Van Life Pros and Cons

Despite its romanticized portrayal on social media, van life has ups and downs

Person drinking from cup in the back of a van

Oleh_Slobodeniuk / Getty Images

For a myriad of reasons, more folks than ever before are ditching the status quo to live on the road. As of March 2021, a search of the popular #vanlife Instagram tag turns up a mind-boggling 9 million posts — up more than 450% from 2017's humble million-and-some. Facebook subgroups range in subject from solo female van life and itinerant cooking inspiration, to van life-centric dating and love. 

Apart from the flexibility a nomadic lifestyle allows, associated ideals of minimalism and financial freedom have turned many onto the trend in recent years. Student loan debt in the U.S. has more than doubled over the past decade — in 2020, the Federal Reserve estimated that it surpassed $1.7 trillion for the first time — and, meanwhile, the median housing price is increasing by about 15% per year. One 2020 survey found that 72% of participants were willing to trade their homes for a van to pay off debt. A third of them said they'd commit to the lifestyle for at least two years. 

Of course, van life has its pros and cons regardless of romanticized Instagram aesthetics. The beauty of traveling, living simply, and making friends is balanced by a lack of privacy, stability, and access to showers. Learn more about the lesser-known rewards and snags.  

What Is Van Life?

Although the 2010s saw a van life boom, the concept of living out of mobile, wheeled homes can be traced back to the horse-drawn wagons of the Romani people. Today, decked-out Mercedes-Benz Sprinters, retro Volkswagen buses, and Ford Econolines have replaced domed vardos, but the overall principle remains the same. Van life symbolizes freedom — from financial commitments, from restrictive schedules, from societal standards, etc.

The modern-day movement was fueled by an Instagram hashtag created in 2011 by Foster Huntington, who would post photos of DIY campers and buses while living in a 1987 Volkswagen T3 Syncro himself. The trend took off, propelling fellow van lifers into internet fame. 

Nowadays, social media is awash with like-minded van dwellers. A 2018 Outbound Living survey of 725 van lifers found that 51% of participants did so full time, while the other 49% was the "weekend warrior" type, balancing van life with other living arrangements.


Flexibility, financial freedom, and the opportunity to make new friends and have new experiences are just a few of the seemingly endless reasons why people are now taking their livelihoods on the road. For most already living the lifestyle, the benefits of van life outweigh the drawbacks. 

Three people with a van in the mountains, Canada
Westend61 / Getty Images

Freedom to Travel

The ability to travel is one of the most enticing perks of van life. The U.S. is 2,800 miles wide and the average Sprinter lasts for 300,000 or more miles — that would get you around the perimeter of the country about 27 times. Some people drive their vans across international borders to Canada, Mexico, and down into Central and South America. Vehicles can even be shipped overseas for about $1,000 to $2,000.

Lower Cost of Living

Van life can wind up being as or more expensive than traditional house or apartment dwelling, but it certainly doesn't have to be. Used cargo vans can be found for as little as $3,000. If you limit your travels to a small region and camp only in free Bureau of Land Management areas, your cost of living will doubtless be cheaper than paying a mortgage or rent. 

The Outbound Living survey found that 42% of van lifers maintained a weekly budget of $50 to $100 per person. More than half said they spend between $101 and $300 on fuel per month, and the majority — 38% — said they spend $0 on campsites.

Connection to Nature

Although the notion of nightly campfires and perpetual views of snow-capped mountains may be idyllic, nature plays a major, almost unavoidable role in the van-dwelling lifestyle. Traveling through barren stretches of the U.S. may result in long periods without phone service and WiFi. Cooking, cleaning, and using the bathroom outside become commonplace. 

Studies repeatedly show that the act of camping in itself fosters a connection to nature. Half the people surveyed by Outbound Living said they primarily sleep on public lands, in national forests, or grasslands, though a night spent in the parking lot of Walmart is not uncommon.


Person making coffee in motorhome with door open
lncreativemedia / Getty Images

The median single-family house size in 2019 was 2,301 square feet, according to the U.S. Census. Meanwhile, the average internal dimensions of a medium-sized camper van — for instance, a Ford Transit or Mercedes-Benz Sprinter — is about 60 square feet

Living with less has long been thought to benefit mental health. In one 2020 study, "all participants indicated that adopting a minimalistic lifestyle afforded a myriad of wellbeing benefits," from enhanced autonomy and competence to mindfulness and overall positive emotions. Materialism, on the other hand, has been linked to loneliness. 

Being Prepared for Anything, Always

While van lifers may be considered minimalists by everyday living standards, they're simultaneously known as the heavy packers of the travel community. While others roam with humble backpacks and suitcases, van-dwelling vagabonds travel with their entire houses in tow — always equipped with cooking supplies for impromptu coffee breaks, a first aid kit for emergencies, or a post-swim change of clothes. Keeping these familiar comforts close can make even the most foreign places feel like home.

Learning Experiences

Vans, especially old types with hefty mileage and a litany of previous owners, break down. You may find yourself stranded over a mechanical issue or lost en route to some remote campsite on a decades-neglected Forest Service road. Such roadblocks will only instill in you a newfound sense of confidence. Van life provides a host of helpful life skills that otherwise may not be learned in a traditional house setting: carpentry, mechanical, navigational, first aid, space-saving, and beyond.

Cons of Living in a Van

It would be easy to overlook the hardships of living in a van when much of the media surrounding it paints the lifestyle in a glamorous light. However, the daily quest to find a shower and a place to park, not to mention working (for, you know, money) and keeping such a compact space tidy, can be exhausting. 

When deciding whether to adopt this lifestyle — still perceived as unorthodox in American culture — it's important not to ignore the many uncomfortable parts. 

No overnight parking sign
David Hagerman / Getty Images


Not all places are ideal for camping. When there are no public lands or national forests available, van lifers are left to seek refuge on noisy city streets, in brightly lit parking lots, and in residential neighborhoods. In the Outbound Living survey, 21% of participants said they sleep in urban environments primarily.

Most often, van life is a mix of serene sleep-outs and city squatting. The latter can lead to hostile looks from spooked-out locals or a police officer knocking on your window in the middle of the night. Van lifers must research whether the city they're visiting has a set of "anti-camping ordinances" because disobeying them could warrant a ticket.

Finding Work

This is one of the greatest barriers to van life. While living in a vehicle can cost less than living in a house or apartment, van lifers, in most cases, must still work. Only 9% of those surveyed by Outbound Living said they were unemployed; 4% said they were retired. 

The itinerant lifestyle limits work options to seasonal jobs or those that can be done from the road. In the survey, 14% considered themselves remote workers, 13% were entrepreneurs, 10% worked seasonal jobs, and 5% worked odd jobs to make their livings. Popular remote positions include digital marketer, social media manager, writer, virtual assistant, blogger, and photographer.


In 2017, German software developer and van lifer Jakob wrote on his blog, Ruby on Wheels, that "it's harder to be part of society" when living in a van. "Van life is not considered 'normal': street signs, barriers in front of parking lots, local residents or the police explicitly tell you that you're not welcome." Jakob reported receiving negative reactions to sleeping in public places and washing in public restrooms.

The blogger noted that fellow van lifers who raise a ruckus, leave trash behind, or litter the ground with toilet paper give others who travel responsibly and respectively a bad rap. 

Cleaning and Hygiene 

Person showering with a watering can outside an RV
Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Less space doesn't necessarily mean less to tidy, sadly. The miniature sink will fill up with dirty dishes quicker, the tiny floors will accumulate dirt and dripping rainwater, the petite trash can will need to be taken out more often — and you will have to seek out those places in which to dump garbage, recycling, and grey/black water, because you can't simply throw that stuff on the ground. 

Van life may appear lazy and indulgent on social media, but it takes immense effort to keep everything clean, including yourself. The Outbound Living study revealed that 28% of van lifers shower at the gym, 21% use built-in van showers, 20% use campsite facilities (usually paid), and a combined 13% said they bathe in nature, with baby wipes, or at the beach. 

Lack of Privacy

Living in a van means spending most of your time in public places. Whether you're showering at the gym, brushing your teeth at a rest stop, making coffee in a parking lot, or sleeping under a streetlamp, you mostly waive your right to privacy. Anyone can knock on your door or peek into your home unannounced — and rest assured, they will.

Blackout window covers can help, not just with privacy but also with providing insulation during the winter.

Lack of Stability

The very premise of van living is continuous change. And while new experiences and scenery do statistically make people happy, too much change can feel overwhelming. One 2020 psychology study defines two categories of routine: primary and secondary. Primary routines are "behaviors necessary for maintaining livelihood and biological needs," such as hygiene, sleep, and eating, while secondary routines "reflect individual circumstances, motivations, and preferences," such as exercise, socializing, working, or studying. The former should be prioritized over the latter.

"Regularized routines, such as those offered above, can buffer the adverse impact of stress exposure on mental health," the study said. That is to say that a lack of routine and stability in life could create a lack of emotional stability in turn. 

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