Last Updated on October 26, 2022
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. It has been 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 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.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- The Good
- The Bad
- The Strange
- Essential Van Life Gear
- Cost of Living in a Van
- Helpful Van Conversion Guides
- Best Vans to Live in
- Van Life YouTube Channels
- Packing List for Van Life
- Final Thoughts on Van Life
- More Van Life & Travel Resources
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 of a life on the go 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.
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 is usually tricky, which is why I choose to spend only part of my time in cities, and the rest out in mother nature.
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 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 apart, 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 Social Media)
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.
Social media doesn’t portray an accurate representation of van life.
This way of life is unconventional, which means the people you meet living 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, 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 camper 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 living on the road, though, no matter how pungent my aroma becomes or how out-of-control my beard becomes. It’s simply easier to adjust your expectations than to try and stay squeaky clean at all times.
Curious about what exactly you’ll need to properly stock a camper van?
Much like ultralight backpackers or minimalist travelers, van dwellers should set themselves up for success before they hit 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.
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 associated costs of van dwelling 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.
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 camper 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 essentials in a DIY van build
- Exploring Alternatives – step-by-step video journal of a custom build of a 2015 Ford Transit
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 camper 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 Van – 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
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 live free and hit the road.
- Let’s Be Us – Young couple with a dog working and traveling full-time in their Sprinter van
- Camping With Steve – Known as the Bob Ross of stealth camping, but only part time
- 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
Now, for one last 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.
Roadside Emergency Kit
Fire Alarm/CO Detector
External Hard Drive
Long Sleeve Shirts
Reusable Grocery Bags
First Aid Kit
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 this vagabond seem a little bit too unorthodox for your taste? Does the uncertainty of hitting the road and living on the fly 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 camper van only works for a certain type of traveler. 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.
- Van Life Essentials: Best Gadgets, Gear & Accessories
- Road Trip Essentials: Interactive Packing List + Must-Haves
- The Ideal Colorado Road Trip Itinerary (Ideas, Costs + Map)
- Carry-On Packing List: Pack Light, Travel Right
- Travel Savings 101: How I Stashed Money to Travel Indefinitely
- How to Start a Travel Blog: Travel, Create (& Get Paid)
Do you have any experience living or traveling in a camper van? Have you ever had a midnight knock? Where’s the sketchiest place you’ve ever parked your van? What are some of your favorite pieces of van gear? Leave me some feedback by dropping a comment below!
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.
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?
I realize that living in a van would get hard at times, but I have wanted to live in a van for quite some time. It just seems so freeing to be able to constantly travel. Employment would be hard if one was completely nomadic, but luckily their are remotes jobs becoming more available all the time.
This was a great review of the realities of living in a van. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for your input, Wayne! Living in a van is tough, but the freedom it offers makes it well worth the drastic change of lifestyle. Thankfully, remote work is becoming more and more of a reality these days, which has lead to the intense rise of van lifers on the road. I hope you try out the van life someday! I think you might dig it.
Ford transit 150 cargo van that has been converted. I’m a full-time van dweller but I do not travel very often. I choose to explorer small towns hang out on the outskirts of them or the Walmart parking lot shower Anytime Fitness every other day and spend my time at a country church that is very active. I make one or two longer trips every year mainly going back and forth between Florida and Michigan. Living in my van has given me the happiness, safety and security that I am comfortable with. If I have any regret it’s that I didn’t do this sooner I will be 69 in May. This lifestyle has also taught me a lot about minimalism and the waste that our society produces. Nearly every single week I have gathered up a shopping bag full of things that I either don’t use don’t need or have decided it’s time to pass on to someone else. Van life is also helped me get healthier. I’ve lost weight exercise more eat better and lowered my cholesterol and blood pressure. I have no pets and no companion. I also have very few conveniences in my van. I have no tanks , refrigeration, sink, shower or heater.
I can’t imagine moving into a traditional sticks and bricks.
What an incredible story, Suzann! It warms my heart every time I hear about how van life has changed someone’s life. It sounds like you’ve made things about as minimalist and simple as possible, which we could all learn from. I’m actively trying to shed as many of my possessions as I can, so one day I can fit them all inside my van. I’m not there yet, but people like you inspire me to keep at it. The changes van life has had on your physical and mental health are incredible. If only other Americans could realize that less is more in this wild world. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Suzann, and happy traveling!
I’m a college student with an ITCH I cannot seem to scratch to get out there and see everything I can. It’s almost suffocating for me to be in the same place too long. I’m hoping to use my last two years in school to prepare so that once I graduate I can hit the road ASAP and work as a freelance writer from my future van. It’s been the only thing I can see myself doing for a long time now but I never knew where to start. Reading this has made it seem much less overwhelming and far more doable! Thanks for the honest, instagram filter-free info and I can’t wait to get started!