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Why #vanlife Sucks

Why #vanlife Sucks

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Brent Rose is a writer for Gizmodo, Wired, Outside Magazine, Deadspin and numerous other publications. He also roams around the country while living in a van. We asked him to write about his #vanlife experience, and this is what he has to say.

(TL;DR – It’s way more complicated than Instagram makes it out to be.)

Why #vanlife Sucks

Article & Photos by Brent Rose

Go ahead and do a search for the #vanlife hashtag on Instagram. I’ll wait. There you will be regaled with photos of beautiful people in front of their beautiful converted vans. Waterfalls flowing in the background, their perfectly tanned bikini bodies glistening in an eternally-glowing golden-hour. The text below the photo contains some inspirational pontification about living your life to the fullest, while the sly smiles on their faces hint that they might just have found the fountain of youth and secret to eternal happiness.

Bullsh*t. These people are miserable. Miserable, I tell you! And I should know. I’m one of them.

For the last three years and three months I have been living and working out of a converted (and highly pimped-out) van, looking for adventure, stories to tell, and things to photograph, and I’ve hated every minute of it. Okay, not really. In truth, most of it has been good. I love traveling on a whim and never worrying about what I need to pack. I love waking up with the surf right outside my bedroom window. I love the people I’ve met, the photos I’ve been able to take, the food I’ve eaten, and the adventures I’ve managed to get myself into. I haven’t been doing this for three-plus years because I have to, it’s because I want to.

But you can get all of that from the myriad social media #vanlife influencers and their rose-tinted Instagram filters, and I’m guilty of this, too. I’ve known people who bought vans because they thought it looked so wonderful, only to absolutely hate it and sell the van off six months later, and I think it’s because we don’t talk enough about the tough, unpleasant, and downright scary stuff. So, my goal here today is to pull back the veil, and talk about some of the worst parts of #vanlife.

Overnighting Sucks

The number one pain-point of vanlife is finding a good, safe place to park at night. This applies to big cities and small towns alike. Over the last two-plus years I have seen it get tougher and tougher to find good spots to overnight in U.S. cities, and this is likely due to rapidly swelling numbers of vanlifers and full-time RVers. In Los Angeles, for example, you used to be able to park just about anywhere. Now, in my old go-to spots, there are signs up that state, “No parking between 2am and 6am if your vehicle is more than 22 feet long or over 7 feet tall.” How freakin’ specific is that?

There is even new city-wide legislation that prohibits sleeping in any type of vehicle in most areas. The truly crazy thing is that you could park your car, get out of it, and sleep on the sidewalk next to your vehicle, and you are well within your legal right. Sleep inside the vehicle where you are safer, warmer, and less of a nuisance to those around you, and you’re breaking the law. It’s completely insane and not surprisingly, it’s being legally contested for discriminating against the homeless and poor.

Anyway, this means that we vanlifers frequently just cover our windows and hope for the best. This will make you a very light sleeper. Part of you will always be half listening for someone snooping around or trying to break in, or for the knock of a cop about to tell you to move on. Every footstep or casual conversation outside becomes your alarm clock. It’s the same story when you’re driving cross-country, you get tired, and you finally decide to pull into some small town. That’s why so many of us gravitate toward Walmart parking lots when we’re in unfamiliar territory.

But here’s the romantic thing about sleeping in a Walmart parking lot… No, that was a joke, there’s nothing. It sucks. Even when you’re legally allowed to park there (and different towns have different laws about that), Walmart parking lots often seem to be the meth-iest place in town, regardless of the town. I’ve woken up to the sounds of screaming, insane fights more times than I can count. I’ve also had toothless security guards who were scarier than any of the local weirdos tell me to move on.

Even when you find a spot that you fit into (often not easy), where you’re pretty sure nobody is going to complain, attack you, or tell you to move, you may enjoy the sounds of cars speeding by at night, reminding you that at any moment a drunk driver may plow into your vehicle, rendering you dead before you wake up. Sweet dreams!

Peeing, Pooping and Bathing Sucks

The question I get asked most frequently is how I pee, poop, and bathe. I’ve been told that’s the number one question for astronauts, too, so at least I’m in good company. The only real difference is that they get to go into outer space, whereas I live in a van. Anyway…

I am one of the lucky ones here. My van has a toilet and shower. That was part of my mandatory criteria when I was researching vans to buy. If you met me on the street I did not want you to immediately think, “Well here’s a guy who clearly lives in a van…” In that, I think I have been successful. That is not to say that it has been comfortable.

I’m 6’1” and I cannot stand up in my shower. Not even close. This means that I must sit on the toilet while showering. Fine. This also means that the floor of my bathroom will be wet all day. Okay. Did I mention that my hot water heater is only capable of heating the water about 29 degrees Fahrenheit from where it started? That means that if it was 40 degrees all night I will be taking a 79-degree shower in the morning, at best. And because my grey water tank is only 12 gallons that means I have to be very careful about using too much water. Tl;dr: My showers are short, cold, and uncomfortable, but I prefer it to baby-wipes or getting a gym membership just to shower, which is what many others do.

I count myself very lucky to have a toilet, as well. Many vans don’t. My black water tank (that’s where pee and poo goes) is also only 12 gallons, which means I want to use it as little as possible. Also, since the entire inside of my van probably has the same cubic footage as a nice master bathroom, odors may linger if I don’t open windows and turn on the ceiling fan. Not fun in winter or when parked in the city. For this reason, #vanlifers try to use #publicrestrooms #wheneverpossible. Using public restrooms as your primary restroom is not fun. Have you used many lately? They generally squat on the spectrum between “Fine” and “Oh god oh god I don’t care if my bladder explodes I can’t go in there.”

Some vanlifers pee into empty cans, bottles, or cartons, and then dump it on the street. These people are a**holes. They’re the reason that so many people (especially in cities) hate vanlifers, and they give the rest of us a black eye. Listen, I get not wanting to go find a restroom in the middle of the night, but it isn’t fair to the community to go around making your parking place small like an outhouse. Get a carton with a reliable seal (a one-gallon, plastic, orange juice carton for example), throw it in your backpack in the morning, and dump it into a toilet when you head to the restroom. It’s not that hard to be a good neighbor, even if it’s just your neighborhood for one night.

Brent Vanlife

Parking (Daytime Edition) Sucks

In addition to parking at night being awful, you also get to dread parking during the day. Lucky you! I can explain this one with a very simple math equation: Your van is big. Parking spots are small. That sucks. Simplified, it looks like this:

Van > Parking = ☹

It is for this reason that I recommend buying the smallest van that you can reasonably inhabit. I didn’t because I’m greedy and I wanted a separate work and sleep area and space for a surfboard and mountain bike inside. It’s a choice I made and I don’t regret it, but I pay for it every time I have a doctor’s appointment in urban settings.

Van Life Parking

Dating Sucks

When you heard that I’ve been living in a van for 39 months I’m sure you thought, “I bet this guy is married with a couple of kids.” Well, SURPRISE I’m actually single! Shocker, right?

When you’re solo on the road sometimes things get lonely, and that’s when I tell myself that I should go on a date, even if it’s just to have a normal conversation that isn’t a business transaction (i.e. “That will be $5 for the sandwich, please.” “Okay, here you go.”) Luckily, we live in an age of myriad dating apps which seem perfectly made for finding a date while traveling, but here’s the catch: You live in a van.

Do you know how many smooth ways there are to say, “Soo, do you want to come back to my van?” Zero. There are none. And I know because I have tried every permutation that exists in the English language. It is awkward 100-percent of the time, and it’s a real tightrope walk to keep it from sounding creepy or (god forbid) sinister. And yet, sometimes they say yes, which never fails to baffle me. (For the record, I behave in an extremely gentlemanly fashion and do everything I can to make sure that they don’t regret taking that completely insane leap of faith.)

On the other hand, I’ve also been chatting with women in an app, with everything going smoothly, tons in common, lots of laughs, and then I explain about the van, and it’s, “Uhh, yeah. No.” And it’s over. Yeah, that sucks to be judged for the way you’ve chosen to live your life, but I now see it at a sort of litmus test. It’s a lifestyle that isn’t for everybody. If she thinks it cool, then we are more likely to be compatible. If she thinks it’s weird or gross, it’s likely that our personalities wouldn’t have gelled in other ways, too. Better to not waste each other’s time.

What Doesn't Suck

I’m not going to spend too much time on this because you can look at the social media feed of any vanlifer and have your eyeballs bludgeoned with all the awesome things about #vanlife. I love that no matter where I go I have everything I could possibly need with me, even if I pick up and go on a whim with no plan. I love that I don’t need to worry about a hotel. I love that if I have a couple drinks I can just go to sleep wherever I parked. I love the places it’s brought me and the people I’ve met and yada yada yada. But it also sucks. Not just sometimes, but frequently. And I thought you should know that side of it, too.

That said, follow me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and at ConnectedStates.com to see all the cool stuff, too. #inspiring #liveyourbestlife #ughkillme

(Brent is constantly traveling and creating content, but our favorite might be this video assignment for WIRED in which he performed a stand up routine comprised of jokes from Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Assistant.)

Corrie

Co-Founder and Lead Editor of Overland Bound. Can often be found behind the camera during trips.


Adventure seeker. Dog wrangler. Writer. Partner in crime to Michael.  Lover of nature and all things outdoors. Here's to forging down new trails, connecting with others, and the unapologetic pursuit happiness! #outfitandexplore

Comment(28)

  1. Good Read with a lot of good points.

    I guess vanlife could be considered to be something only obtainable to the single, married with no kids, or the retired. But I see it a lot. Especially where I am, near Toronto where housing prices are insane. I've heard in Vancouver its a serious issue.

    There's a lot of downsides to the vanlife. But there are some that embrace it. Some out of choice, and some out of no alternative. But its like anything else, a pro and a con to each.

    Personally with my family, it would never work. Kids aside, even if it were just me and my spouse we need our own space to recharge.

    Mine seems to be the doghouse. The dog doesn't seem to mind the company at all.

  2. My wife and I are both teachers with large blocks of time off. Without fail, as we approached the end of a long summer road trip, we would both want nothing more than to sleep in our own bed and be off the road. I'm not sure I could ever fully commit to vanlife, and it's not just the desire to have a permanent home base.

    We really like being part of a community and all the benefits that go with that. Friends, neighborhood get togethers, stability etc. And with small children now that stability is even more necessary.

    I've always wondered if the increase in overlanding and vanlifing is based on the advent of social media.

  3. I lived the biker life for many years when I was invincible , I would ride and stop beside the road away from towns and camp. Everything in the article is interesting and true. When planning my trips I’m going to look at staying away from towns and move into back roads and camp in entrances of fields. Does anyone have advice, pros cons about this idea

  4. Awesome article…..funny as well, in his creative, honest, style of writing.  When I was a kid I used to want to be a truck driver.  Long haul, truck driver.  I thought it sounded like the most awesome lifestyle. Until you meet a few long haul truck drivers when you get older.  Not so glamorous!

  5. I did vanlife for a month years ago during our move to portland. The only time a cop hassled me after parking in the same safeway parking lot the whole time, was my last night before my better half came down and we moved into a hotel. 

    It sucked having to shower st the gym (naked old dudes with their feet up on benches) there was plenty of suck ,but the couple of times we have been home free it was still not that bad.

    The next time , we lived out of our 90' toyota pickup for a month, and a year later heard about overlanding and joined this forum.

    Its been a hell of a ride.

  6. Yea Ive done 5 months at a time, I wouldnt say van life suscks at all. If you need to carry canned foods a portable toilet etc. maybe you shouldnt be the one to say #vanlifesucks If I recall there was a story here as well why Rooftop tents suck, and they are probably hands down one of the best pieces f gear any overlander could use. strange story on an overland forum.

    1. From time to time we post op-eds about overlanding, life on the road, and other related topics. The article reflects the authors experience, and is in response to the social media saturation of vanlife.
      As far as an article on our site stating that “Rooftop tents suck”, I can’t recall content of ours that ever said that. We’ve pointed out the pros and cons, mentioned that we personally don’t use one after trying one out for 9+ months, and have never judged or dissuaded anyone from using RTTs. (Because they are a great piece of gear!)

  7. One person's suck is another person's wonderful…

    Life is such a difficult thing to navigate. You want to live in the city, but don't want the crowds. You want to live in the country, but don't want the critters… So many choices. So many problems. So many solutions. I've come to understand there is no permanent solution. You simply try things out, enjoy the good, and try to avoid the bad.

    Sometimes a lifestyle is just for a season, rarely is it for a lifetime.

    James

  8. Having lived in our ‘van’ for best part of this year and in various vehicles over the last 20years, most of the negatives in the article are down to planning.

    I agree about the size of the rig, after several large van and trucks I’ve now not the smallest motorhome with a bathroom.

    I find that ‘proper’ camper living is easier than van living as it has more of an air of respectability ?!

    Over the last 12 months we’ve traveled around France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sicily, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany … we use Camper Contact and Park4night APP’s, drop into camper service points along the way and easily find quiet ‘wild camping ‘ spots.

    Apart from Croatia where it’s not very legal and some stealth camping spots were required!

    Motorhome  life doesn’t  suck !

     

  9. Last years Big Trip was 8 months from Cyprus through Turkey, Eastern Europe to Nordkapp then down through Scandinavia into central Europe down to Morocco up through Western Europe to the UK then a few months in the UK getting visas and off to Mongolia Europe, Turkey, Georgia, Russia Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan Takikistan including the Pamir Highway at 4655m.

    We used a rooftent, awnings, we wild camped on beaches, in woods and forests, in deserts, by lakes in mountains and on the Steppe. We occasionally stayed in campsites especially if wanting to meet other overlanders for info etc. We generally avoid big cities and if we are in big cities prefer to camp at Hostels where we can use the facilities but sleep in our tent in secure areas.

    Our system works because we have routines. Bad weather as in rain is a pain but we can deal with it. High wind can make things a little bouncy in the tent.

    I would not insult your intelligence to say every day is a dream life as like anything it has ups and downs. We prefer to interact with locals so our enforced "outside" style of living makes that easier and makes us more approachable.

    Too often in the likes of Spain I see White Box Camper vans turn up and you only see the occupants when they plug in the electricity quickly followed by the sat tv dish whirring into position.

    1. Isn’t that similar to saying “I have never understood people “at home” who chill in their yard with a book and a hammock.”? Getting out on the road, going to new places and being in nature is awesome. Winding down with some TV at night is something my wife and I do every trip with offline Netflix shows on the iPad. Staring at the ceiling when the sun goes down at 5:00pm and is pitch black by 6 is a great time to watch some TV. This is especially true in California where fires are banned everywhere outdoors.

  10. One person's suck is another person's wonderful…

    Life is such a difficult thing to navigate. You want to live in the city, but don't want the crowds. You want to live in the country, but don't want the critters… So many choices. So many problems. So many solutions. I've come to understand there is no permanent solution. You simply try things out, enjoy the good, and try to avoid the bad.

    Sometimes a lifestyle is just for a season, rarely is it for a lifetime.

    James

    Well said James! I totally agree! You don’t know what you like until you try it. I always say, you don’t know chocolate is your favorite until you’ve tried vanilla and strawberry. For some reason, I relate a lot to food![emoji16]

  11. I spent about 4 years living out of my sprinter while working as an expediter. The need to have room for freight while also trying to have comfort between loads makes for some creative design. For the most part I enjoyed it. He was spot on about dating I experienced it often. I still expedite I just stay more local now so work from a home base and the sprinter is doing well at over a half million miles.

  12. Kinda know what ur saying.  I started my own travel experience as a truck driver.  Now I'm a teacher which gives the wife and I months to travel.  We use a truck, tried vans.  Longest trip so far, one month.  But it's not how we live full time.  Going back to a house and job are nice.  But good memories.

  13. Thank you for sharing this great article. I think it highlights some of the things that make overlanding so popular, such as getting out in the back country and breaking away from the urban lifestyle. I’ve tried everything from full time motorhome living to living in a jeep pulling a 5×8 converted cargo trailer, and I believe I have found the happy place for me is what I call “overlanding light”, which involves using a small efficient fun-to-drive4x4 vehicle with a comfortable ground tent camping arrangement. I looked at rooftop tenting, but that ruins the efficiency and the “fun-to-drive”. When I get home, I can use my small 4×4 for day trips and as a DD.

  14. I feel like if i was a 20 something tech worker trying to decide if i should buy a house or a van before i start my unpaid intership at some hashtag place, this would be a great article.  As a guy who loves to get outside and away from as many hashtags as possible and who loves to shit and get laid in the pine needles (different pine needels of course), i feel this article was written by a guy who had a deadline and desperately needed something to write about.   Just my 2 cents. Sorry.

  15. “irony”. Not the art of ironing, but mastering the word. Vanlife sucks big time in the Arctic, try out freeze and pretend you could have a shower inside ?

    Not gonna happen. Being on the dole, as the brittons say, is not much fun either and dating ? Does that have to do with dades ? Can’t remember. My rig is less than 5m long and just under 2m high so I guess I do not experience the twice as ling-van problem mentioned by the Sprinter Generation. The rest of it ? Yup.

    Also – know the difference between “free camping” and “wild camping”, as the formar is what people “mean” when they describe their free camping life and the latter descibe the littering twats that give anyone a bad name/black eye.

    Camping sites shut for “the season” that would normally offer both 230V current and recharging of batterie(s) on borard, that would offer showers, loo’s and perhaps even wifi ? Don’t mention it. It does not happen after some very early date in September and untill some very late date in April the camping sites are all shut & locked down offering nothing but a cold shoulder.

    Luckily/sadly I only live in my VW T4 syncro during summer and when I do not have my daughter (50% of the time), so I get my clothes cleaned “at (a rented) home” between battles. But with no work, I cannot travel around. I stay put because it is “expected”, my being on the unemployment list. I apply for jobs but all there is are skarce temp jobs unloading truck trailers, containers or working as a fork lift (temp) now and then. Very low and stacato money flow. So I stay in the rented flat, with issues of this and that caracter, with bills stealing all the fun I could have had. At least I’m not that cold as I would have been burning diesel thru my Eberspächer air heater in the back of my van.

    Vanlife sucks (again – if you do not know the frase irony, try google it).

  16. Very good write up!
    Out of necessity I have lived on the road (2004 Tacoma, Xtracab, 4×4, 6′ bed) more nights than not, on the road for work (filmmaking, corporate photography, etc) and sort of fell into the #overlanding / #vanlife lifestyle without a van and without the instagram account (until sometime earlier this year, which isn’t even active).

    That said, I’ve ALWAYS dabbled with the idea of wanting a van because of the luxurious space available! Although my need (personal and professional) for accessing remote areas is an immediate hard-stop on the van conversation. Living the nomadic lifestyle in a 4×4 high clearance vehicle makes a game-changing difference in sleeping options and bathroom availability, but drastically limits in-vehicle convenience, space, and internet access.

    Pros and cons. I think one of the huge sad things about this entire topic of conversation is how so many do it for the instagram/social feed. Photography and video are how I make a living but using them as an inspiration to travel leads to a very quickly deflated experience. It needs to be about more than the images and content, it needs to be about feeding the soul – the lifestyle is for some, and it’s not for others, which is perfectly fine.

    #Vanlife might suck, but so does sitting at a desk every day. It’s all give and take.

    Write more! Love this article.

  17. After reading so many polarized views of van travel, what’s the big deal? Have van, will travel just means uncountable ways to experience, well, having a van and traveling. It’s almost like discussing what kind of suitcase travel works for you. In 2010 my wife and I bought a new Ford cargo van, spent a couple of months designing the transformation into a RV, and paid to have it those ideas realized—turned out pretty good for us! Our style was to do a multi-month trip each year, our favorite being spending the summer in Alaska, but have also driven across Canada, visited the SW Deserts a number of times and did a round trip from Seattle to Florida. Back in 2010 when typical attention spans could deal with blogs we dove into that as our means for “saving memories” and having something that we could share with others. So over the holidays we decided make a book out of that blog for fear that if no one clicked on it in WordPress for a month, it might disappear. It was only then that we realized how wonderful was is to have the memories “packaged” that way—it ended up over 600 pages long! It is a guess, but if you wanted to get a better idea of day-to-day van life, check out the blog at lugnutlife.wordpress.com. What we are particularly proud of is that we never used it to get paid by pushing crap on readers with those the little hyperlinks that some folks think they will be able to fund their retirement on. Check it out if you have a few minutes—ha!

  18. I miss my 1985 Volkswagen vanagon Westfalia weekender. She’s the whole reason i got into the whole overlanding thing. I love that thing to death but unfortunately i had to sell her due to the fact that she’s also a money pit. Vanning is awesome, but you have to be prepared for the short and long term maintenance, mentally and financially lol. As for me i just don’t have the money and time for it, and i missed being able to get out there in the time she was not able to run and left in the driveway for a long. So i had to let her go and go with something new and reliable; my 2018 Toyota Tacoma 4×4 :] i will always miss the times i had with my 85 Westy but its time to make new adventures.

  19. Over the decades, I've done three long trips with only the second one where our rig was our only home.  I spent a month in 1980 when I 29-30 living out of my little pick-up with a camper shell and old school carpet kit.  Traveled California and Utah, mostly.  Then, in 1992, my wife and I sold out and hit the road in our pick-up and Lance camper.  The world was our oyster and we traveled 16000 miles through the western states and western Canada.  The goal was to find a new place to live because California was so over for me.  We lasted six months and went back to California and rented a place.  Over the next year and a half we reviewed our trip and where we'd been.  Settled on Idaho and got here in 1994.  A few years later, we had kids and ended up with a 5th wheel.  Did lots of western trips when they were really little but decided to take a bigger trip in 2007.  We homeschooled them that year and were going to travel the entire USA even though we now owned two homes in Idaho.  Got as far as the Great Lakes and spent a total of 3  months on the road before going home.  Didn't see the whole country.

    What was the issue with these trips?  I had to do every damn thing myself and after a time, it got really frustrating/aggravating.  What I learned is that long term fulltime living in an RV of any sort is not for me.  Now, I travel for up to a week or so in my camping van which is great because now that the kids are grown, it's just me doing what I want, when I want, where I want.  I always boondock but it's easier when it's just you.  It's also easier when I have a couple homes to come home to.  No worries with the coppers and have never had a negative experience in the decades I've been doing this.  Of course, I don't look like a Deadhead and my vehicles are conservative in their appearance. (I do admit to Steal Your Face stickers on both of my rigs ;)).  But with the NPs being overrun and that fact that I've been to all of them many times, today finds me often taking my Cruiser into the SNRA or one of our countless areas where I can boondock a night or two and rarely see another sole.  I read,  fish, drink some wine and eat baguettes and a nice Brie, maybe do a little birding, perhaps use my small refractor to do some stargazing and get some real perspective, do photography, look at cool stuff on hikes and know I've got a nice house to come home to after a day or two.  These little trips are my favorites of all the traveling I've done since the late 60's.

    I remember how many people told my wife and me how smart we were back in '92 to do this sort of traveling while we were young (and we were, smart, that is).  So at a more advanced age with a been there, done that mindset, I really admire all the people who are doing this while they're young because youth is over quickly.  I don't like most of the countless YT vids I see of the 'look at me!' couples and I think they are missing out on so much with the drones, video production, and need to be noticed but that's fine, it doesn't hurt me any.  I just hope these vanlifers are in the moment enough to really enjoy the positives of open ended travel with your stuff along for the ride.

    Geez, but what a ramble.  Sorry, folks! 🙂

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