Van life isn’t for everyone. I mean, nothing is really for everyone because, incredibly, there are people who don’t like ice cream… or sunshine… or time off work… or Birkenstocks… or any form of fun, apparently. So you don’t need to read this article to know that there is a portion of the population who will not enjoy living in a tiny space with few possessions, doing without luxuries such as, I don’t know… electricity. In fact, you might as well stop reading now (just kidding, keep reading, it gets good later).
When I say that van life isn’t for everyone I’m addressing those who think they’ll love van life; those who have an idealistic fantasy about sticking their middle finger up to the nine-to-five for days or weeks or perhaps forever, escaping the stresses of the modern world in search of a simpler existence. Those who dream of leaving behind the ladle, the shower curtain, those clip things that keep bread bags closed, overdue hoovering, strangely coloured shoe polish that doesn’t match any of your shoes past or present, confusing water bills, bits of wrapping paper that are too small to be useful, and all the other crap you somehow accumulate when living in a house. Those who yearn to pick a place on the map and take off in a majestic house vehicle in the direction of the sunset, or, more likely, the direction of the place they picked on the map. Well, if you’re one of those people, as you’ve probably already guessed, I’m here to manage your expectations. Hi, yes, it’s Bella, we’ve met before.
“What do you know about van life,” you may be asking, “you look like someone who lives in a house.” Well, you’d be right for the most part. Until recently I’d only done the odd weekend away in a van in Wales or Cornwall, which was okay but not enough to get to the nitty-gritty; the lowdown; the G-O, you know? I’m now in New Zealand and moderately homeless. I spent the first three weeks living in my best friend’s van, the two of us embarking on an epic road trip from Christchurch to Auckland. I’ve been in this country for a month and already I’ve seen more mullets than I saw in the whole year in Australia. But that’s a story for another day. Let’s get real for a minute here. From this recent swashbuckling I think I know a little bit about living on the road, and, because I’m really kind and generous, I’m sharing my findings with you. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
To do van life you have to not be coy about getting dressed in public. I’m not talking getting your tits out in the middle of a shopping centre, because, I mean, why would you do that. I’m saying that when you live on the road sometimes you need to get out of the jeans you’re in and into shorts (for example). If you’re rather the ostentatious traveller you will probably have in your possession a large camper with loads of space to swap outifts, but when you live in a Toyota Estima (what a beast!) and it’s full of stuff because two of you live in it, that just isn’t possible. It’s easier and quicker to change, well, discreetly at the side of the road and hope that no one sees. The reality of this being that, actually, someone always sees. In fact, that’s how I frightened a couple of French-looking fellas one morning somewhere near Taupo.
For van life you have to be okay with going to the toilet in alfresco locations. The accessibility and condition of public bathrooms varies wildly – believe me when I say the bushes are sometimes a preferable option even if there is a loo available. Make sure you always bring the toilet roll.
It’s almost impossible to keep things dry when it’s wet outside. Keeping stuff clean is also a challenge, what with your constant proximity to the great outdoors, so don’t wear your best Gucci threads and despite your best efforts mozzies will always get in and, once in, never leave.
Good luck to you on rainy days if you are claustrophobic or suffer from cabin fever. You’ll need to find contentment while being trapped in a 1.5 by 3 metre space for hours (again; Estima. What a beast), sharing this space if there’s two of you, engaging in activities to amuse yourself that don’t involve electricity like reading, playing cards, and counting how many mosquito bites you accumulated in the night.
This is an obvious one, but if you’re living in a small space you won’t have much space for things. So I really am sorry to say you’ll have to leave behind the gramophone and the pot plants, as appealing as it is to bring a herb garden on your travels.
Living without effective refrigeration is annoying. You may want to give this careful consideration before embarking on your van life adventure because having milk powder in your coffee is a sacrifice comparable to losing an arm or never being able to turn right. On this trip even our UHT milk (that ever-nostalgic flavour of camping!) only lasted a couple of days. Alternatively, you could grow a few hairs on your chest and have your coffee black or you could also force yourself to drink clumpy, gone-off milk in your morning beverage because, well, I don’t have any other suggestions.
There’s an inverse logic where the smaller the space, the easier it is to lose all your things. Much of the time in van life the reason you’re forced to go without stuff is simply because you can’t find the bloody thing you put down literally seconds ago. I believe the stuff vanishes into a parallel universe where the reverse is true and the smaller the space, the harder it is to lose things.
Staying at campsites seems cheap at first but quickly gets expensive when you’re on the road for a sustained length of time. A balance between free camping (sites for self-contained vehicles with no facilities) and campsites worked well for us, but you have to be prepared to not shower as regularly as you’d like to admit if you go for this option.
If you’re road tripping in your van, keep the daily driving to between one and three hours. On a past road trip I tried to cover way too much ground so ended up being on the inside of a car for ten days instead of absorbing the cultural sights of France. The exception to this would be on days when the weather is bad, which is actually a good opportunity to rack up the kilometres, and for us meant that we ended up with a spare day to go exploring when the weather improved.
You don’t need to plan your route. Some control freak, organised types will want to plan every stop and campsite but I think you will gain more from making it up as you go along. If you can get past the stress of living in a space of constant uncertainty, you will find a sense of incredible liberation where your fate is woven into the fabric of unknown that is the foundation of the universe itself and it’s positively cosmic. And because I’m edgy and I live on the edge, I also did this trip with extremely limited funds, which adds another level of excitement and by excitement I mean stress. But then again, until you’ve travelled with no money you haven’t really lived; what’s not to love about eating cuppa soup for dinner while wondering how you’re going to pay for the next tank of petrol?
Speaking of petrol, it’s surprisingly easy to run out of it in places like New Zealand and Australia, which is something to keep in mind. Again, you haven’t truly felt alive until your car’s fuel gauge is hovering improbably below empty and you still have 50kms to go. Besides, “then we arrived safely without a hitch” doesn’t make for a good anecdote.
I advise bringing a map. I like maps because they’re old school and I guess I’m old school but it’s also unwise to rely on such 21st century voodoo as satellite navigation because it often doesn’t work. We’ve all been ‘Google Mapped’ at one point or another; that exciting scenario where you find yourself driving into what looks like a ravine with an alarming cliff edge on one side and the Grim Reaper on the other at quarter past why-am-I-still-awake in the morning, shouting at the Google Maps lady “Where the f@%k are you taking me?!” (it’s because that route is two minutes faster) which is generally something to be avoided, especially while on holiday.
So what have I gained from this van life experience, you know, apart from a load of cool stories and a moderate sense of achievement? I love camping, so staying and travelling in a van has felt like a luxurious upgrade, and it really is a phenomenal way to see a country. I have to say, living each day to the next with no plans or any idea what is happening tomorrow (or for the next few months, in fact) and little money is an effective way to feel like you’re really living. Van life is not conducive to that, but it certainly helps. Without the constraints of bricks and mortar you are freer, but things that are simple in a house are more challenging in a van and require a bit of planning ahead; do we have enough water, or is it too windy to use the gas burner here, for example. I’m back to dwelling in a house now and I’m astounded by the fact that there are different rooms to go in. Multiple rooms!
If I could do it all again, I would in a heartbeat. I think we absolutely nailed it on this trip and it has been good for my soul. Meandering through New Zealand in a van with my bezzie was how I spent the last little bit of 2018, which is a pretty bloody nice thing to do if you ask me.