Van Life 101: Guide to Living Inside a Van
Living life on the road is a dream for many people.
But it can be hard to know where to start, or what to do when you are out there in the wild.
You want more freedom and adventure in your life, but don’t know how to make that happen.
We’re going to break down everything from how much money you’ll need for your first trip (spoiler alert – not much!) all the way through choosing a vehicle and how to build it.
This guide will be as comprehensive as possible so that by the time we’re done with this article there won’t be anything left for you to worry about!
If you’re ready for an exciting new lifestyle then this guide is for you!
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will make a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Table of Contents
What is Van Life?
Van life is exactly what it sounds like.
People who live in their vehicle full time with no fixed home or location.
Can you imagine…
The freedom of traveling anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice, and being able to stop for a night or two in places that are beautiful, or relaxing, or have awesome things going on?
Not having to worry about where your next meal is coming from because you can always just cook it in your van.
Being able to work wherever you want, or not at all if you don’t feel like it.
Having a completely different lifestyle from most people around you.
Not having to answer to anyone about what you do with your life, and being able to make every day exactly how you want it to be.
Sounds amazing right?
But it’s not as easy as it seems.
People romanticize the lifestyle all the time and don’t realize how much work goes into making it happen.
But if you’re up for a challenge, and curious enough to try something different then we have some great news for you…
It can be done pretty easily!
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Reasons for Living Inside a Van
There are all sorts of reasons to make the jump into van life.
It could be that your current situation is draining you, and you just need to get out for a bit.
Maybe you want to do some traveling for a while before settling down somewhere else later on (that’s what many people do).
Or possibly there are just so many beautiful places in the world, and you finally want to see them for yourself.
Van life is a way of putting adventure back into your everyday life.
You are constantly looking for new things to do, and feel stimulated by all the different cultures that surround you.
It’s also a great way to save money on rent while you’re traveling.
If you’re curious about this lifestyle but aren’t sure how to get started, or what it entails then don’t worry! We’ve got you!
So, let’s start with the basics…
How to Get Started with Van Life
Well, it all starts with a van, doesn’t it?
You can’t just jump into this lifestyle without a vehicle.
Maybe you already have one that you’re planning on converting, or maybe you need to get your hands on one before you can even start thinking about this adventure.
We’re going to go over a few different options in the next section, so don’t worry if you don’t know which one will work for you just yet.
And before we get carried away talking about all the things that your van needs, let’s make sure you have some money to do this with.
It’s not going to be the cheapest thing you ever do, but it doesn’t have to break the bank either.
How Much Money Do You Need to Afford a Van to Live In?
This is the million-dollar question that nearly everyone who hasn’t done this before is wondering.
And there’s no exact answer to it either because it all depends on what kind of van you’re looking for, where it’s located in the world, and how long you plan to live in it.
It really depends on what you are looking for when buying your van.
For instance, if you want something that’s nice and luxurious then you can find a van that’s $30,000 to $60,000 or more which will get from point A to B just fine but will cost you more in the long run.
On the other hand, if you are willing to build your own custom van then it will be a lot cheaper which is around $10,000-$25,000 but it will take time to find the right parts and to do the manual labor.
And don’t forget, there are also other costs which include gas, insurance, camping site fees, dining out, recreational fees, and anything else that comes up along the way.
These can cost you between $500-$2,000 or more a month, depending on your spending habits.
There are a lot of things to keep in mind when making this decision, but usually, it’s just a matter of weighing out how much money you have to spend versus how long you plan on living in it.
Choosing Your Vehicle
The first step before you can get started with van life is obviously to choose a vehicle.
They come in all shapes and sizes so it’s best to decide what your own needs are before you even start looking at vans for sale.
For example, do you need a place to sleep and store your things?
Do you want something small and maneuverable for off-road adventures?
Or are you okay with taking up more space in exchange for having multiple beds or somewhere to put your kitchen area?
How long are you planning on traveling for before heading back home again?
There are a lot of things to think about, so let’s go ahead and break those ideas down one by one.
Does size matter?
When you first start looking into van life the allure of huge RVs is pretty powerful.
They seem like a great way to have a lot of space to yourself, and can often be converted into mobile homes at a later stage.
But then you realize how expensive they are, how much gas they need, and don’t forget about the whole ordeal of parking them overnight.
They also aren’t the best vehicles to take off-roading in most cases, something that is pretty important if you’re looking for adventure.
…But It’s All Relative!
You don’t need to spend your entire life savings on a giant RV with four beds, air conditioning, and a full kitchen.
In fact, you may find that this kind of setup isn’t perfect for your lifestyle.
That doesn’t mean you have to go out and buy the smallest vehicle in the world either (not everyone wants to drive a tiny Toyota Echo it turns out).
Take some time to think about what kinds of features you really need from your vehicle to make van life work for you.
Take a look at the different options available, and decide which ones are the best for you, now and in the future as well.
If you don’t need something with a shower or air conditioning on-board then there’s no reason to spend that kind of money.
Do You Really Need… That?
In our opinion, the most important thing to consider is your power supply.
For some reason, a lot of people forget about this when they’re thinking about the van they want to buy, and it can cause some serious problems down the road.
Not only should you look for something that has solar panels or an actual 110v power outlet, but you also want to stay away from the big diesel engine RVs.
On average they use a lot more gas and are way noisier than their smaller counterparts.
Plus, if all else fails you can always install solar panels on your roof or find an alternative place to store them inside for when you need them.
No Power? No Problem!
There are a lot of other options for people who don’t have the means to put solar panels on their vehicles.
Some people go with gas generators if they really need electricity, and others stick to smaller things like lights that run off USB power banks, phones chargers, or the cigarette lighter on your car.
Part of the charm of van life is being able to unplug from society and not having a need for all the things you’re used to.
While it may be frustrating at first, eventually you’ll find that living without those things makes you so much happier and more satisfied in the end.
Travel Trailers vs. Vans: Which One is Right for You?
With so many types of vehicles to choose from, sometimes it’s hard to figure out which one would be the best for you.
While both are great for the nomadic lifestyle, they do have their own set of benefits that make each one perfect for different people.
To help you figure out which choice is best for you, we’ve put together a list of pros and cons to consider when making this decision.
Travel Trailer Pros:
It has more storage space than most vans and can usually fit all of your belongings with room left over for plenty of extra things.
If it’s an Airstream or other fiberglass trailer, it will be stronger and lighter, which makes it more fuel-efficient to tow.
Travel Trailer Cons:
You have to hook your trailer up to your car in order for it to work.
If something happens with the connection at the hitch or the wiring, you may be stuck until you can find a mechanic to help with it.
They can also be difficult to maneuver, especially in small spaces like parking lots and your driveway.
When choosing what type of vehicle is best for your nomadic lifestyle, always think about the things that matter to you most.
Some choose travel trailers because they need more storage space, while others prefer the freedom of not having to worry about hooking up a trailer every time they want to leave.
It’s important that you consider all aspects and go with what will work best for your unique situation.
However, if you’d rather live in a van, that’s perfectly okay too.
You won’t have to worry about hooking and unhooking your van from a trailer every time you want to leave.
It only takes a few minutes to get set up in a parking lot when you’re ready to settle down for the night.
Some vans feature beds that lower down from the ceiling, so you won’t have to use an air mattress that can deflate throughout the night.
You’ll be limited by how much storage space it offers and may not have a lot of room for many belongings.
If it’s hot outside and you don’t have any windows in the back to open, then you may get a little claustrophobic.
Basically, it all comes down to personal preference.
Now that we’ve given you plenty to think about and help guide your decision-making process, it’s time to make your choice.
Use this as a helpful resource, and choose the type of vehicle that is best for you!
Building Your Travel Van
If you are on a budget or maybe you are handy, you can build your own van.
This will allow you to get exactly what you want out of your van, instead of buying a pre-made setup.
It can be hard to build a van by yourself, but not impossible if you have the right guidance and tools.
Here are some tips and tricks on building your travel van:
Plan Your Layout
Before you start buying or building anything, it’s important to think about how you want your van to be laid out.
You can go with a simple bed in the back and living area upfront, or if you’re someone who needs more space, consider adding a kitchenette.
Remember that this is YOUR van, so make it functional for your own unique lifestyle.
Here is a great video by Sarah & James – Custom Crafted Vans Explaining the best van layouts.
To make your van feel more like home, get creative when decorating!
Do you have a knack for art?
Decorate the walls with some bright colors and cool drawings to liven up the space.
Don’t have any artistic skills?
Just add some bright lights so it’s easier to see and a few potted plants for liveliness.
Incorporate your favorite things into the design of your van so it really feels like you.
Having storage is very important when designing your layout since you will have limited space.
Take advantage of all the pockets and storage spaces in the overhead compartments, under the seats, and behind the driver’s seat.
Many people choose to build in extra storage bins for more efficient use of space.
If you’re someone who likes to have a lot of things with them when they travel, keep that in mind!
Building your van can be fun as long as you immediately think about how you’ll utilize the space!
If you want to get more ideas, check out this awesome video via Van Life Sagas where they give you storage hacks.
How to Stay Safe While Living Inside a Van
One of the biggest concerns people have before they find a van to live in is safety.
It’s natural to worry about someone trying to break into your vehicle, especially if it has all of your belongings inside.
Here are our tips for staying safe while living inside a van on the road:
- Keep a flashlight, bear spray, and spare keys hidden somewhere inside your vehicle.
- Use a heavy-duty lock that can’t be broken by attempting to pry it open with another object. Remember that most locks on the market are made for strength, not security so you want the strongest one possible!
- Consider parking in well-lit areas as much as possible.
- If you have a sliding window make sure it’s either locked or closed most of the way.
- Use curtains on all of your windows at night, even if they’re tinted: this will help deter thieves and keep people from looking inside your van when it’s dark outside.
These safety tips will help you feel much more comfortable while living inside a van.
Be sure to pay special attention to the windows on your van since most thieves will try to gain access that way if they see anything of value inside or outside of it.
Ways to Earn Money While Living inside Your Van
Another concern that van life skeptics have is whether or not they can make enough money while having a van to live in full time.
If you think about it, most of these fears are based on misconceptions about what it means to live in a van.
For one thing, people think that vans are only for people who already have lots of money and that you have to be rich to do it.
In reality, vans are for anyone who doesn’t want a normal 9-to-5 job but still wants to make enough money on the road to pay living costs in a van, buy food, and fees for adventures.
You can find lots of different jobs that will let you work remotely or even take your position full-time.
Some of these include:
Running a blog and running ads on the site.
Earning money from display ads, referral programs, affiliate links, or Google Adsense can be an excellent way to earn an income while van life.
Check out this article that shows you have to get started with your own blog.
If you have solid writing skills then there are tons of job opportunities for you online.
You can do blog posts, write eBooks and white papers, or even ghostwrite entire books for other people.
This is a newer career path that’s been gaining popularity as more companies are looking for people who can work from home and contractors who don’t mind traveling from place to place.
You’ll need a degree in something like computer science or programming if you want to make money through a remote staffing agency, but it’s a great way to work in different places across the globe and make enough money to live comfortably.
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If you’re a talented artist then there’s also the option to draw on your tablet or phone and sell art online through sites like DeviantArt or Etsy.
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Working for a company over the internet.
If you’re skilled at social media marketing, blogging, graphic design, or even SEO then there are plenty of work-from-home opportunities since most companies don’t mind finding people who can do their job from anywhere in the world!
When you consider all of these unique opportunities, it becomes clear that van life isn’t just for people who already have money.
As long as you’re capable of doing a good job, companies and entrepreneurs will give you plenty of options to work from wherever there is an internet connection.
As you can see, living inside a van isn’t nearly as expensive or risky as most people think.
Whether you’re looking for a new way to travel in style or want to save money on rent while still being able to afford the things you need, having a van to live in is a great option that’s perfect for anyone giving up their 9-to-5 job.
What Are the Challenges of Vanlife?
If you are thinking of living inside a van, it’s essential that you understand what you are letting yourself in for.
Living on the road isn’t all sunshine and rainbows; there are certainly some major challenges to overcome.
Here are a few challenges you may face while having a van to live in:
Building trust with other people and yourself can be hard.
The best way to get over this is simply by starting your journey, even if that means going on day trips for now.
Once you’ve made it out of the city it’s much easier to make friends at campgrounds, etc.
It can be intimidating at first especially if you are doing this solo, but don’t let that stop you.
You’ll be surprised how much fun it is to meet new people and make friends from all over the world!
You’ll most likely have limited storage space at some point.
This is especially true if you live with another person or bring a lot of expensive camera gear with you!
You’ll have to find other ways of storing things, so make sure to get creative with it.
It can become lonely being away from friends and family for long periods of time.
This is definitely one of the biggest challenges with van life.
The best way to overcome loneliness is by joining online VanLife communities on Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube.
On top of that, there are a lot of great meetups and events for people who live on the road as well!
Weather can be a big obstacle
This might not apply to everyone, but winter can be incredibly challenging while living inside a van in colder climates.
Make sure you do your research and check what the weather is like during different times of the year before making any big decisions on where you want to live.
It may even be worth spending part of the year somewhere warm, and the other part in a place with more diverse weather.
If you’re really lucky, both will work out fine!
There will be a lot of obstacles on the road
Whether it’s staying in a parking lot for weeks on end, finding food every day, or dealing with the people who think vans are just homes for hobos.
In fact, the biggest obstacle of them all is your mind.
It’s hard to stay positive when you’re living in a tiny place and not being able to shower on a daily basis.
The best way to overcome this is by continuing on your journey, even if you’re tired and feeling defeated.
It’s important to keep moving forward and remember why you started living inside a van in the first place.
If all else fails just take a deep breath, count your blessings, and think of all of the awesome things to come!
Find Work Can be Difficult
Another obstacle you’ll face is trying to find work while being on the road.
It’s hard to maintain a consistent job when you don’t have an address or are constantly on the move.
The best way around this is to simply find work online!
Take a look at Upwork, Fiverr, or Freelancer for some work that you can do remotely from your laptop.
Alternatively, you could also find part-time work at a campground/RV resort in exchange for a free stay!
It’s not the easiest way to make money but it comes with other perks as well.
If any or all of the above may seem daunting to you then the best solution might be to have a nice chat with a friend or family member.
Even just letting them know that you’re considering it and asking questions can help ease your mind as well as theirs!
Best Resources to Help You Transition to Vanlife
If you’re just starting out it can be difficult to find the right tools to help you transition into van life.
We have found the best resources that we recommend to make this process as seamless as possible.
There are also a ton of great blogs and vlogs about living in vans out there that you may find useful for getting new ideas.
Some of the best include:
1. Hobo Ahle [Solo Female VanLifer]
2. GNomad Home [top resource for van building]
3. TinyHomeTruck [learn how to convert a truck into a tiny home!]
4. Novel Kulture [how to make money on the road]
5. Diversify Van Life [highlights the less-heard voices in the Vanlife and Nomadic communities]
There are also a ton of great books out there about living inside a van. Some are focused on specific regions, whereas others are more general guides to van life!
Some of the best include:
1. How to live in a van and travel: Live everywhere, be free, and have adventures on a campervan or motorhome – your home on wheels
2. Van Build: A complete DIY guide to designing, converting, and self-building your campervan or motorhome
3. Where Should We Camp Next?: A 50-State Guide to Amazing Campgrounds and Other Unique Outdoor Accommodations (Plan a Family-Friendly Budget-Conscious Summer Trip)
4. How to Live the Dream: Things Every Van Lifer Needs to Know
5. 100 Parks, 5,000 Ideas: Where to Go, When to Go, What to See, What to Do
These resources will be a huge help to you if you’re new to van life.
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Now that you understand more about what van life is all about, it’s time for you to take the plunge and start living your best life.
There’s nothing stopping you from going out tomorrow and buying a van, but if you need some more time then just go on day trips for now or even rent one for a weekend.
Having a van to live in might seem like it is too much hassle, but trust us, once you get past the first month or two, it becomes so much easier!
Just make sure to take your time and be smart about what van will work best with your budget.
Vanlife is all about making new friends, seeing the world from a different perspective, and challenging yourself to be the best you can be.
Don’t let your fear of change stop you from going out there and making it happen.