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Navigate Van Life & Learn 5 Tips From the Pro Vanlifers

what is van life

Table of Contents

Van life, or better known as #vanlife on Instagram, is a growing trend among minimalistic individuals who prefer to own fewer belongings and spend most of their time on the road instead of in their homes. While living on the road may sound crazy, it’s hard for an adventure junkie to say no to freedom of location and exploring the most beautiful places. Van life is absolutely exciting but can be scary for beginners. Before jumping into the pond, it’s worth reading a guide like this to make sure you fit the bill.

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.

Is Van Life for You?

There’s really two different approaches to van life. You can either convert a van to use for short road trips and weekend surf missions, or you can live in out of a van full time. Neither is right or wrong. What matters, however, is that you find what works best for you and fulfills you the most.

I’ve owned my DIY campervan for over three years, and I’ve never had an intention to live in it. I use it for long road trips and weekend surf missions, which is exactly what I wanted it to provide my life with—a reason to explore the outdoors. However, if you’re someone who is looking for more than just an adventure mobile for road trips, living in a van could be right for you. My guide on living in a van is the perfect place to learn just about everything you need to know.

Van Life Costs

There are various costs that come along with living the van life, like purchasing the van, conversion expenses, maintenance, gas, groceries, and campsites. Most of these costs are the same whether you live in your van or not; however, some vary. The initial investment may seem like it’ll put a large dent in your bank account, but it’s one you will never regret. Let’s take a peek at some of the costs you can expect:

  • Purchasing your van: It really depends on the make, model, and year of your van; however, you can expect to pay at least $10,000 for a used 2010 van.
  • Conversion costs: Similar to the van, your conversion costs will vary depending on how functional your van conversion to be. If you want something that is similar to a fully functioning, livable RV, you’re looking at somewhere around $20,000. However, if you just want something for weekend trips, you can do it for under $3,000, which is what I did.
  • Food: If you’re living in your van full time, expect to spend around $300 or $400 per month. However, if you’re joining the van life community for road trips, expect to pay at least $100 for each trip.
  • Gas: I hate to break it to you, but vans aren’t known to flaunt the best gas mileage. This cost heavily varies depending on how far you drive on a monthly basis and current gas prices. For a bird’s eye view, my Ford E-150 has a 35 gallon tank and typically costs at least $100 to fill up.
  • Van maintenance: Van life comes with its hiccups, like car problems. These things are inevitable, and you’ll need to take care of them as they come up. Some issues you may come across that will cost you money are new brakes, tires, and transmission problems.  
  • Campsites: If you’re camping with your van, expect to pay around $30 to $40 for state parks and $25 for national parks. If you want to avoid campsite costs, look for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas to sleep overnight legally. iOverlander is a great app to find these areas.

Best Vans for Van Life

The nice thing about van life is there’s a van model out there for just about everyone, whether you’re looking for something luxurious or more on the budget side of the spectrum. The make/model you prefer and the amount of cash you’re willing to put down is likely going to point you in the direction of your future DIY campervan.

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.

Pros:

  • Popular in the van life community
  • Has enough room for all the necessities
  • Plenty of conversion videos online to help you

Cons:

  • 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.

Pros:

  • Fraction of the price compared to a sprinter
  • Available in 4×4
  • Easy to repair and maintain

Cons:

  • 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.

Pros:

  • Widest wheel base of all vans
  • Affordable compared to Mercedes Sprinters
  • Front-wheel drive could be handy during snowy conditions

Cons:

  • Only available in front-wheel drive
  • Not designed for off roading
  • Doesn’t have the nicest body look

Van Life Benefits

Van life suites everyone for different reasons. Some love it because it helps save them money while others like it because the freedom it gives them to roam. Regardless, this lifestyle offers a slew of benefits, which convinced me to jump into the community, and it may do the same for you.

1. Save Money On Rent or a Mortgage

If you’re the person who wants to live in a campervan, you’re bound to keep some bucks in your bank account. Living the van life is a lot more affordable than paying rent or a mortgage on a house. Although van life comes with its own costs, it doesn’t come close to what you’d typically spend for a traditional living style.

2. Freedom to Roam

One benefit of van life, which is the one that attracted me most, is the ability to roam wherever you want. You want to go to Yosemite tomorrow? Hop in the van and go. You want to spend time in Yellowstone? Hop in the van and go. Whether you live in a van full time or use it for road trips, it will provide you with one of the most liberating feelings ever.

3. Live a Minimalistic Life

Are you someone who doesn’t love having a ton of belongings? Well, van life could be the perfect hobby for you. There’s not a ton of space in a campervan, so every inch counts, meaning you can’t move your whole house into your rig. You will need to pick and choose the belongings that truly matter. This is an excellent way to downsize what you own and appreciate what’s enough.

Van Life Challenges

While van life is a dreamy way to live, there are some challenges you will encounter along the way. It would be a total disservice of myself if I left those out of this article. So, here are some challenges and hiccups you may come across while living the van life.

1. Van Maintenance

Driving any car far distances typically means you’ll have some maintenance costs along the way. Unfortunately, your future campervan is not excluded from that equation. You may deal with transmission issues, oil changes, new brakes and tires, and problems with your air conditioning. Of course, the types of problems will vary, which heavily depends on the year and condition of your rig.

2. You Can't Always Sleep on the Side of the Road

When people come to me for van life questions, they always ask where can they park their rig and sleep legally. Most people even think you can park just about anywhere; however, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not the case. The days of parking on the side of the road are long gone, so there are a few things you should know about where you can sleep legally.

If you fancy a more sophisticated place to stay, look for campsites at state or national parks. These typically range from $25 to $45 per night, depending on the park. If you don’t mind setting up shop off the beaten path, then use apps like iOverlander to find BLM areas where you can legally sleep overnight without a reservation. BLM land is the most popular places for vanlifers to sleep.

3. It's Not Always Clean, I'm Sorry

I’m just going to cut to the chase, van life is not always clean and pretty. Living on the road or even just spending a few days camping can get dirty quickly. Showers are not always around, your sparkling bathrooms were definitely left at home, and dirt slowly becomes your new next door neighbor. However, if you prepare yourself and install a shower or source of water, you can keep your van life cleaner than most.

5 Van Life Tips 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

Bottom Line

Van life is both a community and lifestyle that has caught wind in the last handful of years. Whether you want to live in a van full time or traveling in a van is more your cup of tea, you have a spot on the roster. Find a van that fits your desired build, convert your dream campervan, set out on the road, and start to use the almighty #vanlife when you share photos. What are you waiting for?

Are you new to van life? If so, what do you need help with? Drop me a comment below, and I’ll get back to you!

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