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13 Unglamorous Truths About Living The Van Life (Don’t Let Them Stop You)

Van life isn't always glamorous.

By: Shannon Ullman + Save to a List

I went to New Zealand, bought a van, and lived out of it for three months. It wasn’t exactly as glamorous as I thought it would be, but I loved (almost) every minute of it.    

Want to embark on van life yourself? Fantastic. You totally should.

Just be ready for these little, unglamorous truths, and don’t let them stop you.

1. It Gets Real Smelly, Real Fast

Between body odors and lost, rotting food, van life can smell pretty bad. It’s not easy to keep track of things in the van, and sometimes, a cucumber goes rogue, decomposing under the front seat for days before it’s discovered.

Pair that smell with musty hiking shoes, clothes that needed to be washed yesterday, and an un-showered travel companion, and the van life gets smelly pretty fast.

Photo by: Joshua Michael Johnson

2. Nothing Stays Organized For More Than a Day

Organizing the van may make you feel productive, but it won’t be long before the mess creeps in. Taking everything out of your bag to find that one shirt, will happen often. And, feeling too tired to reorganize the kitchen utensils may be an evening routine.

3. Sometimes, You Break Down

It’s bound to happen at some point. Sometimes it’s just a little fix while other times it blows your budget. Breaking down can happen in the middle of the mountains, a small town with only one mechanic, or in the middle of a big city.

4. You’re A Little Too Close For Comfort

Hopefully, you’ve taken on this adventure with someone you love. Stinky feet, morning breath, and cranky moods are difficult to get away from while living the van life.

5. It Can Get Kind of Boring

Thought that van life was constant adventure, all of the time? Not always. Sometimes, you’re parked in the middle of nowhere, with no friends or responsibilities. Learning to like reading, drawing, coloring, or exercising can become a necessity.

Photo by: Joshua Michael Johnson

6. Going to The Bathroom is Annoying

A tiny toilet in the back of the van won’t give you much space to, you know, do your thing. And, if you’re traveling in a van without a bathroom, you’ll need to get real comfortable with squatting.

7. Sometimes, You Will Get Little Visitors

A mosquito infiltration, a visiting family of ants, or a spider spin-off may take up residence in your van. Eventually, you’ll stop being surprised when they show up in your bed.

8. Finding Your Stuff Can be Impossible

The nail clippers fell somewhere between the seats last week and your toothpaste has been missing all day. You’ll lose and then rediscover sweatshirts, your favorite coffee mug, and the keys every once and while too.

9. The Music Choice Can Cause Fights

You might fight about the music more than anything while living the van life. Fed up with all of the songs you’ve been playing, it becomes a chore to think of new tunes and keep them coming throughout the trip. Don’t be surprised if your travel partner takes it personally that they are the one who always has to think of new songs.

10. Hygiene Isn’t Easy to Keep up With

Showers, sinks, and running water aren’t always easy to come by. Sacrificing a good wash because your campsite doesn’t have showers may happen a lot. Plus, carting your shower supplies to and from the public showers can get annoying. It becomes easier to just forgo it all together.

11. You Can’t Just Park Anywhere

Van dwellers can’t just park their home next to that pretty beach. There are rules about where you can stay the night. Sometimes, you’ll have to keep traveling, even when you don’t want to, just to find a place to park for the night.

Photo by: Joshua Michael Johnson

12. Basic Needs Are a Constant Worry

Showering, bathroom, food supply, and sleep are a constant worry. Van life is often revolved around finding a way to take care of these basic needs.

13. Working Isn’t as Easy as Normal

Living the van life still requires cash (unless you’re retired.) So, it’s likely that you’ll need to work. Constant movement doesn’t always translate well into a career, so you’ll need to get creative. Picking up odd jobs, getting temporary gigs on campgrounds and tourist attracts, or working online can help you earn. But, keeping clean for your job, and finding WIFI for online work can be challenging.

Van life isn’t always as glamorous as you see in the pictures. The Bohemian chic interiors and wanderlust inspiring adventures may look great on Instagram, but things can get a little complicated under the surface.

Despite it’s more unglamorous moments, the freedom that comes from living in a van is worth a few missed showers. 

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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