What Life in a Van is Really Like
In the age of social media it can be hard to know what's reality and what's not. People love to rant about how fake everything is on platforms like Instagram, but of course, that's not necessarily true. Some people really do lead charmed lives, some people really do spend most of their time outside doing amazing things, and some people really do travel around the world for work. Lately, it seems like the authenticity of #vanlife has been called into question and lambasted by many as a ploy to sell a falsely beautiful and carefree lifestyle in which people pull their vans onto beaches to enjoy campfires and lay in bed naked gazing out their back doors at magnificent mountain vistas. After living in our van for a year I'm going to give you the scoop on what (our) life in a van is really like.
Sometimes Messy, Sometimes Clean
Most vanlife photos don't show just how messy living in a van can be. When you live in a van and therefore have way less stuff than most people, it seems like you should be able to keep things nice and tidy but the opposite is often true. It's crazy how quickly our van turns into a disaster zone and since we have such little floor space it rapidly gets to the point where it's difficult to even move around. The flip side though is that it doesn't take much time to clean up such a small space and I hate it when the van is a mess, so I clean on a very regular basis. If the van gets that crazy though, why don't we have more photos of our van looking messy on our Instagram? Well, Justin (and my family) will be the first to tell you that I can be pretty obsessive about cleaning and when we entertain (which we did frequently in our house) I want everything to be PERFECT. I'm the kind of person who's in the front yard trimming extra-long blades of grass with scissors and who light candles in the bathroom before guests arrive. When I post a photo of our van to Instagram, to me it's no different than inviting you over to my home and I wouldn't leave my house a disaster for that, so why would I when I make a post? Not long ago someone left a comment on one of our photos that said, "FAKE! No one's van is that clean." I didn't respond but what I wanted to say is that we shouldn't be too quick to judge what is or isn't someone's reality.
Living in a van can be downright challenging. We've found that there are a lot of extra things you have to think about, like where we're going to empty trash and recycle, where to get clean water, where to empty grey water, where to park each night, where to stay when our home is in the shop, where to shower etc. There are also extra things to do, like laundry at a laundromat and more frequent grocery shopping because we don't have a standard sized fridge or full on pantry. We've also had to deal with weather extremes, from snow and temps down to 14F (-10C) inside the van because we couldn't run our heater due to endless cloudy days with no solar charge for our battery, to days hitting 101F (38C) in which we lay limply under our fan drenched in sweat.
Yet despite the challenges, there's also a real element of freedom. You're not stuck in a specific place where you happened to buy a house. Instead, you get to take your house everywhere and that's a beautiful thing. There's also no yard maintenance, no shoveling your sidewalk, no putting out trash cans, and all that kind of rental/homeowner stuff.
There's also the whole owning less part. For some people having less is stressful, but for us, it's been pretty freeing. One of the things I love most is having fewer clothes. I used to gaze into my huge closet packed with lovely outfits and feel like I didn't have a thing to wear. Too many choices really. These days I have exactly four items of clothing hanging in our closet and a very modest amount of things folded in a cabinet and I feel like I have loads of great options/outfits. No more wasted time trying to decide what to wear.
And what about financial freedom? Not paying a mortgage, utilities, or rent can save you a ton of money and help you get out of debt or finally build up some savings. As many of you know a huge part of why we moved into our van was to make better progress on our student loans. Having all the money we used to spend on rent and utilities go into savings + our loans = monthly progress towards being debt free.
P.S. We did not go into more debt buying or converting our van. Not long ago I chatted on the phone with a lovely woman who reached out to us over Instagram with questions about vanlife as she and her husband were considering it. One of the first things she wanted to know though was whether it actually made sense to add more debt to our school debt when we got our van. She was quite surprised when I agreed that it didn't make sense and explained that we purchased an older used Sprinter with cash and only spent around $5,000 on the conversion. I know saying "only" when talking about $5,000 may sound crazy, but a popular van account on Instagram casually posted this week that they spent $25,000 on their Sprinter conversion and according to Outbound Living's survey of 725 vanlifers from around the world, 68.7% spent more than $5,000 USD on their conversions and 44.5% spent more than $10,000 USD.
Not Always Mobile
One of the big pluses of living in a vehicle is that you're not stuck in one place. You can just get up and go and the majority of people who live in vans appear to have a pretty nomadic lifestyle. Just because you live in a van though doesn't mean that you're free to travel. People always assume that we're on the road when in reality, we live full time in the city where Justin is completing his family medicine residency training. We take road trips in our van here and there, but we haven't gotten to experience nomadic vanlife yet.
Lots of Public Bathrooms
Since we don't have a bathroom in our van, we have to use public bathrooms which means hauling our toiletries and shower supplies around and wearing flip flops in the shower. We got a gym membership so we could shower there and we also shower at the hospital where we work. However, some van dwellers have bathrooms in their van or at least an outdoor shower so not everyone in vans has to deal with public bathrooms. What all vanlifers have to deal with though is having strangers ask, "So where do you go to the bathroom?". It's a valid question but it gets old after awhile.
Living in a van grants you access to a ready-made community composed of other folks living in vehicles. There are lots of avenues for connecting, from van gatherings to getting acquainted online, and bonds are easily formed since it's not every day you meet someone who's chosen to live in a vehicle. It creates a real camaraderie. For example, when we were still in the process of converting our van, we drove it to a van gathering in Oregon called Descend on Bend where hundreds of converted vehicles and people living in them (or interested in that lifestyle) gathered to share stories, look at each other's conversions, sit around a group campfire each evening, participate in outdoor sports, and partake in a giant group potluck.
There's no denying that sometimes it can feel pretty cramped living in such a small space. For example, let's say Justin gets home from work and starts hanging up his clothes while I make dinner. I decide I need to get something out of the food drawer under the bed but I can't open it because the closet door is open and Justin is standing in the way. When he's done I open the drawer and then turn around to get something out of the fridge but it's inside the bench seat Justin just sat down on. I make him get up so I can get into the fridge and now he's standing in front of the oven so I ask him to get on the bed so I can finally have the living room/kitchen to myself.
However, living in such a small space also feels very cozy. Everything is connected and easy to reach and at night it feels like a warm little cave. When we lived in our "real" house and I was home alone I always had a distinct feeling of being alone. In the van it just doesn't feel that way when I can see my entire home from the bed - no empty rooms or closed doors.
We Have Jobs
Just because you live in a van doesn't mean you're unemployed. As I mentioned earlier, Justin is in the process of completing a family medicine residency, so he's either at the hospital or clinic 5-6 days a week and I'm a nurse currently working in a pediatric ER. While not all vanlifers have jobs, you'd be surprised how many work seasonal jobs, run their own businesses, work online, do travel contracts etc.
Now obviously, these are just my opinions on what vanlife is really like based on our experiences. Someone else may tell you the total opposite and that doesn't mean one of us is wrong and one of us is right; we've just had different experiences.
Here's my takeaway point: If you're thinking about living in a van and peruse photos of #vanlife on Instagram, don't make any assumptions. When you see all the glamorous photos, don't assume that if you live in a van you'll have a carefree life. When you see the less glamorous photos and hear the less pleasant stories, don't assume that your van will always be filthy and your life will be difficult. Who knows what your vanlife story will be like. The only way to find out is to give it a try.