How to Live in a Van: Things You Need to Know

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED August 10, 2021

How to Live in a Van
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The van life has a lot of perks to it. The most significant perk is the opportunity to travel around the world and go to as many different places as you want (or at least that you can afford).

You don’t have to worry about paying rent or finding a place to live in either since you can just bring your home along with you. Additionally, the costs will be narrowed down to your bare necessities, such as food and clothing, as well as whatever your van maintenance costs are going to be.

You’ll still need to pay for certain items here and there, but in general, most of your utility costs are covered or come free of charge at the campsites that you’re staying in. This means that many van lifers don’t need much money to survive, and they can invest a large portion of their income into funding their travels.

However, it’s not all milk and honey. Van living has a lot of issues that come with the territory, and you’ll need to brush up on the basics of how to live in a van before you even think about hitting the open road.

Upfront Costs

While the general van life costs aren’t all that significant, and they’re actually much lower than those in a standard-sized apartment, for instance, the upfront van conversion costs are going to put your bank account under some pressure.

The type of van you decide to buy isn’t going to make all that much difference in the long run. You can go for reliable options like the Mercedes Sprinter, the Ram Promaster, the Ford Transit, the Volkswagen Vanagon, or any other cargo vans that you think might do the job.

At the end of the day, there is no one best van brand that you can choose, and it’s going to depend on the state of the engine, the wheels, and how well it’s been maintained over the years. Of course, you can decide to forego second-hand vehicles and look through some new vans, but that’ll drive those upfront costs up even more considerably.

Additionally, regardless of what kind of cargo or campervan you buy, the first thing you’ll do after you get the keys is to drive it to a mechanic. This is going to be your new home and sanctum while on the road, so spare no expense when it comes to making sure that it’s in tip-top condition and won’t break down on you.

Aside from the cost of the van and any repairs that might need to be made, the most significant hole in your wallet is undoubtedly going to come from the conversion costs. 

RV or Mobile Home

You also have the option of just buying an RV or mobile home. We’ll cover van conversion costs a bit later on, but in brief, a fully equipped mobile home is around the same price as a van that’s been converted into a house on wheels. However, while an RV or a mobile home is more suitable for living, they’re less ideal for driving. 

An RV’s maintenance and fuel costs are significantly higher than any other type of vehicle, and while mobile homes are great for camping, they’re not meant to be consistently on the road for long periods. Seeing as how you’re going to be moving as much as you’re going to be camping, you’ll more than likely need to constantly repair and replace parts on these vehicles.

However, if you do opt for a brand new RV or a mobile home instead of converting a van, most of the following points won’t concern you. We delve into some cost approximations, though.

Van Conversion

Conversions—or otherwise known as custom van builds—are simply standard vans that have had their interiors modified to make them a bit more comfortable for van dwellers. These conversions are geared towards turning a regular cargo van into a full tiny home on wheels.

Any standard second-hand van can come in at somewhere between $5,000-$10,000, and the maintenance costs might set you back another few grand as well. As for the modifications themselves, it’ll depend on the amount of work that needs to be done, but we’d set aside $10,000 just to be sure.

Recommended Modifications

Inside of a van

The modification cost will undoubtedly vary depending on the type of van you go for and the sort of adjustments you’d like to make, but in general, it’ll probably be around the $10,000 mark.

We can’t really tell you how to bring that price down, but we can delineate the most important modifications we’d go for. This might help you avoid a few alterations that aren’t all that necessary but still cost a lot of money.

Insulation

A van with a bare interior can hold very little heat, and as you might imagine, that can be a real problem during the colder months of the year. The problem when it comes to insulating your van is that you’ll need to find a balance between practicality and space.

Simply put, you’ll need to use a material that’s thin enough not to take up a lot of your already limited storage space yet thick enough to be able to make a difference when it comes to keeping your van warm.

In all honesty, all you need to do is line the sides of the van with a carpet or any sort of similar material that can improve heat retention. This is the cheapest method and it still makes a massive difference.

You’ll also need to add a propane heater and make sure that you have plenty of blankets and warm clothes at hand, but the layer of insulation will certainly help you keep the heating costs down.

Of course, this doesn’t help matters when it comes to the summer months, but during the hotter period of the year, you can simply open a window while you’re driving or the door while stationary, and maybe add a vent or two on the roof or the side of the van.

Kitchen

All you need for a functioning kitchen while living on the road is a mini-fridge, a small sink, and a portable stove.

As far as we’re concerned, one of the best choices for a mini-fridge is the RCA RFR835. This model is very compact but comes with just enough space on the inside for a few days worth of food and drinks. Additionally, this fridge also comes with a freezer, which seems obvious, but many mini-fridges don’t have this handy feature.

Two minutes of research on Amazon can produce dozens of good choices for portable propane stoves that you can choose from, but our pick is the Gas ONE GS-1000. This model only has a single burner, but it heats up incredibly quickly and can achieve some impressive temperatures in no time. You’ll be able to cook anything from a classic American breakfast to a stew on this little stove and then store it virtually anywhere.

There isn’t any specific sort of sink that you should be looking for; however, we’d say that you should get one that’s small enough to accommodate a hand pump faucet

The most important thing to keep in mind is that the sink should be made out of sturdier material than ceramic. Another aspect to note would be its size, and the middle ground would be a sink that’s big enough to fit the dirty dishes but not so big that it takes up too much space in the van.

Bathroom

You’ve got two choices when it comes to going to the bathroom while living the full-time van life: only go to the toilet when you’re at a gas station and/or somewhere discreet, or install a portable toilet.

You’re not going to be able to put a regular toilet into your van, but you can easily get a portable toilet that you can use and then clean after each use. These toilets are pretty small to be stored anywhere, and they don’t require any piping or water systems.

One of the best portable toilets that you can find is the Nature’s Head. This composting toilet is made out of three components: a greywater container at the front, a blackwater container at the bottom, and a toilet seat at the top.

You can check out our article on off grid toilet options if you want a bit more information on how these toilets work exactly, but for now, all you need to know is that you fill the blackwater container with peat moss and add water until it turns into mulch. Then, all you need to do is use the toilet and replace the mulch after a few uses and the greywater container after it gets nearly full.

This sort of toilet is a bit bigger than your standard porta-potty; however, it doesn’t need to be rinsed out after each use; it’s much easier to clean, and it’s still small enough to easily fit into any van without taking up too much space.

Shower Facilities

Similar to the topic on compostable toilets, we’ve also expanded on DIY tiny home showers if you’re interested in setting one up while camping. However, we wouldn’t recommend this as the first solution to your showering needs.

You can indeed get a portable water heater and a privacy tent to set up a shower outside of your van, but you’re still going to need to do it somewhere private. Tent or no tent, trying to take a shower in plain sight is rude at best and, realistically, a breach of several nudity laws.

This limits the use of the DIY showers to out-of-the-way locations such as forests. On the other hand, gym memberships are a much more convenient alternative. Franchises like Planet Fitness have locations all over the US, and they provide you with fully functional shower facilities and hot water.

Van-dwelling doesn’t mean doing everything in your van, so you should take advantage of gyms and laundromats to get yourself and your clothes clean whenever you can.

Of course, since you can’t find a gym if you’re camping somewhere in nature, this means that both DIY and gym showers will do, just in very different circumstances.

Free Camping

A couple sitting in front of a van

There are plenty of campsites that you can find all over the US, and most of them can provide you with access to all of the basic utilities you might need. However, staying in these locations will cost you, and while the prices might not exactly be outrageous, they’ll all add up after a while.

Additionally, you might also not have any such camping location in your vicinity, or it might be located a bit too far out of your way for it to be feasible to go there. Regardless of your reasons, if you’re looking for a way to spend the night in your van without having to go all the way to a standard camping site, then you have a few options.

Walmart Parking lots

Most Walmart stores are huge locations that have football field-sized parking lots. These lots don’t have a toll that you need to pay to get in or any sort of parking meter that you need to watch out for. Security guards usually only come out to see what’s going on if they see a van parked in the same spot for several days.

As long as you park during the night while the store is closed, make sure that you don’t leave behind any trash, and don’t draw attention to yourself, then you should be just fine. Additionally, if you’re planning on parking in a Walmart lot during the day, you might want to go and inform the security guards ahead of time.

They’ll usually tell you that a single instance of overnight parking is fine, as long as you hold to the basic rules of etiquette that we mentioned above. In some cases, they might say that the parking is for customers only, but that only means that you’ll just need to buy something and you’ll qualify.

National Parks

National forests and parks usually provide free camping spots that you can stay in for however long you want. Naturally, you’ll have to abide by the rules set out, and you’re more than likely going to be pretty far from the nearest town, but those two things aren’t dealbreakers.

If you aren’t sure where any national parks are located on a map, then the BLM website can help you. Here you’ll be able to find the closest park in your vicinity, as well as what sort of utilities they offer. Some spots are geared towards long-term camping, while others have a more minimalist approach in terms of the utilities that they offer.

Stealth Camping

One of the most critical aspects of learning to live in a van that not many people know about is stealth camping. In simple terms, stealth camping is when you park your van on public lands and spend the night.

Parking on designated parking locations for a night isn’t illegal, especially if no tolls need to be paid during that time of day. However, there are regulations against cooking, littering, and loitering on public pavements.

As you might have assumed by the name, stealth camping will require that you not draw attention to yourself while parked on the side of the road in a parking spot. This isn’t like going to free campsites, and all you’re permitted to do is get a night’s sleep and head out early in the morning before the meter maid comes around to give you a ticket. 

Full-Time Digital Nomad

Regardless of whether you’re a part-time worker or a full-time careerman, you’ll need to use your van as an impromptu office if you’re traveling the world. This just means that you need a decent laptop and a stable wifi connection.

The internet connection will be the trickier part since off-grid living and internet hookups don’t really go hand in hand. This means that your options are using your cell phone hotspot or sitting down at a coffee shop when you want to get some work done.

The more convenient option is a cell phone hotspot since you can get a stable internet connection anywhere you need one. Additionally, you can also get an unlimited package and not have to worry about running out of data because you spent too much time on social media yesterday.

Conclusion

Living in a van isn’t a perpetual road trip at face value. You’ll spend a lot of time at gas stations while living in such a small space might feel confining at times. You might even start to feel nostalgic for home, no matter how intense the wanderlust is.

At the end of the day, once you get out of your comfort zone and start learning how to live in a van, things will get much easier, and you’ll begin to appreciate the unique beauty of the lifestyle.

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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