Instagram does a fine job of making #vanlife and van living look like the best idea you’ve ever had. Perfect looking couples looking out the back doors of perfectly designed Sprinter vans, with the mountains as their backdrop and the desert as their playground. Who wouldn’t want that life?
Like so many aspects of social media, life in a hundred little squares looks a lot better in pixels than it does on paper.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love living in my van. My husband, border collie Nala, and I have been stationed in Salt Lake City in our converted Ram Promaster for five months now, and we’ll easily be living this lifestyle for years to come.
But, there are some things to consider before selling all your possessions and committing yourself to van living.
6 Things I’ve Learned From Five Months of Van Living
Living in a van is similar to a long-term, committed relationship—giving and taking go a long way in terms of happiness and sanity. And like a long-term relationship, there are days when you want to throw your 50 belongings out the window and never look back. Other days you can’t imagine doing anything else.
1. Living in a Van Means Freedom—Most of the Time
One of the best things about living in our van is the ability to pick up and go whenever we want, wherever we want. We don’t need to pack, or go grocery shopping, or clean the camp bin after the BBQ sauce has exploded everywhere before or after each trip. That freedom allows us to explore the long dirt roads and incredible sights of the west—only when it works in our budget.
While our van gets roughly 16 mpg (far better than many older versions), it still isn’t cheap to fill the tank. So long weekends to faraway places can run anywhere between $100-$300. We’re currently weekend warriors, and taking three to four trips a month definitely adds up. On a budget, this is harder to do, even though mobility is what living in a van is all about.
2. You Need to Adjust to Small Spaces
Our living space in the van measures roughly 8’x6’, for a total of 48 square feet. Add in the bed, countertops, and bench seating, and the distance we have to move around is less than ten square feet, which doesn’t feel spacious when two of you try to cook dinner after a long day at work.
The benefit of such a small space? Almost everything we need is within reach. I can sit at the table and grab a snack, a fork, my laptop, a sweatshirt, a blanket, the salt, all without getting out of my chair.
3. Van Living Includes Lots of Uncertainty
Van living can totally make you feel like a modern day explorer, but it has definitely lead to some tense moments as well. I remember one of our first outings in the van in Mount Hood National Forest. Because so many free campsites are touted across the social media world, we thought finding a place to stay for the night would be easy. We were wrong. We wandered down roads that turned residential and county roads that were narrow with no pullouts. We didn’t know how or where we would find a place to stay for the night.
If you’re jumping into van living, there will be many of those situations even if you plan for everything. We’ve started doing more research before heading to a new area, but we never know if plans will work out. Being ready to roll with the punches is a virtue of van living.
4. There Will Be Never-ending Downsizing
When we finally decided to move into our van, we donated, sold, and gave away about 80% of our belongings. Truthfully, this was one of the hardest and most rewarding things we’ve ever done. I no longer know what we gave away and it’s freeing.
But choosing what stays and what goes is emotionally exhausting. I attached so much value to stuff I owned, and parting with pieces of clothing, or kitchen items we received as wedding gifts felt like a betrayal.
Once we pared down our belongings and moved into our van, we were overwhelmed. We still had so much stuff. So we donated more stuff. And once that stuff was gone and we started organizing, we donated even more stuff. In the first two weeks of living in the van full-time, we donated four totes of stuff that had to go. Even now, we donate at least a small grocery bag each month.
5. Organization is Key to a Smooth Trip
This may be one of the greatest mysteries of van living (at least for myself)—it’s possible to lose something for days, or even weeks in the van. We’ve made a significant effort to create a designated space for every item we own, but sometimes we misplace something or are too lazy to return an item to its home, and just like that, it’s gone forever.
We’ve torn the van apart looking for gear or misplaced bowls. Recently, my husband couldn’t find his ski pants. We took everything out of our “garage” and still weren’t able to find them. In fact, I think they’re still M.I.A., even though there’s literally nowhere else they could be.
Our van is the washing machine sock monster, proving to us we don’t actually need even the few things we thought were worth keeping.
6. Van Living Offers Simplicity and (Eventual) Ease
Our life is the simplest it’s ever been. We cook all our food on a Camp Chef Everest Mountain Series camp stove, and each morning I enjoy my coffee with a touch of camp flare.
I no longer accidentally spend $100 at Target or buy extra pieces of clothing at REI because they’re such a great deal. And if I do, I donate a piece of clothing I already have to strike a balance. We don’t have anything hanging on our walls beside a Renan Ozturk painting of Meru and an “I Voted” sticker.
In our van, we have everything we need. Our clothes, our gear, our food, our dog, and each other. I know. It’s cheesy, but it’s so true. We have everything we need right here, with us, in our little traveling home. And that’s pretty special.