Let me preface this entire post by saying: I have chosen to live in a van, and I am under no particular time constraints. I am spending much more time on the planning stages than many people often seem to. So bear with me… this is a very long post.
A while ago, I started a post outlining my overall plan. I had written, “I expect that this will be version #1 of many (and likely will be far different from the final result), but I also think it will be interesting to document my thought process and planning as I get closer to setting out on this adventure.” I give myself props for recognizing that my end goal would change, but boy was I naive about how often and how quickly it would warp. Before I had even finished that post I had changed my mind on tons of little details, and a few larger ones. The research and planning leading up to van life is a long, unpaved path, and every person is following their own map down it. But I can’t express how important it is to do this research. I have learned so much by lurking on the internet for hours and hours. There are so many websites, forums, and blogs that have loads of information on rig types, sizes, dos and don’ts, safety precautions, must-haves, inspiration, anecdotes, solutions for potential design and lifestyle issues, and so much more. Plus, ask your friends for opinions and help, whenever possible! You might be surprised what kinds of information and assistance your friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors may have for you. Even if they can’t help you with the build itself, you may acquire a resource through them that you never would have connected with otherwise. And lastly, personal experience is the best research of all. Don’t rush into anything, and stay flexible. I am personally opting to live in my van while I work on the conversion, in order to slowly learn what I really do and do not need. Every conversion will be different, so make sure to do what works best for you and your lifestyle, rather than just what might look great on someone else’s Instagram feed.
My General Timeline
Present – October, 2017: Research, plan, prepare, and look for a van.
October, 2017: The lease on my apartment ends. Purchase a van, put furniture and non-necessities in storage, move into unconverted van. Sell car?
October, 2017 – ???: House Lava (my ball python) at a friend or family member’s home until I can get the van insulated and hooked up with power.
November, 2017 – November, 2018: Work on van conversion, continue living locally in the van, continue working full time, save money.
November, 2018 – Early 2019: Wrap up my life, quit my job, get ready to travel America.
Early 2019 – ???: Travel, work, explore, experience!
End goal: Find a place that feels like home; somewhere I will eventually move to and settle in.
In addition to scouring the internet and soaking up as much information as possible for the build, I have also been preparing in other ways that people don’t tend to talk about as much.
- Of course, I have been trying my best to save money. I am currently living off of a $10ish/day food budget, I don’t partake in expensive activities (and opt for free ones whenever possible), and I am being frugal with my travels.
- I am looking into getting a side job that will give me helpful experience. I will go into this further below, but I plan to work part time jobs in the cities I explore, so I would like to gain experience in things such as customer service and bartending, which will hopefully help me secure these types of jobs later.
- I am learning skills that will be beneficial for me on the road, such as basic vehicle maintenance.
- Because I will be living locally in my van for a while, I have been surveying my area and gathering a list of good spots to park overnight.
The biggest changes I have made to my plan over the last few months have had to do with the rig, itself. After many hours of research, I had first decided on a trailer, which I would hitch to the SUV that I currently own. I love my car (a 2010 Rav 4) and I didn’t want to part with it. I also liked the fact that, with a trailer and vehicle combo, if one or the other had issues I could simply unhitch them and have either a home or a vehicle while the other was being repaired. I thought I would find a small, ready to go trailer, like a T@B. Then, I realized how expensive camper trailers are, and decided to buy a cargo trailer instead, and outfit it on my own. I don’t have any experience with construction, wiring, propane, or anything, but I saw people figuring it out online, so I figured I would figure it out, too. Because even small trailers are much larger than a T@B, I looked into towing weight capacity (and tow packages, since my vehicle actually does not come with one). I realized that a trailer with all its conversions would simply be too heavy for my beloved SUV, and was forced to resign to the idea of selling my car in order to help pay for a more hefty SUV, which I would use to tow the converted trailer. This was getting pretty expensive…
As I did more research I was constantly urged not to try to wire my own rig. I was told that the risks involved simply were not worthwhile. I knew I couldn’t afford to have a shop do all the work for me, so I asked around and was lucky enough to gain the support of an electrical engineer friend who said it would be a fun project and he would be happy to help. I will pay him, of course, but it will be much cheaper than having shop work done. With more research, I was also urged not to go the trailer route at all. This was the thing I have had the hardest time accepting so far. But, eventually I realized these people were right. It would be a very slow journey up and down mountains with a trailer, and I would have a hard time parking most places. Plus, I would not be able to hop straight into my home without finding level ground and setting the trailer. The point that really hit home for me, though, was that with a van you can get from your bed to the driver’s seat without ever leaving the vehicle, in case there is danger. And so, I decided I would become a van dweller after all, and I was nearly back at square one.
I began researching conversion and cargo vans and was overwhelmed by my options. I made a list of what I needed from my van, and this really helped me narrow it down:
- High top options
- Enough space for a sink, a propane burner or two, a frame for a regular sized twin mattress, and my snake’s 40 gallon tank (yes, I am bringing my ball python with me) – this meant I needed something with an extended cab option
- Good mpg was a priority, but you tend to have to choose between either reliability or high mpg when it comes to van life, and I figured reliability was a higher priority, for me.
From what I found, it seems that either a Sprinter Van or a Chevy Express Extended Cargo Van would be the best way to go. Being as Sprinter Vans tend to be pretty pricey, I am currently looking for a Chevy Extended. I would prefer a van without side windows along the body, since I will need as much insulation and paneling inside as possible (to regulate temperature for my snake). Unless I get insanely lucky I’ll probably need to pay a shop to install a high top, but I hope to do the rest of the conversions on my own, with the help of friends and maybe minimal hired help.
When it comes to the layout and design of the van, things really depend on what vehicle I end up with. I have sketched out a ton of layout ideas, and I will make a post eventually where I share all of my blueprints. I think it will be interesting to see the evolution of my layout plans from the very beginning, all the way to what the layout ends up actually looking out. Stay tuned for that post in about a year (haha!).
There are some details I have been thinking a lot about, though. I definitely want a way to shower, but the way I thought I might incorporate this into the build has changed many times. At first I figured I could use a gym membership for personal hygiene, then I planned to build a small shower stall into the trailer, then I wondered if I would need to nix the shower altogether and simply keep a portable shower bag on hand to use outside in secluded areas. Currently, my plan is to install hooks on the ceiling in front of my sink, and keep a plastic tub and shower curtain on hand. I will stand in the tub and hook the shower curtain up around me, showering myself with a hose head attached to the sink. Who knows what my final showering technique will be, at this point!
I do, of course, need to be able to cook for myself. I have dabbled with the idea of installing a stove next to my sink, using a portable single propane burner like this one, or tucking away a portable stove like this one, for use either inside or outside. I will keep fresh food on hand, but whether I go with a cooler or install a refrigerator (electric or propane) will be determined by personal experience and needs, as I go. I will want a sink with running water, but the technicalities are not yet set in stone. I would like to have both fresh water for drinking, and publicly accessed non-potable water for dishes and showering, but tank sizes and setup are to be determined by the build. One thing I was really confused about when it came to van life, was how you get water without RV style hookups. There are tons of ways, but one way I was told about that I think would work well for me, is to hook up a hose to public spigots and fill your tanks directly from there. Apparently parks and even graveyards often times have spigots like this.
When it comes to power, and my snake’s setup, I won’t be able to get into many details until the build is underway. The general idea that my friend suggested includes solar panels, quite a few marine batteries, and a connection between my alternator and my internal power source. Plus, depending on what my power usage ends up looking like, I may find a small generator to keep on hand in case of emergencies. All I need to power will be my snake’s heat lamp and heat pad, some lighting, and potentially some cell phone or laptop charging (when public outlets and my vehicle’s charger don’t suffice). Additional, potential power usage may come from a fridge, my single serve style blender, or possibly heating/cooling options, but none of these are crucial needs, and will only be included if my setup can handle them.
Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am strangely obsessed with my mattress. I have had it since I was about 11 or 12 years old, I believe, and in all these years it is still the most comfortable thing I have ever slept on. Because I am kind of crazy, I want to actually use my mattress in my van build. I know it will take up a ton of space, and I know it will be a hassle, but at the moment, it is still part of the plan. I expect to loft it pretty high in order to use the space underneath.
As many resources will warn you, life on the road requires you to minimize your belongings drastically. You only have so much space to work with. This includes space to store items as well as space to use items. You may have the space to store the materials for a hobby, but that doesn’t mean you will have the space to engage in this hobby. I enjoy playing tabletop games, and the boxes don’t take up all that much room, but there are some that require four players and a flat surface area the size of a formal dining table. That just isn’t going to happen inside a camper trailer.
I’m fortunate when it comes to this step because I have always been a bit of a minimalist, and I had started downsizing quite a bit even before I decided I wanted to set out on this adventure. I still have a ways to go, but it is an exciting and liberating part of my journey. One thing to note is that, unless you are starting this journey straight out of high school or college, it is likely that, like me, you have acquired furniture. I will need to store my furniture while I am “away” because I do plan to settle in somewhere eventually and I will need it all at that time. I am very partial to the furniture I own, so for me selling and repurchasing is not an option, but it could be for some people. I own a mattress, bed frame, two large chairs, three bar stools, a dresser, a desk, a desktop computer, and two Ikea Expedit cube shelving units. I will most likely rent out a small storage unit, as I don’t have any family or friends with space to store it for me. But, aside from my furniture and probably a few boxes, I hope to minimize enough to take everything with me.
I’m not going to go too into detail here on exact numbers, but I think it is important to recognize that everyone comes from a different place financially, and this seriously affects the choices one might make when on this journey. In the future I may publish an outline of my pre- and during- van life budgets, but for now I am going to avoid giving exact numbers.
I have been saving money very aggressively for about 5 years now because I want to buy a house some day. This means I have a bit of wiggle room for spending, but ultimately I would like to not use my future home money for vanlife purposes. I will be borrowing from my future home stash to help pay for the van, but once I am rent-free I will be paying myself back with the money I would have been spending on rent. I also will be selling my car at some point, which I expect will cover 50% – 60% of the total van and conversion costs. Remember how I said I have been saving up for a home? I am still saving that same amount of money, but it is going toward van costs instead of adding to my future home savings stash.
I currently have a full time job as well as a part time job (just a few hours each week). I expect my conversion to take close to a year to complete, and I will be living in the van during that year. This means I will be paying for the conversion little by little while working full time and not paying rent.
There are tons of ways to make money while traveling. Seriously. This was one of the biggest worries I had when I decided to jump into this. How on earth would I feed myself? Well, I currently have a part time job that I do remotely. I very much hope to still be performing this job when I set out. Plus, I will apply for additional remote jobs – there are tons of them out there. Most of these remote jobs are relatively mundane, but that is a small price to pay for the ability to travel and put food in my belly. I may be looking into getting certified for a trade that can be done remotely, as another alternative. All of these jobs, of course, require internet and a computer, which means I will have a hot spot and a laptop.
I expect to stick around for a few weeks, or even months, in many locations I visit. I am, ultimately, looking for a place that I may want to move to permanently down the line. So, while I am “stationed” somewhere I will be picking up work. I could be bagging groceries, bartending, walking dogs, performing administrative work – who knows! My plan is to be flexible and pick up work wherever I can.
Less traditional and less steady sources of income also exist in abundance. There is seasonal work, event help, Craigslist gigs (to be used with caution!), word of mouth, and even WWOOFing in exchange for meals. A quick Google search will bring up tons of websites that cater to short term work; some even existing at national parks in exchange for free parking. I don’t expect finding work to be too difficult (but, stay tuned – let’s see if I am right!).
Well, there you have it
I will be interested to see how much my planning and preparation ends up reflecting the way things will play out. All in all, I am just excited to jump head first into the (somewhat) unknown and make one hell of an adventure out of it.