22 Reasons Why #VanLife Might Not Be for You

Van Life is a Lot of Work


Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.
Van Life is a Lot of Work

Van Life Revisited

You've seen it on social media. An endless stream of filtered selfies taken by people with smiling faces doing amazing things in exotic places. On the road. Wandering the territories. It's #VanLife — your ticket to breaking the chains of the 9-to-5 rat race and the crushing stresses of contemporary society, and all it takes is a modified van, a decent map, and a thirst for adventure. Actually, it takes a whole lot more than that. Once you talk to experts who have actually lived the lifestyle, the rosy-colored online pictures start to lose their luster. Many of those veterans wouldn't trade the van life for anything, but they're also keenly aware that it's not all fun, games, adventure, and freedom. If you're considering quitting your job, selling your stuff, and hitting the road, here are some things you might want to consider that the beautiful people frolicking on Instagram conveniently leave out.

Related: Creative Van Conversions to Simplify Life on the Road

You'll Frequently Need, But Not Have, a Connection

You'll Frequently Need, But Not Have, a Connection

John and Jayme Serbell have been traveling full-time in their converted Chevy van since April 2017. Their website gnomadhome.com is one of the web's top educational sites for building out custom campervans. They know how frustrating it can be to need data service, but not have it. "The internet has opened up a world of location-independent employment opportunities for van-lifers, and unlimited cell phone data plans allow for internet service on the go," John Serbell says. "But finding fast, reliable internet on the road can be a real struggle, especially since nearly all of the beautiful natural spaces have spotty or no cell service." The pair uses OpenSignal coverage maps to find wilderness camping with service or, in a pinch, they head to a parking lot or coffee shop.

Professional nurse at the hospital bandaging the hand with a medical bandage for a woman patient.

Health Insurance Gets Even More Complicated

Getting hurt or sick in the comfort of your own home is bad enough, but on the road, the stakes are raised. The van life is full of adventure, but adventure can be risky, and staying insured can be a struggle. "Health insurance on the road is a big issue," Jayme Serbell says. "Obamacare plans are expensive and only work in the state where you 'live,' so they aren't a real option." The pair recommends at least buying a hospital plan so you'll be covered in the case of an emergency or major health problem, and pursuing cash-up-front discounts that some private plans offer.

Related: 5 Tips to Save Money on Health Insurance

Breakdowns are Inevitable — and Often Expensive

Breakdowns Are Inevitable — and Often Expensive

After enough time on the road, breakdowns are essentially a sure thing, and if you're considering van life, you'd better get used to roadside headaches — and expenses. "Learning basic maintenance can help you avoid paying a mechanic to fix minor issues," says John Serbell. "Having a roadside assistance plan like AAA or Good Sam is great when you need a tow. But major breakdowns will happen, and we recommend maintaining a savings cushion to help cover things like that inevitable transmission blowout."

Van Life is a Lot of Work

Van Life Is A Lot of Work

A lot of aspiring van-lifers trace their wanderlust to their social media feeds and the endless images of carefree adventurers posting their envy-inducing pictures of life on the road. "Despite how it may seem on Instagram, van life is not all about adventures and relaxing in beautiful locales," says Jayme Serbell. "It takes a lot of work just to maintain this lifestyle — restocking food, water, and propane, finding places to sleep, setting up and breaking down camp, and driving from place to place all eat up a tremendous amount of time. It takes longer to do just about everything, and daily life involves constantly taking things out and putting them away. But you also don't need to spend time doing things you would do in 'normal' life, like commuting or mowing the lawn, so we think the trade-off is more than worth it."

Related: RVs and Camper Vans With Style for Miles

Nature is a Mother
Georgia Court/istockphoto

Nature Is a Mother

We're all at the mercy of the environment, but when you don't have the refuge of an actual structure, the elements gain an extra degree of control. "Van life is living in tune with the environment around you," says John Serbell. "No matter how you build out your van, there is a limit to how much you can actually control the temperature. Rainy days may keep you inside your small space. You will be hot, cold, damp, sweaty, and dirty, sometimes all at once. For many van-lifers, this is also part of the fun, and dealing with discomfort will teach you a lot about yourself. But if you're someone who needs daily showers and your space to be 72 degrees at all times, van life may not be for you."

It Can be Hard For Pet Owners

It Can Be Hard for Pet Owners

The Serbells have been traveling with their pups since they sold their possessions and quit their jobs for a life on the road. They've found that van-lifers who double as pet owners have their work cut out for them. "We love living in a van with our dogs," says Jayme Serbell. "That said, having a dog definitely limits you in some ways. Your dog's comfort should be your top priority, which means planning your travel around avoiding hot weather. Dogs are also not allowed on trails in national parks, so you'll be limited to driving tours. Whenever we want to do something where we can't bring our dogs, we usually find a local sitter on Rover.com."

Related: Traveling With Pets: 12 Need-to-Know Tips

Parking Can Be a Chore

Parking Can Be a Chore

Will Hatton, who has been on the road for nine years, is the owner, founder, and CEO of travel site Hotel Jules, as well as founder of the travel blog The Broke Backpacker. "Van Life can be great for so many reasons, but as with all things in life, there are a few downsides," he says. One of those downsides is finding a place to park a vehicle big enough to live in. "Daytime can be more difficult to find a place to park as the roads are busier and there are more traffic attendants around with an enthusiasm in issuing parking tickets," Hatton says. "In the nighttime, you are more susceptible to being moved on by the police."

You Have to Take Safety Precautions

You Have to Take Safety Precautions

Sleeping in a van can come with drawbacks that go far beyond boredom and claustrophobia. When you're parked, you're vulnerable. "You need to park in areas with a low risk of crime," Hatton says. "Theft and assault are more common than you think for vehicle inhabitants."

When Overseas, Compatibility Can be an Issue

When Overseas, Compatibility Can Be an Issue

Izzy Nicholls and Phil Kelly, who travel full-time in Europe, document their adventures in their travel blog, The Gap Decaders. They've been on the road for a year since selling their home and leaving their jobs for a life of adventure. They've found that while traveling through Europe in a van or RV probably sounds like a dream, repairs can play out more like a nightmare. "Things break," Nicholls says. "It can be difficult to get stuff fixed in a foreign country, or find the parts you need to do it yourself. One time, our bed broke, and it took months to get it repaired. We had to drive all over France with two orange Acrow props, which are designed to hold up buildings, holding up our bed."

Related: The Most Beautiful Mountain Road Trips in America

Plenty of People Frown Upon the Lifestyle

Plenty of People Frown Upon the Lifestyle

Many people not privy to the lifestyle can mistake van life for living out of a van. With many cities grappling with serious problems with homeless or vagrant populations living in vans or RVs out of necessity and not by choice, it's not always a welcome sight. "You can be cast as lazy, dirty, and, worse still, a criminal by the subconscious bias of the regular public," Hatton says. "The suspicious glances are aplenty from strangers."

Arguments Come Easy When Cooped up in a Van
klaus tiedge/Getty Images CC

Arguments Come Easy When Cooped up in a Van

"If you are traveling as a couple, you will have monumental rows because you are cooped up in a small space — especially if it rains a lot — and are together 24/7," Nicholls says. "You must be adaptable and able to compromise. Learn how to find your own space and develop your own interests." Nicholls notes that at the start of their travels, she stormed off after a big argument with Kelly, only to get lost in their remote and unfamiliar boondocking location. "I had to ring and ask for him to fetch me — you can only imagine how humiliating that was. It was a steep learning curve, and we are a pretty solid couple. It's not for the faint-hearted."

One Word … Toilets

One Word … Toilets

Some van-lifers have fairly sophisticated toilets — or "loos," as they're called in parts of Europe. Others have primitive setups and others have nothing at all. "If you have a loo in your van, you are basically carrying your waste around in a plastic container," Nicholls says. "If you don't, then you have to find places where there is a loo you can use. Your whole life can become a bit toilet-oriented."

Travel Fatigue is Real

Travel Fatigue Is Real

Vacations are relaxing, but travel itself can actually be quite exhausting, even if you spend most of the time sitting in a van. "Full-time traveling in a van can be tiring, and we have suffered from travel fatigue on a couple of occasions," Nicholls says. "In theory, seeing new places every day sounds awesome, but sometimes you just want the familiarity of home. Somewhere you can stretch out, feel ill, or just watch a soppy movie on TV. Successful van life really means that you are outside and active most of the time, because who wants to be in a cramped tin box?" All in all, however, she wouldn't change a thing. "When you have the world as your backyard and can go wherever you want, whenever the mood takes, then van life is the most amazing way of life."

There's No Place Like Home
Klaus Vedfelt/ DigitalVision / Getty Images CC

There's No Place Like Home

Lindsay McKenzie is a "full-time adventurer" and the founder of Follow Your Detour. She's been living on the road full-time with her husband for two years. She points out that "while van life and full-time traveling are definitely rewarding, it requires a lot of sacrifice, too. It can get lonely, you have to give up a lot of your comforts from home, and at times, you definitely miss familiarity."

The Outdoors Are Always Looking For a Way In
gan chaonan/istockphoto

The Outdoors Are Always Looking for a Way In

A van is a shelter, but it's not a structure. It's harder to clean and keep clean than a house, and the great outdoors can sometimes get a little too close for comfort. "Let's just say, things get dirty in a small space that's often parked in nature," McKenzie says. "We're constantly battling bugs, mud, and trying to keep the outdoors, well, outdoors. It's hard enough keeping yourself clean when you're trying to conserve water."

Related: 15 Ways to Repel Bugs Naturally (and Cheaply)

Productivity Tends to Wane

Productivity Tends to Wane

No matter how completely you think you've detached from your life, at some point, you'll still have to get stuff done. Living out of a vehicle can make that stuff a challenge. "Living and working on the road can be especially challenging," McKenzie says. "Trying to find a routine to stay productive in a lifestyle where you're trying to get away from routine is tough. You're constantly having to balance adventure with reality."

Solution: Rethink Your Relationship With Money

The Carefree Lifestyle Actually Takes Quite a Bit of Care

Matt Swartz and Amanda Winther have been traveling full-time around the western United States in a campervan with their Goldendoodle, Royal, for more than two years — they answered questions for this article from a Walmart parking lot in Wyoming. They created The Van Project after ditching their San Francisco apartment for the van life, but they learned along the way that it's not all roses — especially when it comes to finances. "Yes, moving into a van can significantly reduce your overhead, but bills don't just disappear," Winther says. "You still need to eat, pay for insurance, gas, and more. Before you jump right in, it's a good idea to sketch out your plans. How long will you be living in a van? Is this a two-month or one-year commitment — or are you hoping to transition for the foreseeable future? Either way, make sure that you have a rough plan for your upcoming next few months and a budget, including the biggest variable, which is gas."

Nothing is Free

Nothing Is Free

Unless you're independently wealthy or have a massive savings account, you won't last too long without money coming in. "One of the most common misconceptions about van life is that most of us living this way are earning huge sums of money through social media like Instagram and YouTube," Winther says. "The reality is that most of the people we've met on the road in the last two years are not working full-time remote jobs or earning the majority of their income through social media, and those who are doing so are seriously hustling hard, working way more than 40 hours a week. We've met more people who earn income on the road through seasonal work and gig work." That, however, isn't always a sure thing due to stigma from some employers, according to Hatton. "It is harder to secure a job if you have no fixed abode," he says. "Employers can unfairly view you as an unreliable, unpunctual, and lazy worker."

The "Ick" Factor

The "Ick" Factor

Keeping up with cleanliness and personal hygiene becomes a whole new challenge when you're living on the road. "If the thought of not having a daily shower freaks you out, the van life might not be for you," Winther says. She recommends mapping out pay-per-use showers and using tools like The Vanlife App, which helps travelers find places to sleep, fill up water, and shower while traveling. Beyond that, it requires some improvising. "You can make it work if you prioritize your daily shower," Winther says. "But you should also be comfortable with other options to stay clean like baby wipes or jumping into a chilly Alpine lake." She adds that you should never use soap for the lake option. Even biodegradable soap affects water quality and can harm animals. "Bottom line, we've found that we shower and do less laundry while we're living on the road full-time," Winther says.

Related: 15 Things You Should Never Do in the Shower

You Risk Losing Your Roots

You Risk Losing Your Roots

Settling down into a traditional, home-based routine has its advantages, including a sense of stability and community. These are often among the hardest things to part with for a life on the road. "After the initial excitement of moving into the van and hitting the road wore off, we found ourselves missing some aspects of our old location-based roots, the primary thing being community," Winther says. "Community exists out on the road but in a much different way. Unless you're sticking around one place in your van, weekly gym sessions with friends don't exist on the road."

Friendships Can Be Fleeting

Friendships Can Be Fleeting

One of the greatest parts of van life is the countless interesting, like-minded people you'll meet along the way. The problem is, the road forks and those relationships often don't last. "You'll meet some incredible, driven, entrepreneurial people out on the road," Winther says. "But you'll also need to accept that these friendships will be deep and fleeting. When you invite someone into your home and end up living next to each other in Moab, sharing meals and campfire stories, you cut through the small talk quickly. But, a week later, when you're itching to head to a new place, you'll have to part ways and not know when you'll see each other again."

The Unexpected is the Only Real Guarantee

The Unexpected Is the Only Real Guarantee

The van life will throw the kitchen sink at you, and if you're going to embark on this lifestyle, you have to be the type of person who can roll with the punches. If not, stay home. Winther remembers having to go to the bathroom "in a hole, breaking down on the side of a busy road and having to wait 12 sleepless hours for the closest tow truck to finally make it to you. Breaking down two times in 24 hours, having a stomach flu when your toilet is six inches from your bed, trying to sleep when it's 110 degrees outside and you don't have air conditioning, sleeping in a Walmart parking lot, having to wait over a month in one location for our campervan clutch to be rebuilt. These are some of the ugliest moments we've experienced on the road, but all of these moments have also taught us the importance of flexibility, the value of patience, and the kindness of strangers."