If you’re planning to change your life and move into a camper van then this guide to van life is for you.
In this post we cover the pros and cons of van life, van life tips to help get you on the road.
We also answer common questions such as how to choose the best van to live in, how to find places to shower, where to send your mail while you’re traveling in your camper van, how much does van life cost and how to make money while living in a van.
Whether you’re considering part or full-time van life, this alternative lifestyle has become increasingly popular in recent years, and for good reason, with people from all backgrounds seeking greater freedom and opportunity to travel.
However, as well as the freedom and other advantages, there are some downsides and challenges to van dwelling that you should be aware of before deciding to take the plunge and start your van life adventure – we cover all of these and more in this ultimate guide to starting van life.
What is van life?
Van life is a lifestyle of living in a vehicle part or full-time, that is growing in popularity year over year.
The vehicle you live in doesn’t have to actually be a van, although vans are extremely popular because of their size, affordability and, let’s face it, popularity on social media!
Unlike an RV, a camper van such as a converted Sprinter van, is highly maneuverable in towns and cities, and easier to find parking for.
Smaller vans will fit in regular parking spaces, and this makes them a versatile choice for traveling in as well as finding suitable overnight parking spots to stay in, so you can see why van life, as opposed to RV living, appeals to people who can handle living in a smaller space.
Van life can mean different things to different people, but regardless of what type of van lifer you may become, it’s indisputably considered to be an alternative lifestyle. That is, compared to living in a house and working a regular job.
For some van dwellers, it’s about having a very minimal van setup, and spending as little money as possible by finding a cheap camper van to convert, and not overdoing the conversion amenities, while you enjoy the freedom of this lifestyle.
You can do #vanlife on a tiny budget if you have the right mindset.
For other van lifers, their vehicles are essentially mobile tiny homes that they can live and work remotely from while traveling the country for all or part of the year. And – yes – if you do it a certain way, you’ll also be saving money compared to living in your previous house or apartment.
Van Life Pros: Why choose to become a van lifer
The number one reason why many people choose van life is the opportunity for greater freedom.
This includes physical freedom and the ability to travel and live wherever you choose, as well as the mental freedom of untethering from a more traditional lifestyle and the opportunity to live a (necessarily) more minimalist life.
Living out of a van naturally means you’re likely to spend more time outdoors, so it’s also an opportunity to get closer to nature and the mental health benefits that can offer.
While you may still want (and need, for remote work), wifi connectivity and cell service, you can also take the time to travel off the grid for periods of time, and disconnect from the intensity and stress that being constantly online can create.
Many people in the van life community also cite having the opportunity to achieve greater financial freedom as a big reason to transition to campervan living, either part or full time. You may be able to spend less money, and therefore work less, and potentially even save more money than you did in your previous ‘life’.
If you’re a social person and truly want to immerse yourself in the lifestyle, then you will likely enjoy participating in van life gatherings, and getting to know other van dwellers who you have the lifestyle in common with.
Van Life Cons: The downsides to van dwelling
For many potential van lifers, the biggest challenge to overcome when planning to move into a camper van is how to make money while also embarking on van life adventures.
There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to funding your van life lifestyle, although it will of course depend on your current personal and financial situation, as well as your tolerance for potentially changing the way you work.
This could mean getting comfortable with transitioning to a less consistent or stable income, if you need to move from a relatively stable job (and income) to part-time or freelance work to achieve your goal of starting van life.
To get an idea of what living in a van may cost you on a monthly basis, read how much does van life cost for some insight in this area.
Unless you’ve lived a nomadic lifestyle or spent significant time in a camper van or RV before, you may be surprised at the amount of thought, time and energy that goes into the constant moving and planning associated with practicalities such as:
- Where to park and sleep for the night
- Where to get groceries, fresh water and gas
- Disposing of waste water and trash on a regular basis (because in a small space there’s not much room to store either of these for long!)
- How to ensure you’re up to date on van maintenance.
As well as these, some people may simply find that campervan living, in such a limited space (especially if there’s two of you living in a van together) may not be something that’s realistic for you on a full time basis for the longer term.
To try out this lifestyle before going full time, consider renting a camper van for a week or two (or even longer, if possible) to try out living in a van before committing yourself.
Unlike modern homes which have reasonable climate control, insulation and ventilation, your camper van may not be as comfortable to live in very hot, cold, windy or wet weather conditions.
While most well-built campers have good insulation, ventilations and most likely a diesel heater and even perhaps some air conditioning, you’ll probably find you need to move around throughout the year to base yourself in more favorable weather conditions and make life more comfortable.
Is living in a van realistic?
Yes it is – and people do it! We always recommend experiencing van life first, before going out and buying a van as it’s a big investment for anyone! If you do want to try it out first, we recommend any one of these camper van rental companies.
But before you jump in with two feet, it helps to manage your expectations, because it won’t be as easy and, dare we say – glamorous – as it’s sometimes made out to be on social media.
Also, depending on what lifestyle you’re used to, the full time van life lifestyle is going to be a big change for you, so take on board as many van life tips as you can, before starting the journey.
That being said, some people can be over-hesitant about taking the plunge and changing how they live. It may help to treat van life as a ‘not-forever’ lifestyle, just something you choose to do for a fixed or undetermined period of time, until you no longer want, or are no longer able to do it.
If you want to change your life and go on the van life adventure you have been dreaming of, do it while you can and see where it takes you!
RV vs. Van life
Full time RV living has been popular for decades, and RVs may appeal to larger families or those that cannot see themselves realistically enjoying spending significant time in such a small space as a van has to offer.
Both RV and van life are similar in that you’re spending time on the road. The main difference is a camper van is much smaller and easier to move around regular and park in more places, so you have more agility and flexibility in where you choose to go – plus, of course, you get much better gas mileage.
If you plan to do any stealth camping in towns or cities, then a small, plain-colored cargo van is much more subtle than an RV when it’s parked on the street, especially if you have no, or very few windows on your vehicle.
Unlike RVs, most camper vans lack the storage for ‘stuff’ as well as fresh and waste water, and are usually not set up to be hooked up to RV park plumbing. This means you have less set-up and packing time between stops on your road trip, but it can be more time consuming when you need to ditch waste water and fill up your fresh water tank.
Buying (or building) a camper van for van life
Whether it’s been built by a professional conversion company or it’s a pre-owned camper van conversion that you buy from someone else, buying a van that’s already been converted will get you on the road quicker.
If you want to start with an empty cargo van and do your own DIY van conversion, then you’ll need more time before you can hit the road. The biggest advantage of a DIY van build is that you can build a custom camper exactly how you like it – plus, it may cost significantly less than buying one that’s already been built.
Try out #vanlife before buying your own camper van
Another good reason that renting a camper van for a ‘trial period’ is one of the best pre van life tips is that it will help you work out what layout and how much space you’ll need (so you can choose the right van size and van build design for your needs).
Two of the best resources for finding van conversions and other camper types to rent are Outdoorsy and RVShare.
Why is living in a Sprinter van so popular?
While you could use pretty much any cargo van as a starting point for your van conversion, Sprinter vans are an extremely popular vehicle for converting into a camper van.
As well as being large enough to build a tiny home on wheels and haul some gear, Sprinter vans are well-built vehicles that should last many years of van life, if properly cared for and maintained.
How much does living in a van cost?
We have a whole other post dedicated to explaining how much van living costs and how to budget for it, so you know what to expect.
Does living in a van save money, really?
For many van lifers, yes – and it can be a big reason to transition to living in a van. If you can earn significantly more than you’re spending each month, then you’ll naturally be able to save more money.
Many van lifers started van life with the objective of spending a year or more living in a van to save money that they could then use to put a deposit down on a house, for example. For many people, this is a way to break the cycle of paying expensive rent, save more money than before, and enjoy the experience of a road trip and traveling around the country while doing so.
Of course, if your income is inconsistent or close to your monthly costs, then you may not save money by being a full time van lifer. It’s a balance you have to figure out, to work out whether it’s financially feasible for you personally.
How van lifers make money
If you need to work out how to buy a van or fund your own van conversion, then you have a few options.
Of course, many people may choose a loan to fund either the purchase or van conversion, or both.
But if you want to minimize your debt, then funding your tiny home and van life startup costs is better with cash.
If you lack savings, can you sell your stuff? After all, when you move into your van, what are you going to do with it all (pay for self-storage) and most people, if they’re honest, have too much stuff in their life, anyway.
If that sounds like you, do a garage or yard sale, get on eBay and start turning stuff into cash. Can you sell your car and use that to buy your cargo van and use the van as your daily driver?
If you own a home, many van dwellers are able to rent out their home to earn a monthly income – assuming the rent more than covers the mortgage and other costs of ownership.
As far as other ways full time van lifers make money – get creative! This is the subject of an entire post in its own right, but to get you started, think about your skills and experience and how you can apply that to either working remotely in your existing job, going freelance so you have more options to choose your own schedule, or changing how you earn a living to do something else altogether.
Part time vs. Full Time van living
If you do work freelance or seasonally, or simply just want to travel for a few months or part of the year at a time, then there’s no right or wrong way to do van living right – just do what works best for you.
If you can do it part time, this may help make the adventure more sustainable for some people because you’re able to break up to constant traveling and hustling with periods of being in one location (not to mention, with more space!).
Van life tips
In this section we cover some great van life tips and answers to commonly asked questions about the practicalities of living in a van.
Where to park overnight in your camper van
Finding a safe place to sleep at night is obviously a top priority and probably one of the first you’ll have when you start van life.
Private campgrounds and RV parks
At the most expensive end of the van parking spectrum, we have private campgrounds and RV parks.
These campgrounds can range from fairly basic to straight-up luxe, and will offer bathroom and shower facilities, fresh water fills and wastewater disposal, electricity hook-ups, laundry and sometimes other amenities such as WiFi, a dog run, on-site general store and a swimming pool.
Most van lifers won’t choose to stay in private campgrounds often (or at all), simply based on the fact that they’re expensive, costing upwards of $40 per night, sometimes much more. This may not sound like much but consider that 30 nights at $40 per night is $1,200 and that starts to look much closer to what you paid in rent on your old apartment!
That being said, these are great places to stay for a night or two if you can make best use of the bathroom, water, laundry and other facilities, or perhaps as a treat after a long road trip or if you’re feeling under the weather and need somewhere very comfortable to hang out for a few nights.
Federal and State Campgrounds
Federal and State campgrounds are more popular options for many van lifers wanting some amenities, more nature and – typically – more space between sites.
They tend to have fewer facilities than private campgrounds but you’ll usually have access to a bathroom, and there may also be showers and water spigots available for you to use during your stay.
Expect to spend between $20 and $40 per night (sometimes a bit more, sometimes less) for these campgrounds, and know the popular locations tend to book up well in advance, especially during weekends and holidays.
Recreation.gov is a useful resource for finding campgrounds in National Parks and State Parks and Recreation Areas.
If you don’t need to be particularly near a town or city, then you can find some fantastic free overnight camping spots on public land such as National Forest and BLM land.
This is known as dispersed camping and while you should check local restrictions, typically it means you can stay for free for up to 14 nights in one spot, assuming you have enough food, water and electricity capability to support your needs during that time.
It’s also worth knowing that the roads in and out of certain public land areas are likely to be unpaved and may be tricky to safely drive on if you don’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle, so it pays to research this in advance (see below for camping app recommendations that will be useful for this).
Private land stays
There’s an increasing number of ways to find great places to stay for a night or two on private land.
Organizations such as Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome will give you access to a network of participating businesses and organizations (as well as some private landowners) where you can arrange to stay for a night or two.
In return for a small annual membership fee, you get access to search and contact the locations that appeal to you. Normally you need to call ahead to reserve a spot, and know that with Harvest Hosts the general expectation is to use their services or buy some produce while you’re visiting.
That’s not hard when you are staying on a beautiful organic farm or luxe winery for pretty much free!
Also check out Hipcamp, which is the camping version of AirBnb. Quality and amenities vary significantly, but once you find a few great tried-and-tested hosts, you’ll probably find yourself coming back to stay on their property time and time again.
When contemplating full time van life you probably haven’t been dreaming of a concrete parking lot for overnight scenery. However, it serves a purpose, especially if you’re traveling through a town or city and just need somewhere to park and sleep for the night.
Some companies are known throughout the van life and RV living community for allowing you to park with them overnight. Well-known chains include most Walmarts, Cracker Barrel and Cabela’s stores.
Truck stops and casinos are also often van lifer-friendly and often have areas where camper vans and RVs can park up for the night.
We’d always recommend you call ahead to check the specific store’s policies; they may also direct you to a specific area of the parking lot to head for.
Lastly, we have ‘stealth camping’, which is essentially the act of stopping for an overnight stay on a town or city street.
The objective is to be as subtle and non-intrusive as possible. Of course, this means it helps if your van conversion is also subtle and non-intrusive and you don’t make it obvious you’re there and planning to spend the night!
Depending on where you are looking at staying, it may or may not be tolerated by the people living in your chosen neighborhood, so it pays to do your research – including speaking to other van dwellers to see if they have any recommendations they’re able to share of where it may be more acceptable (and safer).
Know that in certain areas it may contravene local ordinances or laws and you always have the chance of a member of law enforcement knocking on your window and asking you to leave. If this happens, be calm and polite, and move on to another location!
Use camping apps to find overnight parking
There are several great camping apps you can download that will help you locate everything from private campgrounds to great street spots for stealth camping, as well as other amenities like fresh water and waste dump stations.
They’ll also give you tips from other users on the best sites, pros and cons of the various locations, and what access is like – especially useful if you’re considering boondocking on public land where the road in may be unpaved, steep, winding or all of the above!
Great apps to try include:
- Recreation.gov (for government-run camping facilities)
- Harvest Hosts
- Roadtrippers (a great road trip planning tool)
How to get WiFi when traveling
If you need cell service or WiFi while on the road, either for remote work or just personal convenience, this will likely make a huge difference to where you choose to spend time while living in a van.
The easiest way to get internet is to stay somewhere with good enough cell service to get 5G signal, and tether your devices to your phone.
Some people choose to take on another line so they can use it exclusively as their WiFi hotspot, either in a ‘dongle’ or a spare phone handset, and save the battery on their cell phone.
It also means you can leave it in the van when you leave it and take your normal phone with you, which could be helpful if you have gadgets such as a security camera or temperature monitor that need WiFi to send you notifications while you’re away.
To get better cell service, you could also consider investing in a WeBoost cell phone signal booster.
How to get mail while traveling
If you’re traveling around living in a van then where do you get your mail sent? Yep, this is another commonly-asked question about van life.
Fortunately, you have a few good options to consider (these options are specific to the US but similar ones may be available in other countries):
Friends and family member’s address
Get your mail sent to a friend or family member’s address. This is probably the easiest (and cheapest) option.
Use a virtual mail service with forwarding
This is the most viable option for long term full time van life where you no longer have a permanent home address, as you should get a mailbox with a proper street address that all mail and packages can be sent to.
A suitable mail forwarding service can scan your mail into a virtual mailbox, and if you choose they can then forward certain pieces of mail to you at a chosen address, when you request it.
There are a lot of these companies located all over the US. Typically, they are located in either Florida, South Dakota or Texas and some can help you transfer your residency to that state, which may be necessary for many reasons including getting insurance, banking, voting and driving license registration.
Some examples of companies offering mail forwarding services are:
Rent a P.O. Box
If you’re returning to a particular town or location then you can rent a P.O. Box at the post office and have your mail sent there.
Note, however, that some companies such as credit card companies or package delivery services may not deliver to a P.O. Box but some post offices can also give you a ‘street’ address you can use for your P.O. Box to get around this (the mail still ends up in your box).
USPS General Delivery
Did you know you can have mail addressed to you get sent to many USPS post offices all over the country?
As a temporary mail solution, you can get it sent to a USPS post office location that accepts ‘general delivery’. This typically only works for mail sent using USPS (i.e. not other services like UPS or FedEx), and you need to address it in a specific way to ensure it gets to the Post Office and is there waiting for you.
To learn more, read about General Delivery on the USPS website.
Where do vanlifers use the bathroom
Many van lifers do choose to have their own on-board composting or portable toilet. For some, it’s an absolute must-have.
This post provides advice on choosing a toilet for your camper if you’re planning a van conversion yourself, and for some layout ideas visit the best camper van bathroom layouts.
Even if you have a toilet in your camper van, it doesn’t mean you want to use it all the time! So, when on a road trip, here are some popular places among van dwellers to find a restroom when you need one:
- Shopping malls
- Campgrounds and rest areas
- Coffee shops and restaurants such as Starbucks and McDonalds
- If you have a gym membership (see below on showering), then the gym
- Hotels (they usually have facilities just off the lobby area)
Where do you shower when you live in a van?
It’s true that most camper vans don’t have showers inside them. For most people, there’s simply other better uses for that potential storage or living space within such a small RV, so they forgo installing the shower and the fresh and waste water tanks that would be needed to go with them.
If you’re still unconvinced, read more in why you don’t need a shower in your campervan.
So, where do van lifers shower?
Here are some popular places for showering:
- The gym. Getting a budget gym membership to a franchise that has locations all over the area you’re staying or traveling in is one of the best van life tips to take on board.
- Showers at recreational areas such as lakes and beaches
- Spas, if you can buy a day-pass.
By far the most reliable place to shower, especially if you’re spending time in and around urban areas, is going to be the gym. Plus – you get to use the gym!
If you’re going to be living in a van in more remote or nature-focused areas then you may be better off budgeting for regular campground stays to catch up on showering (and laundry).