It’s strange to think that three years ago, I had no concept of what van life was. I was working in a regular 9-5 in Sydney, Australia, commuting to and from a one-bedroom apartment, dreaming of a life outside those four walls and suburbia. While those around me spoke of houses, corporate ladders, marriage and kids, I spent my days dreaming up a life full of adventure. I craved perpetually changing scenery, the vibrance of new towns and people and different ways of living. There was just one small hurdle standing between me and my dream life…the fact that I had no clue how to get there.
But, in 2019, I did something that changed everything.
I bought a van.
While I don’t want to say that this one decision changed my life (far too cliche!), I will say that one simple, seemingly insignificant detail of my life has led me down a path I had only daydreamed of a few years ago. Today I sit at my computer in Canada, working remotely from my laptop, writing articles just like this one, all from the comfort of my new normal; my home on wheels.
Over these past few years, I have experienced all spectrums of the realities of life on the road. I have soaked in the perks of endless self-discovery, experiencing new places and people, all while coveting my extensive mug collection in my tiny mobile home. I have also experienced the very lows: the empty fuel tanks with no gas station in sight, costly breakdowns and navigating the financial realities of life on the road.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re wondering if this strange and wonderful experience of van life may just be for you. Perhaps you’re looking for a little slice of the reality of van life, top tips for van life and the ever-looming question of “how much does van life cost?”. Don’t worry; I have you covered.
In this article, I have laid it all out: the pros and cons of van life and the reality of life on the road. I have also included some FAQ about the reality of van life, including answering the coveted question of how much does van life cost, the best things about van life, the reality of working from a van, as well as some of my top tips for van life. I hope that in reading this, you can decide if this wild ride of life on the road may be for you. Let’s dive in.
The Pros and Cons of Vanlife: The reality of life on the road
But first, what exactly is Vanlife really?
Vanlife, or van dwelling, is not a new concept. Vanlife itself originates as far back as the 1850s with a carriage named Wanderer and has ebbed and flowed throughout the last century and a half. Whether it’s outrageous outfitted carriages, a cute kombi or a fully kitted out Mercedes van, van life is, in essence, about living and travelling in a vehicle. Yet, in reality, it is more than that.
Living a mobile lifestyle is more than coming and going as you please. The ‘reality’ of van life is about seeking new experiences and seeing new places, all while enjoying the simple comforts of home. It’s being able to go out and see the world as if it were your own backyard. That is van life in theory. But in reality? Let’s dive in.
The reality of getting into Vanlife...
In early 2019, I had about the online presence of a centipede and was blissfully unaware of the plights of #vanlife. So when my partner and I bought our first van – a long-wheelbase VW crafter – we had very little awareness of the cultural fad that van life was and would continue to become. All I knew was that I wanted to see the country, and what better way to see it all than with a road trip? I pictured infinite road trip snacks, bad singing to road-themed songs and endless exploring of this country I called home but, in reality, knew very little about.
So in late 2019, my partner and I scrounged up what savings we had and bought a shell of an old delivery van. It was about as old as it was banged up, but I secretly loved that about that van. Its bumps and bruises reminded me that it had a life before us. As we converted it, we found glitter and forks stuffed into its walls. As I sat there cleaning them out, I imagined this delivery truck had moonlighted as a party bus in another life. In reality, I knew it had just commuted back and forth doing its daily grind, just like I had been doing. It gave me hope that it would now get a new life as the home of two reckless 20-somethings ready to take on the world.
We spent what felt like endless hours watching youtube videos on how to turn that van into a home. We would go to work during the day, and then in the afternoons, we would head to our local hardware store to get supplies and build. There were days when I would leave work buzzing with excitement and others where I would just cry and stare at the empty cargo van in front of me, struggling to put my arms above my head from sheer exhaustion. But we did it. We turned that shell into a home, and in March 2020, we hit the road.
The reality of a life on the road...
The day we finished our build, I remember so vividly the freedom I felt. That has always been one of the best things about van life: the expansiveness of this thing we had achieved and the open road that lay ahead. When I say that this was just the beginning… it was the underestimation of the century.
What was meant to be a 6-month road trip turned into a nearly two-and-a-half-year adventure around the country. We toured every state, visited every major city and roamed through national parks. We swam with sea lions and took photos with smiling quokkas on Rottnest Island, we sipped on world-class wines in Adelaide, skied in Perisher, and road-tripped through the rugged peaks in Tasmania. And somewhere along the way, we discovered the reality of van life and living on the road.
Is travel burnout a real thing? (H3)
In the first few months of travelling in the van, I was so excited to see and do everything. So we did! If there was a sign that said ‘attraction’, we went there. A national park? We explored it. A swimming hole? The swimmers were on, and I was in it. Unsurprisingly, after about two months of this go-go-go attitude, I began to feel this overwhelming dread of having to tick off yet another thing. Another waterfall, another hike. And the guilt that followed for dreading this incredible life I was creating.
It was a big reality check. This wasn’t a holiday. I didn’t have to jam-pack every experience into a short week-long adventure.
This was my life.
I needed to find a way to intertwine regular life with this new way of living. As it turned out, that included the occasional lay-in-bed all-day Netflix binge session.
So I began travelling slower. Living my life and adventuring in my surroundings in my free time. It was a little more boring, yes. But my wallet and mental health thanked me for it!
How much does van life cost?
Van life is typically known for being a low-cost travel alternative, and it is typically one of the best things about van life for budget travellers looking to explore overland. I personally didn’t get into van life to save money. So over the past three years, on average, I have spent roughly the same as I would have if I had stayed in that Sydney apartment and paid rent. The difference? I got to experience travelling all around Australia, having once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I had a new view every morning and got my dream of experiencing different people and places every single day.
Overall, you can absolutely do van life on a budget, but I always tell people that you will generally bring your lifestyle with you. For example, if you are happy eating 2-minute noodles and travel very slowly – then your costs will be very low. If you prioritise experiences and organic veggies etc., your costs will reflect that.
In general, if you are looking to project costs, I would look at:
- Fuel: starting at $50-200 AUD/week
This will vary depending on how far you plan to travel each week
- Food: starting at $100-300 AUD/week
Have a look at your current grocery costs for an idea! This probably won’t change much. Except maybe you will eat a little less take out than if its was easily accessible.
- Activities: starting at $50+ /week
If you want to spend your time in cities, you will likely need to budget more for parking, paid activities etc. Alternatively, if you are spending your time in nature in national parks, your expenses may be a campsite or a national park pass, and that’s it!
- Accommodation: starting at $20-$200 /week
If you want to stay in one location for a while, you may need to book a caravan site depending on the local free camping rules. I did this once for a month-long stint during our lap, which cost around $250 per week on average. However, I mostly opted to stay in free camps for two years. We budgeted $80 a month for accommodation based on two nights a month at an expensive caravan park, but we rarely used this all.
Other considerations include if you have a timeline (travelling quicker means more activities and fuel in a short time) and whether you are living off savings for a while or working along the way. These factors inevitably will change how much you may spend on the road. Ultimately, answering the question of ‘how much does van life cost’ is very personal. I would recommend having a look at your current expenses and see what could give (i.e. take out and shopping) and what will remain relatively the same (groceries).
What is it like working from a van?
There are so many ways to work on the road. I personally have picked up casual work as a cleaner and a spa attendant on the road, but have also worked online, creating content for brands and freelance writing. Overall I have loved both experiences, but for different reasons.
All I will say is if you plan to work from a van, be sure that you enjoy working in the space and that it is comfortable. If you are travelling with a partner who is also working in this tight space, this can also be a hurdle. One of my top tips for van life as a couple is to try creating separate spaces or working at staggered times to give each other a little room.
Navigating breakdowns and car troubles
About a year into our van life, the unimaginable happened – our van broke down. Not just needed an oil change kind of break-down, but engine light on red, smoke emanating from the hood kind of break-down. When I stood on the side of that desert highway, I could remember feeling so calm. It was that iconic eerie calm before the storm because I didn’t know if we had the savings to fix whatever had just happened.
Long story short, about $8,000 and a month of waiting later, we were back on the road. Even though we were quite fortunate that we had the ability to save and work and pay for the fix, the entire event was incredibly stressful and unnerving. Not knowing when we would be able to be back in our home.
Since that event, one of my top tips for van life is always to have an emergency fund. Just the peace of mind that you are covered for the unexpected. Oh, and have roadside assistance – that small fee will save you a huge headache!
Top tips for van life and living on the road
After years on the road, and countless missteps, there are a few things I always recommend to new vanlifers. Here are a few of my top tips of sage advice from one traveller to another:
Things in van life just take longer. Simple.
Things you once took for granted, like electricity and water, are less readily available than they once were. These van life chores can feel time-consuming and exhausting at first. Learning to slow down and appreciate that they are just part of the experience will help you get so much more out of this lifestyle.
Budget your travel
Vanlife can be a great opportunity to save money or at least extend it. If that’s your goal, I recommend travelling slowly, planning meals, reducing eating out and opting for free activities.
One of the best things about van life is the community. And this community delivers when it comes to recommendations about the best places to stay, places to avoid and more. Depending on where in the world you are, there is bound to be an app to help you navigate this lifestyle. Whether it’s iOverlander in North America or campermate in Australia – there is a ton of info on where to sleep, get water and so on.
That being said, part of the joy of van life (and one of the best parts of van life) is going where the wind takes you. In these cases, I do not live without my google maps in satellite mode. If you find yourself in a town with no recommendations (or just want to find your own), you can jump onto google maps and zoom in to peruse the streets to find a quiet place to park away from prying eyes.
Have an emergency fund
When you travel and live in a car, there is a likely chance that things will break, need fixing, or that general unexpected maintenance will show up. This obviously will vary greatly depending on the vehicle you buy/ where you travel/ how fast etc. Buying a newer van wasn’t in the cards for us at the time. So we paid what we could, and in our case, that meant paying for it down the line.
That being said, I have also known newer vehicles to have similar troubles and older vehicles to go by without a hitch. Sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw. As much as possible, focus on buying a mechanically reliable car within your budget. Regardless of whether you buy new or second-hand, it’s important to have an emergency fund, so those unexpected maintenance days don’t catch you off guard.
Create a daily routine
I have seen travellers burn out time and time again. In a life of constant motion, it can be easy to get swept up in the busy momentum of endless opportunities. The best antidote? Have a practice, ritual or routine that grounds you and serves as a way to help you get your bearings each day (sometimes literally). For some, it may be a morning stretch, while for others, reading a book may suffice.
For me, it has always been a cup of coffee.
No matter the weather, location or the day ahead, I know I will have that one constant of a cup of coffee in my van while I take in my surroundings and plan out this new adventure of the day ahead. Plus, I’ve found this is always a fun way to integrate the local places we visit as we hit up roasteries and try their blends. This is especially important when I’m working from a van. I like having an afternoon walk routine for my work days, so I don’t get caught inside all day.
Create boundaries with work and play
While there are many great things about working from a van, one of the downsides of working remotely from a laptop is being able to separate working from a van and enjoying life from the van. One of my top tips for van life is to create a work zone, be that physical or mental. Having some boundaries around when you work and when you don’t can be essential to longevity on the road and sustaining working from a van long term.
There you have it. The pros and cons and the reality of van life.
Overall, I would say that life on the road is not too different to that at home (after a little adjusting, of course!). You will work, buy groceries, spend your weekends exploring your local area and spend time with people you love. In the end, there are some things you will have to learn for yourself. The pace of your travel, your style of working from a van, and of course, discovering the reality of van life for your lifestyle and travel goals.
The biggest difference (when it comes to the reality of life on the road)?
Learning to let go and roll with the punches of a life in motion.
As always, happy adventuring!
What are your thoughts on vanlife?
Are there any realities of van life that I missed? Are there any best things about van life or top tips for van life that should be on this list? Anything else you would like to know about ‘how much does van life cost’ and the reality of working from a van and so on?
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