Interested in van life? In this blog we’re sharing the questions we get asked the most about van life, from why we chose our van, our build, logistics, our daily routine, and more!
On January 25, 2019, we took a huge leap of faith and bought an empty cargo Sprinter van to turn into a home on wheels and fulfill our dream of traveling full time across North America. And on August 25, 2019, after tons of hard work, challenges, learning, and tears, we officially hit the road in our new home and began the greatest adventure of our lives.
We’ve been on the road for almost 18 months now (err…well a bit less due to the pandemic) and have loved (almost) every minute of it. While van life is not always easy and a lot less glamorous than it may look at times, we are so incredibly happy that we took the leap and started living this lifestyle. We absolutely love it and it has been one of the best choices we have ever made!
But despite the confidence in our decision, there were (and still are!) times we questioned if we were crazy, had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, and made mistakes that taught us some good lessons.
And as we have shared more of our journey, we have gotten a lot of questions about van life from others. Our goal is to help others as much as we can when it comes to van life and traveling, so in this post we’re answering all of the top questions we get about van life, ranging from why we chose our van, costs, how we get mail, daily chores, and much more!
We plan to continue updating this blog over time as more questions come up, so if you have a question that we didn’t answer, send us an email or comment below!
More van life posts to check out:
- Watch our van build series
- See our van tour
- Full time van life with a dog
- 6 Months of Van Life: The Highs and Lows
- Our Van Conversion Cost, Tour, & Mistakes
This blog post is very long, as we cover a lot of van life topics, so if you’d like to just see a few answers, click on them in the table of contents below!
Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!
Choosing van life and our van
Curious why we chose to do van life, why we chose our specific van, and the other options we considered? We’re sharing it all below!
Why did you decide to do van life?
Before we moved into the van, we lived in Seattle for three years and on the weekends we were constantly road tripping all around the Pacific Northwest, going for hikes, checking out small towns, visiting the beach, and popping up to Canada.
We became hooked on exploring and wanted to do that all the time and all over the country (and world!). While we did go on trips via plane and car, we had limited time off from work and didn’t want to be limited to a few hour radius of Seattle on the weekends. We wanted the freedom to call anywhere “home” anytime we wanted.
The ultimate dream would’ve been to travel abroad indefinitely, but since we have our pup Kona, we didn’t want to leave her for very long, which focused us solely on places we could drive to. But the next question was, how would we get around and where would we stay? And while we could’ve just road tripped in our car, staying at Airbnbs along the way, that gets expensive super fast.
Enter: van life! We loved the idea of being able to drive all around the US and Canada as a family in our home! Unlike staying in hotels and Airbnbs, van life wouldn’t require us to spend money nightly (unless we booked a campground) and we would be in a consistent home every night, with drawers filled with our possessions and no need to pack and unpack. It felt like the perfect way to achieve our full time travel dreams! And thankfully it has been!
Why didn’t you choose an RV, trailer, etc?
When we first decided to travel full time in North America, we considered all of the options for life on the road, such as vans, RVs, and trailers. However, our goal was to be able to move around easily, sleep for free every night, visit cities and nature, be self contained, and go off the grid.
And with that in mind, getting a van (and converting it ourselves) was the best option for us for these reasons:
- We could fully customize the interior, including the layout and design. Some of the manufactured vans and RVs just weren’t our style and not as homey as we wanted.
- The Sprinter is not much larger than a truck, so we would be able to drive around cities and fit in parking spots easier, which means we never have to tow a car for visiting cities or book campgrounds to leave a trailer while we explore.
- It’s off grid and self contained, with solar and a compost toilet, which means we could boondock 99% of the time, which would save us a lot of money. We also would not need to find dump stations for black tanks, which also saves time and money.
- Building a van ourselves would be a lot cheaper than getting a pre-built van or having someone build it for us. We also would understand the inner workings of the van since we would be building it ourselves.
- Set up is easy! We wouldn’t have to level the van for things to work. We could pull up somewhere late at night and go right to bed!
Why did you choose the van you have?
Once deciding on converting a van, we had to decide on which van to pick. There are a handful of options, both with the brand (Mercedes, RAM, and Ford), as well as the length.
We ended up purchasing a new 2019 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 170” WB (high roof). We chose Mercedes because of the reliability, high quality, and to be honest, we liked the way it looked the best. The Sprinters are also the longest van options out there and although we didn’t get the longest option (they have a 170 WB Extended), the 170 wheelbase was still longer than the other options. And when living tiny, every inch counts!
With the extra length, we were able to put in a large bed, a good sized kitchen, lots of storage, and a shower/bathroom combo to make it feel like home. And since there are two of us and a pup, we can fit more comfortably in the 170” wheelbase van than in the smaller options. However, had it just been the two of us, we probably could’ve gotten by with a 144” wheelbase.
We chose a new van because we wanted to ensure it was reliable and could last a long time. Most used Sprinters we found had a ton of miles already and we plan to drive this van all over and wanted a clean slate, plus the ability to get an extended warranty. Our new van + the roof rails we had installed + extended warranty + taxes and fees was around $55,000. If you’re building on a smaller budget, you can definitely find a used van for less, but it may take some searching to find one with low miles.
Has the van length ever limited you?
Yes, but rarely. The length of the van is about 22.5 feet and we typically can fit in parking spots, in parallel parking spots (we may hang over a tinyyyy bit), but there have been a couple occasions when a park limits vehicle length in specific areas.
Most notably would be when we visited Glacier National Park in the summer of 2020. The length limit on Going-to-the-Sun Road is 21 feet. This forced us to rent a car so we could drive the famous road, which led to the majority of the sites we wanted to see. While it did cost a decent chunk of change to rent a car, it really made visiting the park a lot easier. While the van could’ve survived the windy, cliffside roads, it would’ve been a bit scary at times.
Do you wish you had 4×4?
Although we would’ve loved a 4×4, we ended up just getting the basic RWD option due to the cost being more in our budget. However, there haven’t been many moments where we truly needed a 4×4. Our van wasn’t built to be in snowy conditions, so we do not need it for the winter, and for the most part, all boondocking spots have been easy to get to in our van. If we read a spot needs 4×4 or is extra rough, we will just skip it and find somewhere else.
How is the fuel efficiency of the van?
The van actually has very good fuel efficiency! On the highway we get between 18-23 miles per gallon and in the city it’s probably around 15-18 miles per gallon, which is pretty wild for its size and how much weight is in it!
How much does your van weigh?
Fully loaded (full tank of diesel and full water tanks), the van is around 8,500 lbs. The max available GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) for the van is 9,050 lbs.
Is it difficult driving the van?
Driving the van is actually very easy! Once you get going, you forget you’re driving a big van and it drives just like an SUV. But you’re quickly reminded that you’re in a big box when a gust of side wind comes along and pushes you one way or the other!
We do have to make sure to slow down quite a bit more for turns than a normal vehicle and we try to keep a lot of distance from cars and anticipate our stops so we aren’t slamming on the brakes.
Our van build and costs
In this section of van life FAQs we’re sharing specifics about our build, costs, the layout, what we would change, temperature control, the toilet, and more!
Why did you choose to build it yourself?
We wanted the interior of the van to be homey, match our style, and fit our lifestyle and the prebuilt options we looked at didn’t fit the criteria for us. So what do you do when you can’t find what you’re looking for? Build it yourself!
It was very difficult to complete the build and we are very grateful for the help and guidance Kathryn’s dad provided (we would still be building it and probably be missing a couple fingers if we didn’t have his help!). We took on the build as a challenge and opportunity to learn new skills and we are very thankful we went that route. We were able to get everything we wanted, so although it was tough, it is very rewarding to sit back and look at the van and say to ourselves “we built this!”
How did you pick the layout for the van?
We decided to buy and convert a van in September 2018, which gave us 4 months to figure out how we wanted to build it and what layout we wanted.
We looked at a lot of vans to see what others have done and fell in love with the builds that Sara and Alex James (40 Hours of Freedom) were selling and building. It was really important to us to have a good sized workspace since we planned to work full time in the van and wanted to ensure we could comfortably work for hours on end. We liked their bed/table combo, since we could still have a large bed and a large table area. They also put showers in their van, which we knew we wanted as well, so it was pretty perfect!
And lucky for us, they have a van build guide, which we used to plan out our entire build and layout, with a few slight modifications to make it better fit our lifestyle, like a larger kitchen, for example. Having the measurements in their guide made our life SO much easier!
We also bought Dynamo Ultima’s van guide. While we didn’t copy their layout, we got some really good ideas from their guide, like how to build a bathroom with the Nature’s Head toilet, plus some great product recommendations.
How long did it take to convert the inside and how much did it cost?
We purchased the van on Friday, January 25 and finished the van on Sunday, August 25, exactly 7 months later. However, we built the van in Austin, while living in Seattle, so the 7 month time frame was not spent constantly working on the van. We flew back and forth a handful of times to work on it, sometimes just for a weekend and sometimes for a couple weeks. If we had to guess, the build probably took 3 months if we added up the days we actually worked on it.
The total cost of the van conversion portion was $23,374 and we cover a breakdown of costs by category in our Van Conversion Tour, Costs and Mistakes blog post.
What products did you use for ___?
You can find all of the products we used in the van here!
What changes do you wish you could make to the van?
We are so happy with how our van turned out and we tried to really think about our lifestyle when building it, but there are a few things we would change if we could do it all again.
T-Vent windows in the back. We don’t have any vented windows in the back, so it can get a bit stuffy back there. We have a small fan we will plug in during hot days or will open the doors if in a spot we can do so, but t-vent windows would be a lot better for air flow.
Installed a 12V AC unit. When we built the van, most people did not have AC units, they just had fans, so we just assumed we’d be fine. While we chase good weather, we have gotten stuck in heat waves a few times and being in the van when it’s 100 degrees is not fun. Thankfully it does not get nearly as hot as a car, due to our insulation and window covers, but it’s still warm in there. It would be too hard/impossible to install this now, so we may get a small portable AC unit.
Build in a crate for Kona. While we built a slot to store her crate in the closet (so we could have it with us for Airbnbs and whatnot), we didn’t anticipate Kona being in her crate anytime we drove or when we left her alone (this is due to her training and safety). She thankfully loves her crate, but it does get in the way, as it takes up our entryway.
If we could do it all again, we would build her a spacious crate at the bottom of the closet. We tried to figure out a solution, but nothing worked, so we are just learning to adjust to the crate and put it away when not needed.
Is it annoying to convert the bed and table?
When we first posted our van tour, we had some folks comment how we’d “hate to convert the bed everyday.” We had gone back and forth for a while if we wanted a permanent bed or not, but ultimately decided on the conversion so we could have a big workspace and big bed.
However, the comments made us a tad nervous that we would end up hating it. And while some van lifers do end up hating it, we LOVE it! While it’s not always fun to convert if you’re tired or feeling lazy, it takes 3-5 minutes max and is not hard at all.
The best part is that we get to choose if we want to convert it or not. We can keep it as a bed all week if we’d like or we can convert it everyday. Having the flexibility is so nice and we are so glad we went with this option!
Are you happy with Havelock wool? How many bags did you use?
We love our Havelock wool! We share more about why we chose Havelock Wool in this blog post, but so far we have been happy with our choice. While we have no clue what the alternative would be like, the van stays warm with the heater on and we feel that it has done a good job with noise reduction, moisture, and regulating the van’s temperature.
Although we bought 4 bags, we used 3 bags total, which covered our walls, nooks and crannies, ceiling, and the floor, but we did run low at the end to insulate our doors. We ended up just making it work and returning the 4th bag to save some money.
Does it get hot in the van? Do you have AC?
As we mentioned above, it can get hot in the van if we get stuck in an unexpected heat wave. We try to visit places during cooler times of the year, but sometimes Mother Nature throws you a curveball.
When the temperature is above 80 degrees outside it can get pretty toasty in the van, but in those times we try to be places where we can open the doors and have airflow. While we have AC in the cab area of the van, we do not have it in the back, but have a MaxxAir fan and also a small fan we can plug in.
One important thing to know is that when we are in warmer weather, we never leave Kona alone in the van. One of us will go into the store and the other will stay with Kona so we can ensure she is okay. Thankfully the van stays a lot cooler than a car though!
What do you do when it gets really cold?
We have an amazing Espar D2 heater that we installed under the passenger seat. It is fueled with diesel that it gets from an alternate line in the fuel tank and warms the van up to a comfortable temperature within minutes!
We also have an amazing, huge, soft blanket we bought from Target that we get so excited when we get to actually use!
Do you regret not having a gas stove?
We’re a bit mixed on the answer for this one. We didn’t want to have a huge propane tank and deal with gas in our van, so we got an induction stove. But it takes a lot of power. And sometimes we are low on power and can’t risk using it, so we have a small camping stove (using butane) as back up. We’d still prefer to just use induction, but the combo we have with the two different options works well.
How is the composting toilet? Is it very smelly?
The Nature’s Head composting toilet is amazing! Although it has a high price tag, it has been worth every penny. What we love about the toilet is that it separates liquids and solids, which reduces smells, the compost lasts for a while, and that you do not have to use a dump station to empty the toilet.
After doing your business, you spin a handle to mix your solid waste with the compost material. This helps reduce the smell and helps it begin to break down. The only smell we really notice is from the compost material, which can smell “earthy” and from the liquids container when we dump it.
How do you empty the toilet?
The liquids container comes right off and we empty that in public bathrooms or porta potties at rest areas, campgrounds, or parks usually every other day. With COVID, we pretty much exclusively use our toilet, so it fills up a bit faster. We try to empty it as often as we can to reduce the horrifying moment when it’s almost full and you really have to pee and are not sure if it’ll fit. That may be TMI haha, but it’s a real problem and you don’t want to overflow the toilet.
As we kind of mentioned above, the liquids container can have a harsh ammonia smell. They recommend spraying the toilet with a vinegar and water mixture, but we didn’t find that to help a ton. We will pour a vinegar and water mixture down the liquid drain instead to try to get more of the mixture into the container. The container can get a bit stained (once again, probably TMI…sorry!), so we will soak it with a bleach and water mixture whenever we visit hotels, Airbnbs, or family. If anyone reading has tips on how to keep the liquids container cleaner, let us know!
For the solids section, you take the seat off and remove the compost bin. We then stretch a garbage bag over the opening and dump the contents into the bag. The bag can be disposed of in a dumpster legally, which makes getting rid of it super easy! To replenish the compost, we use a brick of coconut coir and add some water and it’s ready to roll!
While we haven’t tried other toilets in our van, we know some folks use a cassette toilet. This basically mixes the liquids and solids together, which we have heard can be pretty gross. We know some people who love it and some who do not. The biggest difference, besides the lack of separation of liquids and solid, is that you do have to dump the toilet at a dump station, which can cost money and requires more logistics to find.
Are you glad you have a shower?
Yes! We didn’t use it much initially (we will cover that more below), but now use it anytime we shower. We like that we have the sliding Nautical shower door, as it also gives us privacy when using the restroom.
How much does van life cost compared to “regular” life?
This is a tough question to answer, as everyone’s situation is a bit different. For us personally, our monthly costs went down, but our income also went down, as Adam quit full time teaching to teach online part time and do some web design work. We got rid of some bills like rent, electricity and water, but gained others, like a van payment, higher fuel bills, higher cell phone bills, and we spend more money when we film videos.
We try to live as frugally as possible by sleeping for free when we can and eating out only when we film, but we do have some bills, like student loans and the van, which increase our monthly expenses. We’re trying to pay them off ASAP though!
The biggest benefit of van life in terms of costs is that we don’t have to pay for hotels or airfare to explore North America! So that saves us a ton of travel costs when traveling domestically and we can explore so many more places while still mostly staying in our monthly budget.
If you’re trying to budget for van life, we suggest listing out all of your current expenses and removing the ones you won’t have anymore, adding in increased costs for fuel, possibly eating out and activities, higher cell phone bills, campgrounds, laundry, etc. That will give you a better idea of what your personal van life expenses may be.
How much does maintenance on the van cost?
Oh boy, this topic sometimes stirs up some tension in the van! When we bought the Sprinter, we knew the maintenance would be expensive. And while we have no regrets getting the Sprinter and would choose it again, the maintenance costs make your wallet hurt.
When it comes to maintenance, the van gets oil changes, which occur less often than a car, but they are significantly more expensive. In the past year, we have gotten 2 oil changes, had to get the transmission fluid changed, and a new fuel filter. In total this has cost us $2,000. 😳😳😳
For reference, these services have been done mostly at the dealership and at one independent shop. Our experience with the dealer for maintenance has not been great. They charged us for DEF, when we had some in the back of the van already, as well as nickel and dime you for everything. When we complained, they gave us a $50 voucher, but then when we went again, they wouldn’t honor it. VERY frustrating!
The independent shop charges about half the price of the dealership, so we much prefer finding a Sprinter certified mechanic when it comes time to get service done. Where the tension comes in is when we could’ve easily taken it to a reputable Sprinter certified mechanic, but we instead took it to the dealer and got swindled. I (Kathryn) get frustrated that we didn’t try harder to save the money and that we just wasted money we could’ve spent on adventures.
Our advice? Find a Sprinter certified mechanic. If you read their reviews you can feel confident in their work and you can support a more local business, while saving money. Since Sprinters are popular work vans, there are many folks out there who know how to work on them and will do an honest job.
Preparing for van life
In this section we’re sharing how we prepared for life on the road, including what we did with our stuff and how we afforded to travel full time
What did you do with all your stuff? Did you sell everything or did you store it?
We sold or donated pretty much every item we owned, besides the necessities, important items, and things that held a lot of memories. These are stored at Kathryn’s parents’ house (thanks mom and dad!). We have a big bin full of items, two suitcases worth of items, and some framed items stored there.
We considered storing our items, but decided against it as it was going to cost a lot monthly and we didn’t want that expense. If a storage unit cost $100/month and we were storing items for 3 years, that is $3,600, which would’ve likely been the cost to just replace the items. The best option for us was to get rid of everything, making what we could off of it, and then in the future re-buying what we need.
How do you afford to do van life? Did you save money and quit your jobs?
This is one misconception many have about us. We didn’t leave our jobs to go travel, we brought our jobs with us! While our jobs have changed a bit, mostly for Adam, who left teaching and coaching to do freelance web design and also teach English online part time, we still work full time on the road, as well as work full time on our travel business.
Most days you can find us glued to a computer from about 4 AM-9 PM at night, with a quick workout break and a nice walk for Kona. It isn’t just fun hikes and adventures 24/7, although we wish it was!
You can read a bit more about how we afford to travel here and download a travel budget sheet!
Van life logistics
When you become nomadic, a lot of things you don’t think much about in a traditional home environment become harder, like getting mail, having the internet, and seeing a doctor. We’re sharing everything we do for these below!
How do you get mail?
Our physical address is at Kathryn’s parents’ house in Austin, TX and this is where we will have important documents sent. They’ll let us know if we get anything important, but typically most things we get electronically as well.
When we are on the road, we will use Amazon to buy items and have them sent to Amazon Lockers, which are usually located in Whole Foods, but sometimes at Walgreens or other drug stores. If we need a family member to send us something, we have used UPS before, but there is an extra fee to pick up items from there and we have to ensure we will be able to get to whatever location it is sent to by the time it arrives.
If we are traveling near friends or family and need items we cannot use an Amazon Locker for, we will ship things to their house as well. For example, we knew we’d be in Virginia at my best friend’s house during early voting for the election, so we had our ballots sent to her and just planned our travels around ensuring we could pick them up.
What do you do for insurance?
From what we have heard, people approach insurance in different ways when it comes to their van build. And some insurance companies or even agents will not insure a self-converted van, so you may have to shop around.
For us, we are insured with State Farm here in Austin and not only have our van insured, but have the entire build insured (we provided all costs) and have our electronics and personal items insured as well.
That way, if something bad were to happen to our van or our belongings, we would be able to replace them.
How do you get internet?
For internet, we have 30 GB of hotspot data on each of our phones and we also have a Verizon Jetpack that has 30 GB of data, giving us 90 GB of data a month. This usually lasts us the entire month just fine, even with Adam teaching on VIPKid and me having Zoom calls daily for work.
However, we cannot upload our vlogs on these hotspots, as it’ll drain it pretty fast. Before COVID, we would work in coffee shops, libraries, Whole Foods, etc. during the day and upload vlogs there, but we now work exclusively in the van. So when it comes time to upload a vlog, we will stand outside of a Whole Foods (if there is a location around) or try to get WiFi from a parking lot so we can upload our videos.
How do you stay safe in the van?
We have a SimpliSafe setup for our van, including a camera, motion sensor, and a glass break sensor, as well as a couple other features that help us feel secure in the van.
There’s always a risk with your vehicle being broken into anywhere you go, which is only more nerve wracking when the vehicle is also your home, but thankfully we have never had any issues with safety. We listen to our gut and if something feels off, we will move on.
How do you go to the doctor and other appointments?
We take care of all of our doctor and dentist appointments when we are in Austin, since we have established doctors there. However, we have had a couple times when we got sick on the road and have used Teladoc through our insurance, which was great! Thankfully we haven’t had to visit a doctor’s office while on the road (knock on wood)!
For haircuts, Adam will go to any random place to get his cut, while I will try to get a haircut from my stylist in Austin when home, visit my old stylist in Seattle, or will just let it grow out until I can find someone I trust. If you watch our videos, you know I never fix my hair anyways (#lazy). 😂
Daily routine on the road
In this section, we’re sharing what our daily routine looks like on the road, including working out, chores, where we sleep, and more!
How do you workout on the road?
We have a set of adjustable dumbbells, a set of TRX bands, and a pack of mini bands (that we have yet to use!) in the van. We try to exercise every day and this includes lifting weights 3-4 times during the work week, doing HIIT workouts, going on daily walks, running occasionally, and going hiking on the weekends.
We used to have a Planet Fitness membership before the pandemic, which is where we would workout most of the time and also shower. However, we canceled our membership and now just workout using our own equipment at parks.
How do you do laundry?
Laundry is actually the easiest of all of the chores. Laundromats are in every town or city and while some are better than others, they all get the job done and some even have WiFi available and places to sit and work.
We’d really like to find some cool laundromat combos, like one with a coffee shop attached or a cool little snack shop or something, so if you know of one let us know!
How do you charge your electronics?
In “normal” times we would spend more time in coffee shops and libraries working and those are excellent places to charge your things. We are those people you might have seen with a power strip with about 5-10 electronics and battery packs plugged in!
But until we can go work inside one of those places again, we charge everything in the van, which definitely drains the power a bit, but we’ve made it work!
How does showering work?
Showering is the most amazing thing about the van! Adam still exclaims “I can’t believe we’re showing in our van!” every time he gets out of the shower.
We have a shower and toilet combo that is commonly referred to as a wet room. It is very compact, but is the perfect size for us.
Since we try to conserve our water, the showering process usually goes: turn the water on, rinse off, turn off the water to soap up, rinse off, and BAM you’re done! We have a 2.5 gallon hot water tank that we turn on when we are about 30 minutes from the place we are sleeping for the night, as it takes a lot of power (so we try to run it while the van is running) and it gets the water nice and HOT…sometimes too hot!
When we started van life we had a Planet Fitness membership so that we could use their showers the majority of the time. And right before COVID we would rarely use our shower and almost wondered if we really needed it, but now we almost exclusively use our shower and we love it!
Where do you work during the day?
Our dream day would be just hanging out on some epic free BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land out in nature and work all day from the van. However, sometimes these spots don’t have service, we’re in an area without any free land, or we need to do chores, so we have to work in a town.
If that’s the case, we typically will find a nice spacious park to work at, since we can also workout there and walk Kona. But we have also spent a lot of time working in parking lots. We’re a bit of a broken record by now, but pre-COVID, we’d work in libraries a lot, since they are free, as well as Whole Foods and coffee shops.
One thing to be aware of is that you stand out in a converted van and sometimes people expect that you try to skirt around the rules. There have been a couple times we arrived at a park in the late morning to just work for the day, workout, and walk Kona and a few hours after arriving, have had a cop or park ranger knock on the van to make sure we knew we couldn’t sleep there.
We never plan to, as we know where we can and cannot sleep and never want to break rules, but since we assume other van lifers have broken the rules in the past, we can sometimes be assumed to do the same. We now sometimes try to hop around during the day so we aren’t in one place for too long and bring attention or look suspicious.
Where do you sleep at night?
The answer to this question really depends on where we are, but our goal is to always sleep for free, as paid spots add up fast!
The best case scenario is to boondock on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or free public land (ideally with cell service). Boondocking is basically camping “off the grid,” which means there are no amenities. We take enough water, food, and other supplies with us to be self-sufficient for a few days at a time. This is a popular and much easier option out west! To find free campsites, we love Campendium and freecampsites.net.
However, out east, this free land is very, very rare, so we end up sleeping at rest areas (if allowed), Walmarts, Cracker Barrels, or Cabela’s. When we use this option we call ahead of time to make sure we can sleep there, arrive after dark, buy something from the establishment, and then get up and leave early in the morning. We basically stay just long enough to sleep and then move on. It’s not glamorous and we don’t love it, but we’re thankful that some businesses allow it. To see which parking lots let people sleep overnight, we rely a lot on an app called RVParky.
Another good “free” option is Harvest Hosts. These are farms, breweries, wineries, museums, and other businesses that allow self-contained RVs to park overnight for free, as long as you support them. You must be a Harvest Host member to do this, which costs between $80-$120 per year (use this link for 15% off!). With this membership we have slept on an alpaca farm (THE BEST!), a sculpture park, a golf course, and multiple farms!
If we’re really in a pickle, we will book a campsite or RV site with water and electricity. We like to stick with the free options for obvious reasons, but some areas can be more limiting or we may need to charge our batteries and or get water, so it’s worth the cost.
One thing we want to mention is that we never stealth camp, which is basically when you camp on a street and hope to not get caught. Some van lifers do, but we did it once in Denver and couldn’t sleep well knowing someone could call the cops on us and we’d be woken up and told to move. Thankfully it didn’t happen, but as big rule followers, it’s just not worth the anxiety. Plus our van isn’t very stealthy.
Is it safe sleeping at Walmart?
We haven’t had any issues sleeping at Walmart. Some are noisier and busier than others, but they typically are safe. We try to always read reviews beforehand to make sure others had an okay experience, but if we arrive and it seems sketchy or unsafe, we will not hesitate to leave.
It is a good idea to have a backup plan when sleeping in parking lots in case it feels unsafe or if they do not allow overnight parking. That way you’re not scrambling for a Plan B.
How do you get water on the road?
This can be one of the hardest logistics on the road. The most common places we find water are at gas stations, travel centers like Flying J or Pilot, and rest areas (some have free dump stations with water). If we’re unable to find water for free, we will sometimes ask RV parks if we can pay to fill up our water. Sometimes they let us for free, but sometimes it’s $5-$10.
How often do you grocery shop?
We grocery shop between 1-3 times per week. We cook every meal during the week and our fridge can hold a good week’s worth of food, but to have fresh veggies and protein we will shop multiple times per week. And sometimes we get a random food craving and decide to make something we didn’t plan and have to head to the store!
What do you eat in the van?
Despite what our videos portray, we typically eat pretty healthy and stick with mainly protein and produce when we are in the van. Most of our meals are some sort of ground meat, steak, or sausages with some vegetables on the side. We like to make salads, chili, soups, taco bowls, and our best knockoff curry dish.
Since we have limited space and stovetops, we try to cook as many one pot meals as we can!
Is it hard to have a routine?
Yes! This is probably the biggest challenge with van life. In a traditional living environment, you likely have a schedule, a specific grocery store you visit, a regular gym, etc. But on the road, we have to constantly seek out places to work, get food, do laundry, workout, and sleep.
While some days we can be parked on beautiful free land all day and work, workout, cook, and sleep, giving us some sort of stability and routine, most days we are driving all around town to accomplish the day’s tasks.
Those days look like: waking up early, teaching for VIPKid for a few hours, leaving the place we slept to find a park, coffee shop, or library to work at for the day. But we can’t stay there all day long, as it may be weird, so we’ll stay there for a few hours before leaving to do chores, like finding water, grocery shopping, etc. And then we find somewhere else to work for the rest of the day and workout, before having to figure out where to sleep.
Every day can look a little different and we sometimes have to move around a ton, so keeping a routine is tough.
Van life with a dog
Some of the most common questions we get are about traveling with a pup. Here is a glimpse into what it’s really like!
What is it like to live in a van with a dog?
We love having Kona in the van with us! But we will say, it does make van life a lot harder, as every decision we make is with her in mind. We have to constantly be aware of the temperature, if she is allowed somewhere, and how long we can leave her. We share a lot more about how we travel with a dog in this blog post!
Besides those factors, one of the biggest challenges about traveling with Kona is her behavior. She is such a sweet, loving, and cuddly pup (most of the time) and we love her more than anything. And while she does great in the van and loves the van, take her out of the van and she can be a bit unpredictable and a huge handful.
Kona has some reactive tendencies and can be fearful of other dogs and strangers, as well as skateboards, rollerblades, and bikes, which means we constantly have to be on alert for “scary” things. She is the type of dog that needs someone’s full attention 100% of the time, which can make it a bit stressful at times to have her with us. But even with the challenges, we couldn’t imagine traveling without her and have so much fun taking her on adventures!
What do you do with Kona when she cannot go somewhere?
We have a whole blog post on this subject—check it out here! But the short answer is that she is either in the van, in an Airbnb, or with a sitter. The answer depends on the temperature and how long we need to leave her.
What does Kona do while you’re driving?
While we are driving Kona stays in her kennel (aka “kenny”), which is right behind our seats. She loves it in her kenny and normally sleeps the entire time!
How do you take Kona to the vet?
We try to get her annual visit and vaccinations done when we are in Austin and thankfully haven’t had to take her to a vet while traveling. But if we did, we would find one that accepts traveling patients or an animal hospital and take her there. We recently got Embrace pet insurance for her in case we do have anything come up. Thankfully we have never had to use it, so we can’t fully speak on it, but we have heard it really can come in handy!
Our relationship + family
In this section we’re sharing how van life has impacted the relationships in our life, including our own.
How has van life changed your relationship?
Van life has honestly brought us even closer! It takes a special relationship to live in a tiny van together, but we’re truly the best of friends and love being together 24/7. We’ve been able to see and do so much together, create so many memories, as well as had to conquer van life challenges together, which has made us more of a team.
What do you do when you have an argument or want alone time?
This doesn’t happen very often at all, but the few times we have had arguments or get annoyed with each other, Adam will usually take Kona for a walk or he’ll go for a walk himself. We can also get “space” from each other if one person sits in the front of the van and one sits in the back.
What do your friends and family think about your lifestyle?
Everyone is very supportive! They may not all understand or want to do it themselves, but they have all been excited for us. Heck, my dad helped us for 7 months on the build! (THANK YOU dad!)
We will say though, it’s hard to relate to people living a traditional life at times. We have such unique struggles that our friends and family may not understand, so finding friends in the full time travel community has been very helpful, fun, and fulfilling!
Do you miss having a static home close to friends and family?
We do not miss having a static home, although we do use my parent’s house in Austin as our home base if we need a break from traveling to crank out work, or if there is a pandemic. 😉 And while we do miss friends and family, we are thankful to have friends and family located all around the US and have actually seen people more often now that we are on the road!
The best and worst things about van life
Now that we have shared almost every aspect of van life, from how we do chores, the costs, and more, we thought we’d share some of the best and worst things about the lifestyle.
What’s the best thing about van life?
The freedom! We love the ability to call any place “home” and change our location as often as we’d like. Decide we want to head to the East Coast for a couple weeks? We can do that!
We also love having our physical home with us anywhere we go. Unlike when we would travel around the US before and stay in Airbnbs, feeling like a guest, we now always have our own home and all of our personal belongings with us, which gives us a feeling of comfort and stability, even as we do move around a lot.
What is the worst thing about van life?
To be honest, there isn’t much to not like about van life, but it’s all about your expectations. If you’re looking for an easy going, stress free lifestyle that is very structured and predictable, then this isn’t the life for you. But if you’re looking for freedom, exploring new places, okay with being uncomfortable sometimes, can be adaptable, don’t mind smaller spaces, and value experiences over material items, then you will love van life!
We truly love it and it has been the best decision we have made. But we do want to stress it’s not always easy, glamorous, or fun. For us, since we have to work full time, we cannot live in a vacation mindset, which is hard to adjust to at first. You’re constantly in new places and wanting to explore, but we get to explore maybe 1-2 days a week. It can be frustrating when you’re in a gorgeous place and want to hike, but have to work from a Walmart parking lot instead.
The way we explain it is that our life is basically the same as before, with work, chores, and other adult things, but we now just move around and get to be in different places on the weekends. And your routine may change constantly, which we shared more about above.
Our future with van life
A common question we get is around our future with van life and if/when we plan to settle down. Here are our honest answers!
How long do you plan on living in the van?
To be honest, we have no idea! We are loving living in the van and have only barely scratched the surface of what we want to see and do in the van in North America so we have no intentions of stopping anytime soon!
We can see ourselves doing this for years, with international trips (via plane) mixed in as well. Once we can travel abroad again our ideal plan would be to spend 1 month abroad then 3 months in the van.
What is your plan after van life?
Our goal is to travel as much as we can, for as long as we can. While right now we don’t have a desire to settle down, we have talked about buying some land in the PNW and building a tiny/small house on it or living abroad someday. Our plan is to keep the van as long as possible, so even if we do buy property we would want to have the van to travel in part time!
We hope that this blog post answered any of your major questions about van life. Have a question we didn’t answer? Let us know below or email us at hello (at) adventuresofaplusk (dot) com.