(This is a guest post by Hilary Bird of Green Van Go)
Back in November of 2019 I felt burned out and decided corporate life was no longer for me. I quit my full-time job, moved in with my parents, and bought a 1999 Ford E250 van to build out.
I craved the freedom to be where I wanted, when I wanted and planned on finding remote work to sustain this dream. What I didn’t plan on was a pandemic sweeping the nation right as I was ready to hit the road.
That’s right, good old COVID-19. I was the kid standing at the edge of the pool, dipping my toes in to test the “van life” waters. COVID-19 was the bully that charged up behind me and pushed me in.
COVID-19 amplified the common problems any new van lifer runs into–from finding camp spots, stocking up on supplies, dealing with loneliness, to feeling safe.
In other ways, I don’t think it altered my newfound van experience at all. But I do know that starting van life during COVID-19 has helped me build a stronger mindset for being on the road.
Road Life Felt Post-Apocalyptic
I delayed my launch date by a month in order to quarantine. When I did finally hit the road, it had a Mad Max vibe.
Highways that were normally bustling with traffic were almost empty.
“Restrooms Closed” signs plagued me at nearly every rest stop or gas station (resulting in me quickly mastering the art of peeing in a jar).
People avoided talking to each other and wore their masks in silence. It was an eerie start to road life.
As I left my parent’s house in New Hampshire and drove straight across the country to Utah, it was fascinating to see the different ways each state was handling COVID-19. I could gauge it by how roadside stops and their customers treated mask-wearing and safety protocols.
Around the East Coast, restrictions were tight, fast. In our true New England nature, people seemed robotic and cold. But as I drove through the midwestern states, I noticed less people wearing masks and less posted restrictions. In these states, it felt more like “normal” life.
Pro Tip: Buy a mask with a neck strap! When you’re constantly getting in and out of the van or moving around inside it, it’s easy to misplace your mask. And if you’re making a lot of stops, remembering to grab it is hard sometimes.
Working Remotely Became a Headache
Before starting my adventures, I couldn’t wait to explore new coffee shops or breweries and use them as a place to work remotely. I had picked up two remote marketing jobs through previous employers and was eager to dive in.
But with COVID-19 restrictions, I was confined to my van for all work days, and it was tough.
My van barely has insulation and during the summer months, it was a matter of chasing the shade to get work done. I’d spend hours inside my van just baking to death because the glare from the sun on my laptop outside made it too hard to see.
What’s more, I have a limited amount of mobile hotspot data, so I spent many days working from Mcdonald’s parking lots, poaching wi-fi.
These were the toughest days, smelling fast food for hours with no escape from the summer heat. I’d attempt to crack my side doors open, but they’d usually swing wide open for all the parking lot to see.
I’d also been relying on working indoors to keep my laptop charged. Initially, I thought between charging my laptop indoors and then occasionally off of my inverter, I’d be set for power.
But laptops are power hogs. After about two days off the grid, I’d practically be drained of all battery power.
I ended up dropping $275 on a Jackery portable battery so I could stay off the grid for more days at a time. It felt like I was more focused on where and how I was going to get a wi-fi connection and my next charge-up, than the work I was trying to do.
Pro Tip: Consider using solar panels to power your rig so that you can always be charging up while off the grid. Or, like me, buy a separate portable battery and use solar panels to charge it.
Loneliness Was Next-Level
I believe that making friends on the road is one of the most critical factors that determine how long you can do van life. Humans need interpersonal relationships to feel connected and not alone.
Especially in the van life community, many take to the road precisely because interpersonal relationships are hard for them, so finding new friends is that much more important.
While in the grand scheme of things, COVID-19 did no favors in helping most of us make friends, there was a silver lining.
I accepted that the van life meetups I’d wanted to attend were now canceled and that even visiting friends around the country was not really an option. I also accepted that many towns didn’t want van dwellers around, even posting signs to stay out sometimes.
So, I took to Instagram.
I don’t consider myself a social butterfly, but I knew I’d reached a loneliness limit that was going to break me. So I started messaging fellow van dwellers to gauge their interest in meeting up.
The silver lining was that COVID-19 pushed me to initiate one-on-one communication with seeming strangers. Responses varied but were all kind regardless, and even the act of sending the messages would give me a jolt of confidence and empowerment. I was owning my destiny.
I now have a handful of new friends I’ve met up with in person and, although we were COVID safe while meeting, being around their energy completely recharged me. I have comfort in knowing that we can stay in touch no matter where any of us is on the road, and meetups can always happen again.
Pro Tip: Don’t wait until you’re on the road to start building van life connections. Instagram can actually be an incredibly helpful tool for meeting new friends. I’ve had people starting their builds message me asking questions or just saying hi–I recommend doing the same so once you’re on the road, you already have some friends!
Hygiene Took a Serious Hit
Sure, hygiene already takes a hit with van life in general. But pre-COVID I had planned on using a gym membership and visiting friends to get my shower and bathroom fix.
Since there are a few gym chains that have locations across the country, it’s an insanely cost-efficient way to have access to facilities. But of course, all of these were closed.
I became a master at either sitting in my own sweat for many days at a time, or taking nature’s bath. I’ve used my solar shower bag (which is rough if you don’t have sunshine to warm it up!), river baths and lake baths.
Make sure you’re using an environmentally friendly soap, shampoo and conditioner combo, however.
I definitely feel all the better for mastering outdoor showering, but there were days that made me question why I was even doing van life.
Pro Tip: Keep a solar shower bag in the van even if you have a gym membership.
Getting Sick Could’ve Ended Van Life
Health insurance is one of the biggest struggles for van dwellers. I lost mine when I quit my corporate job and had been in the process of signing up for Obamacare.
But there was a period of time where I had no health insurance and getting sick could have (literally) cost me everything. I’d run into a Wal-Mart for van supplies and despite wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer, I’d have nightmares that night of catching COVID-19.
Even if you don’t catch COVID-19, the mental stress of worrying you have can be draining. And catching it while in a van is extra nerve-racking because you may be alone and don’t know how your body will respond.
Pro Tip: Have some kind of health coverage before hitting the road. There are cheaper alternatives to Obamacare and you don’t want to risk the financial burden on yourself and family.
Starting van life during COVID-19 is what I’d classify as Type 3 fun – not fun while it’s happening, and in hindsight you realize…it still wasn’t fun.
But I’d call it “van life bootcamp” in the sense it helped prepare me for worst-case scenarios, and that, I am incredibly thankful and all the stronger for.
Want to learn even more about Van Life? Here are our favorite articles:
- Curious what type of gear you should bring in your van? Here are 28 van life essentials we can’t live without
- If you need to make money on the road, here are 40+ ways to make money while living in a van
- And while you’re at it, check out the best van life internet options we’ve found
- Want to go a little more luxury? Here are our top picks for the best Class B RV.
- And everyone has to “go” while living in a van. Here are 4 portable toilet options to consider
Kristin Hanes is a journalist who founded The Wayward Home as a place to learn about alternative living. She currently lives on a sailboat and in a Chevy Astro van, and has written articles about alternative living published in Good Housekeeping, Business Insider, Marie Claire and SF Gate. Read more about Kristin here.