Beginner's Guide to Van Life

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED March 21, 2021

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There are many people that are interested in trying out van life.

They crave the simplicity and inherent freedom that comes with van living and are eager to become van dwellers, too.

Maybe you yourself want to be a van person, in which case this article is for you. You’re sure to get some use out of our beginner’s guide to van life. We’ve explained the most important aspects of van living and what you need to expect if you decide to go on this journey.

What Is Van Life?

Van life - what is van life

In the simplest terms - van life is the act of living out of a van.

However, while this describes the act itself, the extent to which some people embrace van life and the exact meaning that it has for them is a bit more tricky, as it goes beyond just “living in a van”.

To some people, this is a lifestyle that allows you to save on housing costs by avoiding the necessity of taking out a huge mortgage or paying exorbitant rental fees.

To others, it’s a way to reject the societal norm of the 2-story house with a huge yard where your dog and your two kids can play around and you can have BBQs and do all those other things that most beer commercials seem to think is the norm.

And then there are also those that see it as an adventure and a way to get away from the pressures and troubles of everyday life by committing to a more minimalist way of living.

There are many different reasons as to why people are doing it. So, regardless of your own motivations, if you’re aiming to commit to this kind of lifestyle, there are a few things that you need to know before you decide to jump into the deep end.

The First Thing You Need to Know...

Van life - three girls in a van

It isn’t a vacation.

If your entire knowledge of van living comes solely from social media posts that have about 30 hashtags underneath them, then you don’t really know the scope of the challenge you’re undertaking.

Van dwelling and van camping are two vastly different things.

If all you’re trying to do is get away from everything and unwind from some of the stress of your normal life, then we suggest you go to a camper van rental and go on a road trip.

However, if you’re looking to drastically change your lifestyle and are willing to fully commit to the idea of becoming a full-time nomad, then we might be able to help you with that. That is actual van life.

And it starts with choosing a van.

Choosing a Van

Three old school vans parked

There are a couple of things that you need to take into account before you make a decision on which van would be the ideal choice for you.

First of all, strike recreational vehicles off the list right away.

RVs are very spacious, very luxurious, and very expensive to buy. Even if you have the money, it’s a better idea to invest in upgrading a different type of van which is much cheaper to maintain and doesn’t waste so much fuel.

Having excluded the over-priced option, we are now left with 4 contenders, all of which have something to offer.

Sprinter Van

Spinster van - grey van on a street

The Mercedes sprinter van, otherwise known as the Promaster van, is a great option if you’re looking for a lot of space to work with when it comes to designing your custom van build.

This type of van is pretty popular because most models come with diesel engines. Plus, they feature extra headroom, which is quite useful when you’re living in a van.

On top of having pretty good fuel economy (especially for their size), these vans are considered to be generally very reliable.

However, what you gain in fuel costs, you’ll lose in maintenance fees.

While the sprinter van parts are nowhere near as expensive as those for RVs, they’re still generally quite a bit more expensive than most of the other choices on our list.

Additionally, the Promaster is also much more costly to purchase, and usually has a lot more miles under the tires.

This is pretty normal since the person you’re buying it from probably used it every day as a way to transport cargo, but this does mean that there might be a bit more wear-and-tear on it than most other van types.

Cargo Van

Van life - a man standing in front of white van

A cargo van differs from a sprinter in that the passenger and cargo area are connected. It’s also on the smaller side, comparatively speaking at least.

Luckily, cargo vans still provide a lot of free space for van conversion purposes, and even a new van in this class is generally quite a bit more cost-effective than a sprinter.

Additionally, in contrast to most models of Promaster vans, they already come with windows installed in the cargo area in the back.

However, the biggest drawback of the cargo van would have to be its limited headspace.

While you might be able to fit everything from a bed to a cooking station in the cargo area, even a person of moderate height will struggle to stand up without banging their head on the ceiling.

They also share the mileage problem of our previous entry, since most people tend to hold on to cargo vans for work-related purposes, and then sell them when the maintenance costs get a bit too high.

This is not to say that you can’t find a cargo van that isn’t beat up and on its last legs, but rather that you should really do your research and be thorough with the questions if you decide to buy one of these vans.

High-Top Conversion Van

Conversion van

This is the best van for you if you’re looking for something that isn’t too big but still has that extra bit of headroom that’ll really save you a lot of back pain in the long run.

Conversion vans are also incredibly convenient since they have already been equipped with a fully functioning living space in the back.

This cuts down the modification costs to nearly nothing, and it’ll allow you to start using the van as your new home pretty much as soon as you buy it.

The problems start to arise if you’re not satisfied with the equipment in the back and want to entirely strip the cargo area and start over.

This might happen if the previous owner geared their DIY van more towards a weekend away, rather than holding all of the necessities that someone might need if they want to live there.

These sorts of situations are actually much more common than you might think, and it’s a much better idea to look for another van, rather than spend money on both the stripping and equipment re-installation.

Class B Camper Van

Multiple parked camper vans

A camper van is already a completely decked-out tiny home on wheels, which means that you'll save on some money by not having to use a conversion company to make it into a more suitable living space.

Unlike the conversion van, these vehicles come with standard equipment that’s solely geared towards providing you with all of the essentials that you might need.

It’s also incredibly easy to move inside camper vans. They come with an abundance of headroom and much more storage space than the rest of the vans on our list.

However, the inherent drawbacks of this type of van come in the form of costs. Not only is the initial purchasing price higher than the sprinter van, but you’ll also have to pay more for the high fuel consumption which is normal for a vehicle of this weight and size.

Depending on the exact model, the camper might also be qualified as an RV, putting it in a specific maintenance class, and making it a bit more tricky to find a mechanic if something breaks down.

And finally, these types of vans are almost never allowed to park overnight in general-purpose parking spots, making stealth camping almost impossible.

Conclusion

Money isn’t everything, and buying the most expensive van that you can find is usually an easy way to do little other than waste your savings.

Which van you buy will depend on your own personal preferences and the type of van life that you want to live.

Here are our recommendations:

  • If you want to have a lot more freedom when it comes to customization, then go for the sprinter.
  • If you want to spend as little as possible on conversion costs, then go for the camper van.
  • If you want an inexpensive all-rounder that’s easy and cheap to maintain, then go for the cargo.
  • If you want something that can easily handle stealth camping, then go for the conversion van.

Parking

Van parked under the stars

Speaking of stealth camping, the term essentially means parking your van and sleeping in locations that aren’t exactly meant for overnight stays.

This doesn’t mean that you’ll be doing anything illegal, but suffice it to say that there are limitations to where you can and where you can’t park a house on wheels.

Luckily, there are also plenty of different options when it comes to where you can park your van and spend the night, most of which will depend on your own personal preference.

RV Parks

These locations are tailor-made for mobile domiciles, so they’re probably the first thing that people think of when they think of spending the night in a van.

While these locations can be really convenient due to the utilities that they provide, they always charge an admittance or camping fee.

Different RV parks are going to charge different rates, but most of the time the prices aren’t anything close to what you’d call exorbitant.

However, if you’re living the van life in order to try and save a bit of money, then these are the last locations that you should park in.

National Parks

North America is just teeming with public land and spaces with free campsites that can provide you with a place to spend the night while saving money.

Most of these locations provide free camping services, but you might need to call ahead of time in order to ensure that these features aren’t limited only to certain areas in the park.

The downside of camping this far outside of any towns or residential areas is the lack of facilities.

While these parks can be a great camping location for anyone that’s a nature lover, you’ll still only have little to work with in terms of water or electricity.

There is also the lingering issue of wild animals, and whether or not your van is sturdy enough to withstand a surprise visit from a bear.

Obviously, not every national park is going to be swarming with bears, but it does pay to be careful and do your research beforehand.

Truck Stops

Truck stops are unimaginably convenient for anyone that’s traveling in a large vehicle, mostly due to the parking spots that are designed to accommodate such vehicles.

The stops usually come with shower and bathroom facilities, as well as power sockets and charge points for your van.

You’ll also usually have access to a diner in close proximity to where you’ve parked your van, allowing you to grab a bite before turning in for the night, which won’t happen often on the road.

However, keep in mind that certain stops are exclusive to trucks or cargo vans, so you might need to either move on or fudge the details on what you’re carrying in the back.

Certain truck stops might also not be very well equipped and aren’t meant as anything other than an overnight parking spot.

Parking Lots

Now, while we mentioned that the standard parking lots aren’t very welcoming to large camper vans, no one really notices less conspicuous vans like the cargo, the sprinter, or the conversion van.

This is commonly referred to as boondocking, and it isn’t illegal per se, but you might run into some trouble if you plan to stay in the same location for long periods of time.

As long as you use a parking spot for a single night, and move on to another location in the morning, or even in the middle of the night, then there really won’t be much of an issue with the law or nosy neighbors.

You might also want to avoid setting up camp in the middle of the lot because your presence would be easily noticeable. You want to remain as inconspicuous as possible. This naturally includes leaving no trash or evidence that you were there.

We’ve found that the easiest locations for stealth camping are either casinos or Walmart parking lots.

That being said, it would still be a good idea to call ahead of time and check if taking up a parking spot for multiple nights is allowed and whether or not they have a policy against certain vehicles.

Gear for Your Van

A van with a couple sitting inside, parked in the woods

Now that we’ve covered the basics, the next step in our beginner’s guide to van life is an overview of the few things that you might want to bring along with you.

Necessities

The bare essentials are obviously going to be a built-in cooking station and a pull-out bed.

The cooking station can be replaced with something like a Coleman gas camping stove, but you’ll still need a place where you can hold all of the dishes and glasses.

As for the sleeping situation, we recommend not holding back and filling as much available space as you might need in order to fit something like the Linon folding bed.

In the beginning, it might seem like an appealing idea to save up on space and simply get a Therm-a-Res thermal sleeping bag off of Amazon, but in two weeks, the pain of sleeping on hard floors is going to break you and you’ll go for the comfy bed regardless.

Heater

The summer months aren’t going to be all that difficult in terms of comfort since all you need in order to regulate the temperature inside the van is to crack open a window or door and let some air in.

The colder seasons, on the other hand, are going to be a pain to deal with.

You can’t have the van heater keep you warm because you’ll either have the van running and burn through your fuel, or risk depleting the battery by running it without your engine running.

Additionally, the base van heater isn’t anything astounding, so you might look to upgrade it if you want to be able to heat up your interior in anything less than 3 hours.

The best solution is to get a small Mr Heater F232000 propane heater that can run on very little electricity and provide a bit more warmth than your dashboard heater.

Water Containers

You might not have enough space in your van for something like a Brita water filter pitcher, but you’re going to need to make space for a few large water containers nonetheless.

Access to clean drinking water is obviously a must, but since you don’t have a running faucet, you’re going to need to pack away enough water for everyday washing as well.

This everyday use includes everything from doing the dishes to brushing your teeth and washing your face in the morning.

This is why we recommend keeping a few 5-gallon water cooler-style water bottles handy, along with a matching water pump that goes on the top.

The Basic Utilities

A white bathroom

You might have noticed that we didn’t mention anything about using the water at your disposal for showering or going to the bathroom.

The reason behind this is that you won’t exactly have room in your small space to accommodate a DIY bathroom.

This means that a lot of the everyday activities that you’ve taken for granted are going to be a bit more difficult to do now.

Stuff like shaving or brushing your teeth can easily be done anywhere, so it isn’t a big deal, but showering, using the toilet, and doing the laundry are going to require a bit of resourcefulness.

Laundry

The easiest problem to solve goes first.

Most of you have already thought of the solution to this issue - laundromats.

Yes, you’re right, simply going to a laundromat is the easiest and most painless way that you can wash your clothes, and they’re super cost-friendly as well.

However, there are going to be times when you might spend days outside of cities or might be staying in locations where laundromats aren’t as common as you might like.

For those sorts of situations, we recommend getting a simple washbasin and using a 32 clothespin pack to tie your clothes to dry along the length of a rope that you’ve secured between two poles.

Extra points if you want to try and make your own laundry detergent while you’re at it.

Using the Toilet

You might not like our first solution to this issue.

Without sounding too crass, the world is essentially your toilet.

While we’re not saying that you should go to the bathroom whenever and wherever you might want, while you’re in nature, or even on a secluded road, you can easily sneak off into the bushes and do what needs to be done.

When you do this, you can go the natural route and simply throw a bit of dirt on the evidence... or you can get a travel toilet.

These toilets range from the more heavy and complicated models with the removable bottom sections for the waste to a simple bucket with a seat at the top.

There is also the option to simply take advantage of the Walmart, McDonald’s, or gas station toilets, as long as you’re aware that you might come across a few health and hygiene hazards every now and again.

Showering

You might be able to rig up an outdoor DIY water system to your van, but unless you’re in the middle of nowhere, there’s a multitude of laws against showering in public.

This leaves you with two options:

  1. Dry showers
  2. Gym memberships

A dry shower is exactly what you might think - using items like wet wipes in order to wash some of the dirt off of your skin and masking the smell with deodorant sticks.

This is only a temporary solution and we don’t recommend that you solely rely on this method as it might lead to health issues for you, and sinus issues for anyone close to you.

The second option is much more feasible - buy a $22 a month Planet Fitness membership card.

This gym franchise can be found in over 2,000 locations over North America, from Arizona to Wisconsin, and it gives you full-time access to shower facilities whenever you like.

Financing Your Lifestyle

A calculator and some cash

Life on the open road is based on minimalism and trying to save as much money as possible.

However, while you might be able to go a long way by installing solar panels on your roof for power, and generally going off-grid for everything from water to living expenses, you still won’t get far without having at least some savings handy.

Any breakdown or engine issue can set you back anywhere between a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and that’s not even considering basic maintenance costs.

So you’re essentially left with either the option to save up for a few years before heading out so that you can cover your van life costs, or getting a job on the road.

There are 3 options when it comes to working on the move from your van:

  1. An online position
  2. Freelance work
  3. On-site work

Online

There are plenty of jobs that don’t require you to turn up at the office for an 8-hour shift, but only require that you have a laptop of any sort.

Working as a sort of digital nomad will allow you to take on a position that pays better than most part-time jobs that you can find.

Plus, you more than likely won’t be tied down to a longtime contract and you’ll be able to negotiate to leave as soon as you need to.

The downside of these jobs is that they’ll require a stable wifi connection, meaning that you’ll be spending a lot of time in gas stations and McDonald’s parking lots.

You also have the option to buy a data plan with better 4G coverage and simply use the hotspot from your phone.

This will make you less reliant on free wifi spots, but it will affect the size of your phone bill.

Freelancer

Working as a freelancer online also requires an internet connection, but the nature of the work allows you to create your own work hours.

The more flexible schedule allows you to maintain the same freedom that you’ve had up until now, with the exception of having to take a few hours out of your day in order to complete your commissions.

On the other hand, regardless if you’re working as an artist, a writer, or a programmer, freelancers are very susceptible to being conned.

Communication with the client is a daily occurrence and you’ll more than likely spend more time negotiating rather than completing their assignment.

Due to the lack of a binding contract, there is also a chance of getting stiffed for your work if you don’t ask for payment upfront, which most clients refuse to do.

On-site work

Part-time work is plentiful.

Regardless of where you go, there is more than likely going to be a lawn mowing or painting job that you can take on for a bit of extra cash.

These sorts of jobs are convenient since they don’t take much time and the only qualification that you need most of the time is a willingness to do physical labor.

The only drawback to these sorts of jobs is that they don’t generally pay a lot of money.

This is to be expected since you’re only working part-time, but they aren’t an ideal option if you immediately need a large influx of cash.

Health and Vehicle Insurance

Van life

You might be surprised to learn that the most difficult topic that we’ll cover in our beginner’s guide to van life isn’t the lifestyle itself, but the insurance.

In the simplest terms, the 3 difficulties that you’ll encounter pertaining to this area are going to be classification, address, and employment.

Classification

Without going too in-depth concerning the vehicle classification system, all you really need to know is that there isn’t a class for domiciles on wheels.

The difficulty lies in getting an accurate assessment of the state of the vehicle itself, which is mostly due to the additional equipment that was installed in order to make it a mobile home.

While the overall state of the van is easy to assess, the changes to the integrity, ride quality, steering control, and overall hydraulics are difficult to determine due to the modifications.

This may result in much higher overall premiums on your liability and coverage insurance, as well as additional fees on the comprehensive coverage.

If the fees get too high, it might be better to enter your vehicle like an RV and simply get the appropriate insurance.

This is overall much more simple and only requires you to fill out some paperwork to change your vehicle’s class.

As a bonus, it’s much easier to find an insurance agent that has dealt with RV coverage before, while agents that have dealt with modified van coverage are pretty rare.

Address

Every document you sign and every job that you take on are going to require that you list a place of residence.

Most of the time this can be circumvented by simply putting down the address of a family member or a friend of yours.

This will direct the letters that you receive to an existing mailbox and everyone’s happy.

However, when it comes to vehicle insurance, there’s a bit of a catch concerning your residence being the vehicle itself.

First of all, you won’t be able to lie to the insurance agent about having another permanent address, and we recommend that you don’t even try.

Second of all, car insurance agents don’t really care about the address itself, but rather the parking situation.

Not having a garage can cause significant increases in the rates, and that’s just when they think that your vehicle’s parked in front of your own home.

The second that the insurance agency finds out that your vehicle is parked in a different location every single day, you’ll be put in a different insurance class entirely.

There really isn’t anything you can do but pay the rates, and as we said, we don’t recommend you try to fool the agencies since there will be dire consequences if they find out.

Employment

In terms of medical insurance, there really aren’t a lot of options outside the basic coverage that you get with a lot of employment contracts.

If we’re talking about the jobs that we mentioned in the previous section, then these sorts of contracts are hard to come by when you work part-time, and any online or freelance work is also likely not going to cover you.

This essentially leaves you with 2 options:

  1. Short-term medical plans
  2. Paying for the medical care yourself

As you might imagine, the latter option is the more expensive one and should only be used as a last resort.

The short-term plans can be a good way to receive coverage without having to list a place of employment, but they come with a catch.

Short-term plans exclude certain things from their list of medical coverage which other plans are required to provide, and they can easily deny anyone coverage on any basis that they see fit.

However, as long as you don’t have any pre-existing conditions and are generally healthy, you should manage to pass the general physical exams.

Yes, we realize that that’s asking for a lot, but it’s still a better option than the Affordable Care Act or most other insurance policies which require you to be stationary or qualify for subsidies.

What You Need to Consider

A van parked in beautiful nature

Please keep in mind that this is only a beginner’s guide to being a van lifer and not an ultimate guide of all you need to know in order to become a truly enlightened hermit of the road.

There are undoubtedly beautiful aspects to the lifestyle, and all of us get a very strong sense of wanderlust from time to time.

However, life on the road isn’t a joke, and it requires a lot of commitment and sacrifice.

Of course, if you’ve realized that this isn’t your thing and you were more simply looking to travel and go on a vacation for a week or two, no one will hold it against you.

As for those of you that weren’t discouraged by the things that you read in this article, and you’ve already packed your toiletries - safe travels and we’ll see you on the road!

Vera Lawrence
Vera is a part-time van lifer after spending nearly four years in her 1990 Ford E350 (named Fred). She currently lives in Utah and takes extended weekend trips into the desert with her two dogs. She is an ice cream fanatic and avid runner.

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