Updated: 6 days ago
The movement towards sustainability and a more harmonious connection with nature has had many implications. People are changing the way they shop, eat and live to become more environmentally friendly and free. With this apparent growing awareness of our place in the natural and human systems, many have decided to make drastic lifestyle changes.
This includes people walking away from conventional practices, such as taking on a huge mortgage to buy a house. Instead, they are committing to a simpler, cheaper, and less restrictive way of living: that is, living in a van. This has now become a trending movement that is glorified on social media, expanding its presence with the hashtag “vanlife”.
The #vanlife Movement
Living in a van is not a new concept. It’s been done in various forms for decades, even before mechanical vans, where horses provided the power. However, thanks to Instagram, the van life movement has been highly popularized. COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 also added power to the wave, as people searched for unconventional living alternatives.
The #vanlife hashtag was first used by American Foster Huntington in 2011, when Instagram was in its early stages. It gradually grew in popularity, and what began as a controversial fringe lifestyle is now accepted by the mainstream. The hashtag has since been used many millions of times on social media and beyond.
With the growth of remote work and the opportunity to make an income online, van living became a legitimate choice. Offices or buildings of any kind are no longer necessary for many roles, particularly for those that promote travel. Many people who make up ‘van life’ populations are travel bloggers, who live the life they are inspiring their readers to take part in.
There is no doubt that living out of a van gives one a sense of freedom. For those who like to explore, hike and not stay too long in one place, this lifestyle is ideal. Not to mention it’s not something you must commit to forever; a few weeks or months of van living is still a valuable adventure.
One criticism that has been made of the #vanlife movement is that it offers an idealized depiction of the lifestyle. The glossy photos on social media, it’s been argued, don’t accurately represent the day-in and day-out commitment of living in a van. Let’s examine the realities of van living, from a writer who has actually done it.
What Van Life is Really Like
First of all, your van experience will depend heavily on where you are living and what kind of van you have. Van life includes a range of vehicles, including converted buses. For the most part, though, there are some aspects to be aware of that you’ll likely encounter.
• Tight spaces. Even if you massively cut down on your possessions before embarking, your van is going to be packed with your stuff. You’ll have little room to move, so the outdoors quickly become an extension of your living space. Additionally, if you’re living the van life with another, be prepared to be very close all the time. The intimacy can become intense.
• Limited cooking facilities. Crockery, cutlery, pots, and pans don’t take up too much space, and it’s easy to find a portable cooking stove. However, unless you have a fridge installed, you won’t be able to carry perishables. Also, the only time you’ll be cooking inside is if you’re at a campsite with an indoor kitchen. Otherwise, you’ll be cooking outside, exposed to the weather.
• Limited bathroom/washing facilities. Again, unless you’re staying at a campsite, you may end up using gym or restaurant bathrooms to wash in. If you’re in a place with warm weather and rivers or oceans, you’ll have more options for natural showers. However, you’ll find that you’ll start to miss toilets when you don’t have easy access to them.
• Noise. You don’t realize how well sound-proofed modern houses are until you sleep in a van. You’ll be able to hear the elements raging outside through the vehicle walls. Nevertheless, you’ll get used to it, and will eventually be able to sleep no matter what the weather or animals are up to. It might shock you at first, though.
• Insects. Every time you open your van’s doors, insects will rush in to say hello. You may spend some nights hearing mosquitoes buzzing around your head. That’s why an essential packing item for van goers is insect repellent.
The Positive Aspects of Van Life
Don’t let the above realities put a damper on your idea of van living. After a week or two, you become accustomed and create your own routines which make every day more fun. However, you’ll have to get used to being uncomfortable more often than not and to living with less. Since van life is simpler, there is less stuff to burden you and more space for adventure.
One of the most positive aspects of van life is the lower living costs. This frees up your wallet to undertake more activities which when on a road trip, are a big deal.
Campsites and rest stops are always cheaper than hotels and hostels, so you’ll have more money leftover in your travel budget for things like whale watching, kayaking, quad biking or any adventurous activity which captures your interest.
Another benefit for those who work remotely is that your office just got a whole lot bigger. Provided you have access to a Wi-Fi connection or hotspot network, you can work from anywhere in the world. While you don’t need a van to live the nomadic lifestyle, it’s reassuring knowing you’ll always have a means of transport and a place to sleep.
For those undertaking a working holiday, van living is a great way to save money while completing seasonal work. You can keep your costs low during the work season, and still be able to travel around on off days. When it comes time for the trip to end, simply find a willing traveler to sell the van to.
The simplest converted campervans will just have an area to sleep in the back, but these can be made cozy. Depending on the size, you can fit them with extra accessories to make them even more habitable.
Essentials for Van Life
If you hire a van for a short trip, the van life essentials are likely to all be included. However, if you’re buying your own van and customizing it, be sure to invest in the following.
• Curtains. These are key for privacy and will help you sleep longer without the bright daylight waking you up at the crack of dawn. Install some on the inside, on the side and back windows, and a screen between the front seats and back. The golden rule of van curtains? The thicker, the better.
• Fairy lights. Battery-powered lights can be bought for a low price at most department stores. Loop them around the upper handles and/or tape them to the ceiling to create a soothing atmosphere. Even the smallest of lights like these can serve as reading or changing light when you need it most.
• Foldable chairs. In good weather, you won’t want to sit in your van to eat and admire the scenery. Light, foldable chairs will mean you won’t have to sit on the ground.
• A portable charger. For if you’re somewhere remote and you need to keep your phone or laptop charged. The extra power locked into the battery packs can allow you to stay off-grid for a day or more.
• Water bottles. Both small bottles that you can carry with you, and large bottles to be used for cooking and teeth-brushing. Having access to at least 5 liters of water per person daily is a good idea. Keep an eye out for good tap water or natural way so you can simply fill up whenever you’re at a campsite or clean river.
• Sealable containers. These stop your possessions and supplies from rolling around and potentially becoming damaged. Plastic boxes for your food supplies will mean you can easily lift them in and out of your van.
Where are the Best Places to Live out of a Van?
Before we get into specific places, it’s important to note that countries have different laws regarding free camping. In some places, it’s problematic to not have a permanent address if you’re expecting mail. In others, free camping is illegal, so you can only stay on campsites. The bottom line: no matter where you go, do your research before committing to full-time van life.
One of the great parts of vanlife in Iceland is the low number of biting insects. Since this lifestyle involves spending a lot of time outdoors, this makes a big difference. Add to that the abundance of beautiful spots available to drive through and sleep at, and you have a vanlife Eden on your hands.
Something to be aware of is that free camping is essentially illegal in Iceland – you cannot just park up in a rest stop and stay for the night. Instead, you must stay at a registered campsite. These will not be hard to find as there are many around Iceland, and they are all very accessible.
It’s not recommended to live out of a van in Iceland’s winter, due to unpredictable and occasional extreme weather. Save your van living for May to September and find yourself another arrangement for the rest of the year.
Most of Iceland is well connected by Route 1, the Ring Road that circles the island. So, if you do need to get back to the capital for any reason, it’s easy to reach. The island is small enough that it can be driven across in a day if you don’t make too many pit stops. At the same time, it’s so full of incredible sites that you will probably find yourself eager to pull over and capture the view.
If you want to experience van life in Iceland for yourself, albeit temporarily, book your van at Campervan Reykjavik. Volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, hot springs and more await you in the Land of Fire and Ice.
The summer weather in these two countries is very conducive to seasonal work and epic road trips. Van life is easy, with an abundance of places to park up and stay at.
Although you can’t just stop and sleep anywhere, there are many free campsites in both nations. These will often have very limited facilities, which in some cases means no running water, or access to a dry toilet. Some free campsites only allow “self-contained” vehicles, but your van must meet certain requirements to be considered as such.
For young travelers who want to earn a salary and explore simultaneously, both Australia and New Zealand offer a lot of opportunities for fruit picking. These seasonal contracts, combined with van living, can help travelers rack up a good amount of money in a short time. When your contract is over, it’s time to spend your savings on adventuring.
Mosquitoes, sand flies, and other insects can be a bit of a problem in New Zealand in summer. It also might be difficult to sleep with your van windows closed all night. The solution is a fly screen, which allows you to keep your windows open but stops insects from invading.
Australia and New Zealand are home to plenty of opportunities in water sports, hiking, and adrenaline activities. Make sure you’ve got space in your van for snorkeling gear, and maybe even a surfboard. This is where a roof rack would come in handy, as many boards are too big to fit inside vans.
As with Australia, there are many places in the US you can camp for free, but there are limits. Laws vary between states, so check local restrictions before crossing state borders. Many national forests allow free camping for a limited time, and the US has some huge forests.
With so much diversity and open space between states, you could spend years dabbling in van life in America. And since many companies here are fine with you working remotely, there’s even more time to explore. Consider the famous Route 66 or pick your own. With some of the world’s biggest mountains, rivers, and other natural wonders, you won’t be lost for options.
The Vanlife trend
The #vanlife trend has many reconsidering their plans to invest in property. Especially because the movement doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment, it can be a great adventure before having kids or starting your long-term career. You’ll find that when or if you come back to living in conventional housing, you’ll appreciate home comforts much more.
Although #vanlife was made famous by social media, don’t get too caught up in taking and posting pictures. Remember, the whole purpose of this lifestyle is to remove yourself from the system and disconnect from the noise. Even if you only do this for a few weeks, your eyes will be opened to the natural beauty all around you.