Van life chile in the Atacama Desert

9 Simple Van Life Tips for Living on the Road in a Van

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We have been living on the road in a van on and off for the better part of four years. While we’re sure we haven’t learned everything about living out of a van yet, we have certainly picked up a few simple tips and tricks to make living van life a little easier, safer, and smoother.

These are broad, practical vanlife hacks that are not location-specific, equally applicable when you are parked up on a beach in Australia or camping in the mountains of Patagonia. From buddying up with the locals to checking out the city library, these super simple ideas will help you get the most out of living on the road in a van.

Van Life Hacks to Make Living on the Road in a Van Easier

Talk to the Locals

Sunset at Pueblo Nuevo
“Well, I don’t see nobody elseso you must be talkin‘ to me!” When you are living on the road in a van it can pay to strike up a friendly chat with the locals.

When traveling, be it to the neighboring town or the other side of the world, striking up a conversation with the locals can be very beneficial.

Normally, people aren’t immediately put at ease when they notice a strange new van pull up in their neighborhood. Whether you are in an inner-city park or way out in the boondocks, people have been taught from an early age that a strange van indicates something nefarious is afoot (hello? Home Alone anyone?). Double off-putting points if you’re a foreigner driving a foreign plated van.

On the contrary, people seem to LOVE meeting and making friends with weirdos who are living in a van. Go figure. Bridging the gap between sinister unknown van and harmless, friendly van dwellers is as simple as going up to a local, and asking if they think it’s safe to park up for the night. If they don’t want you there you have given them an out, but 99% percent of the time, this friendly request for help garners positive results.

Now you have struck up a friendly conversation and are firm friends with the locals, some additional benefits may come. An offer to keep an eye out for you and the van, insider tips on what to do and see, invites to take a shower, a fresh pot of coffee and baked goods dropped off to the back door, invitations up to help in the dairy, we have had it all. This policy doesn’t just apply to people in the neighborhood, you can buddy up to guards, gas station attendants, or restaurant managers. Everyone is a potential friend waiting to watch your back, but only after you’ve exchanged the requisite pleasantries to convince them you’re not a serial killer.

Learn to Read a Map

map, navigation, hands. Living on the road in a van
You must master this ancient skill if you are to survive living on the road in a van.

Google maps can be a fickle friend. Especially far from home. Would you like to take the traditional route along the tolled highway? Or will you be seduced by a Google shortcut? Toll-free, the back roads will certainly take you past epic vistas, but what of the road quality? Indeed, is there a road at all? The shortcut might be a good idea on paper but Google never said anything about the time it might take to navigate the high altitude mountain pass, which, let’s be honest, is no more than a goat track.

Days later as you wind down off the Andes you will swear to yourself that you won’t be seduced again. But you will. That is until you learn to read a topographic map and can make your own sound judgment on when to take the back roads and when to take the freeway.

Don’t Drive at Night

For those living on the road in a van when the sun sets it’s time to get off the road.

If you don’t know a place like you know like the back of your van then stay off the road at night. You can’t know what dangers lurk. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, it could be the cartels, it could be homemade topes (speed bumps), it could be corrupt cops, it could be giant fucking Kangaroos or it could be your run of the mill potholes. Bad things happen to vans at night! We have been on the road for four years and we straight up don’t drive at night anymore unless we absolutely have to which is rare.

Drive Like the Locals Do

traffic signs, stop, road sign
When in Rome drive as the Italians do

If you drive like an Australian in Mexico City you’re going to have a bad time, If you treat route 66 like the Autobahn, you are going to have an equally bad time. If you indicate and wait cautiously for a break in traffic and for someone to make eye contact with you before you merge in Bolivia, there are going to be tears as someone slams into the back of you. Driving defensively in a country that has never heard the term will surprise everyone as much as driving too aggressively in a nation of conservative drivers. Follow the lead of the locals and do what they do to avoid running afoul of the law or worse a semi-trailer.

This rule extends beyond the van into any traffic-based scenario. If you cross the street in Vietnam lurching haltingly toward the gap in the traffic, making eye contact with the drivers that make up the surging river of vehicles, then, you are going to cause an accident. Watch the locals stride purposefully out into the river of motorists and as scooters cascade around them like a stream moving around a boulder in perfect harmony. In Amsterdam notice the established hierarchy, trams, bicycles, and THEN pedestrians …and don’t forget to signal!

All around the world, traffic systems governed by unspoken rules of the road have been established over a long time. Observe and copy and you will do just fine.

Always Carry Duct Tape and WD-40

Having some tools is a great idea if ou are living on the road in a van
Having some basic tools on hand can make living on the road in a van a little less stressful

The most basic of the van lifers tool kit these two items will solve a great bulk of your issues…at least temporarily. Add to these a screwdriver, adjustable wrench, some silicone, and a couple of bungee cords, and you are ready for 99% of situations.

From fixing down furniture to basic bush mechanic repairs on the engine these key items will often be all you need to get you down the road to the hardware or mechanic. While we fully endorse owning and knowing how to use a tool kit in your van, make sure you have these things on board at a bare minimum!

Check out our full list of the most basic tools you should always carry on the road.

READ MORE: 9 Simple Van Life Tools You Need to Have on the Road

Shop at the Markets

Fruit stall market in Peru
This great tip goes beyond van life and should be applied to all travel

All over the world, the freshest and cheapest produce comes from the market. These bustling, colorful spaces are the best way to sample not only the local produce but the local culture. Markets filled with exotic smells, frenetic activity, and clamoring noise give a window into the everyday life of the locals.

Besides being an outing in and of itself, markets are the best place to pick up your groceries for the week. Especially if you are on a budget.

Learn to haggle (where culturally appropriate) but beware, if you are in a foreign place, many stallholders, across the world, will take you for mark, jacking up prices, withholding change, or any number of other underhanded tactics. Don’t get mad, play the game, learn a little of the local language, ask other locals what you should be paying, and learn the rules around haggling it’s all part of the fun.

Once you have returned home to the van with your haul of fresh produce, exciting spices, and exotic ingredients, try making a local dish from scratch. The best way to know a new culture is through their food, and one of the best ways to know the food is to cook it with real local ingredients.

Finally, markets are also often home to some of the cheapest and most authentic food halls you can find traveling, be sure to grab a seat at a stall well patronized by locals and order what they are ordering!

Get the Right App

twitter, facebook, together-292993.jpg
Living on the road in a van? There’s an app for that!

Like the hobo hieroglyphs of the 1940’s America, used by the nomadic homeless to indicate to those that came after them where they might find safe camp, a hot meal or a fierce dog, today’s nomads use similar, albeit slightly more sophisticated systems. Camping and overlanding apps contain waypoints other travelers have marked along the way providing essential information for the intrepid van lifer.

Campsites, water points, showers, and various other places of interest can be marked on a GPS-supported map and then evaluated, reviewed, and rated by travelers who come behind them. Filters allow you to sift through the databases to find a site with exactly the features you require. Filter sites by cost, telephone signal, vehicle accessibility, and many, many more.

Wikicamps and iOverlander are two examples of popular apps where van lifers can share campsites, points of interest, and warnings. As these apps gain traction and popularity, the amount of information in these user-supported databases grows exponentially. As these databases grow and become more sophisticated they become increasingly accurate and helpful tools.

Find the most widely used camping and Overlanding app in the region you plan to travel and download it. Some apps like iOverlander are free while some such as Wikicamps have a small one-time fee to purchase the app, in either case, a wise investment that will pay handsome dividends.

Seek Out Libraries and Comfortable Coffee Shops

coffee, caffeine, beverage-2425303.jpg
Looking to get some work done while living on the road in a van? There are plenty of options!

When you want to get some work done, catch up on some emails or simply sit and chill for a bit inside a van can be the last place you want to be. Luckily there are some great alternatives when it starts to feel like the van walls are closing in.

Across the world, libraries have been an incredible resource to us. Though we are forever shocked as to how underutilized they are. With seating, electricity, free wi-fi and a range of other facilities, we shamefully admit that we probably spend more time in libraries than anywhere else (how very un-vanlife).

In high-income countries, public libraries are everywhere and provide first-rate facilities absolutely free. In other countries, libraries may only be found in larger towns or cities. But, there appears to be an inverse relationship between the number of libraries a country has and the price of a cup of coffee. In countries where libraries are less prevalent, but where cafes are cheap we find ourselves plugging into electricity and hooking into wi-fi for the price of a cup of coffee which is usually under a $1.

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These are some of our most practical hacks for living on the road in a van. Got a question or your own van life tip, trick, or hack you have learned living on the road in a van? Let us know in the comments below!


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