Van life has gained popularity over the past few years, as more people choose to leave behind many of their belongings and habits in favor of living on the road in a van. Living in a van can be incredibly rewarding, giving you the chance to regain control of your finances and see some incredible parts of the country. If you’re considering making the huge transition to van living, there’s a lot to know. I created this guide to help explain everything you need to learn as you familiarize yourself with van life.
What Is Van Life?
Van life is two things: 1) a lifestyle and 2) a community. Most people haven’t even heard of van life; however, the trend has gained tons of popularity in the last few years. This lifestyle is a challenging but rewarding way to simplify your life, save money, and explore life outside the comfort of your home. It boasts a community filled with people who are enthusiastic about the outdoors and have a never-ending reservoir of curiosity for adventure. But, is this lifestyle for you? Let’s find out.
Costs of Living in a Van
First things first — how much does it actually cost to pack up your home and move into a van?
Here are a few of the main costs you can expect to be paying on a monthly basis:
- The van: Vans vary in price, depending on the make and model you decide to purchase. However, you can expect to pay at least $10,000 for a van that’s a 2010 or newer.
- Groceries: Food will probably be one of your biggest expenses. On average, most people tend to spend around $300 to $400 a month on groceries. This depends on your diet, preferences, and vigilance.
- Fuel: As your van is your new home, fuel will be essential. It will probably end up costing you between $350 to $450 each month. However, this may vary depending on how far you’re driving.
- Eating out: It will be fun to eat out every once in a while—especially as it will give you a welcome change of scenery. Of course, too many coffees, cocktails, and meals out will quickly start to hurt your wallet. I recommend trying to keep meals out to around $200 a month maximum.
- Van maintenance: Unfortunately, cars do require check-ups, tire changes, air conditioner fixes, and so on. The cost will vary depending on how reliable your rig is.
- Insurance: It’s crucial that you protect your van in case of damage or accidents. The average van insurance plan will cost you around $150 a month.
- Bills: Even though you’ll give up most bills like gas and electric on the road, you’ll still have a few to pay—namely, your phone bill, which will probably double as your WiFi plan. These bills tend to come to around $60 a month.
- Parking and campsites: On nights when you can’t find free parking, you’ll likely be paying for a spot in a parking lot or on a campsite. Expect to pay around $30 per night for a paid campsite.
- Laundry: Finally, laundry will be another essential cost. Expect to pay at least $25 a month on laundry if you plan on using a laundromat. (Of course, some people manage to wash their clothes by hand in the van)
How to Make Money While Living in a Van
Unless you’ve managed to save up a large sum of money, chances are, you’ll need to have some source of income. As you can see from the estimated costs section, living in a van is much cheaper than renting an apartment or paying a mortgage, but it certainly isn’t free! In order to live comfortably, you’ll need to have a job.
Luckily, there are jobs out there that are 100% remote, or, jobs that are pretty flexible, so they suit people who are constantly on the move. Here are a few ideas on how you can earn enough money to fund your lifestyle.
Freelance Writing, Editing, or Marketing
If you have any skills as a journalist, editor, or marketer, you may be able to earn a living by freelancing. Websites like UpWork.com, Freelancer.com, PeoplePerHour, and Fiverr are a great place to seek out freelance work.
Create a profile on these job boards and develop your own website to advertise your services. Within time, you may find that you earn a pretty decent income as you increase your rates.
Plus, you won’t have to worry about working from an office. Set up a table in your van, or invest in a pull-out table that extends from the back of your van. You will need good data or WiFi connection if you intend to work from a laptop in your van.
Another great online option for van dwellers is online tutoring. If you have a degree in a certain subject, you may be able to find work tutoring children in this subject. Start by studying the curriculum and connecting with other tutors and teachers. This way, you can approach tutoring agencies armed with knowledge about not only your subject but also how you’d be able to help students prepare for specific curriculum requirements and exams.
Sell Homemade Items
If you are looking for a job that suits your artistic side, why not start an online business selling handmade items? Whether it’s prints, t-shirts, tote bags, plant pots, or notebooks, creating your own retail business can be hugely rewarding. Plus, it’s a great way to earn money that doesn’t involve staring at a screen all day long.
If you prefer work that gets you out of the van and into the great outdoors, seasonal work can be a great temporary option that suits the van lifestyle nicely. Seek out work on farms, at Christmas markets, summer camps, and so on. This way, you won’t be tied down in one place for too long, but you’ll still get to work with other people and get out and about.
Become a YouTuber, Instagramer, Blogger, or Podcaster
While the idea of becoming an “influencer” may not sound particularly appealing—after all, living in a van is often about getting off the grid—it can actually be a wonderful way to create a sense of community, meet like-minded people, and even make some money. And if you are living in a van, your content is bound to be unique.
Investing in a podcast, YouTube channel, or content overall can lead to advertising revenue and sponsorship deals. You’ll be in charge of your own content, business hours, and colleagues (if any). There are few jobs that offer more independence, creativity, or plain fun. Plus, if you stay true to your values and personality, pursuing this career certainly doesn’t have to feel like selling out.
Reasons to Live in a Van
Everyone wants to live in a van for different reasons. Some people may do it to save money while others may crave not being tied to a specific location. Regardless of the main reasons why living in a van might attract you, it’s never a bad idea to know what else it can bring into your life.
1. Save Money
One of the main benefits of moving into a van and living on the road is that you will save a significant amount of money. If you’re currently renting, you’re probably spending hundreds or thousands of dollars each month on rent and bills. Whether you want to save up for a house, or simply keep more of your income, living in a van can be an excellent solution.
2. Freedom of Location
When you live in a van, you are completely free to spend time anywhere in the country. Having the freedom to spend one week in California and the next in Texas means that you will always see the world, meet tons of fascinating people, and experience a variety of lifestyles.
3. Simplify Your Belongings and Life
These days, most of us have a lot of belongings. Over the course of our lives, we accumulate more and more of it. Countless studies have shown that all of these belongings can have a serious effect on our mental health. Living in a van will force you to downsize, and choose van life essentials that you really need or value.
Ever felt the yearning sensation of wanderlust? Van living might be for you. When you live in a van, you are free to explore corners of the country that you’d probably never get to see if you lived in a traditional house.
5. For the Challenge
I won’t beat around the bush. Living in a van isn’t always easy. You’ll have to face plenty of difficult, scary situations. If you like the sound of pushing yourself to your mental and physical limits, this lifestyle might suit you.
Best Vans for Van Life
1. Mercedes Sprinter: Overall Best Van for Van Life
The Mercedes Sprinter is by far one of the most luxurious and most popular vans for van life; it’s the gold standard for many reasons. While it starts at around $33,790, you’re guaranteed to get your money’s worth. The sprinter is large enough to convert it into a livable RV that includes a shower, bathroom, kitchen, dining area, and bed.
- Popular in the van life community
- Has enough room for all the necessities
- Plenty of conversion videos online to help you
- Most expensive van for van life
- High maintenance costs
- Mercedes parts are sometimes hard to find, which will delay your repairs
2. Ford Transit: Best for a Budget Sprinter-like Van
Sprinters hands down sent van life spiraling into a never-ending stream of popularity. However, there are other vans for van life, such as the Ford Transit. While they look very similar to a sprinter, you’ll be able to snag them for a fraction of the price, starting at $34,510. Transits are available in three different lengths with three different roof heights. Plus, Ford also released an all-wheel drive (AWD) model in 2020.
- Fraction of the price compared to a sprinter
- Available in 4×4
- Easy to repair and maintain
- Harder to find used models
- AWD is only available on 2020 models
- Not as wide as a Mercedes Sprinter
3. Dodge Promaster: Best for the Widest Wheelbase
The Dodge Promaster is comparable to the Ford Transit because it’s affordable and boasts different lengths and roof heights. However, the Promaster has the widest wheelbases of all vans available on the market, making for a ton of room for your conversion. It doesn’t come with AWD and is a front-wheel-drive rig. You can snag one starting at $30,145.
- Widest wheel base of all vans
- Affordable compared to Mercedes Sprinters
- Front-wheel drive could be handy during snowy conditions
- Widest wheel base of all vans
- Affordable compared to Mercedes Sprinters
- Front-wheel drive could be handy during snowy conditions
4 Tips on Planning Your First Year Living in a Van
Ready to start living the van life? There are a few things you should definitely think about before giving up your lease and setting out on the open roads. Here are some tips on how to prepare for your first year in the van.
1. Create a Budget for Yourself
Even though you’ll save money by living in a van, it’s still incredibly important that you create a budget plan for yourself. Whether you are planning on working remotely from your van, or you have saved up some money and plan on living cheaply, there are some expenses you’ll need to prepare for, including gas, van maintenance, and groceries.
2. Understand Where You Can Park and Sleep
For new van owners, finding places to park can be trickier than you initially expect. Look out for these types of areas when researching where you’ll park for the day or overnight:
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas
- National Forests
- National Grasslands
- City Parks
- Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)
- Walmart parking lots
- Hotel and Motel parking lots
- Apartment complexes with open parking
- 24-hour business parking lots
- Nightclub parking lots
- Airport parking lots
- Church parking lots
3. Set up Your Van Correctly
When it comes to living in a van, every little space will count, so make sure you create an intelligent plan that maximizes the small space you have. There’s a lot to think about when planning your setup, but here are a few key tips:
- Soundproof, waterproof, and insulate your vehicle
- Invest in a good electrical system (and learn how it works)
- Use solar panels
- Always have lots of batteries
- Install a vent fan
- Cut mattresses to fit your bed space
- Look into 12V portable fridges
- Use magnets or other mechanisms to secure your kitchen supplies
4. Focus on Your Safety
For the first few weeks in your van, you may feel a little uneasy—which is perfectly normal. However, with the proper precautions in place, van life can be incredibly safe. Here are a few initial things to bear in mind when it comes to how to live in a van safely:
- “Stealth-ify” your van—no one should know you are living in the vehicle by looking at the outside
- Invest in a safe for your valuable items, just in case
- Get a dog
- Hide a tracker in your car so you can always find it if it’s stolen
- Install an alarm system
- Install motion sensor lights
- Tell someone where you are sleeping for the night
Advice From Pro Vanlifers
Mastering and perfecting van life can be difficult and sometimes very frustrating. If you’re new to the community, or not, it’s definitely a big pond to swim in. I sat down and interviewed some of the top vanlifers who shared their invaluable van life tips to help you get started on the right foot.
1. Van Security Is Invaluable
“My all-time favorite feature on my van is my locking cabinet. The ability to safely store gear inside your van is pretty invaluable when you basically travel with everything important to you. I also added a GPS tracker to my van that is really crucial.”
— Chris Burkard, @ChrisBurkard
2. Focus on Practicing Self-Care
“Practice radical self-care! Constant travel is exciting but overstimulation can lead to burnout. To stay adventure-ready for fun opportunities down the road, create daily enjoyable rituals that nourish and ground you, giving you a sense of calm. We love centering our practices around the three pillars of health, movement, food, and rest, and often practice outside of the van in nature.
Some ideas include yoga, meditation, strength and mobility training, dry brushing, oil massage, acupressure, herbal teas, solitude. The essence of radical self-care is knowing when and what to let go of, preserve and create more of in your life. Your no is as strong as your yes.”
— Corey and Emily, @WheresMyOfficeNow
3. Modify Your Rig to Fit Your Adventure
“Pick the adventure first and the rig second. There can be a lot of pressure when you’re first getting started in knowing exactly what type of rig to get and how you should have it equipped. And sometimes all of those things can be overwhelming and delay the process of getting on the road. One of the best things you can do is take an adventure in a rig you already have and see where you’re limited.
Do you need more storage for surfboards, music, bikes or snow gear? Do you need a better cooking setup and are you comfortable cooking outdoors? Do you want to be camping down dirt roads that require high clearance or 4WD? How long do you want to be off the grid? Do you need a place to charge electronics like computers or phones? As you take more adventures, you’ll find these answers and be able to modify your rig or choose one that works best for what you don’t have.”
— Kathleen Morton, @TinyHouseTinyFootprint, Co-founder of @VanlifeDiaries
4. Embrace the Van Life Community
“One of the biggest tips we can give to aspiring Vanlifers is about getting involved with the amazing community of people living on the road. We got into this lifestyle before we knew how big the community was but once we hit the road we were shocked by how many people were living a similar way. The community of people we’ve met are easily one of our favorite parts of Vanlife and we’ve made so many lifelong friends along our journey.
Open yourself to the community. If you see a Vanlifer in your area, reach out and ask if they want to meet up. If you see a Vanlife gathering near you, buy a ticket and immerse yourself in the loving community! It’s amazing the opportunities that come from getting to know other people living on the road. The Vanlife community is full of creative people wanting to come together to create something unique and beautiful. We can’t stress enough how amazing we’ve found this community and we want everyone to experience the positivity, creative energy, and love that flows through this lifestyle. We’ll see you out there!”
— Pete and Tay, @AlwaysTheRoad
5. A Handful of Tips from a 7 Year Vanlifer
“I have been living in vans for 7 years now. Here are some tips from my experience. Having a hot shower option when living full time or part time in a van is a big thing for me that makes it feel more like a home.
Look for free camp options in nature as often as you can. If you are in a city or town and you want to free park for the night have fun in the beautiful places and once the sun goes down find a safe place to park and have minimal noise, don’t be loud and bother those with homes and leave early and don’t leave rubbish or clean your teeth on their sidewalk.
Use public amenities where available to have minimal impact on the land. Spend as much time outdoors and in nature as possible to be inspired. Find a flexible job that you can work casual, part-time or work on the road so you can continue to keep exploring new places.”
— Jonny Dustow, @DustyBootsMusic, Co-Founder of @VanlifeDiaries
Living in a van full-time is both life-changing and incredibly challenging. It’s crucial that you think carefully about whether the lifestyle is right for you. Once you’ve decided to live on the road, it’s all about planning—the more planning you do, the better your chances of enjoying the experience and feeling safe every single day. Once you’ve done the thinking and planning, get out there and soak up the amazing experience of living out of your van.
What is holding you back from living in a van? Let me know in the comments below!