11 Things Nobody Tells You About Van Life

Kristin Hanes in front of her van

Van life is easy to romanticize. Especially if you’re sitting in a dreary cubicle browsing Instagram photos of crisp white campervan interiors, women drinking coffee in bed while staring dreamily at the red cliffs of The Grand Canyon, or tanned young men posing next to a tricked-out van with a surfboard.

Those things can happen when living the van life, but many things aren’t discussed. Nobody wants to post Instagram photos of how messy their van looks inside or how they feel after many days with no shower. Nobody wants to discuss the downsides because social media is about the upsides, right?

Van life comes with many positives, but there are many things nobody tells you. Here’s my rundown as someone who has lived in a Toyota Prius, a Chevy Astro van, and a Mercedes Sprinter van.

#1 Van Life Is Dirty

I’m sure a small part of you understands deep down that living in a van has to be a dirty endeavor. But you might not realize just how dirty it can be. As we aren’t “campground people,” we typically park for free on land operated by the Bureau of Land Management or the National Forest Service. This means we are camping in the dirt. We are driving down dusty dirt roads to find places to sleep. We are walking, hiking, biking, showering, and doing dishes in the dirt.

Our 1994 Chevy Astro van, which we lived out of for three years, was an ancient van with lots of places dirt crept in. A light coating of dust gathered on the windowsills, refrigerator, ledges, and even my pillow as we drove down dirt roads. My hair felt gritty; dirt found its way under my fingernails, coated my feet, and caked itself in my nose. I hate feeling dirty, so this is one of my biggest challenges with van life.

Now that we have a newer 2021 Sprinter van conversion, dirt is less likely to find its way inside. Our sheets, pillows, and walls remain blissfully clean. Our larger van also offers an under-chassis 27-gallon water storage container, which we use for solar showers to wash the dust away. There’s nothing better than falling asleep in my campervan with clean hair and a clean body. It makes all the difference in the world.

#2 Van Toilets Are Disgusting

It grosses me out when people tell me they need a bathroom in their campervan. Do you really want to store human waste a few feet from where you sleep and cook? For van life, the toilet options are limited. You can have a portable cassette toilet that you must carry and dump out in a public restroom.

Another choice is a composting toilet that separates human waste. The liquid goes into a container that needs to be emptied every couple of days, while the solid stuff “composts” in a bin along with a bulking agent such as coconut coir or wood chips. The issue is that it doesn’t compost promptly, so you’re emptying a smelly mass of semi-composted excrement into a large hole you dug in the middle of nowhere or into a trash bag that must be thrown out.

Another option many van dwellers use is to go in a 5-gallon bucket lined with a plastic bag and cat litter, then throw the bag out.

Which of these options sounds best to you? None of them are amazing, so we opted out of having a toilet in our campervan. For us, it’s easier to find a public bathroom or dig a cathole in the middle of nowhere than deal with dumping and living in a small space with waste.

To each their own, but keep all these points in mind when you approach someone living the van life and ask, “Do you have a bathroom in there?” (yes, people ask us this all the time).

#3 Van Lifers Have a “Liquids Bottle”

Again, people who live in houses love to ask us about our bathroom habits. They don’t know that when van lifers opt not to carry around a toilet, they instead use a “liquids” bottle. Finding a public bathroom every time we go would be incredibly annoying. Instead, there are all types of plastic containers out there that work for #1.

I’ve used everything from a large vertical Costco container for dried mushrooms to an opaque white cat litter container. Other van lifers use everything from an almond milk plastic jug to a mixed nuts container. The ability to go in one’s van is an absolute necessity.

Tip #1: If you’re a woman, pick a bottle with a wide enough mouth.

Tip #2: Please hold your container tightly when using it. Do not drop your container. We speak from personal experience here.

#4 Showering Outside Can Suck (But Can Also Be Amazing)

I’ve spent much time boondocking (camping for free) on public lands in the desert outside Yuma, Arizona. This happens in fall and winter when daytime temperatures are pleasant, but nighttime temps get cold and windy. I’ve showered outside in many of these chilly conditions, hiding behind the van to stay out of the wind while standing beneath my solar shower.

I often don’t look forward to these shivery showers, but dumping hot water on myself while the Milky Way glistens in the inky black sky is a phenomenal experience, and I always feel better afterward.

#5 Sometimes, All I Want Is a House Image Credit: Kristin Hanes.

There are times when I’m entirely over van living. This is when I feel dirty, cold, disorganized, or tired of planning my life on the fly. Everything is a little more challenging when living in a van. Doing dishes takes effort as we don’t have running water. Showering means boiling water on the stove and dumping it into a solar shower bag. Going to the bathroom means leaving my cozy van in the cold morning and digging a 6-8” deep cathole (or walking to the campground bathroom).

I’ll start feeling the allure of a sticks-and-bricks existence—the endless hot water, the washer and dryer, a dishwasher, fridge, and oven. All the amenities that most people are used to become a luxury to me. I crave those things and dream about “house life,” but then I shower, do the dishes, and marvel that I get to live in nature, and those feelings of wanting a house go away.

#6 Van Life Is Like Hunting and Gathering

You’d be wrong if your mental image of van life is a carefree world where people always relax and pursue outdoor activities and hobbies. In contrast, van life has a lot of movement, research, and decision-making. Where are we going to get water? What are the nearest grocery stores? Is there a good laundromat in town? Where are we going to camp tonight? Often, we talk about van life as “hunting and gathering,” as we seem to spend a lot of time searching for our basic needs. This can get tiresome, but it also keeps life interesting. It feels great to stay parked in one spot for many weeks.

#7 Living in a Van Can Get Lonely

Van life offers the option to travel where you want when you want. This is wonderful when you travel back to your hometown and hang out with friends and family. I love this aspect of van life, and I’ve spent way more time in my home state of Oregon than in the past. However, once we leave that comfortable nest, we explore remote corners of nature without people. We only have each other to hang out with. This is wonderful as my partner Tom and I get along so well, but I also miss social activities such as ballroom dancing, happy hour with a friend, or family BBQs and holidays. To combat loneliness, some van lifers travel as a caravan and go to meetup groups, which we haven’t tried yet.

#8 Being Immersed in Nature Changes Your Perspective

Now that I’ve spent more time in the great outdoors, I feel more connected to it than I do to civilization and humanity. I love being in tune with the hooting owls, the small desert fox that sniffs around our campsite, the birds, and even tarantulas. I feel at one with the world around me and at peace. When I go back into large cities, it can feel like culture shock. There’s too much cement, glass, sounds, and vehicles. It’s sensory overload!

I also have a greater appreciation for nature and our planet, and I change my behavior so it has less environmental impact, such as eating more vegan foods.

#9 Weather Dictates Your Entire Life

When you live in a house, it’s hard to imagine the weather controlling your actions. But as van lifers, the weather is everything. If it’s too hot, van life is incredibly uncomfortable as most campervans don’t have an air conditioner. We have to drive to a cooler climate, such as the coast or up a mountain. If the weather has a rainy forecast, we go to a warmer, drier place. As the northern states get chilly, we drive south to Southern California, Arizona, and Mexico.

Van lifers are like migratory animals—the weather is our life.

#10 Water Becomes a Precious Commodity

If you’re used to taking long, hot showers, that’s a no-go in van life. The most a campervan can carry is around 30 gallons of water; if you plan on camping off-grid for many days, you’ll have to make that water last. We’ve developed funny habits like washing our hands simultaneously, one above the other, to save water. We take showers that are only 1-1.5 gallons each. And we only shower every other day. Washing dishes also requires very little water as we barely use any soap!

#11 Van Life Changes You Forever

Living in a van is an experience like no other. You’re stripped down to the basics: food, water, shelter. Material possessions are at the bare minimum. Simple pleasures become exciting: a hot shower, a hot springs, a delicious meal, or the Milky Way. The rat race becomes a distant memory, and you’re more focused on living in the now. Van life also allows for introspection: Who are you? What do you want in life? What is your connection to the outside world? What does freedom look like to you?

Van life teaches resilience and adaptability. Many changes are associated with this lifestyle, which some people find jarring. You have to adapt quickly to new situations and problem-solve on the go.

If I ever lived in a house again, I would benefit greatly from my “van life” training. I’ll live minimally, in close connection with nature, with a greater respect for the environment. Who knows if that will happen any time soon? I still love living in a van despite its hardships and struggles. Because most of the time, the freedom and adventure are downright amazing and something I’m not ready to give up.

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