Over the past decade, van life has rapidly increased in popularity. People are choosing to live in vans to travel more, save money on rent, pay down debt, or cut down on work hours. Some are simply priced out of homeownership and choose van life as an alternative. Van life can offer an ideal lifestyle. Of course, there are some serious drawbacks of van life to consider. The lifestyle isn’t always as glamorous as it’s made out to be on social media. Living in a van certainly isn’t for everyone. This guide outlines the pros and cons of van life, in a realistic and rational way. We’ll cover costs, comfort, van maintenance, privacy, stigmas, and much more. Hopefully, this guide helps you decide whether or not van life is for you.
What is Van Life?
Van life is the lifestyle of living in a vehicle that has been modified with basic amenities. Most basic van life vehicles are equipped with a bed, a basic kitchen, a battery for electricity, storage, and a heater. Larger or higher-end van life vehicles may be equipped with additional features and amenities such as a toilet, sink, shower, oven, solar power system, computer workstation, and more. Van life is sometimes called vandwelling.
Some of the most popular modern vans for van life include the Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, and Dodge Promaster. Classic vans such as the VW bus are also popular. Older vans such as the Ford Econoline series are also popular choices for those on a budget.
Van lifers don’t always live in vans. Many types of vehicles can be used for van life. Other types of vehicles are also used for van life including school buses (schoolies), SUVs, pickup trucks, box trucks, old ambulances, camp trailers, RVs, and even cars. Anyone living in a vehicle can be considered part of the van life community, even if they don’t live in a van.
Van life is an alternative lifestyle. It means different things to different people. For some, van life means being nomadic. Many van lifers enjoy having the freedom and mobility to travel at their own pace.
For some, van life is about enjoying the outdoors and nature. These people enjoy spending time in the mountains, by the beach, or in the desert. Many van lifers enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, climbing, and surfing. Van life can also mean living a minimalist, self-sufficient, and environmentally friendly lifestyle.
For others, van life is about working less. Many van lifers don’t want to work 40 hours per week or have an expensive mortgage. Many van lifers choose the lifestyle for financial reasons. They want to save money on rent or to pay down debt. Some van lifers live the lifestyle out of necessity because they can’t afford a traditional home. Van life can act as an alternative to homelessness. Some cities even offer special parking areas for those who live in vehicles.
There are a number of ways to live the van life. Most van dwellers live in their van full time. Many keep a place of residence and use their van to travel during the weekends and holidays. Some van lifers stay in one city and park in the same spot every night. Others live a nomadic lifestyle, traveling from place to place. There is no right or wrong way to do it.
A Bit of Van Life History
Van life isn’t a new concept. The history goes back to horse-drawn vehicles such as the covered Conestoga wagon and Roma Vardo wagon. During the late 18th to early 20th century, many people lived nomadic lives in horse-drawn vans. The term ‘vandwellers’ was used as early as 1889 to refer to traveling showmen in the UK.
Modern vandwelling began soon after motor vehicles were introduced. During the 1930s-1960s, camper trailers became incredibly popular among families. During the 1960s, van culture evolved as hippies began living out of vans.
Contemporary life began in 2011 when photographer Foster Huntington used the hashtag #vanlife for the first time. He posted photos of DIY camper van builds while living in a VW van. During the 2010s, van life grew in popularity on social media. Particularly Instagram. Influencers began posting photos and videos of their van lifestyle.
Van Life Pros
The benefits of van life are pretty obvious. It’s what you see on social media. Van lifers frequently post about freedom and travel. While researching van life, you’ll see plenty of photos of pristine vans parked in front of beautiful beaches and mountains and in deserts. In this section, I’ll outline some of the biggest pros of van life.
Lower Cost of Living
This is the main reason many people get into van life in the first place. Living expenses have increased significantly over the past few years. When you live in a van, you don’t have to pay for rent, electricity, water, sewer, trash, or cable and internet. Most people who live in a van spend somewhere between $1200 and $2000 per month. A van lifer on a tight budget could survive on as little as $500-$800 per month.
Your biggest savings will be on rent. On average, renting a one-bedroom apartment costs over $1200 per month in the U.S. In high cost of living cities, the average rent is nearly $3000 per month.
When you live in a van, you don’t have to pay rent. You can find a free place to park and camp every night. Most vanlifers never pay for a campsite. It’s possible to camp for free on public lands such as Bureau of Land Management land in the U.S. or Crown land in Canada. You can also camp for free on residential streets and in some business parking lots.
You’ll also save money on utilities. When you live in a van, you won’t have to pay for electricity. Many van lifers install a solar power system on their van for electricity. Some charge batteries with their vehicle’s motor. If you use public restrooms or a composting toilet, you never have to pay sewage dumping fees. You can discard trash for free in trash cans at gas stations and public places. You can usually find drinking water for free or filter your own. For internet, you can rely on public WiFi and your phone’s data plan. You won’t have an expensive cable and internet bill. Cutting your utility expense can save you anywhere from $100-$500 per month.
Living in a van can allow you to save a lot of money quickly. This is great for those who are saving for a down payment on a house or paying down student loan debt. If you’re careful with your spending, it’s possible to save a ton of money and become financially free by living in a van. Van life is also a great way to live frugally in a high cost of living city. Maybe you want to live in New York or San Francisco but can’t afford rent. A van is a possible alternative.
If you’re traveling in your van, you’ll never have to pay for an expensive hotel room or Airbnb. You can simply sleep in the van every night. It’s pretty easy to find a free place to park for the night.
If you build a kitchen in your van, you don’t have to spend money on expensive restaurants. You can cook healthy and delicious meals inside your van.
Of course, there are some major expenses that you’ll have to take into consideration. You’ll have to buy the van and build it out. Gas can also be a major expense. Maintenance is another major expense. You’ll also have to license and insure your van. I’ll talk more in-depth about these expenses later on.
Check out this great guide to the costs of van life to get a better idea of the expenses involved.
Living in a van gives you the freedom to travel. If you love nature, you can explore the wonders of the national parks. If you’re a mountain person, you can drive from trailhead to trailhead and hike to your heart’s content. Beach bums can spend their days along the coast surfing and enjoying the sun and sand. If you choose a 4X4 van, you can explore backwoods areas where other vans can’t go. A van is also a great way to explore different cities. You can park in different neighborhoods and really get to know each city you visit. While traveling, you can also visit tourist attractions that can’t be easily accessed by public transport.
After you’ve explored your home country, you can drive or ship your van and continue your adventure in another country or continent. For example, some American and Canadian vanlifers drive the Pan-American Highway. This incredible road starts in Alaska and leads you south through Mexico, Central America, and South America, and ends in Argentina. You’ll ship your van across the Darien Gap. For more info, check out this cool article about a couple who drove the Pan-American highway in their van. Some European Vanlifers drive east and explore Asia. The Cairo to Cape Town route is another option.
There are a number of benefits of traveling in a van rather than just with a backpack. When you travel in a van, you never have to plan ahead and make it to a specific destination to check into a hotel. You just have to find a safe place to park for the night. You can travel at your own pace. If you find yourself in an area that you really enjoy, you can stay there for a few weeks, months, or even years. You can also explore more easily when you have your own vehicle. If you see an interesting road, you can take it. A van also allows you to carry more travel gear.
If you plan to travel with your van overseas, it’s a good idea to choose a model with good parts availability. Some models are sold in many international markets. This makes parts more common. It’s also important to consider the costs. Shipping a vehicle overseas costs anywhere from $1000-$5000.
Being Close to Nature
Nature is a big part of van life. Because space in the van is limited, you’ll end up spending more time outside. You can spend your days hiking, climbing, cycling, surfing, swimming, diving, kayaking, and more. During the evenings, you can sit by the campfire and stargaze. While living in a van, you get to enjoy falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing on the beach and waking up to spectacular views of snow-capped peaks. If you choose, you can fish, hunt, and forage for food. This can bring you even closer to nature. If you travel, you can explore different environments including the mountains, deserts, forests, jungles, grasslands, and marine areas. You get to enjoy all that nature has to offer when you live in a van.
There are a number of health benefits of spending more time in nature. According to this interesting article, “studies have shown that time in nature — as long as people feel safe — is an antidote for stress: It can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood.” Spending time in nature is good for your physical, mental, and emotional health. You’ll live a longer and healthier life if you spend time outside.
You Always Have All of Your Stuff with You
A major benefit of living and traveling in a van is the convenience and comfort. You never have to pack or unpack. You always have all of the comforts of home with you in your van.
Every night you get to sleep in your own bed with your favorite pillow and blankets. If you get hungry, you can pull over and cook yourself a meal. Your pantry and kitchen are always with you and stocked with your favorite foods and drinks. You also always have your whole wardrobe with you. When you get cold or wet, you always have a jacket or change of clothes in your van. If your van has a bathroom, you never have to search for public restrooms. If you injure yourself, you have your first-aid kit in your van. It’s nice always having whatever you need within arm’s reach. It makes everywhere feel like home.
You can customize your van to your exact specifications
Your van can be your dream home. You can decorate the inside to suit your aesthetic preference. For example, maybe you want the inside of your van to look like a rustic wood cabin. You can do that. Maybe you prefer a Scandinavian minimalist design. You can do that too. You get to choose the flooring, upholstery material, paint colors, and layout.
In addition, you can add the exact features and amenities that you want. Maybe you’re a gamer and you need lots of power to run your PC and monitors. You can install extra solar panels and batteries and a large desk. Maybe you like to cook. You can design a full kitchen with a 4 burner range, fridge, sink, and large countertop. You can also add luxury features like a wood stove, shower, or oven.
It’s also possible to customize the van to match the environment you live in. If you spend most of your time in cold and mountainous environments, you may choose a 4X4 van with quality tires, a powerful heater, and good insulation. If you live in the tropics, you might choose a van with lots of ventilation and fans.
You can work fewer hours when you live in a van
Because van life can be so much cheaper than living in a home, you don’t have to earn as much money to sustain your lifestyle. This allows you to work fewer hours if you choose. Working less gives you more time to travel, enjoy hobbies, work on side projects, or simply relax and enjoy yourself.
Van lifers work a wide range of jobs. If you want to work less, you could work a part-time job and earn enough money to live a comfortable life in your van. If you’re frugal, you could earn enough to survive working just 20 hours per week at a minimum wage job.
Alternatively, you could do seasonal work and travel for the rest of the year. For example, maybe you work for 3-6 months per year as a fisherman, ski instructor, lifeguard, or forest firefighter. You might be able to earn enough money in that time to support yourself for the rest of the year.
Another option is to work intermittently. You could find a job and work for a few months, save up, then travel. When you run low on money, you can find another job in another city and start saving again. This works well for people in the hospitality industry.
You could also work online as a freelancer or run your own online business. Many van lifers are writers, bloggers, vloggers, photographers, web designers, musicians, drop shippers, editors, and videographers. These can be great part-time jobs for traveling van lifers. For example, a skilled writer may only have to work for a few hours per day to earn enough to live on.
You’ll learn how to maintain and repair a vehicle
Vans require regular maintenance. While living in a van, you will learn how to perform maintenance tasks to keep your van running reliably. Vans also break down. If you choose, you can learn how to make repairs to your van when something stops working.
While maintaining your van, you’ll learn how to use various tools. You’ll also learn how various mechanical components function. These are excellent skills to possess. Basic mechanical skills will come in handy throughout your life. Being able to work on your own vehicles and mechanical equipment always comes in handy.
You can perform as much or as little of your own maintenance as you like. Most vanlifers learn to at least perform basic maintenance tasks such as changing the oil and filter, checking the fluids, changing the air filters, replacing windshield wipers, replacing lights, checking the tire pressure, replacing the battery, checking belts and hoses, etc. Anyone can learn how to perform these basic maintenance tasks.
You might choose to take on more involved maintenance tasks such as replacing the brake pads and rotors, replacing the spark plugs and wires, changing various fluids, and replacing various belts and hoses. These jobs may require some additional tools but aren’t too complicated.
If you choose, you could even learn how to perform more advanced repair tasks such as replacing the radiator, suspension components, brake components, or even performing engine work. These types of jobs require some specialty tools and skills but are manageable if you’re ambitious. Youtube videos and a shop manual can teach you all of the skills you’ll need.
These maintenance skills are important to learn. Particularly if you drive an older or higher mileage van. Used vans require more frequent maintenance than new vans. Breakdowns are also more common. Maintaining your own van is also important if you’re on a tight budget. You can save a massive amount of money by working on your own van.
Working on your van can also be enjoyable. Fixing your van gives you a sense of accomplishment. It also makes you feel more self-sufficient because you don’t need the help of a mechanic.
When you live in a van, you have less stuff weighing you down. There simply isn’t space to store a bunch of stuff. A mid-sized cargo van only gives you 40-60 square feet of space to work with. To compare, the average house in the U.S. has over 2000 square feet.
There are several benefits to living in a small space with less stuff. Living a minimalist lifestyle can improve your mental health. According to this scientific study, “All participants reported that minimalism provided various wellbeing benefits. Five key themes were identified in the study: autonomy, competence, mental space, awareness, and positive emotions.” People who live a minimalist lifestyle also tend to feel less stressed, depressed, and anxious. According to this article, materialism has been linked to depression and loneliness.
An example of how minimalism can improve your well-being is by reducing the number of choices you have to make. When you live in a van, you don’t have space for a closet full of clothes. You may only own a few high-quality items of clothing. This makes choosing what to wear every morning much faster and easier, which reduces stress. You also won’t own any heavy and bulky furniture weighing you down. Everything you own can be easily transported in your van. You’ll feel more autonomous and free when you don’t have stuff weighing you down.
You’ll learn valuable skills
Many vanlifers choose to start with an empty cargo van and build it out by themselves. The benefit of doing this is that you’ll learn loads of valuable skills along the way. You’ll also know exactly how all of the systems in your van work. If something stops working, you can more easily diagnose the problem and repair it. You don’t need any particular skills to build a van. You can learn as you go.
While building your van, you’ll learn basic woodworking and carpentry when you build your bed platform and cabinetry. You’ll learn how to do electrical work while installing your solar system and battery. You’ll learn sewing while making curtains. While installing your sink, you’ll learn basic plumbing.
Depending on your build, you may also learn a bit about heating, insulation, ventilation, flooring, painting, and more. You’ll also learn how to use various types of tools including saws, drills, wrenches, soldering iron, etc. You’ll learn how to work with wood, wire, metal, pipe, plastics, and other materials. You won’t become an expert but you will learn enough.
These skills come in handy while living in a van. There is always something that needs to be repaired or upgraded. You can save a lot of money by doing the work yourself. These skills also come in handy throughout your life. If you decide to settle down one day and own a home, you can apply the skills that you learned by building your van to maintain and repair your home. For example, if an outlet stops working, you’ll know enough about electrical work to replace it.
While living in your van, you’ll learn a range of other practical skills. For example, you’ll learn navigation skills while driving to camping spots in remote areas. You’ll also become a better driver. Controlling a large vehicle and driving off-road requires skill. You’ll learn organizational skills while designing and packing your van. You may pick up some survival and first-aid skills while camping. You might also pick up a new hobby. For example, maybe you get into surfing or climbing. If you travel abroad in your van, you might learn a new language. You could also learn how to fish, hunt, forage, and cook if you want to save money on food.
You’re not tied down anywhere when you live in a van
One major benefit of living in a van is that you can easily move to a new location if you grow tired of your current situation. You’re not tied down by a home, lease, job, or possessions. You’re mobile.
Many vanlifers live a nomadic lifestyle, constantly traveling from place to place. Others move with the seasons, heading south for the winter then driving up north during the summer. Some van lifers visit the same destinations every year. For example, snowbirds may head to Arizona every winter. This kind of lifestyle is easier when you live in a van.
To support their nomadic lifestyle, many vanlifers work online jobs that are location-independent. This allows them to move around as they please. All they need is an internet connection. Some work seasonal jobs. Some work for a while to save up then quit and travel.
Moving is much more complicated when you live in an apartment or home and work a normal job. If you want to move, you’ll have to rent or buy a new home, box all of your belongings, and transport them. If you own your home, you’ll have to sell it first. You’ll also have to find a new job in your new city.
You’re Always Prepared
When you live and travel in a van, you can carry enough equipment to get you through any situation. Van lifers may live a minimalist lifestyle but they are considered heavy packers in the travel community.
For example, in your van you can carry traction pads, a winch, tow straps, and a shovel to help you recover your vehicle if you get stuck in the mud or snow. You can carry a full first-aid kit to patch yourself up if you get sick or injured. You can carry tools to maintain and repair your van and equipment. You’ll always have a change of clothes if you get wet or dirty.
If you get hungry, you have cooking supplies and food. It’s easy to carry plenty of extra water. You have a place to go to the bathroom wherever you are. You always have electricity in your batteries for charging electronics. If you get tired after a long day of driving, you can find a safe and quiet place to park and hunker down for the night. Your whole home is always with you. You can also carry extra fuel so you never run out of gas. It’s possible to load up your van with enough supplies to sustain yourself for weeks at a time.
You own your home
Homeownership is a dream for many. Unfortunately, home prices have increased so much that they are becoming impossible for many to afford. Average people are getting priced out of the housing market.
Most people can save up and buy a decent van. When you buy a van, you own it. You don’t have to deal with the stress of a mortgage or property tax.
Of course, you may still have a car payment if you don’t pay your van off in full. A $20,000 loan for a used van is much more manageable than a $400,000 home loan. You’ll also have to pay for licensing, insurance, and gas. This is much more affordable than homeownership.
Van life is environmentally friendly
Living in a van reduces your carbon footprint. Many van lifers get their electricity from the sun with a solar power setup. To further reduce your footprint, you can use salvaged or recycled materials to build your van. For example, you could use old fabric to make curtains or old lumber to build a bed platform.
You’ll also buy less stuff because there isn’t space to store it in your van. Consuming less is good for the environment because fewer plastics, textiles, etc. need to be produced. You also won’t use nearly as much water or produce as much trash when you live in a van. Van life is a green lifestyle.
Your van will burn fossil fuels. This puts carbon into the atmosphere. You can reduce your emissions by driving a fuel-efficient van or by driving less. In the near future, electric vans may become a viable option.
For more info on the environmental impact of van life, check out this cool article.
You’ll meet interesting people
Van life can be extremely social if you want it to be. You’ll meet people at campgrounds, on hiking trails, and in parks and wilderness areas. You’ll meet fellow van lifers as well as travelers.
The people you meet will share similar interests with you. They all love the outdoors, travel, and adventure. Many live alternative lifestyles. When you meet a fellow van lifer, you can talk about your van build and your travels. You might even make some vanlife friends and travel together in a caravan.
Van Life Cons
Van life isn’t always as glamorous as it appears in Instagram posts. Sometimes it’s dirty, uncomfortable, lonely, and even depressing. It can be a difficult lifestyle. In this section, I’ll outline the main drawbacks of van life.
There isn’t much space in a van
An average single-family home in the United States measures 2300 square feet, according to the US census. A mid-sized camper van, such as a Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, or Ram Promaster, measures around 60 square feet. That’s not a lot of room to live in and store your stuff.
When you live in a van, you have to pare down. There isn’t room for a closet full of clothes or a kitchen full of appliances. You have to pick and choose what’s important to you. The more stuff you pack into the van, the less room there is for living. At the same time, there are certain items you need.
Exactly how much space you’ll have depends on the size of your van. If you live out of a minivan, you’ll only have space for the basics such as a bed, a small cooking/work area, and some storage for clothing, tools, and food. If you live in a large camper van, you may have space for a bathroom, desk, kitchen, a small table, and some sporting equipment.
When building your van, you really have to prioritize what’s important to you. There isn’t space for everything. To give you an idea of how much space you’ll have to work with, check out this great guide to campervan sizes.
One great way to make your van feel roomier is to build a bed that can fold into a couch. This leaves you more floor space during the day when the bed is folded up. Mounting gear to the walls and to the roof can also free up room. If you stay in one city, you may consider renting a small storage locker for gear that you don’t need every day.
It’s also important to consider the number of people living in your van. If you live in your van with another person, space is even more limited. It will feel cramped at times. For example, if you’re cooking and your partner needs to get to the bed, you may need to move out of the way so they can squeeze by you. This can be annoying. You’ll also never have any space to yourself. The other person is always in the same room with you, just a couple of feet away. If you’re not extremely close, this can be a problem. There is zero privacy.
If you live in your van with a dog or a cat, you’ll have even less space to work with. You’ll need to create a sleeping area for them. You’ll also need a space for their food and water. Dogs make great travel companions but they do take up a lot of space. Living alone in a van is much easier but can get lonely.
Finding a place to take a shower can be a challenge
When you live in a van, you may not be able to take a daily shower. For some people, this is a dealbreaker. For others, it’s not a big deal. Finding a place to shower can also be an issue. There are several options when it comes to bathing while living in a van.
Most van lifers buy a gym membership and shower at the gym. If you travel, you’ll want to purchase a membership to a national chain that allows you to use any of their facilities. In the U.S, Planet Fitness is a popular option because the monthly fee is low and they have lots of locations around the country.
You could also use paid shower facilities at truck stops and campgrounds. The cost can add up quickly. Truckstop showers usually cost $10-$15. This is pretty expensive. If you use one every other day, you’re spending at least $150 per month to shower. Campground showers are usually cheaper at around $2-$10.
Some van lifers build a shower inside of their van. This is really only practical if you live in a large camper van because a shower takes up so much space. Adding a shower is also pretty complex. You’ll need a way to heat the water, store the dirty water, and deal with humidity.
Another popular option is to use an outdoor shower that’s heated either by the sun or with electricity. These showers can mount to the roof of the van. This Advanced Elements Summer Solar Shower would work well.
The drawback to this setup is that you can only use it when you’re camping in remote areas when the weather is warm. You’re not going to want to take an outdoor shower in a city or in the winter.
A free option is to bathe in a lake, river, or stream when possible. If you do this, be sure to use an environmentally friendly soap so you don’t pollute the water.
One great way to get a free shower is to go to the beach. Many public beaches offer free shower facilities. Some public swimming pools also have free or cheap shower facilities. You can pay a couple of dollars to use the pool and take a free shower.
If you’re not able to shower every day, you can also give yourself a sponge bath in the van or wipe yourself down with wet wipes. It’s a good idea to keep some wet wipes in your van for those occasions when you can’t find a shower.
Finding a place to park and camp can be a challenge
When you live in a van, you have to find a safe, quiet, and preferably legal place to park every night. Depending on where you are, this can be a real challenge. Most van lifers park on a mix of public lands, city streets, parking lots, and residential areas.
Unfortunately, many cities are not vanlife friendly these days. They have laws prohibiting people from sleeping in vehicles. For example, in San Francisco, it’s illegal to sleep in a vehicle between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am. In San Diego, it is illegal to live in a vehicle. These types of laws are becoming common in many cities around the world.
If you’re caught sleeping in your van illegally, most likely you’ll just be asked to leave. In some cases, you could get ticketed. This could cost you $200-$1000. If you park illegally, your van could also get towed.
In some places, locals may report you to the police because they don’t want people living in vans near their homes. There is nothing worse than being woken up in the middle of the night by a police officer knocking on your window. Van lifers refer to this as ‘the knock.’ To avoid the knock, it’s a good idea to check the local laws regarding sleeping in a vehicle before arriving in a new city. Only park where it’s legal, when possible.
Luckily, there are plenty of free and legal parking options. For example, many Walmart and Cabellas stores as well as many truck stops allow people to camp overnight in their parking lots. It is also legal to camp for free on public lands in many parts of the world. For example, in the U.S, you can park on most BLM land for free. Canadians can camp on Crown Land for free. You can find more free camping options on iOverlander and Freecampsites.net. In some cities, it is legal to park on the streets.
For more info on where you can and can’t park, check out this great article.
When you live in a van, you spend the majority of your time in public places. You may shower and brush your teeth at the gym, make coffee and cook your breakfast at a rest stop parking lot, then sleep while parked on a public street.
There is almost always somebody around. When someone walks by your van, they can look in the windows and see that you live there. People can and will watch you while you go about your day-to-day life. Someone may even knock on your door. There is no privacy.
One solution is to install black-out curtains or window shades. These prevent people from looking into your van. They also help to keep the inside of your van dark while you’re sleeping under a bright street light.
Keeping your van stealthy can also help. People won’t notice you as much if your van looks like a normal cargo van. Plain white vans and minivans are ideal. Camper vans draw more attention.
Van Life Can be a Poor Financial Decision
There are some major expenses of van life. First is the van itself. You could spend as little as $5,000-$10,000 on a used cargo van that you build out yourself or you could spend well over $100,000 on a high-end custom van. For most people, a van is a major purchase. It takes time to save up.
Buying an expensive van may not be a good financial decision for some people. The reason is that vans are depreciating assets. They lose value over time. For example, if you buy a brand new $100k camper van, it may only be worth $50k after 5 years. If you were to take the same money and use it for a down payment on a house, you would have an asset that appreciates. Your $100k may turn into $150k in home equity after 5 years.
In the long run, buying a home is a better financial decision for many people because it helps you build wealth. This point really only matters if you buy an expensive van that’s brand new. If your van only costs $5k-$10k, and it depreciates by a few thousand dollars, it’s not really a big deal. If your new van depreciates by tens of thousands of dollars, it can be significant. Van life could put you behind financially.
Vans are Expensive to Own and Maintain
Owning a vehicle is surprisingly expensive. You must consider the cost of maintenance, insurance, registration, taxes, depreciation, interest, financing, and gas. According to this article from AAA, it costs an average of $8,558 per year to own and operate a vehicle. That’s around $700 per month.
When budgeting for van life, it’s important to factor in maintenance. On average, it costs around $1200 per year to maintain a vehicle. Your maintenance expense will depend on the age, mileage, and condition of the van you buy as well as the number of miles that you drive. Older vans with high mileage require lots of maintenance and repair to keep them running reliably. New vans require minimal maintenance. The more you drive, the more maintenance your van will need.
Your maintenance expense also depends on your mechanical ability. If you can do most of the labor yourself, the maintenance cost will be minimal. If you have to hire a mechanic for everything, the cost can add up quickly.
Insurance can be another significant expense. Expect to spend $1000-$2000 per year depending on the type of van you drive, your location, and your driving record.
If you financed your vehicle, you’ll have to consider the monthly payment and interest expense. Your monthly payment could be $500-$600. Of course, if you paid your van off in full, you won’t have this expense.
Licensing and registration can cost anywhere from $50-$200+ per year depending on the type of van you drive and the city and country you live in. You’ll also have to pay taxes when you buy the van. This could be 6-10% of the purchase price.
You may also want to think about the depreciation expense. If you buy a new van, it can depreciate by 20%-30% in the first year and around 15% per year from years 2-6. Older vehicles depreciate much more slowly.
Of course, you’ll also have to buy gas. This could cost $100-$300+ per month depending on how much you drive. I’ll talk more about the gas cost later on.
Your van can break down on you
If you live in a van long enough, at some point your van will break down unexpectedly and surprise you with a big repair bill. This can happen even if you stay on top of maintenance. You never know when your van will break down and require repair. All vehicles eventually fail.
You need to have a backup plan and be prepared for this kind of expense. Ideally, you should keep $2000-$5000 set aside for unexpected repairs. If you can’t afford the bill, you could put it on a credit card and pay it off over time. This can create a massive financial burden if you weren’t prepared.
If your van breaks down and needs serious repair, you may not be able to live in the van for some time. This leaves you homeless. You’ll need to prepare for this as well. You may have to stay with family or friends or in a hotel for a few days to a few weeks.
It can also take time to find a reliable mechanic, find the necessary parts, and have the work done. If you need to get to work or school, you may need to rent a car as well. These expenses can add up fast.
For example, maybe your transmission goes out and it will cost $4000 to repair. On top of the repair bill, you may have a towing bill, a hotel bill, and a rental car bill. This breakdown could easily cost you over $5000. That’s a major expense to have to absorb.
It’s difficult to keep the inside of a van at a comfortable temperature
Your van will get too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. During the hot months, you can park in the shade, run a fan, and open a window to cool down. Sometimes this isn’t enough. You just have to sit around in the heat and sweat.
During the winter, can run a diesel heater or use a wood stove to keep your van warm. You can also use an electric blanket if you have a big enough battery. Of course, you can also sleep in a warm sleeping bag and wear a jacket in the van. Good insulation also helps. When you wake up in the morning, your van will be cold. It also takes a lot of energy to keep your van comfortable when it’s below freezing outside.
One solution is to move with the seasons. During the summer, you can head to the mountains or to the coast to keep cool. Crisp mountain air and sea breezes keep you cool. During the winter, you can head south to a warmer climate. Many American van lifers head to Southern California, Arizona, or Florida for the winter. If this isn’t an option, you’ll just have to deal with some uncomfortable weather.
Living in a van can be uncomfortable
You will have to deal with some discomfort when living in a van. For example, your bed may not be as comfortable as you’re used to. Your mattress may be a bit smaller, or thinner, and less supportive than you’d like. You probably can’t fit a queen or king sized mattress in your van. You’ll have to settle for a twin or full. If you’re a large or tall person, you won’t have much room to spread out. Some van lifers sleep on a thin foam pad. These aren’t as comfortable as mattresses.
If you’re planning to live in your van full time, it’s important that you have a comfortable sleeping area. This should be a top priority. Choose a mattress that offers plenty of support for your back and neck. Make sure it’s long enough so you can stretch out and lay flat. You need to get a good night’s sleep so you can wake up well-rested. If you can’t sleep comfortably, you won’t enjoy living in a van.
The size of your van also plays a big role in your comfort. Small vans feel cramped. Particularly if you’re living with someone else. You can’t easily move around. If your van isn’t tall enough for you to stand up in, you’ll have to hunch over or crawl around on your knees. This gets incredibly uncomfortable. If possible, it’s a good idea to choose a high-top van so you can stand up and walk around.
Living in a van can be particularly challenging if you are a big or tall person. You won’t be able to stand up and walk around in your van. A small van can feel cramped for a large person. Particularly when it’s fully built out and full of gear.
Your van’s layout can also play a big role in your comfort. Some van lifers choose to have their cooking area inside of their van. Others design their van so the cooking area is only accessible from the outside. It’s not comfortable to cook outside when it’s cold or rainy or when there are lots of people around. Your van’s features also play a role in your comfort. For example, a quality heating system and a shower can greatly improve comfort.
Vans use a lot of fuel
Gas is a major expense for van lifers. How much you’ll spend on gas depends on the gas mileage of your vehicle and how much you drive. If you drive an old gas-guzzling van and travel constantly, you could easily spend $300-$500 or more per month on gas. If you drive a new efficient van and don’t travel, you might spend less than $100 per month on gas.
Before you buy a van, it’s important to consider your monthly gas expense. Take the mileage you plan to drive, the gas mileage of the vehicle, the cost of gas into consideration.
Older cargo vans may get less than 10 miles per gallon. Newer cargo vans, like the Mercedes Sprinter or Ram Promaster, are more efficient. These get 15-20+ miles per gallon. Minivans are even more efficient. Some models get 25 around mpg.
If you drive 15,000 miles per year and your van gets 15 mpg and gas costs $3.50 per gallon, you’ll spend just under $300 per month on gas.
You may also want to consider the cost of fuel for your heater. Many van lifers use a diesel heater during the winter. These burn 0.1-0.5 liters of fuel per hour. You could easily burn a couple of liters of diesel per day on heating alone. Over the course of a long cold winter, this adds up. You might also want to consider the cost of fuel for your stove if you cook with propane. If you use a generator for electricity, you’ll also want to factor in the cost of gas.
There is a stigma to van dwelling
Unfortunately, many people hold negative views of van dwellers. There is a significant social stigma to the lifestyle. It can be difficult to be an accepted part of society when you live in a van. You will be discriminated against on occasion. Some people may treat you poorly. There is no avoiding it.
People have varying opinions of van dwellers. Some people will think of you as a homeless person when you live in a van. It doesn’t matter how nice the van is. They assume that you’re living in a van out of necessity because you can’t afford a home. Some people will assume that you’re dirty or lazy or that there’s something wrong with you. Some people think of van lifers as failures. For example, you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘living in a van down by the river’ used to describe someone who has failed at life.
Many people also don’t like the idea of people living in vehicles in their neighborhood or even in their city. These people are sometimes referred to as NIMBY (not in my backyard). This is common in expensive and wealthy areas. People who live there think that outsiders aren’t entitled to be in their neighborhood because they don’t pay for it.
If one of these people spots you, they may call the police on you or leave a passive-aggressive note on your vehicle. People may treat you like a second-class citizen at times. They may tell you that you’re not welcome. It doesn’t feel good to be looked down on. Sometimes you don’t feel like a valued member of society, even if you contribute just as much as everyone else.
Some van lifers are partially to blame for this stigma. There are some bad apples that ruin it for everyone. For example, some van lifers litter, park where they shouldn’t, make excessive noise, trespass, steal, vandalize, and generally cause problems. Some van lifers don’t maintain their vans or spread out their gear and create an eyesore. These people are in the minority. A few bad van lifers can give the rest a bad name, unfortunately.
Van life is an alternative lifestyle. Some people simply can’t understand why someone would want to live in a van. Some people fear or hate things that they don’t understand. Even though van life has become more mainstream over the past few years, there is still a strong stigma to it.
Van Life may not be good for your social and romantic life
Dating is difficult when you live in a van. Many potential dates will lose interest before getting to know you if you tell them that you live in a van. Many dates won’t want to join you in your van. After all, you don’t really have a comfortable place to bring someone back to. Some people hold the opinion that van life lifers are weird or poor or dirty. This greatly reduces your pool of potential dates. It’s still possible to date. Just more difficult. You’ll have to find someone who understands and appreciates the lifestyle.
Making friends can be a challenge as well. Some people may be hesitant to become friends with you because you live in a van. They may simply think that you’re weird because you live an alternative lifestyle. They may assume that you’ll move on frequently and won’t be around to hang out. Some people don’t want to put in the effort to become friends if you’re always traveling. Many people also can’t relate to van lifers. They don’t understand the lifestyle.
Keeping the van clean is a challenge
Because the living space is so small, vans get messy quickly. You track dirt and debris in when you enter. The space gets cluttered quickly if you don’t put things away after using them. Smells from food, dirty clothes, body odor, and the environment can build up and make your van stink. Crumbs and grease from cooking and eating in your van build up. Your small trash can fills up quickly.
You’ll need to clean regularly to keep your van fresh, comfortable, and livable. Pretty much every day, you’ll have to sweep the floor and wipe down the surfaces, put clothing and gear back in their place, open a window for ventilation, and dump your trash. This isn’t all that difficult or time-consuming but having to clean daily can get annoying.
Doing dishes is one of the biggest annoyances of van life, in my opinion. Most vans have a small sink or no sink at all. While washing dishes, water splashes everywhere. There is nowhere to place wet dishes to dry. Water is limited as well. You have to be careful about how much you use. You probably don’t have hot water to wash with. It’s also important that you wash the dishes right after you eat. If you don’t the food will get caked on and become difficult to wash away. Dirty dishes can also stink up your van. They also clutter the place up. Washing dishes outside in a washbasin can be a good solution.
The bathroom situation
When building or buying your van, you’ll have to decide whether or not you want it to have a toilet in it. There are benefits and drawbacks to both choices.
If you don’t have a toilet in your van, you’ll have to find a bathroom to use every time you need to go. You could use the bathroom at a gym, gas station, truck stop, bus station, restaurant, store, campground, or in public places such as a park. This can be a hassle. Having to use a different bathroom every day is also not very comfortable. Particularly if it’s a public bathroom.
If you decide to have a toilet in your van, you’ll have to deal with the odors. You’ll also have to deal with emptying it. This is a disgusting job that you may not want to deal with. You’ll also have to find places to dump it. Of course, the benefit of having a toilet is that you can go whenever you need to go.
Many van lifers choose to have a toilet that is reserved only for emergency situations. This could be a small porta potty or even a bucket lined with a plastic bag. A composting toilet can also work well. This can be a nice compromise. You have a place to go when you need it. Most van lifers also use a pee bottle on occasion. If you spend time in remote areas, you will need a place to go to the bathroom. In some cases, you can go to the bathroom outside.
There are safety and security risks to living in a van
If your van gets stolen, you lose all of your belongings. The thief could get away with your van as well as your electronics, clothing, tools, camping equipment, bedding, cooking gear, cash, important documents, etc. Replacing all of this is expensive. It’s also a major hassle.
You’ll want to make sure your insurance covers theft. You should also take plenty of photos of everything in your van and save all of your receipts so you can prove to the insurance company what was in the van if it gets stolen. Be sure to back all of your important documents up to the cloud so you can access them if everything is stolen.
There is also the possibility that someone breaks into your van at night while you’re sleeping. This would be a terrifying experience. Some van lifers carry pepper spray or some type of weapon to defend themselves if worse comes to worst. Whether or not you should carry a weapon is a personal decision.
You also run the risk of being involved in an auto accident. Some people struggle to drive a large vehicle, such as a van. If you’re not a safe driver, van life may not be for you. While living in a van, you’ll also be driving more than you otherwise would. This means you have more exposure to getting involved in an accident.
Van life can be unstable and stressful
While traveling in a van, you never know where you’re going to sleep. The scenery changes from day to day. You never know where you’ll take your next shower. You’ll always shop at different stores, use different gyms, and eat in different restaurants. Sometimes you’ll have trouble finding a restroom. You’ll constantly meet different people. This constant change can become stressful. It gets overwhelming at times.
It’s also difficult to develop a routine when you live in a van. When you’re constantly moving, you may have to go to bed and wake up at different times every day. Sometimes you’ll have to stay up late looking for a safe place to park. Sometimes you’ll have to wake up early to move your van so you don’t get a ticket. You may be forced to cook, eat, clean, exercise, work, or study at different times and in different locations each day.
This instability can be bad for your mental health. Not knowing where you’re going to sleep what you’re going to eat is particularly stressful. Not having a routine can be unhealthy. This instability can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and a range of other issues. Some people deal with instability better than others. Some people need a routine in order to function.
Not all van lifers live an unstable lifestyle. If you stay in the same city, you can find some regular places to park and bathe and develop a normal daily routine. For many, having some stability leads to a healthier and happier life. For more info, check out this interesting article about mental health and having a routine.
Of course, some change is a good thing. Having new experiences and viewing different scenery can add excitement to your life and bring you happiness. Following the same routine every day gets boring. There are compromises.
Van life can get lonely and depressing
Spending time in your van alone can get kind of depressing. Particularly if you’re parked somewhere unexciting such as in a parking lot or on a residential street. If you’re traveling, there may be periods where you don’t have a meaningful conversation with anyone for days or weeks at a time. This is common if you’re camping in a remote area. Sometimes you don’t meet anyone. It gets lonely at times, even if you’re a person that enjoys solitude.
Spending so much time alone can take its toll on your mental health. For example, according to this article, “ Some research suggests that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress.”
Of course, this is only the case if you’re living in your van alone. If you’re living with a partner or even a pet, you won’t be lonely. It is also possible to be a social van lifer. There are plenty of ways to meet people while traveling.
Finding a place to fill and dump holding tanks is a challenge
If your van has holding tanks, you’ll have to find a place to fill the clean water tank and dump the gray water tank. This can be a challenge. Filling and dumping areas can be tough to find. Particularly when you’re traveling in remote areas. Many smaller towns don’t have dumping facilities.
To help you plan for this, it’s a good idea to mark on your calendar when you fill and dump your tanks. This will give you an idea of how long you can go between dumping and filling.
It’s also a good idea to check the nearest dumping areas on the map. Some good resources include the iOverlander app and SaniDumps.com. Many state websites also offer a list of dump areas. Many rest stops, truck stops, and campgrounds offer dump stations. Finding fresh water to fill your tank with is easier. You can buy water at any grocery store.
Of course, you don’t need holding tanks. You could simply fill jugs of freshwater to drink and cook with. If you clean your dishes and shower outside of the van, you won’t produce any gray water to dump. Many vans don’t even have holding tanks.
Van life can be hard on relationships
Your friends and family may not understand your decision to live in a van. They may assume that you’re broke and living in your van out of necessity. Some people may start treating you differently. They may feel sorry for you. They may think there is something wrong with you. You might even lose some friends.
Living in a van with a partner can also be a challenge. Even if you’re close, spending every moment within a couple of feet of one another can be a challenge. When you get into an argument, there is nowhere to go to get away from one another. There is a chance that your relationship will end after moving into the van together. Some couples can’t handle it.
There are lots of annoying tasks and hassles you have to deal with when you live in a van
Before you move the van, you have to make sure everything is secured in place. If you forget something, it can shift while you drive. When you accelerate, turn, or brake hard, stuff can fall and break or roll around in the back of the van. For example, if you leave a mug of coffee sitting on the table and start driving, it could easily slide off and spill. Your laptop could come crashing off your desk during a turn. You can’t leave stuff sitting out. Having to secure everything is an annoying little job.
Many vans also convertible furniture that adds utility or saves space. For example, maybe the bed converts into a couch. Every time you want to use the couch, you’ll have to lift the bed and fold it. If you do this daily, it can get annoying. It’s another little job.
Another annoying job is keeping all of your tanks filled. You might have a gas tank for the van, a diesel tank for your heater, a propane tank for your stove, a freshwater tank for drinking and cleaning, and a gray water tank for dirty water. Keeping track of the level of all of these and keeping them full is annoying. In addition, you may have to keep track of your battery level so you don’t run out of power.
There is also always something that needs to be fixed or maintained on a van. You need to maintain the vehicle as well as all of the systems inside of the van including the solar system, heating system, plumbing system, etc. Over time, parts wear out and need to be replaced.
Building out a van is a difficult and time-consuming job
Many van lifers buy an empty cargo van and build it out themselves. This saves a lot of money. This also allows you to build the van to your exact specifications.
Unfortunately, building a camper van is a massive undertaking. It may take 3-6 months of work to build your van the way you want it. You may have to spend hours watching videos to learn how to do basic carpentry, plumbing, electrical, and mechanical work. You’ll have to make dozens of trips to the hardware store to buy tools and materials. You’ll have to wait for parts to arrive if you order online. You may need to hire someone to help you perform certain jobs that you’re unable to do yourself.
Of course, you can buy a pre-built camper van if you don’t want to spend the time building your own. The problem is that these are incredibly expensive. Even used, camper vans are unaffordable to many people.
Alternatively, you could do a basic build. Some van lifers just throw a mattress in the back and call it a day. That’s not nearly as comfortable or fun but it is an option.
Who Should Live in a Van?
Van life is ideal for those who desire a free lifestyle. When you live in a van, you have the freedom to move around and live your life the way you want. You’re not tied down to a city, house, job, or group of people. You can move around as much or as little as you want. You can work less and enjoy yourself more.
Outdoorsy people also enjoy van life. You can carry your equipment in your van and stay out camping, hiking, climbing, cycling, diving, skiing, fishing, kayaking, etc. for as long as you like. Having a van to haul your gear and sleep in makes it much more convenient to explore and enjoy the outdoors for longer periods of time. You can explore areas you otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
Travelers also enjoy van life. A camper van allows you to comfortably travel across continents. You can explore national parks, off-road trails, small towns, tourist attractions, cities, and more. You could drive your van around the world if you wanted to.
Minimalists also enjoy van life. There is something freeing about owning few possessions. There is less weighing you down when you live in a van. You can consume less.
Van life is also an excellent choice for those who wish to live an environmentally friendly and self-sufficient lifestyle. You’ll reduce your carbon footprint when you move into a van. Van life is very green.
Frugal individuals may also enjoy van life. You don’t have to spend much money to live in a van. You can buy a used van and build it out for a few thousand dollars. If you perform your own maintenance, cook your own meals, and park and camp for free, you can get by on very little money. This would allow you to save and invest more for your future.
Those who are in a difficult financial position may also consider van life. Living in a van can be far cheaper than renting an apartment. It’s possible to survive on well under $1000 per month. This would be a great way to get back on your feet after a financial setback or to get out of debt.
Who Shouldn’t Live in a Van?
Van life isn’t ideal for those who require comfort or luxury. When you live in a van, you’ll have to put up with heat, cold, and poor weather. Your living space will feel cramped. You may not even be able to stand up in your van. Your bed may not be as large or comfortable as you’d like. There will be some items you’ll have to do without. It’s not the most comfortable or luxurious lifestyle. Even the most expensive vans can feel cramped and uncomfortable.
Germaphobes and neat freaks may also have trouble adjusting to van life. While living in a van, you may not be able to shower daily. Sometimes you’ll just have to be sweaty and dirty. Some people can’t deal with this. Vans also get grimy and smelly. You’ll track dirt in on your shoes. Your dirty clothing, body odor, and food will stink up the van. Sometimes van life is kind of gross. You can’t keep your van spotless at all times.
Materialists also will not enjoy living in a van. There simply isn’t space for a bunch of stuff. If you can’t survive without a closet full of clothes, your collection of vinyl, a living room full of furniture, or a kitchen full of gadgets, you won’t enjoy van life. Living in such a small space forces you to be a minimalist.
Van life also isn’t ideal for those who desire a traditional lifestyle. If you dream of owning a home, getting married, starting a family, and working your way up the corporate ladder, you probably won’t be satisfied living in a van. At least not long term. Van life is an alternative lifestyle. It’s not for everyone.
Van life also isn’t ideal for those that care about looks or status. Van lifers are regularly discriminated against and looked down upon by society. There is a stigma to van life. Of course, this isn’t always the case. Influencer van lifers are adored by their followers.
If you don’t have any money, van life will also be difficult. It’s not an expensive lifestyle once you’re set up but getting started can be expensive. Buying a used van and building it out can cost anywhere from $5,000-$15,000. You’ll also need some money saved for repairs and emergencies. Living in a van is not free.
Final Thoughts About the Pros and Cons of Van Life
As you can see, there are many pros and cons of van life. For some people, it is a liberating lifestyle full of travel and adventure. For others, van life is uncomfortable, dirty, unstable, and generally challenging. Before starting van life, it’s important to consider all of the pros and cons. Van life can be an ideal lifestyle for some and a terrible choice for others.
It’s also important to consider the costs involved. Van life can be affordable but it can also be incredibly expensive. The cost of a van, maintenance, equipment, and gas can add up quickly. It’s easy to go over budget if you’re not prepared.
If, after reading this guide, you’re still unsure about whether or not van life is for you, a good option is to rent a van and try it out. Many companies rent vans and small motorhomes for vacations. Consider renting one for a week to sample the lifestyle. This will give you a taste of what it’s like to live in a van.
Do you live in a van? Share your van life experiences and tips in the comments below!
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