The reality of quitting your job for campervan living.
If you search #vanlife on social media you’re bound to come across some stylish profiles of immaculate vans, with beautiful interiors, the cute French Press coffee pot with two perfectly matching coffee cups casually placed next to that plant on the pristine white work surface… sounds and looks great, doesn’t it? That’s the life I’m living in my van too. Well, in my head and in the memories I’ll think back on in years to come at least. It’s aspirational, it’s magazine-worthy and it looks great online… but let me give you a reality check; once the camera’s down, that’s not how real van life is. And that’s not a bad thing. Not by a long shot. Don’t get me wrong, those pristine vans with very good-looking owners do exist and I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s a little bit of van-envy (I’ll come to that later) about their set-up but for the majority of people driving around in their home-on-wheels, it’s not real, everyday, vanlife.
Below are a few truths about what it’s like to live your life in your moveable home. Before we get to them, there are 2 things I want to mention so you’ve got some context.
1) My partner and I live in a 2006 converted Mercedes Vito van. It’s not a motorhome (like a Hymer or a Winnebago), it's a campervan, which means we don’t have quite as many facilities as some other vans. We have a gas hob, a sink, a pop-top roof and built-in cupboards but we don’t have a toilet or a shower. It’s the pay-off for having a more stealthy (when it comes to free-camping) and manoeuvrable van (when it comes to driving around medieval European cities). Think of us like the Transformer of the camping world. We look like a normal van until we mean business… camping business. Oh, and she’s called Karen The Campervan (don’t ask; that story’s for another time).
2) We’re only planning to travel like this for a year. And I don’t think I need to tell you how everyone's ‘Van Life’ is different, do I? No, didn’t think so. Good.
“A place for everything and everything in its place.” When we lived in our flat in London this was the rule I lived by. I like organising stuff. At school and university I probably spent more time sorting out file dividers and writing timetables than doing the actual revision. As a Radio Producer it was organising shows, presenters, content. You get the idea. Now you know that about me, let me tell you about my partner Dale. Dale is someone who doesn’t generally see mess. When he used to get home from work (for which he was required to wear a suit) he used to leave his shoes, socks, trousers, shirt, tie, jacket, whatever he might be wearing that day, on the floor. One item of clothing at a time as he made his way through the flat. This wasn’t a sexy post-work striptease for my benefit, it was merely him undressing en route to where his tracksuit bottoms and hoodie were; invariably in a pile also on the floor from the night before. However, things have changed. I remember early on in our van adventure Dale saying to me “I now realise how important it is to have a place for everything and for it to live there.” Small victories. To his credit, he’s thrown himself fully into this mantra and has probably become better at packing up the van than I have. Almost.
One thing you never see in the beautiful van life photos on Instagram is towels. You’ll always have towels hanging up somewhere in the van. Tea towels, shower towels, beach towels. If you’re on the move a lot, like us, you don’t have much time to dry them before heading off to your next location. It’s boring but a fact of van life but you'll probably be surrounded by damp towels until you get to your next stop.
Van life forces you to travel light and make sure you can pack most stuff away when you’re on the move. It’s easier to find stuff in the dark or in a rush. You’re probably thinking “Thanks, Captain Obvious” but you have to forward plan (see ‘Routine’). If those emergency pee bottles aren’t out from the cupboard under the sink before the bed goes down, that’s it. You hold it in until morning or it’s a visit outside in the rain/cold/snow to pee in the dark.
“But I thought you sold up and went on your van life to avoid routine!” is what most people say when I mention this being an important part of van life living. Yes… but also no. Commuting into London and living the 9-5 life is not what I’m talking. It’s a different kind of routine. One part of it is making sure when you pack away the bed, all the elements are done in the right order for you to be able to put everything in its place… remember what I said earlier? Yup, you’ve got it.
You’d be surprised as just how small a space you can work in when it comes to covertly setting up the van in a beachside carpark where overnight stops are ‘tolerated’. Stealth camping. Nailed.
It’s also down to making sure you don’t go into free-fall. We went from having fairly regimented working hours to having none. Once you’ve had a couple of weeks of travelling you pass the point of it feeling like an extended holiday. And please don’t think I’m having a moan. That’s exactly the feeling we were going for. It’s freeing. But I need some sort of structure to my day or life, otherwise I think I’d go insane. For me, my morning routine is sitting with a pot of coffee (in the not so photogenic French Press) and writing my Bullet Journal (a routine in itself and one I’ve used for a good few years now thanks to Ryder Carroll. bulletjournal.com if you’re interested).
It’s also saying “Gas is on/off” to Dale whenever we cook so we avoid the “did I leave the iron on” moment once we’ve left the van for the day. Routine, see. Useful.
We are not dirty Bums. Just because we choose to live in a van does not mean our hygiene is neglected. Let’s just say that some of our previous levels of hygiene have been reassessed. Before you pretend not to have seen (or should I say smelled) us and walk in the opposite direction, let me explain. With limited laundry facilities you’re a bit more frugal with what you wear. It means we’ve become less precious about how many wears a t-shirt gets. Sitting in the air-conditioned van cab for 8hrs driving means you’re not sweating like you would on a London bus or tube. So that t-shirt gets another wear… or 3. We’ve become a little more liberal with the idea of re-wearing underwear; within reason. Look, when you only carry 10 pairs of boxers with you and you have a shower in the evening and put a clean pair on, sit in the van, watch a film then go to bed you’ve only had about 3hrs wear out of them! They’re fine for the next day, aren't they?! There are a few tricks to being able to wear certain items for longer. Antibacterial underwear from Uniqlo and amazing socks from Perilla that my Mum made us aware of help massively (thanks Mum).
The weather is the best and the worst of van life. The best thing about living in a van is that you choose what kind of weather you want… most of the time. No, we vanlifers can’t control the weather (much as Dale likes to think he has the powers of Storm from X-Men). It’s simple; if you want sun, you drive to where it’s sunny. If you want snow to ski or board, you drive to the mountains. But there are times when you’re at the mercy of the elements. You will, at some point, have a weather related incident. For us it was a week of torrential rain and the perfect timing of our back door seal getting old and withered (get your mind out of the gutter please). It soaked our back seat/bed before we realised. For @untilthewheelsfalloff17 it was when they camped a little too close to the seawall at a beach and got battered by waves and rocks (read what happened on their blog). Every vanlifer will have their own story about how the elements bettered them.
For the foreseen circumstances, like the cold, we carry a little oil heater (2 when we’re in the mountains) and we pack extra blankets into any cold/empty spaces in the van for extra insulation. We also carry 3 duvets. One for underneath us and two for on top. For the sun (or extra rain shelter), we have a drive away awning/clip-on shade for outside depending on where we’re camped. When it comes to what we wear apply the "there's no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing" phrase. We've got it covered.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. We don’t wake up every morning with the view of a mountain, a lake, the ocean, a never ending forest or other magnificent natural wonder. You can if you search and travel hard enough each day. And once you’ve found that spot, it’s every difficult to pack up and move on but there are times when you just need to be somewhere in a short space of time. I have photoshoots I need to be at and it can require an overnight pitstop in a car park behind a supermarket in a remote village in Spain somewhere. That’s not a whinge, we’ve just chosen to do it that way. Probably because we’ve chosen to stay an extra day somewhere else in the sun/on a mountain/by the ocean..!
No. It’s got nothing to do with mucky films. Every time you see another campervan you wonder what their ‘set-up’ is. Rock 'n' roll bed? Do they sleep in the roof? I wonder if they’ve got a sink and hob in theirs? What’s their storage like? This 'van envy' becomes a bit of an obsession. Trying to catch a sneaky look inside their open van door as you head to the shower block to see if they’ve got a fold away table and where they store their pans. This happens on Instagram as well. Whilst you double tap because you love the beautiful composition of their interior shot, really you’re looking at how they’ve got their cupboard set out and if they can get to their under-bed storage easily. It’s not out of jealousy; it’s more to see if you’ve missed a trick in your van… ok and a bit out of jealousy.
You won’t always be in the van.
This is true for us but obviously not for all vanlifers. There are occasions where you just want to be inside a building with 4 walls and some creature comforts. It’s something we’ve learned not to feel guilty about and we only do it occasionally. Hey, when an Air BnB apartment is cheaper than a campsite, it makes sense! We get high-speed wifi which means we can work, a massive bed and sometimes a washing machine. It serves its purpose as a shelter, a respite from living in a small space and a chance to reset. It also makes us feel grateful for Karen The Campervan and how lucky we are to be doing what we’re doing. We usually can’t wait to be back inside our van cocoon! Plus, if you’re visiting friends on your travels and they’ve got a perfectly comfortable spare room it’s a bit weird to turn it down to sleep on their driveway.
So there’s a glimpse behind the clip-back curtain of real van life. I hope I’ve emphasised enough (I have) that none of these things I consider to be a negative aspect to living the very fortunate life we have in Karen The Campervan. They merely go to make the experience all the more exciting. I thought it was important to recognise what goes on behind the scenes of those beautifully composed van life photos. We love the challenge that each day brings, the discovery of a new place, the problem solving, the luxury of saying “The weather’s sh*t here, lets head South” and being at the mercy of our own imposed schedule… oh, and the schedule of France’s seasonal campsite opening times. That too.