Living in a van sounds romantic, right? Driving wherever the road leads you, parking the car where you like it, sleeping with a view of the stars above, breakfast at the beach.. Sometimes it actually is that way. Sometimes it’s not though. There’s police officers chasing you away, rainy days where you don’t have anywhere to go, a lack of privacy and most importantly mosquitoes. Tons of mosquitoes.
Anyway, the all in all six months I spent living on the road in a van were some of the best ones in my life. Hard, but also fun. I am going to talk about some important points and maybe after that you’ll decide that clearly, living in a van is not for you. Maybe you’ll want to try it out sometime, though!
Get a van. Obviously. There’s tons of different models, big ones, small ones.. I decided on a minivan, a Honda Odyssey 2002, which I bought with my friend David who helped with checking that it’s running smoothly (because frankly, while I’m a good driver, I don’t know much about cars). The good thing about minivans is that they don’t use a lot of gas and are quite cheap on the upkeep. Other good models would be a Ford Windstar or a Dodge Grand Caravan. Bigger vans are more expensive on gas, but have more space. Whatever fits your budget. Local car dealers might have what you need, but private sales on sites like craigslist are usually the cheaper option. Registration and insurance are important, even in countries where you don’t necessarily need it (looking at you, New Zealand!). If you have questions about the Canadian system, let me know, I know quite a bit about that.
Name your van. Totally necessary step! Mine was called Bobby (the car).
Equip your van. You don’t need a fully equipped backpacker van with a bed and everything, despite what everyone says. I even kept the seats in there in case I wanted to bring more people and to sell it in the end as a normal car, not just for backpackers. I simply put an air mattress in the back, flipped the seats to the front and bought sleeping bags. Very important: make some curtains (we used shower curtains, another time just cut up some fabric from Walmart)! If not, you’ll have street lights or the sun shining in your face (especially fun if you go to Alaska in the summer – we had kind of forgotten that it won’t be dark at night). A camping cooker is pretty handy. You’ll figure out what you need along the way, depends on how long you want to live in it.
Find a travel partner. Of course you can also go by yourself, but it can get quite lonely and you might not want to sleep in dodgy areas. I traveled with a girl I met on a farm, then a friend from Germany joined us and in the end it was just the German friend and I. There will be arguments, it won’t always be easy, but in the end I was so glad I had someone by my side to share this adventure.
Find a route. Check if there are unpaved roads. You are risking popped tires (I had three of those during the 15 months I had the van), and if a road is only suitable for 4WD, don’t go on it if you have 2WD. Check for road conditions. Do you have snow chains if needed? Do you even have winter tires? You won’t need them if you’re roadtripping through California in the summer, but go up to the Rockies and it might be a different story. Also remember that in some parts of the world, you won’t find gas stations every few kilometres, sometimes there might be a few hundred in between. Know the route.
Sleeping. There are different rules in every country, but in general, you are pretty unsuspicious in a minivan. Nobody will suspect that there’s someone sleeping in there, unless you wash your dishes in a parking lot at 10 am (yes I did that. Yes I got caught). Ideally find somewhere where a public toilet is nearby (or alternatively a bunch of bushes). In the US and Canada, you are allowed to camp in most Walmart parking lots, so if you’re near a city, that’s a safe option. Other big supermarkets sometimes allow it, too. There’s public rest areas, a lot of those are okay. Sometimes they are next to the beach, the most perfect spots. Sometimes there’s fire places, go there. Other people have camped there before and most likely didn’t get caught. Check Allstays and Freecampsites (they are not always reliable, but I found some awesome spots on there!)
Don’t leave a trace. Take your garbage with you. In so many places I found other people’s trash, it’s not pretty. There are less and less places where it’s allowed to camp without paying, and people that leave their trash are the reason for that. Don’t be a part of the problem.
Apologize to the police if they find you. The two times I ran into the police while sleeping in a van, the encounters weren’t bad. A warning, they sent me away, that’s it. Don’t turn up again the next day! They might give you a fine sometimes, but usually they just warn you the first time.
Find a place to shower. There’s a few places where you can shower. Firstly, there’s community centres or pools. Truck stations often have showers (for a fee, obviously, but they are mostly pretty clean and sometimes you can do your laundry, too!), some hostels will let you shower. Campgrounds will most likely let you shower for a fee (or you just walk in and don’t get caught).
Take a break. Sometimes it’s good to book a motel room just for one night. You’ll see when you’re at that point. For me, it mostly came after about three to four weeks. It’s okay – you don’t have to live on the road full time.
Word of advice: It always sounds great to buy a van and then sell it in the end, because you’ll get your money back anyway, right? No, not always right. Sometimes it costs a lot on the road because it’s expensive to get parts replaced or repaired, and sometimes you won’t be able to sell it for the same price because the demand isn’t high. We were lucky with repairs, just a few new tires and oil changes, but in the end, our brakes were done, the doors didn’t work and we had to scrap him. So when you buy a car, always remember that you might not get your money back. Still cheaper than a rental though, and to be honest, way cooler. Once we knew that we wouldn’t get any money for it, we drew on the ceiling – in the end it was an artwork of our time there.
Got any questions about living on the road? Let me know, I’d love to help!