We Live in a Van! (Now What?): The Process of Transitioning into Van Life
Van building is hard. That’s Hard with a capital H. It demands every ounce of your attention, if not figuring out the logistics of the build itself then in figuring out how in earth you’re going to meet the deadline. It’s easy to get so consumed with the van build and the pressure to get your van livable that you don’t really have time to consider what will happen once it is.
Maybe you’re immediately taking off on a trip. Maybe you’re lingering in your old life for a little while and continuing to work (like we did for the first 3 months of van life). Whether you’re uprooting your whole existence or just part of it, van life is a whole new game.
Home is where you park it… once you learn where to park it.
The most common a full time vanlifer fields is, “Where do you park it?” We usually respond with something cavalier like, “Wherever the f*ck we want!”
But what we don’t often convey to others is that it’s not so simple. Finding a nightly parking spot that won’t end in a midnight police wake-up call is one of the most persistent van life problems and while managing it gets easier (particularly in areas you become familiar with), it is possibly the single biggest adjustment.
In rural areas, it’s no trouble at all: highway pullouts, BLM land, campgrounds, and more. Rural parking possibilities are endless. Urban van life, less so. Since our van life journey kicked off with 3 months of remaining in our “real person” jobs in the city of Anchorage, we had to learn to navigate the difficult setting of urban van life (in a city with an incredibly high crime rate) right from the beginning.
Here are some tricks we’ve compiled to help make finding overnight van parking easier:
Download the iOverlander App: This super useful tool is a van life godsend. It’s a community contributed app that maps out helpful van life locations pretty much anywhere in North America and beyond. This includes camp sites, dump stations, water refill sites, propane services, and (you guessed it) parking spots! Find secret pullouts and abandoned parking lots from others who have experience staying there. Some other good similar apps are StayFree, FreeRoam, Rove, and TheVanlifeApp.
Don’t leave finding parking to last minute. The worst thing in the world is battling darkness and still having no place to park. Fortunately in Alaska, it’s pretty much never actually dark in the summer, but its still frustrating when you just keep driving and all you want to do it pull over and sleep. Plan ahead as much as possible and have a back-up option, even if it isn’t ideal. When within the city limits, we have two or three go-to spots that, even if we’d rather find something different, are legal and always available.
Have a list of multiple options. Don’t rely on just one perfect pullout you absolutely love, because chances are, someone will have already grabbed it (especially in summer when everyone and their mother is traveling in an RV or camper). Have a backup plan. Become familiar with the area and know what your options are. If we’re leaving town to go camping, we have at least three different pullouts and campsites in mind in case some of them are full.
Get familiar with businesses that allow overnight parking. Lots of larger companies actually allow and encourage overnight parking. Cabela’s even had a lot dedicated to RVs and campers (because they stand to benefit from the business!). Of course, most people think of Walmart when they think of van friendly businesses, but we’re proud to say we’ve yet to have to resort to parking at a Walmart (mostly because the Anchorage Walmart is probably the scariest place in the city). Hardwear stores, 24-hour gyms, and even hotels are other options. If you have a relationship with smaller business in your area, ask them for permission to use their parking lot occasionally.
Don’t be timid. It’s normal at first to be intimidated by experimental parking and get caught up with what’s allowed and not. It’s important to learn that sometimes, you just have to go for it. If there aren’t signs that explicitly say, “No Overnight Parking” or “Private Property”, go for it! Remember, the worst that can happen is someone asks you to leave in the middle of the night. Annoying, sure, but not the end of the world. Even if you get the police called on you, they’ll just ask you to leave or sometimes not! We had the police called on us once while staying in a pullout because we had the door open. The officer just confirmed the vehicle wasn’t abandoned and went on his way.
Relax! It gets easier. While hard in the beginning, you really do get used to it. It’s actually remarkable how quickly something so basic as finding a place to sleep becomes a normal part of your everyday van life routine.
Getting used to the idea of being “houseless, not homeless”.
Van life breeds a sense of displacement, at least in the beginning. Beneath the freedom and thrills of the open road, there is an undeniable anxiety (which varies in degrees from person to person) about not having a stable place to call home. It goes beyond just finding a place to park each night. It’s coming to terms with the fact that you don’t have a guaranteed place to go each night.
The vanlifer’s creed is “houseless not homeless”, but coming to regard a mobile home as your one and only home isn’t immediately and natural. While the van itself is a bubble of comfort and safety, the environment around it rarely it.
There is safety and security in traditional living, which is why people have been putting up with skyrocketing rent, endless utility bills, and rising property taxes for years. And why they still think van life is a crazy endeavor only suitable for an SNL skit.
You learn to love it. You learn to embrace being the eccentric person parked “down by the river” on the near nightly basis. Suddenly, the world becomes your home, but it doesn’t start that way. There isn’t really anything you can do but trust this and know that it’s normal to feel that tug of displacement in the beginning.
Negotiating limited living space.
No matter how small the footprint of your current apartment is, it’s not nearly as small as a converted van. Our 176” wheelbase van is on the high end of the van space spectrums and we still only have about 75 square feet of internal space. That can be hard enough to just exist in, let alone with all of your earthly possessions and possibly another person.
In our last article on Pre-Van Life Prep, we made some recommendations about how to prepare for this decrease in space BEFORE being completely limited to it. Even so, once you’re in it, you’ll need to adjust a bit. We were actually surprised at how effortless it was!
Here are some things we found that helped:
Take turns when moving about. This mostly applied to van life couples. Even though our van is spacious enough for two to move around the main floor simultaneously, we try to be conscious of what the other is doing. If one person is cooking, the other can be relaxing in bed. Take this example: Chris and I are very dedicated to our diets and tracking everything we eat to ensure we get the prop macronutrients in a day. More often than not, that leads us to eat totally different meals. While simultaneously prepping our separate meals our old kitchen, which had at least triple the counter space of our van, we felt like we were always in each other’s way; now, we rarely are! Why? We started prepping meals separately. In the morning, I make breakfast while Chris preps coffee. Once I’m done, he makes breakfast, or sometimes vice versa.
Be mindful of physical presence. Spacial awareness is huge; I unfortunately have a very poor sense of it. Even before van life, I was pretty much always running into or accidentally flailing my limbs into Chris. The van forces me to keep this in check. Physically, your motions must be limited and as fun as it might be to pull a Tom Cruise in Risky Business, your van just really isn’t the place for it.
Put things away immediately. In terms of storage space, I assumed van life would feel a lot more cluttered, even despite our best organizational efforts. Chuffed was I to discover it’s actually not the case! Everything has a place and for the most part, that place is our fo the way. The key is learning to put things away and get things cleaned up immediately. If you go camping, you can’t let the gear sit in the backpack for a week before you get it sorted. In a van, just get it done immediately, because there simply isn’t space for things to live in limbo.
Buying new things only as needed.
A big part of saving space and keeping your van from feeling cluttered is to avoid stockpiling unnecessary things. This means your grocery shopping habits have to become more disciplined and less impulsive.
First and foremost, you’ll need to learn to be especially careful with the quantities of things you buy. Cut up your Costco membership card. Don’t buy things in bulk because it’a a better deal, or buy five of one item because it was on sale. Avoid falling into the trap of buying something you will run out of eventually so you don’t have to buy it when you do. Don’t add anything to your grocery list until you’ve actually finished whatever it is.
This is all easer said than done, especially for the money minded (as most van lifers tend to be). I myself was a notorious “sale stock-up shopper”. I was that person that bought five boxes of Special K because it was buy four get one free. Much to Chris’ relief I now only buy two boxes at a time and only when our bulk storage bin is depleted.
I used this simple rule to help: If you think you need it, you probably don’t. If you know you need, you probably do.
Making the most of limited resources.
One van life lesson you’ll quickly need to learn is how important resources are. Unlike a house or apartment, where things like water, energy, and waste capacity exist in virtually limitless supply, they are all finite in a van. Things you take for granted you suddenly have to put effort into conserving and replenishing. It’s a tough mindset to change, but it’s much more sustainable (more environmentally and in terms of time) when you do.
Living in a house, we take water for granted. Living in a van, you quickly learn how important it is for so many things. Drinking, cooking, cleaning, brushing your teeth, washing yourself, flushing the toilet, the list goes on. The average American uses 80-110 gallons of water per day! Sustainability issues aside, that much water would literally take up almost the entire cargo capacity of a van. Our potable water storage in total is a mere fraction of that, at just 10 gallons spread across various sources:
2x Hydroflask insulated water bottles for daily drinking
1x 128 oz Hydroflask Oasis growler for drinking water storage
1x 10L MSR dromedary bag for extra potable water
1x 6 gallon BPA-free plastic water tank connected to our sink
Some tips we learned to save water:
Install a manual (not electric) water pump. Electric water pumps are nice, but it’s easy to control water pressure and loose track of how much you’re using. Manual pumps, like foot and hand pumps, help you not only control the amount of water you use but in general make you much more conscious of your consumption. We LOVE our Whale Gusher Galley foot pump. Great pressure control and easy to use!
Clean your dishes as completely as possible before washing them. That means licking your plate clean! Wipe out grease with a paper towel first. Use the rinse water from one dish to pour into the next for washing. Dishes will consume your water rapidly if you let them.
Always carry a water bottle with you. Not only is this a healthy hydration habit, it also lets you refill at public drinking fountains. If you’re going grocery shopping, bring a water bottle or two and refill there so you’ll have water in the van. Train yourself to do this and say goodbye to single use plastic bottles!
We have an incredibly DOPE electric set-up that we honestly couldn’t be happier with. We’ll go into more details about it soon an electric install tutorial, but for now, we’ll just say we haven’t had to shore up our van batteries once in the three months we’ve lived in the van. Our 300 watt solar panels have given us all the power we need to run a wide variety of appliances. That said, we’re still careful not to run too many things at once for fear of overloading the system.
However, if you don’t have such a high end off-grid capable van electric system, there are plenty of ways you can save power.
Use natural lighting and ventilation. If you can open the door instead of turning on lights or running the vent fan, do that!
Charge things in public spaces. Every time you go to work or a wifi cafe, take the opportunity to charge your phone, computer, and portable battery banks. Driving is another great opportunity to charge phones through your van’s DC plugs.
Don’t leave chargers plugged in to outlets when you aren’t using them. We’ve all heard the rumor that this wastes energy. it’s easy to ignore when it’s just the environment that suffers, but when it’s actually eating into a finite bank of power, it suddenly matters. Small drains add up.
Use solar lights. Even if you don’t have solar panels on your van, small solar powered appliances like lights are easy and inexpensive to buy. We love our MPowered inflatable solar powered Luci light, which we just charge on the dash throughout the day. Luci now even makes colored solar lights and adorable solar string lights, which can be excellent subdued light source for your van.
Get a small portable solar panel. Again, solar really isn’t that expensive; it’s generally the batteries and inverter part of a solar van system that’ll set you back financially. If you can’t afford that, grab yourself a small solar panel with a built in battery bank to charge basic thing. GoalZero makes some excellent portable off-grid power hubs, from AC power hubs to full on Portable Generator power stations.
In our van, waste consists of 4 major categories: toilet waste (black water), sink waste (grey water), garbage, and recycling. Without a septic system and curbside trash and recycling services, you’ll need to learn how to handle all of these things.
Trash is easy enough. Just throw your small trash bag away in public cans. There’s no limited supply of them.
Recycling is unfortunately much harder. In Alaska (and many places in the U.S.) you simply won’t find public recycling bins, even for basic items like mixed paper and plastic. Instead, we have to hoard our recyclable goods (usually in a bag in the back) until we find it convenient to go to the local recycling center.
Sink waste is another easy one to deal with, as you can pretty much dump grey water down any street storm drain (though some places will have signs prohibiting this depending on the local water drainage system). If this is the case, you can simply use a standard RV dump station or drain at a gas station to empty your grey water tank.
Toilet waste is the hardest form of waste to dispose of because of its biohazard potential. Hopefully it won’t come as a surprise to you, but you can’t just dump shit water anywhere you please. You need to use special facilities. We have a Dometic RV toilet in our van which we need to manually dump every week or so. To do this, we go to RV dump stations (which are usually located at many gas stations).
If you don’t have a toilet in your van, bathroom usage becomes even more of a resource as you’ll need to get used to using pee bottles, the great outdoors, and pulls restrooms. Again, get over your fear of public restrooms! They’re a necessity for van life. Even though we have a toilet, we use public restrooms as much as possible because we know it’s a little less in the toilet tank and a little longer we can go without the unpleasant dumping process.
This was actually something we didn’t even really consider before moving into the van. Sure, we bought a little prepaid 18gb internet modem for our computer, but we didn’t actually realize how quickly we went though phone data when our phones weren’t regularly connected to an unlimited home wifi network. We actually had to turn off data for most of our apps and drastically limit how much we used our phones (the sheer millennial horror!).
One big thing you can do to conserve phone data is to enforce some rules regarding social media. Only use it when on an external wifi network. This was actually hugely helpful in just severing our mindless scrolling through social feeds, which is better for us in so many ways.
Get in the habit of only using phone data for necessary things, like work or email. As a freelance writer, I need to use it as research for writing, and even then I’m limited on how much I can do.
Adjusting to new and unusual chores involved with daily van living.
I’ll come out and say it: Vanlife is hard work. There’s a reason why people refer to living solely in a van “full time” vanlife. It’s a lot like a job! But without the medical benefits and paid vacation.
Limited resources, however adept you become at conserving and stretching them to the fullest, will eventually need to be refilled or dumped. With our system, we end up dumping waste and refilling potable water about every 5-6 days (sometimes more if we spend more time off grid). That’s a number we’ve extended considerably since our early van life days, where we weren’t as good at conserving resources.
That efficiency takes practice and after a few awkward rounds of dumping your toilet at an RV dump station, you’ll quickly figure out how to do it as infrequently as possible. Learning the most efficient ways to do these things also expedites the process of van chores, and again it’s something that will come with time. Our first water refill and waste dumping session took us about 30 minutes. Now, we can do it in as little as 5 minutes.
To give you an idea of what your average week of van chores looks like, here’s our current task list:
Sweeping the floor (daily, 2 minutes)
Mopping the floor (weekly, 5 minutes)
Refilling potable sink water (weekly, 2 minutes)
Dumping grey water (weekly, 1 minute)
Refilling drinking water (2x per week, 5 minutes)
Dumping toilet (weekly, 5-10 minutes)
Wiping down counter tops (weekly, 5 minutes)
Cleaning out sink basins (weekly, 5 minutes)
Van life is like switching from an automatic transition to a manual. Everything more or less function the same way, but it take more time and effort on your part. But on the other hand, while you have a lot more little daily tasks, you have way fewer big housekeeping tasks! It’s so nice to go from spending hours mopping and vacuuming to five minutes sweeping and wiping down your floor.
Finding what to do (or not to do) with your free time.
Our society stands on a base of constant productivity and achievement. Work, work, work to make money until we either die or get a few golden years to spend it. For most of us, that rat race is just a part of pre-van existence, and perhaps a big driving factor that pushes us toward alternative living.
Sure, many of us maintain jobs (whether in person or remotely) while on the road, but still, you’ll be amazed to find how much free time van life affords. Even more amazing than the space, is the pressure to fill it.
In the beginning, I constantly battled the urge to be productive. We could be parked in beautiful remote spots with no cell service deep in the mountains on a rest day between climbing days, and there I was in productivity withdrawal. It took (or rather is taking me still) a long time to slowly sever those synaptic impulses to always be doing something. Sometimes, just doing nothing is enough. Just exist in your head and with your thoughts.
My recommendation is this: Find your forgotten bliss. What’s the thing you used to love doing but haven’t in years because you haven’t had time. Or what the thing you’ve always wanted to get into but just couldn’t find the motivation. I’ve recently gone back to all sorts of things I haven’t had time to do in years, like reading and listening to podcasts. Ironically, there are many podcasts out there about this very thing! I’ve lately been devouring The Slow Home Podcast and the Hurry Slowly podcast, which are truly helping me learn to let go of the hustling mentality.
This movement away from materialism and the need to achieve is called the slow living movement. We’ll dive more into how van life and slow living intersect (and where they diverge) in the near future. For now, practice living slowly. Allow yourself the time to wake up and lie in bed for a half an hour before starting the day. Just sit and dream of all the places you want to go (and can go now that you live in a van!). Van life is so wonderfully freeing, but we have to give ourselves permission to revel in it.
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