Van Life Beginner's Guide: Lifestyle, Gear, & Helpful Advice

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED March 21, 2021

beginners guide to van life
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Many people are interested in embracing nomadic van life. They crave the simplicity and inherent freedom that comes with the travel lifestyle and are eager to become full-time van dwellers, too.

Maybe you want to be nomadic or live off-grid, in which case this beginner's guide to van life is for you. Below, we've explained the essential aspects of van living and what you need to prepare to ensure your experience is positive. Let's get started.

Van life: The ultimate beginner’s guide

Van life - what is van life

In the simplest terms, van life is the act of living out of a vehicle. But it means much more than that.

To some people, van dwelling is a lifestyle that allows you to save on housing costs and avoid the necessity of taking out a mortgage. To others, van life is a way to reject the societal norm and alleviate the unnecessary pressures of modern society.

The third group views van life as a minimalist way of living and a constant adventure.

In reality, there are many different reasons why people choose to embrace van life. So, if you're aiming to commit to this kind of lifestyle, here is an in-depth guide to van dwelling and a few things to consider.

Things to consider about van life

Van life - three girls in a van

Van life isn't a vacation. If your fundamental knowledge of van living comes solely from social media posts or a Youtube channel, take the time to conduct more research. Understand that taking a trip in a van and being a lifer is entirely different.

If you're looking for a quick escape aimed at eliminating stress, consider renting a van for an extended road trip rather than uprooting your life. Think of it as a part-time trial run before you fully commit.

However, if you've already decided to embrace the van lifestyle, then you've come to the right place. Before embarking on your first journey, make sure you read this article because we've covered absolutely everything in this beginner's guide to van life. We'll start with tips on how to choose the perfect van.

Choosing a van that's right for your lifestyle

Three old school vans parked

It would be best to consider a couple of things before deciding on a dwelling. First, understand the different types of vehicles and their specific advantages and disadvantages as a tiny home.

Below, our guide to van life explores four of the most popular types of vehicles.

Type 1: Sprinter Van

Spinster van - grey van on a street

The Mercedes Sprinter van is an excellent option if you're looking for a lot of space and extra headroom. Not to mention, they are fuel-efficient for their size and durable.  

The downside to Sprinter vans is a higher price point (even for used models with high mileage) and maintenance costs. 

While the Sprinter parts are nowhere near as expensive as those for RVs, they're still generally quite a bit more costly than the other choices on our list. They are transportation service vehicles, so expect more wear and tear than different van types.

Type 2: 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 DIY projects and van conversion. Not to mention, a brand new model in this class is still cheaper than a Sprinter (new or used usually).

However, the biggest drawback of the cargo van would have to be its limited headspace. While you might be able to fit everything in the cargo area, even a person of moderate height would struggle to stand up without banging their head on the ceiling—which is not ideal for a long-term residence. 

Type 3: High-Top Conversion Van

Conversion van

Conversion vans are a go-to for people looking for a compact vehicle with plenty of headroom.  

Conversion vans also come equipped with a fully-functioning living space in the back, making them incredibly convenient for living. They are one of the best options if extra space is vital to you. 

Conversion vans are also ideal for people looking to avoid modification costs because they efficiently utilize space. The problems start to arise if you're unsatisfied with the layout and want to strip the cargo area and start over entirely. We don't suggest doing this to a conversion van—it's already converted for dwelling, hence its name! In most cases, stripping and reinstalling the interior is not worth the money.

Type 4: Class B Camper Van

Multiple parked camper vans

Camper vans are tiny homes on wheels, which has more advantages than not. The best part of owning a camper van is they already have everything you need, so there's no reason to spend money converting it. 

Unlike the conversion van, class B campers come with all the essentials for a more convenient van life alongside an abundance of headroom and optimized storage space. 

The main drawback of a class B camper is its size: as with other modes of transport, the larger the vehicle, the higher the cost for maintenance, fuel, payments, and insurance.   

The camper might also qualify as an RV, depending on the exact model. If so, be aware these vehicles belong to a separate maintenance class which complicates mechanical problems when they arise. But more on that later. 

Not to mention class B campers are seldom allowed to park overnight in general-purpose parking spots, making stealth camping almost impossible.

The takeaway: Know the different types of vans and weigh the pros and cons

Our guide to van life will show that money isn't everything, and buying the most expensive vehicle on the market will not guarantee a positive experience. Take the time to factor in your personal preferences and make sure to select the best van for your travel lifestyle. 

Here are a few general recommendations:

  • If you want headroom and like to customize, go for the Sprinter.
  • If you want something spacious and cheaper to maintain, opt for the cargo.
  • If you want a vehicle geared towards stealth camping, choose a conversion van.
  • If you want to minimize conversion costs, then go for the camper van.
  • If none of the above vehicles meet your demands, consider a Ford Transit, Ram Promaster, or any customizable vehicle that's DIY-friendly.

Four common places for overnight parking

Van parked under the stars

Depending on your location, there are many different places to park in the middle of the night. If you're unfamiliar with van life, it may take some time to figure out which option is best.

Until then, remember that every city has different rules and regulations on extended parking options, so be aware of your surroundings and always follow the law. Suffice it to say that there are limitations to where you can and where you can't park a house on wheels. And rightfully so. 

Let's explore four of the most common places to park your van for a safe night's sleep.

1. RV Parks

RV parks are tailor-made for mobile domiciles, so they're probably the first place van lifers consider when determining where to spend the night. The excellent news is RV parks are everywhere, and many of them offer excellent amenities like showers, bathrooms, power sources, and even swimming pools.  

While the utilities at these locations are super convenient, remember there's always an admittance fee, and it's usually much more expensive than expected. Not to mention, the price is different at each location. Although RV parks have everything you might need for comfortable van life, they usually aren't cheap.

2. National Parks and campsites

National parks are present all over North America, and they are one of the most popular places for extended van parking and camping. Especially for van lifers on a tight budget. 

While many national parks allow free primitive camping, the downside is they are in very remote areas surrounded by wilderness. If there's something you forgot, it could be a problem. 

In terms of running water and electricity, options can be limited, which is why we encourage you to check what's available at each campsite before arriving. There is also the issue of intense weather conditions, wild animals, and rugged terrain to factor in as well.

We always encourage travelers to research each national park or campsite before making plans to stay for an extended period.

3. Truck stops

Truck stops are extremely convenient for anybody living the ultimate van life because they offer ubiquitous parking spots designed for large vehicles. There's also the benefit of on-site showers, bathroom facilities, and sometimes power outlets and van charge points. 

If you decide to park at a truck stop, stay in your vehicle as much as possible and avoid drawing attention. Another good rule of thumb is never to park longer than one night. Truck stops are short-term stays reserved for the passerby.

Note that some stops are exclusive to semis or cargo vans, so be aware of specific regulations. If you're unsure, call the number or go inside and ask.

4. Parking lots

Generally speaking, standard parking lots aren't very welcoming to van lifers, so unless you're traveling in a less conspicuous vehicle (like the cargo, sprinter, or conversion van), we don't advise staying in a parking lot overnight. 

When travelers utilize public space for camping without consent, it's called boondocking. Although it isn't illegal, you can undoubtedly get in trouble for doing it, so be careful not to draw attention to yourself. 

We've found that the most accessible locations for stealth camping are either casinos or Walmart parking lots. Odds are these locations would not call the authorities if they spot boondocking activity. 

If you are obligated to park your van overnight in a parking lot, go inside to buy an item or two if possible. At least that way, you're a legal paying customer. Other ways to stay under the radar are to remain in your vehicle and leave first thing in the morning. 

If parking is permitted, it's always a good idea to check with management if you want to stay for longer than one day.

A guide to packing: Gearing up for van life

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 essential items you don't want to forget.

Prioritize the necessities: cooking stations and beds

Unless you're traveling in style in a luxurious RV, odds are the bare essentials for van life include a cooking station and a pull-out bed. While some vehicles already come equipped with sufficient stations for preparing meals and sleeping, a good setup requires careful planning. 

Cooking stations: custom kitchenette, camping gas stove, & propane burners 

When people undertake their first van life experience, investing in a customized cooking station is strongly advised. If your vehicle doesn't come equipped with one, consider making upgrades.

For van dwellers with less time and money, a simple Coleman gas camping stove or any propane burner will be enough to get by until you find a more permanent solution. Organizing a practical cooking station is vital when living out of a van. Don't overlook it.

Sleeping arrangements: fold-out bed, sleeping bag, & air mattress 

As for the sleeping situation, we recommend not holding back. Good sleep is essential to health, and without proper rest, van life won't be as enjoyable. While the floor may seem like a good idea initially, any experienced van dweller will attest to the importance of a well-thought-out sleeping arrangement.  

Before you hit the road, take the time to explore different travel beds and sleeping arrangements to develop a solution that meets your basic needs. After all, there's not much worse than consecutive nights of poor sleep, especially when traveling. 

We suggest any quality fold-out bed or sturdy camping cot for tiny houses and rigs without a proper bed. Just be sure to measure the size to make sure it fits the desired space in your vehicle. If not, consider customizing your area or explore makeshift options like thermal sleeping bags. If you go this route, remember to check the specs to guarantee your bag is warm (or cool) enough to keep you comfortable. 

*Alternative option: travel air mattress (don't forget a pump if not included!)

Portable heat source

Aside from heat waves and occasional downpours, enduring summer weather in a van is pretty enjoyable. And it doesn't require much effort either. But when it comes to winter, preparation is critical. 

First, don't make a rookie mistake like assuming the van's base heater will be a sufficient heat source—it won't. You'll either run out of fuel or deplete your battery. Then, you'll be cold and miserable, which defeats the purpose. 

The most straightforward solution is to get a small portable heater that can run on little to no electricity. Mobile heating units come in a wide range of prices, sizes, and wattage while providing significantly more warmth than any standard dashboard heater. 

Electricity, butane, gas, battery, propane, or even wood are common types of portable heater power. Accordingly, some are made for indoor use while others are outdoor only. Suitable options abound regardless of your budget, weather condition, and vehicle style.

Water Containers

Access to clean drinking water is a must, and since most vans don't have running water, it's a good idea to stock containers and filtration devices for everyday washing and drinking. When it comes to water management, van dwellers have plenty of simple and affordable options. Here are a few suggestions to get you started. 

We recommend keeping a few 5-gallon water buckets handy, along with a matching water pump. That way, anytime you unexpectedly come across a water source, you can tap it. With that said, keep a Brita water filter pitcher around so you can filter any unclean water. With these few tools, clean water shouldn't be an issue.

Understanding van life utilities

A white bathroom

You might have noticed that our guide to van life didn't mention where to shower or go to the bathroom when living on the road. The reason behind this is that you won't exactly have room in your small space to accommodate a DIY bathroom. At least in most cases. 

The harsh reality of van life is that a lot of the everyday activities that you've taken for granted are going to be a bit more challenging now. You can shave or brush your teeth anywhere, so it isn't a big deal, but showering, using the toilet, and doing the laundry in a van that doubles as your home are going to require a bit of resourcefulness. 

Here are a few tips to help you understand more about van life utilities and best practices.

Laundry on the go

Although using a laundromat may seem like a simple solution to laundry on the road, many van dwellers find it inconvenient. When you're not in range of a washing machine, we recommend getting a simple washbasin and using a 32 clothespin pack to hang and dry your clothes anywhere. 

This way, you have a makeshift laundromat at your disposal, and you don't need a pocketful of quarters either. 

*Pro-tip: If you want to save more money, opt for a homemade laundry detergent.

Using the toilet

You might not like our first solution to this issue. Without sounding too coarse, the world is essentially your toilet.

We're not saying that you should go to the bathroom whenever and wherever you want. But while you're in nature or even on a secluded road, you can easily sneak off into the bushes and do your business. 

The other option is to purchase a travel toilet. These toilets range from massive 5-gallon 20-liter holding tanks to inexpensive bucket toilets with lid attachments.

There is also the option to take advantage of the nearby Walmart, McDonald's, or gas station toilets, as long as you're willing to travel out of your way to use them.

Where to shower

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, not to mention public nudity! There are three primary ways to get a regular shower when living out of a van. 

1. Dry showers

A dry shower is what it sounds like: a way to clean without a stream of water. And often without soap too. While there are endless ways to achieve temporary cleanliness, wet wipes/baby wipes are the most common dry shower method. When you have no other options, a dry shower is just enough to fight off the stink for the short term. 

2. Gym membership

One of the most talked-about van life hacks is a gym membership. Members get 24/7 access to a gym and their shower facilities for a small monthly fee. While this is an excellent way to access regular bathing, gym memberships are not as convenient if you're off the beaten path or constantly moving from city to city. 

If you're looking for a gym, we recommend Planet Fitness. Their membership card starts as low as $22 bucks, and there are more than 2,000 locations across North America. 

3. Mobile showering unit

Today, numerous types of mobile shower units are available, making showering from your van easier than ever. Take a few moments to conduct a basic Amazon search and choose a product that's within your price range and fits your specific needs. 

There are plenty of suitable options ranging from mobile shower bags with USD charging pumps to pop-up privacy pods and everything in between.

Three ways to finance your van lifestyle

A calculator and some cash

Life on the open road is a minimalist lifestyle revolving around freedom and a strong desire to save money. While living on a small budget is manageable, it's not easy without a steady income or the cushion of a savings account, no matter how frugal you are. 

Any car troubles or unexpected maintenance costs can set you back big bucks and bring your dreamy van life to a screeching halt. Rather than setting yourself up for disaster, sort out your financial matters before you hit the road. 

Regarding how to finance the ultimate van life, here are a few ideas to steer you in the right direction.

1. Remote work

There are plenty of jobs that don't require you to turn up at any brick and mortar location. In a post covid world, more employers are embracing a remote working structure. For hardcore travelers, this is excellent news. 

Working as a digital nomad gives you the freedom to be anywhere you want. The only catch is you need self-discipline and a reliable internet connection, especially if you're new. Then, there's the dilemma of finding the right platform to match your skills. 

The biggest downside of remote work is finding wifi connection while traveling. In reality,  you might have to spend a lot of time at gas stations and McDonald's parking lots. If you want to get serious, look into setting up a mobile hotspot in your van. That way, you have wifi access 24/7. 

*Our suggestion: Check out Upwork. It's a popular freelancer platform that connects freelancers, independent talent, and agencies worldwide. 

2. Start your own business

The easiest way to take control of your work schedule is to work for yourself. That means starting your own business or freelancing gig. Owning your own company allows you to manage work on your terms, giving you the ability to make money while you live and travel out of your van.

Similar to a remote position, a good wifi signal is necessary. From emailing clients to sending out invoices, you will need an internet connection to succeed. While starting your own business is a lot of work, it provides the flexibility and freedom that traditional jobs don't offer. 

3. On-site work

On-site work is plentiful, and there are opportunities for extra cash in every city. The downside is you need to be present at a physical location, and depending on your travel plans, this could present some issues. 

If you are looking for extra work in unfamiliar cities, familiarize yourself with online job platforms so you can connect with a large pool of employers regardless of your location.

Sorting out van insurance

Van life

Interested parties might be surprised to learn (or not) that the most challenging aspect of van life is finding the appropriate insurance coverage. Most newbies wouldn't even think about it at first, but it's a complicated legal issue. In truth, each of the 50 states has unique laws concerning van residency, which is why we had to include this section in our guide to van life.

If you're planning on living out of your van in the United States, the correct paperwork is mandatory. At some point, the authorities will indeed ask you for it. If you don't have it, be ready to hand over your keys, pay a hefty fine, or even go to jail. When it comes to insurance, it's better safe than sorry.

Vehicle classification

Simply put, there is no specific classification for domiciles on wheels in the USA. For van dwellers, this is a big problem. 

The difficulty lies in getting an accurate assessment of the vehicle's state. Vehicle classification is particularly challenging for customized vans because they have not clearly defined them. In other words, van domiciles are in a legal grey area.

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

It's common practice for insurance companies to charge a ridiculously high premium for van domiciles, and they aren't afraid to hit you with additional fees for comprehensive coverage. It's a good idea to shop around and find an honest insurance company that offers a reasonable rate for your situation. 

The other solution is to register your vehicle in the RV class, although you can expect to pay a lot for it. The good news here is you are no longer in a legal gray area with RV coverage.

Our travel experts suggest looking for an insurance agent that deals explicitly with domicile coverage or has experience with packages that cover conversion vans. Although they are hard to find, they do exist. And don't forget to filter your search by state. 

Registering a legal address

Regardless of your travel status, every resident in the USA must register an address with the government. You need one on file if you want to work, get a paycheck, receive mail, or even pay your insurance bill.

So what to do if you're living the ultimate nomadic lifestyle? We're glad you asked. 

One way to circumvent the situation is to use the address of a family member or friend as your legal residency. That way, all mail would go to an existing mailbox, thus providing you with an official address for insurance purposes. 

But we don’t advise this. Here’s why: 

First of all, it's illegal to lie about your permanent address. Second, car insurance agents are not concerned with where you sleep. The issue is with where your domicile is parked. 

Not having a garage can cause significant increases in the cost of your insurance plan, even when parked outside your home. The second the insurance agency finds out that you're parking in a different location every day, they will hit you with a hefty fine or drop your policy altogether. But why? You registered the vehicle under a misleading classification. 

So what should I do about insurance for my van? 

If you can't find a policy that works for you, there isn't anything you can do but fly under the radar or pay a higher rate for an RV classification. If you lie about your residency, it's only a matter of time before the authorities find out. If that happens, expect dire consequences.

Final things to consider before you hit the road

A van parked in beautiful nature

Please remember that this is only a beginner's guide to van life. While we did our best to cover some of the essential aspects of van dwelling, we encourage you to spend time making thoughtful preparations before you transition to a nomadic way of living.

After all, the point of van life is to be happy and free. Ask any seasoned travel vet, and they will tell you planning is critical. There are many complicated logistics with the wanderlust lifestyle, and it requires hard work to get started. 

The silver lining is that life is good once you are up and running.

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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