I am a van-dweller. AMA!

If you’re not familiar with IAmA on reddit, it’s when someone says who they are and encourages users to AMA, or “Ask me anything.” It usually looks something like this:

I am a van-dweller who has lived in a minivan-turned-camper for 2+ years while traveling full time. AMA

There are so many questions we get about the miscellaneous ins and outs of van living that we thought we’d dedicate a whole post and comments section to your questions. So ask me and Chris anything! We’ll start with some questions we’ve gotten from our email subscribers and friends on Facebook.


Did you use a particular checklist when selecting your van? Did you buy it used or new?

We bought it used. We knew we wanted it to be new enough that it wouldn’t have major mechanical problems. We also knew we wanted to be able to fold down/remove all the second- and third-row seats, and it needed to be reasonably big enough. We test drove an old Mazda MPV, but the high mileage combined with lack of cargo space made it a no-go. We also checked out a Dodge Grand Caravan, but it felt sorta rickety. Honda Odysseys and Toyota Siennas are great, but out of the price range. Then we found good ol’ Red Delicious at a nearby dealership and the rest is history.


Have you had any cultural clashes rolling into one town or another?

No clashes, per se. But sometimes it is painfully obvious that we’re not from around these parts, especially in small towns in the deep south with our California accents and North Face jackets. People are generally nice and interested in meeting new people, especially if you ask them about their life and town. We take our outsider status seriously, and almost try to behave like we’re ambassadors or something. Basically don’t be Ryan Lochte.


What are your favorite podcasts to listen to while driving?

Planet Money (economics), Backstory (history), How I Built This (entrepreneurship) and My Dad Wrote a Porno (comedy).


When do you miss being in a traditional home or being in one place for a long period of time? What’s lost and gained?

It sucks living in a van when a) you want to hang out with friends, because you’re too far away, b) you’re feeling sick, and c) it’s raining. Overall the biggest loss is that you have less of a community. But the gain, besides adventure and getting to know new places, is adaptability. Living outside your comfort zone keeps you on your toes!


I just had a conversation about how in some places it’s just so obvious to see white people in management and people of color in service roles. Where do you see that and where don’t you see that?

In the South, for example, we’ve seen white people, African-Americans and Latinos in service roles. Not to downplay race issues at all, but on this issue the unifier is economic class.


How do you make art or learn new skills on the road?

Van travel would be great if you’re a painter or photographer because you’re constantly seeing beautiful new places and people. Or perhaps a documentary filmmaker. Sometimes we wish we’d set out to do a HONY-style series. Neither of us consider ourselves artists, but being by a campfire is a quiet, contemplative time perfect for art-making or learning new things. Chris will sometimes whittle and Tamara has been learning ukulele. Something you can do that requires minimal equipment and YouTube videos is ideal.


What makes for the perfect pee jar?

A tall, narrow container with a wide mouth and screw top. We use plastic roasted-peanut jars. The only thing that would make them better is if they weren’t clear.


The “In-N-Out” of screwing in a fast food parking lot: an informative guide.

Quietly. And NOT in a fast food parking lot. And definitely not with a light on while it’s dark out, especially if you’re in a tent.


I have always been super interested in the gender dynamics of your van life and van life culture in general!

Exploring is a stereotypically masculine desire, even though in reality lots of ladies have wanderlust. Living in a van means letting go of a lot of female gender expectations. A lot of guys say their female significant other wouldn’t last a day without their hair dryer/comfy bed/etc., and the woman emphatically agrees. Girls are raised to be pretty, clean and responsible for the home, but what happens when courage and assertiveness are more important and there is no home? Tamara tends to be the one who straightens up the van, but it’s because she likes it. Chris tends to cook more, but we both share dishes, wood chopping, etc.


Is van living environmentally sustainable?

Van-dwellers tend to use a lot less water and electricity, but probably more gasoline. The good news is our van is only five years old, so it’s relatively fuel efficient. And if you can get a solar panel installed in your van, you’re really doing good.


Do you stay in KOA campsites?

In the beginning, we stayed at KOAs more, but now infrequently. They are SO EXPENSIVE and often more like Chuck E. Cheese than nature. We got turned away from a KOA a couple weeks ago. There was a thunderstorm and the state park we headed to didn’t have late check-in and the gates were locked. We headed to the KOA because they all say they welcome late arrivals. When we got there, the guy said we couldn’t have a tent site unless we slept in the tent. We said, “Look, we have a tent, but we’d rather sleep in the van because it’s raining.” He said, “I don’t make the rules.”


Have a different question? Hurry on down to the comments!

  16 comments for “I am a van-dweller. AMA!

  1. 2017-03-26 at 9:32 am

    This is very informative. Van dwelling is not base two of our early retirement plans. First we will cycle around the US (and beyond?) for a few years, then to the van.
    Mrs. Grumby has a question: what do you do about jury duty? Have you gotten a summons to serve since you began roaming?


    • 2017-03-26 at 9:34 am

      Oops, typo!…. van dwelling is phase two…..

      • Tamara & Chris
        2017-03-26 at 9:42 am

        Great question. Surprisingly, we have only received a jury summons once. It was for Chris and it happened to be scheduled when we were abroad, so he had no problem telling them that. It is possible that you’d have to reschedule your jury service to a future date when you could serve, but it’s an important civic duty, right? I think you have to just figure it out based on the timing. If you’re on a bike across the country and would have to pay airfare to appear, it seems like you’d be granted an excuse! Hope this helps. 🙂

  2. 2017-03-26 at 9:52 am

    Hi Tamara,
    That’s so cool that you got that note from one of your blog fans!
    Related to the jury summons question – how do you manage snail mail & make sure that you receive important correspondence?

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-03-26 at 3:05 pm

      GREAT question, Mrs. G! First, do your best to get rid of as much snail mail as possible. You can’t get rid of it all, but opt in to as much as you can that’s paperless, like statements. We are big fans of virtual mail services. They receive your mail and email you an image of the envelope. Then you can either have it forwarded someplace, have the contents scanned and sent to you, or shredded. They’ll even deposit checks! Here’s more info: http://www.nomadswithavan.com/make-world-office/

  3. 2017-03-27 at 6:13 am

    Thanks! Great recommendation. Not a bad fee and love the check deposit feature.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-03-27 at 6:17 am

      Glad to help! And yes, the fee is really manageable (we are fine doing the smallest plan) and it beats wearing out the welcome of a friend or family member. 🙂 I will say that there are two places where we cannot use the address we have through Virtual Post Mail: the DMV (for car registration and our driver’s licenses) and voting. We use Chris’ parents’ address as our “permanent” address.

  4. ysabellaw
    2017-04-02 at 8:16 pm

    Tamara and Chris, I’m having fun catching up with your backlog of posts while following your journals. Here are two AMA questions for you: what does your monthly food budget look like when you’re car camping? Have your picked up any new tools, apps, personal practices that are already improving your lives this year? I’m a new nomader myself and find your suggestions and exploits a good mix of practical and fun.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-04-03 at 7:50 am

      Great questions! We budget about $1K for food for the two of us every month, which comes out to roughly $30/day. Some people would say that’s a lot, but honestly we bust that budget often. That’s meant to cover groceries and eating out, like restaurants or snacks at coffee shops. And it includes alcohol. Could we spend less on food? Yes, but we LOVE going out to eat in new places. And on a day like today, when it’s thunderstorming, the idea of cooking outside is not appealing. Things we do to try to keep within budget: 1) Eat breakfast at camp, usually oatmeal/cereal and fruit. 2) Pre-make sandwiches in the AM so we can have them for lunch wherever we are. 3) If we’re going to eat out, eat out for lunch when possible because it’s usually cheaper. 4) Eat out at places where we wouldn’t be able to make the food they serve by ourselves easily. 5) Do meal planning, i.e. Try to plan a couple meal ideas that use similar ingredients for the week so you don’t end up with waste.

      As for things improving our lives this year, we’ve started tracking our expenses in Mint semi-religiously, which helps us better track and analyze our spending. Lately we’ve been taking on more house sitting and work exchange assignments, which get us interesting experiences and a unique way to get to know new people and new places. And finally, we’ve been trying to do better about planning work time and fun time so we’re balancing both. It helps us if we stay somewhere for more than just a couple days, that way we’re not stressing about seeing everything while also having to get work done.

      Hope this helps! Would love to hear what you’re learning and experiencing as a new nomad. Happy travels 🙂

  5. Chris
    2017-05-15 at 7:34 pm

    Hello. I’m curious to know what is your mattress set up. I read that you use two toppers. Would you share the thickness of the toppers please? I’m looking for the happy medium, enough cushioning in my van, but enough headspace too. Thank you 🙂

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-05-16 at 6:01 am

      Great question! We wanted to have a good amount of headspace in the van, plus we wanted it to be easy for us to convert it back into a car that can seat passengers in the bench seat in the back, so we didn’t want to build a heavy platform. On the floor of the van, the layers look like this:

      Bottom layer: The sleeping pads we use when we tent camp (both for cushion and for storing them)
      Middle layer: Basic egg crate foam pad (about 1.5″ thick)
      Top layer: Memory foam mattress topper (about 1.5″ thick)
      Protective covering: Old bed sheet tucked around the sides

      It’s not as soft as a bed, but definitely softer than sleeping on the ground in a tent. Good luck! 🙂

      • Chris
        2017-05-16 at 10:43 am

        Thank you very much for the quick response. I’m excited about starting my van adventure very soon. All the best 🙂

      • Chris
        2017-05-17 at 12:54 am

        Thank you for the info. Much appreciated. All the best on your adventures.


  6. vanadieu
    2019-02-28 at 7:14 pm

    I think thats crazy that they turned you away because you didnt want to sleep in a tent in the rain! I have heard of this before as well, in fact many van life people will just set the tent out and then not actually sleep in it! Thanks for all the great advice! Annette of http://www.VanAdieu.com

  7. Tom
    2019-05-26 at 7:00 am

    Hello, are you still checking this site? If so, I am thinking of doing a 2 plus year van trip. First, Tamara how did Chris talk you into this adventure? Second, are there places people on these adventures meet and exchange stories and ideas?

    Thank you,


    • Tamara & Chris
      2019-05-26 at 9:55 am

      Hi Tom: Glad to hear you’ll be hitting the road!

      Sorry to break it to you, but you’re wrong to assume Chris talked me into van travel. It was my idea! The decision to leave life as we knew it and start traveling (pre-van) was a joint decision though that came after months of the two of us each stating our dissatisfaction with the life we’d built. But what was important was we both made it clear that it wasn’t dissatisfaction with each other — rather, a desire to do something totally different together. If two people want totally different things out of life though, I’m not sure how to make that work.

      Unfortunately we never found much of a community while van traveling, but I think RVers — particularly full-time, retired folks — travel together and meet up. And I think people who fix up VW Westfalias get together. There are message boards and sites like Reddit where people share advice, but I don’t know of in-person meet-ups. Hopefully they exist now — lack of community is what ultimately drove us to stop traveling full time.

      Best of luck to you! Hope you find our experiences and advice useful.

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