If we had told our family and friends 5 years ago that we were planning on spending 15 months traveling in a campervan, they would have laughed at us and called us crazy.
Nowadays, the van-life movement has gained quite the appeal with the general public. With low cost and travel flexibility, more and more people than ever are joining this lifestyle.
Traveling in a campervan is an incredible way to see the world but often the expectations of what living in a car can be a bit different from what reality actually is like.
We loved traveling in our van for 15 months but we won’t also sugarcoat it – it was a lot of work and it wasn’t always glamorous.
In this post, we cover all good and the bad that comes with traveling in a campervan and everything in between that we wish we knew before jumping into this lifestyle.
Here are 15 things that we learned from living and traveling in our campervan:
- It Takes Some Adjusting
- Personal Space Is Not A Thing Anymore
- Planning Is The Key
- You Are Busier Than You Think
- You Travel Slower
- You Watch Your Spending
- You Become More Aware Of Your Consumption
- Not Every Camping Spot Will Be Epic
- It’s Not That Scary
- You Sit…Like A Lot
- Showering Is A Luxury
- You Get To Meet The Locals
- You Form Close Bonds With Other Travelers
- You Kind Of Miss The Normal Things… And That’s Ok
- You’ll Be Just Fine
It Takes Some Adjusting
Throughout our lives, we’re taught to get a steady job, settle down, have kids, get a house with a flat-screen TV and a big yard… all the normal things.
Despite the newly gained popularity, traveling in a campervan goes against all of these ideas. You’re never in a place more than a night or two, you might have to get creative with your income, you shower every few days (if you’re lucky) and your tiny iPhone will replace your flat screen TV.
This lifestyle challenges everything we’ve accepted a the norm and it will take some time to break out of those ideals and get used to this new way of living. It won’t be easy and just like moving to a new place, starting a new job or committing to a new habit, there will be an adjustment period.
You’ll miss your family, your friends, your bed, your old routine and that’s perfectly normal. We are creatures of habit and sometimes it just takes some time to break out of our old ones.
Personal Space Is Not A Thing Anymore
One of the hardest things to get used to while living in a campervan is the personal space, or more the lack of it. You’ll be spending the majority of your time in a room that in reality is smaller than most people’s bathrooms.
If you are traveling with another person, then you’ll be sharing this tiny space with someone else. You’ll be constantly bumping into each other, shuffling around and waiting for your turn to get something.
Unless you come from a really big family with tons of siblings, having personal space is something that we’re just used to and take for granted. When you commit to living in a campervan, someone will be constantly “invading your personal bubble” and in these situations, patience and a good sense of humor really is the key.
If you start feeling frustrated or irritated, head out for a walk to clear your head or try taking up yoga. It’s very important to set aside time for yourself.
Planning Is The Key
While traveling in a campervan allows for certain flexibility, planning is an important aspect of this nomadic lifestyle. You wouldn’t book a flight to France and show up without an itinerary of things that you want to see.
It’s easy to overlook the planning phase when you live in a campervan. In theory, you think that you’ll just jump into your van and let the road take you wherever it goes… and while that sounds pretty cool, the reality is that you’ll end up wasting your time, gas money and skip tons of cool sights that you didn’t know were there – speaking from our personal experience.
While you certainly don’t want to plan every day down to the last minute, a general plan will help you stay on track and see all of the top highlights which is probably one of the main reasons why you are thinking about traveling in a campervan in the first place.
You Are Busier Than You Think
Another reason why planning is such an essential part of traveling in a campervan is because you’ll busier than you think. Before we moved into our campervan we had this idea that living in a van would eliminate all of the unnecessary noise from our everyday lives and it would free up our days.
The reality is that all of those every day comforts that we are so used to make our lives a lot easier and living in a car actually makes things a bit more difficult. All of a sudden our days were filled with chores and it felt like there was never enough time to get them done.
Just a few basic things like finding a place to sleep, do laundry, shower, fill up on water, gas, grocery shopping, and cleaning took up most of our days. Plus you’re constantly moving so you never get to know a grocery store or have a favorite gas station to go to.
You Travel Slower
While traveling in a campervan you certainly get to visit a lot more places than you would normally see on a traditional vacation.
We spent a week driving around Iceland’s Ring Road drive in a campervan and we were able to squeeze nearly 30 stops in that week. Sure enough, we returned home exhausted and spent a few days catching up on sleep and binging some Netflix shows.
But this type of travel would not be realistic for a long term commitment. You would burn out pretty quickly from the lack of sleep and long driving days.
If you are planning on traveling in a campervan for longer than a few weeks, truthfully you’ll travel pretty slow and only go sightseeing every few days or so. You’ll be constantly moving around and after a while, it does start wearing on your body and mind. Sometimes I just wanted to lay around in our bed all day and that’s totally ok too.
During our 15-month long road trip down the Pan American Highway, we stopped in both Atitlan and Medellin for a month because we were both feeling fatigued from the trip and even considered turning around. After taking a much-needed break and getting some rest we felt refreshed and happy to jump back into the life on the road again.
You Watch Your Spending
Money is a huge obstacle why most people can’t just throw all of their belongings into a campervan and head out on a road trip across the world. Although living in a campervan is a dirtbag lifestyle, it is an expensive lifestyle nonetheless. Just because you don’t take showers often, doesn’t mean it’s cheap.
Most people that travel in a campervan for an extended time have some type of savings put away. In fact, the majority of people that we met during our time on the road were working professionals who decided to take some time off work to experience traveling.
If you have some type of online income coming in, that’s a pretty sweet bonus to have. But for most people, this type of journey means putting their jobs on hold and watching their savings go one way – down.
Every traveler has their own spending budget in mind. For some, it’s making the trip last as long as possible which often means skipping out on some of the more expensive sightseeing tours. For others, it’s seeing all the top highlights and getting back to work to save for the next trip.
On average, we spent around $50/day between both of us while living in a campervan. That’s around $1500/month – less than what our rent cost in LA.
We’ve definitely skipped out on doing some cool things like going to the Galapagos Islands or flying over the Great Blue Hole in Belize in the name of our budget. But having a budget and spending limits in mind is essential for long term travel.
You Become More Aware Of Your Consumption
When you have been traveling in a campervan for a while, you become very aware of exactly how much in resources you consume every day.
For one, things are not easily available so you always have to keep track of what you need to stock up on and how long it will last. Secondly, the small space really limits how much you can bring along so you only bring the bare minimum like a couple of t-shirts and a pair of pants.
You start realizing how little you actually need every day to live comfortably and everything else is just a nice extra.
Neither Joel nor I have ever considered ourselves “big spenders”, but living in a campervan really made us reconsider what we hold valuable. Living alongside locals in Latin American countries opened our eyes to see how little other people have and the things that we take for granted.
Coming home from an experience like this still impacts us every day. We still wear the same clothes we’ve had for years, we only have one set of plates and reusable cups in the kitchen, we try to conserve water and reduce our plastic use as much as possible.
Not Every Camping Spot Will Be Epic
Based on the van life photos that we see on social media, you’d think that every camping spot comes with an epic view of some distant mountains out of the back of your campervans doors. But the reality is that a lot of the time these pictures are staged and most of the time you’ll be staying in random parking lots with little to no views.
Not to say that finding an epic camping spot with a view doesn’t happen (in our experience more in South America than other places). But during our road trip, we spent most nights sleeping at Walmart shopping centers, gas stations, people’s back yards and random pullouts along the road.
Finding picturesque camping spots can take quite the effort, and sometimes money too. iOverlander is our go-to app for finding camping spots and this app is solely based on other traveler’s reviews so you can expect the reviews to be truthful and honest.
While we spent very little money on camping spots and mostly stayed at any free ones that we could find, some people spend $10-$20 per night to stay at the best camping sites. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get some epic views, but at least the accommodations like bathrooms and showers will be decent.
It’s Not That Scary
One of the biggest assumptions about traveling in a campervan is that you’re in constant danger.
When we told our family that we were planning on traveling in a van through Mexico, Central, and South America, they were really scared for us. After all, news and movies constantly portray Latin countries as overrun by drug cartels, violence, and kidnappings.
While having a certain level of caution and awareness of your surroundings is essential, for the most part, we never felt threatened or in any danger. I get emails and messages all the time asking what traveling in Mexico was like and truthfully it was one of our favorite countries.
Pssst. In case you’re wondering what our favorite Mexico destinations are, check out our Mexico post here.
Of course, you are bound to run into people that will come across as sketchy or that will try to scam you into paying more than what the locals would. Depending on what country you travel to, sometimes this is just inventible. But what you realize is that most people just want to make enough money to take care of their kids, pay their bills and buy food.
If you approach traveling in a campervan with common sense like don’t drive at night, do some research on the route, always have your next camping spot picked out, constantly check in with your family to let them know where you are (for their peace of mind as much as yours) you’ll be just fine.
You Sit… Like A Lot
This might seem pretty obvious, but before we started traveling in our campervan we had all of these ideas that we would spend every day hiking or working out outdoors. Both Joel and I had gym memberships and we worked out pretty regularly.
We thought that we could keep up with our workout schedules but soon after leaving our home to travel full time we realized how difficult it was to keep up with a regular workout schedule. Majority of our time was spent sitting, especially on the long driving days.
Most gyms that we visited internationally didn’t offer day passes and soon after we got into a bit of a slump. From the lack of moving around, we started losing muscle, gaining fat and even came up with a term for the flat butts we were getting from sitting so much – “the van bod”. It took us real effort to get our butts up and going again (literally).
We had to come up with a new bodyweight workout schedule that didn’t involve going to the gym and could be done at any location like squats, pushups, lunges, planks, jumping jacks and we even installed pull-up bars on our campervan’s doors. A lot of people also pick up activities like surfing, yoga and running that can be done in just about any location.
Once we started working out regularly we could feel more energy come back and that gave us the motivation to do more activities like hiking and sightseeing.
Showering Is A Luxury
There certainly are things that I have taken for granted my entire life and hot water is one of them. The simple fact is that outside of the US most people don’t have access to unlimited water so showering is more of a weekly ritual than a daily one.
Most campervans don’t have the room or capacity to have a built-in shower. It becomes pretty normal to go a few days without a shower until you can find one at the next camping site.
Some people invest in a solar shower but this works best in countries that are on the warmer and sunnier side weather wise. Most days you just rinse off in your kitchen’s sink or use wipes like these ones (bonus – these are biodegradable and environmental friendly!).
A lot of cities in Latin countries have public showering places or hot springs that are popular spots for locals to go to wash and catch up on the latest gossip. If you can find a gym that offers day passes, that is also a great place to shower after a workout. But in our experience, most gyms just offer long term memberships or overpriced day passes.
You Get To Meet The Locals
One of the coolest aspects of traveling in a campervan is the constant interaction with the locals.
We’ve spent evenings playing soccer with kids in Guatemala, having drinks with locals in Colombia, giving rides to backpacking Chilean college kids in Patagonia, the list goes on. You don’t normally get to have these types of interactions while staying at fancy hotels or only sticking to the downtown area.
But not every local will be friendly and welcoming. We’ve gotten plenty of eye rolls, cold shoulders, and the occasional scammers but for the most part, everyone is just excited to meet you and talk to you.
In a lot of the smaller towns, it might be their first time meeting an international traveler and in our experience, most locals are just curious about our journey.
You Form Close Bonds With Other Travelers
One of the upsides of spending so much time in a small space with someone else is that you REALLY get to know them. You get to fulfill your dreams, overcome challenges, work as a team and spend a lot of quality time together.
If it doesn’t break you, it will make you stronger. I’ve seen relationships flourish under these types of conditions and a few that fall apart.
Some of my deepest relationships and friendships have formed from traveling with other people. You become like your own little van-life family. You just go through so much together that very few other people can relate to.
There is rarely a dull day in van-life and as long as you keep a positive outlook, you’ll form close bonds with the people around you.
You Kind Of Miss The Normal Things… And That’s Ok
When our social media channels are constantly blasted with happy van-life pictures “living the simple life”, it’s easy to fall in love with the idea that living in a campervan is easy. You start thinking that if you’re not loving every second of it, there is something wrong with you because everyone else just seems to be having a blast (according to your feed).
Don’t get me wrong. We loved traveling in our van and I wouldn’t change a thing but I also won’t pretend that it was always super easy. The constant “unknown” can sometimes feel a bit chaotic.
After a while, you do start missing the normal things and from a female perspective – especially a bathroom. Imagine being stuck in the Peruvian mountains with food poisoning and no legit bathroom for a week. It was pretty shitty – in every way.
Recognize and embrace the struggles, the challenges and that it’s not always 100% perfect because it’s as much part of the journey and growing experience as visiting all the cool places and taking the pretty pictures.
You’ll Be Just Fine
There are a lot of assumptions that come with traveling in a campervan (especially if you’ve never done it) and the goal of this post was to show all sides of it, the good AND the bad.
We wanted to be honest about our experience and share that there will be days that will feel so EPIC and amazing, and there will be days that will be difficult and challenging.
If some of the things that we covered in this post sounded a bit scary or intimidating – don’t worry. You’ll be just fine! Traveling in our campervan for 15 months was one of the most enriching growing experiences and we learned so much about ourselves.
It pushed us to rethink our life goals, break down some perceptions about how other cultures live, we grew closer in our relationship and we made friends for life that were always there for us when things were falling apart (sometimes literally).
Although traveling in a campervan won’t always be picture perfect, one day you’ll look back on this journey and think “That was one hell of a ride”.
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