Van Life Is It For You? – 16 Things We Wish We Knew Before Doing It
It’s been three months since we picked up our 1969 VW Adventurewagen from an idyllic town in the Welsh countryside, and began living the van life. And to be sure, it’s been a roller coaster ride, with days we’ll never forget, and day’s we’d rather forget!
David and I had been traveling the world full-time for five years. We grew accustomed to saying “yes” to new experiences, meeting a myriad of characters along the way. But, as fun as our old lifestyle was, it was time for a change.
After just a week of entertaining the van life idea, we bought a bus. Yes, we jumped gung-ho into our new lifestyle–and it feels like we’ve finally found our perfect fit!
Of course, the switch from brick-and-mortar to full-time van dwelling has come with a few surprises. So, to mark our three-month van-niversary, we’re sharing the top ten things we wish we knew before starting on our van life adventure!
1. Living The Van Life In Such a Small Space
Everyone always seems to “need” a bigger apartment or house, but I’ve always been a small-living kinda girl. My dreams of owning my own tiny home, or maybe building one of those inspiring cabins started early in life, and have held strong since.
I have to admit, our friends and family did scare me about downsizing so dramatically. This was especially true whenever we told someone about the VW; the response was usually something like “It’s going to take some getting used to.”
But from day one, van life has given us the perfect amount of space! When the place is a mess, it takes ten minutes to clean. There’s plenty of room for both of us to hang out and work, and we have more storage than we know what to do with.
I wish someone had told us how easy it would be to live this tiny. We would have done it years ago!
2. Adventures Just Happen
When you travel by plane, you mainly see the big cities near airports. Road trips have more room for spontaneity, but there’s still a certain amount of pre-planning that goes into which stops you do and don’t get to see.
Since hitting the road in our VW T2, we seem to find ourselves getting caught up in almost endless unplanned adventures. A “typical” day can include saving lost dogs, discovering cliff-top camping spots, and making fast friends with the owners of a cupcake shop!
We heard tales of the joy of unplanned van life adventures. But to be honest, I thought that people might have been exaggerating to make their blog posts a bit juicier. Turns out, it’s all true!
3. Community Vibes
Whether you’re traveling full-time or embarking on extended trips, it’s easy to miss your friends and family back home. You get used to it, but you still crave those nights when everyone comes over to watch really bad movies.
However, the community of fellow vandwellers is one of the most open and welcoming that we’ve had the pleasure to stumble upon. Plus, striking up conversation with locals is easy, because everyone wants to come over and ask about your bus!
4. You Should Definitely Buy a Hightop
It didn’t take long before we decided to upgrade our living space from a van to a bus. You have no idea just how close we were to buying a split screen!
As luck would have it, that plan fell through. Instead, we chanced upon @kustomlifespace on Instagram, and ended up buying their high top, “Red”, the 69 Adventurewagen.
Only after exploring some split screens did I realize how lucky it was that we ended up with Red. Having the hightop makes living in the bus feel as comfortable as any “real” home (especially for David, who’s quite tall). And honestly, I don’t know that I’d ever be able to go back.
5. Rainy Days Are Perfect For Hanging Out
We are not the kind of people that can live the 9-5 life. We need to have the freedom to work on our own terms, then adventure whenever the whim takes us.
Before deciding that van life was right for us, we both agreed that it would only work if we followed the sunshine. That way, we could be out hiking, camping, or embarking on mountain bike adventures instead of stuck indoors feeling claustrophobic.
But no matter how great your planning, rain happens, and sometimes it means that you’re stuck in the bus all day. But it turns out, rainy days in Red are mega-cozy, and not in the slightest bit sucky!
In fact, some days when I’m feeling sleepy, I secretly hope that it’ll rain so that we can have a “bus day.”
6. Healthy Eating Isn’t That Hard
I love cooking. But, the idea of a tiny kitchen with no oven, no smoothie maker, limited pantry space, a tiny fridge, and only one burner was perhaps the scariest part of van life for me.
Sure, I knew it was survivable, having been on many a wilderness camping trip. But I doubted the nutrition of living on cowboy beans and three bean stew for the rest of our lives!
Nevertheless, it finally kicked our butts into being super-organised about meal planning. With limited pantry space, we can’t just go to the store and buy whatever–so we’ve cut down on unhealthy snacks without even trying. Of course, we weren’t completely limited in our our kitchen creativity, especially with new purpose-bought toys like our Ridgemonkey Sandwich Toaster.
7. You Can Go On A Shopping Spree
Everyone focuses on how hard it is to downsize into a van; but for us, it was a huge upgrade. We had gone from owning what we could fit in our backpacks to being able to go on an actual Amazon shopping spree!
We had room for everything we’d been missing out on–sports equipment, clothes that weren’t just “practical”, and best of all: pretty home décor stuff.
For the first two weeks, we had packages arriving every day. It felt like Christmas! Granted, no van is immune to clutter. But with a little restraint, you’ll have plenty of storage.
8. Charging Stuff Takes Time
It’s easy to take for granted how much time your computer and phone take to charge. That is, until you live the van life!
We had a two-pronged approach to making sure that we’d always have enough power/everything charged, but we were sorely unprepared.
The first part of our plan was to work from coffee shops, that way we could charge our computers and phones easily every day.
Second, we bought a hella expensive lithium battery pack. Our plan was to take this with us to coffee shops to charge it up for evening and weekend computer use.
We bought the Goal Zero Yeti 400 after tonnes of research, but there were a few things we didn’t think take into consideration. It’s cumbersome to lug around, charging takes five to seven hours, and it doesn’t power stuff for very long.
Don’t get me wrong, we love our Goal Zero and wouldn’t want to live without it. But, we had this stupid idea that it would be like having constant power like you would in a house. That’s not what you get here, so you always have to plan ahead.
9. Being Sick Sucks, And It Happens
Pretty soon after hitting the road, I managed to get sick. I’m not talking about your run of the mill cold–nope, this was me throwing up non-stop for days. Since you need to prepare for all aspects of van life, count on this happening once or twice–even if it’s no fun to think about!
This is the only time that I felt as though I didn’t want to be in the VW. And as luck would have it, we were visiting David’s Godmother at the time. So we did take a break from van life, and stayed in her guest house.
It wouldn’t be impossible to be recover in the VW, but I would have felt bad for David having to be in there with a very sick me.
10. Convenience Is No Longer For You
In the age of apps, convenience is king; it’s easy as pie to do just about anything. From ordering takeout and buying stuff online to taking daily showers and watching Netflix, everything we want is instant and easy. But this is not so much the case for van life.
For one, we don’t have an address. So if we want to order something online, we either have to get it shipped to a friend’s house and then pick it up, or simply do without.
Takeout doesn’t happen, either. I guess this is overall a good thing, but it doesn’t feel that way on a Friday night when you’re craving Thai food.
Even planning bathroom breaks, and finding showers does take thought and effort. And on a Sunday when you’re driving past closed shops and can’t find a public restroom anywhere, it can make you miss apartment life.
And of course then there’s watching Netflix or TV. You always have to think about how much charge your computer has, and how much data you have left on your Mifi plan!
11. Keeping Clean On The Road Is Easier Than You Think
One of the first things people think when they plan to take on the van life is usually “how do I keep clean?” or “how do I shower”. From experience, this is one of the things you should least worry about. Of course, it depends on where you are in the world, and what you’re doing.
For example, when traveling the east coast of Australia, we came across hundreds and hundreds of community toilets and showers. Most of them were absolutely free! But on the other hand, you could be driving through Europe, and you won’t see one for days.
For such times, a solution exists: it’s called the Rinsekit, essentially a pressure shower in a portable tub. Sure, that doesn’t sound too appealing. but it works, and it works well–trust us.
Check out Rinsekit
Fill this beauty up at a standard water point. The Rinsekit will pressurise itself, and you’ll have a high-stream shower for up to 6 minutes.
But is it warm I hear you ask? If you use a warm water spout, then yes. Otherwise, you can buy an additional heating rod, which which heats up the Rinsekit while you’re on the road. Then, once you arrive at camp, you can enjoy a nice, warm shower.
If that’s a little expensive, then there’s plenty of portable showers on the market–take your pick! We recommend one that’s black so it absorbs heat, allowing you to warm it up on your camper van bonnet when it’s sunny. Oh, and you can clean dishes, surfboards and even your pet with the Rinsekit. It’s seriously worth picking up, we gave it a 4.8/5. Yeah…we dig it.
12. You Don’t Have To Spend Your Life Savings On Washing
Try as you may to avoid spills (or to pretend that you don’t smell), sooner or later you are going to have to ‘come clean’ to yourself. Even the most robust clothing made for van life will need a wash from time to time.
Depending on where you are, you might have access to washing machines in the carparks of supermarkets like Intermarche. These are kitted out specifically for people travelling in a van–but they’re pretty expensive, especially if you’re doing a large load or freshening up your bedding.
To allay some of the cost and inconvenience, grab yourself a portable washing machine like the Scrubba Wash Bag. It’s basically a small bag with a washboard inside of it, and it’s super useful for washing underwear, t-shirts, jeans, etc.
As long as you have water and somewhere to hang your clothes (plus lots of elbow grease), you can wash wherever you are, without having to plug in. We’ve used it extensively in warmer climates, and are really pleased with the results. What’s more, our wallets still have plenty of Euros inside–so it must be working!
Check out our full review of the Scrubba Wash Bag!
13. Van Life Insurance Is A Thing, And You Should Get It
You can’t just buy a van and set off into the unknown, especially if you’re travelling to different countries like we did around Europe. Bad things might happen, and although your van is insured, you might not be.
Getting yourself insured is a must when you’re travelling into different countries. We recommend checking out SafetyWing, insurance built specifically for the digital nomad.
SafetyWing covers you in a couple of different ways: travel medical, and travel.
- Travel medical insurance opens the door to a global network of trusted, qualified hospitals and doctors. With this van life insurance under your wing, you’ll be covered for costs with doctors, hospitals, and emergency medical evacuation.
- Dedicated travel insurance covers travel delays, lost checked luggage (if you’re using public transport or airports for your work), emergency response & natural disasters and personal liability.
In short, your parents will sleep a lot more soundly in their beds at night if they knew that you were covered with van life insurance!
Side note: It’s not exactly insurance, onlymanuals definitely offers a kind of safety net for your vehicle or gear. They’ve got tonnes of owners manuals and repair guides for an array of van life essentials–so if you lose one, these folks have got you covered!
14. Don’t Leave Without The Right Gas Tank
There is nothing worse than cooking an evening meal and having your gas run out halfway through. The sight of those little blue flames shrinking back down into the depths of your hob will fill you with dread and despair every time.
Sure, if you have an abundance of tea lights stored away somewhere, then you can have a bash at lighting some underneath your pan. But you’re going to look as though you’re making some type of sacrificial offering, and you’ll still likely have cold food.
We learnt this the hard way in Barcelona, when our 15KG Calor gas bottle ran out while we were waiting to pick up our Bluefin Paddleboards. We had used the same size bottle for the entire 13 months our previous van life excursion through the UK. Nevertheless, we hadn’t taken into account how much more butane we’d use across mainland Europe.
You can’t just buy gas canisters anywhere you please like you can in the UK
Any petrol station or gas supplier in Spain, for example, will require a Spanish address. What’s more, you must sign up to regular safety checks before you can legally buy a bottle.
We had to purchase a mini burner from Decathlon until we crossed into the border in France, where you can buy a bottle from any supermarket with no problems. In the end, we managed to recycle our old canister safely, but it’s a lot of hassle to go through when all you want to do is have a good time and eat your favourite meals!
You need a new regulator for every gas canister you buy in another country
We now have a British regulator sitting in a box under our bed, and a French one that we paid €25 euros for on our new French gas canister. If you have to repeat this a couple of times while you’re away, the whole process will begin to get pretty expensive.
The solution: get yourself an LPG refillable tank that you can fill up at petrol stations. It might cost a little bit more in the long run, but it will be much easier. The alternative, as we learnt, is to scurry around trying to find regulators and the right sized bottles, using Google Translate to botch together broken sentences to a poor shopkeeper–who is wondering what you mean by “regular gassy bottle can”.
You can also buy different adapters for the pump ends in different countries, so be prepared and grab the right ones for the countries that you’re going to be visiting.
15. Breakdowns Happen, Be Prepared For Them
When you’re searching through your favourite Van Life Instagram accounts, it can be easy to only see the romanticised version of this lifestyle.
But the truth of the matter is that problems can and do still happen along the way. I’m currently writing this section from a hotel lobby in Italy because our camper van has developed a problem with its fuel pump, so I’m living proof of this being true.
It’s inevitable; especially with older and more vintage campers, but things can still go wrong with new vehicles too. I know a couple who have visited 5 garages on their trip so far in multiple different countries. It’s just another thing that you need to prepare for before you set off on a long journey.
So what can you do to prepare for the unexpected?
Well, you can start by getting yourself some good breakdown coverage. That should take the worry out of any future breakdowns and also remove the sting to your wallet and soul if you have to spend money on repairs.
We went with a British firm called the RAC, and spent a little bit extra on a fully comprehensive European travel package. This covers hotel costs if anything happens to the van, onward travel, and up to £1000 in repairs to the vehicle. They’ve organised everything on our behalf since I rang them, including getting the camper towed and transport to the hotel. It’s taken a massive weight off our shoulders, and it’s nice to know that we don’t have to deal with it alone.
What about in the short term, when you need to limp to a garage to get something checked out?
Get some Holt’s Tyre Weld, a spray that reinflates your tyre and seals the puncture. It will help you to get to safety or the nearest garage, and is an absolute essential. Carrying a wheel jack is also a must, so that you can change spares yourself if you are somewhere remote.
You should also pack simple spares such as oil filters and alternator belts just to be on the safe side. You can either change them yourself, or have them to hand if a garage doesn’t have them in stock. Always change your fuel filter once a year. We learnt this the hard way too, and ended up listening to panpipe versions of ABBA songs in a hotel lobby instead of marveling at the Tower of Pisa!
16. Winters Can Be Tough
A good heating source is key when you’re living in a van through the winter months. It doesn’t matter whether you opt for a diesel heater, or put a wood burner in your tiny travelling home. Just make sure that you have enough fuel and supplies to keep you toasty when it reaches minus temperatures outside.
While many companies don’t insure self-builds with log burners inside, wood burners do still produce good heat. We skipped out on the wood, and went for a diesel heater. After all, nothing beats flicking a switch for instant heat. It averaged just 0.1L of fuel per hour on the lowest setting, and kept our toes nice and toasty.
Make sure you spend a lot of time choosing the best campervan insulation for your build. You’ll be thankful when Jack Frost comes knocking!
We didn’t put anywhere near enough insulation down on the floor of our camper. As such, we have to rely on yoga mats and carpet strips to warm our floors through the miserable British winter. Don’t make the same mistake; get some good insulating blocks for your floor and keep your home warm and cosy!
There are good and bad sides to every lifestyle. Even though there are some tough parts of van life, we largely adore it. We wouldn’t even give it up for a free beach house in San Diego… (well, okay, maybe we’d go back and forth between the two!)
We love the freedom to get up and go–and to take our home with us. But most of all, to know that no matter what road we take, we’ll likely stumble into an unplanned adventure. So there you have it, our take on how to live the van life!