This is a guest post by Eddie and Kelli of The Vanabond Tales.
If you have thought about packing it all in to take an extended road trip in a converted van or similar, then you may have come across the term Van Life or its hash tagged alter ego #Vanlife. But what does Van Life even mean? And how can you be a part of it?
We’ve spent the last two years traveling South and Central America in our own converted vans and boy have we gotten a ton of questions – so many, in fact, that we decided to put together a list of the most frequently asked questions we get about living the Van Life.
Let’s get into it!
What Is Van Life?
The term Van Life began as an Instagram hashtag around 2011. It has been used to tag photos of people traveling the world in converted vans. Of course, van and camper-based travel has appeared in every generation since the invention of the automobile. But Van Life is the term that has come to represent the modern incarnation of this recurring trend.
Van Life champions minimalist values and a self-sufficient approach to a life centered around travel. Other tenets of the Van Life movement lie in connecting with community and nature.
The time we rented an RV and road tripped through California.
Is Van Life Really Like The Pictures?
Not if you are imagining the stylized version of Van Life often presented in social media. The version where staged and heavily edited photos present young models practicing yoga on a mountain top, playing guitar by a fire under a brilliant night sky or relaxing on a beach with their surfboards and retro Kombis in the background.
These romanticized, Instagrammable versions of Van Life present a laughably unrealistic notion of what it means to sacrifice the actual comfort, safety, and luxury of more traditional lifestyles for the freedom of the road.
Not to say Van Life isn’t going to result in some epic campsites, wonderful views, and fantastic (and possibly, sometimes, slightly staged) photos. But, for every one of these there will be a few snaps of truck stops and inner city car parks that don’t make the ‘gram.
Photo by The Vanabond Tales.
What’s So Great About The Van Life?
For us, whatever you may call it, long term travel using a vehicle is a way to explore the world with fewer limitations. Without itineraries or time constraints, living the Van Life is liberating.
Van Life also enriches our lives by stripping it back. Removing the unnecessary clutter from our lives by forcing us to bring only what we can fit in the van.
Granted, it is a life without plumbing, food delivery, stable internet, and a million other gadgets, apps, and services that were designed to save us time and energy. But we have found that was time and energy that we would only reinvest into watching television or putting in more hours at the office. Time and energy we now spend navigating new cities, searching for campsites, cooking dinners over a fire, and learning new languages.
And, what we’ve come to realize is that a lot of the things we sought to replace in the name of efficiency and convenience were sort of the whole point all along.
What Kind Of Vehicle Do I Need To Join The Van Life?
It’s often said that the best vehicle for travel is the one you’ve got. You don’t really need a ‘van’ to be part of the van life. As long as self sufficient travel using a vehicle is your goal, you are living the van life. Common vehicles used for overland travel include motorcycles, four-wheel drives with rooftop tents, vans (obviously), larger trucks with aftermarket camper attachments, and even buses.
Your destination, style of travel, and budget are the main considerations when choosing a vehicle. A four-wheel drive is better if you plan to travel to remote, off-road destinations. A converted van can camp inconspicuously in cities and populated areas. While a full sized bus can fit many modern conveniences onboard but can be pretty challenging to park.
Photo by The Vanabond Tales.
How Can I Afford To Van Life?
One question that we get a lot is how do we afford to travel. Well for one thing full time van living is extremely cheap when compared to traditional costs of living. We spend less now in total than we spent on rent alone before we started traveling.
Additionally, Van Life no longer has to mean unemployed life. If you want to work and travel, digital nomad style, there are many jobs available that can be done on the road. From busking as you travel to remote jobs for professional services, there is something for everyone.
In our cases, Eddie teaches English online while Kelli works remotely as an accountant. But, we have met photographers, healthcare workers, writers, people doing odd jobs, traveling teachers, freelancers, business owners, and many other professionals living their lives on the road.
Ok, But How Much Exactly Does Full Time Van Living Cost?
To give a working example, our combined living expenses through South and Central America are US$350 per week. Less than what we paid in rent before traveling.
Obviously some people will spend less and some much much more. We rarely stay in accommodation and we never pay to camp. For the most part, we choose budget-friendly restaurants, street food, or cook (even so food is our biggest expense because we take eating very seriously).
Here is a general breakdown of the weekly full time van living expenses in USD for 2 people road tripping in Mexico:
Mobile and Internet
Transportation (parking, tolls, etc.)
Additionally, in 2019, we spent US$1,600 on flights and another $400 for visas and fees. We spent another $1,100 for travel, health, and car insurance. Finally, we spent $350 on car maintenance.
Our yearly expenses were US$21,650 combined or $10,825 each.
Given that we have both been able to find good remote work opportunities, we find we are actually both earning more, but working and spending far less than we were at home.
This means we can save more money and have an extra discretionary budget to spend on special occasions, activities and more travel (e.g. taking a holiday from Van Life to visit and celebrate with friends and family).
How Much Does A Van Cost?
How long is a piece of string? You can theoretically spend as much or as little on a vehicle for traveling as you like. And, if everything goes to plan, you should hopefully recoup the majority of this cost by reselling the vehicle at the end of your travels.
To give you some insight from our own experiences our first van cost US$6,650 and it was already fitted out for travel. We recouped $6,000 upon selling it seven months later. We spent $500 on maintenance, $500 on insurance and $350 on paperwork. So the total cost of the van in the end was US$2,000.
Our second van cost US$9,500: $4,500 for the vehicle which was unconverted and $5,000 for the materials and equipment we used to convert it ourselves. (We converted the van in five weeks without any trade or DIY experience and you can too. Check out our first van build article here).
Our second van we designed specifically to be more comfortable to live and work in, meaning we could both work more hours and spend less on accommodation while traveling. We hope to finish traveling Central America and then sell this van too.
How Do You Entertain Yourself On The Road?
If you are considering full time van living, you likely already have an appetite for travel. Our entertainment is hiking to a viewpoint for sunset. Finding the best local bar for live music in a new city. Making a campfire to sit around in the evening. Discovering the best coffee in a new town.
We are never bored and if we are we can always just move on. And of course where there’s a cell signal you always have Netflix.
How Do You Stay Fit & Healthy While On The Road?
The need for gym memberships, protein powders, and weekly spin and pilates classes are greatly overstated by a hundred-billion-dollar fitness industry. Walking or running every day, stretching, practicing yoga, doing push-ups on the beach, using the calisthenics equipment in parks around the world, we make an effort to exercise daily in order to stay fit while we travel.
And, with more time up our sleeves than we ever had working nine-to-fives, we feel healthier than we ever have before, all without gym memberships, weekly classes, or diet supplements.
Car camping (in Tasmania)… probably the least glamorous version of Van Life.
What Do You Eat In The Van?
When you picture Van Life, what do you see? It may be pretty grim. Packets of freeze-dried foods? Cold meals out of a can? Road kill on a lucky day? Realistically Van Life and good home-cooked food don’t need to be mutually exclusive. It may take a small adjustment but there are plenty of delicious meals that can be cooked on the road.
One big change we have made while living the van life is to shift from cooking lots of meat-based meals to vegetable, egg, and dairy-based meals. This is because these foods are less perishable and better to travel with.
We have a small portable fridge, a two burner gas stove, and all your everyday utensils.
Some of our go-to meals include burrito bowls, vegetarian chili, curries, frittatas, quesadillas, shakshuka and a stovetop pizza we have been learning to perfect. When we have more time we like to get a bit creative and try our hand at dishes specific to the region we are traveling.
What About The Toilet Situation?
Many large vans, buses, and truck conversions are equipped with on-board toilets and even showers. For many, it’s a non-negotiable. For motorcyclists and people using smaller vans or four-wheel-drive vehicles, tiny portable toilets, a plastic container, or simply ‘the woods’ fill the gap between public toilets and showers.
We don’t have a bathroom in our van and it doesn’t often bother us (although there have been some scenarios involving suspect street food where it has inconvenienced us deeply).
In populated places, we use the toilets at gas stations and restaurants. We have some plastic containers on board for emergency situations.
Do You Ever Shower?
While we don’t have an onboard shower, we do have a portable outdoor shower head that uses the car’s 12-volt outlet and can be dropped into our water container. But for the most part we bathe in the ocean, rivers, and waterfalls that we love to visit.
Occasionally we can shower at truck stops (depending which part of the world we are in), or we shower when we check into accommodation every now and then.
In the past, we have used baby wipes to stay fresh in between these bathing opportunities. Now, in an effort to move closer to a zero-waste scenario, we don’t buy them anymore opting to use the portable shower more instead.
I once met a family Van Life-ing in an old school bus they converted!
Is Van Life Safe?
Yes… well no… it can be. It should be.
Some parts of the word are less safe than others. That is a fact. But too often people generalize whole regions, countries, or continents as unsafe.
The reaction we get from many when we talk about full time van living in developing regions is that it ‘sounds’ extremely dangerous. Usually, the same people have trouble identifying the countries that belong to said regions or putting into words the actual danger they are worried about.
By researching the specific areas you are visiting, traveling only in areas where it is safe, and taking basic precautions, you will find risks can be managed and mitigated and that travel through developing countries can be done quite safely.
Do your research and stay informed because there are regions all around the world that are dangerous to travel. Moreover, situations can develop quickly. This is true even in developed countries. Natural disasters, pandemics and civil unrest may be exacerbated in developing countries but they do not discriminate.
These are a few of the questions that we get most commonly about living the van life, but there are plenty more things to think about before you hit the road.
For more things Van Life including how tos, tips and tricks and destination guides, check out our blog The Vanabond Tales.