Over the course of spring and summer 2016, I had the amazing opportunity to leave everything behind and move into my van to tour the West Coast. Having traveled the rest of the Americas for years in hostels, Airbnb’s or camping, this was by far the most incredible way to travel!
But It could have been even easier if I did a bit more research beforehand. This post is meant to help make it easier for any of you wanting to hit the road this spring. This guide is specific to North America, though some of it may apply to other continents.
Here are a few ideas of how to be a human in a van!
1. How to food
My favorite thing about living in my van is that I can bring my kitchen with me EVERYWHERE! While most people are more concerned about mechanical stuff when shopping for a van, having a functional kitchen was all I really cared about. Looking back, I could have done with just a cooler and a portable gas stove and I was quite spoiled with my set up.
Here is my setup, which I take no credit for as my van is an old custom-built Getaway. If you don’t have the means or the talent to build your own setup, the old Getaways or Leisure Travels are always a great option for a pre-built interior.
If you would rather spend your money on a more reliable vehicle and build it up yourself, you’ll need to plan for three things: a water pump and small sink, a propane stove burner, and a cooler. The most common setups I saw on the road used a Yeti cooler (+/- $300), a Coleman burner (+/- $50), and a Marine hand pump (+/- $30).
You could easily go without the water pump and sink by using a 5-gallon cooler-sized water jug with a hand pump like this one. In many gas stations in Western Canada you can fill up your water jug or tank beside the air pump, but in the US this is very hard to find. You can usually find a water source in a National Park or you can pay $5 to fill up at a camp site.
The most important tip for van life eating is to go vegan. Even if you have a fridge, eating meat is impractical, time-consuming, expensive and detrimental to your health and the planet. At least with plant-based eating, you’re offsetting some of your carbon footprint from driving so much.
2. Where to shower
Depending on where you are traveling or living, there are 3 to 4 options for bathing – some of them more glamorous than others.
Most coastal public beaches have some sort of shower. A rule of thumb: if there is surfing, there is a shower somewhere. Make sure to use chemical-free shampoos and soaps as the water is most likely going right back into the aquifer. Or just do like me and dye your hair pink at the beach.
Gyms often have a free trial session and sweet hot showers. If you are just passing through town, might as well get a free workout and shower in – just saying!
If you are sticking around the same place for a while, I recommend finding a community center in a wealthy neighborhood. They are often free to use or $2-4 depending on if you want to use the pool as well.
If you are shit out of luck, your sink (if you have one) or a bucket is a highly underrated way to wash-up. I had a solar shower (+/- $10) but never really used it because I didn’t have a curtain set up to shower outside my van and it didn’t seem all that practical.
3. Where to sleep
There are mainly 3 ways to sleep in your van: urban camping, free wilderness camping, renting a campsite.
Urban camping is the least glamorous way of sleeping in your van but probably the most common if you don’t want to pay for a campsite or if you can’t find a stealth spot to camp for free. All you need for this is one important thing: blinds or curtains for your windows. This way, no one really knows you’re in your van – though everyone suspects it.
Over the course of 4 months, I urban-camped about half the time and I was only asked to move once (my own fault, I failed to read the parking sign in Tofino, BC). I usually like to sleep in quiet, middle-class neighborhoods, preferably not directly in front of someone’s house.
Free campsites don’t actually exist, but you can make do on Crown Land, BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or National Forest Management land – basically government-owned land that isn’t labeled as a National Park. You can try your luck in a National Park (I got away with it a lot in British Columbia and Washington State) but it is not permitted. You won’t get fined, but a police officer may ask you to move along.
You should note that rangers don’t actually have any authority to ask you to move or to fine you, so if they are lucky the cops will pay you a visit. It only happened to me twice and the first time the cop told me I could stay since it was late.
The best way to find a free campsite is to search on freecampsites.net or download their app. Make sure you read the comments for directions or you’ll need a GPS to find most spots. Other apps like Trucker Path or Road Hunter can help you when you’re in a bind, though they won’t find you the most scenic areas.
On the note of GPS, I highly recommend entering the geo-coordinates to find free camping sites because most of them are very off the grid and are on unnamed dirt roads.
Booking a camp site is my least preferred way to sleep in my van. It’s pointless, expensive, and annoying. Over 4 months, I only stayed in a camp site twice for a total of 4 days because I was in a national park during peak season.
This is a hassle because most of the time you have to book ahead of the time, which defeats the purpose of living in your van and being free from schedules and timelines. Averaging at $25 USD a night, it is quite expensive for what it is: a tiny un-flat lot, between hundreds of huge RVs with loud generators. At the price, I could find an Airbnb and have peace and quiet.
No matter where you decide to park, you should keep one thing in mind: a flat surface. Unless you want to wake up with a massive head rush or not feel your feet, either bring tire sized blocks of wood. If you are urban camping, be prepared to either park far from the curb where the pavement is flat, or on the curb if the road slopes too low.
4. Where to play
If you are traveling in Canada in 2017, the Federal government is offering a free park pass to all visitors wanting to explore Canadian National Parks!
For cyclists, putting to use your gravel or CX bike in old fire roads can make for an awesome ride to breathtaking views and a hell of a workout! Many bike shops have sweet local trail maps if you don’t have data to use MTB project or are looking for roadie-friendly rides. Make sure to check out if local shops have weekly rides scheduled as it can be a great way to discover the city!
If you are a climber, I would not rely so much on Mountain Project app (especially for bouldering) because some of the approaches are very poorly described and many entire areas aren’t even listed. I highly recommend order all your guidebooks online before leaving for 2 reasons: they might be sold out in local shops and if you don’t have the approach, you might head into town to buy one at a local shop and find that you passed to actual climbing spot an hour ago – no fun!
If you are looking to hike to a particular site that you spotted on IG, you’ll want to do a search of the spot on www.backpacker.com to make sure how accessible the area is at that time of the year. Some places may seem incredibly breathtaking but require a 7-hour hike to access – don’t get caught unprepared.
5. How to power up & Work
If you are lucky enough to be able to take your work with you on the road, finding ways to power up your devices can be challenging if you aren’t willing to spend some $500 and up on a decent solar power system.
Though there are cheaper options like this Biolite, it will be impossible to get a charge if the sun isn’t out.
My solution for always having enough power to charge all my devices and have lights in my van at night was to get a deep cycle RV battery (+/- $150) that hooked up to a plug power sources and that would charge itself with my alternator when I ran the van.
After using it recklessly for 3 months, I eventually had to bring it into a body shop for a charge, which cost me $15 – after which I was good for another month. If you prefer not to connect it to your alternator, you can just buy 2 and bring them in to get charged up every month.
This article was meant to be an introduction into the basic logistics of surviving in your van. If you have more questions or your own tips on how to be a human in a van, let me know in the comments below!