Kelli watching the sea in Ecuador
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What is Van Life? A Guide to Understanding the Basics

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Have you ever wondered what is van life?

Maybe you are sick of the daily grind and ever-rising costs of living. Perhaps you’ve been dreaming about touring Europe in a souped-up Sprinter van or Mexico in an old Kombi? Have you considered route 66 in a converted skoolie? 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? And how do I get started?’

We are here to walk you through the basics before you decide to experience van life for yourself. This van life guide will explain just what van life is, explain vanlife vs. overlanding, give you the basic van life terminology that you can use to impress your friends, and will, hopefully, inspire you to join the van life movement too.

What is Van Life?

Van life chile in the Atacama Desert
Van iife definitely means getting off the beaten path

Starting with the obvious questions. What is van life (aka #vanlife or vanlife)? And what are the associated terms often heard in conjunction such as ‘van dwelling’ or ‘overlanding’?

Of course, they all relate in some way to traveling 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 the Van Life Movement?

#Vanlife began as a hashtag coined on Instagram around 2011. Since then it has appeared more than 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 campervan travelers. 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 stylized 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 comfort, safety, and luxury of more traditional lifestyles for the freedom of the road. Something that you will realize once you begin your own van life adventure.

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 a van (or similar vehicle) has been adapted for this purpose.

Van life routine of morning coffee
Van dweller Kelli waking up with coffee in the van

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.

A Land Cruiser Troop Carrier four wheel drive on its way to Cape York in Far Northe Queensland. A true overlanding adventure
What is overlanding? To us, Overlanding is about self-directed travel

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 Team Van Life, Van Dwelling, 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. 

Elements of van life, overlanding, and van dwelling will be essential to any endeavor to set out and travel with your vehicle.

Eddie and Kelli arguing at Sunset at Pueblo Nuevo. Picture of what is van life.
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

What is Van Life for 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 found. When you fall in love with a spot you may stay days, weeks, or indefinitely. When it’s time to move on you can.

This style of travel is not restricted to a tourist circuit. You are not tied to areas serviced by bus routes or accommodation 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 is often reinvested 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.

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 travelers. 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 centered around vehicular travel.

Also associated with the stylized and romanticized version of this lifestyle presented on Instagram.

Overlanding / Overlander

Self-sufficient, travel overland 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 rumors 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 are 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 are 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 feet. 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 Driver’s 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 traveled 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 / Van Life 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 Comments

  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!