You’ve seen the Instagram photos and features in Outside magazine. But life on the road isn’t all epic adventures and Pinterest-worthy decor.
#VanLife is trending. And while most of the stories in the New York Times or ESPN focus on the freedom and glamour of living on the road, it’s time to get real. I’m here to tell you–with a little assistance from my van dwelling, Vanny McVanface–what you need to know to make van life sustainable. Anyone can live on camp food for a week or go a few days without showering, but if you’re really considering making a two-ton rolling heap of metal your house, here’s what you should consider before it becomes your permanent hiking base camp.
1. Roof Height Matters
You know that feeling when you walk into a room with high ceilings? That’s what you want in a van. As someone who’s 6′ 1″, having an interior where I can stand has been a game changer. Of current high-roof vans, the Ford Transit High Roof and Ram Promaster High Roof are the tallest available in North America.
But when shopping, make sure to account for the space you’ll lose when you add a floor and ceiling. My van started with six feet and four inches of usable interior height. After adding a floor and ceiling, I can just stand up straight without banging my head.
2. Sometimes It’s Tough to Find a Place to Park
Not paying rent is cool. Waking up at 5 a.m. to gun shots and a domestic disturbance in a parking lot is not. Trust me. It’s tough to find quiet, safe places to park if you’re trying to save money while vanlifing. Though everyone has techniques suited to their comfort, the general rule is: Don’t spend more than one night in a place you aren’t paying for (unless the owner gives you permission). Many Walmart parking lots allow RVers and vanlifers to park overnight. Use this website to check if a Walmart is one of the rare stores that doesn’t allow it. Insider tip: Even if there’s a posted sign or a city ordinance saying you can’t park overnight, if you call and talk to the manager, they’ll usually let you.
3. You’ll Miss Your Bathroom. A Lot.
Whether a bucket, bag, or bottle, you need somewhere to take care of business when nature calls at 3 a.m. Figure out which option is most comfortable for you, but make sure you have at least one go-to for any emergency.
4. Powering Your Life Gets a Lot More Complicated
Before I started living in a van full-time, I never thought about how many amps or watts an electronic device used. Once I moved into my van, it’s all I considered. To put it simply: You’ll want as much power as possible to try and maintain the lifestyle you had before.
In creating my mobile grid, I installed five 100-watt Grape Solar panels on my roof, utilized two 200 amp-hour VMax Tanks solar AGM batteries to store that power, and a 2000-watt Xantrex inverter to change the DC current to AC. This setup allows me to have a high efficiency, 40-quart fridge running 24/7 and still have enough power to run two fans overnight when it’s hot.
5. Accessibility Is Your #1 Goal
Drawers. Drawers. Drawers. You will never realize how much you miss them until you move all your belongings into plastic tubs. If I could fix one mistake I made, it would be to add more storage. I learned the hard way that your van should hold as many easily accessible storage options as possible. When it’s cold and you’re looking for that pair of long-underwear, you’ll be glad you threw in a few extra compartments.
6. A Van Without Ventilation Might as Well Be a Swamp
You quicken your pace, jump inside, and slam the door just as the rain starts to pour. It’s a great feeling to know you’re safe inside a vehicle where water won’t leak in. Unfortunately, that same sealed factor is one that makes your a van a dead zone for air movement.
To counter this, make sure to install entry and exit locations for air. (It’s best if they’re on opposite ends of the van). This creates a flow that will spare your sanity on hot summer nights. Most vanlifers install a roof fan and have a side or back door with a screened-in window, keeping you cool and bug free.
7. Some Nights Will Be Very Cold, and Others, Very, Very Hot
Some adventurers who live on the road plan their trips in an effort to stay in temperate weather. But after spending a summer in America’s upper Midwest and a fall in New England, I can guarantee that the weather’s unpredictable. There was a September night in Cleveland that did not live up to the fall hype. The low was 82 and the humidity equally unbearable. It’s because of nights like those that I think it’s worth investing in mobile heating and AC options.
Mobile heating and air conditioning units aren’t perfect for van living, and electronic space heaters have warnings against using them with solar power, inverters, and power strips. Because of this, I use a propane Mr. Heater Portable Buddy as a last resort before getting into my sleeping bag when it’s cold. I also have my fingers crossed that the Kickstarter Zero Breeze turns out to deliver all the portable AC it promises.
8. You’ll Give Anything for a Shower
Oh, glorious long, hot showers how I miss thee—especially after a long hike. Check your budget and your planned travel locations. Then, get a gym membership at a company with locations across the country. Spending an extra $10 to $30 per month is worth knowing you won’t be the smelly kid.
Home Bed Is Where the Heart Is
How do you like sleeping in non-van life? From the firmness of your mattress to the amount of pillows you use, try to replicate your home bed as closely as possible in your van bed. When the weather’s bad, or you feel lonely, it’s the adult equivalent of a comforting stuffed animal. (Insider tip: A sleeping bag on top of a bed is both comfortable and extra warm.)
10. But Ultimately, the Experience Is Worth the Suffering
Odds are this won’t be your life for a decade. At some point you’ll probably tire of the above one through nine and decide to inhabit a more immobile dwelling. So enjoy your time as a nomad—even when you wake up in a pool of your own sweat. Or hear people fighting perilously close to your walls. Or when you bump your [insert body part here] on some protruding feature in your small living space. Because ultimately, the things you’ll experience as a result of making this jump are the type most people work a lifetime to do in two weeks of annual vacation.