Van life is a big lifestyle change for most people and comes with a lot of questions. I researched for months before heading out on my van life adventure.
I traveled for the better part of a year full-time in my van and learned a lot along the way. This is the guide that I wish I had before I had started.
I’ll go over the following topics:
- Why Do People Van Life?
- Getting A Van
- How To Van Life
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Van Life Tips
- How To Prepare For The Maiden Voyage
Why Do People Van Life?
I was first exposed to the idea of van life while watching Free Solo. Alex Honnold would travel to these gorgeous mountains so he could wake up early and climb. Shortly thereafter I saw a video of a mountain biker who would drive his van to trailheads so he could wake up early and get out to ride before anyone else. I was immediately intrigued by this idea. I’ve been camping my entire life and love to travel. So the idea of being able to have many of the comforts of my home while visiting interesting places resonates with me.
Some people use their vans for weekend trips a few times per year. Some work seasonal gigs where they stay in place for six months and travel full-time in their van for the other six months. Some are full-time in their van and are moving for the entire year.
Every van lifer has their own pace and reasons for doing van life. There’s no right or wrong reason, but here are some common ones that attract people to this lifestyle:
Freedom and spontaneity. There’s something romantic about being able to go anywhere at the drop of a dime. A new friend you met around the campfire last night told you they were going to a festival a few hours away? Get up and go. The weather forecast predicts a fresh snowfall and you want to do some skiing? Get up and go. The waves will be perfect for surfing in a few days? Get up and go. Home is where you park it.
Self-sufficiency and self-reliance. I’ve always found the idea of solo sailing across an ocean fascinating. You need to be completely self-sufficient. If something goes wrong, you only have yourself to handle it. Being able to handle unexpected issues with poise and confidence was a central theme to Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, a book I love. Van life throws things at you that won’t be a part of your plan (see Van life challenges below). As you overcome these challenges, a deep-seated sense of confidence takes over that will permeate the other areas of your life.
Nature. The healing ability of nature is proven. Stunning views and scenery can be a spiritual experience. There are National and State parks that will take your breath away.
Adventure. Van life opens you up to adventure in ways that are unpredictable. You’ll meet new people, see new places and do new things. Some van lifers get a quality heater and visit various ski slopes. I used my van to bounce between different surfing spots in southern California. Some people go mountain climbing, cycling, slacklining, paddle boarding, or many other activities. Maybe you want to visit every national park. Or maybe you want to find a quiet piece of secluded BLM land and write the next great American novel.
Mortgage-free lifestyle. Traveling full-time in your van can mean that you live without a mortgage. The ability to save money is an attractive prospect for many people.
Event-hopping. Having a van is great for visiting events, conferences, festivals, and concerts. I’ve met people who hop between spiritual, yoga, and meditation retreats with their vans.
Personal growth, spiritual growth, and self-discovery. Travel expands your mind. Van life will put you out of your comfort zone. Pushing the edges of your comfort will cause you to grow. Experiencing an alternative way of living will teach you things about yourself. Breaking the script of how society says you should live your life and trying something new will help you to connect to your personal values on a deeper level.
Connecting to our species’ roots. Humans lived nomadically up to about 10,000 years ago. I like to think that van life helps us to tap into this rich history of our species.
Minimalist living. If living in a house or apartment is all you’ve ever known, van life will be an adjustment. It will be less comfortable. You can’t take as many things with you. This was a huge draw for me. I knew that I could be happy living in a comfortable house, but I wanted to see how much my happiness was dependent on my stuff and my comfort. Van life is a forcing agent for embracing a simpler way to live. It will help you break the mindset that buying that new shiny thing will lead to happiness.
Wherever you go, there you are. It’s easy today to fall into this trap that if I only lived in “that city” or had “that thing” or could do “that activity”, I would be happy. Many of us logically know that this isn’t true, but van life facilitates a way of learning this on a deeper level. If you’re mindful about your travels, van life can help you reach a deeper connection to yourself. It can remind you that you’re okay exactly where you are today, in this moment.
Constant inspiration. If you’re a writer or a visual artist, van life provides consistent exposure to new forms of inspiration. New places, people, and experiences can be a wonderful muse.
Find your community. When you meet other van lifers on the road, there’s an instant connection. Van lifers are usually open-minded and connecting via this shared lifestyle makes it often feel like you’re old friends. I’ve met some wonderful people out on the road.
There are many, many more reasons why people choose to van life. If you’re reading this, there’s something you find attractive about it. I urge you to start clarifying your motivations as it will help with planning your travels. Knowing why you’re doing this will help rank various elements of your van build, forecast your costs, and do your route planning.
Van Life Challenges
While experiencing van life can be a life-changing growth experience, it’s not without its challenges.
It’s a lot of work. You’ll constantly be asking yourself questions such as:
- How much water do I have left and where will I fill up next?
- How full is my grey water tank and where will I dump it?
- How much charge is left in my battery bank? Is it going to be a sunny day so I can recharge (if you have solar panels)?
- Do I have a quality internet connection?
- Where will I shower today?
- Where’s the nearest bathroom?
- I need to order a package. Where do I get it shipped?
- Where am I going to park tonight?
- How much propane do I have left for cooking and/or my heater?
It’s time-consuming. Everything takes longer living in a van. You can’t cook dinner and just throw your dirty dishes into the sink. You can’t leave anything out if you want your van to feel livable. You’ll constantly be pulling things out from some back nook or cranny and then putting them back.
You’re exposed to the elements. While living in close contact with nature is a huge draw of van life, the other side of the coin is that nature isn’t always friendly. Temperature control can be tricky. Bugs and dirt will likely get in your van. There are ways to mitigate this discomfort to some level, but at a point, you’ll need to accept that it’s a part of this lifestyle.
Stability and routine are more difficult. Vans break down. Tornados and floods happen. Traffic is unpredictable at times. You won’t always have perfect cell or internet connections.
Humans are adaptable and many of these challenges are personal growth opportunities. But it’s better to have accurate expectations about what you’re getting into.
Getting A Van
If you’ve decided that the reasons in support of van life are more attractive to you than the drawbacks, now it’s time to figure out how to get your van. This is an exciting process and will have a huge impact on your van life experience, so it’s important to take it slow and be thoughtful.
If you’ve been following along up to this point, you should have an idea of why you’re doing van life. Clarifying these motivations will be helpful in determining your priorities for your van.
A great first step is to start a list of needs and wants for your van. There are tons of van walkthroughs on youtube and social media platforms. Start researching what’s out there and take notes of your “must haves” and “want to haves” for your van.
Here are a few builds that I love:
Consider where you’ll be going and what you’ll be doing. Do you absolutely need a shower in your van? 90% of the van lifers I’ve met with showers in their van said that it became too much of a hassle. Constantly refilling and dumping water for showering is difficult to justify when there are so many public showering facilities available. Do you need to bring a kayak or a mountain bike with you? Or would that space be better used for something else?
Will you be boondocking out on remote public land where 4×4 is a necessity or will you mostly be around cities or at campgrounds? Will you be doing a lot of winter camping? Do you expect to be able to stand up fully in your van? How much can you afford to spend on your van?
Asking yourself these questions now will go a long way to making your van life experience as fruitful as possible.
Your Perfect Van
Your “perfect” van is the van that checks as many boxes as possible for you within your budget. The process of finding your perfect van will follow one of these routes:
- Buy an unconverted van and do a DIY (Do It Yourself) build
- Buy an unconverted van and install a camper conversion kit
- Buy a converted van where somebody else did a DIY build
- Buy a professionally converted van
Choosing The Van
Some vans will allow you to be able to stand up completely inside while others you’ll need to crouch down. Some vans have 4-wheel drive while others do not. Some vans are easy to find parts and mechanics while others will be expensive and inconvenient to repair. Some run on gas while others on diesel.
On top of this, most vans have various lengths, heights, engines, and powertrain options. So it’s important to look at the details of what you’re getting.
Here are some of the most common vans you’ll see people doing van life with:
Sprinters are reliable and are the only van available where you can stand up that has a four-wheel drive option. Because it’s a Mercedes it will be more difficult and expensive to find parts as well as more challenging to find mechanics that can work on it in the USA. Sprinters come with the highest up-front cost.
More affordable than Sprinter vans and easier to find parts and mechanics that can work on it. Starting in 2020 the Ford Transit offers an AWD option.
The Promaster is the widest option between it, the Sprinter, and the Transit. It’s the only option where you can orient a bed lengthwise for average-height males. This was the main selling point for me as orienting a bed lengthwise creates a lot of extra space for the build.
They’re no longer making these and they’re far less common than Sprinters, Transits, and Promasters, but it is an option. They only come in a short wheel-length so space is limited.
The Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, Ram Promaster, and Nissan NV are the four most common vans where you should be able to stand up (unless you’re really tall) if you get the right height option.
Budget Cargo Vans
If the vans listed above are out of your price range or being able to stand up isn’t a high priority you can also consider a cargo van. The Chevy Express, Ford Econoline, Chevy G Series, and Chevy Astros are all affordable vans.
If you plan on traveling for any extended period of time, I’d recommend getting a van where you can stand up completely. Before I got my van I did a lot of research and everyone that had a shorter van said it got challenging really fast. There will be days when it’s raining and you’ll want to spend time in the van. Not being able to stand up gets old fast – especially when cooking or doing the dishes. Installing a pop-top is an option but from what I’ve seen it’s a hassle to continuously pop it up and down. Plus it eliminates your ability to stealth park.
Small Cargo Vans
These vans are much smaller versions of the four most common vans listed above. The Mercedes Metris, Ford Transit Connect, Ram Promaster City, and Nissan NV200 are all much smaller. However, they get great gas mileage and drive like a car.
Volkswagen Vanagon and Westfalia
If you’re into culture and vibe more than practicality and comfort, you can look at these Volkswagens. They get poor gas mileage and break down frequently so keep that in mind.
If the options above are all out of your price range yet you absolutely want to experience van life, you can consider a minivan. Consider the Dodge Caravan, Toyota Sienna, and Honda Odyssey.
Searching For Vans
There are a lot of places online you can search for vans. Use keywords like “campervan”, “van conversion” and “van life” on Craigslist and Facebook marketplace. You can also check out Conversion Trader, Vanlife Trader, The Van Camper, Van Viewer and by browsing various van life Facebook groups. This is the process I’d use for finding an already converted van or something you want to convert yourself with a DIY or conversion kit build.
Do It Yourself (DIY) Conversion
If you’re going the route of buying an unconverted van and doing a DIY conversion, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. DIY builds take longer than you would expect they would, even for handy people.
Before you start building everything out, consider throwing some camping gear into the van and taking it out for a few nights. You’ll get a much better idea about how much space is available for planning your layout. You’ll realize how easy it is to find showers and bathrooms, thus maybe removing that from your build plan. And you’ll get an idea of how you want to spend your time, so you might decide against needing to build a big fancy rack for a mountain bike that you’ll rarely use.
A DIY conversion is a huge topic, but from a high level here are the steps you’ll want to take:
- Plan your layout. Look at your inspiration resources and your list of needs and wants. Start sketching out the layout for your bed, the kitchen, etc.
- Cut any external holes for vent fans, windows, roof racks, etc. and install them.
- Install insulation. It will help keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
- Plan your electrical system. Read through my guide on van electrical systems and buy the components. Run any wiring that you don’t want to be exposed.
- Install flooring, ceiling, and walls.
- Build out the bed framing, kitchen assembly, cabinets, and any other furniture from your build.
- Install the rest of the electrical system and appliances, such as the stove, water system, and fridge.
- Install the finishing touches such as the mattress, bedding, cushions, pillows, plants, etc.
Camper Conversion Kits
If the custom DIY route is too much, another option is to install a camper conversion kit. Conversion kits come with everything you need for a basic van build. They come for most common vans and are a great middle ground between an expensive professional build and a custom DIY job. They are pricey but are worth considering.
Check out these conversion kit options:
Professional conversions are the most expensive route. They keep their value quite well on the open market if you plan to buy one used and you can expect to spend a pretty penny if you plan to buy one new. There are some incredible options out there available but there’s often a backlog so you might need to wait even after you commit and order it.
Here are some companies to check out:
There are a ton of these shops popping up so google “[Your State] van conversion companies” to see more options.
Try Before You Buy
With so many van options it can be daunting to know where to start. If you don’t have much experience with van life, consider renting a van on Outdoorsy for some short trips to figure out what’s important to you.
How To Van Life
Now that you’ve got an idea of how to get a van for your adventures, let’s talk about the logistics of van life once you’re on the road and what to expect.
Where To Park
Van life isn’t living “in a van” it’s living “out of a van”. During the day there are countless places to park. City parks, state parks, parking lots, or my personal favorite, public beaches. Where to park at night is usually another story, but there are a ton of options once you know where to look.
I wrote an entire guide on finding great places to park, but here are the high-level options:
Public Land – Free
There is a ton of public land from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and US Forest Service (USFS) where you can park for free. There are usually a few restrictions about where you can park and for how long (usually 14 days at a time) but this is a great affordable option. There won’t usually be amenities such as showers or toilets so I wouldn’t recommend heading out to BLM land on your first night in a van. But once you get the hang of van life this can be a great option.
Parking Lots – Free
Most people aren’t attracted to van life to park in a parking lot overnight. But the fact that they’re everywhere can give you peace of mind to know that you’ll always have a place to park in a pinch. Walmarts, truck stops, rest areas, a lot of casinos, and many businesses allow you to park in a lot overnight for free. Parking in a parking lot comes with the benefit of there often being a bathroom close by.
Stealth Parking – Free
This is in a sort of legal gray area. If you have a van that blends in and follow some reasonable guidelines, you might be able to park somewhere where it’s not explicitly legal to park for the night. The rule of thumb is to arrive late, go straight to bed, don’t leave your van, make as little noise as possible, and then leave early. Don’t park in the same place two nights in a row and be respectful.
Campgrounds – $10-$40 / night
Campgrounds are one of my favorite options for parking overnight. Once you learn how to research them you can often find a scenic spot with bathrooms, showers, sometimes laundry, water, and electrical hookups.
RV Parks – $30-$100+ / night
These are the Ritz Carlton options of van life. I’ve stayed at RV Parks with pools and jacuzzis. They usually have all the amenities of campgrounds plus more, such as internet or even a service to come by and wash your van (for a fee).
Apps For Finding Overnight Parking
- iOverlander – A crowd-sourced app that has RV parks, campgrounds, and other available places to park overnight with information about amenities such as cell quality, water hookups, etc.
- Sekr – A great app for finding stealth parking spots and connecting with other van lifers.
- All Stays
- Freecampsites.net – This is a website, not an app, but it has the largest resource of free places to park.
Where To Go To The Bathroom
Many people worry about where they’ll go to the bathroom before starting van life but quickly realize it’s a non-issue. Think about the last road trip you went on. Where did you go to the bathroom? Gas stations, stores, rest stops, cafes, gyms, and many other places have public bathrooms available. There are bathrooms everywhere.
If you plan on staying at campgrounds or RV parks, they’re very likely to have bathrooms available. Many van lifers get away without having a bathroom in their van.
I’m going to let you in on a secret about van life: nearly everyone has a pee bottle and/or pee funnel in their van. I agree that this may seem gross on the face of it, but it’s a small price to pay for the multitude of other benefits van life offers. If you’re a woman, I hear silicon pee funnels are a game changer.
Despite the many available public restroom options, many van lifers do want some sort of bathroom solution in their van. I have a flushing Dometic toilet that I use for emergencies, but a simple solution such as this REI GO Anywhere toilet or an expensive Nature’s Head composting toilet would also work. While I haven’t tried it yet, I’ve heard great things about this travel bidet.
Where To Shower
Where you shower will be dependent on how you travel in your van. If you’re traveling full-time, getting a nationwide gym membership is common. I use Anytime Fitness as I want to exercise a few times a week and shower after each workout. 24-hour Fitness and Planet Fitness are other popular options.
If you’ll be staying at campgrounds and RV parks, they’ll likely have showers available. If you’ll be boondocking out on public land without amenities, you can use a portable solar shower, use a retractable spray nozzle on your water system or install a separate shower. Lastly, dry showering with dry shampoo and baby wipes is an option in a pinch.
Where To Do Laundry
RV parks and campgrounds often have laundry facilities available. Laundromats are all over the place. I didn’t find laundry much of a hassle because if you park outside of a laundromat, you can throw your clothes in and then go back to your van.
If you’ll be visiting friends or family on your travels, you might ask them to do some laundry during your visit. And lastly, there are solutions for washing your clothes yourself with a portable washing machine. I had one of these when I first set out on my van adventures but it was one of the first things I removed when I realized I never used it.
I need a quality internet connection for my work and this was my biggest concern before I started extended van living. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was able to get internet in my van that was as reliable as what I had living in a house. I got a Verizon jet pack that acts as a wifi hotspot as my primary device for getting internet and would tether to my AT&T phone as a backup. This way I would still have internet access if I was in an area where Verizon didn’t have coverage and AT&T did.
In very few situations I would be somewhere that didn’t have a signal for either of them. But I quickly learned that with a little up-front research I could avoid these areas. Many of the apps I recommended above will have reviews about cell coverage quality. Open Signal is an app designed specifically to give you an idea of the cell quality of various providers throughout the US. Not to mention that many cafes and businesses offer public wifi. I wrote an entire guide on van life internet options if you want to read more.
You can cook just about anything in a van that you can in a house. Most vans won’t have an oven, but there are dutch ovens available if you absolutely need one. With a stove and a quality fridge, you have endless options available. I used to cook a lot of eggs and vegetable stir-fry on the stove and would make sandwiches, salads, etc. One of the biggest wins was purchasing a quality blender to make fruit protein smoothies. I’d make a smoothie nearly every day which would give me that kick of feeling healthy along with having the added bonus that I could consume it while driving if needed.
If you’re going to do van life for any extended period of time you’re likely going to want to get some sort of electrical system. This can be as simple as getting a portable power station or as complex as installing a battery bank, solar power, a B2B battery charger, an inverter, etc. This is a huge topic so I have a complete guide for installing a van life electrical system.
Getting and Disposing of Water
You’ll want water to drink, brush your teeth, cook, clean dishes, give to your dog, etc. There are numerous ways to get, store, dispense and dispose of water in your van so I created a guide on van water systems. There are many places to refill your water such as RV parks, campgrounds, Walmarts, and grocery stores. Grey water is what goes down your sink from washing dishes, brushing your teeth, etc. You can dispose of grey water at dump stations found at RV parks, campgrounds, or other places marked in the apps I recommended above.
One of the greatest benefits of van life is that you’re close to nature and the elements. I absolutely love sleeping in my van while it’s raining. This can also be one of the greatest frustrations. Staying warm when it’s cold in the winter or cool when it’s blazing hot in the summer can be a challenge, but there are things you can do to help.
First off, properly insulate your van. This is one of the biggest things you can do to ensure you’re trapping heat in the van during the winter and cooling it during the summer. Proper window coverings will also help. Reflectix for the front windshield and insulated window coverings for any other window will have a huge impact.
Installing a rooftop vent fan will not only provide a comfortable airflow throughout the van but will also help keep you cool in the summer. If you plan to travel in colder climates, installing a heater will be a game-changer. I’ve spent time in below-freezing temperatures with four feet of snow outside and was completely comfortable in my van because of a Propex propane heater. Truck drivers have been sleeping in trucks for years with these heaters and they work incredibly well.
Parking in the shade when it’s hot, and using hot water bottles and proper clothing when it’s cold, can help a lot. I wrote an entire guide on van life heating options.
Staying warm in the winter is much easier than staying cool in the summer in a van. While some vans do have AC units in them, you’ll probably need to have shore power to make this work. AC units draw a ton of power and will drain your batteries quickly.
Lastly, if temperature control is simply too difficult wherever you are, drive somewhere else!
How To Get Mail
You can get your mail on the road by talking to the campground or RV park you’re staying at and getting it shipped there. Another option is to send it directly to the closest post office that accepts General Delivery. Use the USPS website and confirm that the location accepts General Delivery. Then you mail it to:
- Your Name
- General Delivery
- City, State, Zip code (of the post office)
Walk in and show them your ID and get your mail.
Other common options:
- Set up a PO Box in an area close to a family or friend and have them retrieve your mail for you
- Send your mail directly to a family or friend
- Use Amazon hub lockers for Amazon deliveries
If you don’t want to bother a friend or family member, consider using a mail-forwarding service such as:
Earning Money On The Road
There are as many ways to support yourself financially on the road as there are if you’re living in a house. Below are some of the most common ways van lifers make money.
There are seasonal jobs, temp jobs, and workamping jobs at campgrounds, parks, resorts, farms, and other places if you know where to look. Some people keep their costs low by doing van life for half of the year and doing seasonal work the other half. Some people park their van somewhere to work in a single place for a month or two and then travel for a month or two. Some people mix seasonal work with other forms of generating income.
Here are some great places to learn about and find seasonal work:
- Cool Works
- Adventure Job Board
- Back Door Jobs
- Craigslist – Check out the “gigs” section
- Labor Finders
These are longer-term positions, either full-time or part-time, that allow you to work remotely. With a little planning, it’s fairly easy to have a fast and reliable internet connection to do remote work.
Often the easiest way to do this is to talk with your existing employer to see if remote work is a possibility for you. Since the pandemic, remote work has become much more mainstream and often it’s much more workable than you might think.
If it’s not possible with your existing position, here are some resources for finding remote work:
Many van lifers work for themselves as freelancers, either in-person or remotely. If you have or are willing to develop a marketable skill, freelancing can be an incredible opportunity. As a freelancer, you’ll need to learn to market yourself, find work, price and bill jobs, manage your own taxes, etc.
It can be a big jump if you’ve never done it, but these are all skills that are incredibly valuable to learn. And for many, van life is about pushing us out of our comfort zone and expanding our thinking. Many freelancers work as virtual assistants, writers, consultants, software developers, designers, photographers, illustrators, musicians, teachers, social media managers, marketers, etc.
Here are some places to find freelancing jobs:
Running An Online Business
Last but not least is running your own business. I personally find this the most attractive option. Many people will freelance for a while and then develop a business based on what they repeatedly see that their clients need. Others will work remotely or do seasonal work and build their business on the side.
There are a ton of books, online courses, blogs, etc. about how to build online businesses. If you’re looking for a starting point though, I’d start with these two:
- Smart Passive Income
- Authority Hacker – While there is a ton of free information available here, they also offer a top-notch paid course that is incredible.
Another option to consider, instead of building an online business, is buying one. There are many marketplaces where you can buy an online business that’s already generating income:
If you decide to go the route of purchasing an online business, be sure to do your proper due diligence. Some marketplaces, such as Empire Flippers, do a lot of work to verify the quality of the business for you. But you should still understand in depth what it is you’re purchasing. Marketplaces such as Flippa do very little due diligence and you should do thorough research yourself.
Making Some Extra Cash Before You Leave
There are a lot of ways to give yourself a bit of a financial cushion before you start van life. Here are a few ways:
- Downsize. Especially if you’re deciding to do van life for an extended period of time, consider selling some of your stuff. You won’t be able to take much with you in the van so sell off that stuff that you don’t need anymore instead of paying for a large storage unit.
- Start freelancing now. If you expect to support yourself on the road by freelancing, get started now. This will allow you to earn some extra cash as well as learn the ropes so you have more confidence when you’re traveling.
- Airbnb. If you have an extra room or property, consider putting it up on Airbnb. If you own your home and plan to travel for a few months or a year, consider Airbnbing it while you’re out traveling.
- Work extra hours or take a side job.
The best health insurance options will be highly dependent on you individually. Here are the most common options:
- Employment coverage – If you’ll be working remotely, getting covered by your employer will likely be your best option.
- ACA / Obamacare / Healthcare.gov – Using the main Healthcare.gov portal will give you a variety of options for healthcare policies. Be sure to look at policies that have nationwide coverage or at least coverage in the areas that you expect you’ll be traveling.
- Short-term plans – Short-term medical plans can last for up to three years and often have nationwide coverage while being much more affordable than ACA plans. They won’t usually cover you for pre-existing conditions and don’t cover as many situations as ACA plans. But if you’re generally in good health they’re a consideration.
- Medicare – If you’re over the age of 65.
- Medicaid – If your income is below a certain amount.
- There are other options such as healthshares, fixed indemnity plans, telemedicine plans, association health plans, etc. But they’re specific to each individual so I’d recommend talking to an insurance broker.
If you built or purchased a DIY-built van, your auto insurance is highly unlikely to cover your van build. Most auto insurance companies won’t cover a DIY build. One that does is Roamly. Some van lifers will go with regular auto insurance to cover their vehicle and then use renter’s insurance to cover their belongings inside the van. But this still won’t cover the cost of the build.
Another option is to meet with an insurance agent to see if it makes sense to create a custom policy to cover the cost of the build. Or to go with an RV insurance policy such as RV Insurance or Goodsam.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much does van life cost?
The attraction of living a mortgage-free lifestyle is what draws some people to van life and it’s true, if done correctly you can save a lot of money. That said, it’s possible to spend just as much in a van as living in a house or even more. My experience with van life was that as I traveled, my mindset was sort of in “vacation mode.” I wanted to do every activity and see every attraction that I came across. It evened out eventually but it’s just as important to be mindful of your expenses on the road as it is living in a house. Some van lifers spend less than $1000 per month, but more realistically it’ll cost more. This is a common question so I created a guide on van life costs.
Do you get lonely?
It depends on how you travel. If you’re traveling with a partner bouncing between events and festivals, you probably won’t feel any more lonely than you do living in a house. If you’re doing solo van life and boondocking on BLM land you might feel lonely. As with many aspects of van life, this “downside” is also what draws many people to this lifestyle. Being forced to spend time alone can be an incredible growth opportunity.
That said, there are many ways to connect with others while out on the road:
- Meetup.com – I used meetup in several locations to meet locals and stay active.
- Local Facebook groups – In any area with a sizable population, there will be Facebook groups around local activities. Hiking, skiing, surfing, and mountain biking groups are a great way to meet others.
- Sweatpals – This is a great app for meeting local groups of people around exercise activities such as running, yoga, or playing volleyball.
- Dating apps – If you’re single, using apps such as Hinge or Bumble can be a great way to connect with local singles.
One of the best ways I found to stay connected was to meet other people living a nomadic lifestyle. There are a ton of in-person gatherings:
- Xscapers – They throw week-long events a few times per year and there are usually a few hundred people that attend. It’s a great way to meet other nomads. I attended some of these events and they were a blast. What I noticed happening is that people would form groups and travel together as nomadic communities, caravaning between the events.
- Van Adventure Expo
- Descend on Bend
- Sekr – This app has a calendar of events where van lifers get together throughout the year.
Kift is another interesting concept as they operate several locations where van lifers will congregate together. They also do a few caravans each year where a group will tour several places together.
Lastly, there are a ton of ways to connect to others through online communities. This can be done even before you start off on your van life adventures. Here are some places to start:
- Sekr – Yes, I really do love this app as I’m recommending it yet again. You can find places to park, see a calendar of events and also connect through the app to van lifers near you.
- Facebook Groups – There are tons of Facebook groups dedicated to van lifers, such as Van Life and Van Life Meetup (USA).
- Instagram – #vanlife
- Reddit – There are a lot of subreddits dedicated to different van life niches such as r/vanlife and r/vandwellers.
Can I do van life with my dog or cat?
Yes, there are many people that do van life with multiple dogs and/or cats. It takes a little more planning in the same way it does living with a pet in a house, but it’s absolutely possible. Get used to researching local places that are pet friendly and have a plan for if you need to leave your pet alone. Many people will use Rover to find a local dog sitter, but be sure to do your research on who you leave your pet with.
How hard is it to drive a van?
If you’re comfortable driving a car, you’ll be comfortable driving a van far quicker than you expect. The longer your vehicle is, the more mindful you need to be about taking wide turns, but if you take it slow you’ll get the hang of it quickly. If you have the option, consider spending some time in an open parking lot to practice taking slower turns to get a feel for how the vehicle moves.
If you have a small van like a Ford Transit Connect, it’s going to feel very similar to a car. If you have the longest Mercedes Sprinter, the learning curve will be a little higher, but even still you’re likely to feel comfortable within a few days. Beware fast food drive-thrus for the first few days. While it’s possible to take your van through some of them, some will prove problematic.
If you can, consider getting a backup camera. You’ll get used to using your side mirrors for backing up, but it’s great to have the ability to see directly behind you. The last consideration is that the length of your vehicle determines where you can park it. I have a Ram Promaster 2500 mid-length and it will fit in a standard parking spot. If I had the longest version, I’d likely need to use two parking spots.
Is van life safe?
Generally, yes. In the eight months I spent full-time traveling in my van, I rarely felt unsafe. That said, I’m a taller-than-average man who lifts weights and I spent eight years in the military practicing being aware of my surroundings. There are many female solo van lifers out there so it’s absolutely possible, but I’d recommend practicing some situational awareness:
- Do your best to arrive wherever you’re going to park for the night before the sun goes down. This allows you to scope out the local area to know what’s around you.
- Back into your parking spot and always keep your driver’s seat clear. That way if you do need to leave in a hurry, you can jump into the seat without needing to clear it off and drive forward.
- Get into the habit of locking your doors and always keep your keys in the same place.
- Have a way to use the bathroom in your van so you don’t need to get out in the middle of the night.
- Use privacy curtains or window shades.
- Most of all, if a situation feels uncomfortable, trust your gut and leave.
Reading these things might make it seem as if van life is horribly dangerous and it’s really not. Using common sense by staying away from sketchy neighborhoods and trusting your gut will go a long way. You’ll likely feel a little strange your first few nights because van life is a lifestyle change. But before long you’ll have this feeling of confidence that you can go anywhere in the world. That’s a priceless benefit of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Is it legal to live in a van?
Every place has different laws, but generally yes. As long as you’re not breaking any other laws such as parking somewhere you shouldn’t, you’ll probably be left alone. In eight months full-time on the road I got a knock on my van door twice because I parked somewhere I shouldn’t have. Nothing happened, they just asked me to park somewhere else.
What if I break down or need a tow?
I recommend getting a membership with AAA or Good Sam. That way you’ll have coverage if you ever break down or need a tow somewhere. It’s not a bad idea to learn how to do simple tasks such as changing a tire or routine maintenance, but breakdowns do happen and towing is expensive. Getting one of these memberships will give you peace of mind.
How do you decide where to go next?
I remember wondering before I hit the road how I would decide where to travel. This quickly became a non-issue because there are more things to do and see than you’ll likely have time for. Most of the time I left a place before I was able to see and do everything I wanted to do.
I kept a document of interesting places I wanted to see and as I met people, this list grew longer and longer. Sometimes I’d travel to see a cool place. Sometimes I’d join a caravan and travel with others. Sometimes I’d wake up with the inspiration to surf. I promise, where you decide to go won’t be an issue.
What do I use as my permanent address if I’m traveling full-time?
Some people use a friend or family member’s address as their permanent address as they’re traveling. Some people have homes that they Airbnb while they’re traveling and keep their address the same. Others will use one of the mail-forwarding services mentioned above as most of those offer options for a permanent address.
Van life tips
Miscellaneous useful van life apps
Besides the many useful apps for finding a place to park, there are some other apps that van lifers find useful:
- Waze – This is a great turn-by-turn navigation app that uses crowd-sourced data to give you information about traffic, speed traps, accidents, and other useful directions.
- Windy – A great weather app that gives you tons of information about current and future weather conditions.
- Gas Buddy – See current gas prices in your area so you can be sure that you’re getting the best price.
Be sure to check out our full list of best apps for van life.
Time management is key
As you transition into van life, give yourself extra time to do everything. Getting gas, doing van maintenance, finding a place to park, doing laundry, filling and dumping water all take more time than you might expect. You’ll develop a rhythm eventually, but give yourself a time buffer during the first few weeks.
Plants are a big help
Especially if you don’t have any pets in your van, consider getting a plant or two to inject some life into it. It has a big impact on the coziness and feel of the environment.
How to prepare for the maiden voyage
What to do with all your stuff
Before you leave out on your maiden voyage, consider what you’ll do with all your stuff. I recommend digitizing any important documents that you might need along the way. Sell anything you no longer need. If you have a car and if you’re not sure if you should sell it or keep it, remember that cars don’t do well if they sit for extended periods of time.
Consider selling it or at least have somebody start it and take it for a drive periodically. Take whatever remaining belongings you have that won’t go in the van with you and put it in a storage unit or see if a family or a friend can store it.
Most everyone I know, including myself, agrees that we took too much with us on our maiden voyage. Keep in mind that you’ll be able to get most anything you need out on your travels if you determine that it’s an absolute necessity. I’d recommend leaning towards packing lighter if possible.
Check out The Container Store for containers that will fit into the little spaces that your van has for storage. Consider getting a Kindle and avoid taking a lot of books with you.
Pack clothing for different weather conditions and seasons. Try to avoid clothing that needs ironing.
Now that you have a solid foundation about van life and what to expect, go check out my ultimate guide on where to find free parking.