My upbringing was most traditional; two story house, backyard, flushing toilet, bed, heat and the luxury of hot baths. There was a kitchen with stove, fridge and extra freezer to store all the moose and fish that’d feed us through the winter. I didn’t really know anyone who lived differently, and knew few people who were “eccentric” apart from Gary our neighbor who was a self-proclaimed artist. As for myself, I was labeled the black sheep of the family. It’s believed that our life events lead us to where we are now. For me, it is continuing that of the black sheep, following that of a nomad, calling a van home.
Credit: Joshua Enoch Williams
At this point in my life it is accurate to say I have lived in a van for more than half of my life. As a climber this works perfectly but some of you may not know that I am also a mother. Does van life still work? Yes, it does and yes, she likes it.
Our latest model is that of the most discreet type. In fact, one may not even notice that behind the shaded windows of our Toyota Previa lies a mini kitchen and full on bedroom lined with books and closet space unlike any other.
Van life gives us the chance to travel in the comfort of our own home on wheels. The rent money saved goes toward a lifestyle which dreams are made and where stars can be caught full bloom leaping from the safety of their own nest. But it isn’t always so romantic in Toyo land. Living in a van can be outright tough. We do not have running water, the comforts of heat, a fridge or a flushing toilet. But when temps reach -13 at night and you awaken to frozen water and a stove that won’t start because the gas is frozen, van life offers something which cannot be easily obtained from the comforts of ones home: GRIT. Not everyone can do it, but not everyone can follow the 9-5 work days that end in a two story house surrounded by a white picket fence.
Having lived in vans for over 20 years, I have learnt a few things which can make van life more pleasant. First, buy a reliable vehicle, such as a Toyota. Reliability trumps especially when you’re driving 100’s of miles from your own country. My first van did not even start but served as a corpse stuck in the upper parking lot of Whistler Mountain. The second was a big and roomy GMC which cost me more in repairs than I paid for until its fateful day when someone thankfully plowed it into a sidewalk. The third, a weee red box of a Toyota LE van which died with nearly 4000 km on it. The next? A Toyota Previa which I still have today. It has 382,983 km and counting. My European van is also a Toyota Previa, same year, model and even color as the one I now sit. I feel rather rich being able to say I have two homes… one in North America and one in Europe… :)
The setup of a van is important for comfort and convenience. You want your bed low enough so you can sit up straight in your bed yet allow for ample storage underneath and long enough so you can sleep straight without the bed taking up your whole van. My bed can extend long enough to sleep straight, yet can easily fold away via a small piece of plywood, so to house a mini living room.
The stove set up is important given most people use it 3-4 times a day. The most efficient in terms of fuel and money is the basic Coleman camper stove with a refillable propane tank. You want the tank big enough so you only need to refill it monthly but small enough so it doesn’t take up too much space. My tank is 11 liters and last about a month with frequent use. I advise against the wee disposable tanks, they are expensive and not eco-friendly. Word of caution – keep a window open and burn off any excess in the hose before turning the tank off. When temps start to drop in the mid-winter, some folks wrap their tank in a towel and slept with it thus preventing the gas from freezing. It’s also a good idea to keep a small canister in storage for those times the propane runs out without warning. Having a carbon monoxide detector is a good idea.
We can’t live very long without water so keep plenty on board for yourself and the vehicle. A large refillable 7 gallon jug is useful plus a few smaller ones to use as daily water bottles. Pumps for these exist to make access easier but they take up a bit of space. Bottles can be easily refilled at gas stations and public spaces with taps such as parks and recreational centers.
Van life really teaches one about water consumption and how to keep it to the minimum. For example, if I boil eggs, the remaining hot water is used to wash my dishes which I do in a desert shower type fashion. There are plenty of tricks to save water here and once you get the hang of it, you’ll quickly see how little we really need.
Keep plenty of this on board; you never know when a breakdown may occur or such event. In the heat of the summer visits to the grocery store are more frequent as food goes rancid faster. My experiments with coolers have failed. I dislike the plastic taste they can leave on food as well as their frequent need for ice. As an alternative, I buy less but more often and store perishables in the low cupboards or under the bed which tend to be cooler. Yogurt can last a couple days like this and contrary to American belief; eggs do not need to be refrigerated. It is also helpful to park your rig in a shaded area such as under a big tree or in the shade of a building to keep things cool.
The number one question I get after how do you stay warm…! A simple pee bottle works perfectly for the guys but I am a girl and so discovered my own way. We have a small kid’s potty which can be dumped and rinsed easily enough given you park close to the bushes. If there are no bushes, well, you just have to get creative and pretend you throwing out dish water or something of the sort in a discreet fashion. For urgent cases of the secondary style, it comes down to where you are parked. Cafes, libraries, stores, public washrooms are useful and found in plenty if in a city. But if near the forest, remember the rules: dig, bury and take your paper waste with you. Avoid pooping where someone may later step.
Many van dwellers lead a minimalist sort of life style but it doesn’t mean one has to be a dirt bag and stink. Showers are easily found at local pools, campgrounds, friend’s houses and even at big gas stations on the highways. Rivers, lakes and basically any pond of water will also suffice given ones tolerance to cold water; just take care with the use of soap in these places. A free and easy solution is a solar shower which requires water, sun and a private place to strip down which may be challenging. If one is settling in a place for a while, monthly passes to the local gym can come in handy.
Having a well-insulated van and curtains made of a heavier material is helpful (also helpful for dimming the bright morning sun!). A down jacket is a MUST as are wool and down blankets. Van slippers can also make a big difference for warmth and coziness. When it is really, really cold outside leaving the ‘drive to camp’ just before bed helps get the van nice and toasty. Thou it can be tempting; idling the engine to keep warm is not recommended; the earth needs all the help it can get… (I try to drive very little once in a place). When parked, I have a small propane heater called ‘Mr. Heater’ which is one of the best gifts I ever received. It runs off the same propane as my stove and makes the van pretty cozy when temps get below 0. I don't run it for long as always have a cracked window. Having a carbon monoxide detector is a good idea. Also, parking where you’ll get the morning sun makes mornings much more pleasant!
If one lives in their van, the van will likely contain many possessions including themselves which is invaluable. For the same reason house dwellers lock their doors at night, so should one who sleeps in a van. Keep valuables out of site, use common sense and don’t leave or park your van in areas which feel dodgy. When night fall’s and sleep beckons, park in an area that feels good and safe, preferably somewhere known and familiar. Lock your door, know where your keys are and keep a defense plan in mind. When on the road use common sense. If it feels bad, trust your gut and just keep driving. As adventurous as it may seem, remember, somewhere in the world, someone wants you back in one piece. Personally, I prefer to make my own rest stops in small towns, usually by a town park, church, or residential area. For one night this is usually fine, just leave it as found. I avoid campgrounds, they are too expensive, bright and loud. For the safety of possession, hide the important things as best as you can or do as some have and bolt a safe to the van floor.
This is especially important if you are live in a fixed place. I live in Squamish which has been pretty lenient for van dwellers until the past years when no camping signs start showing up in every parking lot. Use curtains or shaded windows for increased privacy. Practice leave no trace and try to not appear as some sketchy dude after the neighborhood kids. People in general are scared of the unknown and seeing someone snooping around a van just gives them a reason to call the local police. Remember to switch up the sleeping locations for the local neighbor who isn’t down with car campers near their house.
A very, very, flat tire...
Living in a van means it is your home. Keeping it up to standard and safety is more than ideal but will help keep troubles at bay when on the road. Try to keep extra necessities in storage… water, oil, food, warm clothes, tools, cables… they can save your ass or perhaps, someone else’s. Investing in insurance such as CAA/AAA with some good towing kilometers is a very, very good idea. Make sure the spare tire has air and don’t ignore the oil light. If you use the lights and radio a lot having a deep cycle battery can help as will adding a solar panel. Solar panels can provide enough energy to meet electrical demands for whatever conveniences one may have such as a laptop to a blender for those morning smoothies.
Convenience verses comfort:
Living in a van can be considered a convenience but also a curse. It’s cheap, adventurous, and liberating, but it is also a small space that can range from being well below zero to a smoldering heater. Keeping it simple, minimal and organized will not only keep the hobo police from you but it will create a sense of space, physically and mentally. If you don’t need it, like it, or use it, let it go. One of the things i love about van life is its simplicity. Here is a link to a photo essay a friend put together on Cedar and I called just that, simplicity.
For the logistics of an address to get mail, to register a phone or vehicle, all towns have a general delivery options. An address of a trusted friend can also come in handy as can the street address of the local campground or public space such as a marina.
the open road
There are tricks to make it easier that get figured out with each different van setup. Reaching out to others who live a similar lifestyle can save tons of trial and error as well as give great ideas which may improve on your current set up. I love looking in other vans to see what kind of nooks and crannies they have imagined up. People can be so wildly creative, it’s super inspiring!
Thanks for reading. :)
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Our first European van, a retired postman Pat LDV, most unreliable but very cool regardless
The boys hanging out in Albarracin outside his rig