5 Basic Tips for Vanlife Newbies

So, after hours oogling at photos of van conversions and day dreaming of life on the road, you’re finally ready to grab the steering wheel of your very own rolling home. What should you consider as you make the next moves towards mobile living? Here are 5 tips worth keeping in mind as you wade into vanlife.

1. Keep it simple.

You don’t need much to get started – in fact, a bed in the back of simple set of wheels goes a long way. There’s so many impressive campervans out there, so many different ways to tailor a conversion to your needs, but - to paraphrase the wise Biggie Smalls – there’s a lot you don’t know, until you know. Starting with a basic build allows you to add things as you get familiar with your needs and don’t-needs, plus it’ll save you a lot of time that could be better spent outside (isn’t that what vanlife is all about anyways?). Once, while visiting my mechanic’s shop, I saw a brand spankin’ new factory conversion Sprinter parked in the bay next to my 12-year-old former HVAC maintenance van. As I starred at it, mouth gaping, my mechanic walked up to me and told me the ticket price for the rig, “Pretty fancy right?” he said, “But ya know what - you go and park that van down by the river, and park your van right next to it – at the end of the day, it’s the same f*cking shit.” And he was right – because, living IN a van really is about living OUT of a van anyways.

2. Do your research, but also be prepared to fly by the seat of your pants.

You can plan and measure and cut to perfection, you can map and pin and plot your heart away – but there will always be surprises. You might’ve thought you weren’t going to use a lot of power – that small battery will be just fine. But after a couple dark stormy days of snow, you emerge from your cave and decide that bigger is sometimes better. You might have marked every waypoint on a map, and charted your route timed to the last minute – but then you get stuck in a sand pit, or your transmission fails at the top of a deserted mountain pass, or your water pump freezes and breaks, or part of your rooftop completely cracks in half from the summer heat and you have to tape it together (all of which, have happened to me). Due diligence goes a long way, but so does a good sense of humor and the ability to flex under pressure. Besides, it’s like my grandma used to always tell me “life is about learning what doesn’t work”, and little did she know that I would adopt this as my mantra for time spent on the road.

3. Connect with community.

To me, the best part of vanlife is the community. Your best asset in times of trouble, and in times of joy – are the other kindred spirits who, too, enjoy peeing in bottles and playing human-doggie Tetris at bedtime. Spend some effort reaching out to people  – a simple search on Instagram can suggest hundreds of gems worth befriending. And whether it’s a quick text question while passing through an unfamiliar town, or a DIY Fix-it Facetime tutorial while broken-down on a rural roadside – these relationships will be the best resources you’ll carry with you on your adventures. Plus, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to connect with new folks – because you know what van people always like to talk about? Van things.

4. Its what’s on the inside that counts.

Sure there’s impressive accessories and add-ons that tend to be the bright shiny focal points of any van search – but a well-running, rust-free van is worth far more than heated outdoor showers or hip rooftop decks. When scouring craigslist or Autotrader for your future home on wheels, be sure to keep in mind functionality and reliability. Don’t like the paint job? You know, you can save up and change that in the future. Hate the color or condition of the curtains? Sew yourself some new ones! A guilty pleasure of mine has always been HGTV, and while watching shows like “House Hunters” I often find myself shaking my fist at the sky when people balk at good homes because they’re covered in lime green carpet or crappy wallpaper. Sure – it’s a lot of work to change these details – but I’ve learned that most good things take a little bit of elbow grease to get done, and it’s well worth doing for a dependable and sturdy steed.

5. Practice Leave No Trace.

Vans are great tools for helping us get outside and explore new places off the well-trodden road. But, just like time spent in the backcountry, its important to practice Leave No Trace principles when traveling in a van. Park in developed areas where designated pullouts are found - just because you can drive over/through something, doesn’t mean you should! Watch where you dispose of your grey water – using natural toothpaste and bio degradable soap also helps reduce the toxicity of waste. Do your business away from waterways, and always carry a spade to burry your #2 – or better yet, pack it out with your trash! Speaking of trash – carry a couple extra garbage bags with you and go the extra mile by cleaning up the areas surrounding the spaces you camp. And don’t forget to tread lightly – recognize the impact of sound and light pollution from motorized vehicles. Utilize solar power or rechargeable power banks versus noisy generators, and let the sounds of the wild be the loudest you hear. Keep lights low at camp or stick to your headlamp or small twinkle lights – which are moodier than any bright overhead LEDs anyways. If campfires are permitted – minimize their impacts by keeping them small and burning every piece of wood to ash, better yet – purchase a portable campfire pit and pack out any waste easily. Vanlife can take you to amazing places but it’s important that we help keep them amazing for years to come!

Published: June 1, 2018

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Noel Russell

Oakland

I work at a homeless shelter and I sleep around a lot.