Is Vanlife Sustainable? 10 Ways Vanlife is Eco-Friendly (and a Few it’s Not)
According to the National Home Builders Association, the 2009 average U.S. home was 2,700 sq. ft. That’s insanely massive! A monument to American excess.
If you don’t share that perspective, consider that our campervan (which is on the larger end of the converted campervan size spectrum) is 80 sq. ft. Yep, that’s right: a whopping 3% of the size of the average home. We’d wager most people have closets larger than our whole house.
While that number may sound like something out of a forced labor camp (or worse, a collage dorm), we absolutely love our tiny house on wheels and the planet loves it, too! Smaller house footprint = smaller carbon footprint.
We live in a world where people are finally questioning their impact on the environment. For the nomad community, it means asking hard questions: Is van life sustainable? Is vanlife eco friendly? We asked ourselves these questions and we continue to do so.
While articles such as this one in Climbing Magazine want us to believe that vanlife is as much an environmental nightmare as owning a 5-bedroom home (okay not quite that bad), we’re here to look on the bright side, or rather the sustainable side of vanlife.
While yes, driving your literal house around does have a certain negative impact on the environment, it’s still far less than even the most modest traditional lifestyle.
Here are some ways that show how sustainable vanlife is and can be.
1. You become a more conscious consumer.
We can demonize fossil fuels and plastic straws all we want, but the truth is, the single biggest contributing factor to global warming is over-consumption. It’s led to upped production to meet insane demands and the birth of dirty industries like the fast fashion movement (which is the world’s second dirtiest industry only to big oil and coal). Check out the documentary The True Cost for a disturbing look at this one facet of our compulsive consumption.
Buying isn’t just a social addiction; it’s a psychological one. Buying actually triggers a release of dopamine which means we want to do it more. Shopping is not longer just a chore, but a Saturday afternoon pastime. We’re all guilty of it, even those of us who profess to be eco-conscious.
But when your resources (money, space, etc) are finite, you make the most of them. Suddenly, you literally don’t have the space to feed a shopping habit. It’s easy to shrug off yet another plastic bottle of body wash to add to the collection when you have the shower space to store it. When your shower storage is a little mesh bag you carry into the gym, suddenly that impulse bath bomb buy becomes a big problem.
Plus we’re poor now! We can’t afford to buy unnecessary stuff or even replace stuff we have with the latest styles and upgraded models. We use our stuff until it literally can’t be used anymore, and when we do have to buy something, we’re going to make it last. Vanlife creates conscious consumers. As one of my favorite bloggers, The Non-Consumer Advocate espouses:
“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
If we happen to have a little extra spending cash, we’re going to spend it on experiences, not things. If you need some inspiration about why the experience economy is the future of capitalism, read James Wallman’s Stuffocation: Living More with Less.
2. Less space, less waste.
Part of conscious consumerism comes from literally not having the space to store unnecessary sh*t. And if you aren’t buying extra stuff, you’re not generating waste from it.
Aside from not buying cheap, junky items that break and get thrown out, we’re conscious of the amount of trash we produce. We don’t have space to store much trash (which is easy enough to get rid of) and recycling (which is much harder, depending on where we are).
Living in an apartment with curbside trash and recycling services, it was easy to just carelessly buy things in cardboard boxes and plastic bags and toss them in the bin. Recycling is basically zero waste, right? Wrong!
In many states (like Alaska and Montana) glass can’t be dropped curbside and mist actually be taken to a special recycling facility. How many people actually do that? Not many. In a van, it’s way easier for us just to avoid the glass in the first place than have to hold on to something until we find a place to recycle it.
That’s why we’ve turned to a lot of bulk grocery shopping. While we’re certainly nowhere near zero waste grocery shopping, we try to buy bulk alternatives where we can, especially for things like rice, spices, legumes, candy, snacks, nuts, and dried fruit. We’ve saved countless plastic containers from going to landfills by doing that, even in the short time we’ve lived in our van.
Once we buy it in bulk, we store it in either glass jars or OXO Good Grips airtight square canisters. Yes, these are plastic (but BPA-free!) but will hopefully last us a very long time. Having purely glass food storage containers would simply get too heavy and breakable in a house that always moves. Plus, since most jars are round, it would be a huge space inefficiency for our minimal pantry space. We had to prioritize lightweight, durable, and space saving over non-plastic.
While we don’t consider ourselves as living a strict zero waste lifestyle, our daily vanlife routines have naturally led us to adopt many of those principals without us even trying.
3. Water is precious so we don’t waste it.
Conserving water is a huge challenge to any vanlifer. It really sucks when you run out at juuuuust the wrong time (like when you’ve arrived at a remote campsite 30 miles down a dirt toad from the nearest town). To avoid that and to avoid the number of times we have to go refill, we’re always conscious about our water consumption.
Our sink is attached to a 6-gallon tank, which we go through every 5-6 days doing dishes, personal hygiene tasks, and for cooking (not including direct drinking water, for which we go through a 1-gallon Hydroflask Oasis insulated growler every 2-ish days). But think about that: 6 gallons. I’d wager a bet that some of your probably use that much water in a single session of dishes alone. Water is so easy to waste until you have to be mindful of it.
One of the biggest ways to be more mindful of your water use is by installing a manual water pump, not an electric one. We have the Whale Water Systems Gusher Galley foot pump, and it allows us the perfect amount of control over water flow.
That’s not even factoring in the fact that we shower WAY less. In fact, our water consumption from showering decreased from a shower every other day to once every 6-7 days. The downside is that, since we rely mostly on gyms to shower, we can’t shower together, which we used to do to be more efficient about water (so get your minds out of the gutter).
Finally, we do laundry way less often, too. Whereas we used to do laundry (at minimum) once a week, we now do it maybe once a month, but often stretch that to longer.
We don’t have more clothes. We just get way more wear between washes out of the few clothes we do have. That not only uses less water and electricity, but lengthens the life of our clothes. According to Patagonia CEO Yvon Chouinard in his amazing book Let My People Go Surfing:
“Ironing is an inefficient use of electricity, washing in hot water wastes energy, and dry cleaning uses toxic chemicals. Machine drying, far more than actual wear, shortens the life of a garment—just check the lint filter!”
4. Slow living means literally living slow!
When you live in a van and gas is one of your biggest monthly expenses, fuel efficiency matters for the wallet. Coincidentally, it matters for the planet, too.
No way around it, your van’s emissions are going to account for the largest percentage of your vanlife carbon footprint. While there’s no denying that old VW’s and commercial-rated modern cargo vans alike are CO2 belching beasts, there are ways to still drastically reduce that carbon footprint.
Did you know that for every 5 miles an hour you drive over 60mph, your gas mileage is reduced by 7%? So sure, you’re getting to your destination 10 minutes ahead of time, but you’re also spending a few extra bucks on every tank. That adds up. While financial drive may be the biggest factor in going slow, it’s certainly a big way van dwellers are more sustainable than those embracing the rat race. Nothing wrong with the slow lane!
5. We take “leave no trace” very seriously.
Abiding by leave no trace principles is somewhat of a honor code among vanlifers. After all, it’s what allows us to show up at parking sites trash free. It’s the vanlife golden rule: Clean up a site when you leave it for the next person as you would want a site cleaned for you.
Plus keeping sites clean is what keeps them open. If we start trashing van boondocking sites, pretty soon, they’ll get closed or smacked with a “No overnight parking” sign. It benefits us deeply to prove that we vanlifers mean no harm. Land access is a crucial thing to defend.
If you’re like us, you are passionate about public land stewardship and don’t just leave it as you found it, but leave it better than you found it. It’s not uncommon for us to pick up trash at campsites and scatter illegal campfire rock rings.
Don’t get us wrong, there are certainly vanlifers that litter and trash their campsites, though it’s generally the weekender crowd and occasional vanlifers as opposed to us full timers that instead get punished by their lack of responsibility.
6. Solar power is the vanlife way.
If you see a camper van and you look hard enough, 4/5 times you’ll also probably see the subtle sleek edges of a solar panel hiding on top of it.
Solar is the most convenient and cost effective way to provide any off-grid camper van with power and modern affinities. Sure, we may be boondocking in the desert for a week straight but that doesn’t mean we can’t play Xbox and watch movies on our Vizio flatscreen TV. All without using a single watt of non-renewable energy. Sustainability has its perks.
Even if you’re not ready to drop a serious dime on a fully solar powered camper van, you can actually get a modest solar panel for pretty cheap! Hook it up to a small power bank/inverter combo and you’ve got an off-grid power setup that’s not only sustainable, but should run you less than $1G (you’re looking at 3 times that for the full camper van solar setup).
It won’t be enough to power high-drawing appliances (like an induction stove) or lots of things at once, but it’s plenty for powering personal electronics.
GoalZero’s Boulder series of briefcase folding solar panels (in with 50w, 100w, or 200w) can be easily placed outside your van in the sun without the need for mounting. Connect them to a portable power bank, like the GoalZero Sherpa 100 AC power bank. The GoalZero Yeti-Series power banks act as mini generators, which can bank solar power, charge from external AC sources, and invert power for either AC or DC circuits. And it’s smaller than one square foot!
If you don’t need electricity for much more than charging your cell phone, opt for something smaller and more portable, like GoalZero’s Nomad-series portable solar panels.
Even little solar swaps make a big difference. Switch the solar powered lights, for instance! We use an MPOWERED Luci inflatable light as a backup and outdoor light source, as well as the Luci solar string lights for some super cute muted ambiance to brighten up our outdoor space.
Some vanlifers will also connect batteries to their van’s alternator so that they get a charge while driving. This is another way to generate power from a passive, non-wasteful resource (though this one does technically involve gasoline, even if that gas was going to get consumed anyway). Either way, vanlife runs on energy derived from (mostly) renewable sources.
In the name of full transparency, we have plugged in our van batteries from time to time in a traditional AC outlet. If we experience long periods of overcast skies or rainy weather, our batteries simply can’t get the charge they need to compensate our power usage, modest as it may be. We try to only do this when absolutely necessary (as in, our fridge is about to stop running and our food will spoil if we don’t find a way to keep it cold).
7. We use and release fewer chemicals into the atmosphere.
Living in a van means we pretty much live outside. Vanlife is literally like a never ending camping trip. Even if we’re hanging out in the van watching TV, chances are we have the sliding door open so fresh air is getting in. Bye bye indoor air pollution!
In general, the amount of chemicals we expose ourselves to is greatly reduced, both due to that and our limited consumerism. For instance: I don’t wear makeup anymore (Did you know that the average woman exposes herself to 160 chemicals every day?!). I switched to plastic and paraben-free Ethique natural shampoo and conditioner bars (and only use them once a week). For dishes, we use biodegradable dish soap.
All of these are not only better for us but much better for the environment. By using eco-safe soaps, we can safely dump water without fear of where it may end up. We can even dump dish water outdoors if needed (but not in outdoor waterways themselves!). By using fewer beauty products, I both don’t create plastic tube waste, but don’t have to wash those chemicals off into natural water if I happen to go swimming in a lake or river.
That’s the awesome thing about going natural: the benefits multiply exponentially the further it gets away from you.
8. Road travel leads you support local.
Perhaps one of the most important ways we consider vanlife more sustainable than traditional living is its tendency to support local businesses and economies. Nomadic living makes you highly dependent on immediate local areas for generally short periods of time. You can’t subscription order your groceries through Amazon when you’re always moving from town to town. Less outsourcing means less shipping means fewer carbon emissions, and that goes for everything from groceries to going out to eat.
It’s called the Slow Food Movement and everyone should jump on board. In fact, by shopping for food locally, we prevent the carbon emissions equivalent of 1,000 miles of driving.
How does choosing local work? It’s easy! Go to farmer’s markets for produce and more. If you eat meat, connect with local hunters and small town butcher shops for wild caught fish and game. Get baked goods at local bakeries. We frequent these to buy day-old discounted bread and pastries (which saves us money and reduces food waste).
Plus, a huge draw of nomadic living is the constant exposure of new and different things. There’s a McDonald’s in every major metropolis and one stoplight cow-town across the world. We’d much rather experience a unique local dive we won’t get anywhere else in the world. Then we’re not giving our money to giant soulless corporations and thereby casting a vote for unsustainable business practices.
Aside from bolstering the economies of the places we temporarily inhabit (thereby making those communities more likely to foster a friendly vanlife environment), we’re also eliminating the need for shipping and supporting organic ethical farming.
9. No permanent address means less ordering online.
Sure, there’s always General Delivery. We DO use that from time to time, but overall if we have the choice to order online and hope it’ll arrive before we leave that particular town or find it locally (or do without), we opt for local.
That not only serves to support local economies, but greatly reduces the shipping emissions we generate.
In the last five months of vanlife, we’ve only ordered something online twice. Pretty amazing considering there was a time where it felt like I was ordering stuff twice a week!
10. We chase perfect temperatures, eliminating most need for heat and air conditioning.
Of all ways houses contribute to their carbon footprint, temperature control is by far the biggest. Heating and air conditioning take up a huge amount of energy, regardless of whether they’re powered by electricity or gas. A/C alone accounts of 20% of U.S. electricity use (for more on this, read Stan Cox’s book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World). That’s a lot of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere for a little extra personal comfort.
Extreme temperatures are no friend to vanlife. No matter how well you’ve insulated your camper van, it’s not going to perfectly protect from extreme heat or cold.
That’s why we (and a vast majority of vanlifers) chase those perfect fringe temperatures that fall somewhere in between. Our ideal range vacillates between 75 and 40 degrees, day to night. Anything outside that range gets a bit uncomfortable. On chilly nights, all we need is an extra blanket on the bed. That eliminates the need for heat and air conditioning entirely!
We don’t have even have an A/C unit on the van; just that which can get pumped through the front cab, which we also never use because it’s detrimental to gas mileage.
We do have a Mr. Heater Little Buddy backup heat source which runs on Coleman single propane canisters, just in case. We know these canisters aren’t the most sustainable being un-refillable and basically un-recycable, which is why we only use them if we absolutely have to. We haven’t used it since we moved into our van in Alaska’s early spring and even then only used it a handful of times.
What about those that brave the harsh frontier of winter vanlife? Don’t get us wrong, it’s totally possible, and it’s possible to withstand those extremes without it coming at a cost to the environment.
I had a close friend in Alaska who lived in her van all winter without any heat source. Just a very nice down sleeping bag and two goats to help keep her warm (I’m not joking).
Most vanlifers are not that hardcore. We’re sure not. Most winter vanlifers need some heat source. Electricity usually isn’t viable unless they have a permanent hookup spot (like an RV park or a friend’s driveway) because of its huge amperage draw. An electric space heater can zap your batteries ridiculously fast.
Propane also is less than ideal for anything besides occasional heating. The burning of propane releases Carbon Monoxide, an dangerous odorless has that kills silently and without warning. All propane burning should be properly ventilated, which kind of defeats the point of abating the seal the heat inside. When we run the Little Buddy, we only do it for short periods of time and we still run the vent fan. We also have a nearby Carbon Monoxide detector (a campervan MUST if you have either propane heat or a propane stove).
Most winter vanlifers actually resort to installing a wood stove in their van, which is a much more sustainable and safe source of heat, with no harmful outputs for you or the planet. The downside is that camper van wood stoves cost quite a bit of money and are relatively tricky to install the chimney properly.
So even though our house doubles as a giant gas guzzler, vanlife really isn’t as unsustainable as you might think. The carbon footprint of an average house or apartment is far greater than even vans with the worst gas mileage; it’s just less noticeable.
Is vanlife the picture of sustainable living? No way. But aside from living in a zero waste community with a 100% carbon offset, no lifestyle is perfectly sustainable. The vanlife movement can and should always strive toward greater environmental responsibility, but it’s already doing pretty well by comparison.
So if you love the environment and want to start living more sustainably, move into a van and naturally roll into a more eco-friendly lifestyle.
Check out our other article for some practical tips on how to make your vanlife more sustainable. Remember, home is where you park it, so let’s protect it, too.
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