truth about van life

I’m about to share something that might seem controversial nowadays, and that’s that van life is not the ultimate dream. You would never think that looking at social media, though! All you need to do is scroll through the #vanlife hashtag to see cool photos of people traveling the world, waking up every day with a view right outside their window. After living in a van for 7 months with my husband, I’m here to tell you that’s not the whole truth.

Granted, it’s no doubt that van life comes with many perks. When you do get to enjoy those moments out in nature where you have the doors wide open and you’re breathing in the fresh air, you think “this is pretty great!” And van life comes with a very special community of others who have joined you on your alternative living journey. But you don’t see photos of all the hard days, which are very much real when you are living in a tiny space, especially with another person.

First, I have to give some important context: my husband and I got into van life for a very different reason than most. For us, it wasn’t about traveling the country and visiting every national park – we had already done a lot of that. We got into van life as a way to put our money towards something that was ours at the end of the day and live a more minimalist life. We decided to move to San Francisco, a city that my husband had long dreamed of living in, and van life was our way of avoiding the rent trap in California that plagues far too many. And although we did that successfully, it came at a cost and taught us a lot about who we are and what we want in life – and we came to realize van life is not it. 

The journey started as were on our computers looking at apartments for rent in the Bay Area, and quickly saying to each other, “Do we really want to spend $2,500 a month on rent?” That then led us to exploring what we could afford to buy, and since buying a house in California was not an option, we started looking into converting an airstream into a tiny home. Unfortunately for us, we found out there are tons of restrictions against this in the Bay Area and it just was not a possibility.

So after more conversations, we started exploring the idea of a sprinter van. Though much smaller than an airstream, you could park them anywhere and still have a full kitchen. We decided we would look on Craiglist and if we found something for the right price, we would go for it and take a leap of faith. Next thing we knew, we found the perfect deal on Craiglist for an already-converted van that was built out by a rock climber out West. We spoke on the phone for an hour and hit it off, then hung up and sent him a deposit. It was ours, and just a month later we went out to Nevada to pick it up and start our adventure. We spent three weeks on the road going across much of the West and many national parks, and then finally settled in our new home of San Francisco.

Those few weeks were some of the hardest, as we quickly realized that as much as we love being out in nature, we prefer it in doses. Because we both our creative freelancers, our business and livelihood is completely on us, and we found it really hard to get work done and feel productive while being on the road nonstop. It’s not easy to get Internet inside of a metal van, and although there are workarounds for it, we didn’t find something that worked well enough for us. We also quickly realized how much we need creative community to feel motivated and excited about work and not having that began to drain us. Add having no A/C in our van and being in 100+ degree weather many days, and it was a recipe for some pretty stressful days. But as long as it looks cool on Instagram, right? 

We thought once we landed in San Francisco and got settled into our new city things would get easier, but instead we ran into a new world of problems. We had originally planned on finding a driveway to rent so we could have a permanent parking spot, and being able to have more of a life apart from the van. But we had no idea how hard that would be to find in the Bay Area, where most people don’t have driveways or any space to rent out. So instead, we had to park in a different place every night and be constantly thinking about the parking rules, safety (since the Bay Area is notorious for car break-ins), and if we would be “stealth” where we parked – i.e. not in an area too nice that people would have an issue with us parking there. 

We could have avoided a lot of this by staying away from the city and being in more suburban areas, but we couldn’t do that when all of our friends and work are in the city. Not to mention both my husband and I are pretty extroverted and don’t do well when we only spend our time with each other; we need people. Being chained to each other 24/7 did not make us happy, but it’s hard to avoid when you share a vehicle that also happens to be your home. 

The van we had been living in was not made for city life; we didn’t have a proper place to put our clothes, we had a camp toilet that would smell, we had no A/C on the hot days and didn’t even have a radio to play music to keep us entertained on long drives. We thought, “well what if we built out a new van that fixed those problems, and designed it to feel more like a home?” So we ended up selling our van and hiring a company to build out our new “dream van”.

That process was more stressful than we could have imagined since we had no place to live in the meantime, the build took far longer than we had planned, and all the while we were not getting work since we didn’t have consistency, which added yet another level of stress. But finally our new van was finished, and we started with a fresh slate.

Our new van was like living in luxury compared to what we were used to! We had a real place to sit and eat, a closet to put our clothes, a fridge with an actual freezer so we could make smoothies again, and even a composting toilet that had zero smell! This was no doubt a huge upgrade, and we got more into a routine over the next few months after I joined a co-working space in the city and Marco and I had a somewhat “normal” schedule again.

But after a few months, our mutual feeling remained the same: this life is not for us. 

All the while, our life on Instagram looks amazing and people are continuing to think that we are “living the dream”. But for us, it could not have been further from the dream.

But what we want people to take away from our experience is not that everything you see on social media is a lie or that van life is all bad, because it can also be perfect for your lifestyle and will teach you so many valuable lessons. It taught us that we don’t need a lot of space and that we need a lot less “stuff” than we realized. It made us far more aware of how much we consume and use, since every drop of water and bit of trash we create and use is very tangible (and we have to dump that water out every few days if we don’t want a mess in our van!). It taught us to be thankful for things like hot showers, a big kitchen and sink, a home you host people in, and how much more we need to value time apart. It helped us learn how to accept generosity from others (which was a struggle for us), and now we cannot wait to return that generosity. And it taught us that no risk is ever a failure if you learn something from it.

So do we regret having done #vanlife? Not at all! Our experience taught us more about who we are and what we want in life, and has led us to a new place that we had never planned for but feel is the perfect fit in the next season of our lives… which is Mexico City!

Van life is coming to an end for us, but our journey towards a more minimalist and purposeful lifestyle has not. We are excited to take what this experience has taught us with us throughout life, and remind ourselves to be thankful for the little things we so often take for granted. I hope that our experience reminds you that things are not always what they seem on social media, but that it’s worth taking risks to learn what you really want. Whether that’s living in a van or a house or living abroad, it’s not about where you’re going but who you’re becoming.