10 Things You Should Know Before Living In A Van

Living in a van

Living in a van is an incredible life-changing experience. No matter what, you won’t come back as the same person!

For us van life meant traveling half the world, seeing amazing places, and realizing that we didn’t need half the things that we owned to live comfortably.   

Starting the van life journey is an exciting time but it can also feel overwhelming. There is just so much to learn and figure out like what van should you get or where will you shower and sleep at night.

After spending 15 months living in our van full-time while traveling the Pan-American Highway, here are some things that we learned along the way (through many trials and errors).

In this post, we cover a few of the most frequently asked questions and some basic things to know about living in a van. 

It Might Not Be As Glamorous As You Think

Based on van life Instagram feeds and YouTube videos you might feel inspired to drop everything and join this lifestyle. I mean we get it. That’s what we did too.

But while our social media accounts are filled with endless beautiful photos of van life and it may seem like the most wanderlust way to travel the world, what we see on our phone screens might not always be the reality.

While most of the time traveling the world in a van is a pretty great (and cheap) way to do it, keep in mind that there will also be plenty of challenges and some rough times ahead as well.

There are a lot of moving elements involved in van life.

Where do you plan to stealth camp at night? What grocery store will you stock up on today? Where is the closest gas station when you’re running low on gas or water? Where do you plan to shower and use the restroom today?

These are just a few of the daily challenges that van life presents along with many others.

Some days you will have issues with your van and will need to replace parts. On other days you might feel sketched out at a campsite or deal with a potential break-in. Sometimes you might end up washing your underwear in your sink (yep, that’s happened too).

Don’t get me wrong. I loved living in our van.

We did it for over 15 months straight on a road trip through Central America and South America. Now that I’m back in the US, I miss it… a lot. But I won’t also sugarcoat it because most days it WAS challenging and often I wanted to throw in the white flag and just quit.

Keep in mind that not everyone’s van life experience will be the same. Each person will go on their own unique journey the moment you leave your driveway.

For us, that meant driving across two continents while some people just travel within the US. And then there are the weekend warriors that use their vans for quick trips to local parks around them.

All of these decisions will shape your trip and your van life experience. Some people come back from living in a van claiming that it was the best time of their lives. Others can’t wait to come home.

If you’re new to van life, it’s best to ease into it with shorter weekend trips through which you will find things that work for you and things that don’t. You may even change some of the things in your van build after taking it on a test run.

Living in a van can be a huge adjustment especially if you’ve never experienced anything like it before.

Is Van Life Legal?

Before you start living in a van you might be wondering if it’s actually legal to do so.

While there is no law preventing people from living and sleeping in their vans, you might encounter some issues along the way, especially in cities.

Each city and town has its own rules and regulations for van dwellers and some are more strict than others. That’s why we try not to stay in the same spot for more than a night or two.

We’ve been kicked out of Walmart parking lots before, stopped, searched by cops, and asked to move plenty of times. Keep in mind that not everyone wants a big campervan parked in their parking lot or neighborhood.

If you plan to travel around the US, note that parking in National Parks is usually not allowed overnight. On the other hand, National Forests and BLM Lands are great for van camping.

One of our favorite tools for finding camp spots is the iOverlander app that is used by every van life traveler we know.

All the camp spots listed on this app are added and approved by other overlanders and each spot is kept up to date with reviews, prices, and comments.

We usually try to plan our sleeping places based on iOverlander reviews before heading out to them so we don’t run into any surprises or issues.

Read More: 20 Helpful Tips For Stealth Camping In A Van

Picking The Van

Picking the right van is THE single most important thing to consider before living in a van full-time.

Most long-term van-lifers end up switching to a different vehicle at one point or another. We’ve gone through a few different test runs ourselves and with each car, we found things that we liked and some that we didn’t.

Here are a few things to consider before picking out the right van for YOU:

  • Will it have issues down the road?
  • Is there enough space inside to build everything you may want?
  • Can you stealth-park in cities if needed or does it draw attention?
  • Can you take it off-roading if needed?
  • Can you easily navigate through narrow streets and low-hanging wires?
  • Should you pick a high-top or a low-top van?

After trying out a few different vehicles we settled down on a Ram Promaster van that had only 8,000 miles on it.

We picked this van because we were planning to go on a trip down the Pan-American Highway and we needed a car that could actually make it from Los Angeles to southern Argentina without having any major issues.

We picked a white color for our van so it looks more like a utility van and blends in which is great for stealth camping, especially in the cities.

During our trip, unless we had the doors open, most people didn’t give our van a second look. Our biggest giveaways were the windows and our roof rack but usually, only other overlanders would come around to check out our van since they kind of knew what to look for.

For our campervan, we picked the standard roof, and occasionally I’ll get asked why we didn’t go with a high top. Mostly it comes down to money and low tops are much cheaper than high-top vans.

We’re both of average height (5’9”) so we picked the standard van which was comfortable enough for us to live in for 15 months. Plus it’s easier to park a standard van, especially at indoor garages and you’re less likely to hit something like branches or low-hanging wires.

Planning The Build

Along with picking the right vehicle, planning the build itself is very important especially if you will live in your van full time.

Before you start your campervan build you should be asking yourself what are some basic necessities that would make your everyday life more comfortable:

  • Should you add extra insulation for traveling to cold places?
  • Or maybe a fan of traveling to hot places?
  • Do you want windows?
  • Where should the bed go?
  • Should you go with a convertible couch or a stationary bed?
  • What kind of campervan kitchen setup do you need?
  • Do you need a table for working on the road?
  • Do you have any pets? You may need to create a designated space for a dog crate or cat litter. Yes, we were those crazy people that traveled with our cat.

Keep in mind that if you end up with a lot of appliances and electronics, you will also need to install extra solar panels to run them all.

There’s a lot that goes into building a van but now that van life is becoming more popular, there are also a ton of resources out there showing step-by-step how to do it. If you want to see ours, you can check our detailed conversion guide below.

Read More: DIY Promaster Camper Conversion Guide

Van Life Cost

One of the biggest obstacles to why more people don’t join the van life movement is the cost.

Although in general, living in a van is pretty cheap, it can be quite costly to get started.

For one, you’ll need to buy the van itself and then you’ll need to spend money on the van conversion on top of that. Plus if you plan to leave your job to travel full-time for some time, you might need to think about saving well ahead of time.

So how much does van life cost? There is no set “one fits all” price on van life.

Some people go with very old vans and just throw in a bed. Others get brand new vans and spend 30,000+ on their conversions. It really depends on your budget and how comfortably you want to travel.

For us, we sort of settled in the middle. Our Promaster van cost around $20,000 but our conversion cost only $3000. We decided to spend more on the van itself to make sure we didn’t have any issues with it breaking down on the road but to make up for that we cut costs in our conversion.  

After our initial investment, we did end up saving money in the long run in our monthly costs because we didn’t have to pay for rent or utility bills.

If you plan to live in a van full-time, you might also need to aside extra savings for emergencies, breakdowns, yearly maintenance, hotels, or potentially even shipping and flights.

Read More: VAN LIFE – How Much Does It REALLY Cost?

Where To Shower

If there are two big mysteries surrounding van life, it’s usually “Where do you shower?” and “Where do you go to the bathroom?”. In this section, we’ll cover how to shower outdoors.

While it’s important to keep up with hygiene and cleanliness while living in a van, the reality is that you just won’t get to shower every day (unless you install a shower in your van in which case thumbs up to you!)

The most common way to shower while living in a van is to use a solar shower.

There are a few different solar showers that you can get. We use a hanging solar shower that we hook onto our van’s roof rack.

2.5-gallon solar shower

With a solar shower all you need to do is fill it up with water, leave it in the sun and within 30 minutes it will get warm enough to take a short refreshing shower. One solar bag is usually enough to take a quick shower and even wash my hair.

Some vans might not have a spot to hang a solar shower in which case you can get a pressure shower that you can sit on the ground. It comes with a foot pump that will keep the water flowing from the ground level.

Helio Pressure Shower

If you don’t feel comfortable taking a shower in the open you can also get a privacy shower tent that you can use for showering and changing.

Pop-Up Shower Tent

For those who want to get extra creative, you can even build your own solar shower out of PVC pipe from Home Depot as we did for our Honda Element SUV Conversion.

diy car campervan conversion suv honda element

In between our showers, we would also go for a lot of swims in rivers and waterfalls – we would just avoid using soap or shampoo.

In times when we wanted to take longer showers or when the weather was too cold to use our solar shower, we would look for campsites that offer a shower or pay for a day pass at the gym.

Many people that live in a van sign up for a gym membership like Planet Fitness which has multiple locations to go use their showers.  

Where To Use The Restroom

Whenever I get asked “Where do you use the bathroom while living in a van?”, I always get very self-conscious about answering this question. I guess it’s easier to write it out in a blog post than tell my friends that I go to poop at Starbucks.

Not having a bathroom in our van was probably one of the most challenging things for me during our trip. I’ve always had stage fright for going in public bathrooms but once you start living in a van, you don’t really have a choice but to get over it pretty quickly.

When it comes down to it, we would just go to the bathroom whenever we could – at campsites, coffee shops, grocery stores, Walmarts, gas stations, or even sometimes in the wild (just don’t forget to pack out your TP). Truthfully there were a few times when I was questioning if I would actually make it to the bathroom. Thankfully I always did.

The hardcore long-time van lifers usually will get a portable toilet for their vans.

Portable Toilet

If you find yourself in a situation where you really have to go pee and there is no restroom around, here are some cheap restroom alternatives, especially for ladies:

Read More: 50 Van Life Tips For Living On The Road

Working On The Road

Another frequently asked question I get is “How do you make money on the road?”

You may be planning to leave your job and are looking for other ways to make money on the road or perhaps you plan to continue working remotely while traveling.

Either scenario is definitely possible and we’ve known people that do both but it can be quite challenging to make money while living in a van.

For starters, you should think about creating a working space during your van build. We didn’t add a work table in our van and highly regretted it during our trip. Because of this, we ended up spending a lot of time (and money) at coffee shops to use their space and WiFi for work.

A lot of people that live in a van start YouTube channels, blogs or IG accounts to supplement their income. But while it sounds very glamorous, it can take a few months to years of constant work to grow your audience before you start seeing any positive results.

During the 15 months that we lived in our van, I focused on growing my blog Fun Life Crisis and towards the end of our journey I was able to cover most of our travel expenses from the income that I was generating through this blog.

But mostly I loved working on the road because it created a sense of purpose, routine, and normalcy.

Read More: 17 Van Life Hacks To Make Life Easier On The Road

Traveling With A Partner

Living in a van as a couple can be pretty challenging. You’re always spending time together crammed into a tiny space and there is rarely any alone time to recharge. Van life trips can really push relationships to their limits.

About halfway through our Pan-American road trip I really hit the rock bottom. I woke up every day super late feeling a lack of motivation. I didn’t exercise, I spent too much time scrolling through social media and I constantly got in the dumbest fights with my husband.

I had to really re-evaluate my daily routine and establish healthy habits for myself that kept my mind in a positive space.

During this time I really tuned in to working on my blog and before I knew it, I was too busy working on new blog posts than worrying about that dirty plate in the sink or overthinking something my husband said. My mind was occupied with creating something instead of focusing on destroying our relationship.  

When traveling in a van with another person it’s super important to set aside time for yourself and to do things that you enjoy.

That could be working, running, yoga, reading, cooking, meditation, or anything else that brings you a feeling of accomplishment and joy.

Self-care is very crucial to keep your mindset healthy and is not only good for yourself but for your relationships as well.

Read More: 15 Things We Learned From Traveling In A Campervan

Have A Plan B

When you’re just starting off in van life everything seems so exciting and new. The last thing you want to think about is life after it’s over.

Whenever we are faced with a situation that requires us to plan ahead, sometimes we just call it the “Future Joel and Laura problem”. But all jokes aside, it still is pretty important to have a plan B for life after you stop living in a van.

How long do you plan to travel? Do you plan to go back to work after? If you need to, can you take a break from van life and recharge? Can you store your van somewhere? These are all important things to think about before you start living in a van.  

Some people set out on a van life journey thinking that they’ll do it for years but a few months in they get burned out or run out of money. While you don’t need to have everything planned out, it’s a great idea to have a backup plan in case that happens.

We hope you enjoyed this blog post. Do you have any questions about living in a van that we didn’t cover? Don’t hesitate to ask us in the comments section below.

We also have a few other van life resources and blog posts that you may like:

Interested in stepping up your photography game? Here is the camera gear that I carry everywhere I go to create amazing travel photos:

  • Main camera: Sony a7c Camera. The Sony a7c is tiny, light, full-frame, and durable – in other words, amazing!
  • Polarizer Filter: Hoya 40.5 mm Filter. Polarizing filters reduce glare in water, protect the lens from getting scratched and bring out the best colors when it’s bright outside. Having a polarizing filter is a must-have if you plan to photograph lakes, oceans, rivers, and waterfalls.
  • Wide Lens: Sony 16-35 mm F4. Great for capturing wide panoramas, nature landscapes, and cramped city streets. Mounts to any Sony mirrorless camera and features autofocus, image stabilization, and incredibly sharp images.
  • Lightweight Travel Tripod: Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Tripod. A good tripod is essential for capturing images in low light conditions, such as during sunset and sunrise, or creating smooth water effects when shooting waterfalls. The Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod is very sturdy, light, and folds small so you can take it on all of your adventures!
  • Memory Cards: SanDisk Extreme 256 GB. It’s always good to bring a few extra memory cards on trips. SanDisk Extreme is ultra-fast for capturing high-quality images, bursts, long exposure night shots, and 4k videos. This memory card is also durable and reliable yet very affordable.
  • Camera Batteries: Wasabi Power Battery Set. I’ve made the mistake of getting to a location to realize my camera is out of battery. Always keep your batteries charged with this camera charger set.
  • Camera Bag: Lowepro adventure shoulder bag. A camera bag is something you should definitely invest in! Without having a proper place to store it I would get my camera scratched, sandy, or even occasionally drop it.

Some of the links used in this blog may be affiliate links, which means that if you place an order through one of those links, we may get a small percentage of the order amount at no extra cost to you that goes towards the upkeep of our blog. Thank you for reading and supporting our blog!

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7 thoughts on “10 Things You Should Know Before Living In A Van”

  1. I wanted to take up van life too
    And wanted to know if there would be problems with bugs and spiders
    I’m kinda paranoid about spiders hiding in every crevice they find laying their eggs and thousands of baby spiders crawling into my ears when I’m asleep

  2. Hi Laura, love your blog! I have a couple of questions for you if I’m not too late to the party to post…

    Regarding your lack of workspace, is there anything you would have/could have done differently if you were to rebuild the same sized van? Any kind of fold out counters/tables or anything like that? Also how are the main seats for sitting and working on your computer or phone? I’ve test driven the Promaster and like the high up “bus” feel of the seats but I haven’t used them enough to know how comfortable they are for misc things like hanging out or working on a laptop.

    As for the toilet, were you just too short on space to have one of the small folding toilets? Or maybe a bucket with a snap on toilet lid/kitty litter (bucket can store items when not in use)? My wife and I tried the latter option on a 5 week trip in our Nissan Cube with RTT and it worked surprisingly well. But it would be nice to be able to use it inside a van instead of outside the Cube!

    Do you know your final floor to ceiling height after conversion? I wouldn’t be able to stand in your van, but my wife is under 5 foot. I’m guessing you have less than 6 inches of floor/ceiling insulation and materials right? A big reason we are leaning towards your van and build is I believe she would still be able to stand up when using the kitchen.

    Last question – in another post about your cat (we plan on travelling with our beautiful cat as well and loved your cat tunnel/hiding spot!), you mentioned some tips about keeping the cat cool on hot days when you leave. In addition to the ceiling fan and plug in car fan, did you ever leave the car on so the AC could run? Is that even feasible with a van build like this or too risky for someone to break in and steal the van? Did you try cooling pads or anything similar? How long max were you comfortably able to be away? We like to hike, and I’m trying to figure out how possible that is going to be with a cat in the van in warm climates…

    Thanks in advance!

    1. We never really had a problem with having workspace. We just used our folding chairs and table when we wanted a desk, and just put our laptops on our laps most of the time. We worked out of coffee shops whenever possible anyway. Toilets were rarely an issue, public bathrooms are everywhere. The inside of the van is about 65″. Our insulation is higher than the crossmembers so it didn’t subtract anything from the height, and the floors we used are under 10 mm thick. We never had a problem leaving the cat, we spent several months in the miserable heat of Mexico through Panama and the cat was fine. We all just got used to it after a couple of weeks. The van being white, having a huge roof deck and solar to block the sun, and plenty of air circulation all worked in our favor and kept the inside close to ambient temperature.

  3. Why do people ask questions about spiders etc? You’re more likely to encounter a spider in your house that never moves or vibrates or drives around. Also, what’s all this about toilets? I have lived for months in a car before and never had a toilet, I used motorway service toilets, supermarket toilets, even showered in motorway showers that are there for long distance lorry drivers and travellers. People that worry about a spider or a fold away toilet, are not really ready for this van life experience. Improvise, use your brain, it’s not a necessity to have a dirty smelly toilet right next to where you sleep and eat.

  4. Hi Mrs.L,

    What advice would you give one who is going to live in a van while in college, but online? I understand there will be ups as there will be downs but i wanted to know what you think about the idea in general.
    From Danielle

    1. Hi Danieele,

      We spent nearly 2 years living in our van but we also moved around a lot and rarely stayed stationary for more than a few days. I think it’s totally doable and can help you save on costs like rent and utilities. But at the same time, there are a few things to consider like – where to get internet for schoolwork, where to go to the bathroom, where to park stationery for a long time and where to shower (like a gym). I would also recommend creating a designated workspace in your van with a small table and a chair where you can comfortably do your schoolwork.

      Good luck! Laura

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