Cutting loose from the tethers of modern life and setting off in a van isn’t just an American phenomenon … a sister community of secret dirtbags is exploring Europe, as well.
Here, vanlifer Diana Veleva from Bulgaria, shares how taking the plunge into vanlife comes with some unexpected challenges and benefits—some of which are universal …
I remember the day we decided to buy a van and travel. The idea had long been with us, and we had casually put it in the dream basket with an unknown date. There was always something else, something keeping us away, endless chanting of “I will do it someday … later,” until one day we just snapped, stopped doubting, and went for it.
We were so excited about designing our own tiny house, building it from scratch, and just going away, we didn’t fully consider many of the challenges that we would encounter along the way. Things like; long term traveling, being together 24/7 in a few square meters, and daily survival tasks we didn’t even know existed.
These all hit us hard once we were on the road “living the dream.”
So, you guys want the good or the bad news first? Okay, I will start with the bad.
6 Challenges of Vanlife
1. Keeping your home clean
Meet Mr. and Mrs. Messy.
It doesn’t matter how much you organize, there will always be a bunch of stuff on the bed … and on the counter top … and on the floor … and everywhere you look. This tiny space gets so messy (in no time at all) that you’ll hardly know how or when it happened. The good news: it is a tiny space, so cleaning up is quick.
2. Coping with humidity
If you wake up thinking it’s raining, check first whether the rain is on the inside or outside of the window! Our whole van is covered with windows that I absolutely adore because they bring such spaciousness and brightness to the van—but in cold weather, they become indoor waterfalls.
Tip: Ventilate and consider using a dehumidifier when electricity is available.
3. A lack of personal space
Put the gun down!
The lack of personal space will bring out the warrior in you. Full-time van-living couples put themselves and their relationships to the ultimate test, but if they both come out of it alive, they will surely find out they have grown—both individually and together.
Despite the fact that living in a tiny space and sharing everything 24/7 is truly hard, our relationship has survived great changes. We both feel that we are more open with each other, more understanding, more connected, and more peaceful.
Tip: be mindful and conscious about the risks of being together all day, every day. Exercise openness, speak about your feelings, and deal with it together. Don’t forget: we all go through this challenge, it’s not you, it’s the circumstances.
4. Parking in the city
This is a tricky one …
Finding a parking spot can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 5 hours of driving in circles. The goal is to find parking that is free of charge, because obviously, nobody wants to pay for parking. You want to be:
- as close to the downtown as possible—you don’t want to spend hours walking to the city’s highlights
- near a park or at least a green patch—so that you can water the plants while you stay
- on well-lit streets—not the dodgy dark ones
Now that you have spent 3 hours circling the urban streets to find the perfect spot and put on your grumpiest face, you can go and enjoy the city. Just joking, it doesn’t always go like that … but that’s why we generally prefer to stay in the wild.
Tip: stop and ask the locals. They give great directions. Look for a large grocery store. You can usually park there for free.
5. Shower dreams and toilet nightmares
Often showers are only found in our dreams and the continuous search for a toilet is a living nightmare.
When we were building the van we were so sure… “we’ll be fine, there are toilets and showers everywhere, we will figure it out.” Yeah, figuring it out was easier said than done. In some cases, there were weeks in between showers, yeah, you heard right—weeks!
So, how did we do it?
Well, we’ve experimented with a number of quite curious ways to get clean, but the easiest and fastest is the good old baby wet wipes pack. Note: please buy only biodegradable wipes.
Tip: find an affordable gym in the area where you’re staying. Use it for training and a shower. If you aren’t up for training, sometimes they let us pay less just for using the shower.
Survivable’s Biodegradable Wet Wipes are a great option. However, biodegradable doesn’t mean you can just litter them on the ground. And definitely don’t ever flush them down the toilet!
6. The search for water
Once you start living in a van, you realize how spoiled you’ve been and how you’ve taken every simple household utility for granted. You will very quickly start to appreciate a clean fork. It’s not that we don’t like washing dishes, (okay, we don’t really like to) but we do it…
Anyway, water is so precious and needs to be used cautiously and with a hint of creativity. Our water tank isn’t Mary Poppins’ magic bag, and it tends to run out quickly. Usually when you have just soaped your hands. The journey of finding a public tap of drinking water feels like Frodo trying to get to Mordor and back.
Tip: (in Europe) drinkable public water taps tend to appear near the city center and around public parks.
5 (big) benefits of vanlife
Now that we have covered the surprising challenges of vanlife, how about the benefits?
The feeling of freedom while traveling has opened a new page in our senses. Packing your house and leaving with essentially everything you’ll ever need is a blessing. It provides a sense of security and familiarity.
That sense of familiarity was something I always missed while backpacking. That’s the special thing about van living, even though we park in a different spot every night, we wake up in our own bed.
2. What shall we have for breakfast?
That’s pretty much the most important question you’ll have to think about each day. Unless you are working from the road, life becomes one infinite chill-out garden. Only having to do the basic chores leaves the rest of the day available for hobbies, books, handcrafts, wandering around, and any other pleasant thing you can come up with.
3. Van neighbors
While traveling around you will start noticing the van and camper communities popping up near beaches or at nice mountain spots. If you aren’t up for meeting people, then simply find a spot tucked away from the other vans.
That said, we’ve found that meeting the other vanlifers, people with similar interests, mindsets, traveling spirits, and hearing the endless stories has been a great pleasure. We’ve made some good friends along the way and we can’t wait to meet more kindred spirits.
4. Truly living off the beaten path
We rarely know where exactly we are going. Our navigation often looks like:
I see a green patch on Google Maps near by. Let’s check it out!
And those green patches are the best places we have found. They are secluded and natural, just waiting to be discovered.
Tip: one of the things we’ve enjoyed most is hunting for natural hot springs. That wasn’t so hard after we found the website of the European Natural Soaking Society, where you can find a list of all free, natural soaks in Europe.
5. Low living expenses
Think of it: no more envelopes piling up in your mailbox, no rent, no electricity bill, no water bill, nor any other bill. Well, perhaps you’ll keep your cellphone, but we even gave up even on that one. So living cost has been reduced, a lot!
You just need food for the van and yourself. On average it comes out to something like 70 euros/per week/per person for us. Not a bad cost of living while hopping from beach to beach!
Tip: organize yourself a weekly budget and stick to it. It saves a lot of cash and makes you stop buying things you don’t need and don’t have room to store.
Adopting the #vanlife isn’t all glitter and perfect snaps on Instagram. One needs to be adaptive and flexible, to be able to take on numerous unexpected challenges, to learn from them and to enjoy them.
Life has a lot to offer, stop doubting, and just take it.
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