I’ve been living in the Sprinter van for 6 months now, some of that time was on a trip north up near Broome, then heading south for the spring wildflowers but much of the time has been spent living around town in the burbs of Perth. Perhaps the longest period I’ve spent living in the one area while in a van, at least the longest period while free camping the whole time. Living in the one area is very different to travelling around, you start to have regular places you go for eating, toilets, showers and sleeping, while if you are travelling around every place is new.
Now you may think van life sounds exciting, you’ve been watching the videos of 20 somethings on youtube and instagram, people in bikinis showering out the back of their van, beautiful smiling people draped over comfortable beds in exotic locations, looking happy and content. Perhaps you’ve decided you can downsize your life, buy a van, convert it into your own personal tiny house then live for free, travel where you like, park at beaches every night, live free and happy without a care. Well, what you don’t hear is that there are plenty of downsides to living in a van, it’s not like a holiday every day. These instagrammers and youtubers are trying to make money by portraying the up side of living in a van, some haven’t been doing it long, some only do it part time.
Classic example, this is the young couple who bought my troopy from me, their facebook and instagram pages are filled with semi naked bodies posing in idyllic locations looking happy, sexy and content. Though within 8 months of buying the troopy from me it’s up for sale as they are giving up the van life. I’m not sure how long they spent living in the van though I believe their original plans were to head overseas in her for an extended period of time. Living in such a small space is not all beer and skittles, I really don’t know how the previous owners managed to live in her for 2 years.
Here’s an example of the “vanlife” people try to push, someone who I’d thought was a fairly well respected van conversion vlogger recently posted up a video of his latest van conversion. A half hour long fairly informative video showing him doing a complete van conversion step by step, fantastic. How is his video promoted, the still that grabs your attention? Well that’s it above, two almost naked women laying on the bed, nothing to do with the video content at all. Another classic example I found a while back is this.
The two videos in the middle, on the right is a nice tour of a van with two middle aged not exactly athletic women gets 10,000 views in 2 months, scantily clad woman kneeling on her bed “Where I park and safety for solo females” 1.2 million views in 1 month. Another of her videos “Solo female vanlife, where I shower” accompanied by a picture of her showering in her bikini at the back of the van is at 1.6 million views and I’m pretty sure that most of those views are not solo van dwelling women wondering where they can shower.
Sex sells, and the illusion of a carefree, beautiful life parked by magnificent beaches sells just as well, and if you can combine the two?
It’s been almost 5 years since I first moved out of a house and into a “tiny house” of sorts, I’ve lived in a 30 foot bus, a caravan, a poptop troopy, a car with mattress in the back and lastly a sprinter van I converted myself which you can read about here. From a reasonably well experienced point of view, vanlife can really suck. I’m talking about really living in a van full time, not just holidays away from home.
So, lets get down to some cold hard truths about living without a fixed address. Firstly you can’t deal with government departments or many businesses without lying to some degree. You HAVE to stretch the truth. Technically you can’t own a vehicle (at least in W.A.) without having a permanent garaging address where the vehicle will be parked most of the time. Same with the insurance company, try to tell them that you have no fixed address, they want to know what suburb you will park the vehicle and whether the vehicle will be parked on the street, in a drive, a carport or locked up in a garage. Of course in reality a person who lives in a vehicle has less chance of having their vehicle stolen because generally of a night time, they are sleeping in the vehicle. I know this first hand, while parked on the front lawn at a friends house I was woken by some motion of the van, as I came too I heard noises, a peak out the window and I saw someone rifling through my friends car parked beside mine, looking for things to steal.
And try dealing with Centrelink! I recently went jumping through their hoops and that was an experience. In my initial sign up I was told that I needed an address, but I don’t have one, well we need to put something down, the caravan park you are staying at or a friends place where you stay. I’m not staying at a caravan park or a friends house. But we have to put something! I have a POBox mail collection service in Qld?
Ok, my mum lives over 400km away and I’ve had to use her address for my vehicle registration. Great that will do.
So all done, signed up as living with my mother 400kms away, yet given a given a job provider local to where I’m hanging out around the burbs. Go to the jobs provider and start the whole process again, but we have to put an address down in the local area! After a whole lot more explaining that I don’t live in a caravan park, and no I don’t stay at a friends place, they decided to put my address down as the post office, I told them that I’d park outside the post office at least one night so that there was a degree of truth to it.
All good, things progress. Still in my 3 month waiting period and I receive a notification that a new jobs provider has been appointed to me, over 400kms away down near where my mum lives. Drive about a 900km round trip for my appointment with them to go through the whole process again, then get told that I’ll need to come in there every 2 weeks or so.
Depending on your living/travel style you may be travelling around or you may be staying still in the one area, both these styles of van life offer different types of hurdles. If you are in the one area this can perhaps be a degree easier because you get to know good camp spots where you can park up of the night. I’ve been around the one area now for a few months and I have a couple of friends where I can park out the front of their houses, then perhaps 4 different camp spots where I park up without being bothered. As I drive around the local area I’ve also found a few more potential parking spots which I’ll try out shortly, I don’t like to use the one spot more than one or two nights before moving elsewhere, that way you’re not attracting attention.
Some spots are better to park on weeknights rather than weekends. Beaches and boat ramps are better on weekdays as they can be busy early in the morning on a weekend while parking near schools can be good for weekends, though watch out for car parks with weekend markets. House dwellers never have to think about such things.
Unless you have a well set up van with shower and toilet, you will have to find solutions for these aspects. Even if you do have a van with a shower and toilet, you’ll need to find places to fill your water more regularly and empty your other bits. I don’t have either so I joined a local gym with outlets all over the country. They have showers and toilets which are kept reasonably clean and available 24 hours a day for $15 a week. This is a bargain considering that around most cities staying for one night in a caravan park could be $40-60 a night.
Being a van dweller you also get to know when shopping centers are open and which centers have the best toilets, even more in depth, you tend to find which are the nicest toilets within the larger shopping centre. You also become very aware of what time shopping centres open in the morning. I know the local centre near me tends to open their doors about 8.00 in the morning so your body becomes acclimatized to “going” around that time each day, watch out for Sundays though, my local doesn’t open till 10.00 on Sunday so you have to make other plans for a Sunday morning.
What about if you have an emergency in the middle of the night? You’ve eaten a dodgy curry and need a toilet? You may need to drive some distance, many public toilets are locked of a night though if you are living in the same area you start to learn the possibilities around you. I know in the area I’m at there are a few of those electronic toilets down at the beach open 24 hours a day and there’s also the gym, but I haven’t had to do any late night drives as yet. Then there’s number ones, as a guy it’s easier for me, I have a bottle that I use which I then find discrete bush spots to empty out, there are plenty of options available for all, “shewee”, funnels, small camping toilets, even buckets with a sealing lid. Now you might be saying Ohhh yuck but it wasn’t that long ago that it was standard to have a chamber pot under the bed.
It is an inconvenience not having a shower and toilet always available, late in the afternoon when you haven’t planned for getting to the gym or you are not at a friends place. Public swimming pools are another good option,for a few dollars entry there are hot showers and toilets. In the warmer months if you are by the coast there’s often a cold shower by the beach so a quick swim followed by a fresh water rinse does the job. While travelling in the troopy I had a small solar shower bag, if I stopped early in the afternoon I’d place the bag out in the sun, a couple of hours later there was a warm shower. At least a shower of sorts, it usually wasn’t very hot and there was never much of it, just enough to quickly wash the sweat and dust off your body.
Another more minor aspect of living a mobile life in a small space is storage and accessing things. I designed my van with a lot of storage under the bed to store all of my stuff and most of it is stored in large plastic tubs. This is everything, my whole life or at least what I’ve trimmed it down to. When you need to find something then you will need to start emptying all your stuff out to dig for it.
Digging means that you need to find somewhere quiet and out of the way so that you can empty your life out onto the ground while searching for what you need. Here I was looking for paperwork and in my wisdom of packing I’d decided that paperwork could go right up the back of the storage area because I’d rarely, if ever need it.
Another simple aspect that may seem so obvious is that you have virtually no space in your living area, there’s not really space to stretch out, your kitchen is tiny so any attempt to cook a fancy meal is quite tight, you have to be well organized and plan well ahead of time, this leads you to cook and eat simply, one of my standard meals is a salad wrap, this is one step simpler than a nice salad because you don’t dirty a bowl. You also become very proficient at one pot cooking, one pot cooking means less dishes and less dishes is always good because dishes take space and you need to clean them which takes water. I have a large plastic container in a drawer where I can keep my dirty dishes out of the way till I get enough for a wash, living in a mobile van you can’t leave any dishes out while driving. Living in a van means you can’t leave anything out! There are plenty of mistakes you only make once, leaving the half cup of coffee sitting on the kitchen bench as you drive, around the first corner and coffee get splattered all over the van. Putting heavy items in the top cupboard, things move while you drive and when you stop and open the cupboard things can jump out at you and the heavier they are the more damage they do to you and/or your van.
Sometimes your secret camp spot isn’t so secret any more. When I camped up the night before I was the only one here though during the night three other vans had arrived. Personally if there are 2 or more vans already in a camp spot I move on somewhere else. I guess this is a perfect segue into the subject of “privacy” perhaps or rather the lack of it. There’s not a lot of privacy when you live out in public, especially when your tiny little house is a box filled with windows as so many of them are. Often in spots like the one in the picture above I like to leave my front windscreen uncovered. You go to bed with a view out over the water, the shipping marker lights out in the water here flash red and green it’s like a string of multi coloured fairy lights. Being on the west coast means that you have the sunset view out the windscreen in the afternoon and you’re not woken by the sun streaming through the windscreen early in the morning.
Of course on more than one occasion I’ve woken up, stretched, yawned, lifted my head to look out the windscreen and seen people wandering right past the front of my car. This has also happened at night, while laying on my bed watching tv, people going fishing or out for an evening stroll wander past right in front of your house. If you don’t have window covers up or curtains across you always need to have a good look around before you get changed.
In a van you have to be careful about where you park especially if you are travelling around and you don’t know any particular areas that well, security is important, anything on the outside of your van needs to be locked down, tool boxes, bikes, gas bottles, fishing rods, lock them up or they’ll walk.
Internet, do you enjoy having a connection? Well your life is now all about trying to find places where you can get decent phone reception so you can communicate and be entertained and you’d be surprised at how many black spots there are around the place and if you plan on travelling around you are pretty much stuck with telstra as there are enormous areas of Australia not covered by the other providers, there are enormous areas not covered by telstra either, but they have the most coverage.
Another fun aspect of van living is simply the weather and it’s extremes. It’s heading towards 40 degrees today so I’m hiding away in a shopping centre typing this. Though hiding away is perhaps a poor choice of words, I’m in a fairly crowded food hall sitting on a very uncomfortable chair. Still, it’s cool, there’s free wifi and I’ve got my headphones plugged in listening to music. My laptop won’t last forever though and there are no power points around here so I’ll have to go back to the van soon to charge up.
Cold and wet weather are equally if not more problematic. I installed a diesel heater in my current van and it’s fantastic but in my pop top troopy life in the cold and wet was fairly miserable as it’s basically like living in a tent when the roof is up. I spent a lot of time in the northern table lands of NSW and it was often down into the negative temperatures at night.
You had to remember to fill a pot with some water in the evening because the water pipes in the van were frozen in the morning and all the pipes in the caravan park where I was staying were frozen solid so you couldn’t have a coffee till the sun had warmed up the pipes a bit and water was flowing, and damn it was cold sleeping in the canvased covered top area at night.
One day it started to rain while I was there and it rained for 3 days solid. Stuck in a tiny little poptop camper, miles from any large towns so it’s not like I could nip down to a shopping centre or library. Three days stuck in a little camper while it rains continuously means that you use more power and there’s not much solar going in while it’s raining and overcast. You read a book, you finish the book, you don’t want to turn on the laptop to get online or watch a movie because that’s using up valuable power. You check the battery levels again, not good, start the van and run it for a while to help charge the battery and run the heater for a while to warm up. Look out the window at the creek that has formed over night running under your vehicle, start wondering if you should move a bit as you don’t want to get stuck but everywhere is soaked. Besides if you move you need to drop the top down to drive and dropping the top down folds the canvas inwards onto the bed, water from the canvas will leak out and soak the bed.
After three days of rain in a poptop there’s bound to be some water getting in, even if you manage to hopefully not get a leak, just getting in and out of the van tracks mud and water into the van and nothing dries out while it’s so wet.
Power can be an issue for many living in vans. I don’t really have this problem in my current van with 450W of solar and 200AH of lithium batteries I don’t tend to even think about power any more but I know some people are constantly watching their battery levels. And water, water is the heaviest item you tend to carry so when you live in a van you become very efficient with your water usage. I manage to make 100L of water last close to 2 months, this is with no showering just drinking and cooking, but like I say, I’ve become very efficient. Another couple I know of have a 70L tank and they refill every 4 days, and that’s just for cooking drinking and washing dishes, they don’t have a shower.
So you think vanlife will be a fun thing to do? I see many people on facebook groups keen to jump in, buying tiny little vans and doing very basic fit outs with extremely basic water and electricity set ups. Yes, you can get by with 20L jerry cans of water for a little while, yes one battery with a fold up solar panel will suffice for a bit but it wears thin pretty quickly especially when you are living in conditions that aren’t ideal. And guess what, you won’t always be living in ideal conditions, you can’t always follow the perfect weather around, sometimes it will be stinking hot, sometimes it will be freezing cold and pouring with rain and your battery will go flat and your fridge will stop working and your van will break down sooner or later. What happens then?
This happened to me, 100kms from the closest town, thousands of kilometres from anyone I knew, way up north in W.A. a broken fan. Someone helped take it off because I couldn’t drive with it still on, the broken fan was shaking the engine as it rotated and was going to cause more damage to the vehicle. I had to get up early in the morning and drive the 100kms to the closest town in the cool of the day with no fan no problem.
I stopped for a toilet break on the way and had to turn the car off, couldn’t leave it running or it would overheat. Went to start the car and it only just turned over very slowly like the battery was flat. Luckily it started and I made it to the town leaving it with the local mechanic who rang me a little later saying he couldn’t start the car the battery was completely dead, how lucky was I to get that one last start out of it. If it hadn’t started I would have been stuck on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, with a dead battery and no cooling fan, I needed to get a jump start early in the morning so I could drive in the cool of the day, or I’d need to get it towed.
It’s a pretty strange feeling when you’re in unusual surroundings thousands of miles from anyone and anywhere you know and your little home has to go into a mechanic to be fixed. You don’t even have your keys in your pocket just a day pack with a few things, your laptop, phone, water bottle, and wallet. You’re at the mercy of the universe, relying on strangers to get things done for you to get you back on the road in your little mobile home again and you wander the streets of this strange place feeling vulnerable, you have no control over your situation you just have to go with it and hope things work out.
This can be the harsher reality of living in a van on the road, things you won’t see or hear about from influencers on youtube and instagram.
If you’re still keen try it out, before you jump in rent a van similar to what you expect to build and try it out for a week or two, and don’t just go to the nicest place in the best weather, go somewhere horrible to see if you can really hack it. And do it in a van like you expect to have long term, don’t get a luxury one for a week and expect life in your little dog box on wheels will be the same. People who live in vans long term know that you generally don’t get to sleep in beautiful places especially when you are near major centres. Good sleeping spots are on the side of the road in residential streets or light industrial areas, oh yeah, they don’t show these glamorous shots on instagram when you are parked up in the middle of industrial areas, where you have to get up and move early because workers are arriving at 5 or 6 in the morning. Or when you are parked in a shopping centre car park not that far from a pub and when closing time comes around drunk revelers are shouting and screaming as they make their way home. Or that night where you have found a lovely big car park and you are parked off to one side under some trees, a beautiful quiet spot until some hoons turn up and start doing donuts in the car park just outside your bedroom window.
Don’t think you can go to the gold coast and sleep at magnificent beach side car parks, you’ll get rangers knocking on your window during the night and you will get fined. To get nice spots you have to generally be far away from everyone, the ocean spots I tend to park at near the city are right next to heavy industrial areas, and I mean heavy, like refineries, smoke stacks belching out who knows what. You only park there when the wind is blowing in the right direction otherwise the stink is a bit horrible, you can see it in the background of this picture.
One of my other camp spots which is right near the beach and close to the burbs is also right beside a sewerage treatment plant. Ahh yes, I was parked there the other night and during the evening the wind swung around to a different direction. Hmmm, the pleasant pong of poo is lovely to wake up to. That same spot also has limited reception, if I want phone or internet I have to balance the phone on top of the dash board near the windscreen, if I want to talk to someone I have to get out of the van.
I could keep going on and on, I’m constantly remembering more things as I type, trying to dry things, trying to clean the van, sometimes it’s the simplest of things, I have a standard sprinter van you can stand up in, the same height as all the hire vans you see travelling Aus, well you can’t park at Perth Airport, not anywhere, you can drive through the loading/unloading zone but that’s it, no parking for tall vehicles. You also can’t park in many other places of course, even some open air car parks I’ve seen have height restrictions, when there’s nothing for your high van to hit except the stupid bar hanging over the entrance, it’s open air.
But don’t let me put you off.. 🙂