Why vanlife might be harder than you think

Ian Carroll
Road tripping with a van
Road tripping with a van

These days, it seems like as many 20-year-olds are moving into their vans as those that are going to college. After all, the prospect of an overpriced degree and a crowded job market is less than appealing to many young people.

When I tell people I’ve been living out of my car on the road for the past six months, usually the reaction is pretty predictable. “Wow! That’s so cool!” or “I’m so jealous, you’re so lucky!” are the usual responses. Most people immediately flash to some romantic image of the wind in your hair, the open road, and the deep wilderness. And sure, there are lots of YouTube videos that make vanlife look pretty spectacular, but the reality isn’t all sparkles and sunshine.

Life on the road sounds pretty ideal.
Life on the road sounds pretty ideal.

Today, we’ll look at all the hard parts of life on the road, living in your vehicle, and rejecting the status quo. Although it’s a life of adventure, exploration, and excitement, there are a number of sacrifices and compromises you have to make in order to live it.

It’s tempting to only share the good parts of van life. Most of my friends back home have a very skewed image of what my lifestyle is like. I don’t normally write home about being sick of the food I eat, or being bored of the books I have, or being lonely after months spent solo. But all of these things come up. Living out of your vehicle is liberating, empowering, and exciting, but it comes with compromises; compromises that can be deal-breakers for many people. So today we’ll go over some of the big ones. If you’re thinking of moving into your vehicle and hitting the road, you’ll need to be ready to put up with all of these things if you want to make the most of your time.

Food isn’t fresh

Logistically, taking your life on the road isn’t that complicated, at least, not at an elemental level. All you need is food, water, shelter, and some modicum of income to keep you moving. Everything else can either be found, scavenged, or done without. So really, your kitchen provides nearly half the necessary functions of your vanlife. Depending on the quality of your kitchen, that could be very liberating or very limiting.

Food like this can be a rarity on the road.
Food like this can be a rarity on the road.

Refrigeration is the big crux of life on the road because most rigs either have very limited or no fridge space. Living out of a Subaru, I have no such luxuries. That means for the past six months I have eaten very little dairy, fish, meat, and other perishables. What’s more, cooking all your meals in a limited kitchen with minimal ingredients and utensils can start to get pretty repetitive. You’ll have to get creative if you want something other than hot dogs for dinner and oatmeal for breakfast.

I’ve found that although food can be a source of monotony and a real challenge at times, I often find myself being creative and healthy in ways I would never have thought of in a normal kitchen. I usually buy meat the day I’m going to cook it and only buy single portions. Veggies are the same. They never keep in a hot car for more than a day or two, except onions; I’ve always got onions. But with a few simple systems like that and a healthy relationship with the canned foods aisle, you’ll have no problem coming up with camp meals day after day.

Downtime is plentiful

Even if you hit the road with a purpose, like climbing the biggest rocks, or kayaking the longest rivers, or hiking the hardest trails, you’re still sure to wind up with plenty of downtime. Rest days are part of the nature of the game. So you’re going to have to get good at killing time on your own.

Reading a book is a great way to pass the time.
Reading a book is a great way to pass the time.

For some people, this aspect of life on the road is a great blessing. If you enjoy taking lots of time to yourself, you’ve never had as much as you’ll find on the road. Not only will you find yourself without obligations, but also without a schedule. It can be oppressive at times, and as an extrovert, I find myself having to get creative with my downtime on occasion.

The best way to stay busy in my opinion is to get a job online. You can transcribe audio or caption video. Or you could write freelance or do web design. But having a job online won’t just give you a great way to fill downtime and rest days, but it will also give you a source of income on the road. Sports like running, hiking, climbing, and biking, or hobbies like photography, painting, or making jewelry can help keep you in shape or tell your story. And of course, be sure you have a couple good books on hand at all times. A Kindle wouldn’t be a bad investment.

Vanlife can get crowded

It doesn’t matter what kind of car or van you’re living in, you’re not going to have a lot of space. My car is really just a bed and provides nearly no space to hang out. It doesn’t seem so bad. After all, you hit the road so you can see the world and spend your time out in it. But not having a comfortable chair to sit in or a private space to hang out in can be strangely stressful after awhile.

There’s really nothing to be done about it. That’s just life in a van. Sure, you can buy a Sprinter you can stand up in or a couple of nice camp chairs and a portable table. But you’re going to have to adjust to a simpler life and more time spent in public spaces.

Coffee shops are invaluable resources – Author: Lynn Lin – CC BY-ND 2.0
Coffee shops are invaluable resources – Author: Lynn Lin – CC BY-ND 2.0

The library will become your living room. The coffee shop will be your office. When you need to eat, it doesn’t matter if you’re parked in a neighborhood or downtown district, you’ve gotta whip out the kitchen and cook. I cook outside my car and have transformed all sorts of spaces into temporary kitchens. It gets weird looks.

You rely on the weather

Speaking of cooking in the public park, it sucks to do in the rain. Unless you can find covered areas to hang out, you may find the weather to be pretty limiting. There’s only so much time you can spend in your van listening to podcasts or in the cafe reading. If you hit bad weather, you’ll just have to bear with it until it passes.

Even if you don’t mind getting a little wet, it can be pretty hard to dry off again if you live in a car. One of the fastest ways to a smelly van is wet gear.

Hiking in the rain isn’t as fun when you don’t have anywhere to dry off afterward.
Hiking in the rain isn’t as fun when you don’t have anywhere to dry off afterward.

For that reason, I tend to travel with the sun. In the fall and winter, I’m usually in the desert or down in Central America where it’s dry. In the spring California has beautiful weather. You can never escape it all, but I sure try my best.

However, it’s not just rain that can ruin your day. The heat can cause food malfunction, car malfunction, and even bodily malfunction if you’re not careful. The cold can make for some frigid nights if your rig isn’t well insulated. For that reason, a lot of traveling skiers and snowboarders install small electric, gas, or wood-fire heaters in their vans for cold winter nights and drying out gear.

You’ll spend a lot of time alone

The harsh reality of vanlife is that in the end, it’s a solitary journey. You’ll cross ways with friends old and new, no matter where you go. But there always winds up being long drives on your own or down days when your friends are at work. Sometimes you just wind up going somewhere where you don’t know anybody.

If you’re hoping to live the vanlife, you’re going to need to learn to enjoy your own company. For some, that’s easy, and extra alone time is exactly what they want out of the vanlife. For those who rely on social interaction and intimate connections with friends and family, vanlife can get depressing. In my experience, loneliness is among the most common reasons why people give up the vanlife.

When it’s just you, you have more freedom, but that isn’t always better.
When it’s just you, you have more freedom, but that isn’t always better.

After all, it’s easy to romanticize the journey and the lifestyle. From an Instagram feed, vanlife is nothing but incredible adventures, endless freedom, and the open road. However, most people don’t post their homesickness or any of the little discomforts of vanlife to social media. No one wants to be a downer, and there are so many cool parts of life on the road.

But out of all the little challenges I’ve faced after more than six months in a Subaru Outback, loneliness is the most daunting. Because there’s a big difference between acquaintances and climbing partners you just met and the crew of friends you’ve known forever. It’s usually pretty hard to form deep and meaningful connections when you live on the road, and it can start to weigh on you.

first time traveler guitars
When you travel alone, you learn to value the time you spend with friends.

Some good strategies to help keep the adventure fun and fulfilling is to stop in places for longer, make friends, and put down roots. Getting a job in the community can also be a really good way to make some friends. Or, you could get a travel partner to come along with you and share the miles. If nothing else, it can be nice to meet other van travelers whose routes are similar to yours. After all, you already have one big thing in common. So why not be friends?

To vanlife or not to vanlife?

In the end, no one can tell you how well you’re cut out for vanlife except for you. It’s up to you if you’re ready to forgo showers, heating, and toilets. Some people take on vanlife with a siege mindset. They seek to outfit their van so that they can fit as many of these missing comforts into their new life as possible. Others purposefully came seeking a minimalist lifestyle.

It’s a neat idea, but you’ll have to decide if the vanlife is right for you.
It’s a neat idea, but you’ll have to decide if the vanlife is right for you.

It all depends on your own personal bottom line. If you’re willing to lower your standards of living and comfort, you could be rewarded with adventures beyond your wildest dreams and freedom unparalleled by any other means. You could tour the world or settle down wherever you like. Although you’ll have to make some sacrifices to live the vanlife, you’ll be well rewarded.

If you’re considering the switch, don’t let these warnings deter you. Instead, plan for them. Prepare for the inconveniences and the hard parts. Develop a vanlife that works for you and your own personal bottom line. Get a van, make it happen. You’ll never know if vanlife is right for you until you try. And hey, if you do wind up wanting to sell your van, let me know. I know a guy that’s looking to upgrade from a Subaru Outback.

If you have any comments, please drop us a message on our Outdoor Revival Facebook page.

If you have a good story to tell or blog, let us know about it on our FB page. We’re also happy for article or review submissions; we’d love to hear from you.

We live in a beautiful world, get out there and enjoy it. Outdoor Revival – Reconnecting us all with the outdoors.


ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival