How to Start Van life: The Ultimate Guide + Tips on How to Get Started

The Ultimate Guide + Tips

Are you considering van life and want to know more about it? Have you heard that it’s the ultimate adventure and a great way to live sustainably and carefree, traveling all over the country?

I get it, as these are some of the same reasons I want to escape the confines of traditional living (at least part-time) and get out on the road.

My husband owns his own Fractional CTO company and is sadly stuck on Zoom calls making van travel a little impractical for him at this stage of his career. I’m a professional photographer, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how I wanted my children to experience the world in a whole new way.

So, this article is the ultimate guide on how to start van life, with the pros and cons of living in a van so you can answer the question, is van life for me?

Plus, I’m throwing in some helpful tips on how to start living in a van and answering all your questions.

What is Van Life?

Van life is an alternative lifestyle where people reject the confines of traditional life to live a simple, minimalist lifestyle experiencing the world in a different way.

Many feel that kids don’t play outside in this tech-driven world anymore, and we are all glued to our smartphones and electronics. I want my daughters to connect with nature and experience learning in a whole new way whenever it’s possible.

For many people, van life is a way of life representing freedom and a real van life adventure, but for most people, it’s a way to take back control of your life and do the things that truly matter.

camper van parked in field

Why You Should Start Living in a Van

There are so many reasons you should learn how to start living in a van. Van life teaches you how to live a simpler minimalist lifestyle and gives you the freedom to travel where you want, when you want.

You can spend more time in nature – more national parks, yes, please! 

Plus, you can be location independent and live a nomadic lifestyle and save money while you do it. If you decide to learn how to start van life full-time, you won’t pay for many utilities or large monthly rents.

No two days are the same as van life which can be fantastic if you fully embrace the unknown. And it allows you to focus more on your hobbies, whether that’s surfing, hiking, playing music, writing, or art.

Now for the things you need to know about how to start van life.

The Ultimate Van Life Guide

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty about van life’s pros and cons, including the costs of this nomadic lifestyle. I also want to answer the most common questions I see related to how to start van life.

How Much Does It Cost to Start Living in a Van?

The cost of living in a van is often much cheaper than paying a mortgage and utilities. But there are several questions to ask yourself that can help you understand how much the cost of living in a van per month is.

Will you be living this alternative lifestyle full-time or part-time?

Do you plan on being on the road for short periods of time or all you round?

What is my budget?

First, you need to determine what your budget is. How much do you have to spend buying a van or outfitting one, and what can you afford for monthly bills. Once you determine a budget, you can look at necessities versus the things you would like to have.

Travel plans can save you time and money if you’re super organized. And analyzing your spending habits and monthly spending can help you determine where you can cut things out and eliminate expenses.

Downward view of welcome mat and shoes

Where do I plan on staying?

This is another area where making travel plans can help you.

Are you staying in an RV park, camping in national parks, rest area, truck stop, BLM, boondocking, or parking overnight in a parking lot like Walmart, Cracker Barrel, or Cabelas? There are plenty of options for places to stay.

Many people learn with van life that sometimes it’s worth paying for campsites as they are great places to take advantage of Wi-Fi, take showers, and stock up on fresh drinking water.

Plus, if you’re visiting a place like New York City, it’s worth paying for a hotel or Airbnb instead of driving around looking for a place to stay for free.

Unless you’re way out in the boondocks, there are always convenient places to stay close to gas stations and areas with amenities you can use.

How much storage space do I need?

The amount of storage you need will directly impact how big a van you need and/or the modifications you need to make. Vans have limited space.

Am I traveling with a pet?

Is a pet coming with you on your adventures? Pets need to be comfortable, too, and pet supplies will take up space and affect your costs. 

Do I need a toilet, sink, or shower?

The bathroom situation is huge! Some people need a hot shower every morning. Some people put a full bathroom in, and after living van life for a while, they find they have plenty of standard options for using the toilet like gas stations, gyms, grocery stores, malls, libraries, truck stops, and more.

If you can’t live without a hot shower, you may want to install a way to do this in your van. Or you can do road trip planning to make sure you always have a truck stop, planet fitness membership, or another type of place with shower facilities close by or stay in an RV park.

inside view of camper van

How will I power my electronics?

One of the first things to figure out is what you need to charge and how you will do it. Many vanlifers think they need a giant electrical system to run hair dryers, microwaves, ACs, kitchen appliances, etc.

But instead of investing in a pricy solar system, consider cooking with gas, buying an energy-efficient fridge, and charging your electronics at businesses you find along the way.

Am I going to work in my van?

Will you be working on the road? If so, you likely need internet and a place to work, although that can be as simple as using a folding tray or lap desk.

You have plenty of options for freelancing jobs that you can do no matter where you are if you want to ditch your traditional job.

Laptop sitting on table for work

What cooking setup do I need?

How do you plan on cooking on the road? Some of the most common options to consider when you’re looking at how to start van life include:

  • Camping ovens
  • Portable camping stoves
  • Induction burners
  • Cooking over campfires

Some people even put ovens in their vans. But your monthly expenses may include fuel and buying things like fresh water and groceries.

Other Cost Considerations

It also depends on where you plan to wash your clothes. Are you staying at RV parks with laundry facilities, or will you use a laundry mat?

You’ll also have the upfront costs of making essential van life purchases and buying a van ready to travel in or buying one and making custom modifications. You can spend thousands of dollars on top of the price of a van to customize it for your needs.

We love our Winnebago Solis Pocket, but there are plenty of other options for van life like a Mercedes Sprinter van, Chevy Express, VW bus, Ford Transit, a school bus, and many more common options.

A Mercedes Sprinter van is a common one that vanlifers like, but you can compare all the most common options. The average camper van can cost anywhere between $70,000 to over $100,00 for a new one.

There will be some monthly costs like RV insurance, van life internet, and 

Van life is not a magical strategy for spending no money. It’s important to understand that you will have some expenses. It would be tough to figure out how to start van life with no money.

But you can be frugal and save a ton of money if this lifestyle is for you.

How Much Should I Save Before Van Life

I hate to keep saying it depends, but it does. How many people are going to be living the van lifestyle? Is it just you, you and your spouse, or your whole family?

Also, will you be transitioning to a freelance job that lets you work from anywhere? You’ll need some income to pay your bills, even if it’s just a part-time job.

If you only plan to travel a short time each year, you’ll still be saving money if you’re not making a huge mortgage payment. And even if you are, van life vacations cost way less money over time.

Experts on the nomad lifestyle say that saving $10,000 per year for each person is a good rule of thumb.

Pros and Cons of Van Life

So, of course, a common question I see is what are the downsides to van life as well as the pros.

Pros to Van Life

  • Flexibility and freedom to travel where you want to when you want to
  • Meeting new people
  • Save money
  • Focus on hobbies and things you love to do
  • Live a simpler, minimalistic nomadic lifestyle
  • Unplug from urban living and everyday life
  • Spend more time in nature
  • You can roadschool your kids
  • Meet people with similar interests on the road
  • New and exciting experiences

Cons to Van Life

  • You’ll deal with hot weather and cold weather
  • Learning how to start van life can be a lot of work
  • You’ll have to deal with the unexpected and new situations
  • Hot showers are less frequent unless you stay someplace like an RV park
  • Unreliable cellphone service and Wi-Fi
  • You’ll spend more time in public bathrooms 
  • Visiting dump stations will become a chore you don’t like
  • Limited space
  • Van life can get messy
  • You need to have a backup plan for breakdowns
Woman with food camping outside

Tips on How to Start Van Life 

Here are a few tips on starting van life the right way.

1. Give the Lifestyle a Test Drive

If you’re wondering if being a vanlifer is a good idea, you can test drive it! Before you give up your house, make sure you test drive the lifestyle for more than a weekend.

2. Start with A Mechanically Sound Van

It can be tempting to want to buy the cheapest van possible when you’re trying to figure out how to start van life. But it can be a mistake to retrofit a van and expect it to last for years.

Start with something mechanically sound, so you don’t spend a lot of money doing a custom rebuild and then need to re-do it a couple of years in.

3. Pay for Parking or Do Your Research

Finding legal, safe, and comfortable parking on the road is a chore. So, it always pays to do your research or pay for parking. Staying at an RV park can be worth the money.

4. Get Ready for the Ups and Downs 

Transition to van life can be difficult as it’s much longer than taking a vacation. You’ll get to travel to epic places, but daily tasks can become challenging. It’s perfectly normal to experience both highs and lows.

5. Start with No Expectations

While life on the road provides many Instagram photo ops along the way, you’ll also experience the everyday life moments too. 

6. Consider Investing in a Security System

Just like a traditional home needs to be protected, so does your van, as it’s doubling as your home. Simpli Safe is known as one of the best security options for vanlifers.

two girls sitting in doorway of camper van

Final Thoughts on How to Start Van Life

Now you know the pros and cons of living on the road in a van and what to expect. 

For me, the advantages of teaching my kids a sustainable way of life and roadschooling them are worth all the downsides of living in a van.

It offers freedom unlike any other way of life and can even help you save money while traveling all over the country. 

Start with no expectations and decide on a budget for monthly expenses to figure out what you can afford. Then determine what you can and can’t live without to figure out how much it will cost to transition to van life.

What are you most excited about thinking about traveling full-time on the road?

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