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Van Life or Boat Life? Which Is the Best

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Van Life or Boat Life?

For us, life on a sailboat has been a lot more rewarding the living in a van.

We don’t say that lightly. We love van life and we thought we would be ‘van lifing’ in some capacity until the day we died. That changed pretty quickly after we bought our first boat.

We bought our first van in South America in 2018. We converted our second van in the US in 2019 before driving to Mexico. When COVID hit we were forced to leave our van behind and head back to my home country of Australia where we bought and converted a Land Cruiser Troop Carrier to take us around the country.

When borders were open again, we set off for Europe. It was supposed to be our last hurrah. To buy a boat, learn to sail it, and live on it for the summer of 2022 as we sailed around the Mediterranean. We told ourselves that after this adventure we would sell the boat and start to think about settling down.

As the season starts to wind down here, we are starting to realize that it may not be possible. Sailing has captured our imagination like nothing before. We have backpacked, flashpacked, hiked, camped, canoed, trained, planed, bussed, and of course, traveled by van to over eighty countries, and nothing has come close to the sense of adventure and freedom that boat life has offered us.

Of course, not all travelers are the same, and what suits us might not be right for someone else. There are pros and cons to both boats and vans that will suit different budgets, travel styles, and goals. Where boat life is the more adventurous and exciting as far as we are concerned, van life could be considered more practical, convenient, and accessible to more people.

Van Life Vs Boat Life: Lifestyle and Travel

Van life vs boat life, these nomadic lifestyles have a lot in common, but an equal amount that sets them apart. Let’s dive into the advantages and disadvantages of traveling by van vs traveling by boat. Some are obvious, and others we never would have thought about!

In our opinion, the sense of freedom, adventure, and space as well as a life lived on the water make boat life the superior lifestyle. That being said, there are definitely advantages to van life. Certainly, if you are someone that feels drawn to mountains, forests, or big cities as much as to the ocean then van travel might be the obvious option. Or, if you are someone that hates stressful situations or gets bored moving too slowly, van life may well be better than boat life for you.

Van

A van in the mountains in the middle ground. Snow-capped peaks behind, pine needles in focus. Van Life or Boat Life
Which offers the better lifestyle? Van Life or Boat Life?

Pros

  • Perhaps the most significant advantage of the van life lifestyle is that you can experience a broad range of environments. Spend summers camped by the beach, winters skiing, and autumn hiking in the backcountry. Van life has fewer limitations or restriction when it comes to the places you can go and the environments you can experience.
  • A much faster way to travel, in the van you can easily cover many hundreds of kilometers in a single day. It gives travelers the opportunity to explore far and wide and never get bored of seeing the same environments day in and day out.
  • Less stress. While van life can involve some pretty stressful situations such as finding campsites, finding water, and breaking down, it just doesn’t have the same level of stress that can and often does come with sailboat life.
  • Van life is more convenient, you can easily access services, and essentials such as water and groceries are often readily available. It is also easy to leave the van when necessary or desired.
  • Van life requires less forward planning, the weather is a non-factor, and planning a route requires little more than plugging in a destination address to Google Maps.

Cons

  • Vans don’t have a lot of space. Camper vans can be quite cramped. Only the largest and most expensive vans will include features like bathrooms, onboard toilets, fixed beds, and dedicated workspaces.
  • Vans are bound by where the road goes. Sure roads go to some pretty epic locations, and many vans can go ‘off road’ (to an extent) but short of venturing off-road in extremely remote locations, there is a limited opportunity to really get off ‘the beaten path’.
  • The majority of the places you will stay in a van will not be epic locations. Despite what you might see on social media the reality of van life involves a lot more shitty side-of-the-road campsites, gas stations, and supermarket parking lots then it does beachfront camps, epic mountain top vistas and secluded forest hideaways.

Boat

A woman standing on the deck of a small sail boat watching the sunset.
Sailboat life is great for those who love the water

Pros

  • If you love to be on the water, it is hard to beat the liveaboard lifestyle. Sail life offers access to the ocean and ocean activities in a way that other travel life styles could never.
  • Boats generally offer far more space than vans. While many people might look at our tiny 29-foot liveaboard and wonder how we live in such a tiny space, for us, it feels incredibly spacious compared to the vans we occupied before this.
  • Unbound by the road network, boats for the most part completely unrestricted over the sea. Anchor wherever you like along the coast and explore parts of the coastline that would otherwise be completely off-limits to most people.
  • Sailing is a constant adventure. The unpredictable shifting nature of the winds and weather means you are often pitting your skill, courage, and best-laid plans against mother nature. If you can see this as a challenge and an adventure (at least some of the time), sail life offers a sense of excitement that’s hard to recreate in the van.
  • If you are prepared to spend most of your time out of marinas on your anchor, the majority of your campsites will be epic. Night after night you will anchor off magnificent beaches, under soaring sea cliffs, by wild islands, and protected by natural bays. In seven short months, we have anchored in some of the most remarkable places we have ever seen.

Cons

  • Sail boats are a much slower way to travel, sailing is not a fast way to get from point a to point b. A big day of sailing may get you 50 km. Plans can easily be delayed by days or even weeks by poor weather. Even the sailing adjacent services like boat mechanics and shipwright services seem to be slower to organize and carry out maintenance and repairs than their land base counterparts
  • Boat life can be incredibly stressful, unpredictable weather, broken equipment, or the general unknown of what lies beneath is constantly on a sailor’s mind.
  • Boat life can be less convenient you are often far from basic services, and you can’t just park your boat and leave it for an extended period of time.
  • Boat life takes a lot forward planning. You need to wake up, check the weather, plot a route, check the weather hasn’t changed, realize it has, change your plans, and recheck the weather. Look outside, and realize the weather report was way off. Scrap your plans entirely and head for the nearest marina.

Van Life Vs Boat Life: Skills and Experience

One of the barriers to living both the van life and the liveaboard life is obtaining the requisite knowledge to be able to travel and live in your vehicle of choice. In this regard, it is fair to say that the van has the edge as the more accessible mode of travel. However, the difficulty of learning to sail and liveaboard your own yacht is often vastly overstated.

Van

A van driving away down a road enclosed by an arch of tall trees
Learning van life is quick and easy

Pros

  • Learning the basics of van life is extremely quick, easy and cheap. Almost anyone can adapt to van life very quickly and without additional instruction.
  • Getting ‘accredited’ for van life is simple. It requires nothing more than getting the appropriate driving license, pathways for achieving this are common, straightforward,, and affordable
  • Van life will give you the opportunity to practice and master other adjacent skills like overlanding, offroading and camping and survival skils.

Cons

  • Travelling by van offers a small but steep adjustment, but after that, it cannot offer any meaningful learning opportunities outside of the adjacent activities mentioned above. This might mean that Van Life loses some of its appeal after it is mastered.

Boat

An aerial photo of boat anchored by itself in a small cove at sunset.
Mastering liveaboard life is a lifelong process

Pros

  • Learning the basics of how to sail and to live aboard a boat is not hard. The basics can be learned in just a few weeks.
  • Mastering sailing and liveaboard life is of course an ongoing process and can provide a lifelong challenge.

Cons

  • Learning the basics of sailing will (hopefully) get you ready to operate the boat, lift the sail, sail, anchor and dock. But it takes a long time to become an advanced sailor. Only through a lot of sailing experience can people learn to deal with strong winds, blue water (open ocean) navigation, and emergencies.

Van Life Vs Boat Life: Costs

The expenses of living in a van full time and living on boat full time are comparable, however both can be extremely variable. It is possible to live either lifestyle very cheaply however sailboats can quickly ad up!

The initial purchase costs of a boat are generally more expensive when comparing boats and vans of a similar age and quality.

For a point of reference, we bought our last true conversion van, a 1999 Chevy 1500 Express for $4,500 and spent $5,000 converting it ourselves. Our current boat, a 1986 Beneteau First ’29 cost €23,500.

After those initial costs, the day-to-day costs have been more or less the same, and we have been able to offset the more expensive marina fees with the lower fuel costs of the boat. How much time you plan to spend in marina will depend on the lifestyle you want and the region you are sailing in, however, using marinas is occasionally unavoidable for example the weather is poor, or you need electricity, or other services. Similarly, those who travel slower in a van will have much lower fuel costs.

As a couple, we spend around $450 per week traveling by van or by boat in developed countries and about $100 less in undeveloped countries,

Van

A van camped in the desert in Chile, the Andes in the background
Free campsites in the van can be epic…

Pros

  • You can get on the road very cheaply with an older van and basic DIY conversion.
  • Most regions have at least some version of free camping available
  • The cost of staying in campgrounds is inexpensive.
  • Water and electricity are free or very inexpensive (and widely available)

Cons

  • Mechanical maintenance costs can be expensive when something goes wrong, especially in developed countries.
  • Insurance costs can be higher for motor vehicles.
  • Some regions do not support free camping, and paid campgrounds must be used.
  • As the price of fuel continues to rise, this could be an increasingly important factor in the cost of van life going forward.

Boat

Aerial of a boat anchored in a narrow inlet in Croatia
Free anchorages in the boat can be epic too!

Pros

  • It is always ‘possible’ to anchor for free.
  • Fuel costs can be kept to a minimum on a sailboat.
  • Insurance costs are often lower for boats.
  • Liveaboard boats generally come fitted for living so there is no premium for conversion.

Cons

  • Marina fees are generally very expensive compared to the cost of staying in a campground.
  • Poor weather can make paying for a marina unavoidable, and prolonged poor weather can be very expensive.
  • Specialty boating equipment often has a premium price attached to it.
  • More safety equipment is required.

Van Life Vs Boat Life: Working

For many living on a boat or living in a van is a dream that must be supported through ongoing remote work, and certainly, that’s the case for us. Luckily, we both have jobs we love, and that we can do from anywhere, provided we have a decent cellular data connection.

In the five years that we have traveled the cellular signal has improved rapidly and consistently year after year. With the rise of companies like Starlink, you can expect that in the near future wireless capabilities will be less and less of a deciding factor or a point of difference.

Van

A woman working sitting inside a converted van
Working from the van can be a bit cramped

Pros

  • If you drop a signal while working, you can very easily pick up and move to a location that has a signal.
  • In most places, mobile service follows major roadways.
  • Weather is (generally) a non-issue and won’t affect your ability to conduct your work.

Cons

  • Many of the most spectacular places to visit by van are far from mobile reception meaning you may be limited to less-than-spectacular campsites during the working week.
  • Vans can be incredibly cramped to work from

Boat

A woman working on a laptop, sitting in a small sail boat
Finding reception on the boat can be a challenge sometimes

Pros

  • In most places, mobile telephone service follows the coastline.
  • Mobile signal travels a long way over sea, unobstructed
  • Your mast can act as a giant ariel to provide enhanced reception
  • Boats offer a little bit more space where you can set up a work area.

Cons

  • If you are working online you will generally be restricted to the coastline of the areas you travel.
  • In less developed areas you may be restricted to anchorages close to settlements.
  • Generally, the more protected the anchorage from weather, the more isolated the cove from reception restricting the anchorages you can use when trying to find good wireless reception.
  • It can be really difficult to work in poor weather when the boat is rolling in swell.
  • Weather can change quickly and force you to move which can create problems for people on a fixed schedule.

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Hopefully, you have found some helpful insight about the pros and cons of Van Life or Boat Life, but if you have any questions or comments please let us know below!

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