Your Ultimate Guide to Van Life: Navigating Life on the Road in a Van

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It’s undeniable that van life has only progressively become more popularized. Given innovations in technology and the ever-present hype across social media, it’s only fair that people are increasingly developing a desire to live in a van. And while we understand that this lifestyle certainly isn’t for everyone, it can be profoundly transformative for those seeking adventure.

No matter where you are in your van life journey, we’re sure you’ve come to find out that such an undertaking requires time, consideration, and a well-thought-out strategy. Even further, there are financial implications that are also involved. But don’t worry; we’re here to help you navigate this journey and find answers to your questions along the way. 

Follow along below as we cover a variety of important topics associated with van life. We’ll help you avoid common setbacks, discover key tips and tricks, and ultimately decide if this lifestyle is even a good fit for you.

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Why Do People Decide to Live in a Van?

While living in a camper van might sound absolutely insane to some, it can also seem like a dream come true to others. The choice to live in a camper van is personal, and of course, everyone can have their own draw. That said, van life can show you the world in a way that no other lifestyle can.

You have the ability to visit your ideal destinations on your own time, all while saving money along the way. This is because the nomadic lifestyle associated with van life can often be more economical than buying or renting a house. 

The Pros and Cons of Living in a Camper Van

Despite what might be displayed across social media, van life doesn’t solely encompass traveling to beautiful places and living in pure freedom. Just like everything else, there are pros and cons to this lifestyle. Let’s explore them here.

The Pros of Van Life

  • Affordability: Van life can be a much more affordable lifestyle when compared to living in or renting a home. We’ll dive deeper into the costs of van life later.
  • Travel Freedom: Given that your home and all of your belongings are on wheels, you’re able to go wherever you want on your own time.
  • Flexibility: Many van lifers choose this lifestyle because of the flexibility it ensues. They are able to free up time for their hobbies, allowing them to spend more time pursuing what’s in line with their true passions.
  • Enhanced Self-Reflection: Van life has a unique ability to give you deeper insight into who you are and what you ultimately care about. Spending time off the grid and disconnected from society, combined with a gained confidence in problem-solving, can deeply empower and enrich your life.

The Cons of Van Life

Camper van broken down on side of road
  • WiFi Issues: One of the first things you will come to realize while on the road is that good WiFi is precious. Being out of cell service and experiencing poor WiFi can often be a real struggle.
  • Increased Stress and Discomfort: We hate to admit it, but there are several things about daily life that become much less convenient in a camper van. Even further, stressful situations are bound to happen. With this in mind, it’s imperative that you learn healthy coping mechanisms for high-stress situations.
  • Space Limitations: Having more limited space means you will need to get creative and become more minimalistic. If you have to cram everything you own into what will likely be less than 60 square feet, you must get creative with your storage space.

Don’t let those cons scare you. While van life adventures certainly aren’t for everyone, for those looking to slow life down and enjoy our human existence more deeply, this lifestyle can be the best thing you’ve ever done. As long as you’re prepared, you can and will enjoy it.

In short: realize that stressful situations will arise. You will need to improvise. You might get lost or run out of gas 100 miles from a gas station or suddenly come down with an illness.

If you accept ahead of time that these situations can and will happen, and you take the necessary precautions to make these situations easier (which is what you’re doing by reading this guide!), van life can be the dream life you’ve always fantasized about.

Common Van Life Questions and Challenges

Before we dive into navigating life on the road, we’re going to address some of the most frequently asked questions and concerns people often have about van life.

How Much Does Van Life Cost?

No matter where you stand, full-time life on the road is often pursued by those hoping to save money and live out their dreams of traveling the country. But the true cost of van life is dependent on a variety of factors.

One big allure to living in a van is that you really can make it as inexpensive or as luxurious as you would like. Your monthly van life expenses can be considerably cheaper than it would cost to go the traditional route of buying or renting a house — but not always.

That said, on average, van life can cost anywhere between $350 and $3,000+ per month. Regardless of how you plan to manage your budget and expenses, there are a variety of monthly costs associated with van living.

Learn more holistic insight about these expenses so you can gain a deeper understanding of the costs associated with life on the road, check out our article here: How Much Does it Cost to Live in a Van.

Can I Continue to or Build a Career While Traveling?

Man working on his laptop in a campervan

The question of “how will I make money working remotely?” is a valid concern for anyone who is actively considering van life. In fact, this is one of the most commonly asked questions that van lifers get. It’s also a question that often holds people back from starting their travel journey. It’s important to understand that working remotely looks different for everyone, so you should not let one person’s journey discourage you from pursuing the lifestyle that works best for you.

A lot of the advice seen across the web centers around digitally-centered careers. But not everyone has a desire or an ability to work these types of jobs, and thankfully, they are most definitely not the only options out there.

In addition to digitally-enabled positions such as freelancing online, you could also pursue traveling photography, workamping, making and selling art, selling coffee, and more. Traveling as a service provider can also help to bridge the gap between gas and food with the quality services they can provide. Seasonal work is also a very common way van lifers make this lifestyle work.

Here are some resources for figuring out ways to make money while traveling:

Where Can I Shower and Use the Bathroom?

One of the second most common questions asked is how do people use the bathroom and shower while on the road. Without having a camper van with a bathroom already built-in or without having an outdoor shower or composting toilet, most people use public bathrooms and gym memberships. Or, if they have a portable toilet and a shovel or waste bag, they can use the bathroom when in nature.

It truly depends on what you feel most comfortable with. Some people prefer absolute minimalism and want to keep a simple portable toilet on hand for emergencies, while others desire a full bathroom in their camper van. You could even make a toilet out of a bucket, if you’re so inclined!

How Can I Cook in a Van?

Guy cooking in his van

When it comes to cooking in a camper van, you have a few options:

If you are not interested in pursuing any of the above, you could also very well only make no-cook meals. Some examples of no-cook meals are:

Again, it’s up to you what you feel comfortable with. Click here to read our guide on RV stoves, ovens & alternative ways of cooking while on the road!

How to Find Water Fill-Ups, Dump Stations, Showers & Laundry

These are all crucial things for you to live your life, so it’s important to know how to find them. Many of these amenities can be found with the All Stays Camp and RV app for $9.99, but there are also free apps and resources that I’ll share below.

Potable Water

Finding clean, drinkable water is very important for van life. Without water, you won’t last very long, and constantly buying water bottles is both expensive and harmful to the environment.

Places you can find good potable water include:

  • Campgrounds
  • Most Travel Centers
  • Most Rest Stops
  • Most City, County, and State Parks
  • Cabela’s

Wherever you fill up, make sure it is potable water! This means it’s safe to drink and bathe with. I would also recommend always using a water filter (either a 3-stage water filter or a portable one like a backpacking or RV water filter, or better yet, both!).

If you have access to a small portable water container, you can also bring it inside many grocery stores like Walmart to fill it up for a set price at one of their designated water stations. This option is not free like other sources, but it is still a pretty affordable option. 

Dump Stations

Sanitary Dump Station Sign

Dump stations are places where you can dump your grey water tanks and black water tanks or portable toilets, if you have them. If not, no need to worry about it!

Dump stations are typically located at all the same places you can find potable water that I listed above. You can also use apps like iOverlander, SanidumpsCampendium, and RV Dump Sites to find dump stations.

Showering & Hygiene

Unfortunately, van life does not allow you to take a long and hot shower every day. Even if you have an onboard bathroom with a shower, there may be times in which you won’t be able to heat the water or access enough water for a long shower. 

Typically, those experiencing van life average 3-4 showers per week, although you can most definitely shower daily if you are so inclined. Here are some places you can find and access public showers: 

That said, here are the places you can find showers:

  • Gyms (like Planet Fitness)
  • Recreation centers (like public pools)
  • Public spaces (like beaches and public parks)
  • Campgrounds
  • Truck stops
  • Hot springs buildings

And here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when using public showers:

  • Always be sure you wear sandals. The floors of public showers can be rather dirty. 
  • Consider wearing a bathing suit. This just makes it easier so you don’t have to worry about clothes getting wet.
  • Invest in a shower bag that you can hang. Shower bags (or like this one) are great to bring your shampoo, conditioner, and soap and have a place to put it when there isn’t a shelf (which happens a lot!).

In between showers, you can still stay clean with a sponge, some soap and your sink or a bucket. You can also use body wipes (I love these ____).

Laundry

Keeping your clothes clean on the road is, honestly, a bit of a pain. Public laundromats aren’t always the cleanest places ever and they can be expensive. But it’s manageable.

Google Maps is your friend to find laundromats. But I recommend only using them as a backup. Try keeping your clothes clean with a bucket, some Dr. Bronner’s soap, and some clothing lines for drying (or rack). It’s easier than you think, and a lot cheaper than a laundromat!

If you’re really in a pinch and need a break from the difficulties of van life, another option is to rent an Airbnb or hotel with a washer and dryer! We all need a break once in a while.

Places You Can Park and Camp for Free

Beautiful Boondocking spot on the beach

You pretty much always have an option to stay at an RV park. That said, campground expenses can rapidly accumulate, and if you’re trying to be conscientious of expenses while navigating van life, you’re likely not wanting to spend a ton solely on lodging. Luckily, there are several opportunities for free camping.

You pretty much always have the option to stay at an RV park. That said, campground expenses can rapidly accumulate, and if you’re trying to be conscientious of expenses while navigating van life, you’re likely not wanting to spend a ton solely on lodging. Luckily, there are several opportunities for free camping.

Here’s a list of other common parking locations:

  • National forests / BLM
  • Overnight parking lots
  • Common public lands in the US and Canada

Thankfully, there are also apps that share boondocking locations in BLM land and public property with overnight parking. 

Learn more about how to find free camping near you here. 

How to Get Wifi in Your Van

WiFi is one of the biggest complaints of van life. Because most van lifers work remotely, it’s crucial to have consistent WiFi access, but it’s not always easy to find.

In addition to getting a mobile hotspot on your phone plan, you can get a cell phone signal booster like WeBoost to ensure you get a signal in most places. Another option is a WiFi signal booster so you can get WiFi outside of public places like restaurants and coffee shops. I have used my Verizon 4G and 5G to work remotely for a few years now. I used to use a dedicated hotspot, but now just hotspot from my phone. It definitely limits the places I can stay and work but gives me the ability to browse the internet, write emails, and stream content. Video calls require a pretty strong cell signal though. Savvy RVers will have both T-Mobile and Verizon for the best chance of good coverage. I always scout the Verizon coverage map before narrowing down my camping spots. T-Mobile’s coverage map is here.

Parking outside Starbucks or Panera Bread is a common practice for getting WiFi in your camper van. Going inside and working in a cafe is also always an option!

Lastly, Starlink has released an RV version of their popular satellite internet. As of early 2023, you can purchase their small dish for $599, or $2,500 for in-motion hardware that allows you to have internet while driving. Their monthly charge is currently $135.

Finding Things to Do and the Importance of Community

Vanlifers hanging out around a campfire

If you’re doing the van life solo, you will be alone a lot. It’s important to find things to do and a community so you don’t go totally crazy!

Meeting new friends and hanging out around a campfire is one of my absolute favorite things about van life.

The best way to find fun things to do and meet other van lifers is with social media. You can do a quick search for Facebook groups full of van lifers. You can even do searches based on location, so you’re more likely to find people near you.

Here are a few ideas for finding things to do and people to hang out with wherever you’re staying:

  • Attend van life gatherings, like Open Roads Fest. You can find more with a simple Google search.
  • Take classes and attend events. You can find local stuff on MeetUp.
  • Talk to people! Whenever you stay at State or National Parks, there are always plenty of people and many of them are nice and won’t mind telling you about things to do in the area. Some of our favorite experiences were times we just randomly went out somewhere with our camp neighbors! I usually bring a “hello beer” to help break the ice 🙂

The Safety and Security of Van Life

Van life is safer than most people think, as long as you are alert and careful. I have never had an issue with theft or felt threatened, and I haven’t met any other van lifers who have.

However, some basic caution goes a long way. Here are a few tips for staying safe while living in a van:

  • Always have an exit plan. A quick look at Google Maps and a drive around the block goes a long way to knowing your surroundings.
  • Keep your valuables out of view from the windows, and consider keeping anything particularly valuable in a hidden safe.
  • Get a car alarm if your camper van doesn’t already have one.
  • Keep your doors locked and put up blackout curtains.
  • Lastly, trust your gut. If something feels off or unsafe about an area, go somewhere else.

Overall, van life is really safe with a little basic preparation!

Getting Started with Van Life: The Path Towards Exploration

Assuming you’ve decided van life is right for you, here are your next steps.

It’s Time to Decide: Build or Buy?

Man building his own DIY van conversion

Your first decision is whether you want to convert your own van build or buy an already-built camper van or class B RV. This just depends on how much money and time you want to spend.

Building your own camper van can give you more features and options at a much better price. You have control over everything that goes into it, (including which diesel heater you want)!

But if you have more money or lack the time to learn to build one yourself, a luxury camper van can get you on the road faster with less trouble.

Personally, I built a van and would do it again. You save money while also learning valuable life skills. But the choice is yours!

Some of the best vans for van life builds include:

  • Mercedes Sprinter Van
  • Ford Transit
  • Dodge Ram Promaster
  • Ford E-Series (Econoline)
  • Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana

But if you have more money than time, here are some of the best pre-built camper van options:

Alternatively, you can hire a van conversion company to build you the exact van you want while still getting the customization of a conversion. Most of them have inventory to choose from or will build to suit.

We definitely recommend renting a van before making the investment into buying or building one. Outdoorsy and Escape Campervans are great starting points.

Related Reading: How to Get a Loan for an RV

Insuring Your Camper Van

Once you’ve got a camper van, the next thing you need is insurance. However, insuring a camper van for full-time use is different from insuring one for vacation.

The main differences are…

If you want to learn more about camper van insurance, here are some helpful guides:

Mail Forwarding & Domicile

Another common question I’m often asked about RV life is how I get my mail. It’s a fair question – how DO you get your mail when you don’t know where you’ll be and don’t have a mailbox?

The answer: Set up a domicile in your state of choice and use Escapees to forward all your mail to you. I’ll let you go check out that guide for this step.

Discovering Travel Locations

Class B RV with a beautiful lake view

You’ve got your camper van, insured it, and set up mail forwarding. Now it’s time for the fun part: Planning your route!

Sure, you can go to popular RV destinations. But with your new tiny house on wheels, you can literally go anywhere you want!

RV parks and campgrounds are great, but you have lots of options for camping off-the-grid and in national parks or on the beach, or by a lake.

So how do you find these glorious camping locations? Well, here are some apps to help you find spots for overnight parking , free camping (boondocking), and off-grid camping:

Van Life Gear and Other Considerations

Cute lights hung on a campervan

Living in a van means you have more freedom to be location independent. Get out there and find other people living in a van; nomadic individuals living the digital nomad lifestyle.

Must-Have Van Life Gear

Now that you’re living in a van, you might want to consider getting some of these must-have van life essentials to make life on the road a little easier:

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s just some items I have and use nearly every day. I’m working on an extensive guide to van life must-haves and it will be live soon!

Make Sure You Know the Leave No Trace Principles

Leave no trace sign

Whenever you’re staying at National Parks or anywhere in nature, always follow Leave No Trace principles!

  • Dispose of your waste properly. If you pack it in, pack it out.
  • Only travel and camp on durable surfaces. Avoid ripping up the ground with your vehicle.
  • Leave what you find and minimize campfire impacts.

Essentially, leave the places you stay better than it was before you got there! Pick up all trash and don’t hurt the environment or the animals.

Trying Out Van Life Before Making a Commitment

If you’re thinking about living the van life but are worried about the limited space or think you might not like it, I have good news…

You can test the van life before you commit with a camper van rental from Outdoorsy!

Test the Vanlife Before You Commit!

Click the button below to brose campervan rentals near you and get $50 off your first rental with code “thewanderingrv”.

BROWSE VANLIFE RENTALS

Our Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this blog post on how to live and road trip in a conversion van.

This lifestyle may not be for everyone, but it can be incredibly rewarding. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll answer everything I can!

Here are some other articles you might be interested in:

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