So You Want To Live In a Van...

By: Erin McGrady + Save to a List

9 lessons I’ve learned from a few years of living on the road in my small camper van.

I’ve worked for the better part of the last four years as a freelance writer and photographer traveling around in a 2018 Ram Promaster City cargo van with 131.7 cubic feet of space. It's not a ton of space. Once you add a bed and some storage boxes the space in the van shrinks even more. It’s not the coolest looking van (we’ve been mistaken for both an electrician and a plumber) nor is it a stand-up van with a kitchen and a composting toilet, but it gets pretty good gas mileage and it was what we could afford.

Neither of us thought we’d end up in a vehicle like this one, but after two disastrous (read: expensive) mishaps with old Toyota campers (a 1976 Chinook and a 1978 Toyota Sunline), both of which left us despondent and with less money in our pockets, we decided to switch gears and opt for a vehicle that we could depend on. 

Here are a few of my thoughts:

1. There is no one right way to do it.

For every van you see on the road, you’ll find a unique van dweller with an equally unique story. Some want to share about their rig and their travels, others are really private about it. Some people in the van life community have been doing this for years, well before it was a trendy thing to do, well before the #vanlife hashtag even existed. Some are living full time, others part-time, some with children, some with pets, some alone. Some, like my wife and I, are interracial, LGBTQ van travelers. Some are living in vans out of necessity and would actually prefer another lifestyle. 

My experience overall is that the community is a welcoming one and people are willing, if not eager, to talk about their builds, where they’ve been, where they’re headed, and even their tips and tricks. That said, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that what works for one person may not work for someone else and ultimately, there isn't just one 'correct' way to live this kind of life. 

2. It’s amazing as I thought it would be.  

2,797 miles from home and exploring Olympic National Park!

Those photos you see on Instagram where the backdoors of someone’s van are open and their legs are dangling, coffee cup in hand, with a view of palm trees and a rosy sky make you want to quit your job, sell everything, and roll into the sunset, right? Yeah, me too. Those moments are there for the taking and when you find yourself living one of those incredibly beautiful moments, it almost feels surreal. 

One night in Marfa, Texas I got up to pee, opened the side door of the van, looked up, and saw a dozen shooting stars. Two summers ago we road tripped out west as Ambassadors for the Nation’s Vacation and adventured in Yosemite National Park, Olympic National Park, Lake Tahoe, Crater Lake National Park, and Asilomar (Pacific Grove, CA). It was one of the coolest things we’ve ever done. Through it all, our van has been a tool to access adventure and I wouldn't trade the memories for anything. In fact, the more I travel, the more addictive it becomes.

3. It’s tougher than I thought it would be.

A view of the kitchen, living room, bedroom, office, and closet.

That being said, living in a van for months at a time is harder than I thought it would be. Sleep comes easy after a long day on the trail but unless I’m physically exhausted it’s often difficult to get a good night’s rest. Week after week it starts to wear on my system. In addition to the lack of sleep, I’ve also had a couple of bouts with a really nasty GI bug. I'm not sure if it was from the water I was drinking or something else. Regardless, I felt like a shell of myself. 

Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that behind every incredible photograph are crowds (get up early or stay late to avoid ‘em), biting bugs (come prepared), Wal-Mart parking lots (bring earplugs and blackout shades), random bathrooms, and days without a shower. (My personal record for time without a shower is two weeks.)

Don’t get me wrong, some of the things you’ll see and do while traveling in a van are incredible. Just be prepared for a long stretch of highway, laundromats, breakdowns, and the occasional home-sickness that comes with missing friends, family, and the familiar back home. 

4. A little bit of planning goes a long way. 

Have van, will plan... but not too much.

The romantic adventurer in me loves the idea of just getting in the van and going somewhere. There’s something alluring about traveling without a destination, just following whimsy and the wind. The reality, however, is that doing some research ahead of time saves time and energy aka stressful moments and arguments with your travel partner. 

These days when we travel I plan out roughly one to two weeks ahead of time where we’re going and where we’ll be staying. The itinerary is always flexible but it has helped us reduce unnecessary driving which means less fuel consumption and it has also helped us lower our where-will-be-parking-for-the-evening anxiety. Trust me, when you're beyond tired and you can't seem to find a suitable place to park for the evening, it can be super stressful. Even worse, though, is settling in for the night and getting a knock on the window by a police officer telling you to move along.

Oh, and unless you have a wi-fi hotspot, planning out your travel can make turning in work, catching up with people via Zoom, and uploading to the ol' Instagram a heck of a lot easier if you can find some reliable internet.

5. Do a couple of short trips before you set out on a long expedition.

One essential item we never leave home without? Our hammock!

This is to iron out the wrinkles. You’ll want to have practice setting up camp a few times so that when it’s cold or raining or dark, you’ve done it before and you can do it with ease. You’ll also want to hone in on your gear list. We have a rule in our van that everything must serve at least two purposes. This rule didn’t exist on our first couple of trips but it wasn’t too long before we figured out what we used and what we didn’t. Anything that didn’t get touched was left behind. These days we’ve got our gear pretty dialed in. One area we haven’t been able to cut down on is our footwear. We bring trail running shoes, road running shoes, hiking boots, flip flops. That’s eight pairs of footwear for two people haha. If this still sounds good to you, consider renting a van and trying the lifestyle on for a week or two. You may find out that it’s exactly what you thought it would be like or you may be surprised. Either way, you’ll be positioned to make a more informed choice before making a huge life change. 

6. Make sure the guts of your van are solid.

Our first adventure-mobile, a 1976 Toyota Chinook.

Unless you’re a mechanic or you’re willing to learn some skills, be sure the working guts of your van are ready for the road. As I mentioned above, we had to learn this lesson the hard, expensive way. That cool retro VW bus you’ve been eyeing could be a money pit. Another thing to consider is where you want to take your van. If you want to get ‘off the grid’ and out of range from cell phone service, you’re going to want to make sure your vehicle is reliable. Hiking to get in range so that you can call a tow truck is going to be a buzzkill every single time. Trust me on that one. 

7. Have a backup plan. 

This will probably look different for most people. For some, it’ll mean saving up some money in case you break down. For others, it’ll mean keeping an apartment vacant or making sure you have a room that you can crash in at your parents’ house if things don’t work out. For me, it meant keeping my teaching license for a few years just in case freelancing while on the road didn’t work out. There were many times in the beginning when we were in-between jobs or I’d start having doubts about what we were doing, and just knowing I could go back to teaching helped me ride the wave.  

8. Costs can add up quickly.

One way to 'eat local' is to buy local ingredients and make your own meal like these clams from Chincoteague Island, VA.

You're probably not surprised at this one. But it's worth mentioning because the allure of eating out in all of the new places can be so. very. tempting. I love a cool coffee shop as much as anyone, but I know that buying a bag of locally roasted beans and grinding them off the back of the van will last a lot longer than the cappuccino I really want. We typically try to treat ourselves to new food experiences when we've been out in a park or in the wilderness for some time, but we also try to rein in our spending because, though it feels great to support small, local businesses, it also really eats into our budget more than anything else. Still, I'm a sucker for a brewery on a river, a pizza place, a ramen spot, and... you get the point. 

Another thing that'll cut into your budget really quickly is fuel costs. Staying put in one place, especially if it's in an area where you can park for free, will help you cut down on your costs. And the more you can reduce expenses, the longer you can stay out on the road.

9. Take your safety seriously.

Finding the sweet spot between safety, risk, and adventure can be tough but it's worth the effort. Caroline and Erin pre-run near Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

This one probably sounds like a no-brainer, but when we’re on the road, we’re making dozens of decisions a day and many of them involve safety. I’m married to the most amazing woman, but sometimes it’s quite clear that others aren’t as enthused about our relationship as we are. We oftentimes don’t know whether it’s our interracial relationship that bothers them or the fact that we’re gay. Maybe it’s both. Things that wouldn’t really come up on a typical day when we’re at home in Asheville, North Carolina, often come up several times a day on the road. We typically find ourselves asking one another, “Does this parking lot feel safe? How about this campsite? Do we have enough water on board? How are we on fuel? ARE WE SAFE?” 

Sometimes all of the checking in, with ourselves and one another, gets exhausting. But it’s one of the most important tasks at hand when we’re traveling. We don’t have the luxury of being welcome everywhere we go. We also don’t have the privilege of pretending that we are. But it’s important to us to continue to be out and about in the world, taking up space, and finding businesses, people, and places that are safe and welcoming to the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities. 

I recently read a book that had stories in it about all kinds of vans, tiny homes, and travel trailers and the people that live in them. The photographs were beautiful and the stories were interesting. But I couldn’t overlook that out of 27 stories and 44 people, there was only one Black storyteller and not a single Asian person. It was disappointing. Part of the reason I’m so eager to get back on the road again post-pandemic is to keep sharing about what my wife and I are doing in the hopes that others will see someone that they can relate to and/or that looks like them and say to themselves, “that looks like fun and I’d like to give that a try, too.”

Caroline and I will probably never live full-time in our van. It’s just too small. And we both, after a few months, look forward to regrouping in one place for a while. But who knows, with a bigger van that we can stand up in and one with a kitchen and a toilet, who knows? Until then, if you see us on the road, please say ‘hi!’ We love meeting new people and are always eager to grab a coffee or a beer with friends we’ve met along the way (many of whom we first met on IG.) 

For more information about our van, tips, and tricks for living in a small camper van, as well as some of our favorite spots on the road, check out our blog at www.authenticavl.com

#EveryoneOutside

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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