What No One Tells You About Van Life

Is van life all gorgeous sunsets, sweet camping spots and pretty pictures showing your feet? Nope. Not exactly. Here’s the truth about van life that you probably won’t see on Instagram. It’s not meant to get you down, but to open your eyes to the realities of a life on the road. If you’re considering ditching your house for a home on wheels, give this a read: What no one tells you about van life.

Finding free parking isn’t as easy as it sounds.

We actually end up sleeping in Wal Mart parking lots more than we thought we might. They’re level, in tons of cities and give us access to food, bathrooms and water. They’re also loud and bright which means we don’t always sleep all that well. We’ve stayed at some really sweet campsites but the costs add up. Most campgrounds are anywhere from $20-40 a night and it’s hard for us to justify the money since we’re on a budget. When we started out we thought we’d be able to find quiet roads and parking lots and lots of good BLM space but the reality is that most of the cool places have signs that don’t allow for overnight parking. Or they’re not level or they’re not safe. Or we’re in the wrong part of the country. We do have a couple of really great memories from stealth camping but these are the exception rather than the norm.

What No One Tells You About Van Life
And then every now and then you find a spot like this!

You’ll have to figure out what to do with your stuff.

The process of downsizing and minimizing that we went through in order to live a life on the road was pretty intense. In about a year’s time we either donated most of our clothing to Goodwill or sold it to Second Gear in Asheville. We also parted ways with trinkets and mementos that we’d be hanging on to for years. None of it really sunk in, however, until I sold my car. I got a couple thousand dollars for it but for some reason, selling it felt like the last bit of my old life. Like I was somehow selling more than my car, I was selling stability; getting rid of the person I used to be, so that I could become lighter, freer and more easily able to travel. It was definitely a process but now that it’s done it actually feels pretty amazing. And not having to pay money for a storage unit each month is pretty awesome. To learn more about how to downsize, click HERE.

Living in a van is actually pretty gross.

Though we wrote a post about How to Stay Clean on the Road we have to admit that a lot of time we’re gross! Stinky! Covered in a film of camp funk, van junk and sweat … okay, you get the picture? If you are the kind of person who needs to shower twice a day and absolutely must wish their hands every time they pee, this might not be the kind of life for you.

The lows are really low but the highs are really high.

We’ve heard several other adventurers describe some of this journeys this way. I think it’s just part of living a life on the road. Especially if you have an older vehicle. We experience this a lot less frequently now that our van is new. But we’ve had plenty of experiences where we just saw the most epic sunset, ate the most amazing meal or run the prettiest trail only to then realize the motorhome won’t turn-over.

Homesickness is real.

Though traveling around is awesome, you’re bound to, at some point, miss your home. Or your friends. Or your favorite coffee shop. Heck, maybe even all three. Though we’ve met a ton of really cool people, most of the time the interactions are fleeting. And that can leave you with a sense of not having a community or being part of a community. Which in turn can lead to feelings of homesickness. It usually passes pretty quickly but if you’re not expecting it, you’ll be in for a real surprise when it hits.

The weather will have a big impact on your experience.

This one was a surprise for us. We both love sunny days (hence why we spent a good chunk of the winter in Florida) but we were unprepared for how the rain and cold would impact us. And the heat. Anything from 50-70 degrees is perfect but anything below or above that starts to feel a little stressful when you’re traveling in a van. Especially when you only have two windows and minimal insulation. We’ve found that when it comes to sweating or freezing, Caroline would rather sweat and I would rather freeze. So … we’re considerings places with milder temps lol.

You will have moments of doubt and worry.

Vehicle problems, poor weather, lack of a plan, disruption of a plan, logistical hassles, parking tickets … there’s enough reasons out there to give you some serious moments of doubt. We’ve had a couple moments when we wanted to throw in the towel and just go back to a normal life but we’ve always rode it out together and thankfully always ended up wanting to continue with our travel. Financial worries tend to be the worst. Be prepared for them, know they will come up and give yourself some time before making some drastic changes. At the very least, sleep on it before you make a big decisions. And get used to eating Instant Lunch haha.

You’ll always need to find power, water, gas and food.

Depending how much and how often you need these things depends on your rig. Some vans have refrigerators, microwaves, water tanks and even ovens! Ours is pretty basic in that we keep our food cool with a cooler, we store our water in jugs and water bottles and we’re constantly needing to recharge our laptops and cellphones in other people’s outlets. To see what our most used gear is, check out our piece on our Top 9 Van Life Essentials. These daily needs keep us on the hunt for water fountains, gas stations, grocery stores and outlets for sure but it actually does get a little easier once you get into the rhythm of the road.

Van Life Realities

The costs are real.

Yes, your vehicle is now your house, but it still costs money to keep it running. Insurance, maintenance, oil changes, fuel … it all adds up. And it can be more than you might think. We’ve started to try and do less driving each day to cut down on costs and make sure that when we’re freelancing, we’re picking jobs up that make sense (in other words: not driving miles and miles for very little money). It’s not something we like to think about, but the harsh reality of van life is that it’s not free. Be sure you have a plan for making money while you’re on the road.

Most plans never go EXACTLY as planned.

If you’re nimble on your feet and flexible then you’re off to a good start. We’ve found that most of our trips, heck, most of our days, rarely go according to plan. Though we often set out with a rough idea of what we want to do and where we want to go, things change. Roads are closed, things break down, we can’t find food, there isn’t a gas station for miles, no cell service…it’s variables like these that keep us on our toes and sometimes make us feel like we want to pull our hair out. Other times, the plan falling through is a good thing because we discover a new beach or trail and realize that it really is about the journey and not so much the destination.

What No One Tells You About Van Life Recap

On the flip side of leaving your home in pursuit of adventure, there are so many things to love about it. You’ll find a new found sense of freedom. Your days will be unique and full of new experiences. You’ll meet new friends! If you’re able to lean into the uncertainty of this kind of life rather than have it freak you out, you might just find that it’s addicting and that you can’t ever go back to a “normal” life.

We’ve just signed on for another year on the road and are currently planning our trip.

If you liked this, be sure to check out our piece on Van Life Myth vs. Reality and Best Van Life Gear Under $50 as well as Van Life Workouts and Van Life Workouts Part TWO!

Published by Erin McGrady

Erin McGrady is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer exploring Asheville and beyond. My work focuses on sharing about LGBTQ safe spaces, camper van life, and the outdoors.

9 thoughts on “What No One Tells You About Van Life

  1. Good article, but you didn’t go far enough. There are simple and easy solutions to almost all of the problems you mentioned.

    Most of the frequently bragged about free camping is nearly inaccessible, or someplace where most people wouldn’t want to stay. In many areas, that “FREE” camping still requires you to BUY permits to park on a piece of dirt in the middle of nowhere, with no amenities. More and more cities are passing anti homeless, anti camping, and anti sleeping in a vehicle laws. But even with those laws, if you look and act like a tourist, and don’t try to hide, they usually won’t bother you. If you try to hide or look or act homeless, you’ll be in for a rough time. Stealth is more and more about being obvious and transparent. If you park on the street in areas where people aren’t likely to know all their neighbors, or who’s coming or going, you’ll usually be fine regardless of the laws. They’ll just figure you’re a visiting friend or relative. I might stay parked at a friends or relatives house for weeks at a time, and I do the exact same thing even when there is no friend or relative. (That’s not permanently parked, I drive somewhere fairly regularly.) I don’t arrive late and leave early either, that’s too sketchy, I try to arrive early enough that there’s plenty of parking available. Just beware of parking regulations, almost everywhere you must move your vehicle at least once every 72 hours.

    Proper heating, cooling, and ventilation can solve all of your indoor temperature problems, and clothing and/or accessories can conquer almost any outdoor weather. While insulation is of questionable value, windows all the way around help with almost everything, heating, cooling, ventilation, a view, safety, better mental and physical health, and with stealth and eliminating the creep factor associated with cargo vans.

    Having your own toilet and shower can eliminate a myriad of problems, and both can be had very cheaply, and work even in low top vans. Water is usually as close as a city park or a rest area. Water frugality makes it last longer. With your own bathroom, there’s never a stinky people problem, and stinky people usually get judged very harshly, and so do stinky vans. An old and ugly van can be overlooked if it’s occupant’s are clean and respectable.

    A big block of ice lasts 2-3 times longer, without costing any more, and is much more economical than 12v compressor fridges. Less power hungry, and more reliable too. Power can also be cheap and easy, a junkyard deep cycle battery for under $20, an under $20 isolator, maybe another $20 worth of wiring and you’re all set. If that doesn’t give you enough power because you don’t do enough driving, a cheapo generic $99 inverter generator with an added quiet muffler, and a $30 battery charger and you’ve got all the power, both AC & DC that you’ll ever need.

    Friends and family are as close as the phone or the internet, and there’s no reason to not go visit frequently as well. I see more of my friends now, than before I hit the road, and I talk to them all via phone or internet regularly. Keep them close and stay in touch, and never burn your bridges. Internet and phone service in town is usually pretty easy, but in the boonies it can be difficult or even impossible, so plan your travels and your work schedule appropriately. A little planning can prevent a ton of stress. Backup plans can also help enormously.

    If you go old enough on your vans, particularly pre computerized ones, the cost of ownership and the number of repairs needed are greatly reduced. The second generation of Dodge vans were the best vans ever built, bar none. Nothing compares to their comfort, reliability, longevity, or low cost of ownership.

    Everything financial and job wise should be sorted out before you ever get started. Hitting the road without a foolproof plan for your income, expenses, and a substantial emergency fund and enough to buy your old life back is just plain foolish. All this “JUST DO IT” advice you see online is stupid, naive, and dangerous. Plan both for success, and for failure, because you’re likely to experience both. Lack of planning usually ends very painfully.

    Good, honest, cheap, and simple solutions are what most people need, but are in such short supply, even though solutions are available for almost any problem that can arise. Not everybody has good problem solving skills, but if you showcase your site with solutions, you’ll surely be a huge hit. Anybody can experience or report problems, but EVERYBODY wants and needs workable solutions.


    1. Hi Marty! As always, thanks for weighing in. Your thoughts and advice are great. I agree wholeheartedly about your responses. Like you said” Good, honest, cheap and simple solutions are what most people need. We’re working on the solutions…they take time to figure out.

      Do you have any specific advice on power inverters or solar power packs? Currently looking at the Goal Zero Sherpa 100. haven’t bought it yet but intrigued…thoughts?

      1. After multiple attempts at solar, like most other fulltimers, I have abandoned it for multiple reasons. Parking in the sun during the summer is cruel and unusual punishment, relying on the weather for power is just plain stupid, it works very poorly in the winter when you need it the most, it kills batteries prematurely, it kills stealth, and it attracts thieves. Those are just the ones that come to mind without even putting any extra thought into it.

        If you’re going to spend 100% of your time in the desert, maybe solar would work, but for most people that’s just not the case. A little bit of shade can kill the whole works, and shade tends to move with the sun. I spent a lot of time without power when I was relying solely on solar, so I added an isolator which helped tremendously. When those solar panels got stolen, I quickly realized that the solar wasn’t needed at all. I later added a generator and a battery charger to my arsenal, so I have both AC & DC power anytime and anywhere, as well as battery charging and jump starting capabilities. All for much less than the solar panel system cost me. I rarely need AC power, and no longer have an inverter. If I need AC power, I can just crank up my generator, have my AC power, and charge my house battery at the same time if it needs it. Just my normal driving usually keeps my house battery topped off nicely, but if I’m boondocking for over a week or so, I can charge my house battery with the generator. ( And while parked in the SHADE!!! )

        I don’t really like Goal Zero or any of those ready made jobs. My whole power system, including my generator and house battery cost less than those, and has 10+ times more power. My house battery has 120 amp hours, the Sherpa 100 has 8.8 amp hours. My house battery cost under $20 from a junkyard, and will last 10+ times longer than the Sherpa 100 between recharges. It can be charged by all the methods the Sherpa can too.

        I don’t care for inverters either, they waste power, and just about everything imaginable is available in 12 volt models these days, and that is much more energy efficient. The inverter in the Sherpa appears to only be 100 watts, which is also of questionable use. Other than the USB ports, all the others on the Sherpa look non standard as well.

        Ready made systems are a rip off, and once you delete solar panels, a much better power system is both cheap and easy to install. A generator is about 1000 times more useful than solar panels, and doesn’t depend on the weather, or force you to park in the sun.

        I do like a few self contained solar powered items that can be sat in a window to be charged, among them are a couple lanterns, a radio, and a battery charger for flashlight style batteries, so I always have fresh batteries for anything that needs them.

        Over the years I have learned to appreciate simple systems more and more. My power system falls into that category, and each component is easily replaceable. With something like the Goal Zero stuff, if it breaks you’re screwed until you can get a replacement. Almost everything in my system can be replaced quickly easily. Reliability and replaceability are very important for systems you rely on, and you can buy new or used house batteries almost anywhere.


      2. Always love the detail, always love your advice. Thanks so much for your input. All of what you’re saying makes a lot of sense to me. I guess i’d never really considered parking in the shade vs charging in the shade but that makes a lot of sense. You’ve given me a lot to consider when thinking about next steps. I really appreciate you taking the time to write your thoughts out!

        Oh and after learning so much about your rig and your set up, I’m just dying to see some photos! Do you have any?!

  2. I personally love my solar but don’t rely on it as my only source. We are 99% electric cooking with the exception of BBQ in the summer and use an inverter as well. I agree the prepackaged battery inverter units are not worth much. For electricity we have 300WATT solar panels, a gas generator/inverter, battery isolator to charge while driving. We have 400Ah AGM batteries and 2 inverters. a 1000/2000 Watt pure sine and a 3000/6000 Watt modified sign. I believe in redundancy for several reasons.
    We have a 2005 GMC Savannah cargo van so no standing and no extended space. We still find the room to bring our essentials and with 2 of us living in it cozy is the word of the day. LOL.

    We are new to fulltime van life, just finished 12 months and have a new website (10 days) you are welcome to check out to see some of what we have going on. I am currently filming a cooking in the van series that I am excited about but Video is still new.
    Love to chat in the future. I did add a forum page to my site so people can connect to me and each other so feel free to drop me a note if you have any questions.

  3. I’ve smoked a lot of heroin in the back of Vans, 2002-2006. Cheap drugs and it’s always been sleazy people living in vans. Matt Foley anyone? #vanlife made me immediately bust out laughing. Even after embracing the life of outdoor anarchist. I continued to be an outdoor anarchist in the company of rock climbers and outdoor guides, smoking cannabis this round. Theses people refer to themselves as “dirtbags.” Living in a van is vagrancy. Vagrancy without an ID is actually illegal in a lot of places. So to live in a van you’ve moved the line from citizen to vagrant based on a small piece of plastic you could easily leave at the store if you’re in a hurry to drink beer. And when it’s pouring rain and the sound of your tires is still humming in your ears, it’s pretty easy to loose that thing in favored of adulterated malt beverage. Vans have always been an upgrade to homelessness because it’s a big backpack. The sudden notion that domestic humans could take to the road full time is ridiculous with a $165,000 Mercedes powered Winnebago. Then to watch people accustomed having access to a clean toilet think they can take on the world with a high mileage sprinter and a carpet kid is absolutely absurd. I rent cargo vans to travel with my wife. And these people with composting toilets in your van….. what’s wrong with you? Dig a hole behind the bush, you wouldn’t poop under your bed anywhere else, I hope. Seriously “gross” homeless people don’t poop in their vans. This is just a marketing trend. Everyone on the social media feed making it look glamourous is in the private park behind the best western plus they have a room at. #Vanlife is #BigBackpackHomelessness. Not simplified twin room hotel living. I’ve actually seen larger bellman’s quarters (typical twin hotel room) than the back of a 15 passenger van, and they get full board and a shared bath facility with that lodging, not to mention a paycheck and seasonal mobility. Leave outdoor living to the outdoors people. Outdoor life has always been rough, that hasn’t changed in the last 160,000 years. Our species actually requires shelter for survival, it takes absolute hardening to negotiate that requirement. A mild steel can is not anymore shelter than a leather jacket is, it’s a cargo container. It’s not about “right sizing” it’s about training your nervous and endocrine systems to no die when you get a respiratory infection because we’re human and we’re really good at getting respiratory infections when we’re exposed.

    “Alright, how’s everybody? Good! Good! Good! Now, as your father probably told you, my name is Matt Foley, and I am a Motivational Speaker! Now, let’s get started by me giving you a little bit of a scenario of what my life is all about! First off, I am 35 years old.. I am divorced.. and I live in a van down by the river! Now, you kids are probably saying to yourself, “Now, I’m gonna go out, and I’m gonna get the world by the tail, and wrap it around and put it in my pocket!!” Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re probably gonna find out, as you go out there, that you’re not gonna amount to Jack Squat!!” You’re gonna end up eating a steady diet of government cheese, and living in a van down by the river! Now, young man, what do you want to do with your life?”
    – Matt Foley, motivational speaker.

  4. Well known challenges and situations described here! Last 5 years I have spent 4-6 weeks every summer in a van, mostly in the wilderness of Northern Europe. I have learnt to take the days the one after the other, and I like the freedom and the slight amount of uncertainty encountered. It is quite different from my daily and highly scheduled life at university. Last summer my father (now 60+) joined me for two weeks. I slept in the car and he in a small tent. He is not at all used to camping, but mostly he seemed to enjoy it. He initially became a bit chocked when he realised that he should have to go to toilet in the bushes, but he managed! I guess men probably have a greater barrier for squatting than women.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Anna! Sounds like a heckuva place, Northern Europe, for a van adventure. Glad you had some time with your Dad! Hope you have a great summer trip!

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