The Unexpected Reality of Van Life: 10 Myths Debunked

The Unexpected Reality of Van Life: 10 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.

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. 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 on-board 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. Blogs like ours, van life specific online forums like Reddit and Facebook groups, YouTube videos, friends, family, and neighbours. 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 that 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 Obstacles Follow You 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

The Reality of Van Life: Van life with Dogs, Cats and Pets has Never Been More Popular

If you are a pet owner and 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

The Reality of Van Life: It Rains and It’s Bad

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 road side stop off you are camped in.

There are days when things do not go to plan, days of torrential down pour, 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 over night. 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

The Reality of Van Life: Van Life and Hygiene Don’t Need to Be Mutally 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 you 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) deoderant 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 road kill 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, dependant on your vehicles 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: 10 Simple Vanlife Cooking Hacks and Ideas

Myth: Van Life Means Unemployed Life

The Reality of Van Life: Technological 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 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

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 Van Life: 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 there 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.


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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