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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Living the Van Life

by Octavia Drughi

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Study hard, find a well-paid job, save money, buy a house, buy a car, have kids, buy a bigger car, feel trapped every single day. Why? Because society tells you to? Maybe you do not want those things, perhaps you want to spend your money on meaningful experiences, escape the rat race and gain control over your life. 

Carefree spirits place what they love at the center of their lives: surfing, climbing, mountain biking, hiking, seeing as much of the world as possible. Sounds like the stuff of fairytales, with you as the king or queen of your castle or… van. In reality, van life is still life, with goods and bads. Packing your entire life and embarking on an epic adventure is not as easy as it sounds.

To help you decide whether this kind of lifestyle really is for you, here are the ins and outs of living the van life:




Photo by Camilla Stoddart

#vanlife is the new social media craze that is taking the Internet by storm. Over a million photos on Instagram have been hashtagged #vanlife. These enviable pics usually feature happy couples, a dog or two, surfboards, and bikes, as well as some stunning backdrops that will really make you question your nine-to-five job and possibly your whole existence.

But van dwelling has been around ever since the 1960s when hippies popularized living out of a van, car or motorhome. Before that, nomads and gypsies would live the caravan lifestyle. Today, it’s making a huge comeback among millennials.

#vanlife means much more than living in a van. It means freedom, road trips, nomadic lifestyle, hippie-influences, the great outdoors and much more. Pretty darn romantic, right?


What exactly is the van life?


Photo by Gale Straub

The short answer would be quitting your corporate job and setting out on the adventure of a lifetime. Living the van life means traveling the world, living and working remotely, spending your days surfing or rock climbing and taking pictures of your awesome van and the awesome places you visit. Pure bliss! But there’s much more to it than meets the eye.

Van life means living rent-free and keeping expenses to a minimum. Those who do it consider themselves modern-day vagabonds, and some even managed to draw the attention of some brands that are interested in sponsoring their out-of-the-box travels.


The truth nobody tells you


Photo by Jon Butters

It’s easy to get carried away and quit your job, sell everything, terminate your lease and loans. Not worrying about rent and loan payments, not having to clean an entire apartment or house, not having piles of dishes and clothes to wash sounds like a relief. But you might soon find yourself in a pickle.

You still need money. First of all, you need money to buy the van (unless it was an inheritance from a hippie grandmother). It is a modest living, but it’s not dirt-cheap. There are gas costs, repair costs, as well as camping fees. You can’t always find a free place to sleep or parking lot to spend the night. 


Van life is not always glamorous. There are certain habits you might have trouble letting go of. Your daily routine will change to 180 degrees. Do you like showering twice a day? You can consider yourself lucky if you shower once every two or three days when living in a van. And when you do, it’s often in a lake, river or under a solar camping showerhead. Do you like taking bubble baths every other day? Forget about it. Meeting daily hygiene requirements will become a struggle.


And there’s also a good chance that you might be labeled ‘a lazy, good-for-nothing, homeless hippie’. If you can’t take that then you might want to reconsider. Your folks probably won’t agree with your decision either. There’s no room for second thoughts here. This s**t is serious. Fear of not having a house, a permanent home, being away from friends and family, of sleeping in a dark forest, of loneliness – when on the road, if these fears creep in, you’d better be prepared to face them.

If all these thoughts put you off, the good news is that you can still live the van life as a weekend warrior and on holidays without giving up on the comfort of your home on all the other days.


The ultimate surf van


Photo by James Barkman

Surfing and traveling go hand in hand. Travel molds the surfer, getting you out of your comfort zone and into unpredictable situations. Living and traveling in a van gives you the freedom to follow the swell and your dreams as well. It has other advantages too, such as allowing you to bring more boards along and saving money for surfing.

First, you need to get the van. Most van dwellers prefer to buy a used Westfalia, Vanagon or Sprinter and do a bit of tinkering to upgrade it. Others find taking care of a used car with quite a bit of mileage on board too daunting and choose a new one instead. But of course, it all depends on your budget.

Whether you have a vintage van or a brand new one on your hands, here are some of the basics any surf van needs, for weekend escapes as well as for extended time on the road:

  • Insulation – use EPS foam because it doesn’t break with road vibrations. Add a moisture barrier over the insulation. Use wood to finish the walls, for aesthetic reasons as well as for warmth and to make accessorizing with shelves and hooks easier.
  • Install a water tank, filters and pump system for the sink.
  • Install solar panels. This is not exactly necessary for short trips, but if you are planning to be on the road for longer, you will find them extremely useful.
  • Install a propane stove. You can also opt for a removable stove that you can take out of the van to cook outside on nice, sunny days. If you installed the right solar panels for your power needs, you can consider an electric stove instead.
  • If you plan to travel for more than a few days, then a fridge will come in handy. Again, solar panels are the solution to powering it.
  • Swivel seats for driver and passenger – these aren’t a necessity but are a nice feature if you can afford them. Being able to open up the space and double the seating area will make long rainy days a lot more agreeable.
  • Kitchen utensils – a functional kitchen allows you to cook your own food. Make sure you don’t pack too much, though. Two of each is enough if you are traveling as a couple. If you have friends coming over, just tell them to bring their own coffee mugs.
  • Design a storage area and set up cabinets on the walls.
  • If you are planning to work while on the road, design a working space: a folding desk and chairs should do the trick.


Last but not least, pack wisely. Wine glasses? Be serious, they’ll break after a couple of days! Also, pack a hammock and a tent for when you need some fresh air. You might not be able to drive your van to every single place you wish to visit, and pitching your tent at the end of a hiking day is something you wouldn’t want to miss out on. Ultimately, please remember that living the van life is not about the van. It’s about what you get from it.


Living the van life offers freedom many people can only dream of. So wherever the road may take you, make sure to try surfing, kitesurfing, windsurfing and other exciting watersports whenever you hit the beach!

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