What Is Vanlife? 15 Things to Know Before Starting life on the road

vanlife mum and son

Instagram is spilling over with pictures of decked out camper vans and bright-eyed vanlifers, living every millennial’s dream life. After all, who wouldn’t want to let go of life’s daily constraints and have an amazing easy life travelling across the country. 

Put simply, #Vanlife is a life spent either full time or part-time in a vehicle that has been converted into a tiny home. While it was at first a hashtag used exclusively by people living in a van, it now encompasses other outdoor living vehicles such as R.V.s, buses, trucks and vans, from the old school V.W. Vanagon to the sleekest of Sprinter vans.

A vanlifer will convert their vehicle into a tiny residence, adding the most basic of amenities. A van, therefore, could have a kitchen, beds and running water. Others will go a step further and add comfort amenities such as a shower, portable toilet, and be able to live off-grid with solar panels installed on the roof.

Living in a converted van allows vanlifers to live a life of travel and adventure. Here they can pursue their life’s deepest passions unshackled from the anxiety that comes with paying high rental bills in city apartments, and the monotony of the same city day in and day out. An unstructured free life is the modern day’s iteration of a nomadic lifestyle.

A brief history of vanlife 

The bohemian life on the road concept gained traction in the 50s and 60s, but the original vanlifer was a Scottish medic over 150 years ago. Lore has it that in 1855, Dr William Stables put in an order for the first touring caravan on records, named ‘The Wanderer’. 

The Wanderer ran by actual horsepower and therefore could not go fully off the grid. That said, it did, at least, mildly satiate Dr Stables’ wanderlust. The invention of the internal combustion engine led to the Birmingham-based Eccles Motorised Caravan in the 1900s. 

The development of the motorised caravan took a backbench with the advent of World War 1. Then, in 1935, Captain Dunn, a British naval aristocrat, created the inspiration behind the modern camper van. Captain Dunn and his coachbuilders converted a U.S. made Pontiac Six chassis into a genuine rolling home. His motorhome had handcrafted furniture, a tiny kitchenette, a stove, a gas oven, and a water filter. He had a simple toilet as well (we’re talking ‘drop to the ground’ simple) and a rock-and-roll bed. 

Picture by Bonhams

The recent wave of vanlife living is the reawakening of baby-boomer bohemian fantasy living after World War 11. Back then, people reaching out for an enjoyable life after the war turned to nippy little buses, with Westfalia, a German company converting the un-aerodynamic shaped, bulky V.W. Transporter into a campervan. As a result, the Vanagon became the world’s most popular outdoor recreational vehicle and is today known as the R.V. world’s Swiss Army knife.

Westfalia’s conversion process created a new market for campervans, leading to the Dormobile, the Bedford CA, the Ford Thames, VW Kombi and Microbus and the Ford Transit in the swinging 60s. Finally, Fiat jumped into the fray with the Fiat 236 Campervan in the early 80s. The Fiat 236 is the predecessor of the modern day’s popular Ducato. 

The modern vanlife lifestyle

Before the recent upsurge in life on the road, most classic campervans went for a song. Today, campervans are worth a king’s ransom, as vanlife pictures take over social media, their doors open to ocean vistas and orange sunsets, and backdrops of couples resting against a ceiling of stars. There are images of vehicles parked in the most impractical of breathtaking spaces, and a quick scroll of the #vanlife on instagram will leave you salivating for the lifestyle within seconds.

Foster Huntington and his 1987 Volkswagen Syncro unknowingly popularised the #vanlife frenzy in 2012. His photography of days spent surfing, picturesque vistas on the Californian coast gave him social media celebrity status in Instagram early days.  

Huntington, the author of the Off-Grid Life, has since then ditched his van for Cinder Cone, his up a Douglas fir treehouse in Washington. The social media trope of vanlife is often young, attractive millennial heterosexual couples, beautiful girls, perfectly paired with a woodsy van dude.

Such life is easy to romanticise, just as staycations are. It looks like a load of fun, but it is a life filled with difficult choices, sacrifice, planning and tons of hard work. Below are 15 hard truths about how to live in a van from people living the genuine life on the road, and accompanying tips for living #vanlife.

15 things to know before starting vanlife

1. It is rewarding

While most people living full time in campervans took the plunge to adapt to cultural and economic changes after the 2008 financial crisis, a lot of them say that living in a van revolutionised their way of life. It is a sensible way to live if you do not have to work in a physical office. It is also a re-evaluation of the things that are important to them that make vanlifers the happiest. 

Some vanlifers also quit their demanding jobs to escape the hectic life-sapping lifestyle that often goes hand in hand with city living. Foster Huntington, for instance, quit his Ralph Lauren designer job in New York City to live in his black nosed van V.W. Vanagon Syncro. 

He lived in his van for three years, cruising through Mexico, Canada and bits of the USA. In recollection, he says,  “We live in a time where convenience and comfort triumphs all, and I don’t think that necessarily makes us any happier.” But, while it is a life of uncertainty, it is also freeing, adventurous and makes you feel alive and in control of your life.

2. It is complicated

Corey Smith and Emily King of @wheresmyofficenow were some of the earliest of Foster Huntington’s #vanlife converts. They embraced the life on the road lifestyle and made a living off the trend on Instagram. They, however, say that it is more difficult to live on the road than many newbie vanlifers imagine it to be. 

Emily and Corey now offer vanlife consulting, helping people sitting on the fence find out their vanlife vision. Corey says that most potential vanlifers never ask for guidance on the most picturesque of spots. 

They want to know: Where do you pee? How do you and Emily not kill each other?he says. Living in a van is complicated. “Everything is magnified because it’s such a small space… The trash is in our face, and the dishes are in our face, Corey is in my face, I’m in his face. So any personality conflicts, ego conflicts, it’s all right there.” Emily adds. 

They advise that couples fight about organisation and often get on each other’s last nerve. They, therefore, say that couples need to find their ‘me time’ for balance and recovery.

3. It can be lonely

Living in a camper van is partly the adventure of a lifetime that Instagram poses it to be. That said, it is also lonely for lone campervanners. Loneliness, however, can be a good way to adult, shifting your values and perspectives on the typical millennials’ urban identity. 

Sharing also builds happiness, so join the #vanlife community. Wayfaringkiwi’s Yvette Webster says that it is important to strike a healthy balance between socialising and loneliness on life on the road.

4. It should lower your costs of living

Much of the awakening in campervan living is a product of past recessions. Most life on the road enthusiasts are fighting student debt and can hardly afford to buy or keep up with rent demands. As millennials find jobs much harder to come by, they choose to live a cheaper life in vans. 

Living in a van is cheaper than living in an apartment, but it can be as affordable or as expensive as you want it to be. If you choose to convert your van, your can do so for as cheaply as a few thousand dollars, or spend upwards of 30-40K on the conversion alone (exclcuding vehicle). It really depends on all the mod cons that you include in your conversion.

While on the road, the highest expenses you will have are gas, food and entertainment. Many states and cities have free campsites that allow you to park and use amenities for free or a donation, though other caravan parks can charge upwards of $50 – $80 per night. Do your research and plan your budget for the year to know what your daily expense budget is and what type of campsites you may need to use on your trip.

5. Start simple

Leaving your old life behind and all its comforts will not be a walk in the park. You will have to fight the urge to bring along your entire apartment. Instead, pack light, and you will find vagabond living more manageable, and, dare we say it, liberating to free yourself from the confines of your material possessions. 

Tiny spaces can morph into blackholes if you bring along more than you need. Storage alone is an issue in such small spaces, so starting simple helps you figure out over time what possessions you truly do need to live. You’d be amazed at how fulfilling life can be with so few material goods. A good way to plan your gear is to make a list of everything you need, put it in the centre of the room, and then half it. That’s right, remove half. Trust us, you don’t need 10 t-shirts, 2 pairs of sunnies and 7 pairs of shoes for every occasion when you’re living on the road.

If you plan to have a campervan for just weekend adventures, chances are you do not need big-ticket items such as solar heating or expensive power systems in your van build. However, if you will be on the road full time, you need to have more amenities and features for comfort during travel, and to be able to survive off-grid if you are travelling long distances with not much in between cities.

6. Choose a vehicle that suits your lifestyle.

Some people start with a cheap van while others go for tricked out 6 figure Sprinter van builds. One of the best tips for living vanlife is to think beyond budgets when choosing the perfect campervan. Of course you need to be able to afford your vehicle, but you also need to ensure the space is adequate for the usage you are going to be giving it.

For example, if you love wild and rugged travel, go for a 4WD vehicle that can take gravel and dirt roads to remote wilderness destinations. On the other hand, if you have a large family, choose a vehicle that fits them. The Fiat Ducato based Boxlife 630 ME can, for instance, sleeps seven people at a go.

7. Think about financial sustainability

You will need to make money to sustain your life on the road, so consider finding temporary gigs during travel or work remotely from your van. A working person’s campervan should have adequate workspaces and power supply. 

Some vanlifers turn to social media to make a living off influencer product marketing. While this is an excellent source of income, it has downsides as well. Foster Huntington, for instance, says that excessive social media influence has made vanliving cliche, with most people missing the whole point of this alternative lifestyle. 

Social media influence brings in capitalism that makes it harder to live a life of freedom.” I think the algorithm – and serving content that way – is terrible for the fabric of society… So I don’t have Instagram on my phone, I don’t have Facebook on my phone, I don’t have Twitter on my phone,says Huntington.

8. Think about where to sleep

It is illegal to sleep by the roadside in a campervan in Australia, so the best practice is to drive into any designated truck rest area or stop littered along the highways. However, if you have to spend a night by the road, practice stealth camping and keep your ‘van out of sight’. Check out our article on stealth camping tips and tricks here.

Please do not park in a National Park overnight unless you have a permit for it. There are also lots of cheap camping grounds in most towns and some big store parking lots that allow overnight parking.

9. Work out your hygiene dynamics

Most new van users often worry about where to shower or go to the bathroom. Vanlifers that embrace public showers and restrooms will not have any issues in this area. Australia has lots of community restrooms, and some of them are free. That said, you can have an inbuilt shower in the van. It might cost a pretty penny and take up valuable living space in your build, but many vanlifers love the comfort that showering in their vehicle gives them when staying in remote places far from public amenities.

Better still, join a national gym that has a vast network for accessible showers at your major town stopovers. Or, jump into a lake for a soap-free bath. Consider a mobile toilet in as part of your build (since children may not hold till you are on your next stop). A bucket or portaloo are great options as well. Check out our article on how to choose the right portable toilet for your van here.

10. Embrace self care

One question that potential campervanners ask is, “is living in a van worth it?”. It most definitely is, but like any fairy tale, it has lots of plot twists. You might have a series of good days followed by a series of darker moments that will make you want to pack it all up and go home. 

Life on the road is stressful, and for this reason, you need to embrace self-care. Do your yoga, meditate or rise early and breathe in the energy of a beautiful sunrise.

11. You will have lots of maintenance costs.

When making a campervan down payment, create a maintenance budget as well. Life on the road is very demanding for a vehicle and will cost you much more than a regular use vehicle would. 

Factor in your vehicle’s insurance and gas money as well, and stash it away to ensure that you have enough for that inevitable bill.

12. Be flexible

Transient living can destabilise you since stability is a crucial element of mental health. It is for this reason that most homeless people often have mental health challenges. For this reason, you need to embrace flexibility in your schedule to keep off anxiety borne out of transient life on the road. 

Do not be rigid with your plans and give yourself the right to stop travelling when you want to. Do not chase that dazzling I.G. #vanlife because it does not exist, and those influencers rarely display their anxieties alongside their raw happiness imagery. 

Truthfully, your vehicle may break down, the weather will sometimes be awful, and you will have days where you feel lonely and sad. These are natural feelings and the best advice we have is to be flexible, slow down and expect the unexpected.

13. You will get sick

Being sick while on the road is uncomfortable, to say the least. Recovery may be more uncomfortable as you won’t have the comfort of a big bed, warm apartment and space that you might need for an easier recovery.

One of the best tips for living vanlife is always having a sick kit, complete with bleach wipes, leak-proof trash bags, earplugs for that constant cough, and some air deodoriser to clear germs and bad odours from the van. Have over the counter pain and discomfort relief medication, vitamin C and anti-allergens as well.

14. Have the proper insurance

There are a few types of insurance you need to consider for your trip: vehicle insurance, health insurance and travel insurance.

Vehicle insurance is a no brainer – if you have an accident, or your vehicle gets damaged or stolen, you’ll need to sort our your claim with your vehicle insurer. It’s important to note that if you decide to convert a van into a motorhome, it’s in your best inerest to have your vehicle re-registered as a motorhome with the Road and Traffic Authority so that you can claim motorhome insurance instead of vehicle insurance. Motorhome insurance is more comprehensive, taking into account the alternations you make to your vehicle, such as cooking, water, and power installations; whereas general vehicle insurance may only insure for vehicle damages and not the appliances or tinyhome modifications you have made within the vehicle.

Health insurance is also an important consideration. Ambulance cover is a must on road trips – you don’t want to fork out a few thousand dollars for an ambulance when you are 6 hours from the nearest hospital. Protect yourself and make sure your health insurance includes ambulance cover!

Dedicated travel insurance could also lower your personal liability should you meet natural disasters or require emergency response during travel.

15. Have a plan B

When making plans on how to live in a van, create an exit plan as well. Then, should you choose to stop living in your van, you will have a home to go to. Make a plan for van storage, shelter and work for break periods, when all you want is to get off the road and recharge.

So is vanlife for you?

Van living has lots of positive and negative aspects. It can be rough and rewarding as well. So give it a try, and experience all its highs and lows. Then and only then will you have the right answer to the question, “what is vanlife?”

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