Van life is a counter-culture movement. Van living rejects the typical American dream of owning a large home with a white picket fence. Instead, it represents freedom. This minimalist lifestyle is gaining ground. In 2017, there were over 1.7 million mentions of van life. However, the reality is a far different experience than the glamorous posts you’ll find on your Insta feed.
The History of Van Life
Put simply, van life is living in your van. However, the lifestyle has little to do with the vehicle you reside in. It’s a way of life, with its own quirks and challenges.
The van life movement began with the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s. Volkswagon created the VW bus in 1947, but they didn’t become popular until the 60s.
VW buses were painted in psychedelic colors and the occupants took off down route 66. The design of the vehicle lent itself to such wild designs, with a bubble-shaped body and the steering wheel directly over the front tires.
They were also crucial to the 1970s. Disillusioned youth craved freedom and a way to escape the weight of the war and governmental control.
The van life movement continued to develop, drawing nomads who found a sense of community in the movement.
Vans played a part in the counter-culture movement of the 60s and 70s. In addition to those who enjoyed van living, they were used to transport people to concerts, protests, and other social gatherings.
Van dwelling faded for a few decades, relegated to an anti-establishment minority that went against the grain of mainstream America. Vans evoked feelings of nostalgia, and observers expected a hippie to jump out of the van long after the 60s had passed.
In the last few years, van life has been elevated. Increases in technology have made it possible to create a van with many of the comforts of home. Financial pressure has played a part in the resurgence as well. With home loans difficult to get and high rent prices, many people opt for a simpler and ultimately less expensive lifestyle.
Just like the van life movement of the 60s and 70s, today’s van dwellers have a different idea of success. Instead of climbing the corporate ladder, they aim to enjoy life. At its core, van life is about living.
Many van lifers find the phrase working to live instead of living to work very fitting, and pick up odd jobs when the cash runs low. In what could be called a workaholic culture where more is always better and office hours rarely stop, van life is a refreshing escape from the rat race.
Van lifers let go of all the shoulds that other people try to force on them. You should settle down. You should buy a home. You should get a “real” job. Instead, the goal of a van lifer is to find fulfillment in life by prioritizing what is most meaningful to them. Everything else gets left on the side of the road.
Types of Van Lifer
Van lifers are a diverse group of people from many different walks of life, and with many motivations for choosing van life. There are three basic types of van dweller.
Van dwellers include:
- Weekend warrior
The weekend warrior spends time living in a van, but has a conventional house where they spend the majority of their time. They may dwell in their van on weekends or road trips, but don’t live in their van full time.
- You can take overnight trips without worrying about a hotel room
- You can camp for a weekend
- You can get in your van and go whenever you want to get away from the 9-5 life
- You have to maintain conventional housing and your van
- You may find it difficult to return to 9-5 life
The nomad lifestyle is what people typically think of as van life. These people live in their van full time and move from place to place. Travel is a key part of life for them.
This type of van dwelling is what’s commonly depicted on Instagram and other social media sites. It’s the purest and free form of van life, but it comes with its own challenges.
Some nomads move from place to place quickly, while others may stay in an area for weeks or months.
- Seeing the world
- Each day is an adventure
- Meet lots of interesting people
- Difficult to form close friendships
- Limited career options
- You may crave a sense of familiarity
A resident van lifer lives in their van full time like a nomad. However, they live in one place permanently. What sets a nomad who lingers in an area from a resident is intention more than the length of stay.
A nomad comes to an area understanding they will be there temporarily. A resident puts down permanent roots. Their lives are similar to people who live in conventional housing in most ways. They simply live in a van instead of a home.
A resident can also take road trips like the weekend warrior, which is one of the perks of the resident lifestyle. You can go out into the unknown for a few days, while still being “home”.
- Easier to maintain employment
- Opportunity to form close friendships
- You learn the best places to meet your needs
- It’s the most inexpensive type of van living
- It lacks the adventure of constant travel
- You may feel tied down or overcome with wanderlust
Why Do People Choose Van Life?
Why would people willingly give up a comfortable home to live in a van? The specific reasons people choose van life are as numerous as the van lifers themselves. However, there are some commonly mentioned reasons for choosing this lifestyle.
Common reasons for choosing van life are:
- Saving money
- Personal growth
Sure, buying a van is an expense. A van conversion can also be pricey. However, used vans can be purchased very reasonably, and a DIY van conversion can save you some serious bucks.
Regardless of how much you spend on your van, it’s an investment. You won’t be paying rent or utilities any longer. There’s no need for two or three cars (each with a hefty loan payment every month).
If you decide van living is no longer for you, you can sell the van. Many people are pleasantly surprised to find the resell value holds up very well, particularly for converted vans.
This makes van living very economical. If saving money or getting out of debt is a goal, van living can help you get there.
Travel has numerous benefits. Many van lifers are full-time travelers, while others simply enjoy taking weekend trips. Van life makes traveling accessible if not essential.
The small space makes you want to go out and do things, instead of hanging out inside. The nomadic lifestyle can relieve stress, increase creativity, and gain a new perspective on life.
New experiences can actually help rewire your brain and increase positivity and satisfaction with life.
The truth is, most of us have had someone telling us what to do our entire lives. It starts with our well-intentioned parents, teachers, and other influential adults. Peers and media come next, giving you an alternate view of who and what you should be.
Then, you grow up. You’ve found freedom right? Not really. Now it’s your boss giving you orders. And the other influences never go away either.
Your friend gets a new car, so you need one too. Commercials and magazines tell you to lose weight, so you go on a diet. Your mom calls and asks when you are going to settle down and have kids, so that gets thrown into the influence stream as well.
The truth is that most of us spend so much time doing what we are told we should do that we have little idea what we actually want to do.
Van life brings freedom from the daily grind. You can do what you want, when you want. This allows you to discover what is truly important to you. It can also build a sense of confidence. You learn what makes you happy and what you truly desire in life. I promise, it’s not a bigger house or new shoes. This brings me to the next reason.
Minimalism is a growing movement and with good reason. Our society has grown to be very materialistic. Today’s homes are 3 times larger than they were 50 years ago. However, there’s also a booming storage industry. We have 3 times space, but 4-5 times the stuff.
Minimalism is about having more experiences with less stuff. It’s about maximizing and enjoying what you have instead of seeking the next big thing. Scientific studies show that purchasing an experience makes people happier than purchasing a product.
Studies on people who have won the lottery have similar results. Money used to buy things brings temporary happiness. After the excitement wears off, the happiness level drops to what it was pre-purchase, creating a cycle of compulsive consumerism.
Van dwelling leaves no room for excess possessions. You have what you need and nothing more. The space constraints force you to seriously consider what you have to have and what you can live without. Many people are surprised to find that less stuff can provide more happiness and gratitude.
Some people choose van life for personal growth. Minimalism, meeting people from different walks of life, and becoming self reliant all bring their own lessons.
It can help you figure out who you are, and without a doubt what you are capable of. The challenges of van life can make a boardroom meeting seem like a walk in the park.
The van lifestyle gives you lots of time to focus on dealing with your own stuff. Emotional issues, anxiety, bad habits, these are often ignored when you spend your days in the daily grind.
Step off the hamster wheel, and you’ll learn about yourself, others, and the world around you in ways you could never have imagined.
Choosing a Van
If you want to be a successful van dweller, you’ll need the right van. Which van is right for you will vary based on your personal wants, needs, and budget. A Mercedes Sprinter van is a favorite for van living, but it’s not within everyone’s price range.
Things to consider when choosing a van include:
- Gas mileage
- DIY conversion vs professional
Height is one of the key considerations when choosing a van. For most people, it comes down to a simple question. Do you want to be able to stand up in your van?
Taller vans provide the headroom you need to stand. If you plan to live in the van full time, this is the most practical option. If you are a weekend warrior, you may be able to get by with a shorter van.
A taller van does have its drawbacks. Price goes up and gas mileage goes down the taller you go.
How much room do you need? Again, weekend warriors can get by with less. If you are full-time van living, all of your possessions will be in your van.
You’ll also need to consider whether your van will have a shower, toilet, and stove. These amenities all require precious space. Some van lifers don’t want to live without them, while others enjoy the creativity not having them requires.
Lastly, you’ll need to consider the number of people in the van. Obviously, seats and seat belts are required for each van resident. They will also need a sleeping area and storage space for their belongings.
Do you plan to be a resident van dweller or a nomad? Resident van dwellers have more flexibility with gas mileage. If you are a nomad, you might want to make gas mileage a priority. The miles can add up quickly, particularly if you are on a limited income.
This depends on your goals and financial situation. Are you choosing van life as a way to pay off debt or save for a home? You’ll likely have a tighter budget than a retiree seeking to enjoy their golden years.
Your current financial situation will also be a determining factor in the type of van you can afford.
DIY vs Professional Conversion Van
DIY conversion is usually the least expensive and allows you to learn the inner workings of your van. If you aren’t mechanically inclined, professional conversion may be the way to go.
You can also purchase a van that has already been converted, which allows you to get started living the van life immediately.
Funding Van Life
Van life is economical once you have your van ready to go, but it’s not free. You’ll need some cash to fund your adventures.
When it comes to funding van life, there are a few options.
- Save and travel for a set amount of time
- Work from your van (digital nomad)
- Find seasonal work
- Maintain a 9-5
Save and Travel
This is the most romanticized way to live van life. You begin your new lifestyle with the cash you need to enjoy the adventure.
This gives you plenty of time to explore new places and complete freedom with your time. You have no one to answer to, and you can truly do what you want when you want.
Work From Your Van
The popularity of the work from home movement has made it possible to work on the road. If you can do your job on a laptop, you can fund your nomadic life from the relative comfort of your van.
This is a great way to sustain the lifestyle long-term. Van life is usually much cheaper than a traditional lifestyle once you have your van set up, so it’s a great way to save money while living the way you want.
Being a digital nomad offers lots of flexibility while allowing you to maintain a career. If you decide to leave van life, you won’t have to rethink your career choices either.
Find Seasonal Work
If your goal for van life is to meet lots of interesting people and have new experiences, consider seasonal work. You can try out different career options. The ability to travel means you can easily go where the work is, so you shouldn’t have a lack of opportunity.
The experience you gain from this option is worth much more than the pay you receive. You can find out what it’s like to be a bartender, a cashier, a waitress, or a farmworker. When you get tired of the area or the job, it’s time to move on to the next place.
There’s another advantage to seasonal work. It gives you something to do outside of your van. You may find that you look forward to heading to work. It gives you a change of environment. It also gives you the opportunity to make new friends. Nomadic life can get lonely, so this is something to consider.
Maintain a 9-5
If you plan to be a weekend warrior or resident van lifer, maintaining a 9-5 job becomes an option. Since you will be staying in one place for the majority of the time, you can work just like someone who has a typical home.
If your goal is minimalism or you want to save money by living in a van instead of a traditional home, this is a good option.
Many of the biggest questions about van life are the where to’s.
You will need to determine:
- Where to shower
- Where to use the toilet
- Where to eat
- Where to sleep
These are questions normal lifers rarely consider. As a van lifer, it’s important to answer them before you hit the road. Making these decisions now can save lots of stress and inconvenience when you are traveling.
Where to Shower
First, you’ll need to consider how important showering is to you. Do you need to shower every day or can you live with a few showers a week?
You’ll also need to think about how flexible you are and where you plan to spend most of your time. If you are in an urban area, there are lots of showering options.
A gym membership can be invaluable when you are on the road. Most gyms offer showers, and chains have facilities all over the country. This allows you to shower in nearly any city you find yourself in.
Truck stops are another option. They offer showers for a few dollars, and they can be found in any urban area or interstate exit.
Of course, installing a shower in your van is an option. You’ll need a water tank and a heating source, usually propane or electric for a full shower. You’ll also need the space to install it in your van.
If you are planning on off-the-grid living, you still have options. If you stay in a National park or a campground, you’ll have access to showers if you are in a developed campsite.
Free campsites don’t offer amenities. If you dream of being deep in a national forest with your van, you can always find a lake or a stream to shower in.
A portable shower is also an option. You’ll need a water source. This can be a stream or simply a bucket of water.
Where to Use the Toilet
Skipping showers is an option, but there’s no getting around this one. You’ll need to use the bathroom on a regular basis. If you are free camping, you have the option to go in the woods.
If you are at a developed campsite, you’ll have bathroom facilities. Where do you go when you are in an urban landscape or on the road?
Public restrooms are always an option. Most gas stations have restrooms. Some stores have closed restrooms due to Covid, however. Restaurants are another option. They are generally open to customers, so you might need to purchase a drink or a meal.
You can also put a toilet in your van. A composting toilet is one option. Most of these are installed in the van, and use plant matter or even earthworms to break down your business.
Some separate #1 from #2. Pee can be easily disposed of in a public toilet or the ground in the woods. Poop is composted. It still needs to be emptied every 1-3 weeks for most toilets, but it’s much more pleasant when it’s composted. It also takes up a lot less space, which means you have less to dispose of.
Portable toilets are another option. These have to be emptied every 1-2 days on average. You can carry them anywhere, so you aren’t limited to using the van. Some even come with bags, think poop scooper bags but heavy duty.
These options all involve emptying your own waste at some point, but when you gotta go you gotta go.
Where to Eat
Eating is another task that humans must perform at least a few times a day. If you are a weekend warrior, you may be comfortable eating out for your meals.
If you plan to live in your van full time, you may want to have some way to cook food. Who is living in your van is also a consideration. If you are single, eating out may be more cost-effective. When feeding a family, cooking meals becomes the best option financially.
There are several options, particularly if you have electricity in your van. An electric stove eye is portable, takes up a small amount of space, and doesn’t produce a lot of heat.
If convenience is your style, you might manage just fine with a microwave or a slow cooker. If you don’t have electricity, there are propane portable cooktops as well.
If you plan to free camp the majority of the time, a propane cooktop is a great choice. If you plan to stay at an RV park or a developed campground, you’ll have access to electricity.
You can install a drop-in cooktop. Some even come with a sink to maximize your space. There are also options that include an oven available for those hardcore bakers. However, you’ll be trading precious space for a cooking area.
Whatever cooking option you choose, remember that cooking generally requires food storage as well. Unless you plan on making frequent store trips, you’ll need a way to keep your food cold.
A 12-volt mini fridge is the best choice for most van lifers when it comes to refrigeration. Many will run off 120 AC current or 12 v DC current.
You can also choose a 3-way fridge. You can power it with propane, AC current, and DC current.
Where to Sleep
Sure, you are sleeping in your camper van, but where will you park it? As you can see, where you plan to spend the majority of your time will affect how you approach life’s other necessities. Most options for sleeping are either public lands or businesses.
Public land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Wildlife Management Area (WMA), and national and state parks usually allow free camping as long as there aren’t any no camping signs.
These areas also have developed campgrounds that provide amenities including showers and bathrooms.
Businesses that allow overnight parking are an option, particularly when you are traveling on the road. It’s not glamorous, but it will do in a pinch.
Most Walmarts allow overnight parking, and you have the luxury of a bathroom in the store. Other chains including Cracker Barrel, Cabelas, and Bass Pro Shops are also van life-friendly.
Truck stops are an option as well. Here you can refill your tank, get a meal, and a shower. You can even do your laundry. Of course, any parking lot is still a parking lot. The scenery is a concrete jungle and you’ll hear noise throughout the night.
Some RV parks allow vans. Each park has its own rules, and many parks change the requirements based on the season. They may allow a camper van in the winter, but not in the summer.
Van Life FAQs
Should you do van life?
Van life is an incredible experience, but it isn’t for everyone. You can find checklists and questions to ask yourself. They can tell you if you are suited to van life. However, they miss out on a fundamental piece of the equation. Humans are extremely adaptable, and the real requirement for van life is a desire to do it.
The truth is it doesn’t matter if you are comfortable going days without showering or peeing in the woods. If van life is what you want, you’ll adapt to any challenges put in front of you. It is important to understand the reality of van life, and how different it is from the Instagram carefully curated idea of the lifestyle. At the end of the day, you are the only one who can answer the question “Should you do van life?”
What to know before living in a van?
It’s wise to think about potential problems and solutions before you hit the road. Where will you sleep? What happens if you get a flat? What happens when you can’t find an open camping spot? Beyond knowing how you’ll handle day-to-day necessities, you should know that van life is hard but rewarding. You’ll need to set your expectations aside, because van life will surprise you.
Can you live in a van full time?
Of course. Many people do. It depends on how your van is set up, and how comfortable you are with the amenities you have and the van lifestyle. As I mentioned before, if you want to live in a van, it is doable.
How do you keep your van cool?
The simplest way to keep your van cool is to install one or two ceiling fans. You can also open doors and windows. Air conditioning units require a lot of power, so they aren’t feasible for most van lifers. You can pick up an electric personal AC.
These use ice cubes or water to cool down the air. They won’t cool the entire van, but they can make the area where you are more comfortable. Since you are mobile, you can also travel to cooler weather.
Why is van life so popular?
There are many reasons for the popularity of van life. It allows you to travel relatively inexpensively and conveniently. Off-the-grid living is becoming more popular, and a van is a great sustainable way to stay off the grid the majority of the time if you free camp.
It’s also part of a greater societal trend. Our society has took materialism to it’s natural conclusion. Having found that more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness, many people are living a more minimalist lifestyle. Housing prices likely play a role as well.
The cost of maintaining a traditional lifestyle continue to rise. Many people are deciding they want to work less and live more, and van life is a great way to do so.
Where can you legally sleep in a van?
Some areas have ordinances prohibiting sleeping in a vehicle overnight at a business, so you’ll need to know the laws where you are planning to park. If there’s no city ordinance, you can legally park at any business that allows you to do so.
Public lands, including national parks and BLM areas, legally allow camping in areas where there are not any no camping signs. Developed camping areas, truck stops, and rv parks are legal places to park overnight as well.
You aren’t legally allowed to park on city streets or private property. Generally, overnight parking isn’t allowed at rest stops.
What do you use as your permanent address?
You have a few options for a permeant address. If you plan on spending most of your time in one state, it’s wise to have your address in that state. If you move from state to state in your travels, you can choose the state that provides the most benefit to you.
You can’t use a post office box for your address. However, a mail forwarding address will work for most situations, and the service is inexpensive. They can provide you with an online mailbox and forward mail and packages.
The downside to this is that you can’t use a mail forwarding address to open a bank account. You can use a next of kin address. You may find it beneficial to live with a family member legally speaking for address purposes. However, your income may be included if they apply for government assistance, because you are legally part of their household.
What’s the best part about living this lifestyle?
The best part of the lifestyle is the freedom it provides. You have nothing to tie you down to an area. No one to answer to. No obligations outside of maintaining your van and the finances needed to do so. You can wake up and hit the road, going to another state or area.
You’ll form very close relationships as well. Road life has a way of stripping away what’s not necessary. This includes being overly concerned with what others think of you. This means that you’ll form close relationships with others, particularly other travellers, very quickly.