- I committed to van life years ago, and there are many downsides no one talks about
- It can get lonely on the road and dealing with the weather and dirt is tough.
- Figuring out healthcare and finding a sustainable community has been difficult.
Building, traveling, and even living in vans for years has changed my whole life.
It was just six years ago that I sat below fluorescent lights in an office with cream-colored walls scrolling through Instagram between meetings, envying the photos I saw: Healthy-looking, able-bodied young men and women in far-off beautiful places.
They stood triumphantly on van roofs besides the Tetons, they perched in open slider doors alongside the Grand Canyon, they laid in bed gazing through open back doors toward the California coast – these were the van lifers of Instagram, a trend that’s grown in popularity in years since, and rocketed to the moon since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
I look back on the expectations fondly, now having traveled in, worked on, built, and even lived in campervans for years. I was naive.
The wild part is, every beautiful image you see is true. The years I lived full time in my van, I slept under the Milky Way more nights than I could count. I spent a Christmas with far-flung friends who gathered in Joshua Tree to climb rocks. Morning coffees and mountain vistas became downright common. I’ve pooped looking at views most people only see in magazines.
But when it comes to the picture painted by hashtags and social media, just know the image is far from complete.
Here are 10 of the major downsides to van life no one mentions:
Van life is camping
People hardly consider what it’s really like to do camp chores every day.
No matter how nice your vehicle is, no van operates like a traditional home. Tasks like cooking, doing dishes, getting yourself clean, and keeping the place tidy are all a little more tedious, time-consuming, and often somehow never feel complete.
Everything is always dirty
Forget proximity to the outdoors – move into a van and the outdoors come to you.
If you cruise down a beautiful dirt road, everything you own will be caked in dust. If you spend a night under the evergreens, pine needles will wind up in your van. And if it rains (especially if you’ve got a dog), everything will be covered in mud.
Without a home base for that post-trip deep clean, dirt can be a little more anxiety-provoking than you’d expect.
Weather is a lot more extreme
When you’re out in it all the time, the weather can just feel more oppressive.
A sunny day can make a van feel like an oven really quickly. A subfreezing storm will make my fingers too cold to effectively type, even with my heater going all day.
One winter in Portland, Oregon, the damp conditions in my van (even with heat and good ventilation) caused every tool that I owned to get coated in rust.
You’ll get mail too late
I really thought I’d be prepared for this one. I had a private mailbox at Pony Express, I opted out of every physical piece of mail I knew existed, and still – there was a pile waiting for me when I made a trip “back home” to the Seattle area after being gone several months.
There’s always going to be some business, agency, or emergency that necessitates mail, and it can be tricky to get on the road. I even received a letter from the IRS indicating I’d been audited, and I missed my deadline to respond.
Healthcare can be difficult
Even with 90-day refills on necessary prescriptions and a pharmacy that exists nationwide, I ran into a surprising number of complications getting access to medications I need.
The one time I landed myself in an emergency room with a herniated disc paralyzing my right leg, I made the mistake of mentioning that I live in a van. I hoped this would motivate my provider and help them understand my urgent need for mobility but instead, I was handed brochures about sobriety and shelters when they should’ve spent this time putting me into an MRI.
Caring for a pet can get tricky
It’s not just my healthcare that got more complicated. When I picked up a puppy in Phoenix, I was shocked to find veterinary care was surprisingly difficult to organize on the road.
For example, starting vaccines in Arizona and finishing with boosters in Oregon complicated everything.
Changing spaces puts a toll on your nervous system
I coined the phrase “nervous-system tax” to describe the low-level sense of unease that would so often accompany me on the road.
Our psyches like familiarity and associate predictability with being “safe.” No matter how beautiful, adventurous, and wonderful changing scenery, climates, companions, and even parking spots can be, it’s still a tax on our nervous system.
Without a plan for soothing and restoration, it’s easy to find the finite bank going dry.
Scarcity is always present
From the amperage used to run lights to how many gallons of water it’ll take to wash dishes, when you live in a van, your resources are far more limited.
Having enough of everything you need to reach your day’s most important goals means living in a constant state of surveilling consumption and managing resources.
Breakdowns are more costly than repair
Traveling in a vintage Volkswagen, I knew breakdowns were part of the game. In my world of wrenching, they’re often part of the fun
But I hadn’t considered that when I needed a mechanic to help, I was also handing over my home.
Most shops aren’t keen about bringing in residents, so car shares and emergency rentals are often just part of the final bill.
A sustained community is hard to find
Life on the road is full of fascinating strangers, overnight friends, and even seasonal companions. The connections are deep and rich, but always fleeting.
I developed a romantic longing for relationships that are as deep as those on the road, but don’t always so swiftly end parting ways.