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Are you thinking of chucking in your nine-to-five for a life on the road? Have you spent hours ogling over #vanlife photos on Instagram and feeling inspired to take the plunge? Are you unsure exactly how to start van life? Well, you have come to the right place.
We have traveled by van through nine countries and across three continents over three years. Our first van life adventure saw us driving the length of South America (and back again). We purchased a tiny converted van in Santiago de Chile and set off into the unknown. Within the first few weeks, we experienced some of our most challenging travel moments, but we also experienced some of our most exciting and liberating moments. We were hooked. We made the decision then and there to see how far we could take this van life, and three years later we are still hooked.
Since then, we have purchased and built two different vans (without a single bit of experience). We aren’t carpenters and we weren’t particularly handy. We didn’t (and still don’t) have an unlimited budget, far from it. Yet, we have built two homes on wheels that we can proudly say we designed and built ourselves. We have lived the vanlife on three separate continents. And if we can, you too can embark on this incredible self-guided adventure too.
We are here to help you start out on your own van life adventure with a complete begginers guide to van life.
How To Start Van Life: A Complete Van Life Guide
The reasons for people to start van life are incredibly varied. For some, it is a purely economic decision. For others it represents a choice toward a more minimalist lifestyle, reducing the amount of stuff in our lives and giving a new sense of freedom. For many, like ourselves, it offers an opportunity to travel in a different way. A slower and more deliberate approach to travel, providing a new way to reach and experience destinations and cultures in a meaningful way. But embarking on such a radical lifestyle change requires some serious thought and planning. This step-by-step guide to starting van life will help inform that process.
Planning Your Van Life
Preparation in life is key and planning for your own van life adventure is no exception.
Step 1: Give It a Whirl
There is a saying within the van life community, that the best vehicle for van life is the one you have. This adage is true to an extent in the beginning. You should use the vehicle you have or can borrow to do some practice road trips and discover if this lifestyle is something you really want to pursue.
Van life is amazing but it simply is not for everyone. Give it a test run to see if this lifestyle is something that you think you could enjoy.
Do you enjoy long days of driving? Be it, alone, with your significant other, or the whole family?
Will you rise to the challenge of finding a camp in the middle of a busy city? Of dealing with breakdowns far from civilization?
Can you handle shakedowns from unscrupulous police and desperate locals in developing countries? Perhaps a language barrier on top of everything else?
These are things you should be sure you relish or can at least tolerate before embarking on this sort of adventure. However, once the time comes to graduate to living out of a van for any significant period of time it’s time to start thinking about what vehicle is best suited to your purpose.
Step 2: Decide on a Vehicle Best Suited for Your Van Life Purpose
Van life can come in many different shapes and sizes. In South America, we traveled in a tiny Suzuki APV. In the United States and Mexico, we traveled by Chevy Express. And, in Australia, we travel with a 4wd Landcruiser Troopcarrier allowing us access to remote locations with our off-roading capabilities.
Consider Where You Will Be Traveling
Finding a rig best suited for where you will be traveling is important.
Are you planning on spending time in the mountains? You probably need something with a bit of power. We watched a couple in their classic kombi try for 30 minutes to drive their van up the Andes one day, unloading people and baggage until the car could chug its way up to the steep slopes.
Will you be spending a lot of time in cities where you will need to stealth camp? If so, you will want to get something less conspicuous to help you fly under the radar.
Will you want to camp on the beach? Or perhaps you plan to travel to far-flung destinations via off-road tracks and dirt roads. In this case, you will probably want a 4WD.
Consider How Much Space You Will Need
Space is limited in a home on wheels but it can be vastly different depending on which vehicle you choose.
If you are an avid mountain biker, climber, surfer, fly fisherman, or snowboarder you need to consider the space you’ll need to cart your gear around. And you will likely need to consider something bigger than your standard van.
Perhaps you work remotely and need a serious indoor computer setup.
Or maybe you will be headed somewhere cold and will need a propane heater which will require a bit more space.
All of these things should be considered before heading out to find the perfect van.
By taking your personal requirements into consideration you can better hone in on the perfect vehicle and choose the vehicle that is best suited for how you plan to travel and live.
Here are the common options that you can choose from.
Ok, it isn’t technically van life, but traveling overland by motorcycle is without a doubt one of the most intrepid forms of overland travel.
The advantages of motorcycling can be lower cost of vehicle, gas, and maintenance. The ability to access places other vehicles can’t. To satisfy an adventurous spirit who wishes to complete their overlanding journey in the most basic and perhaps most uncomfortable manner possible (short of cycling).
The disadvantages are that you are unable to camp in your vehicle limiting you to tent camping and using paid accommodation. You are exposed to the elements all day every day. And… you will get a sore butt.
Four Wheel Drive Vehicle
Best for people who will spend most of their time outside of cities and in less populated areas. Areas with space, national parks, and or fewer regulations regarding public camping. Think Australia, Africa, and Central Asia.
The benefit of this style of vehicle is that it allows you to more comfortably navigate backcountry roads of less developed areas of the world from outback Australia to the plains of Africa. It also gives you access to off-road locations, allowing you to travel further from civilization than a standard two-wheel-drive car would.
The main downside of this style of vehicle is it limits your ability to overland closer to civilization. Local police and government seldom allow people to set up a rooftop tent in the middle of a town or city. If you plan to spend time in cities, towns, or generally in populated places, this vehicle may not be suitable or travel will have to be supplemented with other accommodation.
The converted van is probably the first vehicle most people think of when they imagine this sort of travel. It is one of the most popular types of overland travel for those living on the road for extended periods of time.
A converted van is a passenger or cargo van that has been adapted for the purposes of travel and camping. It should have at a minimum a bed. The conveniences you can add to a van are only limited by your imagination and budget.
With the rise of van life and van dwelling movements, companies specializing in van conversion equipment and aftermarket van fit-outs have rapidly expanded. Vans range from the tiny but fashionable Kombi to the massive Mercedes Sprinter and everything in between. Converted vans can suit the most minimalist of individuals, from extreme sports enthusiasts, loaded up with equipment to families traveling with children.
Mechanical adjustments such as raising the vehicle for extra clearance or other upgrades such as all-terrain tires can be used to improve the off-road capabilities of a van. It is even possible to find four-wheel-drive vans or convert a two-wheel-drive van to four-wheel drive with an aftermarket kit.
The upsides of a van (especially one that hasn’t been too conspicuously converted) are that it allows a lot more freedom when it comes to camping in public. Without a rooftop tent or the bulky size of a camper truck, it is possible to camp in many more places. Be it shopping centers, gas stations, parks, and streets, a converted van allows you to go more places in developed regions. If you plan to balance your time between more remote destinations and visiting and exploring new cities, this may be the way to go.
The downside of the converted van is that it can’t go as many places as a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Trust us we know from experience. I have managed to bog our two-wheel-drive vans everywhere we’ve been.
If you do settle on a van, be aware that not all vans are created equal. Know exactly what you need and want from a van (in that order) and understand what each type and style of van can offer. Have a look at this article comparing the driving experience of a modern van vs a classic VW to get an idea of some of the nuances that you may not have even considered while perusing the classifieds.
Converted Truck / Expedition Vehicle
From light trucks like Ford’s F150 with a pre-fabricated camper attachment to six-wheelers with custom-designed tiny homes mounted to the back. These ‘expedition vehicles’ are designed to offer space, and comfort as well as off-road and off-grid capability.
The obvious downsides are that you are much less inconspicuous. The vehicle cost, especially at the high end, can be prohibitively expensive. Fuel and maintenance costs can also be incredibly high. Finally, the number of places you can travel may be impacted by the size of the vehicle.
Converted Bus or Skoolie
Maximum style, comfort, and size, but expensive and not particularly practical.
A converted bus has a large living space, such that you can comfortably live in it without ever having to check into accommodation. They can accommodate showers, toilets, ovens, couches, and various other comforts that may not fit in other vehicles.
Bonus style points if your bus is an ex-school bus. The most fashionable type of bus for any Van Lifer, the ‘skoolie’ is the holy grail for the Instagram arm of the van life movement.
Downsides include the cost of the vehicle. Costs of fuel. Cost and difficulty of maintenance and upkeep. A large bus will also hamper where you can go. Not designed for off-road use you won’t be able to get everywhere four-wheel drives or vans can. Moreover, a bus is conspicuous limiting your ability to stealth camp in populated areas without tipping off local police and rangers.
Step 3: Decide on a Van Design
Choosing a van is only the beginning of the many choices that you will make along the way. For many of us, designing a van is part of the fun of van life. Deciding on the layout is something you will think and rethink over and over again. We have completed two van conversions and after each time we walk away wishing we would have done some things a little bit differently.
If you plan to buy a van that has already been converted, you need to think about what type of conversion and layout will best suit your needs and budget.
Ultimately, your van build is entirely up to you. Vanlife can be as bare-bones as you can tolerate or as luxurious as your budget allows.
You will need to continue to carefully consider what you need in your van and what you could live without.
Once you have decided on the basic layout and design of your van the next step is to decide whether you will convert the van by yourself or use a van conversion company
If you decide to go it alone, the next step is to start planning what materials and tools you will need to complete the job. We completed our first build with only a handful of basic tools including a drill, jigsaw, wrench, hammer, and a screwdriver.
So, let’s jump right into the basics that you will definitely need to consider in your outfit.
Things to Consider While Choosing Your Van Conversion
Space is Finite
No matter what vehicle you choose one thing is for sure, space comes at a premium in a van or any other overlanding vehicle. Designing a layout is personal and should be specific to you and your proposed trip. The most important aspect of the design is planning carefully for the style of travel you anticipate and your specific needs while traveling.
A fold-up bed that turns into a dining table sounds great, but be honest with yourself are you going to put that up and down every day or will you end up just eating in the bed?
Do you need to work on the road? How will you design your vehicle around this requirement?
How much will you cook? Will you spend the majority of your time inside or outside the van?
Think long and hard about how you see a normal day unfolding for you while you travel and plan accordingly. Even better, get out and do a couple of trial trips and figure out the way you are likely to use a van most of the time. The key is to make the most and best use of the finite space.
Create a list of needs, wants, and could do withouts, and then start creating a floorplan based on your requirements. Chances are if you are imagining it, someone has done it and shared pictures on Instagram or another social network like Facebook or Reddit. Join online van life communities for further design inspiration and information and ask members about how they achieved their perfect set-ups.
Electrical Set-ups Are Critical and Complex
Having electricity is not a requirement per se. However, for serious long-term travel, off-grid electricity can make the journey significantly more comfortable and viable, especially if you plan to work on the road.
Low-cost setups require little more than hooking up an extra battery to your car’s alternator that will power low consumption devices like LED lights and recharge portable devices. More complex electrical setups include multiple batteries that can be recharged by an alternator, main’s power, and roof-mounted solar panels.
Alternatively, generators can be a simple energy solution with low cost to set up, however, generators can often be noisy, smelly, and require fuel to keep them going.
In our opinion, a solar setup is the best way to make sure you can keep all of your gadgets charged while on the road.
To give some perspective we spent $2,000 USD on our solar and battery set-up which can provide enough power to run a small fridge, extraction fan, lights, interior fans, and a small inverter to charge laptops whether we are driving or not, (as long as we get some sun each day).
We aren’t electricians by any means, so if we can do it then so can you. Check out our step-by-step DIY van conversion article for more information on our electrical van build.
You Can’t Survive Without a Water Supply
Purifying and storing water is important for any self-sufficient journey that will take place away from a public water supply or in regions where the water supply is tainted.
Water purification options include
- Boiling water – time-consuming and it burns fuel,
- Using purification chemicals – an ongoing expense and organizational chore
- Filtering water – time-consuming
In our opinion, the one-time purchase of a portable filtration system is the best option. Depending on how you design your van, these can be part of the kitchen outfitting or can be something more portable.
We use a Platypus GravityWorks Filter. As the name suggests it uses gravity, which means no water pressure is required. It takes five minutes to filter four liters of water. The filter and bags roll up to the size of a pencil case. This filter costs around $100 USD, which pays for itself quite quickly if you are buying pure water or using purification tablets or chemicals.
There is a range of water storage options available from permanent onboard tanks that connect to onboard sinks and showers to simple plastic water containers from the hardware store.
Currently, we use an Ironman 60 liter / 15-gallon onboard water tank to store purified water for drinking. We use a large twenty-four-liter jug to collect unpurified water for washing or purifying.
We spent a month in the north of Colombia in a small cargo van without windows or an extraction fan. It was here we learned the true meaning of sweltering heat.
Unless you plan on going somewhere that is the perfect temperature all year round, you will probably need some way to help maintain a comfortable temperature in the van.
It is important to prepare for the climate or climates you plan to travel in. There are plenty of modifications you can make to your vehicle that will make it if not comfortable then livable from sub-zero temperatures through to the heat of the tropics.
Diesel heaters, air-conditioning, extraction fans, custom windows to promote airflow, and insulation are some of the things you can implement to prepare your vehicle for different climates.
In our first van build, we use an extraction van, two onboard 12 volt fans, and screened windows to help keep cool in Mexico. Our van is also insulated and we make use of window coverings.
Our current vehicle relies on 12-volt fans, a pop-top with plenty of ventilation to stay cool in the heat of Australia, and window coverings, and insulation to help keep some of the chills out in the cooler months.
Our preparation has meant we have been able to work inside the van even on the hottest days and we can always get a comfortable night’s sleep.
Learn the lesson we did in Colombia without sweating through it. Prepare your vehicle adequately for the climate you will explore.
Toilets and Showers for Van Life
Many large vans, buses, and truck conversions are equipped with onboard toilets and even showers. For many, it’s a non-negotiable. For motorcyclists and people using smaller vans or four-wheel-drive vehicles, tiny portable toilets, a plastic container, or simply ‘the woods’ fill the gap between public toilets and showers.
Three vans later and we still don’t have an onboard toilet and it doesn’t often bother us (although there have been some scenarios involving suspect street food that have been deeply inconvenient).
If you can’t afford a loo or if you just simply do not have the space, toilets at gas stations, restaurants, shopping centers, and parks are the best places to head. If you plan to travel primarily in your home country, having a gym membership is a great alternative for staying clean and fit while on the road. If you are using nature, remember to keep it clean. No one wants to see your old shit tickets in the nearby bushes at epic campsites. It really ruins it for yourself and the next visitor.
In emergencies, we recommend having a plastic water bottle onboard which can be used in a pinch when going outside isn’t feasible or if a toilet is nowhere in sight.
Likewise, we have not ever had a permanent shower onboard. We have traveled with a portable outdoor shower. But for the most part, we bathe in the ocean, rivers, and waterfalls that we love to visit.
Occasionally we shower at truckstops (depending on which part of the world we are), or we shower when we check into accommodation every now and then.
In the past, we have used baby wipes to stay fresh in between these bathing opportunities, but in an effort to move toward less waste we don’t buy them anymore, opting to use the portable shower more instead.
Your Van Life Kitchen
Part of being self-sufficient is being able to go places where there aren’t any restaurants or supermarkets. To this end, you will need to be able to store food with you and have some way of cooking it.
From a basic butane camp stove to a full-size oven and kitchen setup, only imagination, space, and budget will limit you in what kitchen setup you take on the road.
We find a two-burner gas stove and cast iron pans our most essential cooking tools along with a couple of pots and a handful of utensils and of course a 12-v compression fridge. There are also small luxury items that can really elevate your vehicle’s kitchen and make life on the road feel a little more like home.
3 Van Life Kitchen Essentials We Can’t Live Without
Don’t Forget About Your Outdoor Patio
One of the first things you will realize about living on the road is that the outdoors becomes an extension of your home. One of the best things about van life is that you get to explore some pretty incredible natural wonders and camp in some pretty epic locations. Make sure your van is equipped to take advantage of the incredible places you will visit.
So how do you set up your outdoor patio?
First, we recommend buying a quality awning. A quality awning that is easy to set up and pack down will help you make the most of your time outdoors. We highly recommend awnings manufactured by ARB as we have found these to be durable and easy to set up and dismantle.
If you don’t plan on using a roof rack to attach your awning, check out our guide on how to attach an awning without roof racks. If you are permanently attaching an awning to your vehicle this should be one of the first jobs you do, as, electrics, insulation, interior cladding, and furniture installation will all make this job more difficult down the line.
Other things that you may want to purchase to make sure your outdoor patio is perfect for those cool starry nights or warm coastal mornings are;
These few basic additions can make your tiny livable space seem a whole lot bigger.
Step 4: Make Sure Your Vehicle is Mechanically Sound
Ideally, you should get a pre-purchase inspection before you buy the vehicle of your dreams. If not, head to the nearest and most trusted mechanic to give you a rundown of what you just purchased before you put in the effort to convert a vehicle into your home on wheels. You would hate to put in all the effort of a DIY conversion only to find out your vehicle isn’t going to make it past the end of the driveway.
It is also a good idea to create a list of known weak points for your specific vehicle and to collect the necessary spare parts to travel with. Ask your mechanic or research your vehicle online. This simple tip can help save money and time down the road when you find yourself far from specialist mechanics.
Step 5: Fill Your Van With “Stuff”
For many the move toward van life is driven by an intent to live a more minimalist lifestyle, for others, this will be a beneficial by-product. But before you go ahead and sell all your worldly possessions, there are going to be some key items that will elevate your van life experience.
Deciding on what to take, however, will be challenging. We have lived in three vans, all of varying sizes, but every time we always seem to be having to decide what will make the cut, and what will be left behind.
From bedding to clothing and portable projectors to fishing rods, you will manage to fill each and every free space with something thinking that you will need it along the way.
Here are a few of the items that you may not expect to need but you will absolutely want to bring along on any extended van life trip.
Step 6: Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best
Sometimes shit happens. Making sure you are prepared on board will go a long way to keeping you and your home on wheels safe. Before you set out on any van life adventure, you should make sure you are well prepared with a few simple and basic safety items.
A fire extinguisher is a good thing to have on in any vehicle and is actually mandated in many countries, some of which will routinely inspect it.
If you are living in your car, and most importantly if you are living in your car with cooking and electrical components, it is essential.
Again, a legal requirement in many countries around the world, a breakdown kit with hazard signs and a high visibility vest are sensible things to carry. This is especially true when traveling on narrow backcountry roads with blind corners and no shoulders.
A recovery kit comes with equipment to pull your car free should it become stuck or bogged. Recovery equipment is essential if traveling off-road but also recommended if you are taking your car into regions with poor road quality or camping in national parks or wild camping with your vehicle.
Recovery kits should include a small shovel, snatch straps, a winch, and shackles.
What is van life without some basic tools? Life on the road means sometimes things rattle, shake or jostle themselves out of place. Any overlander, van lifer, or van dweller should travel with a basic tool kit to help you deal with minor repairs to your vehicle and home.
At a minimum, we recommend:
- Adjustable wrench/spanner
- Philips and flat head screwdrivers
- A hammer
- Small saw
- WD-40 lubricant
- Silicone Sealant and caulking gun
- Duct tape
- Spare screws and nails
- Crimping tool
- Bungee/Shock cord
Other good van life tool ideas include:
Tire Repair Kit
Safes and Lock Boxes
Traveling with all your belongings, in a foreign country, you should take extra precautions to secure your valuables. A safe or lockbox in a hidden location in the vehicle is an easy solution to keeping your expensive and most important belongings safe on the road.
We always travel with our essential documents, cash cards and wallets stashed and only photocopies of our required documents and a fake wallet with older canceled cards and a small amount of cash with us in the glove box. The original motivation for this was in case we were ever held up by criminals demanding money.
While this hasn’t happened we have been pulled over and shaken down for a bribe countless times by the police. While we generally try to avoid paying anything in this scenario, if we do decide that paying is the best option, only having a small amount of cash in our fake wallet helps.
A Personal Locator Beacon is an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon. It is an emergency distress beacon monitored by search and rescue worldwide. It pinpoints your location and alerts authorities using a global constellation of satellites.
A PLB is cheap and offers peace of mind if you plan to venture away from civilization for any period of time. Rescue response procedures and rescue times vary dependent on the group monitoring the channel in the area you are traveling in and you should research the use of PLBs in your destination before you set off.
We have a spare key in a small car key safe magnetically attached to the underside of the car. We have only had to use it a handful of times but it has paid for itself many times over not having to organize a locksmith to come out to the middle of nowhere to retrieve keys in the event we lock them inside the car.
First Aid Kit
- Spare needles (some developing countries do not have sterilized needles)
- Anti-Itch Cream
- Rubbing Alcohol
Step 7: Download the Right Travel App
Surely one of an explorer’s most essential pieces of equipment is a map. Today’s maps fit neatly in the palm of your hand, cover the entire globe, and are hooked into GPS and the internet to provide far more information than location and topography.
While some of the maps, apps, and equipment you need for your vanlife adventure will be dependent on your destination, vehicle type, and travel style, there are two, key maps that no overlander should leave home without.
This mapping app was founded in 2014 and has since become the number one free tool for van lifers and overlanders traveling locally or far from home.
Like the original vagabonds that used to carve symbols onto doorways to convey information and warnings to other travelers in their community iOverlander is a way to leave a trail for your fellow van lifers. Using this app, a global community of travelers submits coordinates and details to this map-based database of overlanding locations.
Categories include wild campsites, water, petrol, checkpoints, warnings, accommodation, restaurants, and many more. Users leave a description and rating of each location to let those that come after them know exactly what to expect. Users can also update existing entries so that information stays up to date. As the project continues to grow so too does the usefulness of this fantastic tool.
iOverlander is an incredibly useful community-based project that takes a lot of the guesswork, and uncertainty out of overland travel.
WikiCamps is a paid product similar to iOverlander, a map that relies on user contributions to provide information on campsites and other resources.
WikiCamps is available in five countries, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There is a separate app for each country. Each app costs a one-time payment of between $1 and $8.
We have used it in Australia where it has been an invaluable resource to discovering the best campsites and other resources. In Australia, iOverlander is virtually unused so WikiCamps is our go-to map. The one-time payment of $8 AUD has been well worth it!
It allows you to download, compressed map files of various regions to make a map of the areas you will be traveling for as long as you are offline. The functionality offline is also increased including, among other functionality, offline routing and navigation.
Maps.me offers offline functionality and community input above and beyond Google Maps.
It also draws data from OpenStreetMap, a community-based map that runs on user submissions like Wikipedia. This can provide another layer of insight and information unavailable on other mapping apps.
Living in a Van
So now that you are all set and ready to hit the open roads, you may be wondering what is van life like, and how can I prepare for it?
How do you start van life once your van is ready to go? What will living in a van full-time actually look like? Where is that perfect guide to van life?
Before we set out we had no idea how to live in a van or how to live on the road or what our life would be like living in a small space. In fact, we had only been dating for three months before we dove headfirst into van life, how’s that for a start to van life?
From van life cooking to working from the road to camping and finding the perfect campsite, these are the things that make vanlife what it truly is. So, if you are wondering how to start van life now that your rig is fitted out, then let’s hop right in!
Step 8: Adjust to Van Life Cooking
When you picture van life cooking you might picture some pretty grim meals. Packets of freeze-dried foods, eating meals out of a can, or perhaps cereal for dinner. But van life and good home-cooked food are not mutually exclusive. It may take a small adjustment but there are plenty of delicious meals that can be cooked on the road.
One big adjustment we have made on the road is to shift from cooking meat-based meals to vegetable, egg, and dairy-based meals. This is because these foods are less perishable and better to travel with. Additionally, the way meat is prepared and stored in many of the countries we’ve visited is below the standards we are accustomed to.
Our favorite van recipes are recipes that are quick, easy, tasty, and that use as few perishable ingredients as possible. They also rely on only one or two pots or pans.
Some of our go-to meals include burrito bowls, vegetarian chili, chickpea masala, pad thai, frittatas, quesadillas, potato and lentil curry, huevos rancheros, and shakshuka. When we have more time we like to get a bit creative and try our hand at local dishes.
We are both pretty passionate about meal times. We both love eating and enjoy cooking. Therefore, we look forward to designing our menu for the week, visiting a local market for ingredients, and spending time cooking good food together.
Step 9: Find Somewhere to Sleep
It can be hard to imagine before you set off on your first trip just where you are going to find somewhere to sleep each night while you are overlanding.
The key to making your nights as relaxing and stress-free as possible is careful planning.
Depending on where you travel, your camp could be anywhere from a deserted beach or national park in the mountains to a gas station or shopping center parking lot.
The greatest resource when it comes to finding campsites is iOverlander or WikiCamps, which, as described above provides submissions from other users on places they have stayed and what to expect.
We usually use iOverlander and WikiCamps to find a couple of options for camps. If we have time we will explore these options as well as look around ourselves to see if there are any other options.
Is Camping in Your Van Safe?
Regardless of your vehicle, the feeling of sleeping in a car park, street, or remote national park can be disconcerting if you are not used to it.
On our first trip van life trip in South America, it took Kelli several months to get used to the idea. I remember her waking me up one evening when we were camping alone in the desert one night. Around three in the morning, she shook me roughly, whispering, “Does that sound like murderers outside the car to you?!”
“No. Go back to sleep” I mumbled, and she rolled over and fell back asleep. I, however, stayed up for a few hours wondering if that was, in fact, murderers outside the car and not just the wind. The reality of van life is that it can be quite an adjustment.
Taking proper safety precautions is one way to feel safer when camping. Carrying the proper safety equipment, researching the area you are staying in, and talking to locals are three ways to feel a little more comfortable sleeping in your car.
Van Life Tips for Camping on the Road
Check Regional Rules and Customs
Every region has its own view on wild camping. In many places, it’s totally normal for people to camp in public places. In other regions, governments may even provide facilities for the traveling public including toilets, trash cans, dump points, tables, barbecues even occasionally showers! Then there are other places that actively discourage camping with rangers moving campers on or issuing fines. Rules and regulations can change from one local area to the next.
Make sure you are aware of the local laws and customs when it comes to free camping.
Gas Stations and Supermarkets Can be Great for An Overnight Stop
Sure they might not be the picturesque places to stay. But they are generally well lit, sometimes staffed twenty-four hours, often with security and cameras, as well as toilet facilities, these places can be a great stop-gap. Make sure you ask someone if it’s ok to stay overnight before you set up camp, and (obviously)don’t use an open flame at gas stations.
Consider Temperature Regulation in Your Van Build
One thing that will make or break your sleeping experience on the road is temperature regulation. Do not underestimate the importance of being too hot or too cold in your sleep. See our advice for preparing your vehicle for specific climates in step 3.
Vehicle reliant travel, often away from the bright lights of civilization for us also meant a return to a much more natural sleep pattern. Our day winds down with the sunset and starts again as the sun rises to warm the car.
Talk to the Locals
It doesn’t get much shadier than an unmarked van pulling into your neighborhood and camping out for a few nights. Put minds at ease by talking to the locals.
Aside from making people more comfortable with your presence, asking whether a place is safe and cool for you to stay at will help you feel more comfortable. You can also get the local info on what to do, see and eat nearby. You may even make a new friend.
Step 10: Adjust to Working From the Van
For the people we speak to, those who say they wish they could take a year or more for long-term travel the biggest hurdle in their minds is often employment. How will I pay my bills? I can’t leave my job I’ve worked too hard to get here! My job or company will fall apart if I’m not here to manage it.
If you are at this hurdle there is nothing we can say to convince you, only you can take the leap of faith. But, if long-term travel is something you are dreaming of doing, then you cannot afford not to take the risk. You gamble so little, the financial costs of traveling for one year are generally much less than living in a major city.
And right now there has never been a better time to work from the road with the number of opportunities to work remotely these days.
Working on the Road
Van life no longer means unemployed life. It is 2021. Most jobs can now be done remotely. And if yours can’t, there is a job for you that can. You may need to do some convincing to get your employer or clients to see it or you may need to get creative to find a new job but there are zero reasons why you can’t work while you travel in this day and age.
Kelli and I both work from the van and have done so throughout South America, Mexico, the United States, and Australia, using only our smartphone with a local sim as a wifi hot spot (see more on staying connected). I teach English online via video conference and Kelli is an accountant. We plan to be somewhere with service from Monday morning until Thursday afternoon and then we wrap up for the week and can get off-grid for a few days.
We have both traveled full time and worked full time in the past, and what we find that works best for us now is a lifestyle with a balanced approach to both. The ability to work part-time from the road, to have time for passion projects, and time to live and travel.
Remote Work Equipment for Van Lifers
Working from the road means you won’t have the most ergonomic setup. You probably won’t have a standup computer desk and you may not have double screens. I know, for some that thought alone is unthinkable. But for many of us, you can get by in remote work with just a few basics that will make working on the road significantly more comfortable and healthy.
A keyboard, laptop stand, and mouse go a long way in your physical health and are easy things to pack away in your van without taking up a lot of space.
Must-Have Remote Work Equipment
Step 11: Embrace the Van Life Lifestyle
Living the van life lifestyle takes some getting used to. Van life means a whole new approach to routine, socializing, entertainment, and fitness.
A Van Life Routine
Without a 9 to 5 job, a regular schedule, or even any reason to differentiate your weekends from your weekdays, it is important to maintain some semblance of routine.
We find that van life introduces a much more natural sleep cycle back into our lives. We tend to wake up with the sun in the van and fall asleep not too long after sunset.
We try to plan our days out in advance with a mix of work, study, play and exploration, and exercise. One way we can hold ourselves accountable for this planning is to use a diary or organizer which has definitely helped us build good habits on the road.
Van Social Life
Before we set off on our first trip in South America we imagined that our van life would entail spending most nights with new van life friends singing kumbaya around a campfire. Perhaps conveying together for a few weeks before our paths diverged. Kelli and I both have a lot of experience backpacking in our twenties. We both fondly remember making firm friends with new people over the planet only to never see them again.
Our experience as a van life couple has been very different. We are older. We have each other. We are less interested in meeting new people everywhere we go. Without the forced interaction of shared spaces like a hostel, we don’t really have to put ourselves out there to meet people and make new friends, and so, for the most part, we haven’t.
That’s not to say we haven’t shared a campsite or a meal with more than a few van lifers or made friends along the way, just that it has been far less frequent than we imagined. And we have come to find that we are totally comfortable with that.
For others, the experience could be totally different. If you travel to places where van lifers congregate if you join online facebook communities or crawl coming apps for social campsites, you could easily make van life a social lifestyle.
The point is in van life you will need to seek out a social life if that is part of your lifestyle goal. It won’t come to you.
Our social life tends to be muted on the road. Spending time with each other, occasionally making a new friend here or there, and doing our best to stay in touch with friends and family at home.
Entertainment Living in a Van
If you are considering this sort of trip you likely already have an appetite for travel. Our entertainment is hiking to a viewpoint for sunset, finding the best local bar for live music in a new city, making a campfire to sit around in the evening, and discovering the best coffee in a new town.
We are never bored, and if we are we can always just move on. And of course where there’s a cell signal you always have Netflix.
Stay Fit While Living in a Van
The need for gym memberships, protein powders, and weekly spin classes is greatly overstated by a hundred billion dollar fitness industry.
Walking or running every day, stretching, practicing yoga, doing push-ups on the beach, using the calisthenics equipment in parks around the world, we make an effort to exercise daily.
And, with more time up our sleeves than we ever had working nine to five, we are fitter than we ever have been, all without gym memberships, weekly classes, or diet supplements.
Step 12: Create a Van Life Budget
If you are wondering how to start van life then you are probably want to know a little bit about the numbers. In fact, having little information about the cost of van life may be one of the things holding you back from taking the plunge yourself.
Van life can and should be cheaper than traditional lifestyles. But you will need to be disciplined and careful or costs can easily blow out. One way to help manage your finances on the road is to maintain a budget.
To learn more about creating your travel budget check out our step-by-step guide.
So, how much does van life actually cost?
Like anything, financing yourself while living in a van will be completely dependent upon your own financial situation and personal aspirations for van life. But if you have managed to overcome all other obstacles to live a life on the road, this should be the smallest.
We will share how much van life has cost us in South America, Mexico, and Australia.
Living costs will vary depending on where you travel, your budget, and your spending habits. What we have found is that our combined living expenses per week do not vary significantly depending on where we are but our habits vary. For example, in Mexico and South America, we tended to eat out more than we do in Australia.
What we spend to live each week is less than what we paid in rent before traveling. Obviously, some people will spend less and some much much more. We rarely stay in accommodation and we never pay to camp. For the most part, we choose budget-friendly restaurants, street food, and cook during the week (even so food is our biggest expense because we take eating very seriously).
This means our yearly living expenses are $18,200 or $9,100 USD each.
Outside of our “living costs”, we do set aside money each year for holidays from van life. Things like swimming with whale sharks in Exmouth or trips with friends and family. We also set aside funds for other things such as flights to visit family in faraway lands, travel insurance, and other travel-related items that we would not typically incur unless we made a special trip.
Given that we have both been able to find remote work we find we are earning more, working less, and spending far, far less than we were at home. This means we can save more and have an extra discretionary budget to spend on special occasions, discretionary activities, and more travel.
How Much Will It Cost to Maintain a Van While Traveling?
Of course, van life requires a vehicle, which could cost anything from a couple of thousand to a couple of hundred thousand. You can, of course, recoup some of this cost by reselling the vehicle at the end of your travels.
To give you some insight from our own experiences our first van cost $6,650 and it was already fitted out for travel. We recouped $6,000 upon selling it seven months later. We spent $500 on maintenance, $500 on insurance, and $350 on paperwork. Total cost $2,000.
Our van second cost $9,500 USD, $4,500 for the vehicle which was unconverted, and $5,000 USD for the materials and equipment we used to convert it ourselves. (We converted the van in five weeks without any trade or DIY experience and you can too.)
Our second van we designed specifically to be more comfortable to live and work in, meaning we could both work more hours and spend less on accommodation while traveling.
We spent $1,960 in maintenance and repairs and $272 in insurance along the way. We sold our faithful van for $10,500 making the total cost only $1,232.
Bonus Step: Prepare for Van Life in a Foreign Country
Traveling around your own country is markedly different from traveling to other places. In a foreign country, you not only have to contend with a different language but also a different culture.
Things that may have been safe in your home country may not be safe in the country you are planning to travel to by van. Buying can present more challenges as different countries have different regulations and processes when it comes to foreigners purchasing vehicles.
Stay Safe While Traveling by Van in a Foreign Country
Some parts of the world are less safe than others. That is a fact. But we often generalize whole regions, countries, or continents as unsafe.
The reaction we get from many when we talk about traveling through developing regions is that it ‘sounds’ extremely dangerous. Usually, the same people have trouble identifying the specific countries that they think are dangerous or articulating why.
By researching the specific areas you are visiting, traveling only in areas where it is safe, and taking basic precautions you will find risks can be managed and mitigated and that travel through developing countries can be done quite safely.
Understanding the political, economic, social, and military situation of a region is important but easy to do in this day and age.
Do your research and stay informed because there are regions all around the world that are dangerous to travel to. Moreover, situations can develop quickly. This is true even in developed countries. Natural disasters, pandemics, and civil unrest may be exacerbated in developing countries but they do not discriminate.
One source to begin your research is government foreign affairs agencies. Government websites offer travel resources and up to date information and travel warnings. We use the US Bureau of Consular Affairs site travel.state.gov and the Australian DFAT website www.smartraveller.gov.au.
These are great places to research known travel warnings and issues. It is also a good place to research countries and regions that your government has deemed high risk and will not offer consular assistance in.
You should also familiarise yourself with local laws especially those regarding immigration and customs, road rules, and wild camping laws. Wikitravel and WikiOverland are two online resources where you can find this information.
The second tool we use for local research is iOverlander. This mapping and travel app uses community contributions to provide up-to-date travel information and warnings from other overlanders. This resource is helpful for issues at a local level that might escape the attention of Government websites.
If you do find yourself in a localized emergency situation, local online news is the best place to get information. You can also get in touch with the government tourism agencies for the country you are traveling in. Finally, your own countries consular service in the region can help you stay up to date with situations as they unfold.
Talk to the Locals
Talk to locals in areas you plan to camp not only will this make you more comfortable it will make locals more comfortable about the strange foreigners camping nearby. We speak to gas station attendants, local residents, or guards to ask them permission, get an idea of the safety of an area, and ask them to keep an eye out for us. This tip has made the most important difference in making us feel more comfortable camping in our vehicles.
Know the Local Emergency Numbers
Make sure you avail yourself of contact numbers for local police, preferably tourist police.
Keep Friends and Family Posted
Keep friends and family up to date on where you are traveling and when you’ll next be in touch. Give them a timeline on when you expect to be in touch especially if you are traveling to remote, off-the-beaten-path destinations where cell service could be non-existent.
How to Buy a Vehicle Abroad
The laws that dictate a foreigner’s ability to buy and sell vehicles in a foreign country are often complex and difficult to navigate, doubly so in a country where you don’t speak the language. Like any bureaucratic exercise, rules and processes are constantly being changed. Often not even the officials in charge of administering them are one hundred percent informed of current legislation.
For example, it is legal to purchase a Chilean vehicle in Chile, but the rules regarding foreigners taking a Chilean vehicle out of the country are confusing, ever-changing, and often dependent on the border agent you deal with.
The process of administering titles and legal documents for the car was also cumbersome and disorganized. We were stranded in the Atacama desert for three weeks waiting on the title to be transferred.
When the title was finally transferred, customs officials initially refused to let us take the car out of the country. We had a similar experience coming back into the country when we spent the day arguing with officials who insisted that we had never got the vehicle properly stamped out of the country.
Thinking of heading to Mexico? Check out our Vanlife Mexico FAQ guide which includes details on how to purchase a car in Mexico!
Importing a Vehicle to a Foreign Country
Getting a foreign vehicle into the country we have found to be a more straightforward process when compared to buying vehicles as a foreigner. Again laws are ever-changing and can be complex, however, generally, importing is a more common practice than buying vehicles as a foreigner. As a result, the process is usually more straightforward.
While the process can be challenging, generally, where there is a will there is a way. We have met overlanders that have leveraged, dodged, or circumvented rules and regulations through loopholes, clever planning, and careful research. WikiOverland is a good place to begin your research. Other resources include blogs, asking locals, and Facebook groups and communities that relate to overland travel in your chosen destination.
Proper research means you can be armed with up-to-date information before you turn up to buy a vehicle. It can also be helpful to travel with copies of the relevant legislation or other research to help state your case when officials are unclear on or have a different interpretation of procedure and law.
Another option to circumvent this process is to buy a foreign plated vehicle in the country you are traveling to. Ideally, this vehicle would be plated from an unrelated country (as in a country not sharing borders or even a continent with your destination country).
How Drive in a Foreign Country
Licensing and documentation requirements, road rules, driving culture, and road quality are all good things to understand before you drive in a foreign country.
Examples of questions you should ask and answer before driving in a new country or city.
- Is an international license required?
- What side of the road do they drive on?
- What everyday driving rules are different (example turning on a red light)?
- What should you expect from traffic police? – bribe solicitation is extremely common in developing countries.
- Are there any restrictions on foreign drivers or foreign plated vehicles? – eg. in many large cities battling traffic and pollution problems there are times and days where driving is restricted due to their traffic policies such as Hoy No Circula in Mexico.
- How do the locals drive? In many places people learn to drive differently or don’t learn to drive at all meaning rules that seem obvious to you would not be considered by drivers in some areas. In some places, the driving culture is more aggressive than others. People are not expecting defensive driving and if you drive the way you do at home you may become the problem.
- What is the general condition of the road network?
Wikitravel and WikiOverland are two good places to begin researching driving in your chosen destination. Government and tourist sites, blogs, and overlanding and travel communities on Facebook and other social media sites are also good sources of information.
How to Camp in a Foreign Country
Like everything else, rules regulations, and customs vary wildly from country to country.
Where some countries legislate free camping throughout, others restrict it to certain regions, others begrudgingly allow it, and some (often developed countries) take disappointingly hardline stances to camping outside of designated campgrounds and national parks.
The iOverlander app, Wikicamps, blogs, and WikiOverlander are good places to discover just what to expect in your destination, and it’s worth researching. This information will help to inform your plan and budget of where you can free camp and where you may need to pay for camping or accommodation.
It’s also important to note the customs, culture, and attitude around camping. Locals in areas and regions that are not used to campers and overlanders may be wary of people setting up camp nearby and a quick conversation to ask about camping nearby can set your mind and the local communities mind’s at ease.
How to Stay Connected in a Foreign Country
Before we first traveled to South America to overland and work remotely we were worried we would need quite specialized equipment to make this happen. I teach English via video call and Kelli is required to attend meetings remotely as well, so a stable, fast, and reliable connection are essential.
We spent time researching internet dongles, signal boosters, and aftermarket antennas. It turns out that, given the state of cellular data connections and modern smartphones, you will only need a modern smart hone and local prepaid sim to effectively stay connected and even work in most countries around the world.
In every country, we have traveled we have been able to
easily obtain a local sim card, activate it, and learn to recharge data, often online.
4G and 5G data coverage are available throughout even undeveloped countries though it may only be available in areas close to large populations.
For us, who have scheduled work hours this means forward planning. We usually spend Monday to Thursday afternoon in an area with good cellular data service. Once we finish work for the week we are free to travel into areas without service if we wish.
Two important resources to help you stay connected are NPERF and the Prepaid data sim wiki.
NPERF is a company that measures, records, and provides up-to-date information on connections around the world. One service available on their website is a network coverage map that provides information on the level of coverage throughout more than 100 countries. This map-based tool shows the coverage of each telecommunication company in a country and what connection is available (2G – 5G+).
One way to maximize your coverage is to travel with two (or more) sims from different service providers so you can switch to the provider with the best coverage in a certain area.
The prepaid data sim wiki, from Fandom, provides user-submitted information on data sims cards available all around the world. Discover which companies have the best coverage, how to purchase, activate and recharge sims in a given country, and the costs involved.
The cost of prepaid sims and data varies from country to country. Prices are constantly becoming cheaper around the world. To give an example we found prices throughout Central and South America to be between $1 and $2 USD per gigabyte of data depending on the country and amount of data purchased in a transaction.
TLDR: How to Start Van Life in 12 Steps
- Try van life out
- Choose the right type of van or vehicle for your style of travel
- Choose your design carefully
- Check your vehicle is mechanically sound
- Be conscious about the stuff you bring with you, space is limited in the van
- Hope for the best but prepare for the worst, carry the necessary safety and emergency gear as well as tools and materials to carry out basic repairs
- Learn to leverage apps to help make van life easier
- Adjust to cooking in a van. Think about van friendly ingredients and useful kitchen ware.
- Research and plan your campsites in advance
- Forward plan for working from the van
- Prepare to make lifestyle adjustments when it comes to routine, social life, entertaining yourself and staying fit
- Create a budget and save money living on the road
Bonus Step: Research in advance if planning to live in the van in foreign countries
The most important step to starting van life is to do it. Life’s too short not to give it a go. You will only regret the things you didn’t try.
Hopefully, you have found some helpful information or inspiration on how to start van life for yourself. If you have a question or a comment, please let us know below!
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