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Think van life looks awesome?
We did too.
On social media, van life is portrayed as some perfect dreamy lifestyle where everyone is always sparkly clean, the sun is always shining, and nobody ever has to take a dump hiding behind a tree along the highway while cars whiz by honking their horn.
But social media isn’t real.
This is not van life reality—Wake up, folks!
In today’s revealing “Van Life Expectations vs Reality” guide, we share 10 things nobody tells you about van life.
These are all things you need to be aware of before charging headfirst into this lifestyle.
For all you video watchers, this one should keep you entertained:
And for all you reading nerds, keep on readin’. You shall also be entertained!
Table of Contents
- Van life realities: The TRUTH about living in a van
- #1.) Destination photos are deceiving
- #2.) Bad weather still exists in van life (*gasp*)
- #3.) Van lifers still have to poop
- #4.) Van life can be dirty
- #5.) Something is always broken in van life
- #6.) Cleaning is the pits
- #7.) Cooking is also the pits
- #8.) Working while traveling? …HA!
- #9.) Van life “camping” isn’t always what you’d think
- #10.) Van life should be cheap, but it rarely is
- Is van life worth it?
Van life realities: The TRUTH about living in a van
I’m not sayin’ van life isn’t awesome, I’m just sayin’ 90% of the time, it’s NOTHING like what you see on social media.
Here’s the stone-cold reality:
#1.) Destination photos are deceiving
We all kinda know this in our hearts, but sometimes we still get suckered.
Filters, people. Everyone uses ’em.
That tree probably isn’t that green. That lake probably isn’t that blue. That sunset probably isn’t that pink.
Don’t get me wrong—the world is STUNNING. God is one talented artist. Buuut…
Don’t let filters and Photoshop fool you.
(Caveat: With mountains, it’s the other way around: Real life > filtered photos).
It’s not all about colors, though.
Turns out, when people post beautiful “secret” destination on Instagram, they are no longer secret! (Surprise!)
If a location is easy to access and it’s a nice day, you’re not gonna be alone in those “secret” natural hot springs…
At the Umpqua Hot Springs, we were even blessed with the company of a few overly-friendly naked hippies.
#2.) Bad weather still exists in van life (*gasp*)
How often do you see van life shots of rainy, cloudy, tip-your-van-over windy days?
Not very often.
I hate to break it to you, but the weather can still suck when you live in a van.
Van lifers will say, “Oh, you don’t need that much space…you’ll be outside most of the time anyway.”
Not when it’s pouring rain for 4 days straight (I’m looking at you, Washington!).
Things get claustrophobic real quick.
Especially when your roof throws a curveball and decides it wants to start leaking.
#3.) Van lifers still have to poop
Yup, I’m going there. Poop.
Pee isn’t so bad. All you need is a large, wide-mouthed bottle (Simply Orange orange juice is my bottle of choice) and you’re good to go. Well, except when it’s overflowing, you’re in the middle of a parking lot, there’s nowhere to dump it, and your bladder is tearing at the seams.
Now, poop…poop is a different story.
Sure, you can pluck down a grand (or more) for a composting toilet. But where does that leave us normal folk who can’t afford a $1000 throne?
Public restrooms? Yeah, I guess….if they’re not closed due to the pandemic. But what about when you’re out in the boondocks?
Grab a shovel and dig a hole, my friend.
Seriously though, it’s not that bad. At least, not normally. What sucks is…
When it’s raining cats and dogs and you gotta lay some logs…diarrhea (pttthhhpt, pttthhhpt), diarrhea (pttthhhpt, pttthhhpt)….
When it’s freezing and it’s cold and there’s something in ya you can’t hold…diarrhea (pttthhhpt, pttthhhpt), diarrhea (pttthhhpt, pttthhhpt)…
#4.) Van life can be dirty
Sure, they may appear clean in those dreamy IG shots…with their shiny hair, clear skin, and big smiles…
That’s because they just had “shower day”.
Shower Day (n): That glorious day—roughly once per week—when van lifers reach their point of desperation, can’t bear living in filth for another second, and finally take the time to hunt down and pay for a shower.
Guys, maybe I’m the outlier here (I don’t think so), but 6 days out of the week, we’re greasy sticky dirtballs.
Ever wonder why we only publish videos once a week? Now you know. It’s the only day of the week we don’t look homeless.
That’s just the reality of van life.
(For tips on finding showers and pretty much everything else you need to know about living in a van, this post covers it all).
#5.) Something is always broken in van life
Every day. Without fail. I have to fix something.
It’s one of the van life realities I’ve just had to accept.
Whether that be the skylight that drips water on my laptop when it rains, the carbon monoxide alarm that goes off randomly every couple hours (at least I think it’s random? 🤔), or the light fixture that just fell and cracked the back of the skull (“Dayan, throw me the duct tape!“)
Side note: Duct tape should absolutely be on your list of road trip essentials!
Between all those spectacular van life photos, these are the behind-the-scenes day-to-day realities of van life.
It would be great if everything always worked as it should. But that, my friend, is not how van life works. Ever.
#6.) Cleaning is the pits
I’ve never seen a photo of a van on social media that wasn’t spotless. Ever.
Does that make me a cochino? (my Colombian wife’s word for dirty mess-maker).
I think not.
Now, maybe this doesn’t happen in those big fancy sprinter vans loaded with storage space (although I imagine it does)…
But in our humble ol’ Roadtrek campervan, we go from clean to code-red disaster in 2.7 seconds.
You’d think cleaning a small van would be quick and easy. Think again!
It’s actually a never-ending mind-bending puzzle.
To put away the pot, you need to lift up the storage lid.
To lift up the storage lid, you have to move the water jug.
To make space on the table for the water jug, you need to put away your laptop.
To fit your laptop in the back seat pocket, you need to take out those “semi-dirty” clothes you jammed in there (the ones that might be clean enough to wear again, but not clean enough to mix with your “true” cleans)……
On and on the cycle goes.
Then, when you finally think you’ve got things straight, setting one item in the wrong spot instantly resets the chaos.
Yes, there are some clever organizational hacks for van life. But in a space that small, daily messes are inevitable.
#7.) Cooking is also the pits
Again, I can’t speak for those with $100,000 conversions, ample counter space, and ginormous kitchen sinks…
But for Salsa Moble (oh yeah, that’s our van’s name—you’d understand if you saw our discoteca lights), cooking is a pain in the nuts.
I’m not even going to try to use words to describe how uncomfortable it is. Instead, I’ll just leave you with this:
Lucky for me, my wife drew the short straw and does all the cooking and dishwashing (I love you, Day! ❤️).
I chip in with driving, words of encouragement, and protection from bears.
What was I saying?
Oh yeah, basically, cooking isn’t nearly as fun as they make it look. It’s actually kind of a nightmare.
#8.) Working while traveling? …HA!
Maybe you’ve heard of people with van life jobs who work on the road. This is what I
do try to do.
Turns out, van life is a full-time job of its own. Every day (or every few days), you need to:
- Cook and wash dishes
- Figure out where you’re going to sleep
- Figure out the prettiest way to get there
- Figure out cool places to stop along the way (attractions, hikes, etc.)
- Figure out where to get propane
- Figure out where to get water
- Figure out where to buy food
- Figure out where to poop
- Figure out where to take a shower
- Figure out where you’re gonna wash clothes
- Figure out why your stupid cell phone data keeps cutting out
- Fix all those random little things that keep breaking
- Clean the disaster zone you’ve made every couple hours
- Convert van from “drive mode” to “chill mode” every time you start/stop
- Spend hours driving to all these places
- Spend hours exploring each destination
- Set up camp
- Squeeze in some exercise
- And finally……
It’s 8pm, you’re dead, and it’s time to start working. YAAAYY!
And that’s IF you’ve got a strong enough internet connection (our WeBoost deffo helps with that).
The obvious solution here is to slow the eff down. If you want to become a digital nomad, slow and steady wins the race.
But sometimes—thanks to weather, battery levels, internet connection, food/water levels, deadlines, etc—this is not possible.
(That said, while it’s hard, it’s still awesome having jobs that let you travel).
#9.) Van life “camping” isn’t always what you’d think
We’ve all seen the pics. The van parked in a beautiful location. Cooking outside. Lights hanging from the awning. Roasting marshmallows by the fire…
But what you don’t see is where that van lifer slept the previous 3 nights…
Sometimes you do find killer camp spots. But for us, that’s been the exception, not the rule.
What they don’t tell you about van life is that 50% of nights are spent…
- in Walmart or Safeway parking lots
- on highway pullouts where you lay awake listening to the deafening roar of passing semis
- on city streets next to parks where crazies walk around yelling profanities into their imaginary cell phones
Gotta take the good with the bad though, amirite?
#10.) Van life should be cheap, but it rarely is
In a perfect world where you only had to pay for gas and food, van life would be affordable AF (here’s our monthly van life expenses, btw).
That’s not the van life reality.
It’s actually full of surprise expenses.
Like when I burnt my brakes to toast driving through Glacier National Park…
Or when we bought that sick drone and it decided to crash itself in the river after one week…
Or when I noticed tears in my wife’s eyes from being forced to wear the same dirty clothes every day, so we hit up TJ Maxx for a new wardrobe…
The point is:
Sure, van life lets you live a simple, minimalist lifestyle. Just like the pictures. You might even save some money if you use these cheap camper van hacks.
But don’t get tricked into thinking it’s some dream world. When your vehicle is your house, shiz can hit the fan real quick.
Is van life worth it?
My friends, my homies, my peeps…
I AM NOT TRYING TO SCARE YOU AWAY FROM VAN LIFE.
I’m just trying to balance those Instagram shots with a dose of reality.
Social media only shows the peachy post-perfect-pictures-of-yourself-in-your-undies-laying-in-bed-drinking-fancy-coffee-gazing-out-at-the-mountains side of things.
Yeah, those moments happen (will I ever let my wife post a pic of her perfect bubble bum on Instagram? You’ll just have to follow us to find out 😋)
But this is 10% of van life.
The other 90%?
Just because the REAL van life isn’t what you see on Instagram, doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.
It’s all part of the adventure.
Van life is hard. But it makes you a better human.
Cooking breakfast naked in a van parked in the mountains (and posting a pic for the world to see)?
Now that’s just the icing on the cake.
Mitch is your typical nomadic backpacker. Or at least, he was. But after stopping in Colombia to take “one week” of salsa lessons, his life took a sharp left turn. He met a cute Colombian girl in dance class, fell in love, and got married. Over half a decade has passed since he left his career to travel the world as a digital nomad, and he’s never looked back.
Nowadays, he’s the blogger behind Project Untethered — where he runs an awesome email newsletter and Youtube channel teaching adventure-craved wanderlusters how to escape the rat race, earn money from anywhere, and build an “untethered life”.
His advice has been featured in Forbes, USA Today, Yahoo, MSN, Reader’s Digest, Condé Nast Traveler, and more.
Mitch's Travel Recommendations:
Travel Planning Resources - Everything you need to plan your trip on one convenient page.
Safetywing Insurance - This cheap travel insurance has saved me over $15,000 in medical bills.
Booking.com - Book accommodation without adding your credit card (in case you need to cancel).
Skyscanner - Find cheap flights.
Trusted House Sitters - Take care of pets in exchange for free (sometimes luxury) accommodation.
Flexjobs - Find remote jobs without having to sift through crappy ones.
Skillshare - Free trial to take unlimited classes that teach digital nomad skills.
Anytime Mailbox - Virtual mail service that can handle your mail while you’re away.
Wise - Send and receive money abroad cheaply (great for freelancers).
Wednesday 18th of November 2020
I just read this entire blog post out loud to my fiancé while he’s driving our beast of a van & ive never related to anything more. Hahaha we’ve been in our van 2 months now and you absolutely nailed it. Also glad I’m not the only one with a perpetually leaky roof.
Wednesday 18th of November 2020
Bahaha I'm glad you liked it! Sometimes I wonder if some of these vans I see on IG even have any stuff in them or if they're just empty haha. By the way, just followed you guys on IG, your trip looks epic! If you ever want to do a guest post about van life, lemme know! P.S. - we found a solution to the leaky roof. Just put a towel underneath 😂
Tuesday 17th of November 2020
I love it! Makes me want to hit the road! You're right, it's all about expectations.
2 recommendations: earplugs and watch this DIY shower video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rp3rv5og0fk. (I just made one and am using it to water my outdoor plants. I plan to use it for camping too.)
I'm glad you're enjoying your adventure!
Wednesday 18th of November 2020
That camp shower is GENIUS! We will definitely be using this! I'm also a big fan of earplugs - I just bought a pack of like 100 because I lose them so often.