 

During my six years of on-again-off-again van life in my 2005 Chevy Astro, I’ve ventured down countless roads in search of riveting and unconventional experiences.

I’ve bumped down rutted-out backcountry trails, cruised across barren deserts, navigated congested city streets, flown through miles of endless plains, and hopped aboard ferries to remote islands.

I’ve slept at the base of staggering mountain ranges, set up shop in casino parking lots, fallen asleep to the roar of raging rivers, hunkered down in notorious neighborhoods, and have been woken by the knock of skeptical police officers.

Sometimes life in a van feels liberating and exhilarating. Sometimes it feels cramped, uncertain, and exhausting. Sometimes it feels downright strange. Van life is a wild ride, to say the least.

I created from my own vivid experiences to give you an honest, no-BS glimpse into the realities of living in a van – the good, the bad, and everything in between. Why? Because you deserve an unfiltered glimpse at the intoxicating and unpredictable world of van life.

I’ve also included some helpful van life resources, including the cost of living in a van, helpful van conversion guides, the best types of vans to live in, entertaining van life YouTube Channels, essential gear for van living, and more.

Ready to learn a bit more about the unconventional movement that is van life? Let’s get started.

Van Life: The Good

A converted camper van in front of the San Juan Mountains near Ridgway, Colorado

Van life can lead you to incredible destinations (Ridgway, Colorado)

 

Van life is a rapidly blossoming movement that’s showing zero signs of slowing down. For many, especially those with an unstoppable urge to move, the minimalism and portability van life offers suits their desires far more than living in a conventional home or traveling about the old-fashioned way. So, what exactly is so great about this vagabond lifestyle? Let’s get into it.

Van Life Encourages a Life of Travel & Freedom

When your entire existence becomes mobile at the turn of a key, you’re able to travel wherever you want, whenever you please. Eager to escape an impending harsh winter? Itching to visit an old friend across the country? Is life simply getting stale?

Just fire up your van and start driving. That’s all it takes to break free and transport your entire existence somewhere completely new and exhilarating.

Living in a Van Full-Time Means a Lower Cost of Living

In 2017, I sublet my apartment and moved into my van for the summer. As a result, I no longer had a $900 rent payment, and my $150 utility bill became a thing of the past. By making a simple yet significant lifestyle change, I was saving roughly $1,050 a month, or $12,600 over the course of a year.

Sure, I smelled a little ripe at times and had to pee into a bucket on occasion, but I was saving crazy money for a guy my age. The trade-off was a no-brainer.

I used my excess money to pay off debt, invest, save for travel, quit my job, and start a profitable travel blog, which was way more rewarding than staying in my apartment and paying off my landlord’s mortgage month after month.

Traveling in a Van Means Taking More Affordable Trips

Buying a plane ticket across the country often costs less than driving the same miles in your van, but what about your cost of living after you’ve arrived at your destination?

The truth is, driving a converted van stocked with everything you need can be far more affordable than traveling via airplane, car, bus, or train. Here’s why:

  • You won’t have to pay for hotels, hostels, AirBnbs, or homestays once you arrive at your destination
  • You won’t need to rent a car, use Uber, or take public transportation to explore your destination
  • You’ll save big money by cooking meals in your van’s kitchen instead of eating out at restaurants

Everything You Need is at Your Fingertips

When your van is fully stocked and ready to go, there’ll be no need to spend hours rummaging through your closet, garage, crawl space, or attic as you pack for your trip.

And, much like a tiny home, vans are compact, which means when you need something, it’ll only be a few steps away. All of your van life essentials will be there within reach when you need them, 100% of the time.

Van Life Teaches You to Live with Less

Returning back to my apartment after a long trip in my van always elicits the same reaction:

Why do I need all of this stuff?! I lived a very comfortable life in the van without it all. These &$*#ing possessions do nothing but hold me back! 

Living a minimalist life in a van will no doubt help you reanalyze which belonging you really need. Existing happily in a small space with very few possessions will affirm the beauty and efficiency of living with less and teach you that every item you bring into your life should have undeniable meaning and purpose.

Van Life: The Bad

Orange camper van that has slid into a ditch on a dirt road

Van life can morph from a dream into a disaster at a moment’s notice

 

While I love van life unconditionally, it definitely has its frustrating downsides, which occasionally make me yearn for an apartment. Or a hotel. Or a hostel. Or anywhere with a roof.

But if you’re patient, prepared, and roll with the punches, the ‘bad’ aspects of van living shouldn’t be much of an issue in the grand scheme of things.

Finding Somewhere to Park at Night isn’t Always Easy

Whether you park along a congested and noisy street, in a seedy neighborhood with gunshots echoing in the distance, or somewhere you’re simply not supposed to be, you’ll learn a valuable lesson each time you park your van in the wrong spot.

City parking during van life is usually tricky, which is why I choose to spend the majority of my time parked outside of cities.

I opt for bumpy backcountry dirt roads, free dispersed campgrounds, and wide-open BLM areas. I’d rather feel confident about where I’m parked for the night than feel uncertain about what’s to come when I lay my head down.

If you do opt to park within cities, keep the following in mind:

Parking Spots to Avoid

  • Noisy/sketchy neighborhoods
  • Private parking lots
  • Slanted terrain
  • In front of private residences

Parking Spots to Seek Out

  • Quiet streets that allow overnight parking
  • Hotel, apartment & gym parking lots
  • Street parking next to closed businesses
  • Driveways, curbsides of friends/family

Vans Require Constant Maintenance & Have Other Unique Expenses

What happens to your cute little travel plans if your van’s engine blows? What if your alternator dies or your fuel pump goes out? What if your front differential craps out while you’re driving, like mine did on me?

Expensive, time-consuming repairs like these will put your van out of commission, rendering you immobile and forcing you into a costly hotel while you await repairs. So, prepare yourself financially for maintenance, repairs, and all the lovely unexpected expenses associated with your van by setting aside a small amount of money every month into a van maintenance fund.

Also, if you want to travel across water, know that shipping your van overseas is always expensive and can be logistically exhausting, which is a financial deal-breaker for many.

Privacy is Non-Existent for Van Life Couples

You can kiss your precious alone time goodbye the moment you decide to move into a van with your significant other. There’s no way around it.

My girlfriend, Keri, and I are both introverts and must have plentiful alone time to recharge. Finding this time gets tricky when we’re living in 24 square feet for 24 hours a day together. Trust me.

To cope with our cramped lifestyle, we frequently explore destinations separately, communicate with each other about alone time, and do our best to live life outside the van as much as possible.

Van Life is Not Always Glamorous (No Matter What You See on Instagram)

The dreamy depictions of spotless vans, couples living in perfect harmony, and picturesque landscapes waiting outside every window aren’t a realistic vision of everyday van life. Far from it, actually.

Yes, these magical moments happen on occasion, but so do all the uncomfortable, unflattering, and unbearable moments. Vans get messy, disorganized, and break down. Couples, sharing a small space, butt heads more often than they would at home. Weather, traffic, and parking rules can make life in a van feel stressful and uncertain.

Van life is not all sunshine and rainbows, no matter what you see on social media.

Van Life: The Strange

White camper van parked in parking lot near Needles in Canyonlands, Utah

Living and traveling in a van may be an odd adjustment for some

 

Van life is unconventional, which means the people you meet on the road and your everyday experiences may get quite a bit quirky from time to time. Do you value privacy while you sleep? Do you obsess over your personal hygiene? What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?

Prepare to confront these questions head-on on a daily basis if you decide to convert to van life. Because life on four wheels can get a little unusual from time to time, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

You’ll Never Really Know Who Your Neighbors Are

Once you park your van in an unfamiliar place, there’s no way of knowing who might stay the night next to you or drift around in your direct vicinity. There are bound to be others living the mobile lifestyle, just as you are, and you’ll bump into them frequently.

I’ve met plenty of oddballs, transients, lost souls, drug addicts, and other eccentrics during my adventures in my van and have heard plenty more passing by outside my window. Thankfully, everyone I’ve met along the way has had good intentions and was completely harmless.

But you never know just who you’ll meet next.

Modern Comforts Become More of a Luxury than a Reality

When leaving behind a conventional home in favor of a van, you’ll likely have to say goodbye to a handful of the modern comforts you’ve likely been taking for granted your entire life.

Do you enjoy having an endless supply of running water? How about taking a long, hot shower whenever you’d like? Do you appreciate having an oven, a dishwasher, a full-size refrigerator, and a kitchen you can walk around in? What about couches to relax on and doors you can shut for privacy?

Most of us living in developed countries are lucky enough to have access to these comforts, and I feel grateful every day that we do. But when you move into a van, you’re actively sacrificing many of these amenities, which may be a strange and uncomfortable adjustment for some.

But if you can make the change and learn to live with less, it will lead way to a very humbling, appreciative, and powerful new approach to life.

Midnight Mystery Knocks are a Thing

Knock, knock, knock.

It’s 3:00 am and someone outside your van doesn’t care if you’re fast asleep. They want to speak with you immediately, in spite of how terrifyingly inconvenient it is for you.

But we van dwellers relish life in the grey area, and uncomfortable realities like this come with the territory. Sometimes we park in places we think we’re allowed and sometimes we park in places we know we’re not supposed to be. Most of the time we slip through the cracks, but once in a while, we get discovered. That’s when midnight knocks happen and things get awkward.

Usually, it’s just a cop or a security guard telling you to find somewhere else to park, but regardless of who knocks or when these knocks happen, it’s good to have a nice shiny excuse ready at a moment’s notice.

Personal Hygiene Can Get a Bit Sticky

Unless your van is equipped with a shower, sink, and on-demand hot water, your personal hygiene standards are going to take a bit of a dive. When van dwelling, one must get creative when it comes to keeping clean. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though; it’s just part of the lifestyle.

Here are a few ideas to stay clean as you travel:

  • Spring for the occasional hotel room
  • Use truck stop and/or travel center paid showers
  • Join a gym with widespread locations
  • Use a camp shower to bathe outside (LNT)
  • Take dips in oceans, rivers, lakes (no soap)

I’ve gone long periods of time between showers when living the van life and will do so in the future. This never affects my happiness on the road, though, no matter how pungent my aroma becomes or how out-of-control my beard becomes. It’s simply easier to succumb to adjust your expectations than to try and stay squeaky clean at all times.

Van Life Essentials

Curious about what exactly you’ll need to properly stock a van?

Much like ultralight backpackers or minimalist travelers, van lifers should set themselves up for success on the road with an efficient set of gear. The stuff you bring along matters and has the power to enhance your journey if chosen thoughtfully.

Check out my van life essentials post for the exact gear I recommend when outfitting a rig, or scroll through the products I recommend below. You just might find a game-changing piece of gear or two that’ll elevate your van to the next level.

Click here to view my van essentials packing list post.

The Cost of Living in a Van

Man cooking a meal on a two-burner stove inside his converted camper van

Cook your own meals during van life and you’ll save big by avoiding restaurants

 

Is van life affordable? Is it expensive? How much does living in a van cost, exactly?

The answers to those questions aren’t so cut-and-dry, as your expenses depend on your financial situation, style of travel, and spending habits.

Here are a few factors to keep in mind when calculating your personal cost of living in a van:

  • Do you have a monthly payment on your van?
  • What gas mileage does your van get? What’s the current cost of gas?
  • How much distance do you plan on driving every day?
  • What can you expect to spend on van repairs and maintenance?
  • Will you pay to park or seek out free areas?
  • How much will your food, supplies, and entertainment cost per day?

What I Spend When Living in a Van

If I move at a very slow pace, cook all my own meals, and sleep in my van every single night, I can pull off van living for around $600 a month. Yes, that’s a very low cost of living, but it’s also quite bare-bones and restrictive.

On the other hand, if I want to cover big miles, stay in a hotel whenever the mood strikes, and regularly eat at restaurants, I could run my expenses up to $2,500 a month or more. Spending like this really isn’t my style, though, and wouldn’t be very sustainable either.

Typically, my van lifestyle and associated costs fall somewhere in the middle and I end up spending between $1,000 and $1,500 per month. Not a bad price to pay considering van life is about as liberating and spontaneous as it gets.

Helpful Van Conversions Guides

White camper van with back doors open while building drawers during van life conversion

Building a new bed platform with drawers below inside Ol’ Champ

 

Buying a van and converting it yourself will give you the opportunity to customize your rig to your exact preferences. Doing so is usually more affordable and rewarding than buying an already-converted van, as well. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that converting a van can be time-consuming and could get quite frustrating if you don’t have any experience. You’ll need a wide range of tools, a bunch of free time, and loads of patience.

I didn’t properly document the conversion of my van, so here’s a list of some of my favorite van conversion resources out there if you’d like to learn more about the entire process, from start to finish.

  • The Vanual – clean, step-by-step minimalist guide made by and for first-time van converters
  • Gnomad Home – extremely in-depth van conversion guide that leaves no stone unturned
  • Parked in Paradise – robust list of posts detailing entire conversion process top-to-bottom
  • Far Out Ride – dozens of links to product reviews for vital van life essentials in a DIY van build
  • Exploring Alternatives – step-by-step video journal of a custom build of a 2015 Ford Transit

Best Vans to Live in

Mercedes Sprinter van in a meadow campsite before sunset with the moon in the sky

The Mercedes Sprinter is arguably the best (and most expensive!) van to convert

 

If you’re considering van life, but don’t know which van to start your journey in, you’re not alone. Choosing the right rig is stressful and won’t be easy, but the good news is that there are plenty of great options on the market.

Above all else, spend your hard-earned money on a van that’s in great shape mechanically and isn’t likely to need major maintenance right away. Found your dream van? Great! Now, take it in to a trusted mechanic for a top-to-bottom inspection before you rush to the bank and make a huge purchase.

Here are some of the best types of vans to live in on the market:

  • Mercedes Sprinter – powerful, fuel-efficient, reliable, customizable, expensive
  • Ford Transit – variety of sizes and models, gas or diesel, mediocre reliability ratings
  • RAM Promaster – affordable to repair, adaptable, low-profile, low reliability ratings
  • Chevy Astro Van – AWD, great budget option, reliable, low roof, discontinued in 2005
  • VW Westfalia – classic, already converted, holds value well, not very powerful, expensive
  • Ford Econoline – great budget option, affordable to repair, stealth, low roof, low safety ratings
  • GMC Savana – lots of options/upgrades, stealth, affordable to repair, low roof

Valuable Van Life YouTube Channels

Van dwellers have taken over YouTube. Why? Because van life is liberating, exhilarating, and travel-centric. Outdated housing norms simply don’t work for these folks, and they want to share their forward-thinking way of living with the world.

Check out some of my favorite van dwelling YouTubers below, and get those inspirational juices flowing. Their candid videos always get me fired up and chomping at the bit to get on the road.

  • Let’s Be Us – Young couple with a dog working and traveling full-time in their Sprinter
  • Camping With Steve – Known as the Bob Ross of stealth camping, but not a full-time van lifer
  • FLORB – Fun channel highlighting not only vans but all different types of alternate living
  • Jennelle Eliana – Eccentric 20-something traveling with her snake in a GMC Vandura Explorer
  • Kombi Life – Couple with a dog adventuring around the world in a 1970’s VW Combi
  • The Indy Projects – British van lifers who travel with their cat and recently built a tiny home

Van Life Packing List

Now, for one last van life resource to help you live your best life on the road.

Whether you’re just curious about starting a van life of your own or you’re a seasoned veteran with thousands of miles under your belt, a solid packing list is a great tool to have in your arsenal. Here’s the exact checklist I use to get ready for every trip I take in the van, no matter how long or short it may be.

Click the + sign to expand each category, and check off the boxes as you pack your van the right way.

Security & Safety

Fire Extinguisher

Roadside Emergency Kit

GPS Tracker

Fire Alarm/CO Detector

Pepper Spray

Electronics

Cell Phone

Car Charger

Charging Cables

Battery Bank

Lantern/Light

Head Lamp

Bluetooth Speaker

Computer

External Hard Drive

WiFi Strengthener

Camera

Camera Lenses

Headphones

Extra Batteries

Kitchen

Cups

Mugs

Plates

Bowls

Silverware

Knife

Cutting Board

Scissors

Spatula

Bottle Opener

Strainer

Tongs

Pot

Pan

Stove

Water Boiler

Coffee Maker

Thermos

Spices

Cooking Oil

Sponges

Cooler/Refrigerator

Fuel

Food

Drinks

Coffee/Tea

Ice

Clothing

T-Shirts

Long Sleeve Shirts

Button-Up Shirts

Tank Tops

Sweater

Sweatshirt

Rain Jacket

Light Jacket

Winter Jacket

Pants

Jeans

Belt

 Shorts

Athletic Shorts

Skirts/Dresses

Bathing Suit

Underwear

Long Underwear

Socks

Shoes

Sandals

Hiking Boots

Baseball Hat

Winter Hat

Gloves

Sunglasses

Wallet

Laundry

Soap/Laundry Detergent

Laundry Bag

Wash Bag

Clothing Line

Safety Pins

Toiletries

Toiletries Bag

Soap

Shampoo

Conditioner

Hair-Styling Product

Toothbrush

Toothpaste

Deodorant

Bug Spray

Dental Floss

Glasses

Contacts

Contact Solution/Case

Ear Cleaner/Swabs

Ear Plugs

Razor

Nail Clippers

Tweezers

Advil/Aspirin

Sleep Aid

Multivitamins

Medication

Hair Dryer

Makeup

Entertainment

Frisbee

Playing Cards

Hammock

Sporting Equipment

Backpacking Equipment

Games

Books

Journal/Pen

Bedding

Sheets

Blankets

Comforter

Pillows

Pillow Cases

Mattress Pad

Bags

Backpack

Daypack

Packing Cubes

Purse

Wine Bag

Reusable Grocery Bags

Miscellaneous

Folding Table

Camping Chairs

Camping Shower

Tool Set

Toilet

Heater

Water Filter

Water Storage

Vacuum

First Aid Kit

Wet Wipes

Tissues

Toilet Paper

Garbage Bags

 Towels

Hand Towels

Lighter/Matches

Umbrella

Axe/Hatchet

Shovel

Windshield Scraper

Documents

Passport

ID Cards

Medical Insurance

Itinerary

Car Registration

Car Insurance

Van Life: Is Living in a Van Right for You?

A white camper van in a BLM desert campsite in Southern Arizona during van life

Van life works for me, but will it work for you?

 

Now that you’ve made it this far, what are your thoughts on van life? Are you ready to buy a rig of your own, pack it full of gear, and hit the open road? Are you willing to embrace an unconventional lifestyle and live out some good, bad, and strange moments of your own?

Or does van life seem a little bit too unorthodox for your taste? Does the uncertainty of life on the road give you pause? Does buying and converting a van sound like too much work and money? Are you satisfied with your stable life with a roof, a few doors, and an address?

Whether you’re all-in on van life or you know it’s a lifestyle change you’ll never make, I understand. Living and traveling in a van only works for a certain type of person. It’s definitely not a lifestyle that’s compatible with all of us. Why should it be?

Yes, van life doesn’t work for everyone, but it sure as hell works for me.

More Van Life & Travel Resources

Do you have any experience living or traveling in a van? Have you ever had a midnight knock? What’s your top bucket list van life destination? What are some of your favorite pieces of van gear? Leave me some feedback by dropping a comment below!

2 Comments

  1. Very useful and often surprising information and tips, Noel. Thanks for sharing. I think I’d love van life, but I know my wife doesn’t, so it won’t happen. Still nice to learn and dream. The most surprising bits to me were for how little money you can have van life, despite the fact that flying is often cheaper than taking the van, until you’re at the destination; how getting alone time becomes really important, and those midnight knocks on the door and some strange neighbours at times. As usual – and I would expect no less – the advice on gear is helpful.

    1. Stefan! Good to hear from you again. Yes, van life is not for everyone, especially if the van isn’t optimized for the van-dweller (or their significant other). But who knows? If you could optimize a van perfectly for you and your wife, she might come around. There are some insanely comfortable conversions out there that could win her over! I’m still in the process of re-converting my van because I’ve learned over the miles that comfort is key when traveling about. Thanks for replying, Stefan. Any big travels on the horizon?

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