This is not going to be one of those posts from someone who has jumped blindly into van life based on 5 glorified YouTube videos and is shocked to find out that real life isn’t like the movies. I’ve been in a van for almost 2 years now and have lived a variety of different lifestyles within the generic “vanlife” hashtag.
I’ve lived stationary behind some random guys garage paying a modest fee for rent and water, commuting to my 9-5 using my Honda Civic. I’ve spent weeks at a time in a single boondock location out in the middle of the desert only leaving to refill water and get groceries. I’ve played the city stealth-camping game (personally, not my favorite), and have paid for spaces in RV parks (also not for me). I’ve done the tourist thing. I’ve moved at a snails pace but also covered thousands of miles in the course of a few days. The point is, I’ve been there and done that for what I’d consider to be most of the different ways one can live van life.
I feel I was very well prepared for this lifestyle. I took a hard look at all the videos being posted, thought things through again and again, and overall, found the transition to be fairly painless (all things considered). I’m the type of person who looks at the “10 Things I Hate About Vanlife” videos or “I tried living in a luxury camper van for a weekend during the winter, and I’ll never do it again” articles (linked because it’s just too hilarious not to read) and can’t help but roll my eyes.
To me, it seems that more often than not, the people posting this type of content are not pointing out actual problems with the lifestyle, but problems with themselves and their failure to see their own confirmation bias. With all that said, there is one aspect of van life I genuinely wasn’t prepared for.
I fully acknowledge that this could just be me and a product of my specific circumstances, but my version of van life has a lot more planning in it than you ever see online or that I had imagined. And every sort of planning too: long-term, short-term, routes, parking, appointments, internet, water, weather, you name it. It wasn’t that I was naïve before I started – I knew that finding water and good internet would be important in my life – I just didn’t fully comprehend the amount of my time that would be spent sitting on my phone trying plan ahead for damn near everything.
To give you all an example of what I’m talking about, this is one of the many situations I’m currently planning. I’m trying to stay on top of my twice-annual teeth cleaning appointments and my dentist is located in Salt Lake City, Utah. I’m currently in Southern California and my appointment is scheduled for the beginning of May. I planned the beginning of May because I felt like that was the earliest in the year I could start my migration north to escape high summer temps in the south but still avoid freezing Utah winter (AKA planning around weather).
I have all sorts of places pinned on my Google Maps that I would like to see before I leave for the summer. It took a good 4 or so concentrated hours for me to plan a route between them all that was feasible for time (because I also have to plan around work), efficient on gas, and that put me in the right place at the right time for picking up a delayed package, my dogs vet appointment, the reservation I managed to scrounge at the always-full national park, and a hundred other little things.
Earlier in the year when this looming dentist appointment hadn’t entered my mind, I didn’t spend nearly as much time planning my route. I essentially just had a general direction that I wanted to go and then figured out what might be in that area or along that route. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with either way but I hadn’t anticipated the impact that this dentist appointment would have on my life – especially not a whole 2 months out from the appointment itself.
I guess, as a rule of thumb, the farther away the appointment, the more planning it will require, because the way I see it, it’s nearly impossible to live life without some appointment somewhere. You’ll have to renew your drivers license or go to the dentist or pick up mail or something at some point. You might get away with not going to the dentist your whole life but at some point that’s going to catch up to you and if you’re still living in a van by then, you’ll have to make an appointment which means you’ll have to plan to be there. Even if your appointment is next week in the same town, you now have to plan on how to stealth camp for a week in one place, which depending on the city, can be a real challenge.
And that’s just the big picture sort of planning. Finding water, avoiding winter storms (yes, we have versions of them even in sunny SoCal), making sure I have internet during the work week, keeping my favorites in the fridge (some of which can only be bought at specific stores), planning errands around the heat of the day so my dog doesn’t boil, and picking up the odd package from an Amazon locker or General Delivery are all examples of things that require near constant planning.
Admittedly, a lot of these wouldn’t be nearly so important if I didn’t mind backtracking, but I’ve got a 20+ year old vehicle and even though I’ve been driving it across the country, I’m still trying to save as many unnecessary miles as I can. Additionally, working 9-5 everyday also takes a huge chunk of my time making the free time I do have more valuable. Why would I opt to drive the same road again for lack of planning when I could be seeing something new?
This is by no means me complaining, but I do think that van life is great at keeping you honest. The one time you don’t double check your propane before leaving town is the time that you’ll run out in the middle of the night and wake up cold (true story).
Or here’s another true story. Did you know that your lighter will die before it’s actually used up all the fluid in the little reservoir window? I did actually think to check on it several times when I noticed it getting low but it didn’t cross my mind that it may stop working before all the fluid was used up, so I found myself in the middle of the desert with a fridge full of food that needs cooked and no lighter for my stove. Back to town I went.
I guess the point of this post is just to say that the amount of planning I’ve needed in van life has fluctuated greatly through the different ways I’ve lived out #vanlife. I’m currently living a life that requires a lot of planning – more than I had anticipated and more than I had ever seen anyone talk about online. And for a lifestyle that’s toted as being carefree and “gone with the wind” I thought it was just a tad ironic that I’ve got the next 2 months of my life planned out more than I would have if I was simply going on a vacation or something.