Living the Vanlife. Lessons from Life on the Road
In 2018 my girlfriend Lanna and I decided to move to another country and start that journey with a long mini retirement, and a long break from living traditionally in a house, replacing it with a van. Living the vanlife, we aimed to try it for as long as we wanted and see what it was like.
VANLIFE - WHAT IS IT?
What exactly is vanlife?
Vanlife is simple. You are basically camping in or out of your vehicle, ditching all the materialist burdens of consumerism, and getting out into nature, all the while taking epic photos of your van. OK, kidding, about the photos, but hey, you do wake up in some incredible places!
Living in, or out of a mobile vehicle is nothing new. It may be making a big (actually, massive) comeback now, but people have been doing it for decades. Gypsies and hippies started the trend, and now even people with loads of money are deciding to ditch traditional living in favour of something simpler.
People like to take vanlife to all different levels. Some go super minimalistic living out of a car, others are rocking the van mansions with $100,000 interior upgrades and mobile satellite TV and fireplaces. Vanlife comes in all shapes and sizes.
In the end, vanlife is ditching the norms and choosing to live the way you want to and out of your vehicle.
LIVING THE VANLIFE - THE EXPECTATIONS
Before we started our vanlife, we had, of course, heard all about it. Certain expectations were there. Freedom to explore, do what we want, when we want, and wake up to amazing vistas every morning.
But we weren’t kidding ourselves.
We knew it wasn’t going to be all that. Social media curates only the best, and doesn’t show the worst. So having never done it before and not knowing exactly what to expect, we figured it would lie somewhere in the middle of what is commonly portrayed.
And moving to New Zealand, a place where both living and travelling in a van has become extremely popular, made for its own challenges. So after 7 months of living in a van, how did it all stack up against our expectations? What did we experience? And what are the good and bad things about vanlife?
VANLIFE - THE GOOD
► Less Worries
One of the first things we noticed was how we had less stress and worries. There was still some stress of course, like buying the van initially and getting it all ready, but by quitting our jobs, moving country and living in a van, we had essentially made a clean slate for ourselves and got rid of all the unnecessary baggage.
► The Views
I won’t lie, there were some pretty damn good views! Just like we had seen on social media, we did wake up in some amazing places. New Zealand is full of them, but really, every country will have epic views you could wake up to. Some days were spent lounging by lakes, others on grassy plains with mountain backdrops. So yes, the views certainly lived up to the expectations!
► Light and Free
You know that feeling when you do a big house clean and throw away a ton of stuff and feel… lighter? Well, by living in a van, you are essentially limited by how much stuff you can have, so in the process you not only get rid of a lot of things, but you also don't accumulate any more of it. This left us with a feeling of being light and free, unburdened by possessions and focusing on what mattered most: experiences.
► No Rent
I don’t think anyone would complain about not paying a mortgage or rent. They generally eat up a huge chunk of our income so by getting rid of this huge expense life got a whole lot cheaper! We still had expenses of course. Van maintenance, the odd campsite or accommodation, fuel. There’s still no shortage of things to chew up your cash. But it’s a whole lot less than living in a house!
► Access to the Outdoors
Having access to the outdoors was one of the main reasons I wanted to move to a new country and live in a van in the first place. Being close to the action and making adventure a priority was my goal, and by living in the van I certainly achieved that. Whether we were climbing, canyoning or hiking, we were always close to the locations. In climbing for instance, you might want to spend a week or more at one particular crag so you can climb as much as you can. Living in a van right at the crag makes this easy and saves a lot of fuel you would otherwise spend driving back and forth.
► Less Stuff
Having less in terms of possessions really makes life nicer. There’s a reason minimalism is such a big trend and is growing in popularity. You feel great when you have less stuff, there’s less to worry about and less to lose. In saying that, we (ok, mainly myself) still had a ton of outdoor gear, but that gear was actually being used almost everyday, so, worth it I guess! In everything else, we went for the ‘less is more’ idea.
► Your Relationship
When living in what is really just a small confined space, you have to be able to get along with whoever is in there with you. Happily, we managed to do our vanlife stint with almost no dramas and no arguments. The key was being patient and having open communication. We noticed not everyone we talked to found living in the van with their significant other easy. Vanlife is a good exercise in toleration and patience, and also probably a good test as a couple on how well you can work together.
► Living Simply
With less stuff and the freedom to explore, life became simple. Our needs and wants changed and it almost felt like a long hiking trip. You think about a few things only and your focus completely changes. Food, where to shower next, when to wash our clothes. Life outside of the van was mostly forgotten. And there’s a certain appeal to not thinking about anything else that we really loved.
I remember months on after finishing our life in the van and moving back into a house, I still always felt so grateful for having water on tap, a hot shower whenever I wanted, and a bed that stayed on the same angle every night! We realized we had the privilege of being able to choose what type of roof we had over our heads. Not everyone has that.
VANLIFE - THE BAD
► Worries About the Van
We might have worried less about other things, but there was one worry that never went away: the van. With the van being both our mode of transport and our home, any breakdown of it really affected us. Thankfully nothing major ever came up but a lot of the smaller repairs were unknowns until we had them checked out and always became big worries leading up to that. Other people we know were not so lucky and had big repairs which effectively stopped their trips completely.
► People Can Be Nasty
It’s not often spoken about but just as you can have good people, you also have the bad. Because of the huge influx of tourists hiring or buying vans and travelling with them, small towns have had enormous pressure on them trying to deal with the problems they can bring. Almost all towns were unequipped, through no fault of their own, to deal with the rapid increase of vans over summer months, and this often lead to friction. A few select people did go out of their way to verbally abuse or intimidate people in vans, but thankfully for the most part everyone was nice.
► People Don’t Understand the Lifestyle
Just like the few that can be nast, there were others that simply don’t understand the lifestyle. This is not unique to vanlife, as people generally can often dislike people for simply doing things differently or living alternatively. This is just human nature, and being on the receiving end made us appreciate what it feels like and to be more thoughtful in our own dealings with people doing things differently.
Despite New Zealand being equipped with showers almost everywhere, when you don't have access to one on demand, you really appreciate when you get a good shower. Some were horrible. Others were great. I remember both equally. And when winter rolled around, those showers that didn’t give you the hot water you so desperately wanted were despised with a passion.
► Rain/bad Weather
Rain can put a dampener on anyone's day, let only when you live in your van. Sometimes it was fine, and other times, like when it just wouldn't stop, you go stir crazy and need to get out of the van. In our first decent downpour, we found out a window leaked as well, and since that first downpour happened to be the remnants of a tropical cyclone, it got pretty messy. Once we got that fixed, when it rained it was still a bummer for the sole reason we couldn't cook inside. Donning rain gear, we always had to brace the elements to cook our dinner. I don’t know how we did it for so long, but we did!
LIVING THE VANLIFE- THE REALITY
Living in a van can have this romanticised appeal that only Instagram knows how to fuel. The reality is a mix of both. You can have some pretty crappy situations, but there are also some pretty special ones.
What vanlife will teach you is to be adaptable. I was never much for that before trying vanlife. Now I appreciate those hot showers and try to live with less. In the end, it's all about living simply, enjoying the little things, and appreciating what you have.
Have you tried living the vanlife, or have travelled by van yourself? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!