The Unexpected Reality of Van Life: 13 Myths Debunked

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The turn of the millennium has seen a resurgence in self-directed, overland travel by van or similar, known today as van life. This re-imagining of a nomadic lifestyle far older than the automobile has, in part, been driven by social media and its glorified representation of van life (#Vanlife). But how closely does the reality of van life, living full time in a vehicle, line up with the heavily staged and edited photos and videos posted by young models on social media? Certainly not always.

Social media presents a distorted reality of van life. One where a non-stop adventure plays out on mountain tops and exotic beaches around the world. A lifestyle free from worry. The other message often being broadcast through social media is that the van life is unattainable for the many. That you need to be young, rich, free from responsibility, own a $100,000 converted sprinter van, and be a multifaceted engineer/carpenter/electrician/mechanic/digital nomad/Instagram model. Both of these are inherently wrong, and contrary to the ethos of minimalist, van life living.

Is Van Life FOr ME?

If you are thinking of packing up your belongings and taking life on the road or even simply contemplating an extended road trip you may be surprised by some of the common myths about van life perpetuated by social media. After digging a little bit deeper, you may decide that perhaps van life really isn’t for me.

To be honest, we jumped right in headfirst. After dating only three months, we flew to South America to purchase our first van. Would I do it differently? Absolutely not. But what I would do is just what you are doing now. Finding out just what are the truths of van life and is it how social media portrays it.

So, to help you answer the question “is van life for me?” Here is our round-up of the top van life myths and the sometimes unexpected reality of van life.

Van Life Myth: Traveling Full Time is Expensive

Feet by the Fire in Ecuador

THe Reality of van life: It doesn’t need to cost a fortune

One of the most frequent questions we get asked on the road is “Is Van Life Expensive?”. And it makes sense given the sort of vehicles, fit-outs, destinations, and adventures the social media presents as a reality of van life. But in truth doesn’t need to be!

We afford to travel full time because traveling full time doesn’t have to cost a fortune. In fact, we spend far less on the road than we did living in one place. With a properly balanced budget, you can cut down your expenses significantly.

Write down all your current outgoings, what do you see? Rent, food, utilities, petrol, car maintenance, memberships, subscriptions, dining out, these costs add up. Van life can eliminate many of those costs.

If you strip away everything, what do you need to put back in? Food (of course). Petrol. Car maintenance. Perhaps mobile phone service? For us, these are the only things we truly couldn’t live without. Of course, we spend money on discretionary costs as well but by budgeting thoughtfully we find it far easier to live simply and cheaply than we did living permanently in cities, or even traveling without a vehicle.

Just because you travel full time doesn’t mean that it will cost you a fortune. And if you are working from the road, careful budgeting can even make savings goals a reality of van life.

The reality of van life is anyone can build their own camper

Van Life Myth: I Need $100,000 and/or Be a Carpenter, Electrician and Plumber to Buy or Build My Own Van

The Reality of van life: Any Regular joe with youtube can build a van cheaply and quickly

Social media has altered the perception of the reality of van life. The essence of van life is minimalism. Stripping from our lives the clutter and the things we don’t need to make more room for the important things in life. Yet, van life on Instagram is often associated with whopping great Mercedes sprinters, complete with full kitchens, toilets, showers, and anything and everything else you could think of. These vehicles can cost in the hundreds of thousands and leave most of us wondering how people can even afford to get on the road.

The reality of van life is that you do not need a giant state-of-the-art vehicle. In fact, when we see one of these vehicles drive past, we are usually thinking, what a bitch it would be to park (ok sometimes we are thinking how good an onboard shower would be).

With a cheap second-hand van and a couple of grand for a basic fit-out, it is more than possible to get on the road in your very own converted van. We did it in about five weeks without a clue what we were doing. We even wrote down everything we did on our first van conversion, proving that anyone can do it.

The reality of van life is that you do not need to be a carpenter to build your own van. We have now converted two vehicles into homes on wheels and neither one of us came in with any sort of handy skills.

While our craftsmanship may never win any awards we are extremely proud of what we have accomplished. Additionally, we’ve learned a lot about the different components of a converted van. And, when something goes wrong with our van conversion, we are far more likely to be able to solve the problem (looking at you solar) ourselves given we put it together.

There are thousands of resources at your disposal, should you choose to try your hand at converting your own van. Van life blogs like ours, van life specific online forums like Reddit and Facebook groups, YouTube videos, friends, family, and neighbors. Even the folks working at your local hardware store are usually keen to give you a piece of advice if you just ask.

The hardest part is deciding to do it. The rest you can figure out as you go.

Kelli watching the sea in Ecuador

Van Life Myth: Every Campsite Is Ripped Straight from the Cover of National Geographic

van life South America

The Reality of Van life: FInding the Perfect Campsite isn’t easy

If you follow all the #vanlifers of Instagram, you probably think every campsite overlooks rugged snow-capped mountains or sits high on a headland above a stunning beach. And, that every morning, you wake up to a magnificent sunrise, and evenings are spent around a fire beneath an endless starry night.

Bad news. The reality of van life is that finding a campsite can sometimes be difficult, disappointing, and downright exhausting. Personally, the challenge of finding a campsite for the night has been the subject of more than a few fights during our travels.

To be honest, you may spend more nights camped in a car park than you probably intended to when you first set off on your van life adventure. Or you may find yourself stealth camping with one eye open all night or even cramped in a caravan park so tight that you can hear your neighbor sneeze.

But just like everything else, you have got to take the good with the bad. And if the number of nights you spend camping in the outdoors actually living the #vanlife, around a campfire, under the stars, or perched on a headland, outweigh the nights camped in the Walmart parking lot, to us, it is worth it.

Van Life Myth: Living on the Road is the Easy Life

Man changing tire

THe Reality of Van LIfe: Challenges and obstables follow everywhere you go

Scrolling through Instagram it’s easy to think, “How hard can living in a van really be?”. And sure, waking up to explore somewhere new every day does have its perks, but living full time in a van isn’t always as easy as the pictures portray.

Regardless of the size of your van, life on the road means you are confined to a pretty small space. Toss in one or more extra human beings or animals and living in a teeny-tiny home on wheels starts to become a little claustrophobic.

And living in a tiny space, potentially with other people or pets, 24 hours a day and seven days a week is only the beginning of your challenges. Other obstacles and challenges you might face include being stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire, being on the receiving end of police corruption in a foreign country, having difficulty finding a spot to camp, or even the small things like trying to work with poor phone service or the time between showers.

The reality of van life is not always a bed of roses. Yes, you leave behind some of the challenges of “normal” life, perhaps your rent or electricity bills, or dealing with your boss but on the road, there are new challenges and obstacles to face every day.

Van Life Myth: You Can’t Van Life with Pets

Van Life Reality: Van life with dogs, cats, and pets has never been more popular

If you are a pet owner and wondering exactly where Fido is going to fit in the tiny van don’t fret! Plenty of people live their van life with dogs, cats, and other pets. We have even met people who have adopted animals along their travels.

So, don’t let your pet be your excuse for not joining the vanlife movement. Yeah, it may mean a little extra paperwork to ensure your pet has the necessary documents and even a little extra money for vaccines if you are crossing borders. But in the end, it will all be worth it when you and your pup are soaking up the sun on a secluded beach in Mexico.

Van Life Myth: Every Day is Perfect

rain drops


Again, Instagram’s portrayal of van life is often one-dimensional. Perfect days with sunny skies. People curled up inside their perfectly tidy vans reading. Models standing outside classic kombis clutching surfboards, looking out toward a tranquil sea. A couple watching a sunrise clutching a steaming mug of coffee. But I’m here to tell you this is 100%, not the case.

Some days are mundane. They are working from a public park or shabby cafe. They are trying to find a decent source of water. They are doing the dishes in a public park. They are falling asleep to semi-trailers speeding past the roadside stop off you are camped in.

There are days when things do not go to plan, days of torrential downpour, days when your batteries can’t get enough sunlight to charge your devices, and downright miserable days.

Better yet, sometimes these situations don’t resolve overnight. Getting lost in a Peruvian jungle for three days. Camping out in a mechanics’ back yard in Mexico for a week waiting for parts. Being stranded in the Atacama Desert waiting for legal documents. Or simply being confined to the back of the van for weekends when the rain just won’t stop.

None of these things are going to grab a lot of attention on social media BUT, these are the stories that endure, the moments we look back on and laugh at even if we may not have been laughing at the time.

Hell even without these imperfect days, we would go pretty crazy pretty quickly if all we did was sit around on the beach every day and read books.

farm farmer pink ears

Van Life Myth: We Never Bathe

Van Life Reality: Van Life and Hygine Don’t Need to be Mutually Exclusive

Although Instagram may have you thinking that you will wake up every day of your van life looking like you stepped out the pages of Vogue, I assure you this is far from the truth.

For starters, many people travel with a full bathroom and shower in their van. But for those who prefer to travel a bit lighter or who don’t have the budget, it is still possible to maintain basic hygiene on the road.

We have been on the road for almost two years now and while we do not shower quite as frequently as we did living in one spot, with some small adjustments we wash frequently enough.

Depending on where in the world your van life adventure is playing out, there are heaps of ways to stay clean. It is never too difficult to find a real shower if you are willing to make the effort. In many countries like the US, you can join a franchised gym located throughout the country, or rely on truck stops along the highway in places like Chile, or, depending on where you are, there may be free campsites with a shower such as those found in Australia. And of course, swimming holes, rivers, and the sea serve as a great place to cool down and rinse off wherever you are!

If you prefer to be self-sufficient or you are traveling somewhere where showers are a little less available, you can pick up a solar shower bag or 12-v shower cheaply. These cheap and simple outdoor showers will do the job between the next roadhouse or swimming hole. As a last resort a wipe down with some environmentally friendly, biodegradable wet wipes and some (lots of) deodorant can plug the gap if you travel somewhere particularly remote!

Van Life Myth: We Eat Cans of Sardines Every Night

Fried whole fish with potatoes, a tomato cucumber salad and a beer

The Reality of Van LIfe: VanLife Cooking Doesn’t Have to be Bland

While social media fawns over pictures of waterfalls and vans traversing endless highways the pragmatic traveler will be asking, “yeah but where’s the grub? Is it all roadkill and cans of tuna?”

The reality of vanlife is that you can cook whatever you want. We find cooking to be the highlight of our travels and we love trying new recipes. We may not have the space for a cabinet full of exotic ingredients or the electricity for fancy kitchen gadgets, but it is surprising what you can do with fresh local ingredients, a few basic spices, and a gas cooker.

Adjustments may have to be made, depending on your vehicle’s limitations (e.g., do you have a fridge on board?) or where you are traveling (e.g., avoiding the meat from markets in developing countries). But learn to use spices, local ingredients, and a couple of high-quality cast iron pans and a good meal will become one of the easiest and most rewarding parts of your day!

READ MORE: Van Life Cooking: The Complete Guide

Myth: Van Life Means Unemployed Life

The Reality of Van life: Technilogical and social advances have made working from the road a cinch

#Vanlife would have you believe that we are all running around out here spending every waking moment scaling mountains, surfing, sunbathing, and sinking beers. Unfortunately, for the majority of van lifers, this is not at all an achievable reality of van life.

This myth is often one of the biggest factors that would have people believe they couldn’t possibly join in the van life movement. Because people don’t believe that employment or career development is compatible with van life. But the reality of van life in 2020 is that there have never been more opportunities for remote and online careers than now.

Until the coronavirus in 2020, remote work was a fraction of the workforce. Today as a result of the global pandemic, organizations all over the world have been forced to acknowledge the benefits of an online and remote workforce, creating more opportunities than ever before.

When we first started traveling, finding a corporate position on the road was challenging. It took me eight long months before landing a position that I actually wanted and would enjoy. People don’t want their accountant working from the darkest Peru. They feel safer knowing they are in a cubicle down the road. But eventually, I found a role that allowed me to continue my career development. It was tough and it was scary. But if I hadn’t taken the plunge and set off in the van, I never would have found the motivation to engineer my life such as it is today. Where I can pack up tomorrow and go anywhere in the world without affecting my income or career.

And mine is just one story, there are thousands of others, Eddie teaches English, and travelers that we have met fund their travels in a hundred different ways. Writers, handy people, photographers, corporate professionals, laborers, artists, IT specialists, designers the list is truly endless. It may be daunting to consider gambling on something as important as your career, but the risk of missing out on a dream is arguably just as daunting.

While finding a job that suits you and is compatible with van life might be difficult, actually working from the road is simple. The reality of van life today is that with the technological advances of today, working from the road has never been easier. With just a smartphone and a 4G cell signal, Eddie and I have been able to work from Bolivia to the Australian outback. From beaches to cafes to public libraries (cheers Australia), we’ve had hundreds of different offices throughout our travels, and there aren’t very many we would trade for a cubicle.

READ MORE: 9 Things to Know for Working from the Road

Myth: You’ll Be Having Too Much Fun to Miss HOme

Hostel in the sea in Colombia

Van LIfe Reality: You Will Get Homesick

It is true, van life is a little bit like a continuous adventure. But some days no matter how beautiful the setting, how delicious the local food is, or how hard you try, you will begin to miss home. Whether it is when get consumed with FOMO seeing pictures of all of your closest friends celebrating a birthday or when the tinsel starts to glisten on the trees for the holiday season, the feeling of homesick will set in.

Luckily with the rapidly-changing technology, the feeling of homesickness can be satiated with a quick video call with loved ones from home. It is also a great time to convince all those friends and family who have been promising to come for a visit to actually come. There is no great way to get someone to visit you than with a little bit of guilt.

If you start to feel homesick, just remember the feeling will pass. If it doesn’t, well, you can always buy a ticket back home to see friends and family for a short visit.

Myth: You can park anywhere you want for the night

By FaceMePLS from The Hague, The Netherlands - 1991 Chevrolet Chevy Van 20 Starcraft, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19310503

Van LIfe Reality: No one wants a creepy white van they don’t recognize outside their house

From a young age, we learn to be cautious of strange, unknown vehicles being parked in the neighborhood. This lesson is never more true than when starting van life. You may know that you are a harmless, free-spirited traveler just looking for somewhere safe to rest your head for the night, but the people living nearby do not.

One of the best pieces we received from a German couple who had been doing vanlife a lot longer than we had was to speak with people in places you intend to park for the evening. Not only will this keep your mind at ease, but it will also go a long way to making your new neighbors feel a bit more comfortable.

Obviously, this will not work in all situations, but it is a good rule of thumb especially when visiting areas foreign countries where you may not know which areas of town are the safest.

Myth: Van Life Is The Perfect Way to Get Kidnapped

Van parked by beach

Van LIfe Reality: Van Life Is Perfectly Safe With the Right Precautions

Is van life safe, is it safe to travel by van, or aren’t you scared sleeping in your car, are just a few of the questions that we field regularly. The truth is that van life is perfectly safe as long as you follow the right precautions and be thoughtful about where you decide to spend your evenings. Since we first began vanlife in 2018, we have had very few incidents where we felt unsafe.

Yes, sleeping in your car does take a bit of getting used to. In the beginning, I would regularly wake Eddie up in the night to see if he also hear the murders outside of our van. After a few months on the road, these began to subside but it was all in my head. We were perfectly fine.

This is not to say that you could not find yourself in a feature for a van life horror story. As with regular life, you should always be mindful of your surroundings. If a situation doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t and you should move on to another place. Van life safety will largely depend on where you are traveling, how conspicuous your van is, and what you do to ensure your safety.

Camping near other vanlifers, speaking with locals to see if the area you are staying in is safe, and using apps like iOverlander to find campsites others have found safe are just a few of the ways for vanlife to be safe.

london new york tokyo and moscow clocks

Myth: It Isn’t The Right Time

The swing at the end of the world at La Casa del Arbol in Baños.

The Reality of Vanlife: THere Is NEver Going to be the Right Time…Just Do It!

Instagram seems to indicate that van life is just for those in their early twenties, young people with dreadlocks and without responsibilities.

Perhaps because of this perception that many people believe they have already missed their opportunity to live their dream van life. So often people say to us that they would love to take off for a bit and live the van life, but they can’t. We have heard all the excuses, “it’s not a good time to leave work”, “I’ll wait until I retire”, “I don’t have enough money saved up”, “it’s not a good time to uproot the kids”.

But these are all excuses. There is never going to be a “right” time. There is always going to be that one thing “holding you back”.

On the flip side of the many that wish they could, we have met people from every walk of life that are so happy they did. Couples, singles, families, retirees, professionals, students, rich, poor, young, and old. We are yet to meet the van lifers who regret their decision and yearn for their old lives back.

Moreover, technologically, socially, and economically there has possibly never been a better time to hit the road. Thanks to technology we have the ability to work from anywhere in the world. Thanks to the devastating COVID-19 virus, employers have been forced to open up their eyes to this fact and more businesses than ever before are open to the prospect of remote working arrangements. And thanks to declining employment, rising house prices, and general financial uncertainty around the world there has never been a better time to try and live with a more minimalist, less consumerist lifestyle.

If you truly want to do it, all you have to decide is that you are going to and work backward from there to figure out how and when.

The reality of van life is that it is a lifestyle you can adapt to your existing life and responsibilities.

You don’t even have to go far from home to join in. While we may spend most of our time thousands of miles from friends and family, we know plenty of other vanlifers who stay closer to home. You don’t have to do it full time.

Many van lifers only spend some of their time in the van. Some van lifers maintain permanent full-time roles who turn up for work 9 – 5 Monday to Friday before jumping in their home on wheels to explore the world around them for the weekend. Others work for six months of the year in traditional roles to fund six months of travel adventure. The beauty and reality of van life is that there is no one-size-fits-all. The Reality of van life is that it can and should be done by anyone and in any way you deem fit.

Is Van Life FOr YOu?

So now that you know the truth about van life, do you think van life is for you? Can you picture yourself living full-time in a van?

We absolutely love the lifestyle and freedom that living in a van has afforded us. Yes, it comes with its own unique set of challenges, but we love it and hope you will too!


Do you have any questions about the myths or the reality of van life? Did we miss any popular myths? We would love to hear from you, let us know in the comments below!


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