Dana Brown, in ‘Step into Liquid’ said about being a surfer, ‘It’s not about a lifestyle. It’s about Life. Style is optional.’ That best characterizes what’s behind traveling and living the mobile vanlife. The no-roots experience means you go until you’re ready to change. It’s full of uncertainty; or rather you make your own certainties.
Living the vanlife is not complete freedom; no one has that except Jack Sparrow and the crew of the Black Pearl—or so they think. Life has requirements: bills to pay, deadlines to meet, people you love to see and stay in touch with, laws to follow. Life in 75 square feet isn’t that different from life in 2500 square feet when it comes to the day to day. We know; we did the latter before the former. In fact, both of us would say living in a van can be more complicated. In this post, we’ll share some of both cons and pros.
Dealing with the Cons in Living the Vanlife
Now, we’re not talking about the process of going from 2500 square feet to 75 square feet. That’s a whole other post. We’re talking about the limited volume for all the things you must have and some of the things you’d like to have (there’s no room for things you don’t need or use). Every square inch counts in a van. It has to have a purpose and if it’s for storage, then something goes there and stays there until it’s needed, and then it goes back. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’ is a van mantra.
So, when it comes to arranging where your underwear goes and your shoes and your socks and your pants for cold weather and your shorts for warm weather and your rain coat and your boots and your books and your computers and your dishes and your pots and pans and your stove(s) (we have three) and your cleaning supplies and and and and… It can get maddening digging up something at the bottom of an 18-inch deep pile well organized next to the bed, but nevertheless, buried under 17 inches of other necessities. We haven’t found an ideal solution for our floorplan yet. We just have to be patient and dig when digging is needed.
Otherwise, we just keep to the practice of ‘A place for everything and everything in its place.’
This one isn’t so bad. It’s easy to fill up the limited space in the van if you don’t put things away. When we’re sloppy, we pay for it at dinner time or some other time when the space that is normally open is covered with clothes or dirty dishes. The solution is to always put an item back in its place when we’re done with it.
Messing with My Wannas
Traveling lets us see some really cool things we’d like to have—that is own. But everything in the van has to be ‘van size.’ And it has to have a place to go in the van. In Florida last year, we saw these really cool metal art pieces that we wanted to buy. But they weren’t van size.
‘Your side of the bed’ is always a common answer when we look at something that’s really cool and we’d love to have, but ask the question, ‘where’s it going to go?’
Now, there’s someone out there saying, ‘Why not just ship it.’ To which we say, ‘To where?’ You’re always home in vanlife.
If we see something we’d like to own some day, we ask for a business card.
The Big Squeeze
There’s no privacy or private space in vanlife until you make it. That means that sometimes one person might need to go shopping in one direction while the other goes in another. Long private walks might be needed by one or both, followed by a walk together. It doesn’t mean the end of the world, the relationship, or vanlife. It’s just a way to make The Big Squeeze Work.
Too Damn Much Driving
I think one of the first things new vanlifers have to adjust to is there is no time table. Living the traditional 8 to 5, or 6 to 6, or 6 to midnight job has a clock hanging around our necks. Unless you have work deadlines, the clock goes out the window. Like your certainties, you make your own schedule. Generally, there’s no reason you have to cover that 600 miles in one day. There’s no reason you have to get to Denver tonight. Driving past when driving is fun makes vanlife a wretch. Find a back road, a campground, or a Walmart and chill earlier than later.
This is tough—especially if your family isn’t supportive. Ours is. One set of parents understands the wanderlust; the other set, while not understanding, accepts it. The kids all think it’s cool.
But missing loved ones is really difficult. Talking on the phone isn’t the same as being there. Facebook, while helps (but not much), is a far cry from hugging our daughters in law and dinner with the parents. It’s the cost of vanlife; but it’s also the benefit, because you can visit any time—even all the time until they’re sick of you. But, then, that defeats the purpose of vanlife.
While living the vanlife has its freedoms, unless you’re retired (we’re not), you have to make a living. And in vanlife that usually means you’re self-employed and at the beck and call of clients. So, your time is their time at some point in time. And you might be in a completely different time zone from your clients. Now, if you’ve been self employed, you know the drill and have already set up practices that keep you in sync with clients, even across time zones. If you’re new to self-employment and vanlife, you have challenges. The best thing is to put everything in a calendar and set reminders to keep you on track.
Mail and Domicile
Full timers (same as vanlifers but in an RV) know about this. How do you get snail mail. It’s an unfortunate necessity. Some clients want to pay with a check. And where is home when you don’t have one?
We’re domiciled in South Dakota. Our mail is forwarded to us from a service called Dakota Post. We set up times to have mail sent and let them know where to send it. The filter out junk, and even scan things if we ask them to (for a fee of course). South Dakota is one of the few states to be ‘from’ when you don’t have a fixed residence.
The Pros of Living the Vanlife
We choose what to see, where to go, and when to move at the time we want. If we don’t like neighborhood, we turn the key and drive away. We aren’t carefree, but we’re free to care about what’s important.
We don’t pay a mortgage. A water pump is $60 instead of the $600 we paid at the house in Nevada. A new roof on a house can buy us a whole new home.
In Nevada, our house was perched on a hillside overlooking a valley nine miles long and four miles wide with a view at the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. There was a lake in the valley with wetlands frequented by nesting water fowl and populated with catfish. It was a destination for kite boarders, because of the winds. In the winter, we’d get snow. In the summer we’d get heat. It was a pretty place, but it doesn’t compare to the many places we have seen across this country and the North American continent.
There’s still some wilderness out there. And there’s a variety of it to explore. There are wild and tame rivers to see. A 15 to 18 sized barge with a massive tugboat behind it is quite a site coming out of the fog on the Mississippi. Bison 30 feet from your campsite is a marvel to behold. Watching a pronghorn charging another and running a few feet from the van is heart-thumping. Even watching two very large dogs, a cat, and two large people climb out of an early-model Toyota Corolla in a morning in a Walmart parking lot has some entertainment value to it. You see and meet an incredible variety of interesting things and people.
Knowing what we want to see next
We visited Yellowstone one fall and were told about the spring. In April and May, depending on the migration, the bison and other wildlife begin to move toward the park. In one campground outside the park, the bison will calve. Moose, cougar, and bear will move through. In Arizona one fall, we heard about the migration of the Sandhill Cranes in the winter to the Whitewater Draw. Hearing these stories create new destinations.
And then there are the place we want to go back to. We’ve returned to the Alberta Birds of Prey, and we’ll go back again. We’ve stopped at Theodore Roosevelt National Park twice, because it was interesting the first time. We went to Blue Mountain Wildlife in Pendleton, Oregon, and we plan on spending more time there. Once at Dinosaur National Monument wasn’t enough.