If you log onto Pinterest or scroll through your Instagram feed, you’re bound to see a dozen photos of tiny houses and campervan conversions, often in the most idyllic places on earth. Living in a van is rewarding, it fills your life with freedom, and it’s a cheap and easy way of living. Add that into the social media whirlpool of half-naked people drinking from coconuts and couples making out on white sandy beaches, and you’ve got a global wanderlust phenomenon on your hands. Life on the road can be all of these things and more, but most of what you see is a sugar-coated view of living the van life, and it’s not without its trials and tribulations.
As it’s my job to look at all things equally, I’m going to share some insights into living the van life that you might not get from the people that you follow online. Just so we’re clear – I love van life and everything that comes with it, but if you think it’s all plain sailing then think again! You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth if you want a peaceful life; after all, anything worth having is usually hard to get!
Living The Van Life – Things Vanlifers Won’t Tell You
Let’s start with the one topic that always seems to be on the forefront of everyone’s minds – the toilet, and most importantly, what goes in it. Everyone does it; it’s not an alien action or something that should gross you out, it’s just a bit of poo (or the remains of food that could not be satisfactorily digested by our small intestines, if you’re a scholar like myself). Not all vandwellers have a toilet in their van, but those that do have all had the joy of emptying their toilet and will no doubt do it on a regular basis, and while it’s not the most pleasant of jobs, it can be done relatively easily in a score of different locations.
Our toilet has a removable tank that we lift out and empty down specific motorhome WC drains, but when we lived in the UK, we would carry our waste cassette up into Rose’s grandad’s garage and empty it in a bog-standard (couldn’t resist) toilet there. You’ve got to monitor the levels from time to time as the waste doesn’t just magically disappear out of your van, and yes, sometimes you’ll forget, and it will overflow when you go over a bump or when it’s the middle of the night and you’re desperate. It’s one of life’s little ways of paying us back for all of the great times that we have while living the van life.
If you’re travelling as a couple, then living the van life also brings you closer together in your relationship. If you’ve seen, heard, or in some cases witnessed your other half on the loo, you should pretty much have a good idea of whether the relationship is going to work or not. Have air freshener to hand, make sure you never run out of toilet roll, and always put the seat down if ladies are present.
Remember that scene from the film Titanic when Rose and Jack are…you know…getting to know each other a little better in the back of that car? Well, you van windows will often look like this when you wake up in a morning, especially in winter when it’s hotter inside than it is outside. If like me, you like to breathe while you’re sleeping, then your hot breath will also add to the effect. Throw a diesel heater into the mix too and you’ve got what the locals will refer to as ‘the hot box’.
It’s a little job that doesn’t bother us anymore, but it’s another job that you might have to carry out before the inside of your van is ‘Insta-ready’. It’s a task that we’ve integrated into our morning routine of jobs, but it’s the kind of thing that some people might find a little grim. When building your van, it’s a good idea to put a waterproof layer directly on the inside of your van wall, and then insulating properly so that condensation doesn’t build up behind the walls in your living space.
Solar Energy & Charging On The Go
We have two solar panels on the roof of our van that charge up our batteries whenever it’s light outside. The batteries in our van keep the fridge going, they power our 12V and 240V electrics so that we can charge phones, laptops, and sometimes we even hook up the Nintendo Switch (everyone deserves a bit of downtime!). The problem with taking your energy from the sun is that sometimes it likes to hide behind massive clouds or decide not to show up at all, and in the winter it only does half a job and clocks off at about 4 pm!
Getting energy in the winter was one of our UK Van Life Hardest Bits, although it’s much easier now that we’re in sunnier climates. If you make a mistake like leaving the inverter on, then your batteries will deplete over time, waking you up at 5 am with a terrifying beeping noise that makes you think that the Terminator is coming for you. In these situations, we put our faith in our trusty split charge relay and stick the engine on for half an hour to put some juice back into the electrical tank. Living the van life makes you energy conscious in more ways than one; you think about how much water you’re using, you try to conserve as much energy as possible, and if you’re travelling in a van then you try to limit your driving time to make your fuel last as long as possible. Before you know it you’re one of life’s top eco campers!
Remember: turn off devices when you’re not using them, don’t park in shady forests where you’re not going to get any energy and chase the sun like you’re a hungry cheetah chasing down its dinner.
There’s always something that needs doing to your van when you’re living the van life, even when you’ve finished building your tiny home. It might just be a little spot of paint on a rust spot that’s appeared on your back doors, or it might be riveting a sheet of aluminium onto your van because you ripped your air vent off when you crashed into a fence (that last one was me after about 2 weeks of driving experience.)
Repair days are just a part of keeping your house in order. You’d go and tinker in your garage or spruce up a wall with a lick of paint if you owned a house, so it’s no different if you own a tiny eco house instead. Checks, top-ups, and repairs are all part of what’s necessary to give your off grid home the TLC that it rightly deserves. Whether it’s topping up your oil in the pouring rain or diving underneath to grease up your handbrake cable, it’s all part of living the van life.
Park Up Spots
This point could be the one that crushes your off grid living dreams, so you better sit down before you read on. Yesterday I was on a hilltop cliff overlooking sandy beaches and glorious coastline for as far as the eye could see, but at the time of writing this article I am currently in a car park next to a supermarket and staring at a naff looking fence. Living the van life isn’t always jungle scenescapes and freshwater lakes; sometimes it’s about a safe and secure car park that you can pull into because the rain on the motorway was so bad that you couldn’t bear to carry on driving for another minute.
There are, however, some benefits to park up spots like these. For example: free WiFi if you’re close enough to the supermarket in question (I’m not, and I can’t be bothered moving now that I’ve started writing), toilets with real-life flushing action, showers in some cases (although this is pretty rare), toilet and water emptying points and fresh water fill up areas, and many more services that are designed to help you with life on the road. The main thing to remember is that you’re travelling inside your hand-crafted home and that you’re living pretty much for free. Does it matter where you are once you’ve closed the curtains and settled down with a good book? (It does if that damn car alarm doesn’t stop going off!)
Day To Day Activities
Just because you might see us vanlifers swimming in the ocean or playing board games on the top of cliffs, doesn’t mean that we don’t have the washing up to do or the floor to sweep when we get back to our various methods of alternative living. When the camera gets switched off, daily life still goes on, and little tasks like this still need to get down to keep our houses in order. It doesn’t take long for a small space to get messy, so you’ve got to be on top of your cleanliness and make sure that things are put away in their proper place as soon as you’re done with them.
Leading a minimalistic life is one of the things that I find most appealing about living the van life; not having tonnes of belongings or unnecessary nicknacks cluttering the house feels refreshing, and knowing that you only have the things that you need to live a happy and healthy life is very satisfying indeed. So remember; the next time that you see one of us relaxing on the steps of an old Italian villa, we’re probably thinking if the hummus in the fridge is still edible or whether it needs throwing away.
A topic that comes up almost as often as the Toilet, washing is another talked about conundrum related to living the van life. ‘How do you wash?’, and ‘How do you wash your clothes?’ are usually the second and third questions that we get whenever someone new looks inside our van. Well, it might take a little bit more effort than it would if we lived in a house, but we always manage to stay clean and fresh.
Let’s start with personal hygiene. Sometimes it might mean freshening up with some wet wipes or having a sink wash if it’s cold and miserable outside, but now that we’re in Spain, we’ve been using a Solar Shower to have outdoor showers on the go. You can fill it up with water and let the sun warm it up, or you can cut out the middleman and use your kettle instead. Whichever route you go down, it can hold enough water for a 10-minute shower, which is easily enough for us both to get clean. When we lived in the UK, we had access to a 24-hour gym, and if all else fails, we’d go dirty for a couple of days – deodorant hides everything!
Washing our clothes is easy as laundrettes are never hard to find. We have a product called a Scrubba Wash Bag, which is essentially a little washboard inside a sealable bag, but it’s great for washing your clothes while we’re off the grid. We’ve also got a small washing line and some pegs to dry them off in the coastal winds too – you won’t find any smelly socks in our van!
Living the van life as a couple can be tough if you’re used to your own space, and if you don’t put some time aside for the things that you like to do then tempers can flare up pretty quickly. Even though I live in 80 square feet, it feels although there are multiple areas inside of my van that Rose and I can use when we want to have a bit of time to ourselves. As I’m writing this article, she’s up on the bed drawing and eating crisps, and I’m sat on the sofa area that we built by the sliding door.
It’s great having someone to share your adventure with, but you have to be incredibly in sync with them to make ‘living in a small space’ work. It’s also hard to remove yourself from any stressful situations if someone is getting on your nerves a little bit too. You’ve just got to be open and honest, and it helps to remember that the people in the pictures that you scroll through also have moments when they want to tear each other apart. If you love each other, then you’ll find a way to overcome the personal space barrier, be it through careful meditation or hitting one another with pillows until someone shouts the safe word.
If there’s one thing that you should take from this article, it’s that living the van life is just like living a normal life. Some bits are unpleasant, and there are bits that we’d rather not have to do, but at the end of the day, we do them so that we can get on and explore the world. We have down days, and we also have days where we don’t want to get out of bed. Our lives aren’t better than anyone else’s, we’re just on a different path and living a different lifestyle. So, the next time that you see an adventurer in a Volkswagen Bus Camper trundling down Route 66, you can either follow in their footsteps and build your own tiny rolling home, or you can go and flush your toilet and be thankful that you’ve never spilt poo on your shoe.
The choice, my friends, is yours!