A Guide on How to Start Van Life

A Guide on How to Start Van Life

You pull up to your favorite hiking trailhead to escape the hustle and bustle of city life for a few hours. As you grab your hiking backpack, you see a couple beside a van, doors open, preparing for their hike. But it's not just any van, it's one of those vans. The one's you've seen on Instagram and even in the news.

 It's decked out with off-road gear and solar panels on top, and through the doors, you can see their stove, a sink, and is that... a shower stall? Yup, they are definitely living van life full-time.

"I wish I could do that..." you think to yourself as you start your hike.

We have good news. You can! We have van life tips and the answers to all your questions on how to start van life right here.

Sierra Elberly / Boondock Consulting

Sierra has been traveling the PNW and SW full-time with her dog, Snow, since Sept 2020. She runs her business, Boondock Consulting, from the back of her van. For fun, Snow and Sierra go trail running every chance they get!

What is Van Life?

The term "van life" has many different meanings these days. What van life means to some might be totally different for others. On social media, #vanlife quickly turned into a glorified way of life, wild camping in epic places with wide open views as far as you could see.

This is definitely part of the full-time van life experience, but it's not all epic views and slow mornings with coffee. It's an alternative lifestyle that is completely different for every van lifer.

You don't even have to have a converted van to live van life. That's just the viral term that started being used for any type of nomadic lifestyle, full-time or otherwise.

For us, van life is (true to our name) a simpler way of living. We've found that most people who chose this lifestyle seek simplicity, sustainability, and a more flexible lifestyle that allows them to explore more and rush less.

There's no right or wrong answer to the question, "What is van life?". The definition will be different for everyone, and that is the wonderful thing about it.

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How Do You Start Van Life?

So how do you start van life? To start your van life journey, you'll need some kind of vehicle to travel in. Whether it's your dream camper van, a cargo van conversion, or a high-end Mercedes Sprinter van, we're here to help you along the way and start whatever version of the van life lifestyle you desire. It's not so much about how to start van life, but how to start YOUR version of van life.

Determine a budget

One of the most common questions from aspiring van lifers is, "How much does it cost to live van life?" Like living in an apartment or a house, many aspects of your lifestyle will determine how much van life cost will be for you.

A good rule of thumb is to review your total current expenses and remove costs tied to your location, such as rent, electricity, water, garbage, and other specific expenses.

Expenses that might increase that you'll want to consider are: 

  1. Fuel expenses. How much will you be driving, and where will you be filling up your fuel tank from? Certain states have much higher fuel prices than others. Even the free van life adventures take fuel to get there.
  2. Vehicle insurance and roadside assistance. There's nothing worse than being on your ultimate road trip and needing a tow or getting into an accident and finding out that your insurance won't cover your vehicle. Be sure you upgrade your roadside assistance and vehicle insurance to match your vehicle.
  3. Vehicle maintenance. This is probably the most important thing to have a "rainy day" fund for. The biggest challenge with living nomadically is when you need repairs done to your vehicle. You're not often in a place to shop around, and if it's something that will take more than a day, you'll most likely have to include the cost of a hotel or Airbnb while your vehicle is being worked on. We've heard repeatedly about someone starting van life because they wanted to save money and ending up with unexpected expenses for vehicle repairs.
  4. Groceries and eating out. If you don't like to cook often, you might find yourself eating out more often as you drive through towns. Basic groceries may add up more than usual due to not having room to buy certain items in bulk. Smaller towns also typically have higher prices than big metro grocery stores.
  5. Laundry. Not a huge expense, but it can add up if you do laundry regularly.
  6. Gym membership fees. The most common way nomadic travelers shower is with all-inclusive gym memberships. This isn't a requirement, but it could be an added cost to consider.

Do your research

If you're reading this article, you've already started this part. Luckily, there's a ton of information out there from people who have been traveling nomadically and living the vanlife for years.

  1. Check out forums, Facebook groups, and yes, even search #vanlife on the 'gram and talk to other van lifers.
  2. Get all the apps and spend time learning how to use them. Some of the most well-known and used vanlife apps are iOverlander, Sēkr, FreeRoam, and FreeCampsites.net.
  3. Plan some routes! Check gas prices along the route, road conditions, how close you'll be to good camping, etc. Sometimes what looks like an hour's drive on Google ends up being a 3-hour drive through a scenic winding road. Without planning, you won't know until you get there!

Try van life out before committing

Rent a van for a few weeks! There are many van rental companies to choose from, or you can ask a professional conversion company if they offer rentals (many do). Trying out van life before taking the plunge can make a huge difference in the odds of your success living a minimalist lifestyle in a van full time.

If you choose to rent a van, be sure to try the things you'll actually want to be doing, such as a stealth camp, staying off-grid, or navigating through a busy city.

Photo courtesy: Kift

Go to a van life gathering

What better way to get a taste of this lifestyle than to attend a van life gathering before you even start? There's never a requirement to be already living this lifestyle to attend an event. Many curious people attend to learn about the lifestyle and meet other like-minded people.

The van life community is incredible, and you'll have an opportunity to meet many van lifers at a gathering.

Is Living in a Van Right for You?

Sometimes, even if you have what you thought was the perfect van for you, living in a van just isn't your jam. And that's absolutely ok!

Some people start starry-eyed and excited, only to turn around a few months later, realizing that being a van dweller wasn't what they thought. Others start cautious and unsure and end up happier than ever, continuing to travel nomadically five years later.

Here are some of the biggest pros and cons of van life:

Pros of van life

  • Freedom. Not vibing with the city you're in? Move along. Is the weather not ideal? Drive a few hours to a better forecast. It's literally a "choose your van life adventure" every day. 
  • Ability to explore more. When you have your entire home with you, you can plan around places you want to go and park as close as possible so your commute is shorter. If you find a great spot near public land, you can stay longer (usually up to two weeks) to explore more of the area. 
  • Minimalistic living. You'll be amazed at how little you actually need. And in turn, you'll live and support a more sustainable life. Less water use, less shopping for things you don't need, less waste... the list goes on. When you realize all your worldly possessions are in such a small space, it's very empowering.

Cons of van life

  • Weather. Even though you can plan and outpace bad weather, sometimes things shift, and you end up in inclement or even dangerous weather. This could be anything from an unexpected blizzard to a heat wave. Be sure to check the weather forecast often, and check the conditions for the destination you're headed to.
  • Safe parking. It's not all epic views and perfectly level parking spots. Sometimes you'll be stealth parking in a city hoping not to get "the knock," and sometimes, that spot on iOverlander s no longer accessible for whatever reason. Always check that you're parked legally in cities. If a dirt road seems sketchy, get out and walk it before you drive further and possibly get suck.
  • Limited space. Even in a full-sized skoolie, you'll still have to learn to function in a smaller space than most studio apartments. You'll probably rearrange your items multiple times within the first few months of traveling as you learn what makes the most sense for you. Storage space is precious, and you'll discover that every square inch of your new home is valuable space.
  • Cost of living. Yes, living van life can save you money, but many unexpected costs can arise. Mechanical issues are common, and when you live in your van, you have to get things fixed when they break. It’s not like if you live in a city and can opt for public transit or borrow a friend’s vehicle until payday. You also may have to rent a hotel if your vehicle can’t be fixed in a day. In addition to mechanical issues, you’ll have to consider variable gas and food prices across the country and any fees associated with activities you want to participate in.
  • Loneliness. Even if you’re traveling with a significant other or pet, living nomadically can be lonely at times. Exploring new places is exciting, and you can meet so many amazing people along the way, but it’s not the same as having a close-knit community in your neighborhood. You’ll have a lot of solo time while living van life, and if you’re not comfortable with your own company, you may struggle with the lifestyle. Luckily, nomadic communities are popping up to help you meet new people on the road, and there are various van gatherings you can attend across the country to meet like-minded people. 

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Now Go Start Your Van Life Adventure!

If you're still unsure about how to start van life, our recommendation is just to get out there and try it out! There's no right or wrong way to start your van life journey. You don't even have to be on the road full-time to live van life. Many people choose intermittent travel and have a home base they return to as needed. 

Whatever your van life style is, just remember to be safe, do your research, plan your routes, and be aware of cell service availability.

We can't wait to hear where your van life adventure takes you! Drop a comment below to let us know where you're going and where you've been.

See you on the road,

The Simpler Ways team

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