We all know what we see on the internet is not always true. From perfectly curated squares on Instagram showing gorgeous views, campfires surrounded by smiling faces, or waves crashing on the shore reflecting the perfect sunset, it would be possible to think vanlife is the greatest life hack out there.
While vanlife is the lifestyle choice of many people, we would be silly to think that it is all rainbows and sunshine. For every picture-perfect moment, there are at least 5 not so great. I’ll post a picture of the view from the night sky I captured in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, but not share the photo of the sketchy parking lot I had to stay in the night before on my way to Colorado.
So what part of vanlife is true and what is a myth? I’ve rounded up and debunked top 5 vanlife myths and threw in 5 that are totally true. Read on to learn the raw and unfiltered truth about vanlife from a seasoned vanlifer.
5 MYTHS OF VAN LIFE
1. Vanlife is just glorified camping
We all have that friend or relative that doesn’t truly understand the concept of vanlife. In the words of my grandmother, “Who would want to live in a van down by the river?” But you know, everything was different back in her day, and to be fair, my grandfather would have LOVED to live in a van down by the river. So much so, he bought a riverfront cottage. (But that is all a story for another day).
When I bring up vanlife, people who are unfamiliar with the concept tend to think it is either a phase, an extremely long camping trip, or a way to camp so that I don’t have to sleep in a tent. While I definitely prefer the van over setting up a tented campsite at every campground, it is easy to see that vanlife is none of those things.
Vanlife for most is an alternative way of living. Most vanlifers are digital nomads or people who can work wherever their heart takes them. We tend to live almost full-time in our vans.
Vanlife is a lifestyle. One dedicated to adventure and challenging the standard way of life. We learn a lot about ourselves on this journey and we learn a lot about the world. Although some individuals do use a camper van while they camp instead of an RV or tent camping, vanlife itself is entirely different than glorified camping.
2. Vanlife is for young people with no responsibilities
When you picture vanlife, you tend to think of a younger couple or individual who makes money from blogging, eats granola, and is probably a hippie. While this may be the look and lifestyle of some of the people who do vanlife, it is definitely not the majority.
It is true that vanlife is much easier before you have children. Having to worry about car seats and naps and a toddler schedule really does put a damper on things (trust me). However, vanlife is totally doable even with a family as long as you have the proper planning.
I have met plenty of diverse family groups while traveling. Some groups consist of a couple and their 3 dogs, others are single parents with 3 kids. Once, I even met a family that had 8 kids in a converted school bus.
Vanlife communities have a wide range of diversity and include people from all walks of life. Young people and retirees are not even close to the only groups of people who make vanlife their lifestyle.
3. Vanlife is not sustainable
Is anything truly sustainable without proper planning? Vanlife is the same way. If we take care of our vans, ourselves, and our finances, there is no reason why vanlife could not be a sustainable goal.
When I was just a newbie vanlifer in my first van on my first road trip, I made a lot of vanlife friends. Vanlife has been a thing for a lot longer than people tend to think since it just recently became so streamlined. I met a couple who had been living in their van for over 20 years! And no, they were not straight-up hippies.
They both worked in tech and were able to work remotely for their entire careers. It gave them the freedom to travel and they took it, never looking back. Another woman I met was a freelance writer. She had been on the road for 4 years with no signs or desire to return to “normal” life.
Just as with any other lifestyle, it is only unsustainable if you do not take the necessary time to plan. Which leads me to….
4. Vanlife is a go-with-the-flow lifestyle
Oh, to just go where the wind blows with not a care in the world, following the warm weather or chasing shooting stars.
Yea, not so much.
Vanlife requires planning everything from meals to campgrounds to paydays and everything in between. When you have a van fridge, it does not hold a lot, so you need to plan grocery trips and meal plans around that fact. Campgrounds can fill up months in advance, especially the good ones.
Deciding where to go and when is important. Hurricanes, wildfire, and flooding seasons all need to be accounted for when traveling. You also need to plan and budget your money depending on how you are making it.
Today, with gas prices skyrocketing, your van is eating a much bigger chunk of your paychecks. If you are a freelancer, like me, you need to plan for slow seasons in the market.
While vanlife seems like freedom and going where your heart leads, it requires so much planning and research to be safe, sustainable, and fun.
5. Vanlife is for everyone! Yay!
I want so badly to say that this amazing alternative lifestyle is for everyone, but sadly, it just is not. There are plenty of people who would not enjoy vanlife or simply could not make vanlife work for them. It takes a lot to learn how to live small in a van, possibly with other people in it.
Some vans do not have bathrooms or showers in them, meaning you have to get really comfortable with campgrounds or even truck stop showers. Living campsite to campsite can seem daunting to some people and not worth the hassle at all.
Compared to a stable environment where more things are controlled on a day-to-day basis, vanlife can seem overwhelming. So many things change and so rapidly, that any sense of stability can be lost in an instant.
But hey, that’s another thing that makes vanlife so much fun!
5 TOTALLY TRUE THINGS ABOUT VAN LIFE!
1. Vanlife is not always pretty
Just as I had mentioned earlier, vanlife is not for everyone and a big part of that is because vanlife is not always pretty.
We wish that every time we opened our back doors we were staring at a jaw-dropping view of an ocean shore or mountain peak. But the truth is, I’ve had beautiful views of a Cracker Barrel parking lot more times than I can count.
I have spent days in desolate towns waiting for a part to fix my engine when something unexpected broke while in the middle of a desert. There have been DAYS when I was out camping on BLM land where I did not have running water for a shower.
And not to mention the time I went to take my van out after 3 weeks of sitting and realized I had left a bunch of bananas on the counter. (Literal barf)
As much as we want to try to sell vanlife, we have to remind ourselves that Walmart parking lots are all too common on long commutes or that we eat a lot more take out than granola and fresh fruit than we would like to admit.
2. You can convert your own van
Nothing crushes a vanlife dream like looking up the cost of a brand new fully converted camper van. With some models starting around $89,000 and others going for close to $200,000, it can be easy to get defeated and think vanlife is too expensive for you.
Well, the good new is that you definitely do not need a brand new top-of-the-line camper van to get started living a vanlife lifestyle. In fact, most of the vanlifers I have met on the road have converted their own vans. Almost all of the vans aren’t even Sprinters, Transits, or Promasters.
My first van conversion was a DIY minivan conversion. Yes, you read that right. I was so desperate to get out and get living that I used the easiest and cheapest van to find. You can read all about my minivan conversion tips and tricks here.
Once we had our daughter and we finished a round of trailer camping, we were itching to get back to vanlife. So we purchased a 1999 Chevy Express for another DIY conversion.
If I can do it, anyone can.
3. You have to learn a lot about mechanics to do vanlife
I mean, you could do vanlife without understanding the way your van works mechanically, but I would not recommend it. Just like how house projects can add up rather quickly when you need to call in a professional, so can a van. Unlike a house, you cannot sweep minor problems under the rug for a later time without risking major damage to your van’s engine.
The other downside is that if something goes wrong with your van, you can be stranded in remote places far from mechanic shops. Then, you may have to call a tow truck, and again that adds up quickly. Being able to provide maintenance and troubleshoot basic problems with your van will allow you to save both time and money.
If you do not have a trusted friend or family member that knows a good amount of mechanical knowledge to teach you, YouTube is FULL of amazing videos that will walk you through almost anything step by step.
4. You get to see amazing places and meet cool people
This part is 100% true.
There is no other lifestyle that gives you the freedom to spend your days exploring beautiful places and capturing memories that will last a lifetime. Even if some days your scenery is a truck stop parking lot, there are more days that your backyard is the Rocky Mountains or a coastal shoreline off the California coast.
The freedoms that come with vanlife are truly unmatched. They may come with a few drawbacks, but for most of us vanlifers, we truly think vanlife is the best life.
Finding a vanlife community is easy. Vanlifers are a unique group of people and we all know the risks there is when it comes to living this unconventional life. I have meet great people in person at campgrounds and on BLM land while on the road, but most of my vanlife community is digital.
Joining Facebook groups is a great way to meet other vanlifers, gather tips and tricks, and stay up to date. There are even vanlife meetups throughout the year all around the country!
5. Vanlife is awesome
Vanlife truly is a fantastic way to see the world. While it may not be for everyone, spending my days exploring redwood forests and my nights stargazing from a beach in the Florida Keys, beats out working a traditional 9-5 and staying put in one place.
It can even be a little overwhelming deciding where to go next since the options are endless and America is huge. Planning ahead is the key to having a successful van experience. Whether you are trying vanlife for a short-term road trip or moving permanently into a van, you are in for the adventure of a lifetime.
Vanlife does require more planning and offers its own difficulties, but the community I have met and the memories I have made make all the minor inconveniences, Cracker Barrel parking lots, van breakdowns, and campground showers worth it.
Sara Sabharwal is a modern digital nomad exploring the world one road trip at a time. She splits her time between North America and India and has yet to find a place that she didn’t fall in love with. Her favorite destinations include dark sky parks and forested mountain ranges. My dream is to live in a van down by the river, which I luckily get to do 3-6 months out of the year.