You’ve seen the hype around #vanlife. You’ve seen the stunning photos on social media. Now you want to throw everything to the wind, quit your job, and live a carefree life of traveling in a van.
If you’re prepared and have the right mindset, van life can be a great way to cut your expenses, see the world, learn about yourself, and refocus on what really matters in your life. But there are a few things to think about before you make the leap.
This page is designed as a jumping-off point for your personal vanlife journey. We go over the pros and cons of this lifestyle, exactly how to live in a van, some of the reasons why van life is awesome, and some of the drawbacks. We answer the most frequently asked questions about living in a van – everything from bathrooms and showering, to making money on the road, to finding sweet camping spots.
We also include links to more in-depth resources if you want to delve more deeply into a question. So go ahead – explore this page and decide if living in a van is right for you. Then get out there and begin your journey!
- Converting a Van into a Mobile Living Space
- Where to Park Your Van at Night
- Bathrooms, Showers, and Laundry
- How Much Does Vanlife Cost?
- Making Money on the Road
- Getting Mail on the Road
- Insurance (health, auto, property, etc)
- Resources and Community on the Road
What is Van life?
To some, #vanlife is just an escapist hashtag. To others, it represents freedom, travel, adventure, or minimalism. But to the people living it, it’s a movement, a way of life, a means of living more in harmony with ourselves, an act of resistance against the status quo.
At its most basic, van life is just that: living in a van. But to us, it has little to do with the van itself. It doesn’t matter what kind of work you do, or where you spend most of your time. It doesn’t matter what specific kind of vehicle you drive, or how much you spent building it out. It doesn’t matter whether you travel all over or stay around one area, or whether you’re in your rig full time, part time, or just on weekends. Vanlife is about much more than this.
Vanlife is the process of taking control of your life. It’s about leaning into your fear of the unknown in order to pursue what makes you feel alive. It’s about meeting strangers from all over the world and accepting them for their differences, while openly seeing the commonalities we all share with each other.
Vanlife does involve living in a van, yes. And since vanlifers may not be tied down to a lease or a mortgage there is often travel involved. But deeper than that, vanlife is about the commitment to create the most fulfilling life you can for yourself. It’s about not settling for all the “shoulds” that others try to push upon you. It’s about focusing on what’s meaningful in your life and shedding what isn’t.
It’s about creating your own path.
Why Would You Want to Live in a Van?
There are many reasons why people choose this lifestyle. Some do this part time, some for a temporary road trip. Still others sell off their belongings and commit to van life full time. But however you go about it, living in a van is rewarding. It’s exciting. And it’s a ton of fun – if you allow it to be.
Ultimately, your mindset will dictate your experience. But if you remain open to sudden changes and new adventures, if you allow yourself to go with the moment, if you learn to make do with less and appreciate simplicity, then embarking on a vanlife journey will be one of the most important transitions you can gift yourself.
Here are just some of the reasons why you might consider living in a van:
Reason #1: Vanlife Embraces the Excitement of the Unknown
Living a nomadic lifestyle means you’re constantly diving into uncertainty – which can be terrifying, but also very exciting. Every day on the road is an adventure. Every day has the possibility of something different and unexpected happening.
In any given day we may not know exactly what will happen, what we’ll do, who we’ll meet, or where we’ll sleep that night. This feeling of uncertainty has a way of making you feel alive, more in tune with the present moment, and accepting of change.
Reason #2: It’s a Challenge that Leads to Personal Growth
Despite how it may look on Instagram, living in a van is not easy – in fact, it can be a tremendous challenge at times. You will deal with a lot of uncertainty and discomfort. You will spend a lot of one-on-one time with yourself. Making it work financially takes a lot of hustle. You will need to learn to make do with less and embrace simple pleasures with gratitude.
Van life will challenge you in ways that you never thought possible, but it carries rewards that will change you for the better. You’ll be thrown into many uncomfortable scenarios that will force you to confront yourself at the deepest level. You may discover that your patience isn’t as strong as you had believed. You may find that you need stability – or that you need to go with the flow more. You’ll experience the importance of flexibility and open-mindedness. And if you’re honest with yourself, this will lead you down a path of incredible personal growth.
Reason #3: Freedom, Flexibility, and Adventure
Many vanlifers choose this lifestyle for the freedom and adventure that awaits on the open road. It’s quite wonderful not being tied down to a house or an apartment, to have everything you need with you at all times, and to be able to go wherever the road takes you. Your days are often much more flexible, and you have the general sense that your time is your own.
Maybe you want to visit every National Park in the US. Vanlife is a great way to do that, all while saving on transportation and housing costs. Maybe you have friends and family scattered throughout the country. Van life can enable you to spend more quality time with them.
Maybe you’ve never been to the West Coast (or the East Coast, or Alaska, or South America, or Europe, or Asia, or *insert place here*). Traveling in a van is a great way to see new places – all while bringing your house with you and continuing to work and live your life.
And, van living allows you to change your plans at the drop of a hat. Maybe you want to stay longer in a place you really like. Maybe someone tells you about an awesome waterfall the opposite direction of where you were headed. Maybe you want to check out a new city, or escape out into the wilderness. Maybe the weather isn’t to your liking and you want to head south (or north, or to the coast, or up to the mountains). When you live in a van, endless possibilities are open to you.
Reason #4: Focus on Hobbies (rock climbing, surfing, hiking, skiing, music, whatever)
Depending on how you live, vanlife may allow you to focus more time around your favorite hobbies. Maybe you want to wake up at the beach and surf all day long. Or maybe you want to spend more time hiking, rock climbing, or skiing. Or maybe you want to focus on your music, or your writing, or your artwork. Whatever hobby you have that ignites your soul, living in a van can free you up to make it a larger part of your life.
While the freedom and flexibility of van living can allow you to direct more of your time to what’s meaningful to you, it’s important to note that you won’t have endless amounts of free time. Some things just take longer when you live in a van. You’ll need to spend time traveling, finding places to sleep, restocking fresh water, setting up and breaking down camp, etc. You may be surprised by how much time gets eaten up by these activities.
But you’ll also be able to save tons of time in other areas. You may not need to make that long commute to work anymore. Your needs will be simpler, so you may not need to work all those hours just to afford unnecessary things. Or you can work seasonally, save money, and take off for part of the year.
The point is, the overall freedom and simplicity of vanlife really opens up your horizon of possibilities and gives you greater freedom in how you direct your time.
Reason #5: Save Money (or reach other financial goals)
Some people choose to live in a van to save money – especially on housing. There’s no doubt about it, housing costs are getting out of control in many parts of the country. Vanlife allows you to eliminate rent/mortgage/utility payments, which probably represent a huge portion of your monthly expenses. The money that you save on housing could allow you to go back to school, or pursue that business idea, or save for retirement, or get out of credit card debt, or finally pay off those student loans.
That said, it’s important to note that van life is not a magic way to spend zero money. Although you can save on housing costs, the rest of your spending depends on your lifestyle and your priorities. Just like you can spend very little money while living in an apartment if you’re frugal, you can spend a ton of money while living in a van if you’re not careful. It all comes down to how you choose to live, and your choice of housing is only part of the equation.
Reason #6: Learn to Live a More Minimalist Life and Appreciate the Simple Things
When you live in a van, you just don’t have space for needless things. This forces you to evaluate the things that you have, and reduce your belongings down to only what you really need and use. This can be a tremendous boost to your psychological well-being
Having fewer things takes a weight off of your shoulders that you might not know you were carrying. There’s far less to worry about and there’s much less stress swirling in the back of your mind when you have only what you need, when everything is within arm’s reach.
And because you have limited space in the van, it’s tough to impulsively buy things that you don’t need. This forces you to learn to be content with what you have, and to look for ways to make do instead of solving your problems through buying stuff (this also helps with saving money). Learning to make do and embracing uncertainty also encourage you to slow down and appreciate the simple things in life, instead of constantly craving for the next thing.
Reason #7: Meet New People and Join an Awesome Community
It might seem strange to say that living in a van is a great way to meet people and experience community, but it’s true. There are tons of interesting people who choose this lifestyle, and when you meet another vanlifer you’ve probably met a like-minded person who instantly understands your life in ways that others do not. This means that you can often skip the bullshit and quickly form deep connections with people.
The internet and social media have opened up a ton of possibilities for connecting with other vanlifers no matter where you are. We’ve connected with several people via the internet who later became camping buddies and instant friends. Even though we’re not physically near each other most of the time, we’re still able to stay in contact, keep up with each other’s travels, and chat with people who “get it”.
And there’s nothing like a bunch of nomads coming together at a big van gathering (like the one we host in the Midwest each May). These are awesome events where we can meet each other in person, tour each other’s rigs, and swap stories around a bonfire.
Reason #8: Reject Societal Norms and Direct Your Own Time
We’ve reached a tipping point in our society where we’ve seen behind the curtain and revealed that the American Dream is not all it’s cracked up to be. For many that are attracted to vanlife, the idea of mortgaging our lives away for the questionable promise of an uncertain retirement just isn’t all that appealing.
Our time is our most valuable resource. None of us knows how much time we have on this earth. Choosing to live in a van is an acknowledgement of that fact. It’s a celebration of the limited time that we have, and it’s honoring that time by striving to enjoy it.
That said, vanlife is not a vacation, it is an alternative lifestyle. Vanlifers still need to work and make a living (in fact, we often work more than we did in our former 9-5 lives). The difference, though, is that you have a greater degree of freedom in determining your life. You dictate your own time instead of someone else dictating it for you. And that freedom is what it’s all about.
What Are the Challenges of Vanlife?
Although there are many reasons why you may choose van life, it’s definitely not for everyone. Here are some of the bigger challenges of this lifestyle.
Challenge #1: Vanlife Can Be a Lot of Work
Despite what you may see on Instagram, vanlife is not all about lounging around your van in beautiful locales. Living this lifestyle takes a lot of work, and you need to be almost constantly strategizing.
(Questions we’re always asking ourselves: When do we need to refill our fresh water? Where can we get a shower next? How full is our grey water tank? Where’s the nearest bathroom – or place to dig a hole? Where are we going to sleep tonight? We really need to order something online – where’s the best place to ship it to and where will we even be in a few days?)
Also, many things seem to take longer when living in a van. Cooking is much more of a process when you have to take everything out of your cabinet just to get that one thing in the back. And if you don’t put everything away immediately then your van quickly becomes unlivable. You can’t just throw stuff in the corner or leave dishes in the sink like you can in a house. Day-to-day life can be a constant dance of taking things out and putting them away.
Unlike living in a fixed dwelling, where you likely have water and utilities piped directly to you, when you live in a van you have to go out and get this stuff. We have to pay attention to how much fresh water we have left, and when we’re running low we need to seek out a place to fill up (and find somewhere to dump our grey water). Same with stove fuel (we use a marine alcohol stove that runs off of denatured alcohol, but most vanners use basic propane camp stoves or cooktops).
Then there’s setting up and breaking down camp. Our van has two modes: travel mode and camping mode. When we’re posted up somewhere, our awning is often extended, we’ll get the instruments out of the back, we’ll leave the stove and cast iron pan out, we’ll have the curtains down. This all takes work to set up, and it takes work to secure everything back for when we’re traveling again.
This is one thing that surprises many people new to van living – the amount of time and effort it takes to just maintain the lifestyle. But we think it’s more than worth it, and it all takes way less time than we used to spend mowing the lawn and maintaining our house in our former lives.
Challenge #2: Vanlife Means Getting Used to Spending Time Outside
If you don’t enjoy being outside, then you’ll have some serious adjusting to do. We always tell people that we don’t live in a van, we live out of a van. Vanlife is being outside. No matter how comfortable or spacious your van is, no matter how many amenities you included in your build, you will still spend a significant amount of time outside your van.
This is something that actually attracts a lot of people to vanlife, and it’s one of our favorite parts of this lifestyle. But it’s important to realize that being outside all the time comes with some unavoidable discomforts. There will be dirt, mud, sand, and leaves. There will be all kinds of insects – mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and spiders. You will be cold, or hot, or damp, or sweaty. Things won’t be clean all the time, and you won’t be perfectly comfortable all the time. And the sooner you embrace this reality, the more you’ll enjoy living in a van.
Challenge #3: You’ll Be Exposed to Weather and Temperature Swings
When you live in a van, there’s a limit to how much you can control your environment. You’ll always be somewhat at the mercy of the outside weather. No matter what you do, you’ll never have as much control over your van’s temperature as you do in a house.
There are a few things you can do to maintain a reasonable temperature in your van, whatever the weather: insulate your van, include reflective window coverings, and install a ventilation fan. In the winter, a small propane heater (or other heat source) can work wonders. But unless you plan on spending all your time plugged into the grid at RV parks, there’s no way you can run AC in the summer (they take WAY too much power). You’ll just need to get used to dealing with temperature extremes and finding ways to cope.
We’ve actually grown to enjoy this quite a bit. We love experiencing the ups and downs of the environment. It makes us feel connected to the world around us. And it often dictates our travels During the summer months, we seek out northern climes and higher elevations. In the winter, we gravitate toward sunnier, warmer areas (although we really enjoy winter van life in the mountains). But we’ve also frequently had to change plans because of extreme heat or an approaching storm. The weather is something we have no control over, yet we still have to adapt and rearrange our plans around it all the time.
So if you’re someone who doesn’t like to change plans, if you can’t deal with swings in temperature, if your living space has to always be exactly 72 degrees, then living in a van may prove to be a significant challenge for you (or an opportunity for significant growth).
Challenge #4: You’ll Be Exposed to Many New and Uncomfortable Situations
When you live on the road, unexpected things happen. You may find yourself in a LOT of uncomfortable situations, and you’ll need to get used to being outside your comfort zone. There will be layers of discomfort that you’ll have to work through internally, especially when you first hit the road.
A lot of this discomfort comes from the inherent uncertainty of nomadic living. You may find yourself in a completely new area, with a different climate and different challenges than what you’re used to. You may have to deal with a breakdown or another issue when you don’t know anyone nearby who can help. You may have to work through a lot of frustration and fear.
But if you stay flexible and keep an open mind, you’ll grow used to not knowing what’s around the corner. This feeling of uncertainty becomes a big part of the adventure, and you’ll feel like you’re truly exploring life every single day. You’ll wave goodbye to your comfort zone in the rearview mirror, and this will set you up for deep personal growth.
Challenge #5: Making it on the Road Takes Hustle
Unless you saved up a bunch of money to take off work for a temporary van road trip (which is awesome, congrats!), vanlife is not a vacation. What you don’t see on Instagram is that all those people doing this full time are working their asses off to sustain this lifestyle.
Vanlifers are doing everything from manual labor, seasonal farming, running their own businesses, workamping positions, online freelance work, and many other creative and independent ways to make money. But what we all have in common is that we’re hustling and putting ourselves out there, not sitting back and waiting for opportunities to appear.
If you prefer the stability of showing up at a specific place for a predefined amount of hours and collecting a regular paycheck in return – then you will have some adjustments to make if you want to live on the road. But many vanlifers have successfully made this transition, so there’s no reason why you can’t too if you hustle.
How to Live in a Van
If you’re reading this page, chances are you have questions about the practical aspects of vanlife – how you actually go about living in a van. This section covers everything from building a van, to finding overnight camping, to bathrooms and showers, to making a living on the road.
Converting a Van into a Mobile Living Space
We cover building a DIY campervan in our epic Build Your Van: The Ultimate Guide, and all over our blog. Below we’ve included links to our most helpful content about building your new tiny house on wheels.
Van Build Blog Content
Where to Park Your Van at Night
Now that you’ve left the comfort of your old life for the adventure of van life – where exactly do you sleep?
There are tons of options all over North America for parking your van at night, many of them completely free. But the options that you gravitate toward will depend on the type of nomad that you are and the kinds of amenities that you need around you.
Do you want to spend time in an urban area, or are you looking for a spot out in the middle of nowhere? Do you need a bathroom, a shower, or cell service? Do you want to camp for free, or are you okay with paying for a spot? Are you okay with breaking local laws, or would you rather stick to where you’re allowed to be?
Here are some options for sleeping overnight in your van:
Camping on Public Land (National Forest, BLM, etc). Free.
This is our go-to option for overnight parking. There is abundant public land all over North America, and much of it allows you to camp out for free (usually for up to 14 days or so before you have to move on). These spots are fairly easy to find with the right apps and resources (and a well-tuned sense of adventure), and they tend to be beautiful and peaceful.
The downside, however, is that amenities can be very hit or miss. Sometimes you’ll find a spot with a pit toilet and blazing-fast LTE service. More often than not, though, your spot will be in the middle of nowhere, your bathroom will be a hole in the ground, and you’ll be in a complete dead zone (though it is possible to find sweet wilderness spots with decent cell service).
Getting to these spots can also be a bit of an adventure. While there are many great campsites that are easily accessible, these spots are more likely to have other campers close by. The best and most secluded spots tend to be down the bumpy back roads.
But if you’re the type of vanlifer who loves spending time outside, enjoys being far away from cities, and prefers to camp for free, public land is your number one resource.
Important Note: When camping in the wild, always adhere to Leave No Trace principles. Our public land is a vital resource, and it is our duty as responsible users of this land to do everything we can to leave our camp spots better than we found them.
Do’s and Don’ts of Camping on Public Land
- DO follow Leave No Trace principles at all times.
- DO pay attention to any fire restrictions in the area.
- DO clean up after yourself and pack out any other trash you find.
- DON’T trash your site or behave irresponsibly.
- DON’T drive your van off pre-established trails.
- DON’T poop straight on the ground – always poop in a hole at least 200 feet from a water source, and pack out your toilet paper.
Parking Lot Camping (big box stores, truck stops, casinos, etc.) Free.
It ain’t the most glamorous, but occasionally camping in a parking lot is a reality of vanlife. We often find ourselves in a big box store parking lot for the night if we’re spending time in a town or city to scope out the area or run errands. And since big box stores and truck stops tend to be right off the highway, they also make convenient stopovers between long travel days.
What big box stores allow you to sleep in their parking lots? Most Walmarts allow overnight parking, and you might even find yourself surrounded by a throng of other vans and RVs while you’re sleeping. Other stores that may allow overnight parking: Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s, Cracker Barrel, some hardware stores and some local grocery stores.
As far as truck stops, we’ve found Flying J to be particularly van/RV friendly. Highway rest areas are also an option for a brief travel stopover. And many casinos readily allow you to park overnight, and may even allow you to stay for multiple days.
But, we always recommend calling ahead and asking before you park overnight at any business. Not every location will allow you to camp out in the parking lot, even Walmart. Also, some towns have ordinances against overnight parking, meaning that you’re at risk of getting kicked out in the middle of the night. It’s always better to ask first than to get dragged out of bed by the police and forced to move at 3 AM.
Do’s and Don’ts of Parking Lot Camping:
- DO call ahead to ask if they allow overnight parking, and where they prefer you to park – they may want you to keep to a specific area.
- DO go in and buy something if possible (luckily most of these places sell things that you might need anyway – like gas, groceries, or camping supplies).
- DO be respectful and clean up after yourself.
- DON’T set up your awning, tables, and chairs and have a party in the parking lot.
- DON’T throw trash on the ground, pee outside, walk around with your shirt off, or otherwise act disrespectfully toward the business and the people around you.
- DON’T overstay your welcome. A night or two is probably fine, but posting up for a week is likely to get you kicked out and jeopardize the overnight parking for everyone else.
Urban Stealth Camping. Free.
If urban areas are your thing, or if you have a job in a specific city and are living in your van to save on rent, it’s not realistic to camp out long term at big box stores. Even more so if you’re in a city that doesn’t allow overnight parking at private businesses.
That’s where stealth camping comes in. Stealth camping generally entails pulling up to a city street, neighborhood, industrial area, or parking lot at night, doing your best to conceal the fact that you’re sleeping in your vehicle, and leaving early in the morning before anyone notices.
If you think that you might be stealth camping frequently, then make sure you buy a van that’s suited for it (i.e. not obvious that it’s a campervan – so maybe don’t buy that VW Vanagon and mount your surfboard on top). The best vans for stealth camping are plain-colored windowless work vans, since they’re literally everywhere and it’s easy to keep them unnoticeable. If your van has windows, make sure you add some good light-blocking curtains.
When stealth camping, it’s very important to be aware of the community that you’re in and to be respectful at all times. Stay quiet and in your van, and don’t go to the bathroom outside for any reason (this is what pee bottles are for).
Some communities are welcoming to alternative lifestyles and may not have a problem with well-behaved vandwellers hanging around for a bit. Don’t be the bad apple that sours the area for the rest of us. Many other communities really don’t want vanners around, and you may find yourself subject to harassment from locals or attention from law enforcement (no matter how well-behaved you are). If any of this happens, be polite and cooperative, and remove yourself from the area.
Whether you like it or not, you are a representative of the entire nomadic community. Any interactions you have with the conventional public can color how they view the rest of us.
Here are some helpful resources for urban stealth camping:
- 14 Secrets to Stealth Camping Without Getting Caught (Wayward Home)
- Where to Stealth Park (Cheaprvliving)
- 10 Essential Stealth Camping Tips (KombiLife)
- Bob’s 12 Commandments for Stealth Parking in the City (Cheaprvliving)
Note: It’s illegal to sleep in your vehicle in most cities, and many who live in residential areas may not want you camping in their neighborhood. This means you need to do everything possible to be respectful and stay under the radar. Also be aware that if you choose to stealth camp, you could find yourself being woken in the middle of the night by the police. If this happens, be polite and respectful, don’t argue, and move your van.
Do’s and Don’ts of Urban Stealth Camping
- DO choose a van that won’t be noticed (windowless work vans are best).
- DO be respectful and polite, stay under the radar, and keep your van and yourself presentable.
- DO arrive late, leave early, and change camp spots often.
- DON’T blast music, throw a party, or otherwise cause a ruckus.
- DON’T walk around half naked or go to the bathroom outside.
- DON’T be rude or argue if asked to move.
Campgrounds (federal campgrounds, state parks, private campgrounds, RV parks, etc). $$$.
Another option for sleeping is to book a spot at a campground. Since most campgrounds cost money and most vanlifers prefer to limit expenses, this is usually more of a once-in-awhile thing. Since campgrounds often have amenities like flush toilets and showers, and may even have laundry and wifi available, they can be a nice break from the road on occasion.
Here are some types of campgrounds you might come across in your travels:
- Federal Campgrounds. This category includes Forest Service/BLM campgrounds, as well as National Park campgrounds. Some Forest Service/BLM campgrounds are free or very cheap, and may even offer a discount if you have the annual Interagency Pass. National Park campgrounds tend to be more crowded and pricey, and it may be difficult to snag a spot. Federal campgrounds also vary widely in amenities – some may just have pit toilets, some may have full-blown shower houses with flush toilets.
- State Park Campgrounds. State parks are a great camping option if you want to be in a natural setting but still need certain amenities (like toilets or showers). State parks tend to be cheaper than private campgrounds, but this varies widely by state. Some states charge additional vehicle entrance fees or require you to purchase a yearly pass, while some states are just unreasonably expensive (we’re looking at you, California!). But we’ve also stayed at some awesome state parks for less than $10 a night.
- Private Campgrounds/RV Parks. Private campgrounds usually cost more than public options, but they’re also more likely to have amenities like laundry and wifi. Some private campgrounds are very nice, but more often you’ll be dealing with rows of campsites right on top of each other. Even so, private campgrounds can be good for the occasional stay, and are often more convenient to get to than other options (you can even find them in or near cities).
When we stay at a campground, we tend to gravitate towards state parks and federal campgrounds. Some of them are very affordable, and we know that our camping fees are going towards supporting public land in some capacity. That said, we’ve also stayed at some great private campgrounds that offered exactly what we needed at the time.
Camping on Private Land. $$$.
If you are looking to expand your options, there are some services out there that offer vanlifers and RVers the opportunity to find camping on private land.
- Hipcamp. Basically the Airbnb of camping, Hipcamp allows private landowners to list their property for nightly camping. Options on here range from boondocking on a farm, to site with full hookups, to elaborate glamping experiences. There are some very affordable and interesting properties on Hipcamp, though, and this can be a great way to expand your camping horizons.
- Boondockers Welcome. For $30 per year, you gain the ability to find private property owners who will let you camp out on their land for free (we’re talking brief stays, not permanently posting up). This can be anything from secluded farmland out in the country to parking in someone’s driveway in the heart of a city. This can really expand your options if you’re needing a place to sleep, and it’s a great tool to have in your arsenal.
- Harvest Hosts. For $79 per year, Harvest Hosts opens up the option to camp at wineries, breweries, farms, and other awesome locations throughout the US and Canada. Camping is free, but it’s generally a good idea to buy something from your host while you’re there. Harvest Host locations are particularly concentrated along the East Coast of the US – which is great, since this region doesn’t have a whole lot of camping options in general.
Bathrooms, Showers, and Laundry
Where Do You Go to the Bathroom?
This is easily the most frequently asked question about vanlife. We always chuckle a bit whenever someone asks us because the reality is, it’s incredibly easy to find a place to go to the bathroom in North America.
Gas stations, Walmarts, McDonalds’, coffee shops – you name it, there’s a bathroom. Many free/cheap public camping spots even have pit toilets (basically nicer/cleaner permanent porta-potties) nearby. We also carry a poop shovel and travel bidet for when we’re wild camping away from a bathroom (always make sure to follow best practices for relieving yourself in nature).
Some vanlifers include toilets (cassette, composting, or otherwise) in their rigs. We didn’t think it was worth giving up the space, but others prefer the convenience and privacy of having their own bathroom situation.
In short, the “bathroom thing” has been the biggest non-issue for us in this whole crazy adventure. Don’t let it stop you from taking the plunge
Read More: Bathrooms and Showers
What about showering?
Every vanlifer does showering a bit differently. Some try to get a shower in at least every couple days. Others may go a week or longer without showering. Whatever your preferences, there are plenty of options for taking showers on the road.
Exactly where and how do you shower when you live in a van? Here are some options:
- Gym memberships. About $22 a month will get you a Planet Fitness Black Card, which gives you access to every location in North America. Other national gym chains include Anytime Fitness, and 24-Hour FItness. There is also LocalFit, a membership program that gets you access to select local gyms all over. Gym showering is best for vanlifers who spend more time around populated areas.
- State parks or developed campgrounds. Even if you don’t camp there, many parks have reasonable day use fees. This option costs money, so it’s best for infrequent showerers or vanlifers who don’t mind paying for camping more often.
- Truck stops. Many truck stops include shower facilities, but they tend to be a bit expensive ($10 or more). Truck stops are best for those times you really need a shower and don’t have another option.
- Include a shower in your rig. This can be as intense as a PVC-pipe road shower or as simple as a bag-style solar shower. Some vanlifers use on-demand hot water heaters or even build showers inside their vans. This option is best for vanlifers who prefer off-grid locations but like to shower more frequently.
- Dry showering. If you need to get clean but don’t have access to a shower, dry shampoo and baby wipes can do the trick!
Since we shower infrequently (every 8-9 days or so), we often grab a spot at a state park whenever we need a shower. We look at these times as little “breaks,” where we can enjoy a hot shower, use a flush toilet, get some work done, and sometimes even do laundry.
Read More: Bathrooms and Showers
Where do you do laundry?
Whenever we need to do a load of laundry, we typically find a laundromat near where we are. To save time (and keep our “town visits” to a minimum), we try to bundle all of our errands together – so a laundry day might include a trip to the grocery store, the hardware store, Goodwill, or wherever else we need to go.
Another option for laundry is staying the night at a developed campground that has laundry (KOA, RV park, some state parks, etc.). There, you’ll have the luxury of getting a hot shower, using a flush toilet, and washing your clothes. Triple win!
How Much Does Vanlife Cost?
It depends. Just like you can spend a little or a lot living in a stationary dwelling, how much you spend while living on the road is entirely up to you and your priorities.
One huge advantage to living in a van is that you eliminate the costs of rent/mortgage and utilities, which often accounts for the biggest chunk of monthly spending when you’re in one place. And with the rising cost of housing in many areas, this can be enough to save you thousands per month.
You’ll still have to pay for gas and maintenance on your van, but you probably already need a car to get around anyway, so this isn’t that much of an increase. And you’re totally in control of how much you spend in this area – if you drive coast to coast several times a year, you’ll spend a lot more on gas and maintenance than you would if you stayed around one region.
There are still those fixed expenses that you’ll have no matter your living situation: insurance, groceries, cell service, toiletries. There are plenty of ways you can spend less in these areas, but this isn’t specific to living in a van.
Can Van life Save You Money? It’s All About Your Priorities
How much you spend and how much money you save by living in a van all comes down to your spending habits.
To use us as an example: if we didn’t drive much, spent the bare minimum on groceries, and bought nothing else but dog food, we could theoretically swing it for around $900 per month. Tack on the amount of traveling we generally do and our priority to eat healthy, organic foods, and that brings it up to about $1400 per month.
But we also occasionally like to do fun things that cost money, go out to eat every once in a awhile (although we still cook 99% of the time), buy things beyond barebones necessities, put the dogs up at a sitter through Rover.com and check out a town, and stay at developed campgrounds every so often – so we generally end up spending about $1800 per month. That’s if nothing goes wrong and we don’t need to take an emergency trip to the mechanic/vet/urgent care (which does happen).
The point is, vanlife can save you a ton of money on housing costs. But it’s not a silver bullet to spending zero money. That’s ultimately up to you and how you choose to live.
Making Money on the Road
How do you sustain yourself financially on the road? There are as many ways to answer this question as there are van nomads. There are plenty of ways to earn a buck with your own two hands, and the internet has opened up a wealth of opportunities for digital nomads.
Many nomads do seasonal work of some kind, earning as much as possible then taking time off for travel and enjoyment. Seasonal farm work, “workamping” jobs, working at parks or ski mountains or other outdoors positions – these are just some of the many options out there.
Still others go the “digital nomad” route and work online. This is how we do things, and the location-independence that this affords is pretty awesome. These days you can find freelance online work doing just about anything. The vanlife community has freelance graphic designers, web developers, music teachers, writers, financial planners, accountants, and construction estimators. Some have even started web-based businesses to fund their travels.
The common denominator, though, is a willingness to hustle, to put yourself out there, and to take opportunities as they come.
Seasonal, Temporary, and Short Term Work
The beauty of this lifestyle is that you can do it very cheaply (depending on your priorities), so you won’t necessarily need a year-round full time job to sustain yourself.
A common approach that many vanlifers take to funding their travels is to post up and work somewhere for a few weeks or months to earn some money, then take off and travel for a few months, then stop and work, then travel, and repeat.
Job options available include restaurant serving, labor, or temp jobs (in more urban areas), seasonal farming jobs, various “workamping” jobs, and seasonal positions at outdoors places like resorts, campgrounds, and parks
Where do you find jobs like this? Here are some resources:
Adventure and Outdoors Jobs
- CoolWorks. Very comprehensive job board that allows you to find jobs in awesome places and really zero in on the type of job that you’re looking for.
- Adventure Job Board. Job board for outdoors and adventure jobs.
- Back Door Jobs. Job board for short term adventure jobs.
- Workamper News. The top resource for finding workamping positions. “Workamping” jobs offer you a job and a place to camp in your rig.
- Workamping Jobs. A job board for workamping positions.
- Amazon Camperforce. Seasonal holiday workamping jobs at Amazon facilities.
General Temporary Work
- Craigslist. The “gigs” section is a great resource for short-term employment.
- Labor Finders. Job board for all kinds of temporary hands-on positions.
Remote Work Positions for Digital Nomads
Many vanlifers choose to find a remote work position that they can do from anywhere. This can include finding a job that allows remote employees, or working with your employer to make your current position remote.
You may be able to make more money with this approach than by hopping between temp jobs, but the trade off is that you’ll be working a whole lot more. And your travels will frequently be at the mercy of where you can find the best wifi or cell signal, which is one of the biggest pain points for vanlife digital nomads.
That said, the internet has been a game changer in opening up opportunities for those of us that prefer a location-independent lifestyle.
Here are some of the top places for finding remote work positions:
- Flex Jobs. Massive job board full of remote and flexible work positions.
- Skip the Drive. Job board for remote work positions.
- We Work Remotely. Community board featuring remote work job postings.
- Remote.co. Resource for remote companies and workers, also featuring a job board.
- Hubstaff Talent. A hub for connecting businesses, agencies, and remote workers.
Taking Your Skills to the Freelance Market
If you have marketable skills, you may want to consider freelancing. This can be a great option because you can make a very decent income, but also have more freedom to choose when, where, and how you work.
What kind of things can you do? Really anything. The vanlife world includes freelance writers, photographers, videographers, accountants, business consultants, programmers, graphic designers, illustrators, therapists, music teachers, and virtual assistants. As long as you have a skill and are able to pitch yourself well to potential clients, you should be able to find work as a freelancer.
Freelancing can also be anything you make it to be. You can take in-person freelance jobs if you’re a photographer, for example, or remote gigs where you only deal with your clients over the internet. But unlike an actual job, you’re ultimately working for yourself.
Here are some resources for finding work and succeeding as a freelancer:
Freelance Job Boards
- Upwork. This is a huge job board where clients post all kinds of freelance gigs. Back when we were freelancing, this is primarily where we found work.
- Guru. Another top job board connecting freelancers with clients.
- Hubspot Talent. Connecting businesses, agencies, and freelancers.
- Flex Jobs. Yes, Flex Jobs also includes freelance opportunities!
- More job boards…
Freelance Micro Gigs
- Amazon Mechanical Turk. Get paid to complete small tasks for companies.
- Fiverr. Post “gigs” that clients can hire you for. Despite the name, you can charge a lot more than $5, depending on what you do and the value you provide.
- Freelancer’s Union Blog. The Freelancer’s Union has a ton of great information and resources for anyone involved in the freelancing game.
- Freelance Effect. Full of useful resources for finding work and learning how to be successful.
- Freelance to Win. Lots of great tips for landing high-paying jobs on Upwork (much of the info is applicable to pitching general clients as well).
Starting Your Own Location-Independent Business
The internet has made it possible for anyone to start a business with just a computer and a wifi connection. And a big advantage of web-based businesses is that they are location-independent, and many require very little upfront investment aside from your time. For these reasons, starting an online business can be a great way to fund vanlife (or any other travel lifestyle).
Make no mistake: starting a business of any sort is not a get-rich-quick scheme.
Any business, including web-based ones, take a lot of time and work to get off the ground. But if you put the work in and do the right things, then it’s entirely possible to create a sustainable business for yourself that you can manage from anywhere.
There are many different types of online businesses that you can start, but here are a few ideas to get you thinking:
- Build a profitable blog or website
- Develop apps and software
- Start an ecommerce store
- Sell digital products
- Start a podcast or Youtube channel
- Create online courses
- Provide a service
- …and more!
Again, we must reiterate that starting any sort of business takes a lot of hard work, and is not necessarily a quick or easy path to location-independent income. One strategy that many use to smooth the ride is to freelance or work remotely for basic income, and start their business on the side.
- Smart Passive Income. One of the original internet marketing blogs. Features solid information for beginners to the world of online business.
- Ryan Robinson. Great blog with actionable tips and inspiration.
- Growth Lab. Blog about starting and growing an online business.
- Location Rebel. General site on creating a location-independent lifestyle business.
Blogging for Fun (and Profit!)
Yes, you really can make a living by building an awesome blog or website that provides value to your readers. And no, your website does not have to be about vanlife – it can be about anything that you’re interested in.
This is how we make a living on the road. We build informational websites (including this one), drive traffic to them, and monetize them – mostly through affiliate marketing. We started our first site in the spring of 2016, but it wasn’t until September 2017 that income from our sites began covering our expenses. Now, we bring in more income than we ever did in our former 9-5 lives.
We are very grateful for how this has shaken out, but it also took a lot of hustle and hard work to get to this point.
So how, exactly, do you go about starting a website that earns you a living? We plan on writing a detailed post on this soon, but in the meantime here are some resources:
- Authority Hacker. The go-to resource for all things related to starting a useful and profitable website. The free content on their blog is super detailed, they have a helpful podcast, and if you want something more structured they have paid courses that are well worth the cost of admission.
- ProBlogger. One of the first (and still one of the best) sites about blogging for a living. This site is packed with resources and tips on all things related to building, monetizing, and growing a profitable blogging business.
- Blog Tyrant. An informative and down-to-earth blog about, well, starting a blog.
- How to Make Money Travel Blogging (From Someone Who Does). This blog post from World Travel Family is a great overview of how the business of blogging works behind the scenes. And the blogging section of this website also has some good free resources.
While you can certainly find what you need to start a website out there for free, it can be overwhelming to sort through all the information floating around and figure out what you actually need to do.
This is where courses come in handy – they take everything you need to know and present it to you in a structured way that keeps you on the path to success. We wouldn’t have had the courage to get started on our online business journey without the help of paid courses.
Here are some of our favorites:
- Nomadic Matt’s “The Business of Travel Blogging” Course. Nomadic Matt runs one of the most successful travel blogs on the planet. In this course, he walks you through exactly how to start your own blog, build a platform, grow your reach, and make a living doing it. The cost of the course also includes technical support and coaching while you work on getting your blog up and running.
- The Authority Site System (TASS). From the guys behind Authority Hacker, this course walks you through the whole process of starting a money-making website – from choosing a topic, to building your site, to getting traffic, to monetization methods. Membership also gets you into their very active and helpful Facebook group. We have access to TASS through our membership to Authority Hacker Pro, and it’s the real deal.
Earning Extra Money Before Vanlife
Are you worried about taking the leap without a financial cushion? Consider doing everything you can to build up some savings before you move into your van. This can give you some time to get used to life on the road and figure out a way to make regular income, without the pressure of needing money to buy groceries and put gas in your van.
Before we hit the road back in 2017, we had spent the previous year-and-a-half working our asses off to afford our van build and give us a cushion to start off with. And because of our hard work, we were able to build out our van and hit the road with about $10,000 in the bank.
Here are some things you can do to earn extra money before vanlife:
- Sell your belongings. If you’re moving into a van, chances are you need to downsize. Might as well turn your stuff into cash by selling it! We were able to make over $10,000 selling everything we owned. And we wrote an epic post about how you can sell your belongings to travel in a van.
- Become an Airbnb host. If you have the space for it, hosting on Airbnb can be a great way to earn some extra money and meet interesting travellers from all over the world. We ran an Airbnb out of our spare bedroom for over a year, and it was so much fun (and so lucrative) that we plan on doing it again if we ever find ourselves with a stationary dwelling in the future.
Interested in hosting on Airbnb? Sign up using this link and earn $10 when you complete your first reservation.
- Freelance. Yes, freelancing is great for earning side income as well! We were able to make several hundred dollars extra per month doing freelance writing and graphic design through Upwork. See the “freelancing” section above for more options and resources.
- Work a side job. It can be a good idea to take advantage of being in one location by picking up a side job to earn some extra money.
Already have a van? Make some cash listing it on Outdoorsy!
If you have a campervan or RV but aren’t full time in it, you can list it for rent on Outdoorsy and earn extra money to fund your travels. Outdoorsy is essentially the Airbnb of campervan and RV rentals, and it’s a great way to earn some extra cash in between your adventures.
Vanlife is a Lifestyle, not a Vacation
Vanlifers may live and work unconventionally and march to the tune of their own schedules, but it’s important to realize that the vanlifers who make it work full time are working to make this lifestyle work for them. This often means hustling and making compromises, and vanlifers still experience the ups and downs, the uncertainties and frustrations, of life and work.
Vanlife is not a vacation for us, nor is it for most vanlifers. Vanlife is an alternative lifestyle. We still work (in fact, we often find ourselves working more than we did in our former 9-5 lives), but the difference is we have a lot more freedom to choose where, when, and how we work.
The options we discuss above are by no means the only ways to make money on the road. There are many different methods to sustain yourself financially, you just need to get out there and find them. Many vanlifers combine some or all of these income sources, and even come up with some of their own. This lifestyle rewards hustle and creativity, and the more you think outside the box and go after opportunities, the more successful you’ll be.
Getting Mail on the Road
How do you get your mail when you don’t have a fixed address? Luckily, there are plenty of ways to receive your mail and packages when you’re traveling full time. Like most things vanlife, it just takes a little extra planning. Below, we go over some common ways to get your mail and packages on the road:
- USPS General Delivery. Most Post Offices in North America (and worldwide) will accept general delivery mail and hold it for you for free (general delivery is also called “poste restante” in some countries). All you need to do is show up at the Post Office, show them your ID, and walk out with your mail. Both letters and packages are fair game (even Amazon deliveries). Since there are Post Offices everywhere this method is super convenient, and this is the primary way we receive our mail. Check out our Mail on the Road post for more details on using this service.
- Campgrounds. Many campgrounds will receive mail and packages for you. Just be sure to ask ahead of time (some campgrounds may charge a fee). We’ve never done this ourselves since general delivery is so convenient, but many full timers go this route.
- Amazon Lockers (Amazon packages only). If you really need to order something from Amazon, they’ve set up a convenient network of “lockers” where you can ship your packages. Amazon Lockers are mostly concentrated in major metropolitan and coastal areas at this point, but the network is constantly growing. This option is super easy, especially if you’re a Prime member.
- Shipping Companies (FedEx/UPS). Another option is setting up a box at a UPS/FedEx store. Then, when you need you mail/packages, they can be conveniently forwarded to a location closer to where you are.
- Friends and Family. If you know you’ll be visiting a friend or family member, ask them if you can have some stuff sent to them. We’re lucky enough to have friends and family scattered all over the country, and we’ve used visits as opportunities to have mail and packages sent to us at a safe address.
What Do You Use as Your Permanent Address?
The above options are great for receiving your mail while you’re out traveling. But when you live in a van, what do you use for your permanent mailing address? Here are the most common options:
- Use a friend or family member’s address. If you have a friend or family member willing to accept your mail and let you use their address for vehicle registration, etc., then this is by far the easiest option. This is also what most people do when they start out, and it’s what we did our first year on the road.
- Use a mail-forwarding service to domicile in a nomad-friendly state. There are several reasons why it might make sense to switch your “domicile,” or legal permanent residence, to a more nomad-friendly state (the most common are South Dakota, Texas, and Florida). Doing this requires that you sign up for a mail forwarding service within your new state, and fulfill additional requirements that the individual state has. As of 2018, we are proud residents of South Dakota!
Insurance (health, auto, property, etc)
Now for the fun stuff! No one, and I mean no one, enjoys dealing with insurance. And living a nomadic lifestyle can make figuring all of this out quite a bit more challenging.
We don’t pretend to have all the answers here, but below we’ve compiled our best knowledge to help you navigate insurance issues as a vanlifer.
There’s no sugarcoating it, the health insurance situation in the US is abysmal, especially if you travel full time. There are very few real options out there for nomadic vanlifers that offer coverage in all 50 states.
If you have a job that includes insurance coverage (and accommodates your lifestyle) – great! You may have nationwide coverage. However, many vanlifers are self-employed or work seasonal/temporary/contract positions. That means we’re on our own for insurance, and the coverage options available to us are not great, to say the least.
Note: This is a complicated topic that deserves a post in itself. Also, we are not health insurance experts. If you have insurance needs we encourage you to speak with a knowledgeable professional for advice. RVer Insurance Exchange is an insurance broker that is familiar with the needs of nomadic travelers, and can be a good resource.
Here are some of the main health care options for vanlifers:
Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) Major Medical Plans
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) provides access for anyone to purchase an insurance plan on government exchanges, and provides subsidies to make it affordable if you have a lower income. But unless you’re stationary and/or qualify for subsidies, these plans don’t make much sense for most vanlifers.
See, the majority of ACA plans only cover you in the state where you purchase them (i.e. the state where you’re a legal resident). So if you’re a legal resident of New Jersey and you need to go to the doctor in California – guess what? You don’t have coverage.
An ACA plan may work for you if you vanlife in/around one place. If you qualify for subsidies, an ACA plan can also be a good hedge against catastrophic medical emergencies (which are typically covered out of state). But if you travel full time and do not qualify for subsidies, ACA plans won’t do a whole lot for you.
Short Term Medical Plans
Another option for health insurance is a short term medical plan. The great thing about short term plans is that they are much cheaper than ACA plans, and they work in all 50 states. And despite the name, you can purchase these plans with coverage terms up to three years.
The big downside to these plans is that they are not ACA-compliant. This means that they don’t cover certain things that ACA-compliant plans are required to by law, and they can also deny you coverage based on pre-existing conditions.
But, if you’re generally healthy, want the ability to go to the urgent care or see a doctor without paying full price, and want some hospital/emergency coverage, a short term plan might be worth looking into. Find out more about what to look for here.
Healthshare Ministries are an alternative approach to health coverage that have been growing increasingly popular in recent years. These are cooperatives of religiously-affiliated people who agree to help pay for each other’s medical expenses.
Healthshare plans usually require you to accept a moral covenant when you join, and may require you to be a practicing Christian (some are a little more vague on this point, offering some wiggle room for non-Christians and even atheists to get on board). It’s important to note that these plans are not insurance, and there is no guarantee or legal requirement that they will pay out when you need them to.
Still, Healthshare plans are significantly cheaper than ACA plans, and may help pay for things that just aren’t covered by non-ACA insurance (like childbirth). Depending on your needs and what you’re comfortable with, this could be an attractive option.
Fixed Benefit Indemnity Plans
These types of plans pay out fixed benefits for medical expenses (usually in cash directly to you). They can be good to have to cover yourself in case of catastrophic emergencies, or to supplement the coverage of a short term plan or Healthshare plan. Indemnity plans range from full-blown hospital plans that pay out significant benefits for all kinds of things, to more limited plans that pay out smaller amounts.
Self-Paying for Medical Expenses
Many vanlifers choose to go without insurance altogether and self-pay for basic medical expenses. This actually isn’t as bad as it sounds (for minor care or urgent care visits, at least). If you are able to pay upfront, most medical providers offer a self pay discount that shaves a lot off the cost. Still, medical care can get expensive fast, so if you plan on self-paying it’s still a good idea to cover yourself in case of a major emergency (through an indemnity plan, for example).
Sometimes you just need some quick medical advice or a prescription, and don’t necessarily need to physically visit a doctor. Telemed plans give you access to a doctor via phone or Skype whenever you need one, all for an affordable monthly rate. They can even write you prescriptions.
What do we do for health insurance? When we first hit the road we had an ACA-plan, before we discovered (after getting a surprise $800 medical bill) that our insurance did not cover us out of our “home” state. Now, we have a short term medical plan, and supplement it with an inexpensive fixed-benefit accident plan. But what works for us may not work for you. Make sure you research all of your options and choose what’s best for your situation.
Insuring Your Van
Auto insurance can be difficult to get without a permanent address. Even if you have a mail forwarding address, most insurance companies require that you have a “garageable” address for your vehicle, and don’t take too kindly to the idea that you’re living in it full time.
While many vanlifers end up concealing their living situation from their insurance companies to make sure they don’t get dropped, being honest about your lifestyle can sometimes get you coverage that’s better suited for vanlife, and may even cover your build and belongings.
Here are some options to think about when insuring your campervan:
- Talk to an insurance agent/broker face-to-face, and be honest. When you’re dealing with an individual agent and are upfront about what you’re doing, they may be willing to help navigate you to options that will work for you. Insurance brokers are also a good option, since they can direct you to plans at multiple insurers.
- Consider going through an insurance provider that is used to dealing with RVers and other nomads. Like vanlifers, RVers also live in their vehicles full time and may not have a permanent residence, so options for them tend to work for us as well. If you use a mail forwarder for your legal address, they may be able to refer you to a broker who’s used to dealing with people in your situation. There are also some insurance brokers out there who market themselves towards RVers and vehicle nomads, such as Good Sam Insurance and RVer Insurance.
- Consider insuring your van as an RV. If you convert your van into a mobile dwelling you may be able to insure it as a recreational vehicle (rates for RV insurance tend to be lower than auto policies). To do this, you may need to re-title your vehicle as an RV, and the requirements for that are different in each state. Again, talk this through with your insurance agent.
Can I insure the cost of my build?
Maybe – ask your insurance agent before you start building to get an idea of the requirements they have.
(Check out this article from explorist.life about how they insured their build)
What about the stuff inside my van?
If you’re a part-time or seasonal vanlifer with a stationary dwelling somewhere, your stuff may already be covered under your homeowner’s or renter’s policy. If you don’t have either of these, then you can look into getting a personal articles policy to insure your belongings. State Farm offers a personal articles policy, and these types of policies may also be available from RV insurers like Good Sam or RVer Insurance.
Resources and Community on the Road
To outsiders, the idea of living in a van may seem like a lonely pursuit that’s devoid of community. But in reality, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The nomadic community is incredibly vibrant and welcoming, and there are many great ways to meet new people and stay connected – even when you’re nowhere near each other.
Connecting with the Nomad Community
Many vanlifers begin their foray into the nomad community via the internet. Internet resources are great places to ask questions and find useful information, as well as connect with other vanlifers. Here are some of the most common ways to connect online:
- Instagram. For all of its faults, Instagram is a great place to connect with other vanlifers. We’ve established many relationships through Instagram that began with comments and messages, and eventually transitioned into real life friendships. Instagram is also a great way to keep up with your friends and their travels.
- Vanlife Facebook groups. There are several very active Facebook groups out there that cater to the nomad community. You can find everything from general #vanlife groups, to groups about RV/vanlife solar tips, to groups for “full time families”. These groups tend to have lively discussions, and they’re great places to ask questions, learn, and connect with others.
- Vandwellers subreddit. Like the vanlife Facebook groups, r/vandwellers is a great place to find tips and tricks, and connect with others interested in this lifestyle. r/vanlife is a smaller subreddit that’s also helpful.
- Forums. There are several active forums that cater to various segments of the nomad community. Some of the more popular ones are:
How about connecting in person? There are many vanlife gatherings all over North America (and the world) that bring nomads of all kinds together. These are awesome events that allow vanlifers to hang out, swap stories, and form instant life-long friendships. Here’s just a sampling of some of the gatherings out there:
- Midwest Vanlife Gathering. Hosted by us here at Gnomad Home, every May in the beautiful Midwest.
- Descend on Bend. Every fall near Bend, OR. This is the grand-daddy of all van events, with well over 500 vans in attendance.
- Asheville Vanlife Rally. Every September in Asheville, NC.
- Vanlife Diaries hosts a series of events in the US and Australia.
- Go-Van hosts events in Canada every year.
- Vanlife Connections hosts several day meetups a year at Fiesta Island near San Diego, CA.
- Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Hosted by Bob from Cheap Rv Living, this is technically an RV event (though it does have a van section). RTR attracts thousands of nomads to Quartzsite, AZ every January.
Essential Apps for Vanlife
When you’re traveling in your van, you need a way to find places to camp and other local amenities. These are the apps that we find ourselves using all the time.
- Freecampsites.net (Website). The go-to resource to find great, free boondocking spots. They don’t have an app for some reason, but this website is easily the most comprehensive and useful database of free campsites out there. Many sites have reviews, photos, and information on cell service as well. Bookmark this one.
- RV Parky (iOS | Android) or Park Advisor (iOS | Android) or Allstays Camp & RV (iOS | Website). These apps all pretty much do the same thing – they show you campgrounds (federal campground, state parks, and private/RV parks), as well as other overnight parking options like Walmarts, big box stores, truck stops, and more. These apps also show useful stores for nomads like REI and Camping World, as well as dump stations, propane, etc. A must have for every nomadic traveler.
- FreeRoam (iOS | Android | Website). FreeRoam not only shows you where the camping’s at, it also offers some really useful tools like the ability to overlay public land maps, so you can see where off-the-beaten-path camping might be available in an area. This app also shows tons of data on each campsite to help you decide which one to go for (data is user-generated so it’s not available for all sites yet, but more is being added all the time). And, the company behind this app is a nonprofit that advocates for nomadic lifestyles, protecting public space, and educating people on responsible usage.
- iOverlander (iOS | Android | Website). Great resource for finding boondocking spots and random little pull-offs that aren’t on other apps. A ton of people use this, though, so chances are you’ll face some competition for the best sites. These days, we actually make sure that sites we’re considering for a longer stay aren’t listed on iOverlander.
- Campendium (iOS | Website). Excellent database of both free and paid camping with a slick interface. Not as comprehensive as freecampsites.net, but still good and features a ton of user-generated reviews. This is one of the top apps for iPhone users, but the rest of us are stuck with their website.
Why so many camping apps? Well, no camping app has every single campsite listed in their database. Also, some apps are better for free boondocking sites, while others are better for campgrounds (free or paid), or general overnight parking. Checking multiple apps helps us make sure we have an idea of all the available options.
Other Useful Apps
- Open Signal (iOS | Android). Open Signal shows super detailed cell phone coverage maps, almost down to the yard. If you want to get an idea of what the cell service is like in an area, this app is unbeatable. If we need service, we compare coverage maps from Open Signal with maps of potential camping to help us find a spot that might have coverage.
- Gas Buddy (iOS | Android | Website). Why pay more for gas than you need to? Gas Buddy shows you gas prices in your area so you can make sure you’re getting the best deal.
- Waze (iOS | Android). Waze is an incredibly useful navigation app because it collects crowd-sourced data on things like accidents and speed traps. This app is incredibly helpful in any driving situation.
- Rover (iOS | Android | Website). Traveling with a dog, but need to do something non-dog-friendly? Put them up with a Rover.com dog sitter! Basically the Airbnb of dog-sitting, Rover allows you to find local people to watch your dog for a few hours or a few days. We’ve used Rover extensively on the road, and it’s great.
- Windy (iOS | Android | Website). You need to stay on top of the weather when you travel in a van. And there’s no other app that has a better view of current and future weather conditions around the worlds than Windy. You can see everything from wind speed and direction, humidity, temperature, storms (complete with cool lightning pops), fog, clouds, dust storms, and more. And since this app was designed by extreme sports enthusiasts, you can even see information like wave swells and snow depth.
- Is vanlife just fun and glamorous all the time, like it looks on Instagram?
- I see a lot of #sponsored posts on Instagram. Is every vanlifer making a living from sponsorships?
- If I moved into a van with my significant other we’d end up killing each other. How do you guys do it?
- I have a dog/cat/ferret/snake. Can I still do vanlife?
- How do you decide where to go next?
- Will you share your favorite secluded spots with us?
- Where do you get rid of your trash and recycling? How do you keep the interior of your van clean?
- What do you eat on the road? I bet it’s a lot of fast food and gas station junk!
- Where do you find fresh drinking water on the road?
- How do you deal with cold weather/hot weather in a vehicle?
- Do you get lonely? How do you meet people traveling?
- What kind of MPG do you get? Aren’t you worried about your carbon footprint?
- I’m not sure if I’ll like living in a van. Is there a way I can test it out for a short period first?
Is vanlife just fun and glamorous all the time, like it looks on Instagram?
No. Well… maybe. We think it’s fun pretty much all the time, but it’s definitely not glamorous. We don’t spend all of our time lounging half-naked on pristine beaches, or lying in bed staring at a majestic alpine lake out our back doors. Sure, those things happen, but that’s not what vanlife is like day-to-day.
Oftentimes we don’t know where we’re going to sleep on a given night until we get there. Our van quickly becomes a disaster area if we neglect to put something away. We wear the same clothes for days (sometimes weeks) at a time, and showering is a weekly event.
And those beautiful wilderness camping spots? They almost never have cell service, so when it comes time to get our work done we have to decamp somewhere with signal, which often ends up being some sort of parking lot. And we work a lot, so that dictates what we do more often than we’d like.
But while vanlife isn’t clean and beautiful and picturesque all the time, it’s still a freaking blast.
Every day is an adventure, and not knowing where you’ll end up or what you’ll be doing is addictively freeing. This may feel like stressful uncertainty for some, but for us it feels like exciting possibility, and it forces us to open up to the reality that none of us really knows what the future holds.
On top of that, some of the best people we’ve met, we’ve met on the road. Even though we all like to go off and do our own thing most of the time, there really is a true community feeling among all of us nomads that is very open, accepting, and non-judgmental.
So is vanlife glamorous all the time? Hard no. Is it fun? Hell yeah! But that also depends on your definition of fun.
I see a lot of #sponsored posts on Instagram. Is every vanlifer making a living from sponsorships?
No. In fact, this is one of the most difficult ways to try to make vanlife work financially. Sure, it’s possible, and there’s a small handful of people who do it successfully, but it’s a lot harder than it looks. If your vanlife dreams center around doing nothing but relaxing in stunning locales and snapping sponsored pics for Hydro Flask, you’re in for a rude awakening.
We do not make any money from sponsorships (nor do we want to). We have accepted free products on occasion, but only from companies that we reach out to specifically – usually because we were going to buy their product anyway, so might as well try to leverage our following to save some money and support a company that we’re down with.
Despite the impression you may get from your Instagram feed, for the vast majority of vanlifers making a real living as a social media influencer is just not realistic and is kind of a rat race in itself.
If I moved into a van with my significant other we’d end up killing each other. How do you guys do it?
Many people have this conception that they could never make it work with their significant other in such a small space. And living this way does test relationships in new and different ways.
But if you are willing to approach your relationship with honesty and vulnerability, to put aside your egos and strive to improve your communication, your relationship will grow stronger than it ever was before.
How do we make it work? We make our relationship our number one priority.
We put a very strong focus on communication and honesty. The times we get into fights are when we lack one of these two things. If we are on the same page with one another then there is little room to butt heads. We know when the other needs space. We know to get out of the other’s way, or to put in more effort around the van to take some pressure off of each other, or to show caring and love and support.
We also work diligently on ourselves individually. The more we are holistically fulfilled, the stronger and deeper our relationship becomes. We journal, we exercise, we meditate, we create, we read, we take private time.
We’re not cooped up in the van 24/7, so there’s plenty of room for each of us to get space when we need it. Yes, we sleep there, and we make many of our meals there – but our “living” gets done outside of the van. And when your backyard is 1.5 million acres of public land, the number one thing you do have is SPACE!
If your relationship has a strong and honest foundation, if you communicate openly with each other, if you remain open and flexible in your travels – then vanlife can be extremely enriching for you and your significant other.
I have a dog/cat/ferret/snake. Can I still do vanlife?
Absolutely! We have two dogs with us, and we’ve met people traveling with all manner of pets from cats to snakes. It can be a great way to keep your best friend with you and show them all kinds of cool things they would never see sitting inside of a house.
We think vanlife with dogs is an absolute blast, but it’s important to realize that there are some trade-offs when you’re traveling with a pet.
First off, your pet’s comfort should be your top priority. We’ve changed our travel plans several times to avoid extreme heat that would be dangerous for our dogs. We also rarely leave them in the van unattended – and only if it’s cooler temperatures, and then only for short periods.
You also likely won’t be able to bring your pet with you everywhere you go. This is more of an issue in towns/cities than it is in the wild – which works fine for us, since we prefer to spend our time off the grid. But when we’re in towns/cities (or National Parks), we’re either limited in what we can do, or we put our dogs up with a sitter for the day so we have more freedom (we usually use Rover.com, which is like the Airbnb of dog sitting).
That said – having a pet with you is a very enriching experience, and if you want to bring your best friend along for the ride we highly recommend it!
How do you decide where to go next?
Any number of things can dictate where we choose to adventure off to next, from weather to work to future plans.
The number one thing that broadly influences our travel route is the weather. A huge advantage of nomadic travel is that ability to seek out the weather that you enjoy (or avoid weather that you don’t enjoy). At the height of summer when it’s scorching hot almost everywhere, you can typically find us at high elevations where it’s cooler, hiding in the middle of the woods by a stream. In the winter… well it’s likely you’ll find us here too in the winter. Somehow we keep finding ourselves in the mountains during the winter, ha.
Future plans also dictate our travel. We try not to make too many plans so we can kind of drift along as we please, but sometimes we’ll have a van gathering or a concert we know we want to make it to, or a friend we want to visit, or somewhere we want to be for a holiday. When we do make plans like this, we try our best to space them out, so that we know we can take our time getting from point A to point B.
As far as where we camp on a day to day basis, work often dictates that. Since we need internet to work, we need to plan our travels around having internet at certain times so we can get our work done. This can mean seeking out wilderness camp spots with service (which can be hit or miss)), paying for a campsite, or popping into service to work for the day. We’ll search for a wilderness spot if we want to post up for awhile, we’ll stay at a campground if we really need reliable internet for something, and we’ll pop into service if we need to run errands anyway.
So if we have four months in the summer to get from Idaho to SoCal, you may find us bouncing around the many lakes of Montana or the mountains of Utah, staying at awesome secluded spots for a week before popping into a small town for a day or two. Spit. Rinse. Repeat.
Will you share your favorite secluded spots with us?
We don’t like to publicly share our favorite campsites (although we may tell you about them over beers some time). Sharing spots just invites overcrowding, and a big part of the fun is adventuring into the wild and discovering your own awesome spots.
But – we will share our process for finding kickass secluded camping spots that also have cell service. Here’s what we do:
- Find some prospective camping spots or areas to target. Freecampsites.net is awesome for finding great free camping. We also recommend the iOverlander app (iPhone | Android) for more free camping, or the ParkAdvisor app (iPhone | Android) for paid camping.
- Pull up the Open Signal app (iPhone | Android) and click the map icon at the bottom. This shows you a super detailed overview of cell service in the area – and you can get an idea of potential campsites that are near cell service.
We’ve been able to find a ton of great boondocking spots this way, and because they had service we were able to stay for several days and get our work done! We also have a WeBoost Drive 4G-X cell signal booster that helps expand our options quite a bit.
Where do you get rid of your trash and recycling? How do you keep the interior of your van clean?
The short answer to this is that we have both trash and recycling bins inside our van, and we dispose of everything in proper receptacles that we find along the way. When you live in a van, you need to follow a pack-it-out, Leave-No-Trace mentality.
Trash is the easy one, since there are trash cans and dumpsters everywhere – at trailheads, gas stations, big box stores, etc. We try to live as waste-free as possible, so it might take us a week or longer to fill our small 2-gallon trash can, mostly with food scraps.
Recycling can be a little tougher. We’ve occasionally found recycling bins at trailheads or conveniently on town/city streets, but more often than not we need to go out of our way to seek out recycling. We’ve found that most medium-large size towns and cities have a recycling center of some sort, so whenever we’re in a town we Google “recycling center near town, state” and see what’s nearby. If there’s nowhere, we hold on to our recycling until we find somewhere to properly recycle it.
As far as keeping the van clean – it’s super easy! When you live in a van, cleaning your entire house doesn’t take very long. It probably takes us about 20 minutes to clean our van. We have a small hand broom that we use to sweep dirt, sand, leaves, and anything else right out the side door. We also have a 12V vacuum for getting hard-to-reach areas.
What do you eat on the road? I bet it’s a lot of fast food and gas station junk!
We’ve actually found that we eat much healthier on the road than we do when we’re stationary. We have such a limited amount of space that we choose to be very conscious about what we allow in the van. We cook almost all of our meals, and we very rarely eat out.
Believe it or not, we actually have a full kitchen in our van, complete with stove, refrigerator, toaster, coffee maker, sink, pantry and immersion blender. Just about anything you can make in a regular kitchen, we can make in our van (the only thing we don’t have is an oven, but there are ovens out there that would work in a campervan).
And since we have a limited space, we need to focus on keeping nourishing, fresh whole foods in our van instead of processed food and other junk. And what we don’t have, we can’t eat!
Where do you find fresh drinking water on the road?
Although there are plenty of free water options out there, most of the time we buy fresh water from refill stations. The water from these stations costs about $0.25-$0.50 per gallon, and is typically triple-filtered (including reverse-osmosis), so it’s cleaner than any other water you’ll find. Given that you never really know what kind of nasty chemicals and industrial contaminants are in water sources, filtered water is a priority for us.
Where to find these refill stations? Most (but not all) Walmarts have a water station, and many grocery stores have one as well. The largest brand is Primo Water, and they have a station locator on their website. There are other brands out there, though, so it pays to check grocery stores if nothing shows up on the Primo locator.
What about free water? State parks, national parks, rest areas, visitors centers, even many gas stations have water spigots. RV dump stations may also have potable water (use the ParkAdvisor app to find nearby dump stations). And, if you’re staying at a campground, you can use their spigot to fill up. Water quality at these locations can be hit or miss, so it’s a good idea to invest in some sort of filtration system like this inline RV water filter.
If you have the right filtration system, another option is to harvest wild water from lakes, streams, and rivers.
Read More: Water System and Plumbing
How do you deal with cold weather/hot weather in a vehicle?
When living in a van, you’re at the mercy of the outside weather to a certain extent. In an off grid situation, it’s just not feasible to control the interior temperature of your van to the same degree than you can in a grid-connected house.
So how do you deal with temperature extremes when you live in a van? There are quite a few things you can do to make sure your van stays comfortable in any weather:
Tips for all weather:
- Plan your travels around the weather. First and foremost, it’s a good idea to base your travel plans around the weather. You won’t see us in Southern Arizona in July, or in Alaska in February. High elevation, coastal areas, and the far north are great for sheltering from the heat, whereas lower elevations and southern latitudes are good places to wait out the winter if you’re not into the cold.
- Insulate, insulate, insulate. Making sure to insulate your van well will help keep heat inside your van during cold weather, and keep heat outside during hot weather. Insulation alone won’t do everything, but it will make it a lot easier to keep your van a comfortable temperature.
- Install reflective window coverings. Reflective window coverings are essential for a van build. We have an Eclipse Sunshade for our windshield, and reversible reflective curtains made out of Insul-Shine installed on the rest of our windows. When it’s hot out, we face the reflective side outwards to reflect heat away from the van. On cold nights, we face the reflective side inwards to help keep radiant heat inside the van.
Tips for Hot Weather
- Install a roof vent fan. A roof vent fan like the MaxxFan Deluxe is your best friend in hot weather (and many other situations). We keep our fan running 24/7. Combined with a cracked window, a ventilation fan maintains airflow in your van, sucking hotter air out while pulling cooler air in. Combined with our reflective window coverings, our vent fan is able to keep our van no hotter than the outside temperature, even when parked in direct sun.
- Keep your van shaded. The temperature difference between shade and sun can be pretty drastic, so when you’re dealing with hot weather it’s a good idea to park in the shade. In the desert? Create your own shade using an awning on the door side of your van (we have the ARB Touring awning but you can also DIY one). For the non-door side of your van, create shade by clipping a silver tarp to your van’s rain gutters, and staking the other end to the ground.
- Use evaporative cooling. AC units use way too much electricity to be used in a campervan (unless you’re plugged in at a campground). But evaporative cooling solutions do a great job of keeping you cool. We use cooling towels for a little extra cooling boost in hot weather. For a little more intense solution, you can look into building your own swamp cooler (best for dry climates).
Tips for Cold Weather
- Have an active heat source. Insulation is essential for cold weather camping. But insulation only keeps heat in, it doesn’t create it. A small active heat source like the ubiquitous Mr. Heater Buddy propane heater can heat up a van in just a few minutes (make sure to have proper ventilation and a CO detector when using a propane heater).
- Use a hot water bottle at night. A simple hot water bottle in your bed works wonders to keep you warm on those cold winter nights.
- Bundle up! If you’re cold, put more clothes on! Long underwear or base layers are great for adding layers. We highly recommend investing in a set of merino wool baselayers if you do a lot of cold weather camping.
Do you get lonely? How do you meet people traveling?
This can be a complex question depending on how you look at it. Personally, we really enjoy being out in the middle of the wilderness without another soul around, so in that sense we prefer the solitude that vanlife can bring vs the hustle and bustle of our old lives. When you’re alone on the road, you don’t have the constant distractions of conventional life all around you. One of the discomforts of this lifestyle that’s also an incredible opportunity for growth is learning how to be comfortable and content with yourself. Once you learn to do this, you will find yourself feeling less lonely.
That said, we do sometimes miss friends and family back “home”, especially when there are monumental events going on in their lives that we wish we could be there for. But thanks to the magic of cell phones and the internet, we’re able to stay in contact and even see people face-to-face via Skype. We’ve also begun rekindling the practice of letter writing, which we’ve found to be a great way to stay in touch with important people on a deeper level. And, since we live in a van, we have the flexibility to visit people whenever we choose!
So do we get lonely? In general, no, we don’t. We thoroughly enjoy the solitude of the wilderness, there’s never any shortage of things to do on the road, and we’re never bored. We’ve discovered and developed many ways to enjoy our own company. And if we’re feeling social and want to meet other people, we’ve never had problems finding new “neighbors.”
Meeting People on the Road
We’ve met many people by just talking to our camping neighbors, or seeing someone’s rig in a parking lot and striking up a conversation. Since we all share a passion for nomadic living and for our vans, asking about someone’s rig is an instant ice breaker. No screen time needed – just good old fashioned conversation. More often than not this had led to new friends and camping buddies.
Social media is also a great way to meet people on the road. Instagram, vanlife Facebook groups, or even Reddit and Youtube – there are people on these platforms that are down to meet up and hang out. Mainly via Instagram, we’ve made many friends from all over the world, shared hardships and triumphs with them, and felt an instant deep connection when we actually met them in person – like reuniting with an old friend.
Vanlife gatherings are also a phenomenal way to connect with people in this community. From the Midwest Vanlife Gathering that we host every May, to the events put on by Go Van in Canada, to the Vanlife Diaries series of gatherings in Australia and the US, to the massive Descend on Bend outside of Bend, OR every fall, to all the other events big and small, there are gatherings of nomads all over the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and all over the world. These events are filled with inspiration, stories, adventure, fun, and new lifelong friends who really understand you.
Looking for a gathering in North America? Go-Van features a calendar of events on their website.
What kind of MPG do you get? Aren’t you worried about your carbon footprint?
Our van (a ‘96 Chevy Express) gets about 15 MPG. Most of the older van models – from VW Westfalias to Ford Econolines and beyond – average around 12-15 MPG. The newer “Euro-style” vans – Mercedes Sprinters, Ford Transits, Dodge Promasters, etc – do better at around 18-22 MPG.
Of course, this is terrible gas mileage compared to smaller vehicles. And given this, some people are rightly concerned about the carbon footprint of living a lifestyle centered around driving large, gas-guzzling vehicles all over the place.
Even though burning so much gas is not ideal, vanlifers live a lifestyle that is much lower impact than the average person.
A huge chunk of carbon emissions in the United States come from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity. Most vanlifers do not use any grid-generated electricity, completely eliminating these carbon emissions from their lives (as well as other sources of residential emissions).
Vanlife is also an inherently minimalist lifestyle, meaning that vanlifers are consuming far fewer products than the average person – products which likely require emissions and other potentially harmful industrial practices to produce. So, when evaluating the environmental impact of this lifestyle, it’s important to look beyond the MPG of the vehicle and instead view vanlife from a holistic perspective.
And if there were an electric or hybrid van out there that had a long range and could be recharged using solar, we’d be the first to sign up! (Side note: we are currently investigating the feasibility of converting our van to a hybrid, which would be bitchin’).
I’m not sure if I’ll like living in a van. Is there a way I can test it out for a short period first?
Absolutely! If you’re worried that you won’t like living in a van – that the space is far too small for you, or that you’ll end up killing your significant other – it can be a good idea to test drive the lifestyle for a short period before committing to it full time.
One way to do that is by renting a campervan from Outdoorsy. Outdoorsy features vans and RVs that owners list on the Outdoorsy platform – so you can test out an actual vanlife vehicle and see how it feels and functions.
There are vans to rent just about anywhere you need one – so you can take one on a road trip from your home area, or you can fly somewhere awesome and pick one up when you get there