I’ve been traveling in a converted campervan for over three years, and probably the most common question among nomads is some form of: “What motivated you to start this lifestyle?” Answers will vary from ten-year plans to deciding on a whim after a life change.
But how do you know when you, personally, are ready to live in a van? I’ve met people who started after me and have already decided to quit for various reasons, and there have been some who have been nomadic for 10+ years.
One thing I’ve learned is that, no matter why you’re making this lifestyle choice, there are some basic things you should be prepared for.
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1. You’re not expecting it to solve your problems:
The freedom and adventure you can experience while living van life piques many people’s interest. The open road, not being tied to any one place, getting to see new places and experience new things – this allure is what motivates most people to start their nomadic journey.
But if you are currently struggling on a personal level, keep in mind that van life has its own challenges. The old saying of “Everywhere you go, there you are” certainly holds true with van life. Even more so for some, especially if you’re used to having a lot of activity and social interactions on a daily basis.
Van life can offer many life-enriching things, but it won’t magically solve all your problems. It’s very important to have a clear understanding of what your expectations of van life is and approach the endeavor with a realistic mindset.
Van life is what you make it, but one thing it is not, is easy. For many, the tradeoffs are worth the effort, but others quickly burn out because their expectations were not in alignment with reality. Some people just simply don’t like the lifestyle after trying it out, and that’s completely ok! It’s certainly not for everyone, but you won’t know unless you try.
2. You’re comfortable with minimalism
The limited space in a van means you’ll have to downsize and live with fewer possessions. If you’re not overly attached to material items and are content with the idea of simplifying your life, you’re on the right track. Van life encourages minimalism, and the freedom from the burden of excess possessions can be liberating.
This doesn’t only mean minimizing physical possessions – this can apply to daily experiences as well. Depending on how you decide to travel, you might have to learn to live with fewer showers, limited groceries on hand, and fewer options for luxurious things like delivery pizza or visiting the same gym daily.
If you can come to terms with having fewer physical possessions and amenities, the reward that comes with this lack of attachment can fill your soul in ways you didn’t know was possible.
3. You love adventure and nature
Adventure can mean different things for different people. The majority of van lifers tend to spend more time on public lands in nature than in cities. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have just as much adventure in the city as you can in the great outdoors.
The core of van life is the freedom it offers. If you yearn for a life less bound by routine, schedules, and obligations and you’re ready to embrace the unpredictability of the road, van life might be the perfect choice for you, regardless of where your road takes you.
If you have a deep appreciation for the great outdoors and can’t get enough of hiking, camping, and exploring, van life can provide you with unparalleled access to these experiences.
But if you’re not a nature lover, you can still have an adventurous time when exploring in a van. Many people opt for staying close to metropolitan areas, in cities, or in campgrounds because it meets their needs better. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you opt for stealth city camping, remember that many cities have ordinances about not sleeping in a vehicle overnight, which can cause additional stress.
Van life is all about embracing the unknown and going where the road takes you. Where YOUR road takes you depends on what you consider an adventurous endeavor. There’s no right or wrong answer with this lifestyle.
4. You’re financially prepared
Van life can be budget-friendly, but unexpected expenses can arise. Whether it’s a breakdown, a medical emergency, or other unforeseen costs, having financial reserves and being prepared to handle these situations is important.
Make a budget
Be sure to do your financial homework and be prepared for the costs involved in van life. From purchasing and converting a van to ongoing expenses like fuel and maintenance, having a solid budget in place, an emergency fund, and a solid insurance plan can provide peace of mind.
These numbers will vary greatly depending on how you choose to live van life. You could start out with a simple build that only costs a few hundred dollars or opt for a fancy Mercedes Sprinter conversion van. Older vans might have more maintenance costs, but if you budget for it, the cost might still be less than the payment on a Sprinter van.
Consider fuel costs
If you’re planning on driving thousands of miles to do all the things, fuel costs will obviously be higher than if you plan to slowly menander through your adventures. Many people start moving almost daily, quickly burning out or slowing down due to fuel costs. Again, there’s no right way to travel, but these are things to keep in mind as you’re planning to transition into this lifestyle.
I personally have spent over $1,000 in fuel some months and less than $100 in fuel others. If you plan your travels well, you can adapt as needed for your budget flow.
Have reliable insurance
Always double-check your insurance policy to ensure it covers your van’s actual value, including any upgrades you’ve made. Many vanlifers are grossly underinsured and don’t realize it until they are in an accident.
I have had appraisals completed on both campervans I’ve lived in and made sure I was insured for the full value. This will be an added cost for you, but it will be well worth the investment in case of an emergency.
Embrace flexible income opportunities
For most van lifers, traditional employment gives way to remote work or freelancing. If you have a job or income source that allows you to work from anywhere, you’ll find it easier to sustain the van life lifestyle. If not, many gig job boards, seasonal jobs, and part-time roles align well with van life. You might pause in a city for a few months to take on a short-term gig that will then fund your lifestyle for the next six months if you budget right.
5. You have good problem-solving skills
Van life often involves unexpected challenges, from mechanical breakdowns to finding suitable parking or dealing with inclement weather. If you have strong problem-solving skills and can handle these situations calmly and resourcefully, you’ll navigate the road much more easily.
This lifestyle often means engaging with locals, fellow travelers, and camping enthusiasts. You’ll find the nomadic community welcoming and supportive if you’re comfortable striking up conversations, asking for advice, and seeking help when needed.
There are various forums, Facebook groups, and blogs available that you can join to learn from the community as well.
6. You can read a map
Don’t be offended, but seriously… especially if you’re planning to navigate public lands, you must learn how to read a map properly. In the age of GPS and navigation apps, basic map-reading skills may seem outdated, but they can be invaluable in van life.
Cell signal can be unreliable in remote areas, and GPS may fail. Reading and navigating with paper maps or offline maps on your devices is vital for van life. Always download offline maps before you head out to a new location, just in case you don’t have any connectivity when you get there.
That pin your new friend just texted you? You might not realize it doesn’t actually take you to your friend unless you learn to look at Google’s satellite view and look at the dirt roads leading to the pin. If the road isn’t an “official” road, your mapping app won’t know how to navigate you there. I’ve literally been guided to the wrong side of a mountain when Google thought it made sense to drive that way and “walk the rest of the way” when there was an accessible unmarked forest service road leading me directly to where I wanted to be.
I use Gaia GPS and Google’s offline satellite views on a daily basis. And I always drop a pin at the location I park at, in case I’m out on a walk and forget where I parked!
7. You don’t mind being alone and are self-sufficient
While van life can be a social experience, it also entails periods of solitude. If you’re comfortable with your own company and enjoy the peace and tranquility of being alone in nature or the opportunity to explore a city solo, you’ll thrive in van life. It’s an opportunity for self-discovery and introspection.
Especially if you’re traveling alone, being self-sufficient is crucial in van life. You should be comfortable handling basic vehicle maintenance, cooking your meals, and managing resources like water and power consumption.
Traveling solo can be overwhelming and lonely at times, but the freedom you have by not being confined to someone else’s routines fits right in with this lifestyle. You’ll have the ability to do anything on a whim! Stop at all the scenic overlooks, eat whenever, wherever you want, and change your mind at the last minute without having to worry about someone else’s needs.
On the flip side, if you’re traveling solo, everything is in your hands. All the chores. All the grocery shopping. All the laundry. All the trip planning. Sometimes, I wish my dog could at least look up a gas station while I’m driving, but he has a hard time using my phone without any thumbs…
If you’re traveling with a partner, take turns driving and break out chores between each other so you balance the work that goes into this lifestyle evenly. Without balance, you can quickly burn out.
Is Van Life Right for You?
In conclusion, van life can be an incredible adventure, but it’s not without its challenges. Consider your expectations, adaptability, and skills to determine if you’re ready for this lifestyle.
If you’re not looking for a quick fix, are comfortable with minimalism, possess strong problem-solving abilities, are self-reliant, adaptable, enjoy solitude, and are financially prepared for the unexpected, you’re well on your way to embracing the van life and all the incredible experiences it has to offer.
And if you aren’t sure if you have all of these in line, at the very least just have an open mind and give it a try anyway. What’s the worst that will happen? You might not like it and you’ll go back to your previous lifestyle.
You can always test out van life with a campervan rental for a few weeks, or even a few months before committing to the lifestyle full-scale.
So, is van life right for you? It’s worth finding out!