So You Think You Can #vanlife?

Realities of life in the van and how to make it great.

Social media’s gripping influence happens to the best of us. We find ourselves scrolling longingly through Instagram pictures of people doing far cooler things than us. The scent of greener grass lures us as we imagine winding roads disappearing beneath our hipster adventure vans decked out with too many hats and not enough gas.  Day after day, week after week, the call of the wild gets louder, itching us to finally commit to life on the road. “It’s time,” you whisper to yourself confidently from the confines of your cubicle. You’re right my friends, it is time. 


But before you put in your two weeks and kiss the parentals goodbye, I'd like to shed a little light on the road less hash-tagged. In my travels, I’ve gathered some valuable, noteworthy, first-hand observations to seriously consider before you start building out your mom’s old minivan and take aim for the horizon.  Life in a van is a bit more than growing out a mustache and turning the lux filter up to 100.

It’s (mostly) only Glamorous on Instagram

Photo by @mitch.cox #vanlifediaries

I know, I see all the pictures too. Adventure vans with attractive hippy girls splayed out across lovely linen sheets giving you the eye to come join in on the fun.  Bright colors everywhere, sunbursts popping through the corner of the windshield while the soft coastal winds brush her happy hippy hair in slow motion. Am I saying this kind of thing isn’t real? Of course not. What I’m saying is that her hair probably isn’t blowing in the wind as it’s begun to dread from weeks on the road and there’s a good chance she’s splayed out on the bed due to sheer exhaustion from an endless drive through who knows where. To top it off, every soul in the van is most likely hangry because the last meal shared was a polishing off of the peanut butter scraped from the walls of a Justin’s Nut Butter jar. Silver lining? It was Justin’s Nut Butter. Come on, find something worthy of complaint!  In a nutshell (see what I did right there?), there's a good chance the van life feels a lot more like this:

photo by

If it’s glamour you seek, look anywhere but here. There are no filters to make a shower appear out of thin air, no brightness adjustments to conceal the mess and smells of whatever you cooked last night. The clean, organized living space you started with will become a 65mph mess barreling down the freeway in 15 seconds flat (literally and figuratively… van’s aren’t fast bro). Sorry to break it to you but glamour rarely resides in 50ft/sq homes.  There’s a good chance you’ll curse your decision from time to time - McDonald’s bathrooms, too cold, too hot, the one towel you own is dirty, you’re (still) hundreds of miles from where you’d rather be. On the other hand, you’ll most definitely look back on these moments as some of the greatest experiences of your life, reminiscing often with warmth in your heart, a longing stare in your eyes and a mischievous grin on your face. 

Courtesy of @travisburkephotography

A piece of advice: When it comes to sharing your adventures, make sure to share the good and the bad, not just the glamour shot.  Get that stuff off your chest! Ask for advice on how to better your van living experience. Many have done it before you so if you happen to cross paths with old timers, pick their brains - chances are they’ve been cruising for far longer than you ever will and have discovered a few hacks along the open road! This ain’t no red carpet gala my friends. Thank heavens for that: I hate carpet.

I Know You Say You Love Adventure


Courtesy of@socalitybarbie

Let's be honest: adventuring is like, totally in right now and I get it, it sounds amazing. Adventure is such a, well, adventurous word! It can be used liberally to accomplish and encompass so many ideas.  Asking a special friend out on a date without having to call it a date, for one, and in so doing sounding far more exciting than most.  It can be used complimentarily: “Wow, you’re so adventurous!” Instead of actually deciding on an activity with friends, you’ll sound much cooler by just leaving it at “I don’t even care guys, I’m just so excited to go adventuring together!”  While this all sounds good, there’s another side of adventure that often gets overlooked...

Imagine that it’s 2:00am and you’ve been trying to van camp but what with the leaf blower tidying up Wal-Mart’s parking lot, the unmistakeable sound of grocery carts scraping across sticky asphalt and the homeless guy performing his best rendition of Stairway to Heaven, patience is wearing thin. Finally, the stars align and you get a break from the unpleasantries; sleep falls upon your weary eyes. The sheep calculator is up and running, your body finally relaxes and then, out of the quiet of the night: BOOM! BOOM, BOOM!

“Dude, there’s a ladder on the back!” You freeze. Why? This is now your home and someone is literally climbing upon your humble abode. “It’s the mystery machine bro hahaha!” No, it’s not the mystery machine, good sir. Kindly remove yourself from my van home.

Adventure, by definition,  is an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or act-ivity. It isn’t a hash-tagged photo of the back of your head as you stare at the ocean. True adventure is the embracement of the unexpected.  It’s not knowing if your van is going to make it to the next destination, picking up hitch hikers that turn out to be far stranger than you could’ve imagined.  Having to pee (or worse) so very badly but knowing that the adventure van isn’t equipped with a porcelain throne.

I’m not saying that adventure is all bad. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s one of those balance things: with the struggles come amazing moments that wouldn’t be appreciated otherwise. When the van devastatingly breaks down on highway 1, you’ll also be privy to a coastal sunset you would’ve surely overlooked. Though the hitchhikers are strange, you may come to find they are so hilarious that you end up laughing late into the night at their jokes and ultimately become lifelong friends. You will most definitely never forget the time you had to pee so badly while driving that you used a Redbull can as a toilet...  and severely overestimated the size of a Redbull can.

My point is this: Take the good with the bad. Laugh at the frustrations. Let it go… no matter what it is.  A great person once said that it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.

The Art of Necessity:

 Vanlife’s Hierarchy of 'What Do I Really Needs'


You’ve probably lived in a house for your entire life up to this point and because of that have had the privilege of keeping whatever has entered it.  Whether that stuff has taken center stage or is purged to the back shelf in the utility closet, you’ve no doubt had some nook or cranny available for its occupancy. Vanlife, however, is much like packing lightly for an adventure - it takes precision and care. Think of it as Ninja Backpack Jenga. During the selection process many questions will enter into your domesticated encephalon, including but not limited to:

“What should I pack for the black sand beach? It’s gotta be different than the white sand beach.”

“Will I really need this dancing hula girl dashboard ornament?” Is that even a question?

“Holy hot sauce!  Really though, I should probably bring this 120 ounce vat of Sriracha sauce.”

The whole need/want, wish I had/wish I didn’t bring struggle is real and can bring aspiring travelers to their knees. There is hope, though, and it all comes down to a piggyback of Maslow’s theory I refer to as The Hierarchy of What Do I Really Needs. 

 The Foundation

 I can’t live... if livin’ is without you. 


Just like 90’s pop music, we’re talking basic needs baby. Food, water, sleeping arrangements, safety. We’re talking about ground level business here, the stuff that keeps us alive and afloat, nothing more.  In a nutshell, this is what Maslow refers to as straight up survival swag - the stuff that squares us up with our quadrupedal friends. Make this the foundation upon which you build your van kingdom - put thought into what these needs are and effort into making sure they’re always available. Reality starts with the basics and if you can’t manage that, your vanventures will be as the quickly burning candle… and won’t last even through the night. 

The Core

It’s always better when we’re together.


Just as Jack Johnson swoons us away on a warm summer day, this is the bread and butter category - The stuff that just makes life better.  Walls, drawers, cups, trash cans.  I’m talking about the stuff that separates us from animals: utensils, towels, storage space, privacy arrangements.  You’re excited to get on the road, I get it!  Mere survival gets old though and sooner or later you’re going to want functionality, flow, organization.  You’re gonna want places to put the things you need, items to facilitate living life on wheels. Until you live in a van you won’t fully realize how many things are taken for granted, things that make life easier but seem so insignificant! Door knobs, non-slip cupboard flooring, cupboard magnets (unless you like seeing everything you love flying across the van when you decide to crank right into the nearest Whole Foods.) Instead, make your van journeys flow like smooth lyrics laid over soft guitar on repeat.

The Icing

You’re Makin’ My Dreams Come True!


Go ahead, sing the song. This is the happy category, afterall; the icing on the cake! As self-actualization sits atop Maslow’s need theory, I’d like to do him a solid and describe this category with his quote (slightly altered): “What a van can be, it must be.”  These are the ingredients that make her everything she can be: a real life adventure van! These items make it your own, keep you smiling when you’re feeling blue.  Do you dearly cling to a collector’s edition beanie baby that floats your boat?  No judgements here, all aboard! A blankie you’ve been cuddling for decades -to each his own! These are your happy things that will remind you of home when you’re far away from it; Nostalgic additions that’ll make the place feel cozy!  Tack up the crocheted ornament welcomingly inviting you to Take a Load Off, hang the guitar from the ceiling, and don’t ever, ever forget the frisbee.

Are We There Yet?!

Short story long, here’s my formal conclusion on the realities of living amongst the vanlifers: the road has taken many souls but I guarantee you’ll be off to a better start with these considerations in mind beforehand. Take the good with the bad.  Take the road less traveled. Heed some advice while completely ignoring the rest.  Be reckless and carefree but remember that you’ll likely need to cross the same bridge returning home so tread lightly. The world’s a big, small town so be wise in your dealings and kind in your passings. Most importantly of all: if you take care of your van, your van will take care of you.

Happy travels!