How (and 5 Reasons Why) to Live in a Van

It’s not for everyone, but if you’re reading this, you too may be able to live in a van. No longer is living in a van so fringe and the old stereotypes (dirty hippy, pedophile, crazy person) are being dissolved. Van life is for once, getting kind of cool.

van life is getting cool

How to live in a van

Employment

A common question is how to make van living work financially. I find that van dwellers typically fall into one of three categories:

  • Seasonal employment: those that work at ski resorts, wilderness firefighters, landscapers, and many positions with park services
  • Employment on the road: many dirtbags living in vans are able to find short-term positions along their travels; others are digital nomads—those with internet-based jobs who have the flexibility to work remotely
  • Save and travel: this group of van dwellers has saved enough for extended travel

And while most van dwellers are on the move, it can make a lot of sense if you’re committed to a single location, as well. A guy at Google is doing it and my good friends from college saved thousands of dollars on rent by living in a van—they traded beer for a spot to park and shower.

Parking

Parking differs depending on whether you’re frequently traveling or staying stationary for extended periods of time. If traveling, free camping is available throughout National Forest lands and for a fee, you can park in established campgrounds that offer access to various amenities.

Some van dwellers will also negotiate deals to park on private property. I’ve heard rumors of various climbing gyms allowing climbers to park in their lots, as well.

Of course, you won’t always have a campground or property available. It’s not uncommon for van dwellers to spend occasional nights in Walmart parking lots (often legal and accepted), on side streets, in 24hr business parking lots, etc. Of course, be responsible and check the legalities before pulling over for the night—some cities have restrictions against sleeping in a vehicle.

Living in a van

Getting and building a van

You may choose to purchase a pre-owned, already-converted vehicle. This option can save hundreds of build-out hours and it can save money, as well. Options for finding a used van include Craigslist, eBay, or sites like Sprinter-Forum.

Alternatively, you can buy a van that’s not already converted and complete the build yourself or with professional assistance. Popular models include Sprinters, Dodge ProMasters, Chevy Astros, Vanagons, and others.

A follow-up post will be focused on the van conversion process, as I’m currently doing this myself.

Hygiene

To avoid the stereotype mentioned previously, hygiene is an important factor of van life. Of course, you can be a dirtbag and shower a few times a month, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Many van dwellers are able to maintain a similar level of cleanliness as when living in a house. Here’s how:

  • Showers: it’s not as hard as you may think. In cities, van dwellers may choose to attend a climbing gym (or workout facility) that offers showers. They may also arrange for access to a friend’s shower. When off the grid, you can: 1) use showers at campgrounds; 2) at many climbing destinations, a local business will offer showers; 3) get a solar shower; 4) get one of these; or, 5) shower in a river or lake.
  • Tidiness: it’s important to have a schedule for laundry and cleaning. Setting aside a time each week for chores will keep your space clean. After all, you only have one room to look after!
  • Going to the restroom: a very common concern for those not living in a van. There are options: 1) use public restrooms as much as possible; 2) create (or purchase) a portable toilet when a public option is not available; 3) responsibly (follow these guidelines) go in nature.

Now you may be wonder,

Why live in a van?

The choice to live in a van is personal, and everyone has their own draw. I’ve outlined the most popular reasons, understanding that not all of them will be applicable to your unique scenario.

Why live in a van: 5 reasons

1. To save money

Avoid the alluring (typically unnecessary) upgrades, and living in a van is very economical.

Priceonomics did some research into the financials of living in a van, explaining: “If you bought a used camper van from the 1980s, it’s unlikely to lose much more value under your watch. If you fix it up, it may even have appreciated in value when you look to sell it. If you resell it for anywhere near what you paid for it, you break even in just a couple of months. If you found a great deal on a van, you’d break even sooner.”

Personally, I was living in San Luis Obispo, California prior to van life. At $650 per month, I lived in half a garage, not much bigger than 100 square feet (it’s far worse in the Bay Area). Piling student loan payments on top of $650 per month to live in a garage with no ownership, I had myself questioning whether paying monthly rent was the best choice.

If you purchase an unfinished van, a significant expense is upfront in the build-out process. Renovations could cost anywhere from $1500-$3000 (electrical, vent fan, solar, flooring, insulation, etc.) and costs will vary depending on the amount of work needed to be completed professionally.

But the upfront investment pays off by forgoing a rent payment; and again, you’ll have ownership—something you could turn around and sell when the time is right.

The savings can go toward paying off student debt, big wall gear, an IRA, travel, you name it.

2. For more freedom

Many van dwellers choose to live in a van because of the freedom it provides. If you’re funding van life in a manner that allows for travel, you’ll find the experience to be very liberating. You won’t be tied to a mortgage or utility bills and you can have an unlimited number of spots to feel at home.

3. Personal growth

If you plan on living in a van for the rest of your life, that’s one thing. But for most of us, it’s not a long-term commitment. Spending 1-2 years in a van can be an incredible learning experience:

  • The build-out process provides a crash course in construction, solar power, and design.
  • You’ll have a lot of time to look inward and discover how to keep yourself content. And every spot you go to is a new beginning; it teaches you how to get acquainted in new environments and quickly make new friends.
  • On the move, you’ll be exposed to many cultural differences. Arkansas sure isn’t like California, and it’s valuable to experience the many worldviews.

4. To cut back

In a 1962 Atlantic essay, Edward T. Chase made the argument that, “… we in the United States are evolving beyond what J.K. Galbraith calls the ‘consumption society’—one that has mastered the problems of production—and are approaching a new order of society, the society of self-realization.”

Hmm, how’d that pan out?

As the following TED Talk explains, Americans now have 3x the amount of home space we did 50 years ago. Despite this extra space, personal self-storage is a $22b/year industry—our extra space can’t keep up with our spending.

A van provides constraint; you can only allow the best inside, and all else must be pushed aside. And the benefits? Less debt, a lower environmental impact, and maybe even more happiness.

5. It’s a challenge

Let’s be clear: living in a van isn’t all beauty and bliss. Don’t be fooled by the thousands of perfectly-captured #vanlife shots on Instagram.

It can be hard and many van dwellers get burnt out. Challenges include finding a spot to park, loneliness, and the lack of stability that can come with being on the move. But, as most rock climbers can agree: the greatest growth often comes from the biggest challenges. Van life is a risk; it’s a challenge and adventure that will push you in exciting ways.


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  • Al Onestone

    Riley, do you know much about electricity? An electric motor would have no carbon footprint? Really? Seriously? Honestly?

    A battery powered electric motor, right?

    Unless you charge the battery with electricity that is 100% solar/wind/hydro/nuclear generated(highly unlikely scenario) you CANNOT have “no carbon footprint.” Period. It is a fossil fuel that generates the electricity.

    Perhaps you should get your science straight before you make a nice, popular, warm and fuzzy statement that is totally inaccurate and makes no sense.?!

    Please enlighten me if you know how to charge a battery that size without fossil fuels.