Should I live in a van? This is a question that has certainly crossed many people’s minds with soaring rent prices and a desire for a simpler and more nature-driven way of living.
I think by this point in #vanlife‘s jarring popularity, most folks are aware that living in a van isn’t always opening the back doors to a killer mountain view or half-heartedly playing the ukulele beside your supermodel girlfriend while she slices an avocado for your breakfast on the beach. There are a ton of extra daily hurdles that you just don’t have to deal with when living in an apartment and even though we love it, it undoubtedly is not for everyone.
Long time no talk! For those that didn’t know, we decided to rent an apartment on a short-term lease for the winter this year. Although making the return to being slaves to rent goes against everything we’ve worked toward over the past 2+ years, we made this somewhat reluctant decision for a couple of different reasons.
Initially, we considered spending the winter in Mexico but Pierogi (our pupperino) doesn’t do well in the heat and we didn’t have the time or resources to figure out an air conditioning solution. So, we figured it would be best to stay in Canada again – that way we have the freedom to travel into the states this summer without worrying about maxing out our visas. Last winter, we settled into the warmest year-round place in Canada: Vancouver Island. It was fantastic until February hit and we were stuck spending our nights at truck stops and rest areas because most of the forest roads were inaccessible with the heavy dumps of wet snow. Although the worst of the winter had blown over by mid-March, that month and a half of unpleasant conditions were enough to make living in a metal box outside not the most comfortable. Not to mention the mould….lots and lots of mould.
Anyway, with our options limited, we decided that hunkering down in an apartment for a little while would be a good opportunity to save up some money and not have to worry about things like heat and water. We settled on Calgary because we knew we had to be here for the Christmas holidays and it’s a very affordable place to live. We signed a 6-month lease, wrangled a ton of free furniture from Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji and moved on in.
Now that our six months are coming to a close, we’ve reflected on what we’ve enjoyed about being in an apartment and what we really miss about being in the van. So, behold our personal list of pros and cons of van vs. apartment living.
- No rent – This one is obvious. When you’re in the van, you can spend as much or as little as you need to on gas based on how much travelling you plan to do. All your annual fees coming due in the same month? No big deal, just stay stationary for a little while.
- Flexibility – Storm coming? Annoying neighbours nearby? Move on! In a van, you have the flexibility to chase the sun, follow a touring band or hit up every National Park; you’re not tied to any one place (that is, assuming your work allows for it).
- Owning your own home – When you live in a van you’re not subject to any landlord or building rules to hold you back from painting all of your walls pink if you so choose. You also have all of your possessions with you all the time and going on a road trip without having to worry about packing a bag is pretty great. Also, road snacks when you have a proper fridge and stove are always that much better.
- Living outdoors – A lot of people always ask us, “how do you survive in such a small space?” The truth is, we spend way more time outside than we do in the van. Depending on the weather, it would be more accurate to say that we live outdoors and sleep in a van. In any case, we don’t really need to tell you how spending time in nature is a positive thing, but we will say that when friends come to visit, it’s a lot more memorable to drive to a mountaintop and camp than it is to sit on a couch and watch Netflix.
- The bathroom/shower situation – This is an obvious one. I don’t care how down to earth you are, most people would rather pee in a toilet than into a plastic jug. When you’re in the woods and can relieve yourself outside, it’s no big deal but when you’re trying to be stealthy in a parking lot and all the nearby shops are closed, say hello to the piss jug. We bought a portapotty when we first hit the road (and love it) but we reserve it only for #1 emergencies – #2’s can stay in a 6” deep hole outside or in public washrooms. The lack of a shower speaks for itself. Yes, we have a portable solar shower and no, it’s not the same.
- Keeping up on fuel and power levels – Running out of propane in the middle of the night and having your furnace click off is never fun. Having to run the van because your batteries are low and the sun hasn’t poked its head out in days is also not fun. We’re well aware that that’s the trade-off with off-grid living but it’s still nice to not have to think about those things when you’re on city power and water.
- Tight quarters – Your quality of life in a van is largely dependent on the weather. Life is always what you make of it but after a few consecutive days of rain when you’re stuck inside a 70 sq foot space, things can get a little tight. It’s human to need a bit of space or private time regardless of how close you are with your partner or travel buddy. We treat the driving area and the bed as two separate “rooms” and that usually works for us but keep in mind if someone farts in the next “room,” it doesn’t have very far to travel before it hits your nose.
- Inevitable mechanical issues – Shit happens. Stuff goes wrong in houses and vehicles but you’re a little more on edge when your vehicle is your home. We’ve been stuck in places we had no choice but to stay the night at because the van wouldn’t start. You don’t have a workshop or a garage to go to when you want to make upgrades or repairs so you’re sometimes living in an active worksite.
- Security – Although having everything you own with you is great when you’re in the van, when you leave the van for the day/night, it can be a little nerve-wracking. We’ve heard so many break-in stories where people snatch up expensive camera gear or laptops with a quick smash of the window. It’s wise to have a bolted-down safe or some sort of security method along with keeping really important things like your passport and cash with you at all times.
- Plumbing – Toilets, showers, hot water – you’ve got it all and you don’t even have to think about it! We’re never advocates of being wasteful with water but when it’s freezing out and you can fill up the bathtub or stand in a hot shower for a while, it’s pretty darn nice.
- Space – Even in a studio apartment, you have space to spread out and can achieve some division in your area. Everything in the van is multi-purpose, which is great for achieving a smaller footprint, but not having to constantly shuffle things around to make space for other things is definitely a perk. Admittedly, it’s been really nice having counter space and not having to play fridge Tetris every time we get groceries. Also, if I want to go to bed early and Justin’s still up, we can be in separate rooms and not disturb each other whereas, in the van, this would involve some climbing around and a definite need for headphones.
- Predictability – The “where are we sleeping tonight” thought can be exciting sometimes but a bit of a dread at other times. Knowing where you’re going to be sleeping every night is pretty nice and you never have to think twice about ordering pizza or Amazon packages. To this same point, you never have to worry about being stuck somewhere because your house won’t start.
- Ability to entertain – We’ve had plenty of friends over in the van but it’s obviously a lot easier to have people over for dinner or to host a party when you have the space for it. You can also cook stinky foods freely and not have to worry about being suffocated by the smell as you sleep. And you more than likely have an oven! Ovens rule – you can bake stuff or heat up a quick frozen pizza. If you’ve got a couch, you can even have people crash at your place, unlike the van where friends are more than welcome to stay in the guest house but that guest house is a tent.
- Rent – Duh. Paying rent sucks.
- Being stuck in one spot – Sure you can take weekend trips but for the most part, the place you live is the place you live. If that place is surrounded by cool stuff (like Campbell River), then it’s all gravy but in a place like Calgary, when it’s -30° out, you’re pretty stuck.
- Neighbours – We majorly miss the peace and quiet of being alone in the woods and not having to hear the people across the hall blast music at 3 AM. The noise doesn’t even bother us all that much compared to people’s disrespect for shared spaces; leaving stinky trash bags of kitty litter out in the hallway and vandalizing the elevator is just not cool.
- Having to rely on others – The more time we spend on the road, the more self-sufficient we get with repairs, maintenance, etc. Being in an apartment building means that we have to call a guy when our heat stops working or when the batteries die in the keyless door lock while we were out (yes, this happened and yes, we were locked out for a couple hours the day after Christmas). You also have no control over when they decide to test the fire alarms or shut the water off.
All in all, both dwellings have their pros and cons. The biggest takeaway I got from writing this is that many of the things we considered cons of the van can be fixable. We could install a hot water boiler and a pressurized shower. We could build in an oven. We could get a bigger van or upgrade to an RV or a schoolie to relieve the space issue. Ultimately, there is still plenty of room for improvement in our mobile-tiny-living-dream that involves striking a better balance of living modestly while still having modern conveniences. We love the freedom and flexibility we have in the van but at the end of the day, we still love pooping in a toilet. There are so many basic things that you take for granted while living in a house or apartment that we have a completely renewed appreciation for.
Staying in one spot for this long has definitely been tough in some (read: most) respects but it has also been helpful in others. Namely, we’ve been able to do some much-needed repairs and upgrades to the van that should allow us to hit the ground running once our lease is up (two more weeks – yay!!). Our plan is to head back to Vancouver Island from here to wait out the rest of the cooler months and then embark on a very special adventure after that. Let’s just say we’re heading to a very cool spot (pun intended) that’s been a long time coming…