Traveling in a camper van is all the trend these days! And everyone is thinking about starting van life. You’re not alone if you’ve begun thinking whether this lifestyle is for you.
Of course, starting van life isn’t as easy as 1,2,3. First you’ll need to either buy or build a camper van. But once you’re finished and you’ve got your van, there are still some broad issues to plan for before you set out on your first day.
- Where would we go?
- Where would we sleep?
- How would we navigate the bathroom issue?
If you find yourself asking these same questions, you’re not alone…or crazy!
Van Life Can Be Exhausting!
During our first days of van life, we wanted to go everywhere and see everything. We had so much energy! We’d sleep one night here, then one night there. Always picking up and going.
But after just a few months we were burnt out.
With all these new places and faces, our brains were working overtime to adapt to these constantly changing environments. It was no wonder we were so exhausted.
The downside of this ‘every day new adventure’ lifestyle is that your body and mind never get a chance to create a true ‘comfort zone’ and relax, which gets exhausting!
Lesson: Take It Slow!
Remember, van life is a marathon and not a sprint.
As tempting as it might be to do everything, hike every trail, and catch every sunrise, this type of mindset is actually detrimental to long term camper van travel. Learning to pace yourself and monitor your energy is critical.
Here are some key lessons:
Long term van life can feel like work and sometimes you just need take a personal day. If you’re feeling low on energy, don’t hesitate to take a day off to chill out in your van and focus on yourself.
Tomorrow will always be there.
Who doesn’t like to sleep for free?! We love boondocking out in nature without paying a cent.
But paying to camp has it’s luxuries, like hot water showers and fast WIFI. When we’re feeling down, we’ll stay 1-2 days at a paid campground to regroup and energize.
Remember, there is no shame in paying to camp.
We’ve met fellow van lifers that are up and out of their camper van from sunrise to sunset, day after day.
To pace ourselves, we fill our daily itinerary with plenty of rest. We take long lunches, relax in cafes, or even just day dream by the riverside.
Old Routines Are Blown Up
Embracing full-time camper van living will be a wrecking ball to your prior life.
In our past lives when we lived in a proper home, we were ‘creatures of habit’. Our life was dominated by routines. We woke up at the same time, shopped at the same grocery stores, interacted with the same people, and even worked out at the same gym.
Life was comfortable and predictable…and nice!
But starting van life and traveling in your camper blows up all those routines. Just as we mentioned in lesson #1 above, every day in van life is a new adventure. And without habitual routines for our brains to latch on to, van life gets…you guessed it…exhausting!
Lesson: Learn To Create New Routines
Creating new, campervan-specific daily routines is an important part of long-term van life. In our case, we treat our routines as daily rituals.
We almost never rush through breakfast. We grind our coffee beans daily and allow ourselves to fully wake up over a slow breakfast. Doing this helps to set the pace for our day and ensures we don’t start our day stressed and rushed.
Cleaning can be meditative, seriously. Every morning we sweep our floors, shake out our rugs & pillows, and wipe down our countertops.
There’s a saying in Japan that goes “Cleaning your home helps to clean your soul and kicks out all the bad energy.”
We think that’s pretty true!
We play the exact same 30-song playlist virtually every single day. You might think we’d eventually tire of our music, but we don’t.
Having something that is familiar & predictable in our ever-changing day helps create a new type of comfort zone even while we’re on the road.
The ‘Hygiene Issue’
When we first started van life, we had real concerns about how we were going to deal with bathrooms, showers, and feminine hygiene. We had so many questions!
- Would it be gross to use a toilet in a camper?
- Could we survive not showering every day?
- And for women, would ‘that time of the month’ drag down our travels?
To alleviate those concerns, we purchased an RV toilet and built an outdoor shower unit.
And you know what? After our first 7 months, we NEVER used the toilet and only used the shower twice. We ended up throwing both out and we’re doing just fine without them!
What We've Learned
Regarding showers, we’ve learned to get used to not washing our bodies every day. Of course, this is usually dependent on the climate that we’re traveling in.
But more often than not, we rely on our handy solar shower to help rinse us down. It’s conveniently refillable, packs away when not needed, and requires ZERO plumbing.
But if we want to find an official shower facility, we usually check out these locations:
Though they come at a price, paying to camp does have it’s luxuries, like a hot shower.
Frustratingly however, most campgrounds within National Park and Forest boundaries do not have shower facilities.
Highway trucks stops, like those from Flying J, Pilot, and Love’s, often provide shower facilities for a small fee.
We looked for YMCA gyms wherever we go. Many also get monthly gym memberships that have branches all across the country, such as Fitness 24 and Planet Fitness.
Believe it or not, public bathrooms are EVERYWHERE. Cafes/restaurants, trail heads, grocery stores, gas stations, and shopping malls; we promise that you’ll almost always find a bathroom when you need it.
…But sometimes you really can’t find a toilet. And for those times we carry an empty water bottle (for #1) and a small trowel (for #2). If you’re interested to learn more about THAT part of van life, check out our van life bathroom solutions.
Oh, and how to deal with that ‘time of the month’?
To learn more about Yuko’s experience of being a female traveling in a camper van, check out her post: Van Life For Women.
Finding Great Overnight Spots
When starting van life, you’ll quickly realize that living in a camper van isn’t nearly as awesome when you’re parked overnight in a place that is less than ideal. These are places that are:
- Illegal to park overnight
- Loud all night long
- Dirty, polluted, and/or foul smelling
On top of that, few things are more stressful as when your overnight camping option falls through due to lack of advance planning. This could involve arriving at a fully booked campground or being asked to leave a location that forbids boondocking.
Scrambling for a last minute sleeping spot isn’t fun.
Lesson: Use These Apps To Help You
To help us land great overnight spots, we use the following four apps so that we can plan well ahead where we want to sleep.
The iOverlander App is the premier camping and overnight parking app, especially if you love boondocking for free out in nature. Use this app to get up-to-date information on paid campgrounds and free boondocking sites like on BLM and national forest lands.
Bonus: The iOverlander app even provides information on other services like where to get drinking water and propane refills.
This app also works internationally all over the world.
A must have app if you are in the USA and want to make reservations at campgrounds within National Park and Forest boundaries. The app has an intuitive UI and is easy to use. Simply search for your intended park/forest, find the right campground, select a campground number, and pay.
The Recreation.gov app has it all.
When looking to stay at private campgrounds, we use the Good Sam app. RV parks listed here are usually guaranteed to be clean, well serviced, and with friendly staff.
Bonus: For $29/year, getting a Good Sam membership gets you 10% off the nightly rate from all campgrounds affiliated with the program.
When we’re traveling along a major highway in the USA, sometimes we just need a place to park overnight for free. We’re not looking for anything fancy.
So we use the myRewards Plus app to help us locate Pilot & Flying J service stations. These stations primarily service the long-haul trucking industry but also allow private vehicles and RVs to park overnight.
Bonus: Signing up for an account helps you save money on gas.
Learn To Be Okay In Cramped Spaces
It’s no secret that camper vans are considerably smaller than a normal house. There’s less space to move around, things are always in your way, and your significant other is always, ALWAYS around you! (Hint: Your SO probably thinks the same about you.)
And that’s just the reality of van life, especially when you’re first starting out.
Even if you don’t consider yourself claustrophobic, there’ll be times when you’ll be itching to break out from your camper prison!
How We Deal With Bouts Of Claustrophobia
Whenever we start to feel the tight squeeze of van life, we usually do one of three things:
Getting fresh air and sunlight into the van really helps quell feelings of claustrophobia. We not only open our sliding door but our back doors as well.
Grab a camping chair and find a nice spot outside to take a seat.
(Not having the van in your peripheral vision helps a lot here!)
If we’re unable to go outside, we sometimes just stop whatever we’re doing, lay down, and close our eyes. Taking a short nap really helps to reset the mind and calm emotions.
Inconsistent Internet Access
If you love boondocking in the wild, get ready for consistently poor, or even non-existent, Internet access. Webpages will be slow to download, Google maps loads even slower, and sometimes sending that critical email will be next to impossible.
Sometimes it feels like you’ve been transported back a decade…or two.
When we first started van life, it was difficult to adjust to a less connected life. For our whole lives, fast & reliable Internet was always within reach. Whenever we wanted Internet access, we got it.
So getting used to inconsistent Internet access took some getting used to.
But There’s A Benefit To Offline Life
It took a while, but we’ve learned to enjoy this step back from the online world. Life feels slower. We spend more time outdoors, talk with each more, and find ourselves just living in the moment more often.
We don’t need to be connected 100% of the time and we think you won’t need to be, either.
And When You Need Internet...It Can Be Found
But when it comes to the point when we absolutely need some Internet time, we’ve learned that decent WIFI can be found. We’ll often be on the lookout for a McDonalds, Starbucks, or even a Walmart.
Yep! We’ve been known to sit at the Walmart checkout section with our laptops open once or twice.
Final Thoughts: Making The Move To Van Life Is A Lesson In Adaptability
No matter the challenges you might face when starting van life, we’re confident that you’ll be able to adapt in the face of change.
Take it from us. Before traveling in our camper, we were just a couple of city kids accustomed to the conveniences of urban life. But we made it. And after 2.5 years on the road, we’re still at it!
And in some ways, that’s one of the most important aspects of van life. Every day you’re putting yourself in new and different situations.
Sometimes those situations are uncomfortable at first, but humans have a strong knack for adapting to new environments. So no matter what concerns you might initially have about traveling in your van, we hope you’ll realize that you, too, can learn and adapt in the face of change.