Living In a Van: What Is It Really Like? What You Need to Know About Van Life

By Carrie Wilder | Last Updated: March 26, 2021 

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Living in a van is a popular topic these days. From weekend warriors to full-time van life, the idea is really attractive to many different kinds of people who want more out of life.

The ability to go wherever you want, whenever you want, and having everything you need right with you… sounds dreamy, right?

But what is living out of a van really like? Like, permanently living in a van?

I've lived in both an RV and a van and I know the unique challenges that come with both types of lifestyles.

This article talks about the things you need to know if you want to seriously consider living in a van. Let's get into it.

Is Living In a Van All It’s Cracked Up To Be On Social Media? 

Social media portrays van life as a picture-perfect insta-aesthetic wanderlust lifestyle… but is it really all it’s cracked up to be? 

Almost everyone knows that things on social media are typically always painted in a different light than they truly are, and van life is no exception. 

There are definitely picture perfect moments and nothing beats the freedom of living so minimally on the road. 

Here are some of the good and the not-so-picture-perfect parts about van life from my own experience and of those I’ve met on the road. 

The answer to this question is both yes and no. How could living in a van be illegal yet legal at the same time? It really just depends on where you’re at. 

If you’re living in a van full time and traveling, you need to have some kind of home base or physical “domicile” address that you use for all legal purposes. This is where your drivers license comes from, where you register your vehicles, get car insurance, and register to vote. This keeps you legal while traveling full time. 

But if you’re living in a van in a town or city and not traveling full time, whether or not it’s legal depends on your city ordinances. 

Many large cities have placed bans on living out of vans and even made it illegal to sleep in your vehicle within city limits or certain blocks. 

To find out if living or sleeping in a van is illegal in your area, research your local city and HOA ordinances. 

And if you’re traveling through a city, do your research before sleeping on the side of the street!

What Living in a Van Full Time is Really Like

Sometimes van life does feel as good as it looks online.

Other times… not so much!

Here is a realistic look at what you can expect about living in a van full time. 

Space Is Cramped… Like Really Cramped

Okay so you already know a van is a really small space. But that small space is made to feel even smaller once you get all your personal belongings in it and your body. 

It feels even smaller still if you’re living in it with a kid or partner!

You can remedy the small space feeling of van life by setting up an outdoor living space whenever you’re camped somewhere that will allow it. 

Setting up a canopy or awning, a table, and some camp chairs gives you a spacious outdoor living room and kitchen.

Want to Learn How to Build Your Own Van for Van Life?

Van Life Academy is an in-depth course that teaches you everything about van life. From selecting the right van for you, planning your build, budgeting, building it, and so much more, it has everything you need to know!

Want to know more about the course? I went through the course myself. Read my Van Life Academy Review here.

Living in a Van Can Be Boring

Van life is all about the adventure, but sometimes it gets boring! 

People who live and travel in vans aren’t traveling or exploring all day, every day. Some days we never leave the campsite. Some days we sit at a laundrymat all day. And those days can get really boring. 

Traveling constantly is exhausting. And for those of us who work from the road, we have to plan travel/adventure days and work days separately. 

So you won’t be at picture perfect vistas 24/7… but that’s okay. A little monotony makes the special times all the more special.

Van Life Tetris is a Thing

I don’t know if other people use the phrase “van life tetris”, but it’s something I’ve been saying ever since I started living in a van.

Van life tetris is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: strategically placing items so that other items will fit in without overcrowding the space. 

And doing it often. 

Like, multiple-times-a-day often. 

Sometimes you just have too much stuff, and you’ll use the bed to store some of it. 

But then when it’s time to sleep, you move all the stuff from the bed somewhere. For me, it’s to the driver and passenger seat. 

But then, when it’s time to drive, that stuff goes right back on the bed. 

When living in a van, it’s really helpful to plan a day a week or every 2 weeks to take everything out of the van and reorganize. This helps you purge what you no longer need and makes things feel tidy again, even if just for a few days. 

Living Permanently in a Van Can Be Exhausting

Living in a van can really wear on your mind and body. From the constant rearranging of stuff, always having to find somewhere to sleep, driving, and living in such a small space… it can wear you out!

For myself and many van lifers that I’ve met along the way, combatting the exhaustion and burnout that come with living in a van is as easy as staying with family or friends for a few days, renting an AirBnB, or getting a hotel room. 

And there’s no shame in that! 

Getting a cheap hotel room and using that time to take multiple hot showers and baths, exfoliate until you no longer recognize yourself, watch cable, use their wifi, and rearrange your van is like a miniature vacation in itself. Bonus if there’s free coffee or breakfast. 

On top of that, it can be difficult to cool off in the summer or warm up in the winter.

Van Life Can Put a Strain on Your Relationship

If you decide to do van life with a partner, you better have a strong and solid relationship beforehand.

Living in a van can place a lot of stress on both of you as individuals. This translates to stress on the relationship pretty quickly.

From cramped living quarters and the challenges that come with day to day life while living in a van, it can cause arguments over the tiniest things.

For strong relationships, these little arguments and resolutions will make your relationship stronger. For relationships that are already strained, living in a van can drive a wedge between you.

I know it because I've lived it.

Related:

Everything Takes Longer When You Live in a Van

Even something as simple as brushing your teeth becomes a chore when you live in a van full time.

Everything takes longer in a van – absolutely everything. 

Cooking takes longer because you’re preparing food in such a small space, and likely have to shift things around to get everything you need out. Then there’s the cleanup, and putting everything back away. 

Getting ready to run errands takes longer because you have to be sure the entire van is prepped for travel. 

Setting up camp takes a decent amount of time, and so does breaking down camp. 

There are just a lot of things to do in order to do anything when you live in a van… but the trade-off is worth it for most of us.

It Can Be Hard to Find Showers While Living in a Van

Most camper vans don’t have showers in them. And those that do probably aren’t used very much due to waste water storage. But I can’t speak from experience on that one. 

Showers on the road can be few and far between, and that can be a deal breaker for some people. 

Van dwellers find showers at campgrounds, truck stops, gyms, or have their own little camp showers on board to use when they need to freshen up. 

Staying fresh between showers is done by sponge bath or wet wipes… And wet wipes are a life saver on the road!

Finding Legal and Safe Places To Sleep Can Be a Chore While Living in a Van

Finding places to sleep really can be a chore after a while, especially if you’re traveling a lot. By a lot, I mean not staying in one spot for a week or more. 

In some areas it’s easier to find great campsites than others. And there is nothing worse than being exhausted from a day of hiking or driving and not being able to find a safe or legal place to sleep! 

This sounds like a silly thing to warn about, but decision fatigue when it comes to finding safe, legal overnight camping is a real thing. 

Related: How Long Can You Park in a Store Parking Lot?

But The Views Are Everything… Unless They’re Not

When you’re living and traveling in a van, you get to stay at amazing locations with some of the most incredible views in the country. 

Imagine opening your door in the morning and seeing the sunrise illuminating the deep red rocks of Sedona, or looking out the window and seeing the ocean lapping the shore 100 feet away. 

Ever changing views are one of the biggest allures to van life.

But, not all of those views are inspiring. Sometimes you’re going to wake up to Wal-Mart, and sometimes you’re going to wake up to a noisy city street. 

The true beauty of it all is that you get to choose. 

Making Money While Living Out of a Van

There are so many ways to make money while living out of a van that it might blow your mind.

I've met people doing everything from living off of social security to running their own businesses from the road.

Learning how to make money for van life is often one of the biggest hurdles to hitting the road full time.

I've been working as a virtual asssistant, freelance writer, and blogger since I hit the road in 2017.

In that time, I've learned a LOT about what ways you can make money. Check out these 45 van life jobs you can do while traveling.

Living Out of a Van is True Freedom

Despite the many challenges of van life, living in a van really is true freedom. 

It’s the freedom of choice. 

You choose where you travel. And you choose how often and how far you travel. 

You also choose where to stay at night. 

And you don’t have the worry of a house, being tied to one location, or a ton of belongings. 

It’s just you and everything you need for daily life, all together, everywhere you go. 

The beauty and comfort of having your own bed and toilet with you all over the country (or continent) is one that cannot be explained, it has to be experienced.

How Much Does it Cost to Live in a Van?

Living in a van can cost anywhere from just a couple hundred dollars a month to a few thousand, depending on your lifestyle.  

The true cost of van life varies widely from person to person. No two people do vanlife alike. 

From personal lifestyle expenses to travel expenses, the cost of van life can vary from less than $1,000 a month to $5,000 or more. 

Some people travel slowly to save money. This helps you save money on gas and experiences, because you can spread them out over a period of time. 

Some people travel fast and buy all the experiences they come across. If you can do that and afford it, why not?!

Van life expenses will vary from person to person, also. 

Some people still have van payments and higher insurance as a result. Others have paid off vans and lower insurance rates!

Because of how much the cost of van life varies, it truly is a lifestyle that is affordable for people of every budget. 

Is it Realistic to Live in a Van?

Living in a van is a realistic and viable option for many types of people. It's a great choice for those who want to save money, those who are on a low-income, those who are houseless, and those who want to travel full-time.

Living in a van is a low-cost living solution with a lot of benefits when it comes to saving money. And it's a comfortable and low-price solution to traveling full-time without paying for hotels or other accommodation.

Many people live in vehicles of all types, not just vans. However, vans offer the most interior space and can be really affordable, too.

Is Living In a Van Worth It? 

If you want to live a lifestyle of travel and are prepared to deal with the challenges presented by living in a van, van life is definitely worth it.

Clearly I think so because I can’t stop doing it and I made a website about it. 

But for some people, it’s not. 

I personally think it takes a certain mindset and type of person to thrive while living in a van. 

But for me and tens of thousands like me, the answer is a resounding YES. 

The sacrifices you make for van life and the challenges of the lifestyle are definitely a worthwhile trade-off. 

In fact, it even becomes normal after a while.

There's some saying that says something about “choose your hard”. In reality, everything is hard in its own way.

Paying a mortgage is hard. Mowing a lawn is hard. But finding places to sleep in your van legally is also hard.

It's all about what challenges you're prepared to deal with. Everything is a trade off!

Mortgages and mowing have a payoff of home ownership. Finding places to sleep, shower, and learning how to make money on the road come with the payoff of new experiences every day. It's all about personality and preference.

Follow Your Van Life Dreams

Does van life require sacrifices? Absolutely. But so does any other lifestyle!

Are the sacrifices worth it? The answer to that is subjective. I can't answer it for you personally.

But I can say that for me, the sacrifices are definitely worth it.

And the best part is that it can be temporary if you want it to.

If you're debating the switch to van life, remember that you can always go back to how it was before if you hate it. You don't even have to do it full time.

Nothing lasts forever, especially not our lives. So get out there and live yours!

Carrie Wilder

Carrie has a passion for location independence and nomadic lifestyles. After traveling full-time in an RV and living the van life, she created Making Money and Traveling to help others make the switch to a remote lifestyle. Learn more about Carrie on the About page or connect on social media below.