Living the Van Life: What to Know Before You Go

The essential guide to nailing the basics of #vanlife

This was our first foray into #vanlife and, in a lot of ways, we kind of blew it. I hate to admit it, but our van was a mess. We thought we had packed light only to find that we were constantly battling our stuff for living space. Wine glasses? Whhhhaaaat? They broke within a week. Yoga blocks and straps? Maybe if you used them regularly before you set out in your van. A salad tosser? Really? Before we set out, we were super enthusiastic about all of the things we were going to do with these things: Cook, read, write, paint. Cultivate our own yoga practice and self-massage with balls. Start fire dancing. The irony of packing up our lives and seemingly trading down to live in a van isn’t lost on us. We just didn’t think about the implications of having too much stuff. We didn’t consider the consequences—heightened difficulties of otherwise simple tasks like washing dishes. So when you’re ready to try out your own #vanlife, don’t make the same mistakes we did. Here’s what we wish we knew before we went.

Start Simple

When planning for an epic adventure, it is very easy to get carried away, whether that means planning every detail or packing every little thing. There is definitely something to be said about planning intelligently (and planning for the unplanned), but don’t get ahead of yourself. Start simple. When we set out, we were also driving to every Wanderlust Festival of the 2015 summer season. Our schedule was packed and we only had limited time between each stop. As such, we tried desperately to pack it all in—both with things and experiences. At first, when we arrived at each new destination, we were exhausted. vanlife-know-before-2 On our route from Colorado to California we tried to see all that we could, hitting multiple hikes a day and logging long hours in the van, catching up on work at night. A few weeks in taught us to slow our roll and enjoy the fresh air. At first we didn’t know what to do with ourselves when we weren’t pushing for the next destination. Setting up camp before dark and reading felt odd; staying in the same place for three days felt luxurious.
If you find yourself on the road heading somewhere, slow down, take your time, breathe the air.
We finally figured it out from California to Whistler. We stopped here and there for no other reason than to enjoy ourselves and take it all in. Once we got the hang of it and let go of the must-do’s, real moments and experiences opened up both in our travels and in our relationships with each other and ourselves. If you find yourself on the road heading somewhere, slow down, take your time, breathe the air. You will get there when you get there, and there's much to see along the way.

Pack Light

Living in a small space makes your stuff big and debilitating. Our van turned into a giant black hole the minute we moved in, and organizing and finding anything was a real challenge. Our first few weeks were spent smothered by our entire Brooklyn apartment—at least everything we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave behind. We realized very quickly how much of a burden excess is when living in a van, though this isn’t a lesson exclusive to vagabond living. When we arrived in Colorado with a place to store what we didn’t need, we emptied out the majority of what was in the van and still had WAY TOO MUCH. Here is a list of what we cherished while on the road:
  • 2 bowls (vs. plates, you can eat anything out of a bowl)
  • 2 mugs (great for coffee and beer)
  • 2 forks (you can drink things that need spoons, for the most part)
  • 2 pillows 1 blanket and 1 bottom sheet (if your van has a bed)
  • 1 sharp knife (really, you only need one)
  • 1 fold out table (or picnic blanket but having a table made everything much easier)
  • 1 frying pan
  • 1 sauce pan (having one of each allows you to cook more faster)
  • 1 spatula (we didn’t have this for a long time and really messed up our pans with our forks)
  • 1 hammock (best thing for starry nights)
  • 2 fold out chairs
  • 1 container of wet wipes (you can use them for everything)
  • Tea (or coffee, or both! Hot liquid on cold nights and early mornings makes everything feel better)
  • Honey (you can put it in everything!)
  • Almond butter (Don’t have anything else? A solid fork-full will tide you over for a bit)
While this is not an exhaustive list of must-haves, we found that for us, most everything else we felt we could do without. I had packed enough clothes to wear multiple outfits per weather pattern, blankets to survive through winter (in the summer), and books to last me a full year. It was too much.
Simple cooking and simple living are part of the perks of living on the road.
While living in the van, we pretty much wore the same thing every day and only changed when deemed necessary. Many RV parks also have laundry, so only a few clothing items will get you a long way. You are not going to turn into a master chef while living in a van, especially if you aren’t one to start with. Simple cooking and simple living are part of the perks of living on the road. Don’t overcomplicate your experience with superfluous stuff.

Join a Gym

“Where do you shower?” Well, I’ll tell you. Our platinum membership to Planet Fitness was a real game changer. There are tons of locations across the country, and our membership allows us to use the facilities at any of them. Long hours on the road wreak havoc on your body and getting out to move and take a shower is a saving grace after a long day (or days) on the road.

Stock Up When You Can

Fresh food is a real commodity in many tiny towns, and when you’re hungry, you’ll find that being a picky eater won’t feed you. And while the idea of sitting at a podunk bar swapping stories with the locals is really quite romantic, eating a big plate of you-don’t-know-what isn’t. vanlife-nicole-1 Again, in the beginning, we went a little overboard. We’d stop by a farmer's market or Whole Foods and stock up. We’d then be doomed to watch our beautiful veggies wilt in the van heat in a few days' time. Know your route and do your research: Buy only what you need to get you from point A to point B. Once we figured it out, we’d sometimes stop by the store multiple times a day to get only what we needed right then. Other times, when we knew we would be a few days out from the next destination, we purchased healthy foods that didn’t spoil to tide us over. The diversity this added to both our diet and our creative #vanlife cooking was challenging and fun. And while washing dishes without a sink isn’t, creating simple dishes reminded us of the simple elegance of food—and our guts thanked us for it. We also saved so much money this way. Buy only what you need as you need it. Who knew?

Map Your Gas

When you're driving across the country, small differences add up—and gas prices vary pretty significantly across the U.S. We found gas for under $2 per gallon in Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico and almost up to $4 in certain areas of New York, California, and Vermont. I always thought Sasha was being a bit too frugal when he would drive out of the way for a slightly cheaper gas price, but I quickly saw how the savings accrued. There are a lot of apps available to guide you to the cheapest gas options and show you the price comparisons in your particular area. Using these apps is really quite illuminating. Two gas stations just a few miles apart can have shockingly different prices.

Know Where to Sleep

Walmarts, RV parks, rest stops—these are all stellar options if you haven’t scoped out a solid camping spot and are seeking a safe place to get some shut-eye. Walmart is always a guarantee. Driving into the lot between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. was always a real solidifying moment for me, as if we were part of something secret and special, lucky enough to know about. There were so many other vans and trailers and airstreams camped out in the darkest parts of the lot (which are only available when parking lot lights are blocked by a tree—otherwise the lots are very well-lit; those spaces are coveted among van dwellers), and together we created this eclectic community from every part of the country. vanlife-know-before-3 We’d always have to use the bathroom by that point and couldn’t help poking around with van envy, checking out all of the sweet rides. And that is where we got some of our best ideas! “That van did what?! Did you see how they __?! Wow! Would you look at that!” There is a certain level of understanding and compassion among overnighters at Walmart. We are all living the free life, out on the open road: Each with our own stories, our own reasons. Never knowing what the next horizon will bring. RV parks do cost money but they’re usually pretty cheap. They also offer a greater variety of facilities, like showers and laundry. There are some really beautiful rest stops along the 101, driving through the Redwoods in Northern California. Most of them even have really great restroom facilities and picnic tables. Others, of course, lack in aesthetic what they make up for in convenience. If we had known then what we do now, we probably would have had more success, and maybe even lasted longer on the road. We wouldn’t, however, have earned it in quite the same way, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Except maybe a less-messy van next time around. All photos by Sasha Juliard For more from Nicole and Sasha, click here.nicole-lindstrom   Nicole Lindstrom is a travel writer based in New York City. She is the creator and editor of the online travel guide GLDMNE and co-author of Wanderlust, A Modern Yogi’s Guide To Discovering Your Best Self.     Sasha-juliardutah   Sasha Juliard is a freelance photographer and web designer. He started How To Work Remotely in 2015 and is a contributor to several online publications.