What is Van Life and Overlanding: The Ultimate Guide

What is Van Life and Overlanding: The Ultimate Guide

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Kelli watching the sea in Ecuador

Contemplating a safari across Africa? Circumnavigating Australia in a Land Cruiser? Perhaps a trip through Europe in a souped-up sprinter van? Have you considered motorbiking across the steppe of Mongolia? Or driving the Americas from Halifax to the southern tip of Argentina? If you have ever thought about these or some similar adventure you have no doubt asked yourself “what is van life?”, “what is van dwelling?”, and “what is overlanding?”. What’s the difference between these terms? Is there one? And how do I get started? Before you set off on your travel adventure let’s go over the basics.

What is Van Life? What is Van Dwelling? What is Overlanding?

Starting with the obvious questions. What is van life (aka #vanlife or vanlife)? What is van dwelling? And what is overlanding?

Of course, they all relate in some way to travelling and/or camping with a vehicle. And there is undoubtedly overlap between the three terms. What distinguishes them most is the approach and attitude of each movement, toward vehicular camping.

What is Van Life? (AKA What is #vanlife? or What is Vanlife?)

‘Van Life’ began as a hashtag coined on Instagram around 2011. Since then it has appeared two million times on the platform and has found its place in mainstream usage. Van life has come to represent the modern-day incarnation of a recurrent trend of full or part-time camper van travellers. This recycled travel culture has been finding a strong resurgence in popularity since the turn of the millennium.

The culture defines itself through minimalist values and a self-sufficient approach to a life centered around travel. Other tenets of the Van Life movement lie in connecting with community and nature. The Van Life movement rejects modern consumer values and the need for amassing more. Instead, believing a more balanced and minimal approach to life with a focus on travel, experience and living freely can be more rewarding than traditional lifestyles.

Detractors of the Van Life movement often point to the stylised version of Van Life which has been presented in social media since the term first appeared. Staged and heavily edited photos present young models practicing yoga on a mountain top, playing guitar by a fire under a brilliant night sky or relaxing on a beach with their surfboards and retro vans in the background. These romanticized, instagramable versions of Van Life present a laughably unrealistic notion of what it means to sacrifice the actual comfort, safety and luxury of more traditional lifestyles for the freedom of the road.

READ MORE: The Unexpected Reality of Van Life: 10 Myths Debunked

What is Van Dwelling? Who are Van Dwellers?

Van Dwelling is the most simple to define. Living full or part-time in your van (or similar vehicle) which has been adapted for this purpose.

van life South America
Van Dweller Kelli washes up as our rice cooks in an inner-city car park, Quito, Ecuador

The definition of a van dweller is simply someone who lives in their vehicle (usually a van). They may identify with what is van life or what is overlanding, or neither.

Many people who live in their vehicle may do so for economic or lifestyle reasons entirely separate from travel.

What is Overlanding?

Overlanding at its core is simply self-sufficient travel across land. It has been used to describe a variety of long term travel styles across countries or continents where the journey itself is the goal rather than a particular destination. Overlanding can be done on foot, by train, from the back of an animal and of course with various land vehicles including bikes, motorcycles, cars, and trucks.

Van life chile in the Atacama Desert
What is van life? To us, vanlife is not about the vehicle you use but the way you use it

Recently overlanding, and those who have laid claim to the term, have become increasingly focused on vehicular travel off-road or to remote destinations unreachable by sealed road or by two-wheel drive vehicle.

Today if you type overland, overlanding or overlander into Google you would be excused for thinking overlanding is simply another term for off-roading. As vehicular overlanding enthusiasts have laid a particularly voracious claim to the term, often going so far as to gatekeep the term from others who might use it to describe other forms of self-sufficient travel. It sometimes feels that those most protective of the term may have missed the true point of the extended long-form of travel for which it was originally coined to describe.

Hold on, Am I Part of What Is Van Life, What is Van Dwelling or What Is Overlanding?

It seems you can be any or all of the above depending on how exactly you use your van or vehicle for travel and your attitude and approach to that travel.

For us, it’s clear we don’t fit neatly into any category.

The key here is not to get bogged down (overlanders will like that pun #vanlifers, maybe not so much) in the ideology of either camp but take what you need from each. 

Eddie and Kelli arguing at Sunset at Pueblo Nuevo. This is overlanding.
Sometimes it may look like you are doing what is van life when you are really overlanding, here we are having a huge argument about our next destination in between self-timer shots

Elements of Van Life, Overlanding, and Van Dwelling will be essential to any endeavor to set out and travel with your vehicle.

What is Van Life and Why Do We Do It? (AKA the Van Life Chose Us)

For us, whatever you may call it, living on the road is a way to explore the world with fewer limitations.

One in which you are not bound to an itinerary. Nothing is pre-booked or predetermined. Each night a new campsite must be sought. When you fall in love with a spot you may stay days, weeks, or indefinitely. When its time to move on you can.

This style of travel is not bound to a tourist circuit. You are not tied to areas serviced by bus routes or accomodation options.

It is a style of travel unbound to the same time constraints as other modes of exploration. When you embark on a true van life sabbatical or overlanding trip, you should be prepared to go off into the world at least for months at a time, if not indefinitely. Ideally, travel becomes part of your life rather than something that punctuates it. Your five-year plan is simply a list of destinations that are regularly updated and rearranged.

Most of all, life in a van should enrich your life by stripping it back. Removing the unnecessary clutter by forcing you to take with you only what can fit in your vehicle. It will also strip away many of modern life’s conveniences and comforts. Plumbing, food delivery, stable internet, and a million other gadgets, apps, and services that were designed to save you time and energy. Time and energy that you were able to reinvest into watching television or putting in more hours at the office. Time and energy you will now be forced to invest in navigating new cities, searching for campsites, cooking dinners over a fire, or learning new languages. You may just come to find the things we sought to replace were sort of the whole point all along.

What Do I Need to Start My Life in a Van or My Overlanding Adventure?

A Vehicle

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. 

Do you enjoy long days of driving? Be it, alone, with your significant other or perhaps 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 civilisation? Or 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.

You can, of course, travel overland on your own two feet, by bicycle, or using overland public transport like buses or trains. All perfectly respectable way to travel overland, and you will face many of the same challenges that vehicular overlanders’ face. Finding places to camp off the beaten path. Navigating border crossings. Finding potable water. This article will, however, focus on vanlife with powered vehicles.

Motorcycle

Overlanding 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. Increased 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 bicycling).

The disadvantages are that you are unable to camp in your vehicle limiting you to tent camping and using accomodation. You are exposed to the elements all day every day. And… you will get a sore butt.

Four Wheel Drive Vehicle

What is vanlife? Some consider 4wdriving and overlanding to one and the same, I disagree.
Our current vehicle, a Landcruiser, allows us to get off the beaten path

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.

Converted Van

The converted van is probably the reason you Googled “What is Van Life?” in the first place. Being 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 the van life and van dwelling movements, companies specialising 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, to extreme sports enthusiasts loaded up with equipment to families travelling with children.

Mechanical adjustments such as raising the vehicle for extra clearance or other upgrades such as all-terrain tyres 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) is that it allows a lot more freedom when it comes to camping in public. Without an rooftop tent, or the bulky size of a camper truck, it is possible to camp in many more places. Be it shopping centres, gas stations, park and streets. A converted van allows you to go more places where people are. 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 vans everywhere we’ve been.

Converted Truck / Expedition Vehicle

From light trucks like Fords F150 with 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.

A serious overlanding truck
Expedition Vehicle. Image courtesy of Klaus Nahr

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 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 more maneuverable vans can. Moreover, a bus is conspicuous limiting your ability to stealth camp in populated areas without arousing the interest of police and officials.

A Map

Surely one of the explorer’s most essential pieces of equipment. 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 overland adventure will be dependent on your destination, vehicle type and travel style, there are two, key maps that no overlander should leave home without.

iOverlander

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.

iOverlander works in a similar manner to the original vagabonds that used carve symbols onto doorways to convey information and warnings to others in their community. In 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

WikiCamps paid product similar to iOverlander. A map that relies on user contributions to provide information on campsites and other resources.

WikiCamps is available in 5 countries, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There is a separate app for each. Eash 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!

Maps.me

Maps.me offers offline functionality and community input above and beyond google maps.

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.

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.

Basic Overlanding Equipment

Overlanding can be as bare-bones as you can tolerate or as luxurious as your budget allows. Here we will focus on the main needs you will need to take care of, before you set-out. For more information and inspiration you can check out our first van conversion, our favourite bits of installed equipment, and some of our favorite equipment and gear we travel with.

Water

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 – ongoing expense and organisation, or filtering water. In our opinion the one-time purchase of a portable filtration system is the best option.

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 litres 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.

A filter is great for overlanding remote places
Platypus Gravity Work Water Filter

There is a range of water storage options available, from permanent onboard tanks that connect to onboard sinks and showers, through to simple plastic water containers from the hardware store. We use a large twenty-four-litre jug to store unpurified water for washing or purifying and two twelve liter plastic jerry cans for our purified water which we use to cook and fill our water bottles (one-litre Nalgene bottles).

Food and Cooking

Part of being self-sufficient is being able to go places where are 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.

Overlanding means cooking for yourself

From a basic butane camp stove to a full-size oven and kitchen setups, only imagination, space and importantly 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. There are also small luxury items that can really elevate your vehicle kitchen and make life on the road a little more… homely. Check out our top four kitchen utensils and gadgets here.

READ MORE: 10 Simple Van Life Cooking Hacks and Ideas

Camping Equipment

Overlooking our campsite in Monterrey. Overlanding Mexico.

The camping set up on your trip is going to be governed by the size and shape of the vehicle you travel with. Motorcyclists will be limited to tent camping and staying in lodgings. Roof-top tents will limit your ability to camp in populated areas. Conversely travelling in a bus may be extremely comfortable but will limit the places you can visit.

Here is a list of our camping equipment:

Of course the design and equipment choice for your shelter is personal and trip specific. The most important aspect of shelter is planning carefully for the style of travel you anticipate and your specific needs while travelling. 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!

Electricity

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 plan to work on the road.

Generators

Generators can be a simple energy solution with a low cost to set up.

The downside to using generators is that they can be noisy, smelly and require fuel to keep them going. In our opinion unnecessary for overlanding given the current state of battery technology.

Batteries

Batteries can be charged by your vehicle’s alternator, solar panels or by plugging into mains power.

Starting with low-cost setups requiring 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, through to multiple battery setups that can be recharged by the alternator, mains power, and roof-mounted solar panels.

To give some perspective we spent $2,000 USD on our current 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). For information on our current set-up check out our first van build article.

Bathroom Facilities

Many large vans, buses, and truck conversions are equipped with on-board 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.

We don’t have a bathroom in our van and it doesn’t often bother us (although there have been some scenarios involving suspect street food where it has inconvenienced us deeply).

In populated places, we use the toilets at gas stations and restaurants. We have some plastic containers on board if we need to urinate and can’t do it outside the van.

Overlanding is washing when you can.
What is vanlife? Bath time in nearby creeks and rivers!

While we don’t have an onboard shower we do have a portable outdoor shower head that uses the car’s 12-volt outlet and can be dropped into our water container. But for the most part we bathe in the ocean, rivers, and waterfalls that we love to visit.

Occasionally we shower at truckstops (depending 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 zero-waste we don’t buy them anymore, opting to use the portable shower more instead.

Temperature Regulation

Unless you plan in going somewhere that is perfectly temperate all year round, you will probably need some way of staying warm or staying cool.

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 heat.

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 than livable from sub-zero temperatures through to the heat of the tropics.

Diesel heaters, air-conditioning, extraction fans, custom windows to promote air-flow and insulation are some of the things you can implement to prepare your vehicle for different climates.

We currently 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 the use of window coverings.

Our preparation has meant we have been able to work inside the van even on the hottest Mexican days (though admittedly it’s not the same as an airconditioned workspace). 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.

Safety Equipment

Fire Extinguisher

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 (looking at you Bolivia).

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.

Breakdown Kit

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.

Recovery Kit

A recovery kit comes with equipment to pull your car free should it become stuck or bogged. Recovery equipment is essential if travelling 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.

We managed to get our little Suzuki APV van stuck several times refusing to admit it wasn’t a 4WD

Recovery kits should include a small shovel, snatch straps, a winch, and shackles.

Tools

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:

Other good ideas include:

Tire Repair Kit

A tire repair kit and tire pump is a cheap and simple solution to get you going again if you puncture a couple of tires far from a garage or mechanic.

Man changing tire
Two punctured tires far from a mecanico, near Santa Theresa, along the alternative route to Machu Picchu
Safes and Lock Boxes

Travelling 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 a little safer on the road.

Fake Wallet

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.

Personal Locator Beacon

A Personal Locator Beacon is an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon or EPIRB for land. It is an emergency distress beacon that operates on a frequency monitored by search and rescue worldwide. It pinpoints your location and alerts search and rescue using a global constellation of satellites. A PLB is cheap and offers peace of mind if you plan to venture away from civilisation for any period of time. Rescue response procedures and rescue times vary dependent on the group monitoring the channel in the area you are travelling in and you should research the use of PLB’s in your destination before you set off.

Car Key Safe

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 not having to organise 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

We keep:

  • Spare needles (some developing countries do not have sterilised needles)
  • Bandaids
  • Imodium
  • Bandages
  • Anti-Itch Cream
  • Benadryl
  • Epipens
  • Rubbing Alcohol
  • Neosporin
  • Panadol

Van Life Lifestyle

So you already know what is van life, but what is living in a van really like? 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.

From van life cooking to working from the road to camping and finding the perfect campsite, these are the things that make what vanlife is to us.

Van Life Cooking

When you picture Van Life, you might picture some pretty dismal meals. Packets of freeze-dried foods, eating meals out of a can, or perhaps cereal for dinner. But van life (overlanding) 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.

Overlanding kitchen
What is vanlife? A truly open plan kitchen

One big adjustment we have made on the road is to shift from cooking meat-based meals to vegetarian, 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.

Some of our go-to meals include quinoa burrito bowls, vegetarian chili, chickpea masala, lentil curry, frittatas, quesadillas, potato vindaloo, huevos rancheros, shakshuka and a stovetop pizza we have been learning to perfect. 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.

We are in the middle of compiling some of our favourite van recipes, recipes that quick, easy, tasty and that use as few perishable ingredients as possible. They also rely on only one or two pots or pans. Stay tuned for these recipes soon!

Camping

Van Life camp in Mexico
What is vanlife? Finding the perfect campsite!

The shift from living in a house or apartment to living in a van full time is certainly a large one. The type of vehicle you travel with will have a huge bearing on your sleeping arrangements, as will the region where you travel. Here are some general insights from our time living on the road.

Finding a Campsite

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.

Depending on where you are travelling your camp could be anything. From a deserted beach or national park in the mountains to a gas station or shopping centre parking lot.

The greatest resource in this regard 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 ourselve to see if there are any other options.

Feeling Safe While Camping

Regardless of your vehicle the feeling of sleeping in a carpark, street or remote national park can be disconcerting if you are not used to it.

On our first trip overlanding 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. Kelli woke me up at around three in the morning.

“Does that sound like murderers outside the car to you?!” Kelli whispered urgently.

“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 stating and talking to locals are three ways to feel a little more comfortable sleeping in your car. Read more about staying and feeling safe camping in foreign countries here.

Other Considerations While Camping

Temperature Regulation

The other thing that will make or break your sleeping experience while travelling overland is temperature regulation. Do not underestimate the importance of being too hot or too cold in your sleep. Check out our tips on preparing your vehicle for the climate you will be in here.

Circadian Rhythm

Vehicle reliant travel, away from the bright lights of civilisation for us also meant a return to a much more circadian rhythm. Our day winds down with the sunset and starts again as the sun lights rise warms the car. We

Working

Working from the road is a great way to pay for overlanding.
What is van life? Working from cafes while on the road!

Leaving Work Behind

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. This is usually fear talking and rarely representative of the truth of the matter.

I know from my own experience and trying to reason with so many others if you are at this hurdle there is nothing I can say to convince you, only you can take the leap of faith. But, for what its worth my perspective is, 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.

You don’t need to stop working thanks to the opportunities to work remotely these days. Furthermore, even if a hiatus from your job is necessary to travel a brief interruption is hardly insurmountable over the trajectory of a long career (and if it is you should consider that you have something closer to a life sentence than a career).

Working on the Road

Van Life no longer means unemployed life. It is 2020. 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 is zero reason why you can’t work while you travel in this day and age.

Kelli and I both work part-time from the van and have done so throughout South America and Mexico using only our smartphone with local sim as a wifi hot spot (see more on staying connected). I teach English online via video conference and Kelli is a consulting 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.

I earn a higher hourly rate working for a Chinese company and being paid in USD than I was making working in Australia. Kelli makes more as a consultant working part time than she made working 50 – 70 hours a week at an accounting firm.

We have both travelled 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.

READ MORE: 4 Insights from Working on the Road

For a little more insight into financing, your overlanding adventure see the section costs and financing below.

Costs

Mexican Pesos Money

You may be wondering how much does living in a van cost? Like anything, financing yourself while living in a van will be completely dependent upon your own financial situation and travel aspirations. But if you have managed to overcome all other obstacles to live a life on the road this should be the smallest.

Living Costs

Living costs will vary depending on where you travel, your budget and spending habits.

To give a working example, our combined living expenses per week through South and Central America are $350 USD per week. Less than what we paid in rent before travelling. 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). Here is a general breakdown of the weekly costs of van life Mexico.

Eating out$70
Groceries$35
Alcohol and Bars$55
Accommodation$30
Activities$10
Gas$100
Mobile and Internet$20
Transportation $10
Other$20
Total$350

Additionally, in 2019, we spent $1,600 on flights and another $400 for visas and fees. We spent another $1,100 for travel, health, and car insurance. Finally, we spent $350 on car maintenance.

This means our yearly living expenses are $21,650 or $10,825 USD each.

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 (aka taking a holiday from Van Life to visit and celebrate with friends and family).

Vehicle Costs

Of course, you will need a vehicle which could cost anything. You can, of course, recoup the majority 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 and first van conversion

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 accomodation while travelling.

We will hopefully recoup a significant portion of the money invested when we sell it. But let’s say we sell it for $6,000. The total outlay will hopefully be no more than $3,500.

To learn more about creating your travel budget check out Kelli’s article for a step-by-step guide.

Entertainment

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 camp fire to sit around in the evening. 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.

Exercising

The need for gym memberships, protein powders, and weekly spin and pilates classes are 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 fives, we are fitter than we ever have been, all without gym memberships, weekly classes or diet supplements.

What is van life? Exercising beach front every day!

Van Life and Overlanding in a Foreign Country

Safety

Some parts of the word are less safe than others. That is a fact. But often we incorrectly generalise whole regions, countries or continents as unsafe.

The reaction we get from many when we talk about travelling through developing regions is that it ‘sounds’ extremely dangerous. Usually, the same people have trouble identifying the countries that belong to said regions, or putting into words the actual danger they are worried about.

By researching the specific areas you are visiting, travelling 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. 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.

How to Stay Informed

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 which might escape the attention of Government websites.

If you do find yourself in a localised 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.

Other Strategies for Staying Safe

Aside from travelling with the appropriate safety equipment and conducting thorough research there are other steps you can take to stay safe while overlanding abroad.

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 vehicle.

Make sure you avail yourself with contact numbers for local police, preferably tourist police.

Keep friends and family up to date on where you are travelling and when you’ll next be in touch.

Buying a Vehicle Abroad

What is van life? Traveling through the open road in Peru!

The laws that dictate a foreigners 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, buying a vehicle in Chile which is legal, but the rules regarding foreigners taking a Chilean vehicle out of the country are confusing and ever-changing, often dependant on the border agent you dealt with.

The process of administering titles and legal documents for the car was also cumbersome and disorganised. 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.

Importing Vehicles

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 well known and clear.

While the process can be challenging, generally, where there is a will there is a way. I have met overlanders that have leverages, 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 travelling to. Ideally, this vehicle would be plated from an unrelated (as in not sharing borders or even a continent with your destination country).

Driving in a Foreign Country

Which side of the road should we be on?

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 are 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
  • 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.

Camping in a Foreign Country

Some places take a very liberal approach to campers, others…not so much

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, blogs, and WikiOverlnder 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.

Staying Connected in a Foreign Country

What is van life? Adapting your kitchen to a mobile home office

Before we first travelled 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 conferencing and Kelli is required to attend meetings remotely as well. So a stable, fast and reliable connection is essential.

Equipment

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 travelled 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 is available throughout even undeveloped countries though it may only be available in areas close to large populations.

Planning

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.

Resources

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.

The Vanabond Dictionary: Some Terms for Overland Travel

Before you take off here are some helpful translations to help navigate the world of vehicular travel.

Van Life / #vanlife / Vanlife

What is van life? A hashtag that has come to define the modern-day incarnation of a recurrent trend of full or part-time camper van travellers. This recycled travel culture has been finding a strong resurgence in popularity since the turn of the millennium. Van Life refers to a minimalist lifestyle centred around vehicular travel.

Also associated with the stylised and romanticised version of this lifestyle presented on Instagram.

Overlanding / Overlander

Self sufficient, travel over land where the primary goal is the exploration and the journey, rather than a destination. Often using vehicles, often a long form of travel lasting weeks, months or years.

Vanwelling / Van Dwelling (Van dweller / Van Dweller)

Living in a vehicle converted for this purpose.

Digital Nomad

Someone whose work and livelihood can be done remotely using the internet and who isn’t tied to a physical destination. A Digital Nomad uses this freedom to travel while earning a living.

Road Trip

Short term travel with a vehicle. Either travel or the destination can be the goal. A precursor to overlanding.

Potable water

Water that is safe to drink or cook with.

Wild Camping 

Camping outside of designated campgrounds and campsites. This could mean camping in a petrol station, or it could mean camping with tents at the edge of a lake in the backcountry of a National Park. Where you can wild camp will be dependent on your destination, style of travel and the limitations of your vehicle.

Boondocking

Similar to wild camping, camping outside of designated campgrounds without access to water, electricity, etc.

Stealth Camping

Camping in a way that does not draw attention to the fact that you are camping. For example in a city or region where camping is not permitted. Usually refers to camping in your vehicle. Although, I have heard rumours of French backpackers who would stealth camp in the Brisbane city botanic gardens by scaling the trees and setting up hammocks.

RORO

Roll on roll off vehicle shipping (without a locked container) Good for large vehicles that don’t fit in a shipping container but less secure. Many reports of theft as a result of this shipping method.

Grey Water

Water from laundry, shower, kitchen and other wet areas. Must be disposed of at dump points.

Black Water

Water from the toilet or greywater that is older than 24 hours. Must be disposed of at dump points.

Solar

Solar panels either mounted to the vehicle or carried with you. These solar panels are used to charge a battery or batteries which can provide electricity on the road.

LPG

Liquefied petroleum gases including propane, butane, and isobutane. Used as fuel for cooking stoves. Readily available in most parts of the world. Be sure to research what sort of connections, adapters, and tank sizes are used in your destination.

Snatch Strap

Also known as recovery straps are elasticated nylon ropes designed to help tow or pull free vehicles that are stuck.

Tiny Home

Tiny home and the tiny home movement relate to living in smaller homes, under 400 square foot. The motivation for living in smaller homes is to divest oneself of unnecessary space and things. The tiny home movement promotes minimalism and balance and shares many core principles with the Van Life movement.

Import Permit

To take a car into a foreign country you will require an import permit of one type or another. The requirements for a permit can be quite complex and complicated. Be sure to understand the local rules regarding import permits before you arrive.

International Drivers License

An international driver’s license is really just a paper document endorsed by your countries automotive body which translates your license into a number of different languages. Some countries require you to have an international driver’s license, some do not, in some places, such as the U.S. the requirement varies from state to state.

I have only been asked for an international driver’s license once, driving between Chang Mai and Pai in northern Thailand where corrupt police officers were making themselves rich soliciting bribes from ill informed backpackers making the journey to the mountain town by scooter.

Since then I have always travelled with an international license. Make sure you are across the requirements for international driving licenses in your destination country. By not carrying the requisite documentation you open yourself up to police bribes, fines, and voiding your insurance.

Helpful Resources

General Travel

Wikitravel – A wiki providing user-submitted travel information for various destinations.

Overland Travel

WikiOverland – A wiki providing user-submitted overlanding information for various destinations.

iOverlander – iOverlander is a user-supported app where users record campsites, gas stations, warnings and all manner of other recommendations for other overlanders. It takes a lot of the guesswork, and uncertainty out of overland travel.

Maps.me – Maps.me is a mapping app offering offline functionality and community input above and beyond google maps.

Facebook Groups – There are many Facebook groups dedicated to overlanding. You can find destination specific groups, general groups, and groups for buying and selling vehicles amongst others.

Safety

travel.state.gov – U.S. government website offering international safety information and news.

Smart Traveller – Australian government website offering international safety information and news.

Connectivity

NPERF – NPERF provides network coverage maps that show the coverage provided by telecommunications companies in over 100 countries.

The prepaid data sim wiki – A community wiki from Fandom, providing user-submitted information on data sim cards available all around the world.

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9 thoughts on “What is Van Life and Overlanding: The Ultimate Guide”

  1. Love your blog guys ! I came across it whilst looking for Ecuador articles on mompiche (currently in Ayampe waiting it out)… now I’m a few articles deep and day dreaming about van life! Take care and keep up the good clear articles!

    1. Ayampe is not a bad place to wait it out! We absolutely loved Ecuador with Mompiche being a particular favorite. You should definitely try to make it over there! Thanks for reading! And stay safe and healthy out there!

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