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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.)