Why are people ditching expensive rent and mortgage payments and trading it all in for a life on the road? This Guide to Van Life covers everything you need to know about the vanlife lifestyle and why it might be right for you.

WHAT IS VAN LIFE?

Van life at its core is exactly what it sounds like – living inside of a van. However, as the nomadic lifestyle continues to build momentum, van life has become a social movement promoting freedom, minimalism, and simplicity.

The idea of living with less and rejecting the societal norm of working your ass off to buy a house with a white picket fence while you slave away at a 9-5 job that you don’t even like is extremely liberating.

The “American Dream” is changing and people are realizing that there is more to life than just doing what society tells you to do.

So what does living in a van have to do with liberation? Doesn’t that just make you homeless?

Well, kinda! We like to look at choosing to live in your vehicle as being houseless, not homeless. Not every vehicle dweller is doing it out of choice and it’s important to not over-glamourize or sensationalize living in a van as being some sort of ticket out of arbitrary hell. It takes a lot of work, adaptability, and open-mindedness to overcome the inevitable hurdles of a major lifestyle adjustment. That being said, the views are totally worth the climb.

Girl sitting in camper van overlooking mountains and lake

If you think this picture is photoshopped, then you’ve obviously never been to Jones Lake

WHAT’S THE APPEAL OF VAN LIFE?

The appeal of van living is rooted in three things: freedom, flexibility, and minimalism. People want to live a more fulfilling life that’s not focused on material objects or arbitrary accomplishments. People want to get out of their home towns and discover more of their country or somewhere completely new. Above all, people want to break out of societal constraints and discover what it feels like to truly be happy.

FREEDOM

Having the freedom to live in a different zip code every night and not be tied to one city or one state is something that seems almost too good to be true. When you live in a van, you have all of your stuff with you and as long as you can keep your gas tank full, you can take your little adventure mobile pretty much anywhere.

This means that you can finally get to dip your toe in the ocean or visit that mountain you’ve always wanted to see without having to worry about booking a hotel or relying on fast food to keep your belly full. You now have the opportunity to open yourself up to new adventures that have never been on your radar before and continuously discover new places, meet new people, and try new things.

Truth be told, there’s a lot of work that goes into even the simplest of tasks when you live in a van. Things like having clean drinking water, finding a level place to park, and even getting rid of your garbage are all day-to-day tasks that require thought and planning. Because of this, every day is an adventure! Even if driving into random ghost towns to find propane isn’t on your adventure bucket list now, it really does keep every day interesting and far from the routines and normalcy of conventional living.

All of these factors can lead to the kind of personal growth that transcends van living and leads to developing a beautiful, well-rounded person who’s open to new experiences and can think outside of their own bubble. To us, no amount of work experience or academic accreditation can match the wealth of knowledge you absorb while travelling.

Man driving a camper van in Central CaliforniaFLEXIBILITY

As I mentioned before, if you want to plan your life around chasing the sun or even following a band on tour, you can totally do that. If you want to turn your van life journey into a quest to try and find the best burger in every state or to meet up with long lost family members you haven’t seen in ages, do it up!! It’s your journey and embracing whatever makes every day exciting for you is what it’s all about.

The best part about van life is how quickly you can adapt. If you’re on the fifth state of your national burger quest and feel like you’re really enjoying the vibe of the area you’re in, then stay longer! We’ve always tried to cling to a few anchor points of where we want to go and at what time of year, but we never tie ourselves down to planning a day-to-day or week-to-week plan so that we can embrace the flexibility and see where the wind takes us.

When we first set off in our van from Alberta in December (brr), the northern states were just as cold as the temperatures we were trying to leave so what did we do? We kept driving until it got warm. On the flip side, we’ve been hyped up to go to certain places that kind of fell flat so what did we do? We moved on. The point is that you’re not tied to hotel reservations or flights, so just go with the flow and make going to bed with a smile on your face your priority each and every day (maybe not literally…that’s kind of creepy).

Heck, you might even meet another van lifer on the road and decide to scrap your entire plan and convoy to Alaska instead. That’s the beauty of van life because when you have a home on wheels, home truly is where you park it.

Girl standing beside camper van overlooking lake and autumn leavesMINIMALISM

Minimalism has been a buzz word floating around the internet for a while now. So what’s minimalism all about? Minimalism is the idea of simplifying your life by living with less while highlighting the value of the things that you do choose to keep. To be clear, this has absolutely nothing to do with monetary value, but rather an item’s utility or personal connection.

By surrounding yourself with only the things that you need and those with which you have a strong connection, you will feel less cluttered mentally and emotionally. How deep! But really, most of us know that “stuff” is not the answer and it can be really challenging to get rid of unnecessary stuff when you have lots of cupboards and storage closets.

When you live in a van, you have no choice but to be extremely critical of every item that earns its spot in your space because every inch is prime real estate. Honing in on your needs and not your wants can be difficult but it’s really amazing how little you need to survive and still enjoy life.

In addition to satisfying your utilitarian needs, having only a few personal non-utility items actually makes them that much more special. For example, from the wall of books I owned, I only chose one to come on the road with me. I turned to this book when I was bored or sad or just needed to zone out. I chose a book of poems for this reason because having one versatile item is far more valuable than three or four separate items.

There are a few key questions to consider when determining what items to keep to suit your minimalist lifestyle.

  • Does this item fulfill a specific purpose that I need on a regular basis?
  • Is this item high quality and intended to last?
  • Is there a more versatile item I could get to replace multiple single-purpose items?
  • Does this item make me happy? (Remember, while minimalism is all about living with less, having items that you enjoy using on a day-to-day basis is also important. Things can be useful AND pretty!)  

All in all, minimalism is about assessing your needs, fulfilling your needs, and enjoying your menial tasks by surrounding yourself with things that make you happy and serve a purpose. It’s not about eating your meals with the fork on your pocket knife because you don’t want to own cutlery, it’s about finding a set of cutlery that is durable, reusable, and maybe even comes in your favourite colour.

Man grinding coffee beans to make coffee inside of a camper van

HOW DO I KNOW IF VAN LIFE IS RIGHT FOR ME?

You’re never going to find a definitive answer to this question from any person or Buzzfeed quiz. There are a few key traits that certainly make the adjustment a lot easier but ultimately, it’s a personal journey and you’re really never going to know for sure until you try. If you tick some of the below boxes then maybe van life should be your next adventure!

I LOVE THE OUTDOORS

For starters, a love of the outdoors is a major driving factor for a ton of van lifers and other nomads. Maybe you want to hit up a bunch of climbing spots around the US or visit every National Park in Canada; whatever the case, lots of folks use van dwelling as a gateway to the outdoors. Let’s face it, you’re going to spend A LOT of time outside when your living quarters are so small, so being comfortable with some mud beneath your feet and some bugs around your head is definitely helpful.

Man sitting by the campfire beside a lake and forestI’M LOW MAINTENANCE

There are often times when you will go several days without a proper shower or you will wear the same clothes for days on end. Sometimes it’s because you’re in the middle of nowhere and can’t go to a laundromat and other times it’s because you’re having so much fun that changing your shirt is very low on your priorities list. The point is, most folks’ vans don’t have hot showers and can’t support running a blow dryer every morning so these are sacrifices you have to be willing to make. Let’s be real—you also have to poop in a bag sometimes so, buckle up!

I CAN WORK REMOTELY OR AM COMFORTABLE WORKING SHORT-TERM JOBS

How to make money on the road is one of the main questions we get asked and can be one of the trickiest aspects of getting your vanlife journey started. If you’re lucky, you might already have a job where your employer is comfortable having you work remotely. One positive element to the Coronavirus pandemic is that more and more companies are realizing that remote workers can work just as well as an in-person team. This is lifting location restraints for so many people and creating more opportunities for finding remote work.

Ideally with a remote job, all you need is internet and a place to plug in your laptop periodically to work. We are fortunate enough to be in this position because we’re both self-employed. While it is great for many reasons, it also requires a lot of discipline and organization, so keep that in mind.

There are lots of options out there for those that might not have the skill sets for a web-based job or would rather be out working with their hands. We’ve met lots of people that stay within a given area because they work contract jobs in construction or farming. You can still go on trips on the weekends and enjoy laying your head down at night knowing that you don’t have to pay rent or commute an hour on public transit.

Finally, another option is to work seasonal jobs. We have a few friends that work their butts off all winter so they can travel all summer and repeat the process until they get sick of it. There are lots of opportunities to follow a quintessentially nomadic lifestyle and move around based on employment opportunities. You could work at an orchard in California for the summer and a ski resort in Vermont for the winter, for example.

Man sitting at a table with a laptop in the back of a camper vanI’M HUNGRY TO EXPLORE NEW PLACES AND MEET NEW PEOPLE

The world—or what’s connected by land at least—is really your oyster when you’ve got a home on wheels and the means to keep travelling. You can explore every corner of the USA and even drive to the southernmost point of Argentina if that’s what suits your fancy. A hunger to explore everything from relaxing beaches to rugged mountaintops is what makes for the most exciting and fulfilling endless road trip.

Meeting all of the interesting people along the way is the cherry on top. Even if you prefer to keep to yourself, you’re constantly going to gas stations, grocery stores, and visitor centers so you’ll cross paths with a lot of people from different walks of life that all have unique stories to tell. We’ve had some incredible encounters that we’ll remember forever in the most trivial of places like Walmart parking lots and Tennessee truck stops.

Further, the van life movement has shaped an amazing community of like-minded people who are super helpful and supportive. If you’re nervous about living the van life solo, you can reach out to people who are in the same boat and would be happy to convoy together or even just meet up for a coffee here and there. The most important thing is to keep an open mind and never stop exploring.

Camper van parked on the beach with rugged mountainsI CAN READ A MAP

This might sound funny but being able to properly read a map and navigate is extremely important when you’re living on the road—especially if you plan to veer off the beaten path. In the USA, cell service is pretty good but lots of Canada and other countries are total dead zones. Being able to repeat directions from Google Maps is one thing, but having the confidence to navigate from a paper map and a compass is a very valuable skill.

I’M COMFORTABLE WITH UNCERTAINTY

Van life is full of surprises and unexpected mishaps. You need to be ok with not having a dependable place to sleep every night and expecting the unexpected. You can do hours of research and still be met with unpredictable hurdles and unanticipated changes that sometimes end up being really positive experiences—or at the very least, make for a good story. The point is, your routine and daily rituals are all subject to the uncontrollable environment around you so if that excites you, you’ll love living in a van!

Man smiling in camper van covered in mud overlooking the ocean and mountainsI’M OPEN TO LEARNING

With all the unexpected situations you’ll inevitably encounter on the road, you’re bound to learn a lot of new things—especially mechanical things. Even if you’ve got lots of money and can hire a professional every time something goes wrong, there will still be times where you have to figure things out on your own to get moving.

For us, this is exciting and we feel really proud when we’re able to repair an issue on our own. Because of all the mechanical hurdles that come with owning an older vehicle, we’ve become amateur mechanics and feel way more comfortable being in the middle of nowhere with no one around to help because we’re confident in the skills that we’ve learned along the way. If everything was smooth sailing the whole time, that would be great but where’s the fun in that?!

WHAT IS VAN LIFE REALLY LIKE?

So we’ve all seen the perfectly styled Instagram pictures with the most amazing view out the backdoors, a half-naked girl on the bed, and not a muddy shoe in sight. Is this what van life is really like? For the five minutes it took to take that photo, yes, but the rest of the time, no.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been many times where we’ve had to pinch ourselves as a reminder that this amazing life is actually ours and those moments are very special. With those moments come a lot of less glamorous realities that remind you that there’s a lot more to living in a van than driving to nice locations and snapping pretty photos. After three years of living full time on the road, here are some van life realities that we didn’t expect.

Girl digging out camper van from being stuck in the snow in a forest

Always expect the unexpected

IT CAN BE EXPENSIVE

As amazing as it is to not have to pay rent every month and say goodbye to stacks of utility bills, living in a van can still get expensive. Just like owning a home, unexpected repairs and upgrades all come at a cost and usually hit at the least convenient times. You’re also way more pressed to do the repairs quickly because your vehicle is your home and your home is your vehicle.

To give you an idea of how much van life costs, we would spend an average of $2,500 CAD for the two of us each month, which is approximately $1,900 USD, or $950 USD each. This includes everything from gas to food to travel insurance. Expenses vary greatly based on your vehicle, how much you’re travelling, and what your habits are.

We would cook most of our meals and go out for dinner occasionally but because we were having to grocery shop in smaller batches and usually paying a premium for smaller size containers, our grocery bills were higher than when we were living in an apartment. We also drink a lot of beer, don’t skimp out on good quality ingredients, and have a thing for expensive cheeses (Justin’s lactose intolerant and aged cheese ain’t cheap!).

In terms of gas, this is hugely affected by how much you travel and where you’re travelling to, but above all, your van dictates your gas budget. We saved a lot of money buying an older van but we definitely visit the pump more often than those with a newer Sprinter or ProMaster. To give you an example, we usually spend just under $300 CAD (~$225 USD) driving from Vancouver to Calgary, which is about a 1,000 km trip (620 miles). We did this same trip in a rental car recently and spent $70 CAD (~$50 USD). Driving through the mountains is always a killer, along with highways with high speed limits—looking at you, Texas.

Expensive gas bills and unforeseen repairs aside, we were still spending less living in the van than we did living in an apartment in a big city. We also only started tracking our expenses when we moved into the van, which has become a great tool for budgeting and sometimes crying into a pillow when you realize how expensive life is.

Camper van parked in front of Mount Rundle in Banff National ParkIT GETS DIRTY REAL QUICK

Living in a van being messy and dirty seems obvious, but the rate at which it happens is kind of astonishing. You have very few surfaces to put things on so once you set a couple of things down on a counter, your whole space is cluttered and things can spiral out of control. Ok, that’s a bit dramatic but it really is a constant battle to stay organized and make sure you put things away after you use them.

If you do any outdoor activities, you’re bound to come in with muddy shoes or sandy feet and it feels like a constant cycle of sweeping and wiping and repeat. Our bed sheets are always full of little twigs and leaves and the floor gets dirty at superhuman rates. This can be a struggle for people like me, a self-proclaimed neat freak, because the only way you can keep a pristine van would be to never do anything fun and that’s just not a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

YOU ARE AT THE MERCY OF THE WEATHER

When you spend most of your time outside, you really depend on having pleasant weather to enjoy your time. It’s not like you can be out all day in the rain and come home to a nice hot shower or put your stinky wet shoes in another room to dry. When the weather is bad, you can get cabin fever pretty quickly from being cooped up inside such a small space with limited resources. A rainy day here and there makes for a fun board games day or a cozy time to read that book you’ve been working on. But we’ve spent quite a few weekends just sitting inside watching the snow outside while the furnace pumps away all that diesel you just filled up and you bundle yourself up to go dig a hole to poop in—not exactly the #vanlife dream that you saw on Instagram.

Another often overlooked reality is how in tune your sleeping patterns get with the sun. Especially in the winter when it gets dark at 4 PM and it feels like midnight. In the summer, you’ll find yourself waking up way earlier than usual as the sun beats down into your windows and cooks you into a sweaty human sausage roll.

Camper van driving down snow covered roadPEOPLE WILL JUDGE YOU

Despite the waves of young, ambitious millennials setting sail in their vans to conquer the world, lots of people still share the van-down-by-the-river stigma and think that you’re either in a bad situation or you’re a complete dirtbag. Even if you keep your van nice and tidy and appear to be a respectable citizen, someone out there is always going to have a problem with the way you live, mostly because they don’t understand it.

The people who set up camp in a Walmart parking lot with chairs and a garbage fire always make the rest of us look bad. But some days we’re just sitting in a parking lot enjoying a coffee and a bowl of cereal inside and people will glare at us like we’re scum. The bottom line is that you can’t let this get to you and if you haven’t already told yourself this today, YOU ARE NOT SCUM!

RELYING ON PUBLIC FACILITIES GETS OLD

Unless you have a completely decked out rig, you’ll probably find yourself having to rely on a lot of public facilities, like gyms, laundromats, and coffee shops. We’ve used record-setting amounts of public bathrooms and have showered at a laundry list of different places. At home, a shower can be relaxing and meditative. A shower at a public pool is less than ideal when you’re repeatedly hitting the button for water and praying that this time, it’ll come out hot as you rinse your shampoo out to the tune of screaming kids. Not exactly a spa-like experience.

If you plan to work while on the road and need wifi, you’ll find yourself at a lot of different coffee shops, libraries, and McDonald’s parking lots leeching off that sweet internet juice. Doing the whole Starbucks office thing gets old pretty quick and you actually end up spending a fair amount of money to warrant parking yourself there for the day. When the weather’s nice and you can rely on solar to charge your laptop, installing a wifi signal booster or cellular signal booster would be an excellent investment.

IT’S AMAZING

There are a lot of harsh realities that can be hard to cope with but at the end of the day, van life is amazing. You can drive to the middle of nowhere and sleep in complete silence under a blanket of stars or wake up to the crashing waves of the ocean right at your front door. A lot of these experiences could also be had with tent camping but setting up camp when you’re in a van makes tent camping seem like such a chore. You literally just pull up and park—no fussing with poles or tarps, no waiting for your tent to dry out before packing it, and no need to pack! Having all of your stuff with you at all times is such a convenient way to live! You can have a comfortable bed, a cold refrigerator, and a furnace ready to go whenever you need it—if that’s not glamping, I don’t know what is.

Man sitting at picnic table with camper van and tent set up at a campsite in the woodsWHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES OF LIVING IN A VAN AND HOW DO YOU PREPARE FOR THEM?

There’s no way to prepare for every challenge that comes your way and approaching and dealing with these challenges is how you learn and grow as a person. Even in a house, you will face numerous hurdles that seem to come out of the blue when you least expect it or when the timing seems the most inconvenient. The most important thing is to keep calm and be resourceful.

From daily challenges to potential trip-enders, living in a van is full of surprises. Here are some of the most common challenges that you can expect to face and some thoughts on how to approach them.

FEELING CRAMPED DUE TO LACK OF SPACE

A big adjustment when transitioning to living in a van is coping with the lack of space. Our van has about 70 sq ft of living space, which is a far cry from even the smallest of one-bedroom apartments. Some days you’ll barely notice how cramped it is because you’re out doing fun things and only popping into the van to lay your head down. Other days, when it’s raining outside or you’re taking a rest day, it can feel like you’re living in a closet with nowhere to stretch out and be comfortable—especially if you have travel companions of the human or fur-covered variety.

Another contributor to the cramped feeling is the height of your ceiling. Lots of people opt for standard height cargo vans without a high-top and accept the fact that they can’t stand up in their vans. We have a high top on our van, but Justin is 6’4” so he always has a sore neck from slouching. Over time this definitely gets old so consider that when shopping for a van.

The best ways to deal with feeling cramped start with good organization and use of space. Keeping all of your things tidy and tucked away in cupboards or drawers helps to make your space feel more open and less cluttered. Even small things like choosing lighter colours for the interior of your van help to brighten up the space and not feel like the walls are closing in on you. Try to open your windows or doors as much as possible to get airflow and to feel less closed off. And above all, try to get outdoors and switch up your scenery once and a while because your van is meant to be an adventure mobile, not a prison.

Man laying across bed in camper van

MAINTAINING GOOD HYGIENE

Peeing, pooping, showering, and doing laundry are all basic tasks that can get a little complicated when living in a van. For bathroom breaks, we try to use public bathrooms whenever they’re available, go outside when we’re in the woods, and use our portable toilet when the former two options are a no-go. Always try to have some wipes and hand sanitizer around in case you’re low on water and can’t wash your hands.

For showering, there are portable solutions that work well if you’re in a warm place, but having a gym membership is a lifesaver. We relied on Planet Fitness locations around the US and Canada to keep us clean for $20 a month with truck stops and public pools sprinkled in along the way. You’ll learn to be ok with not being able to shower every day and having a shower bag ready to go for whenever you need it. Showers certainly became more of a chore than an enjoyable experience so we’d opt for public pools sometimes where we could use the hot tub or sauna for a very low-budget spa day.

Doing laundry while living in a van can be frustrating for those that are used to having a washer and dryer at home. We’d been using laundromats for years before moving into the van so our only change was having less hamper space but truthfully, I find the laundromat the most efficient way to do laundry since you can have multiple big machines going at once. Lots of laundromats have wifi and even a sink where you can fill up a jug or two of water. If you’re looking for a backup solution, get a Scrubba Wash Bag so you only have to visit the laundromat when you have a full load.

Cedar outhouse in the forest

Not all outhouses are created equal…

DEALING WITH VEHICLE BREAKDOWNS 

Being prepared on the road is important for your safety and can prevent many expensive tows in your future. We have peace of mind with a CAA (Canadian version of AAA) membership that has saved us more than once. We’ve been towed, had fuel delivered to us, and had a battery replaced on the spot all thanks to our membership that’s just over $200 a year—a small price to pay for getting rescued when you’re in trouble.

The most important thing you can do to prepare for vehicle breakdowns is to prevent them. Regular vehicle maintenance like oil changes, checking your tire pressure, and keeping your fluids topped up should all be part of your routine along with the less frequent stuff like brake pads and tune-ups. Getting to know your vehicle and being in tune with its sounds and vibrations will come with time as you drive more and learn the quirks. In our van, there are some components that have failed more than once so we try to keep a backup ready to swap in if we need it—and we have….many times.

Camper van getting towed in Las VegasFINDING PLACES TO PARK IN THE DAY AND PLACES TO SLEEP AT NIGHT

Finding places to sleep at night is a constant process that doesn’t necessarily get easier with time. There are certain parts of America where free camping is bountiful and it feels like the options are endless. Other areas can be really difficult to stay in because there’s less public land or there are bylaws in place that prohibit sleeping in your vehicle. There are so many apps and online resources, like our Camping Directory, to help get you started in your search but remember, some of the best spots are those that you discover yourself.

It can be a battle trying to navigate forest roads while avoiding private property or active logging sites, but you’ll learn to be very resourceful and when in doubt, ask the locals. Finding a place to sleep in a city can be a huge headache and there’s really no way to avoid this since each municipality has its own rules. The only way to prepare for this is to do lots of research and never just assume that a spot is fair game. Also, if there’s one tip that we can give about city “stealth camping,” it’s to avoid parking directly in front of someone’s house. We always look for apartment buildings or more commercial areas to park in because if anyone is going to have a problem with your van, it’s going to be the nosy neighbours.

Aside from finding free places to camp at night, finding parking spots in the daytime can be tricky too. Most vans are oversized and aren’t the best ways to explore dense cities with skinny streets and tight parking spots. Try to plan routes where you don’t have to worry about height restrictions or ideally, park somewhere safe and take public transit or ride a bike into town.

Camper van parked under bridge in MemphisSTARTING OR MAINTAINING ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS

If you’re living in a van with a partner or travel buddy, you’re about to get real close real fast. Every sound, smell, and habit is going to come to the surface because quite frankly, there’s nowhere else for it to go. There isn’t really a way to prepare for this, beyond choosing to embark on this journey with someone that you trust and are comfortable around. Living in such tight quarters and doing a lot of driving to unknown places certainly tests your relationship and you’re bound to learn A LOT about whoever you’re travelling with—maybe even things you didn’t want to know. Above all, keeping open lines of communication is essential in making this work and remembering that there’s no couch to sleep on if you start an argument.

If you’re traveling solo, loneliness can definitely set in. It’s nice to share new experiences with someone and have a co-pilot but dating while living in a van can be challenging. Unfortunately, a lot of people will be judgemental or just assume that you’ve fallen on hard times since you don’t have a stable place to sleep every night. Even meeting new friends can be tough, but if you keep an open mind and put yourself out there, there are plenty of folks that think living in your van is rad and will admire your lifestyle.

Couple sitting by the campfire with a guitar and beersFINDING RELIABLE INTERNET/CELL SERVICE/ELECTRICITY

Having stable internet and cell service is especially challenging if you work remotely while living on the road. We’d do a dance of coffee shops to libraries to wifi-enabled parking lots to get our work done or to take a call in a quiet enough place that your client doesn’t know you’re sitting beside a garbage can at McDonald’s. We’d often base our weekly journeys on being closer to cities when we knew we’d need good cell service and staking out places to plug in for a little while.

One way to prepare for this would be to get a wifi or cell signal booster. These allow you to get better service in areas with weak signals, which is especially helpful when you’re outside of a city. Consideration of where you’ll be travelling when you know you need to be connected is important; we had killer cell service across the desert but a week in the mountains is a different story.

Camper van in the desert of California with Salton SeaMANAGING FINITE RESOURCES

Even if you have solar power hooked up, most of your resources in a van are finite. You only have so much room for clean water in your tank or space in your fridge for groceries. You’ll find yourself going to the supermarket more often because you can’t buy large size containers or store things in a freezer. You’ll need to scout out places to fill up drinking water and dump your wastewater. You’ll probably need fuel for your furnace that might be different than the fuel for your stove. There are a lot of moving parts that keep van life going that you always need to keep on top of. With time, you’ll learn how long it usually takes to go through a tank of water or a canister of propane and you can plan your top-up trips around refilling these things before you run out instead of when you’re scrambling with no water or fuel.

IS VAN LIFE LEGAL?

While there is no law stating that you cannot live in a van (in Canada or the USA, at least), there are a lot of factors that dilute this question into something much more complicated. For starters, you need to have some sort of an address to have a drivers license, car insurance, and to file your taxes. You can use your parents or friend’s address or rent a postal box like we do, which gives us a suite address instead of a P.O. box since P.O. boxes aren’t valid as permanent addresses.

Ok, so you’ve got an address sorted and you’re ready to hit the road and freely sleep wherever you want. Not so fast! The man doesn’t make it that simple. Every municipality has their own rules and bylaws about where and for how long vehicles can be parked and if sleeping in your vehicle has specifically been banned. Take Squamish, BC for example — the town is working on passing a bylaw that prohibits anyone from sleeping in a vehicle outside of a paid campground. I get that people can be disrespectful and end up ruining it for all of us, but there are so many folks out there that are living out of their vehicles out of necessity and they don’t have the means to go anywhere else. This hard and fast rule that absolutely no van dwelling would be allowed is just NIMBY-ism at its finest (something you’ll deal with A LOT while living in a van). Thankfully, the Vehicle Residents of Squamish advocacy group have done an awesome job at getting their voices heard and having the bylaw be reevaluated.

Camper van at a beach in Santa MonicaAt one point, sleeping in Walmart parking lots used to be a dependable place where you knew you could stop and rest after a long day on the road. Nowadays, so many locations won’t allow this because of insurance reasons or municipal bylaws, coupled with a shameful amount of people taking advantage of these free overnight spots and dumping their black water tanks or setting up camp for a week. Wouldn’t it be great if living in your van was allowed everywhere but being an asshole was illegal?!

Another thing to consider is that even though your van is your home, it’s also a motorized vehicle so if you’re crashing downtown after a night out at the bar, you can technically be faced with DUI charges. Even if you’re not driving and are seemingly doing the responsible thing by going to sleep, you have the keys and are—albeit loosely—behind the wheel.

Ultimately, living in your van is legal with a lot of problematic layers on top. Every country, state, and city has their own rules and the onus is on you to educate yourself about them. The best piece of advice we can give is to do your research and never park in areas where you know you can’t, and if you do get a knock on the window, be polite and stay calm. The easiest solution is to just move on instead of dragging things out and arguing what you know of your rights—being mobile is what it’s all about anyway.

Girl standing beside camper van overlooking mountain lake and treesAll in all, while van life might not be for everyone, it’s an incredible way to live outside of the norm and create memorable experiences that are sure to last way longer than any gas tank fill-up ever will.

Still have questions about the ins and out of van living? Leave us a comment or pop us a message!