Reflecting on two years of van life

It’s hard to believe, but we’ve been living the van life for TWO YEARS. Here we are, about to embark in January 2015. So fresh-faced and full of anticipation!

 

 

Since then, we’ve put 53,000 miles on Red Delicious. We’ve visited breathtaking national parks, hiked hundreds of miles, said tearful goodbyes to our best furry friend, prepared countless meals on a two-burner camp stove, struggled to find good showers, slept in Walmart parking lots, met lots of snowbirds, run businesses while on the road, and worked as farmhands and pet sitters in exchange for shelter.

It still feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface.

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I asked Chris the other day, What have we learned? This entire blog is a chronicle of what we’ve learned, but it was interesting to think about what has risen to the top.

If you’re on the road — or contemplating whether the van life is for you — here are some of our reflections on the past couple years.

It’s worth paying for camping.

It’s possible to camp for free, but we just don’t want to all the time. Because we work, it’s tough to free camp in faraway, Internet-less locations for long periods of time. And if we free camp in a city, it’s boring at night because we’re confined to the van. But we’ve gotten really good at finding inexpensive camping and doing things like house sitting for free accommodation. In 2016, we only spent $5,026 on campsites and accommodations!

For goodness sake, travel slowly!

If you’re not careful, van life can lead to major travel fatigue. Slow travel is the answer. When we’re spending every day behind the wheel for hours, we get depressed. When we’re in a different place every night, it feels like all we’re doing is looking for campsites instead of experiencing the place where we are. Slow travel allows you to explore, relax, exercise, and other things that are good for your well-being.

 

This campsite outside El Paso was remote enough to be peaceful and had great hiking, but we still had cell service and were only a short drive from town.

It’s amazing what you can live without.

If you told me five years ago that I would only have a handful of outfits and less than 100 sq. ft. for living, I would have laughed. I used to shop at Banana Republic as a hobbyBut it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice because of everything we’ve gained: adventure, independence, new perspectives and experiences. Our biggest challenge is now that we sometimes splurge too much on experiences, which is why we’re participating in the Uber Frugal Month Challenge.

Have a warm sleeping bag.

A sleeping bag that’s rated for 30 degrees F or less is essential. Our first year of van travel, we hit some cold snaps and had to grab motel rooms. I’ve since upgraded to a quality, down sleeping bag and am always warm and toasty.

 

Do these look safe to you?!?

 

Take care of your van.

When you travel full time in your van, you’re going to put a lot of miles on it. Things like tires and brake pads are going to wear out faster than you think. You’ll need oil changes more often, and it’s more likely you’ll end up with things like a chipped windshield. Be proactive about van maintenance!! We once drove 400 miles with our rear brake pads almost entirely gone because we thought the sound we heard “was nothing” and it hadn’t been long enough to need new ones. Also, get tires at a national chain with a warranty (we got ours at Costco) so you can have them serviced under warranty anywhere.

Everything in the van needs its place.

If you don’t know how to get organized, van living will be a crash course. Everything, and we mean everything, in the van needs to have a home. Spare batteries go in the pocket behind the passenger seat. Quarters for showers are in a plastic bag in the glove box. Wet bath towels dry on the hanger hooks in the rear of the van. Snacks go in the tin container in between the front seats. Shower flip flops sit on top of the milk crates, secured with a bungee cord. If you add something new to your van, find a routine place for it. Ignore this at your peril.

It’s important to take a break from the van.

Sometimes it’s nice to have a room somewhere. Don’t feel guilty about grabbing a motel, hostel or Airbnb. Or, try something different like house sitting, backpacking or international travel. Making the decision to live in a minivan doesn’t mean you’re locked into spending every night in it.

 

Staying entertained in the van during a thunderstorm

 

Keep your pee jar clean.

You never know when you’ll need it. Ladies, practice your aim.

Keeping food cool is a major pain in the ass.

Our last post was about van-friendly foods because we hate having to mess around with ice, especially in the summer. A bag of ice can cost anywhere from $0.99 to $3.99 depending on where you are in the country, and in hot weather you might need to replenish your ice daily or every other day. What a pain and waste of money! Yes, you can get coolers than plug in to a car’s 12V outlet, but then you have to be driving for it to work. Do what you can to minimize having foods that require refrigeration and you’ll be a lot happier.

 

A fun younger couple we met (and soon after parted ways with) in New Mexico recommended visiting Hueco Tanks State Park in Texas — we loved it!

 

It’s really tough to meet people.

Even when we’ve had the opportunity to meet other people our age, it’s only for a day or two and then we never see each other again. This is the hardest thing about van living: being without a community. Online community is OK, but it’s just not the same. We have yet to figure out a solution to this problem. I suppose we could start/join a caravan? Would we all want to do the same things and go the same places?

People don’t really care that you live in a van.

Some people think it’s cool, some people think it’s crazy. But no matter what their initial reaction is, it doesn’t take long for them to forget. My clients haven’t cared. Our friends and family know, but it has sort of faded into the background. So if you’re worried about what other people will think, just know that it will be great and/or horrible for maybe a month or two, and then people will forget all about it. Besides, it’s your life and it’s too short and uncertain to worry too much about what other people think.

There’s something special about every place.

While we definitely have favorite places, the most important thing we’ve learned in two years is that everywhere has something special about it. Even one of our least favorite places, Montgomery, Alabama with its confederacy statues, had a redeeming quality: a beautiful civil rights memorial. The saddest-looking town filled with strip malls and fast food will have a hidden gem, like an amazing taqueria or stunning old courthouse. Drive less than an hour from the desperation of the strip in Las Vegas and you’ll be surrounded by amazing red rock and solitude. And people, everywhere, are excited to show off where they live: the volunteer museum docents, the park rangers, the barbers, the folks at the coffee shop. Even if a place doesn’t make a great first impression, take a moment to look for something special and you’ll always be a happy traveler.

 

What will 2017 bring for us? We’re not entirely sure yet, but I’m sure whatever it is we’ll learn a lot. This afternoon, we start a two-week assignment as volunteer ranch hands in south Texas. Wish us luck!

  13 comments for “Reflecting on two years of van life

  1. Kevin
    2017-01-17 at 2:43 pm

    Practical smart suggestions and tips. You both are outstanding. Hope you can experiment with alternative cooling for a refrigerator. But you likely already did that.

  2. taminacan
    2017-01-17 at 8:26 pm

    Thanks for reading, Kevin! And alternate refrigeration ideas are always welcome. 🙂

    • Linda
      2017-01-18 at 11:29 am

      extra batteries just for the fridge? with maybe solar and/or electric chargers for the battery your not using? not sure if possible, but an idea. good luck! would love to know if you figure out this one! (-:

      • Tamara & Chris
        2017-01-18 at 1:28 pm

        Great idea, Linda. We haven’t invested in a house battery + solar panels, but it’s something we’re definitely thinking about. We’re just intimidated by the setup/install!

  3. 2017-01-17 at 9:20 pm

    Another informative post! I hadn’t even thought about the ice issue, but I will now. And your 2016 camping/accommodation expenses are going to make Mrs. Grumby drool with envy, or whatever one does when envious.

    Ron

    • 2017-01-17 at 9:41 pm

      Also, we can’t wait to hear about the ranch hand assignment.

      • Tamara & Chris
        2017-01-18 at 11:04 am

        Thanks, Grumbys! Yes, last year was a good year for housing expenses. Between house sitting, work exchanges, backpacking and staying with friends in their home exchange, we saved a lot of money. But, we also spent a lot of money traveling internationally, so it likely evens out a bit.

  4. 2017-02-04 at 10:01 am

    Congrats on two years in the van! Love these tips. I laughed at your “thought it was nothing” comment about the brake pads. We’ve learned through trial and error that those noises and quirks are always something!

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-02-04 at 10:17 am

      Hahaha yep, it’s aaaaaalways something 🙂

  5. Chae
    2017-03-02 at 8:44 pm

    Thank you for your informative post.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-03-03 at 7:43 am

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Sam
    2017-04-13 at 12:13 pm

    My girlfriend and I are about to make our first van purchase and dive head long into van life, this post only reaffirmed how much we both want to do this. The experiences, positive and negative, you have had are amazing learning tools for us!

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-04-13 at 12:37 pm

      Woo hoo! We’re so excited for you guys. You’ll have a great time. And even when you don’t, you’ll learn something. Happy travels and let us know if we can help with anything. 🙂

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