Living the van life has become a romanticized dream for many, offering the allure of freedom, adventure, and a simpler existence. While there are undoubtedly many positive aspects to this lifestyle, unexpected challenges can make it less idyllic than it appears.
When I decided to transition to van life, I certainly knew there would be hardships and wasn’t expecting the lifestyle to fulfill the glamorous portrayal that was declared on most social media channels. But there were some things that came as a surprise as I dove into this nomadic lifestyle.
In this blog post, I’ll share some of the worst things about living a van life that you might not expect.
Table of Contents
Finding Reliable Mechanics
It’s challenging to find good mechanics when you’re constantly on the move. You will need maintenance or repairs in unfamiliar places, and not all mechanics are experienced with your specific camper van. Even if you have a new van still under warranty at a dealership, you’ll often find some places are booked out for months, and then when they can see you, they may need to order parts that are on backorder.
Another huge caveat of getting mechanical repairs is where you will stay while your (literal) home is being repaired. The budget needed for an Airbnb or hotel can easily surpass the cost of the actual repairs to your rig.
Have pets? That’s a whole other challenge when you have to take your rig to a mechanic. Most mechanic shop waiting rooms are dog-friendly, but it’s definitely not a place a dog would enjoy being at for an entire day or back-to-back days. I’ve spent many days sitting in mechanic shop waiting rooms with my dog, and it’s not particularly my idea of a good time.
Some mechanics will allow you to stay in your van in their parking lot overnight, but for many, it’s a violation of their insurance, so they can’t accommodate you. Even if you can stay overnight in their lot, you’ll still have to figure out what to do during the day while they are working on your van.
Pro tips on finding good mechanics:
- Ask for referrals. The best referral is from a friend, and bonus points if they also live van life and have a rig similar to yours. I’ve also had great luck asking a local parts store for a reputable mechanic for the work I need to be done.
- Check iOverlander. The app has a filter that shows mechanics that people have given reviews for. This can be invaluable since everyone giving reviews on this app typically lives some sort of nomadic lifestyle.
- Search Google Reviews: You can search Google reviews for specific keywords like “campervan” or your specific rig type. I’ve found reviews given by fellow nomads this way when I otherwise would not have reached out to that specific mechanic.
Regardless of how often you clean and maintain your van, the reality is that van life often means you’re perpetually dirty. Dust, dirt, and the great outdoors find their way inside your living space. Every single square inch of your living space…
You’ll need to be prepared for the continual battle against grime and embrace a more relaxed attitude toward cleanliness. This is especially true if you plan to travel with pets.
Laundry services can be few and far between. You’ll learn to wear certain articles of clothing multiple times, and you might start hand-washing undergarments and socks between trips to the laundromat.
If you’re used to having fresh sheets every few days, this will be very challenging to maintain in this lifestyle. You might opt for just having some extra pillowcases on hand and swapping those out every few days to feel a little fresher.
Baby wipes and other body wipe options will be your best friend in between opportunities to shower. Even if you have a shower on board, your water supply will be limited when boondocking, so you won’t want to shower daily. If you’re at a campground with hookups, this won’t be an issue.
Pro tips for staying clean on the road:
- Use a solar shower. I have a small 2.5-gallon one that I fill every time I top off my water tank, and I can easily wash my hair (with biodegradable soap) with that. This helps me stay feeling fresh between my trips to town when I go to the gym for a shower.
- Use hand sanitizer. Since the pandemic, this has become more common practice, but I find simply using hand sanitizer consistently helps me feel cleaner. This also saves water that would be used for traditional hand-washing.
- Get a fingernail brush. I never realized how dirty your fingernails got until I started living in a van full-time. When my hands aren’t in the water doing dishes, in a shower daily, and being washed every hour, it’s incredible how quickly dirt builds up under my nails. I good ol’ fingernail brush is so helpful – and it doesn’t take much water to rinse your hands after scrubbing your nails.
Cell Service Misconceptions
Having full bars of cell service doesn’t always translate to good service when living on the road. Remote or mountainous areas often have no signal at all, and some places that show “full bars” on your phone actually have data speeds so slow you can’t do anything more than send a text message with it.
There are few things more frustrating than finding a perfect spot to park, checking your phone, having full bars of cell service, and later finding out that the quality of service does not meet your needs. A cellular signal booster can help make poor signal usable. I use this Weboost signal booster on my van, and it’s saved the day on multiple occasions.
Now that Starlink has become a resource to nomads, that opens many more doors for locations we can stay at while remaining connected. But Starlink is not without its challenges. It is expensive, takes a lot of power to run (around 100AH per day!), and needs a clear view of the northern sky. So, if you’re in the dense forests in the Pacific Northwest, Starlink won’t be much help to you.
Many people are surprised to find that even with today’s technologies available to most consumers, streaming, working online, or staying connected with loved ones can be more challenging than you might expect.
Pro tips for staying connected
- Have a backup plan. Always have an alternative place in mind for where to stay in case you end up somewhere that doesn’t have signal when you need it. Sometimes this can mean backtracking to a city or opting for a rest stop instead of the epic location with perfect views.
- Use apps to find service. Apps like FreeRoam and Gaia GPS have layering options where you can see cellular coverage by provider. This is not always 100% accurate, but it gives you a general idea of if there will be any signal at all where you’re heading.
- Test cellular signal when you arrive. You can use an app like Open Signal to test the quality of your cellular signal when you arrive at your destination.
Privacy and Human Behavior
It’s disheartening to see how inconsiderate or messy people can be at campgrounds or rest stops when they think no one is looking. Littering, loud music, or even public displays of affection can disrupt your peaceful day and serve as a reminder that not everyone shares your respect for nature and shared spaces.
Many people who aren’t full-time travelers don’t quite seem to understand Leave No Trace principles or lack basic respect for space on public land. I’m still shocked by how often I pull into a camp spot on public land and find garbage, broken glass, bullet casings, toilet paper, and even human feces nearby.
Over the past three years I have been traveling, I’ve seen many once-pristine locations turn into dumping grounds as the popularity of boondocking has grown. Apps like iOverlander that are a resource to us are also the detriment for some of our public lands, leading to inexperienced people in our favorite locations who don’t choose to leave them better than they found them.
Pro tips to maintain privacy and keep our public lands clean
- Have good window coverings. An investment in good-quality window coverings is worth every penny when living van life. They are great not only for temperature control but also for your own privacy and light management.
- Use earplugs and a sleep mask. If you plan to stay at truck stops or in cities where there will likely be noise through the night, a good set of earplugs and a sleep mask will help you not be disturbed by late-night shenanigans.
- Keep extra trash bags on hand. I keep a roll of 13-gallon scented garbage bags for when I arrive at a littered campsite.
- Use rubber gloves and a grabber/reacher tool. No one wants to touch other people’s garbage, and you’ll find everything from soiled underwear (seriously, this is a common thing) to filled dog poop backs. I keep a box of rubber gloves and have a reacher tool that I can use for picking up most garbage.
Short Winter Days
Short winter days can be particularly challenging for van lifers. With limited daylight hours, you have less time to explore, work on your van, or charge solar power systems. Staying warm can also be more energy-consuming, requiring efficient insulation and heating systems.
Even when it stays 70 degrees in the desert in December, the short days are especially challenging for me. I’m not likely to go out after dark when I’m boondocking in the middle of nowhere, and I often have work that has to be completed during daylight hours.
Pro tips on surviving short winter days
- Manage your time. I charge my items early in the day to take advantage of the solar I can get. If possible, I plan work calls later in the day and go out for a walk or run while it’s light out.
- Park with friends. You’ll hear nomads reference “scatter season” in the summer months when everyone goes their separate ways as the weather shifts. In the winter, the opposite seems to happen, and many people end up in the desert or caravan through Mexico together. Having a few friends around to share a campfire or play games in the evenings can be a nice reprieve from the longer dark periods.
- Do more “city” things. If you like exploring cities and are comfortable with city stealth camping, winter can be a great time to explore more of what cities have to offer.
Van life means that simple tasks take longer to accomplish. Everything seems to take longer. Daily chores like cooking, cleaning, or finding a suitable parking spot can be extremely time-consuming. What might be a quick task in a traditional home can turn into a lengthy process, impacting your daily routine.
Pro tips for planning chore day
- Map out your errands for efficiency. Instead of zig-zagging around town, plan your errands in line with the last stop being as close to the direction you’ll be heading to park that evening. Bonus: this helps save gas also!
- Try ordering your groceries for pickup. This is a new one for me, but it’s been a game-changer! On days that I need to replenish all my groceries, I’ll order them online and go pick them up at the store. This saves me well over an hour wandering around a grocery store I’m not familiar with.
- Go to stores that carry multiple items on your list. Even if something costs an extra dollar at the store I’m at, it’s usually worth it to buy it at one store instead of driving to multiple stores, wasting gas and time, to try and save a few dollars.
Pet Health Challenges
Keeping pets healthy while living in a van is absolutely achievable, but it can be challenging. Limited space, exposure to various environments, and the need to find pet-friendly locations for exercise and bathroom breaks all require extra effort and planning. Ensuring your pets receive proper nutrition and veterinary care on the road is also crucial.
I feed my dog a raw diet, and that adds another level of planning and resources needed while traveling. If you have a dog with behavioral challenges (like mine), having a consistent routine and keeping up with training requires a level of planning an commitment that is not easy to maintain.
There are many people out on public lands that allow their dogs to run free without having reliable recall. I’ve had literal packs of dogs show up in my camp, with owners walking by without any concern, telling me “their dogs are friendly” as my dog is reacting to the chaos. This can cause a considerable amount of anxiety and make it hard to relax.
Pro tips on keeping your pet healthy and safe
- Keep your dog or pet leashed in unfamiliar places. For their own safety, until you are absolutely positive it’s safe to let your pet loose, always have your pet on a leash while at camp and when exploring the area.
- Find a pet food that is readily available. Pet stores in different locations tend to not be consistent with their food options. You can plan food shipments or find a type of food that is consistently available at most chain pet stores.
- Have pet insurance. Your pet is at a higher risk of injury and illness due to all of the new places you will be taking it. Pet insurance will help give you peace of mind if you have to take an unexpected trip to the veterinarian.
- Have multiple “primary” vets. Depending on how you travel, you can have multiple “primary” vets that you go back to for annual exams and shots. I use one near Phoenix, AZ, and in Seattle, WA, due to the annual “loop” that I travel. You can also utilize a chain veterinary service like Thrive to help track your records and have consistent care.
The Dating Pool
The dating pool in the van life community is surprisingly small. Meeting like-minded individuals who share your passion for this lifestyle can be challenging, and forming meaningful connections while constantly on the move can be even more so. Additionally, potential partners may have differing priorities or expectations about the van life experience.
If you do find someone compatible on an emotional and interest-based level, their travel plans may be different. Do they like to move as often (or as little) as you do? Will you caravan together all the time or part ways for weeks here and there for separate adventures? Maybe you decide to start traveling together in the same rig to save money… will you be compatible in such a small space with zero privacy?
These are all things I’ve heard friends talk about over the years. I personally have been enjoying staying single and just having my dog to worry about. 🙂
Pro tips on navigating the van life dating pool
- Stay single. Just kidding… but in all seriousness, be clear with your expectations when meeting new people and understand that dating in van life is very different than dating in a more traditional environment.
- Go to van life events. If you’d like to meet like-minded people without using a dating app, plan on attending some van life events.
- Set boundaries. It’s okay to meet someone and tell them they can’t just start camping with you full-time. You don’t move in with someone in the city when you’ve gone on one date. Parking next to someone while boondocking is pretty close to living together and can burn out a new relationship faster than it started.
In conclusion, the challenges of van life are diverse and can test your adaptability and patience. From the practical difficulties of finding reliable mechanics, dealing with constant dirtiness, and managing daily tasks to the more personal challenges of staying connected, preserving privacy, and maintaining relationships, it’s essential to be prepared for the unexpected when embracing the van life lifestyle.
While these challenges may seem daunting, many van lifers find the rewards of adventure, freedom, and a deep connection with nature to be worth the sacrifices. I know I certainly have reaped the rewards, and am looking forward to what the future holds!
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