Home > Camper & RV

10 Van Life Truths Everyone Should Know: Don’t Make the Mistakes I Did

After living the van life for 2 full years, you learn a lot about yourself, your vehicle, and creative problem-solving. Here are some of the most valuable lessons I learned about how to live in a van.
10 vanlife lessons learned the hard way(Photo/Greg Heil)
Support us! GearJunkie may earn a small commission from affiliate links in this article. Learn More

Social media influencers give van life a somewhat misleading image. Their profiles make it look dreamy, full of attractive-looking people hanging out worry-free in picture-perfect locations nonstop. Selling that fantasy is a great way to get a bunch of likes, which in turn is the fastest way to get brand sponsorship and start making money.

But, I’ll be the first to tell you that they aren’t showing you the full picture. And if they are, they certainly aren’t living that fantasy lifestyle full-time. Truly living in a tiny space, day in and day out, 12 months a year, is no cakewalk. It can be an amazing adventure, and it can be a lot of fun. But it also comes with some harsh realities and lessons you’ll inevitably learn the hard way.

We did, at least. My wife and I lived full-time out of our van for over 2 years, traveling across North America. We met so many people who began van life enthusiastically, only to burn out and sell their vans after just a few months.

In fact, we noticed a gap in the full-time van life community. There were those who’d only been in their van for a few months and those who had been traveling for years. Not many people fell in between.

We’ve since shifted to part-time van living. We’ll still hit the road for a month or more, but we’re no longer full-timers. And it seemed a shame to let all of our hard-learned lessons about van life go to waste.

So, here are 10 of the toughest lessons that we learned while living in a van full-time for 2 years. If you’re serious enough about this lifestyle to buy a van, you should at least be clear about what you’re getting into. Maybe then, you’ll be better prepared for the harsh realities that come with it.

How to Live in a Van, Wisdom From the Road

1. Watch the weather carefully — an inch of rain can strand you in the desert

do not enter when flooded sign
Do not enter when flooded; (photo/Greg Heil)

On one ill-fated trip, I noticed some incoming weather in the forecast while I was trying to find a campsite. I was a bit hesitant about the first site I chose, but it didn’t look like serious weather. This was New Mexico, after all. I figured I’d be all right.

I was wrong. The storm dramatically overperformed, dropping the most rain in a single day that the Albuquerque area had seen in many years. My van’s tires got hopelessly stuck in the mud.

Less than 2 months later, I noticed another big rain system, this time in the Tucson area. We’d booked a site in a nearby campground that featured paved roads, flush toilets, and hot showers. But as we approached Catalina State Park, I made a last-minute decision to disperse camp instead, in an area not far away.

Again, we were flooded out, and again, we (along with over a hundred other campers) were stranded. It took over a week to leave Catalina State Park.

One of the great allures of living in a van is your proximity to the natural world. You can wake up, open the sliding door, and walk into the forest or desert. However, when the weather goes south, you have to be very mindful of where you’re camping. We got off the hook easy. Floods can ruin vehicles or get them far worse stuck than ours did.

2. Finding beautiful campsites can be challenging and stressful

camper parked on a montana campsite
Montana campsite; (photo/Greg Heil)

Camping in beautiful locations with gorgeous views is ultimately the entire point of living in a van. But finding those idyllic spots can not only be challenging, it’s also often stressful.

Sometimes, when we would arrive at a campsite we’d planned to stay at, the reality was much different than expected. There might be trash dumps, the site could be unexpectedly closed to camping, or it could be full of other campers. Furthermore, planning arrival and departure times can be stressful, too. Especially on holiday weekends, there’s serious pressure to arrive before the crowds.

Dispersed camping is usually more abundant but presents challenges of its own. When I arrive at a destination, sometimes, I’ll spend over an hour scouting and flagging potential camping locations.

Some carefree van lifers claim they never plan where they’re going to camp or even when they’ll arrive. But in my experience, that’s good way to end up sleeping in a Walmart parking lot. And after a while, sleeping in lots starts to feel less like camping and more like being unhoused.

3. Make sure the toilet is depressurized before opening it

If your van has a cassette toilet, make sure to pull the handle out to depressurize it before opening the lid. If you’ve driven up in elevation since the last time you opened the toilet, it can become pressurized. Then, when you open it, a fine mist will erupt from the bowl.

Don’t ask my wife how she learned that one.

4. Just because your phone says ‘LTE’ or even ‘5G’ does not mean you have enough data to work from it

StarLink; (photo/Greg Heil)

The number of bars that your cellphone displays or even the distinction between 5G and LTE means almost nothing regarding the actual data speeds your cellphone will provide.

If you plan to work from your cellphone hotspot in a specific campsite (or even in town), run a “speed test.” Open your cellphone’s web browser and go to OpenSpeedTest.com. That allows you to determine what actual internet speeds you’ll get in that location. The more often you run this test, the more you’ll realize that the number of bars your phone shows is not always accurate.

You’ll also realize that if you’re on the edge of a cell network (like most campsites out in the forests and the mountains), you may also have high speeds at one minute and nothing the next. It’s no wonder that StarLink has been revolutionary for full-time van lifers.

5. Don’t clean ice build-up from a freezer with a pocket knife

Most mini-fridges include a small freezer. However, they tend to accumulate ice, especially in humid environments. Whatever you do, do not attempt to chip the ice out of the freezer with a pocket knife. Instead, turn down the fridge/freezer’s temperature, allow the ice to melt a bit, fall off the sides, and then scoop it out by hand.

While I successfully chipped the ice out of my freezer with a knife for over a year, one day, my hand slipped, and the tip of the knife punctured the lining of the freezer. I learned the hard way that the coolant for the entire fridge/freezer runs beneath that liner and that there was effectively no way to repair the liner or even replace just the freezer. Instead, we had to buy a brand-new freezer-fridge combo. And it was not on sale.

6. Things break — and you find a way to deal

broken mirror on a van
Broken mirror; (photo/Greg Heil)

Whether it’s a damaged mini fridge, a broken side mirror, or bashing your oil pan on a boulder, one thing is certain — shit is going to break. And then you’ll have to find a way to deal with it. While some fixes can be made with duct tape and gumption, others require a shop and specialized tools. And that is going to cost you.

While living in a van is supposedly “affordable,” it can be a shock to go from not paying rent for months to spending thousands to fix a major mechanical issue. To prepare for these expenses, it’s a good idea to either budget a monthly amount for repairs and/or keep a healthy emergency fund in your savings account.

But even if you have the money to fix the problem, simply finding a shop that can do the work and then fitting it into your travel schedule is often daunting. That could mean planning months in advance to get to a dealership. Or, in the worst-case scenario, you may have to rent a hotel room or Airbnb while your van gets repaired.

7. You can (and likely will) concuss yourself on a cabinet

van interior
Van interior; (photo/Greg Heil)

Even for the shorter people among us, a van is a cramped space. If it’s packed full of camping, biking, and travel gear, it can feel downright claustrophobic.

Whether you bang your head on the corner of a cabinet or on the roof while trying to walk into the van’s cab or sitting up quickly in bed, eventually, it happens to everyone.

8. Friendships are challenging to build and harder to maintain

group of friends taking selfie; how to live in a van life tips ideas
(Photo/Greg Heil)

… but you’re guaranteed to meet many amazing people along the way!

Freedom and community exist on the opposite ends of the spectrum. You’re choosing to give up the community and close relationships by roaming the world and not committing to one location. There’s almost no way around this reality.

In fact, many ex-van lifers we’ve spoken with cite this as one of the main reasons that they’ve stopped traveling full-time. Until you’ve spent years wandering through towns only having superficial conversations with baristas at coffee shops and the local bike mechanics, you don’t quite understand what it feels like to constantly be on the outside looking in.

In the same breath, it’s also true that you’re guaranteed to meet amazing people along the way. They could be rad locals, but more often than not, you’ll find that you bond with other travelers who live the same way you do. While these relationships help make this nomadic lifestyle livable, the type of community you build as a nomad differs greatly from what you’ll find while living in a town.

9. Van life vacations are great, but coordinating two full-time work schedules can be challenging

big bend; how to live in a van life tips ideas
(Photo/Greg Heil)

Work challenges were one of the two most significant factors that prompted us to stop the full-time van life. Yes, we both worked full-time remote jobs for over 2 years on the road. But toward the end, the constant schedule coordination, wrangling meetings, dealing with the aforementioned internet issues, and general work stress all took their toll.

Our favorite van life moments were when we could take vacation time and simply travel, adventure, and roam the continent.

Camping on the banks of the Rio Grande and looking across the river into Mexico, driving through the depths of the Alaskan bush, swimming in hidden lakes in British Columbia, climbing mountains in Colorado, straining our necks as we looked up at the towering redwoods in California — these are the moments that made van life worthwhile.

The truth is that there’s a dramatic difference between trying to hold down a job and live in a van and the carefree wandering that #vanlife influencers claim they enjoy (but rarely do).

10. Medical care, full stop

sunset at campsite; how to live in a van life tips ideas
(Photo/Greg Heil)

Getting old(er) sucks. While I hope that I still have many years of adventure left in me, the harsh realities of dealing with fragile human bodies are extremely challenging while living a nomadic lifestyle.

Being a nomad means not having a primary care physician or a dentist — even if you left one behind in your hometown when you moved into your van. Because, usually, when something happens, you’re 1,000 miles away from them. Urgent care visits can only get you so far, especially if you find there’s a serious issue that you have to deal with.

Whether that means a long bout of weekly physical therapy, dental appointments that need to be scheduled weeks in advance, referrals to specialists (which most emergency room doctors can’t furnish), or even scheduling and recovering from surgery, the need for medical care can quickly stop you in your tracks.

It did for us.

But it doesn’t mean that it has to stop you forever. There are innumerable ways to deal with this harsh reality. You could consider adopting a hub-and-spoke strategy, whereby you continue to live in your van full-time but maintain a hub that you return to often for medical appointments.

If it’s a serious issue, you could choose to rent a house for a few months (or a year) to deal with whatever problem arose before continuing on.

Hardships inevitably arise. The question is: How do you choose to deal?

grand junction; how to live in a van life tips ideas
Grand Junction, Colo.; (photo/Greg Heil)

The choice to live a nomadic life, reduce your possessions to only what can fit in a van, and hit the road in pursuit of adventure is a radical life choice. It’s predicated on rejecting the status quo and thinking differently. Even if life gets difficult, that doesn’t mean that you have to quit, sell your adventure vehicle, buy a condo, and resign yourself to a cubicle for the rest of your life.

Instead, the challenges that you’ll inevitably face are invitations. They’re invitations to practice your out-of-the-box thinking and problem-solving skills. They’re opportunities to find creative solutions or reimagine your lifestyle to allow you to overcome the future challenges you’re sure to face.

A rewarding life isn’t a life bereft of problems. A rewarding life consists of facing interesting problems head-on and solving them in creative ways. And to me, that’s van life in a nutshell.

2024 Mercedes-Benz eSprinter

Electrified Van Life: 2024 Mercedes-Benz eSprinter First Drive Review

We finally get some driver seat time in the 2024 Mercedes-Benz eSprinter. It was a rainy day, but we came away with sunny visions of electrified van life. Read more…

Subscribe Now

Get adventure news and gear reviews in your inbox!

Join Our GearJunkie Newsletter

Get adventure news and gear reviews in your inbox!