Everything I Wish People Would've Told Me About How to Live The Van Life
April 14, 2021
There are a lot of things we did right when it came to living in a van. However, there was also a lot we did wrong.
The truth is, when it comes to van life, mistakes rarely happen because of poor planning or failed itineraries. They happen because we simply cannot know everything. You can look at a map all day, but it's not going to tell you everything you need to hear.
And to be even more honest, sometimes I've found myself straying away from writing about van life because it's just so damn hard to explain. It's a beautiful hot mess adventure that is grueling, freeing, humanizing, rugged, and powerful all in one stroke. If you do it alone, you'll be lonely. If you do it with your significant other, you question your sanity. But yes, you should totally do it.
But I learned a lot about van life in our six months on the road. And I've learned even more throughout my numerous extended road trips through the United States. Even this article won't tell you everything you need to know, but it's everything I wish I knew on how to live van life before we began our journey. I hope it helps you, too.
1. Routes should be planned; itineraries should not.
Don't get me wrong; I'm a total 'let's wing it and hope for the best' kind of person. If you've been here a while you already knew that.
But when it comes to van life, there are two crucial mistakes that travelers can make
- Planning no route whatsoever (and doing no research)
- Overplanning and creating a detailed itinerary
Now you may be thinking, how do I create a plan without creating a plan? Great question.
Here what you should research and plan:
Look at your departure date. The time of year you depart should define your ultimate route. If you leave on November 1st, like we did, head south. Excuse my dated GOT reference here; winter is always coming in the north, and being stuck trying to cross mountain passes when the low is 5 degrees is not ideal for van living.
In contrast, if you plan to leave on June 1st, the entire country is your oyster. If you have unlimited time in the van, spend the summer exploring less touristy and crowded areas, and then move into places like Zion National Park or Grand Teton National Park in September, when the weather is great. Still, the heaviest of the crowds have subsided. Attempting to park an oversized van in a tiny over-filled parking lot is never a fun task, and it will be tough to find legal places to camp/park near any central tourist area in the summer.
Here what you shouldn't research and plan:
Van life is not for itineraries. Even if you have a slight idea of where you're going, never plan down to the day. Leave room for unplanned adventures. Nearly all my favorite places we have found on the road weren't on our initial list, and all of my 'top' spots found via Instagram would be our biggest disappointments. Take dusty two tracks, spend a couple of extra days in the Northern Rocky Mountains, and always stop for the coast's sunset. The best part about van life is that there is no schedule, so don't make one.
2. California is not van-friendly.
California, I love you and think you're great, but it's not the 1970s anymore, and you are now probably the least friendly state when it comes to van life. Don't get me wrong, it makes a lot of sense, but it also caused us many headaches on the road.
If you're dreaming of pulling your van up to the parking lot along Malibu's glistening sandy beaches, swinging your back doors open to watch the sunset, and sipping on a cheap glass of wine while you slowly doze off as dusk settles, I've got some bad news for you. I will be impressed if you make it longer than two hours attempting to sleep there or anywhere; that is usually a go-to spot for vanlifers in other parts of the United States.
Walmarts when you're in a pinch? Nope, not here.
Think you've beaten the system with your 24-hour Planet Fitness membership? Try again.
What about campsites? Good luck finding any openings last minute.
When we were in the van, I felt like we were getting kicked out of parking spots nearly every night for the first couple of weeks. We even ended up accidentally sleeping in a homeless camp but decided to stay because there was nowhere else to go. It was completely unexpected.
When you think about it, there is a reason California is so hard on vanlifers. It's because if sleeping in the parking lot along the beach, or at Walmart, or a grocery store, was legal; they would all turn into homeless camps, van life hubs, or makeshift resorts for attempting to live that SoCal lifestyle.
3. Discount grocery stores are where it's at.
Discount grocery stores were never a thing where I grew up in Michigan. We discovered them on the road and still shop them regularly today. I get it; being a Whole Foods vanlifer is an aesthetic, but most of us are on a budget, and you can eat the organic, non-GMO, all-natural lifestyle for half the price if you can drop the brand name.
Here are a couple of things I love about discount grocery stores for van life:
- Many 'bag' groceries in cardboard boxes, not plastic bags
- Cheap wine
- Huge deals (I've seen 6 Clif Bars for $1)
- Many organic, healthy options
- Saves a lot of money on the road
Discount grocery stores rarely have all your typical brand-name items big retailers do, but the products are just as good. Many times they are discount due to overflow reasons or being close to the expiration date. When you live in a van, you can stock up on groceries anyway, so who cares if they expire a month from now.
However, some discount grocery stores sell mainly expired goods, so always check the expiration dates on items before you buy if that is a dealbreaker. Our favorite go-to discount grocery store that never sold expired products was Grocery Outlet (not sponsored), found in a handful of western states.
4. It's disgusting but great for the immune system.
I have never been more disgusting, smelly, and greasy in my life. I also haven't been sick, even with a cold, since we lived full-time on the road over four years ago.
If you are a girl, there are some VERY essential products you'll need to get by on the road:
- Dry shampoo
- More dry shampoo
- Plastic-free, organic tampons, or menstrual cup
- Toilet paper
- Hydrating cream (for desert environments)
Other necessities for personal hygiene
- By Humankind Toothpaste Tablets + Floss
- Biodegradable soap
- Air freshener (not for hygiene…but you get the point)
- Biodegradable deodorant
- Composting bin
5. You do not need a $70,000 van.
If you have yet to purchase a van, a quick Google search for "camper vans for sale" will yield disappointing results. Contrary to many opinions, most of us are young, financially frugal, and unable to afford the luxurious van often touted in front of us.
Van life is more popular now than ever before. What started as a movement to recreate the classic 60s road trip has turned into a lifestyle. It's a simple equation of supply and demand when it comes to why conversion vans are suddenly so expensive.
When we decided to renovate and live out of a van, we were jobless and fresh off a three-month jaunt in Europe. We had saved $10,000 to travel for a year, and we had roughly $7,000 left each. With that budget, we bought a rusty old 2000 GMC Savannah for $1,900, put in $400 for renovations, and lasted the next 6-7 months on the road with the rest of the $5,500.
Sometimes I wished we had a Pinterest-perfect van. It's easy to become envious of the influencers making $5,000 per Instagram post who seem to be living it so easily. But I am thankful every day for the van we did have. We lived our dream, and we would never have if we thought we had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to make it happen.
At any given moment, Shalee is either lost, hunting for ice cream, or obsessively planning her next adventure.
Born and raised in rural Michigan, she began exploring the shores of Great Lakes as a teen, often sleeping in her car to save money. Eventually, her urge to explore pushed beyond her Midwest borders. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure and outdoor tourism. Her pack now includes two spunky hiking cats and her partner, Josh. Learn more about her here.