What’s Vanlife Really Like?: Reflections on 4 Months in Our Van
We’ve officially lived in our van for for whole months (whaaaaaattt?!) and we’re now living be on the road full time. No jobs. No responsibilities. No reason to change our clothes daily, remember the day of the week, or even take a shower. Vanlife is f*cking bomb, y’all.
What does four months in the van mean to us? It means we’ve now enjoyed the fruits of our labor longer than we labored. It means we don’t legally have any address. But more importantly, it means we’ve now saved a grand total of $6000 in rent. “Why vanlife",” people ask? What more of an answer do you need?
We’ve now hit what we see as an appropriate amount of time to really be able to honestly reflect on the reality of vanlife. That’s why we thought do a bit of a summary of what the last four months have been life, both those we spent balancing vanlife with jobs and those we now spend on the road. Maybe you’re just considering vanlife and want to know what vanlife is actually like. Maybe you already live in a van and just laughing and commiserating at the struggles of fellow vanlifers. Either way, we want to give you an honest look at vanlife, the weird, the wacky, the woeful, and everything in between.
Buckle up and let’s hit the road.
A MONTH BY MONTH LOOK AT OUR VANLIFE JOURNEY SO FAR
May 2019: We moved into the van, both still holding down more or less full time jobs. We got out on days off and do some excellent pre-season bouldering in a glacier valley. Vanlife dirtbagging started off on a positive note.
June 2019: Tourist season has kicked off so finding parking in our usual haunts becomes more difficult. Chris finished working while I continued swinging two jobs but slowly scaling back the number of days I worked so we could get out climbing as much as possible.
July 2019: I continued to work only 1-3 days a week but we pretty much made it a point to be in town as little as Anchroage. Striking a balance between vanlife and non-remote work responsibilities started to get a little frustrating and led to some tiffs between us, and being in town only exacerbated issues. Anchorage vanlife started to become taxing in its own right and our time in Alaska was more than stale. Still, we pushed into the mountains and snagged some memorable climbing achievements to take with us from Alaska.
August 2019: Both of us completely finished working (not including the remote work we do). We stuck around for the first two weeks of the month mostly for social obligations and lots of goodbye parties. Apparently people in Alaska would actually miss us! Then we hit the road! From the day we left Alaska to the day we arrived in Squamish, BC (our first major climbing destination), we spent one week meandering the windy, desolate highways of BC and the Yukon.
Our drive took us across iconic highways, including the Al-Can, the Stewart-Cassiar, the Yellowhead Highway (aka the Highway of Tears, the Cariboo Highway (which I have to assume someone named either with a complete ignorance toward spelling or with the cheeky intention that it be pronounced “Cari-BOO!”), and the beautiful but bitch-on-the-brakes Sea to Sky Highway. It landed us smack dab in the middle of a killer granite corridor with more climbing than e could hope to achieve in our few weeks there. But more rocks are calling and the great thing about vanlife is that we can always come back!
VANLIFE BY NUMBERS
No. of different nightly parking places: 27
No. of times we got kicked out of a parking place: 1
This is a one of van life’s biggest anxieties and while it never really goes away, we are pleased to report that actually running into parking trouble is rare if you’re anything less than downright blatant about it.
No. of police encounters we had: 1
Funnily enough, unrelated to getting kicked out of a spot. Someone called the cops on our van one morning as we were parked in our usual in-town pullout because they saw the door open but no people. So there we were, sitting in our underwear during the unprecedented Alaska heatwave, when a policeman pokes his head in the van. The second he saw there were people inside, you could see the exasperation on his face at having his time wasted. He made a bit of small talk and bid us good day. Police and vanlife aren’t always enemies, we learned.
No. of weird/scary(?) encounters: 1
If you’ve never been there, let me just say that Anchorage, Alaska is one of the weirdest f*cking places. High crime, high homeless population, and high rate of meth and heroin use makes it one of the least vanlife friendly cities. 10/10 do not recommend. After living there for two years (part of it in one of the city’s most notoriously sketchy pockets), our tolerance for weird shit is very high. Not much bothers us, but we did have one encounter that both rattled us and made us laugh.
One night, we were hanging out in the van in town, drinking and listening to music. Suddenly, the back doors of the van opened and there stood a tweaker, meth scabs and all. All three of us froze in shock, until he finally said, “I thought I was told to come in here.”
After a beat, Chris just said, “Noooo.”
“Yeah,” Chris said forcefully as he closed the doors. In panic I scrambled off the bed and fumbled somewhat drunkenly for the key fob to lock the doors. We then watched the guy wander around to the front windows, looking in as if that were the part he’d been invited into. We drew the curtains on the front cab and made sure the can of bear spray was accessible.
No. of vanlife problems we faced: 7
Bed mold: Shortly after we moved into the van, we noticed moisture was building up below our mattress. We learned that was a big bonus to the camper van slat bed bottoms, you often see in camper vans. Since we had opted for the security of a solid piece of 1/4” with no vents, we were pretty much asking for it. After just a couple weeks, the moisture bred mold in the cheap foam underlay of our bed. To remedy it, we trashed the moly foam, sanded away any mold that had grown on the plywood base, coated it with Thompson’s water seal, then drilled holes in the plywood until it looked like Swiss cheese. Just as sturdy but far more breathable. We haven’t had moisture build-up since.
Rev-a-Shelf drawer collapse: As much as you try to test the integrity of your structures during the van build process, you just don’t know how they’ll hold up to constant driving and road vibrations (let alone the rough back roads we take our van on). Early on, one of our Rev-a-Shelf drawers (which we use as a kitchen pantry) bounced and ripped the screws completely out of the wood. Fortunately, it was amenable to remounting.
Rear lofted storage crates almost collapse: After taking Giovanni up his test-piece rough and tumble backroad, the craft crates we screwed together as lofted rear gear storage started to crater. They were holding a lot of weight so we really weren’t surprised and Chris managed to stabilize it to an almost bomb-proof degree. We’ve since gone up that rough road a dozen times with no problems.
Low voltage triggering fridge auto shut-off: We love our Dometic CFX AC/DC compressor fridge for our camper van, but we won’t lie and say it hasn’t some kinks to work out. One of those is that when run through the DC circuit (which is ideal because then we don’t lose efficiency through the inverter), it comes equipped with an auto shut-off if the voltage gets too low. So if the batteries were hitting 50% charge, the fridge would shut off without warning. We tried everything, even emailing Dometic, but they weren’t much help. We assumed the problem was in the DC connector and got to the point that we were about to chop the cable and hardwire it to the batteries sans the connector port. Fortunately, we figured out that it was just a setting problem before we did that. Changing the sensitivity to ‘low’ has thus far fixed the issue. But for perspective, we fought this issue for about three weeks.
Midnight battery depletion: In the midst of our fridge fight, at some point we messed around the the battery compartment and accidentally turned the solar charger off. Then we went for about five days using our electric system heavily. No surprise that we were awakened at 2am one morning by the angry chirping of the power inverter warning us of imminent shut-down (which meant nothing to keep the fridge cool). While it may not have been a surprise in hindsight, it sure was at 2am as we grumpily had to go on a midnight quest for power to steal in the middle of Anchorage. We fortunately knew of a business with an outside power outlet we could stealthily park in front of and recharge for the rest of the night. Suffice it to say we’re pretty meticulous about checking the solar charger now.
Shelf below sink collapse: After making it down some rough stretches of road n the Al-Can and Cassiar (less rough on the latter), we finally hit the smooth sailing Yellowknife highway. On it, we stopped in a podunk town to refill water and dump waste. The second we pulled the tanks out from under the sink, the shelf above them came crashing to the ground, the screws pulled right out. Enough vibration and they came loose. The solution was fast in the form of four extra screws and our cleaning supplies were back in place. Road repairs may not be the most professional but they get the job done.
Cracked windshield: Courtesy of a passing trucker on the Al-Can. A chip on the very side of the windshield wick spread into a 10” crack at the bottom of the driver side. We tried stopping the spread with a little super glue and packing tape, but it’s only continued. Quite the bummer if we have to replace the windshield with the van barely at 6,000 miles, but c’est la vie.
No. of major van improvements we made: 6
Installed a bug net on the sliding door: Specifically we installed the Magzo 60” x 80” fiberglass magnetic bug net and we only wish we had done it sooner.
Added a second memory foam mattress topper: We originally had one 3” Thermapedic memory foam topper on top of a cheap 4” slab of craft foam. After the mold incident with that one, we tossed the cheap foam and upgraded with a second Thermapedic 3” topper.
Camper van storage solutions: We’re lumping this not one improvement, but really it’s the sum of hundreds of little things we changed about our storage solutions. The reality is that you just won’t understand storage efficiency until you actually live in your van. We moved things around constantly, adding new bins, taking away old inefficient ones, and adding hanging storage and cargo nets where we can. The rear of our van looks so much less cluttered than when we moved in, even though we pretty much have the same amount of stuff! Some of these new storage solutions are now things we consider essential vanlife stuff.
Drawer and cabinet closures: Before actually driving our house, we had no concept to just how much things shift. Every time we braked too hard or took a corner just too fast and had to reassemble the van, we added systems to help keep everything in its place. For drawers, we installed either hook & eye closures or bungees on every drawer in the van. We’ve learned that dynamic closures (like bungees and shock cord) work best because they give just a little. Static closures end up just pulling the screws out after enough force has been exerted on them. Our plan in the future is to replace the hook & eye closures with hooks on bungees. Things with a tendency to slide got sticky cabinet liners at the bottom. Even out paper towels have a fancy little bungee that keeps the roll from unraveling. We now have a system of fast road ready checks we perform every time we drive the van and everything (usually) stays put.
Added fabric coverings to the door insulation panels: This was something we wanted to have done before moving into the van, but it was so low priority in terms of making the van livable that we just didn’t have time. Then by the time we did have time when we were living in the van, we procrastinated like college students at midterm time. But after almost two months, we finally covered the last bits of shiny, ostentatious insulation with scraps of our old curtains. Upcycling for the win!
Added a rear camper van hangboard system: During the van conversion, we racked our brains over how to install a camper van hangboard. The internet had virtually no ideas, aside from a sliding door mount specific to Sprinter vans (the Promaster lacks the necessary roof fittings unless you have a roof rack). Finally, with the help of a dirtbag buddy and no more than a day to spare before we left Alaska, we got a rad climbing training setup that mounts to the rear of our van. Not only can we hangboard, but do ring workouts, front levers, and even muscle ups! Keep an eye out for some details about it in the near future.
So many more little things! These are the big ones, but we (and by that I mostly mean Chris) has been tweaking and making minor improvements constantly. A lot of them are small, but cumulatively greatly improve our quality of (van)life.
No. of lessons we learned about ourselves and vanlife: Countless
Vanlife come with a huge learning curve and the beginning of a vanlife journey is all about learning what works what doesn’t. Beyond the logistics of the van itself, we had to rewire our approach to every day life. Suddenly, things we took for granted become chores and concerns: getting drinking water, finding a safe place to sleep, dumping our own waste (for more details, read our review on our Dometic camper van toilet, all things we just don’t think about in normal life. We learned how RV dump station work and where the best ones without lines were in Anchorage. We learned to juggle having a single mode of transportation for two people that doubled as our house. We learned how far we could push our electric setup before needing to recharge.
At times it got overwhelming, but if the van conversion process itself wasn’t enough to make us wave a white flag, these new challenges sure weren’t.xIn the near future, we’ll be diving deeper into some of these lessons and provide helpful tips to make transitioning into vanlife a bit easier. We’ve already started here.
No. of regrets about vanlife: 0
The biggest thing these last four months have taught us? As much as you think you’re prepared for vanlife, it’ll always manage to surprise you. Vanlife has its frustrations and drudgery, just like the real lie. Just because you live in a van doesn’t mean it isn’t real life. No matter how many miles you put on the van, you won’t be able to leave behind life stresses. Vanlife is more than its hastag.
However, it is in many ways like living in a fantasy. Even four months, I am never not left breathless when I pull into some stunning remote parking spot on the banks of teal river for the night and realize that’s our home. We have the great privilege of having a revolving back yard with some of the most beautiful landscaping (and we don’t even have to pay property taxes!). In that way, vanlife is everything the hashtag promises. Live everywhere, indeed.
But even in the van, we stress, we fight, we have bad days. Sometimes it’s downright shitty (literally, when we have to dump the toilet at particularly nasty dump stations). Even in beautiful places, ugly things happen, but that balance is crucial. We’re not here to sugarcoat things but we are here to assure you that despite the “real world” things that plague vanlife, it’s completely and utterly amazing. Our lives have purpose and meaning beyond the “get up, go to work, make money to spend it” routine that leads so many to their graves. We would do it all again in a heartbeat and we drive off toward the horizon of long term vanlife so incredibly stoked at what the road has in store.