For many free spirits and adventure seekers, the idea of living in a van and traveling across the country is an enticing one.
The allure of the open road, stunning landscapes, and nomadic living is undeniably tempting. However, van life is not without its challenges and downsides. As the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed. Here are the 9 biggest pitfalls to avoid when embarking on the van life journey.
Mistake #1: Choosing the Wrong Van for Van Life
The foundation of the van life is, well, the van itself! Choosing the right van for your needs is crucial, as it will be your home on wheels. Many opt for cargo vans like the Ford Transit, Chevy Express, or Mercedes Sprinter. Key factors to consider are:
- Size – Will you be living solo or with a partner? Need space for gear? Bigger isn’t always better for maneuverability.
- Customization – Do you want to do a DIY camper van conversion or prefer a pre-made camper?
- Budget – Used vs. new, and associated maintenance costs.
- Features – AWD, clearance, mpg, and other practical considerations for your travels.
Choosing a van not suited for long-term living and frequent travel can quickly lead to frustration and limitations down the road.
Mistake #2: Not Considering the Costs of Living in a Van
Life on the road is less expensive than traditional living with a mortgage/rent, but expenses still quickly add up. Budgeting for recurring monthly costs is essential:
- Vehicle payment (if financing)/registration/insurance
- Gas for travel and generator
- Food, household items, pet supplies
- RV park fees, dump stations, etc.
- Maintenance and repairs – tires, oil changes, parts
- Entertainment subscriptions – cell phone, internet, streaming
- Rainy day fund – minimum emergency savings buffer
Creating a detailed monthly budget and tracking spending is vital for long-term financial sustainability. Apps like Mint help tremendously.
Mistake #3: Not Considering a DIY Van Build
Pre-built camper vans can be pricey. Some opt to save money by doing DIY camper van conversions themselves or hiring a shop. Key benefits include:
- Cost savings – supplies and labor for a custom build are less than buying pre-made
- Customized layout to your unique needs
- Ability to choose your own components like solar, plumbing, insulation, etc.
- Add your own personal flair with decor
Helpful resources for DIY builds:
- DIY Van Kits – modular components for self-assembly
- FarOutRide – guides on electrical, plumbing, cabinetry, and more
- CheapRVliving – DIY guides and tutorials
Mistake #4: Bringing Too Much Stuff
Living in a small camper van means you need to pare down and be very selective about your belongings. It’s easy to underestimate how quickly limited storage space fills up. Take an objective look at your possessions and ask:
- Do I really need this for day-to-day living?
- Have I used this in the past 6 months?
- Is there a multi-use substitute I can bring instead?
Stick to the essentials you use frequently. You can always acquire more gear during your travels if needed.
Mistake #5: Improper Planning for Power Needs
Most camper vans are equipped with solar panels to harvest power and charge onboard batteries. Understanding your electrical needs is key to building a properly sized system:
- What appliances/electronics will you run? Mini-fridge? Laptop? Fan?
- How many hours per day will they need to operate?
- What capacity battery bank is ideal? 100Ah? 200Ah?
- How many watts of solar charging capacity is recommended? 300W? 500W?
Sketch out your electrical load calculations before installation to avoid issues down the road. Invest in quality deep-cycle batteries to maximize solar harvesting.
Mistake #6: Not Considering the Living Space
Adapting to small space living is the largest adjustment when transitioning to van life. Consider how you will optimize the layout and design smart storage solutions for clothing, gear, food, etc. Test out organizing systems before hitting the road.
Other small space tips:
- Use vertical space on walls for shelving, cabinets, and storage hammocks
- Go for lighter, neutral colors to make the space feel bigger
- Don’t bring more furniture than you need – tables, chairs, and beds take up precious square footage
- Add personal touches like photos, cozy textiles, and ambient lighting to make it feel homey
Mistake #7: Not Having a Rainy Day Fund
Life throws unexpected curveballs. Having an emergency savings fund is essential when living on the road without a fixed address. Recommendations:
- Save enough to cover at least 3 months of fixed living expenses.
- Keep cash reserves for unexpected repairs like transmission replacements or blown tires.
- Have a backup plan for lodging if your van becomes uninhabitable.
Stash your savings in an online bank like Ally so you have access to it anywhere, even on the road.
Mistake #8: Assuming You Can Live Anywhere
The idyllic image of parked vans with stunning natural backdrops makes it seem you can live out of your vehicle anywhere. In reality, there are rules and restrictions governing where you can dwell or camp. Avoid fines by doing ample location research:
- Know the laws on overnight parking – Walmart parking lots often permit it.
- Check free campsite and Boondocking databases.
- Obtain camping permits and reserve sites when required.
- Never trespass on private property without permission.
Apps like The Dyrt, Campendium, and RV Parky are fantastic resources for scouting locations.
Mistake #9: Having No Work Lined Up
Living the nomadic dream still requires income to fuel your adventures. Lacking steady work can quickly drain your savings. Options for making money on the road:
- Explore seasonal jobs like resorts, parks, or ski areas.
- Search for remote work options to bring income along.
- Monetize a website, blog, online course, or social media.
- Pick up freelance gigs along your travels
Bank some funds from your old 9-5 job before taking off. Always have a backup work option or emergency return fund in case you cannot find road employment.
Van Life 101 Tips for Success
Beyond avoiding pitfalls, cultivating habits and skills ensures an epic van life journey:
- Stay organized – Labels, bins, and regular cleanups keep clutter at bay
- Stay connected – Invest in connectivity options for internet access
- Maintain hygiene – Utilize gyms, outdoor showers, and cleaning hacks
- Prioritize safety – Learn basic roadside repairs, first aid, and carry protection
- Embrace the lifestyle – Slow down, go with the flow, and enjoy van perks
- Be flexible – Sometimes plans change; adapt and see where the road leads you
At the end of the day, a happy and fulfilling van life is all about the mindset you bring to the journey. Stay open, adventurous, and grateful for this incredible opportunity.