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Don’t Make the Same Mistakes I Did. My 20 Biggest Vanlife Regrets

Helping you be more prepared for vanlife than I was.

I was wildly misinformed about vanlife. When I cashed in on my van-dwelling dreams, I had visions of awe-inspiring road trips, showering outside immersed in nature, and epic sunrise views framed by my billowing curtains and van doors. Like camping but way more comfortable, paired with the freedom to pick up and move at will.

This overly-romanticized version of vanlife does happen on occasion. But the bulk of vanlife is rugged, complicated, frustrating, and chock-full of chores. I’m no stranger to uncomfortable travel. But vanlife brought a whole new meaning to the word “unglamorous.”

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret choosing to live in a van, but these are 20 things that I do regret about vanlife.

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PHOTO: Manuel Meurisse/Unsplash
1 OF 20

Being Fooled by the Instagram #Vanlife Movement

Craving a more nomadic minimalist lifestyle, I was easily enticed by the images on Instagram of vanlifers living life to the fullest and traveling America freely on a budget. Because I had loads of travel experience and was no stranger to roughing it, I thought living in a van would be easy. Maybe even somewhat luxurious. That illusion is shattered the first time you have to pee in a can or on the side of the highway. Even if you manage to craft the most epic van build, complete with a composting toilet and shower, you still have to empty the toilet, contend with stinky dishwater under your sink, and, more often than not, find yourself sleeping in a Walmart parking lot rather than scenic vistas. Life on the road is rugged. You’re confined to a small space, driving long distances, and your day is often filled with tedious chores. The photos on Instagram are just the highlight reel rather than the full picture of what it’s really like to live in a van.

INSIDER TIPGive vanlife a test run before you commit. There are plenty of companies that rent already converted camper vans for weekend trips. I recommend at least a week-long test run so you get the feel for it.

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PHOTO: Balkan Campers/Unsplash
2 OF 20

Buying a Van I Can't Fully Stand Up In

Blame it on my limited budget and zero experience living in a vehicle full-time, but I made the rookie assumption that since I would be spending the vast majority of my time outside exploring, I didn’t need a van that I could stand upright in. Once you spend a rainy week cooped up inside, bent over your sink doing dishes, unable to stand and stretch for even a moment of relief, you’ll understand why the Sprinter’s and Ford Transit’s of the van world are so highly coveted. Add in a whole other (much taller) human to the mix, and things get even tighter. My high top allows me to move around freely without claustrophobia, but an extra few inches of headroom would be enough to keep me from turning into a hunchback.

INSIDER TIPIf you plan on spending more than a month consecutively in your van, consider springing for the more expensive high-tops. The ability to stand upright in your van while cooking on a rainy day is priceless.

 

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PHOTO: Frank Luca/Unsplash
3 OF 20

Buying an Old Van and Not Being Mentally Prepared for the Breakdowns

My 1994 Dodge Ram van was aesthetically worse for wear but mechanically “sound,” according to the mechanic giving it a thorough once-over before I coughed up the cash. Unfortunately, over the next 5,000 miles and four months, I was forced to replace the transmission ($4,000), fuel pump ($500), brakes ($75), alternator ($150), and repair leaky door seals. I am still contending with a non-existent speedometer and A/C system. Doesn’t seem so “mechanically sound” now. The truth is old vans break down. I naively thought that if I chose the “right” old van I would get away without major mechanical repairs. But there’s no guarantee even if you do everything right, and I deeply regret not preparing myself initially for those financial mishaps.

INSIDER TIPAlways get a mechanic to evaluate any used van before you purchase from a private seller. But understand there will be breakdowns nonetheless.

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PHOTO: Brina Blum/Unsplash
4 OF 20

Not Researching the Daily Cost of Vanlife

Living in a van is indeed cheaper than paying rent in most major U.S. cities. It’s also the cheapest way to explore the United States. But between gas, groceries, AAA coverage, car insurance, post-hike beers, state park passes, and unexpected repairs–the costs of traveling in a van add up. Most vanlifers are digital nomads or pick up odd jobs in various cities throughout the year. But if you’re planning on traveling off of your savings like I originally was, you should spend some time researching the day-to-day costs of vanlife. Because it’s not as cheap as you might think.

INSIDER TIPHere’s the exact cost of a three-month cross-country road trip in the USA.

 

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PHOTO: Daniel Julio/Unsplash
5 OF 20

Skipping Solar

I’m constantly battling my power system. Between charging my phone, camera, and laptop (for late-night Netflix binges), keeping my fridge at a safe temperature, powering my vent fan while cooking, and overhead lights in the evenings, my electrical system is tapped after a day or two. Since I opted for the cheaper auxiliary battery system, I have to drive my van to recharge–rather than relish the power of the sun with rooftop solar panels. Considering I spend most of my time chasing the sun across the country anyways, solar would have been the most logical choice.

INSIDER TIPSolar is expensive, but power is priceless. The ability to charge your phone stress-free every night and venture off the grid for days at a time is worth the splurge.

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PHOTO: Rota Alternativa/Unsplash
6 OF 20

Thinking Vanlife as a Couple Would Be Easy

I had the added benefit (or depending on the couple–misfortune) of experiencing van-dwelling with my partner. Previously, we shared a small apartment, moved across the country, and long-term traveled together, all without a hitch. It seemed natural that this endeavor would go smoothly as well. Unsurprisingly, relinquishing all personal space and privacy wasn’t a trial we had accounted for. Living in a van together requires the utmost level of communication, the ability to take “personal space” while still sitting five feet apart, and will drastically change the level of comfort in your relationship. As I mentioned before, vanlife hygiene is questionable at best and after a cold wintery week without a shower, you’ll really put your love to the test.

INSIDER TIPBefore you take on a van build or road trip together, take the time to hammer out the details. Like what the daily budget is and how chores will be divvied up. The more openly you communicate the small stuff, the less strain vanlife will have on your relationship.

 

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PHOTO: Daniel Thiele/Unsplash
7 OF 20

Missing Out on Big Milestones at Home

Life goes on without you. The nomadic lifestyle is infinitely appealing but it’s not without its drawbacks. Just like any other form of long-term travel, you’ll start to miss out on major life events in your friends’ and families’ lives. It’s not just birthdays, graduations, and promotions either. Unless you’re willing to make the drive (sometimes thousands of miles) you’ll miss weddings, reunions, or even the birth of your nephew.

INSIDER TIPYou may miss a few events, but your friends will understand. Make an effort to get to the stuff that counts and forget all the rest. You only get to live your life once so make sure you’re living it for yourself.

 

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PHOTO: Daniel J. Schwarz/Unsplash
8 OF 20

Spending Money on Costly Aesthetics That Weren't Worth it

Like a $350 electric fridge that drains my power instead of a Yeti cooler. Or the $200 slab of solid hemlock for my counter-top and table-top just because the delicate grain of the wood caught my eye. This was all money that could have gone toward repairing my A/C so I didn’t end up sweltering in the summer heat of the Southwest or investing in a solar power system.

INSIDER TIPAlways choose function over aesthetics. You can get quality van accessories and build materials from fellow vanlifers on Facebook marketplace.

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PHOTO: Drew Bernard/Unsplash
9 OF 20

My Environmental Impact

Minimalism does not always equal environmentalism. Vans and RVs are gas guzzlers. Mine gets about 12 mpg on a good day. Limited storage space means I’ve had to forgo bulk shopping, and life on the road often makes it very difficult to recycle. Being “green” while living the vanlife isn’t easy.

INSIDER TIPLiving in a van can be very environmentally friendly with a little extra effort. Try to practice slow travel or, in other words, drive less. Also, be sure to dump your gray water in specified dump sites and always practice the leave no trace policy.

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PHOTO: Steve Halama/Unsplash
10 OF 20

Ever Thinking the Words "Oh I'll Just Go at Grocery Stores"

Do you know how many times a day you have to use the bathroom? I do. Because every time I feel the urge I have to find a remote corner of wilderness where I can dig a hole or sneak into a grocery store restroom. A composting toilet costs a pretty penny and comes with its own set of cringeworthy chores, but if I had the space to spare, I would give up my hole-digging hobby and gas station pit stops in a heartbeat.

INSIDER TIPIf you’ve chosen to forgo the onboard bathroom as I did, your most reliable emergency pit stops are grocery stores, gas stations, state & national parks, and coffee shops.

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11 OF 20

Trying to Park in an Underground Garage

Every vanlifer I know has some variation of this horrifying story. I was parking in downtown Chicago, ecstatic to explore the city that gave the world deep-dish, when I absent-mindedly drove into an underground garage. This garage was about two inches shorter than my van. Which was quickly made apparent by an awful scraping noise as the gate lowered behind me. Cue panic and chaos as I blocked a downtown Chicago parking garage for over an hour. How did I eventually extract my vehicle from the garage you ask? By deflating all four tires. Not only did I nearly rip my vent fan from the rooftop, I later discovered I had broken the water-tight seal around the vent. Of course, I discovered this weeks later during heavy rain when I suddenly had an indoor waterfall.

INSIDER TIPKnow how tall your van is with all of its added accessories. Then add six inches.

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PHOTO: Stijn te Strake/Unsplash
12 OF 20

Not Spending the Extra Effort to Find More Scenic Parking Spots

Finding a new place to sleep every night is exhausting. I had envisioned epic sunrises on mountaintops and beach-front camping, but most nights, tired from a full day of exploring, I would wind up pulling into a Walmart parking lot. It’s not that I didn’t want to sleep somewhere scenic, it’s just mustering up the energy to actively search for a spot to sleep each night was difficult. But after a few months on the road, I noticed that the destinations I loved the most, like South Dakota or Florida, were places I was able to wake up in nature or on a beach.

INSIDER TIPApps like iOverlander and SpotAngels make finding free overnight parking easy. You can also camp for free on any Bureau of Land Management land which is always more scenic than a parking lot.

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PHOTO: hilary bird/Unsplash
13 OF 20

Deciding There Was No Room for Outdoor Equipment (Paddleboards, Bikes, Etc.)

Storage is limited when you live in a 50-square-foot box. I drove the entire country without a kayak, paddleboard, bicycle, hammock, or surfboard. As a lover of the outdoors, this was the biggest disservice I could have done myself. You have to provide yourself the means to get outside and enjoy it. I should have intentionally crafted the space to store my paddleboard during the build process and found a way to securely strap my bike on the back. This would have changed the way I experienced America and given me an excuse to get outside and leave my home on wheels behind more often.

INSIDER TIPInvest in either a roof, trunk, or front rack for extra storage.

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PHOTO: Woody Kelly/Unsplash
14 OF 20

Not Planning Far Enough in Advance

Going with the flow leaves room for spontaneity, which is very important for all road trips. But living day-to-day often means you’ll look back and discover everything you missed a few months later. Without proper planning and research you’ll bypass places and activities you would have enjoyed, simply out of ignorance. I flew through the midwest, doing little to no research, under the assumption I would stop whenever I saw somewhere that intrigued me. Unless you’re on Route 66 brimming with roadside attractions, this isn’t the best method for locating cool sights, scenic camping spots, or just about anything else worth visiting.

INSIDER TIPA good rule of thumb is to research roughly five days in advance. Then feel free to scrap all your well-laid plans if you discover something better. But doing the research will help you experience more.

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PHOTO: Balkan Campers/Unsplash
15 OF 20

Keeping to Myself for the First Few Months on the Road

There is an extensive community of vanlifers on America’s back roads, complete with in-person meet-ups and very informative Facebook groups. Some live in decked-out sprinters like you might see on Instagram, while others fell into this unorthodox lifestyle more out of necessity than a desire for mobility. It’s a diverse bunch, to say the least. For the first few months that I lived in a van, I was hesitant to approach other van-dwellers parked in the same lot. Instead, I hid away in the van at night and missed out on making those connections or getting recommendations for the town up the road. Much later I realized I was losing an opportunity to learn from others who had lived in a van for decades. Now I have loads of friends who live in vans. But I wish that I had started with a more open mind and the intention of creating those friendships on the road.

INSIDER TIPMost major cities have several streets crowded with van-dwellers. Not only does this signify a safe place to sleep overnight but you’ll be surrounded by people who can recommend sights worth seeing.

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PHOTO: Alexander Bagno/Unsplash
16 OF 20

Trying to Van-Dwell in Cities

New York City is a challenging destination for vanlife. As is, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, or pretty much any other major U.S. city. But these were places I desperately wanted to explore. So I tried to make it work. But navigating a major metropolis while living in a van is tricky.

For starters, there’s no place to go to the bathroom. Many grocery stores and gas stations have forgone public restrooms and you’re absolutely not able to find a discrete corner to set up your shower bag. The streets are narrow, having been built for cars much sleeker than my tank of a van and parking garages are the standard (see regret number 11). There’s also a social stigma associated with living in a van in a city. Locals look at you and see “homeless” instead of “nomad” or “traveler.” But those same individuals are delighted to take a van tour when they meet you at a National Park. Overall I left each city feeling defeated, stressed, and filled with regret.

INSIDER TIPIf you plan on spending a considerable amount of time in large cities while living in a van, I recommend investing in a gym membership like Planet Fitness. This will give you a reliable place to park, shower, and use the toilet in most cities across the U.S.

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PHOTO: Alex Guillaume/Unsplash
17 OF 20

Being Unprepared for Bad Weather

Vanlife in the rain is a disaster. Even more so when you discover a few leaks. It’s also less than ideal in the triple-digit heat and frigid winters. Instead of investing in important vanlife essentials like easy to attach chains for high-elevation mountain passes, a working A/C system, or thick-down comforters for icy mornings, I chose to completely disregard the notion of less-than-perfect weather.

INSIDER TIPDon’t be like me. Be prepared for all kinds of weather scenarios. Even if you’re planning a summer-only road trip. You never know what you’ll encounter.

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PHOTO: Alex Guillaume/Unsplash
18 OF 20

Underestimating How Important High Clearance & 4WD Is

An unrivaled benefit of vanlife is the ability to set up camp in remote places. To explore where bulkier and longer RV’s can’t go. Unfortunately, the van I hastily chose to convert has neither high-clearance nor 4WD capabilities. At first, this didn’t seem like a huge deal. But if you’re looking for dramatic off-the-beaten-path scenery, even in popular national parks, it often involves driving long and poorly maintained dirt roads.

INSIDER TIPMany national parks (like Death Valley) require high-clearance vehicles on less-traveled roads.

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PHOTO: hilary bird/Unsplash
19 OF 20

Rushing Through My Build Process

My construction experience when this conversion began boiled down to Ikea. I was in way over my head. Instead of doing diligent research and thoroughly planning out my van build I dove into the demolition. I finished my entire van conversion in six weeks. Youtube managed to keep me afloat but, because of my poor planning and “winging it,” my storage capacity suffered. Currently, I only have one shelf in my entire van. Since I didn’t plan ahead, there are very few sturdy studs to anchor the shelves onto the upper walls. Most van conversions take months not weeks and require lots of foresight and research. The more you strategically plan, the happier you’ll be with the outcome.

INSIDER TIPTry to design your storage spaces specifically for items you plan to bring with you. Start with large items and work your way down to the spice rack.

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PHOTO: Tobias Tullius/Unsplash
20 OF 20

Not Trying Vanlife Sooner

Mostly, I regret not trying vanlife earlier. I think of all the road trips I wasted in a car. I’ve car-camped all over the U.S. in my tiny Toyota Camry. I drove the epic highway 101 through California (twice) while sneakily trying to score free tent camping the whole way. But vanlife changed the game for me. It gave me access to more remote destinations since I was no longer tied to small towns and campsites for lodging. It also allowed me to travel the United States without completely breaking the bank and with the added comfort of a full-size bed to boot.

2 Comments
M
MoreWould May 20, 2021

This is a great article, full of hard-won insights.

Into vanlife 40 years ago, when we were called "hippies."  Guilty as charged, but we grew up, took our kids with us until they flew the coop and we're still at it.  We came to most of the same conclusions, earned the same way.

Started with a '68 tin-top VW bus with a homemade interior.  Couldn't stand up straight on a rainy day for 250,000 miles, and we weren't really set up to cook inside.  That can get rough in the Pacific Northwest.

2WD VWs have enough ground clearance, but not enough traction & we got stuck in the sand every time we went to the beach.  Engines lasted about as long as sparkplugs in a modern car, and we went through 5 of them.  Not always under ideal circumstances.  Learned to fix almost everything.

When the kids came along, we bought an '87 Vanagon Westy Syncro with a pop top.  Kids slept upstairs.  That solved most of the problems and we put 100K miles on it with them, vacationing all over the Western US.  Didn't get stuck anymore, but it was slow, and got relatively slower as cars got faster.

After the kids left, we did a Total Makeover.  Subaru engine (20 mpg @ 75 mph), Audi 4-wheel disc brakes, paint, rubber, the works.  Solar, aux battery, real fridge (ice sucks).  Bike rikes and Oru origami kayaks.

Going out again in a few weeks.