The Van Life: What You'll Need and How to Make It Work

Costs, apps and resources, and a few important topics nobody talks about

Friends sitting around campfire next to campervan

oleh_slobodeniuk / Getty Images

Van life is a vastly popular social media trend founded on an approach to life that highlights freedom and detachment. The 9.7 million posts tagged #vanlife on Instagram are emblematic of modern-day liberty, but true itinerants living the lifestyle themselves might say the idyllic perception of recreational van dwelling groomed by Instagram algorithms overlooks its challenges. 

Whether for a brief road trip or for years on end, choosing to live in a van is both rewarding and demanding — here's how to do it in a way that's emotionally, financially, and environmentally sustainable. 

What You'll Need

There's only one specialty item truly needed for van life and that's the van itself. Euro-style Ford Transits, Mercedes Sprinters, and Ram Promasters, often costing more than $30,000 in good condition, are the spacious luxury liners of the recreational van-dwelling world, whereas U.S. cargo vans — Ford Econolines, GMC Savanas, and Chevy Expresses — are typically more widely available and cheaper to buy and maintain. 

Then, there are the classics: vintage Westfalias and Volkswagen Vanagons, which can cost between $10,000 and $50,000. Also, creative alternatives: industrial box trucks, pickup trucks, and buses ripe for customized conversions. Important things to consider beyond purchasing costs include the size and height of the vehicle, its condition and mechanical complexity (could it be serviced by any old roadside garage? Could you repair it yourself?), cost and availability of parts, and mileage. 

Euro-style cargo models are often taller than traditional U.S. models (a Sprinter is about 9 feet tall whereas an Econoline is about 7 feet tall), but their parts also tend to be less common and more expensive. Such is the case with earlier models — the older the vehicle, the more miles it's likely to have, the more elusive the parts, and thus the more difficult it could be to fix. The average cargo van begins to deteriorate after 250,000 miles — that's 90 trips from New York City to Los Angeles. 

Outfitting the Van

Couple reading and working on laptop in van

FatCamera / Getty Images

Companies like Off Grid Adventure Vans and Boho Camper Vans sell vans post-conversion for about $30,000 to $70,000. But to cut down on costs or create something truly custom, you can build out the interior yourself using a surfeit of available YouTube videos and blogs.

Start by weighing your priorities and determining your budget. Is it important that you're able to cook food inside the van? If so, you'll need to choose between a propane, butane, or induction stove. If working with gas, you'll also need a ventilation system. Will you have electricity (via a generator or solar panels) to power a mini fridge? If you want a sink, you'll need to allot space for both fresh water and grey water. 

In a 2018 Outbound Living survey of 725 van lifers, 35% said they use built-in van toilets and 7% said they use buckets, jars, or other DIY toilets when using the bathroom. Van toilets are convenient and provide privacy, but they do take up space and require regular emptying. There are also self-composting, foldable, and portable flushing options.

In the same survey, 21% of participants said they use built-in showers. This could be a fixed, permanent installation (best for large models like Sprinters) or a makeshift exterior setup. Other handy van features include an adjustable clothesline, swivel seats, blackout curtains, cabinet latches, and a bed that collapses into a seating area.

What to Bring 

Choosing to live in a van is a masterclass in minimalism. You'll learn to live only with the basics: food, clothing, toiletries, a bed, perhaps a few books, and not much else. Prioritize items that increase security and safety, such as a fire extinguisher, first aid kit, a safe box for your valuables, jumper cables, a carbon monoxide detector, and maybe even a GPS tracker. But leave behind luxuries like hammocks, sporting equipment, impractical attire, and large coffeemakers if you're short on space.

As for wearables, travel sandals, hiking boots, and sneakers create the ultimate adventure trifecta — anything outside of those three is extra. You'll want to bring practical layers and swap your average terrycloth towel for a more compact alternative. Kitchen towels, dishes, and utensils should be packed in pairs. 

Avoid bringing too many bulky books, journals, playing cards, or other means of entertainment and make it a point to focus more on the outdoors. If you crave an escape, download podcasts, e-books, or movies to watch on a phone or laptop. Useful apps include GasBuddy (real-time fuel prices), Opensignal (a mobile connectivity and network signal speed test app), and Waze (GPS navigation).

The Money Question

Person working on laptop outside of van

Cavan Images / Getty Images

The Outbound Living survey also revealed that 31% spent $1,000 to $5,000 converting their van into a camper, 16% spent less than $1,000, and 52% spent more than $5,000. How much you decide to spend on the van build itself depends on your resources and desired level of comfort. 

As far as living expenses while on the road, 9% of van lifers surveyed said they were unemployed and only 4% were retired. A total of 14% said they were remote workers, 13% entrepreneurs, 10% worked seasonal jobs, 5% worked odd jobs, and 45% marked "other" — perhaps they sell items or generate income through social media. The point is, 87% of van lifers continue working. 

Remote positions exist in technology, graphic design, data entry, and marketing. People also sell their writing and photography. FlexJobs, Remote.co, and We Work Remotely are great resources for job hunting. If you plan to do a job that requires wifi, an unlimited data plan and cell signal booster may come in handy. More temporary (and non-wifi-reliant) gigs include campground hosting (try Workamper), farm work (see Workaway or WWOOF), dog sitting (Rover), and other odd jobs (such as those listed on Task Rabbit).

According to the Outbound Living survey, 42% of van lifers spend between $50 and $100 per week, 35% spend $101 to $300, 18% spend over $300, and 5% spend less than $50.

Where to Camp

Van camping with mountain view at dusk

epicurean / Getty Images

Living on the road isn't always as easy as pulling over anywhere you deem convenient to sleep. The 2018 survey revealed that 50% of van lifers sleep primarily on public lands (Bureau of Land Management land and national forests and grasslands), 14% sleep on city streets and parking lots, 7% sleep in residential neighborhoods, and 5% sleep in city or county parks.

Walmart parking lots have long permitted RV parking, but in recent years, certain locations have limited their overnight parking policies. Walmart Locator is an online directory and interactive map of Walmart stores and their specific RV camping policies. 

Phone apps are helpful for finding places to camp. Popular ones include The Dyrt (public and private campgrounds), Recreation.gov (federal campgrounds), iOverlander and WikiCamps (both crowd-sourced camp maps), and HipCamp (paid glamping).

Bathrooms and Showers

Preparing outdoor bathroom break with shovel and toilet paper

lucentius / Getty Images

One of the top concerns, apart from making money, is maintaining personal hygiene. It's true that choosing to live in a van might mean skipping showers — and perhaps even digging your own hole to use as a toilet on occasion — but there are ways to avoid doing so if you're willing to put in the extra money and effort. 

When asked how they primarily bathe, 28% of the Outbound Living survey participants said they shower at the gym, 21% use a built-in van shower, 20% use campsite facilities, 5% bathe in nature (i.e., rivers and lakes), 4% use baby wipes, 4% shower at the beach, and 2% shower at gas stations. National gym chains such as Planet Fitness ($23 per month for a Black Card, 2,000 U.S. locations), Anytime Fitness (about $40 per month, 4,000 locations), and 24 Hour Fitness ($30 per month, 400 locations) are popular among travelers because they allow members to visit any location within the U.S. Gas stations such as Pilot, Love's, and Flying J also have shower facilities designed to cater to truck drivers. One shower costs about $12.

The 58% of van lifers who don't travel with some sort of van toilet primarily use public bathrooms (39%), nature (13%), or "other" (6%). The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics recommends using only a bathroom whenever possible, but if none is available, it recommends digging a hole (between 4 inches and 6 inches deep in the desert or 6 inches to 8 inches deep in other environments) 200 feet from water sources. If you can't get away from a water source, you should use a disposable (preferably compostable) bag so that you can pack it back out. 

What Nobody Tells You

The #vanlife hashtag on Instagram results in millions of heavily edited photos of sunset scenes, campfire circles, and epic views from the open back doors. In reality, the lifestyle is not always so photogenic. Picturesque campsites are difficult to come by, and many spots where Instagrammers look to be camping actually forbid overnight parking. Even when you do manage to snag a stunning camp spot, you might be too tired from driving, travel planning, working, and cooking to build a campfire or break out the acoustic guitar for an impromptu practice session.

In addition to the work you potentially do for money, choosing to live in a van is a full-time job in itself. When you strip back the conveniences of life — running/filtered water, microwaves, dishwashers, washing machines, flushing toilets — even the most basic tasks become surprisingly laborious. Consider the tedium of tracking down (or setting up) a shower, hunting down water sources and toilets, grocery shopping, researching and driving to campgrounds, setting up camp, cooking on a tiny stove, and doing dishes sometimes several times a day. That's on top of regular work, driving long distances, exploring, and exercising. Contrary to its laidback facade, recreational van life can be highly demanding.

Thus, many van lifers find themselves staying in one spot for long periods of time to avoid driving, skimping on cleaning, going days without showers, and sleeping in urban areas where they have easy access to gas, water, food, and bathrooms — this is what van life looks like behind the utopian scenes of social media.

Is It Environmentally Friendly?

Van collecting energy from solar panel

Cindy Shebley / Getty Images

The carbon footprint of choosing to live in a van varies dramatically depending on individual lifestyle habits. It can be more or less environmentally friendly than living in a small house. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median size of a single-family American home is 2,301 square feet, more than 25 times the size of the largest Sprinter model. Residential energy use accounts for an estimated 20% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which could lead one to believe that reducing house size alone — by, say, moving into a vehicle — is the more sustainable option. Of course, it isn't that simple.

Transportation is responsible for an even larger portion of greenhouse gas emissions than households. With the average American driving around 13,500 miles per year, passenger cars and "light-duty trucks" (aka SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans) already account for about 59% of the total 28% of transportation-related emissions. And the more people who pack their livelihoods into gas-guzzling cargo vans, the more that statistic will inevitably grow.

But van lifers have an opportunity to live more sustainably than they could in a traditional house. They can reduce their carbon footprints by limiting their driving as much as possible, harnessing solar energy to power van electricals, avoiding gas-powered stoves and heaters, and going the extra proverbial mile to buy sustainably packaged foods instead of the more convenient plastic-wrapped, single-serve portions. 

Criticism of the Van Life Trend

The van life trend frames choosing to live in a van as an aspirational lifestyle and an opportunity afforded to a few economically privileged people who have a choice. However, many people who experience homelessness are forced to live in their vehicles or outdoors out of necessity.

For more information on homelessness in America and how to help, get in touch with the National Alliance to End Homelessness or local assistance programs in your area.

View Article Sources
  1. Goldstein, Benjamin et al. "The Carbon Footprint Of Household Energy Use In The United States." Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, vol. 117, no. 32, 2020, pp. 19122-19130., doi:10.1073/pnas.1922205117

  2. "Average Annual Miles Per Driver By Age Group." Federal Highway Administration, 2018.

  3. Mallett, William J. Surface Transportation Reauthorization And Climate Change: H.R. 2 And S. 2302. Congressional Research Service, 2020.