Living life on the road is a dream come true for many people, and it can be true for you as well! How much does it cost to live life from a van on the road? We go through the costs and what are the essentials for living the van life!
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Living life on the road has its benefits, key among them being freedom. Freedom to explore, see the sights, broaden your horizons, and pick up and move at the drop of a hat. If you have the means and the desire to travel permanently, you are one of a special breed of crazy-brilliant people who at this very moment are ‘homeless’ and having the time of their lives.
There are other benefits, too. Overall, these are the main reasons that people choose to live in a van:
- Escape the 9-5 routine
- Achieve peace and quiet
- Save money
- Personal growth
- Focus on your passions
- Embracing minimalism
- The challenge
And you can do it. In this post we’ll walk through the costs, essentials, and main things to consider when living out of a van or RV. Starting simply, you can begin with just a van and the essentials, and as you gain experience, slowly add additional components to your routine. This is about starting out minimalist.
How Much Does it Cost per Month to Live in a Van?
A well-known vanlifer named Lenny Flank has done a nice write-up on the costs associated with living life out of a van. If you are interested in doing this (realistically), I encourage you to check out his post. The summary is that it costs about $18,000 in upfront costs and after that about $1000/month (in 2015).
This means that for less than $15k per year, you can survive traveling out on the road. This includes food and water, health insurance, clothing, and even spending money for museums and attractions.
I emphasize the word “realistic” because much of what you see on instagram is highly idealized. In the following post, I want to go through the essentials and necessities – what do you actually need to live comfortably on the road? And is this realistic for you?
Where do you Park?
This is the most frequently asked question for those considering the camper van lifestyle, and for good reason. Many cities and towns try to discourage vagrants by instituting laws and ordinances that prohibit living or sleeping in a vehicle while parked on a city street.
What will happen if you are parked on a street, fast asleep, and the police come by? If you are kind and reasonable, usually they will ask you to leave and if you agree and move along, nothing more will happen. In certain cases, you may end up with a ticket or fine, but by and large, this is the exception. Typically if you are apologetic and agreeable, they will let you off with a warning.
So where do you park? First, you can pay to stay in campgrounds and state parks – which also may have helpful amenities such as showers and restrooms. The price for a state park pass is typically about $35 annually, and camping fees are another $15-35 per night. While reasonable, this can start to add up if you need to pay this every night and buy a new pass in every state you visit.
This brings us to free options. Several places you can park overnight include rest stops, casinos, and truck stops. Another great option is Walmart parking lots. As a corporate policy, Walmart allows overnight parking/sleeping in their parking lots, as long as it is a 24/7 store and does not conflict with local ordinances. It is also a good idea to call ahead and check with the store manager to verify that it is okay.
There is a website that has a List of Walmarts by State that allow overnight RV/Camper parking (they also have an iOS app for $3). It is updated daily by users. This can be very valuable to plan out your travel and where you can stay without getting hassled.
And this goes without saying, but don’t wear out your welcome. There is usually a designated place (away from the door) for those who are overnighting, so be sure to respect that. Don’t dump waste water in the parking lot, treat the staff kindly, and don’t stay too long.
Summary of Where to Park Overnight for Free:
- Rest Stops
- Truck Stops
- Walmart Parking Lots
What are the Essentials for Living Life on the Road?
Let’s break this down to the very basics. To live life on the road, you need to be able to eat, sleep, and bathe. After that, you are dealing with luxuries! The following list covers those necessities that you will need to live reasonably comfortably while living free on the road.
I am not going to go through all of the extra niceties! Definitely you can add some of those as you go along, but when you are just starting out, you should begin with the bare essentials, and then gradually add to that as you gain experience and optimize your possessions for your specific style.
In many ways, it is better to start out with too little (that you can add to as needed), than to start out with too much. Don’t haul around a set of golf clubs and a unicycle that you’ll never use and yet take up lot’s of precious space!
1 – Van, RV, or Pickup Camper
This will be not only your transportation, but also your shelter, so it will be your most significant and important expense. A decent quality used van will cost around $15,000. If you already have one, or have some means of arriving at a deal on one, all the better.
The type of vehicle you choose depends on a number of factors. If cost is a major consideration, then you will probably want to stick with a van of some sort. RV’s tend to be expensive but can be much more comfortable. But in many areas you cannot park an RV along the street due to local ordinances against this sort of thing. In that case, you will want a campervan.
Should you choose a passenger van or a cargo van? It depends on how you want to spend time in your van and what you are going to be doing with it. If privacy and ‘flying under the radar’ are priorities, a cargo van (with no rear windows) may be more your speed. If you want to be able to enjoy your surroundings more by looking out (and opening) the windows, a passenger van may be more your style, but keep in mind that when you can see out, others can see in (though you can install shades).
Ultimately, if you plan to spend considerable time in your vehicle a passenger van is probably the way to go, but if you are only planning to sleep in your van and perhaps read or work, then a cargo van is a good choice.
While minimal, there are risks associated with living out of a van, most of which can be avoided or minimized by simply driving away. For that reason, it is important that you don’t find yourself stranded. If you do, you could be ‘dead in the water,’ so make sure you don’t skimp on this essential piece of kit.
Vans typically get about 10-20 miles/gallon of gas. Keep this in mind as well when searching for the perfect vehicle. Depending on how much time you spend in each place you get to, gas could end up becoming a significant expense, so watching the mpg is important.
2 – Sleeping Cot
After you have the vehicle, you will need something to sleep on. Find a decent cot and set it up along one side of your van. I highly recommend using a cot to get yourself off the floor. This has two primary benefits.
The first is that it gets you off the floor which will keep you warmer on chilly nights and generally improve your outlook on life.
The second is more important, and that is that it increases your storage space since you can store other essentials under the cot, effectively doubling your storage space. It is like installing a shelf…for yourself.
3 – Sleeping Bag (Winter and Summer)
The next essential is a good quality sleeping bag. This one is important because you will be spending about 1/3 of your life in this thing, so make sure it is a good one!
Another thing to keep in mind is the sorts of weather that you will encounter. Where will you be primarily traveling? Will it be hot or cold? Humid or dry? High or low altitude? All of these considerations will factor into the type of sleeping bag that you use.
If you plan on making this a year-long adventure (or longer), you will need to have several sleeping bags in order to accommodate a variety of sleeping conditions. Plan on having a temperate sleeping bag, but also consider a summer and winter bag as well.
4 – Stove and Cooking Supplies
In general it is going to be much cheaper to do your own cooking rather than eating out. Most people will do a mixture of the two, so it is a good idea to have a camp stove available to heat water and for basic frying and cooking when necessary. These run off of those small propane tanks available at most super stores like Walmart.
Granola bars are great, but a hot meal goes a long way when you have been rained on for a week straight!
Another consideration if you will primarily be boiling water for noodles or coffee, is a jetboil which is very compact and gives you boiling water almost instantly. These run off of isobutane/propane fuel mixture canisters. They were originally designed for backpacking, so they are optimized for portability and quick use.
Another option if you only need to boil water occasionally is an alcohol stove which runs on isopropyl alcohol. These aren’t as fast, but will definitely work if you are not a daily coffee addict, and only need it a couple times per week.
The reason that camping cookware is often used by van lifers is that it is compact, light, and easy to haul around and stow. Get a high quality cookware set and it will serve you well for years to come.
5 – Portable Table and Sink
A narrow foldable table (that you don’t have to bend over to work at) is good for doing your cooking, cleaning, and other organizing (such as folding your clothes) on.
A camping table intended for cleaning fish fits this requirement almost perfectly. It has a small sink that can be attached to a garden hose (if you have access), and it has a drain hose that can be directed into a 5-gallon bucket for water waste.
6 – Compostable Toilet
At some point you will need to go to the bathroom, and it will not be convenient to leave your van. I have mixed feelings on the so-called compostable toilets. On the one hand, I have heard that they seal well to eliminate odor, however you do need to empty it at some point, and then you have to deal with the stench.
I am more prone to work with the 5-gallon bucket solution with attachable toilet lid. Make sure you double-bag, replacing the inner bag as necessary and this is a perfectly reasonable and simple solution. Keep a little kitty litter or peat moss handy to throw into the bottom before use and the smell will be more contained in the event that you can’t empty immediately.
7 – Bathing/Shower
Bathing is an important part of living in a van. Remember, you can’t smell your own stench, so don’t go more than a day or 2 without bathing.
Using a wash basin with soap, water and a small towel is a great way to keep clean without requiring a lot of kit. And you can do it using only 7 cups of water.
If you plan to be in areas were you will be able to rinse off outside, a portable pressurized shower is great. Fill it half full of water, and fill the other half with hot water heated on your stove, and you can take a nice hot shower. These are also great for rinsing off muddy boots or sandy feet – also for rinsing dishes or shampooing the dog.
8 – Camping Lantern – LED
A good light is a must-have. After it gets dark you will need to be able to see what you are doing and navigate your surroundings. If you read ‘old fashioned’ books, you’ll also need a good light. Invest in a high-quality LED lantern.
Having several of them positioned around your van is nice as they serve as typical lights like you would have in your home. Try to get ones with a magnetic base so they can be positioned in a versatile way. LEDs last longer and are brighter than traditional flashlight bulbs.
9 – Power Station and Solar Panel
A power station allows you to truly go ‘off-grid;’ it is basically just a large battery like the power bank you probably have to charge your phone, only larger. A power station is a fairly significant expense, but once you have one set up, there is an immense feeling of freedom associated with it. You no longer have to bum electricity from a rest-stop or unmonitored power outlet somewhere. You can get free battery power from the sun.
Luckily, there are now off the shelf solutions for power stations and solar panels that even a few years ago were not even an option. In the past, it was necessary to learn a lot about inverters and charge controllers in order to match the power produced to the charging power. Not any more. There is now significant interest in solar power and the technology has gotten to the point where consumer grade products are actually pretty good.
A couple of things to look for. You want a power station where you have ‘pass-through’ power, meaning that you can use it to power something at the same time that you are charging it. You also want to be able to charge it both from a normal wall outlet as well as from solar panels.
If you can mount the solar panels on the roof of your vehicle this gives you an almost constant source of power from the sun, since the power station can store power for several days in case it is cloudy or raining. Keep in mind that in the winter you will get less efficiency from the sun due to the less intense rays.
If I had to choose one power station that gives you the most bang for the buck, it would be the Bluetti EB150 with 2 of the BougeRV 180W solar panels attached to it in parallel (the EB150 comes with the cables you need to connect them). In this configuration, you can charge up the unit in about 10 hrs of sunlight. It gives you 2 normal wall plugs as well as USB ports to charge phones and computers. It is a 1500Wh unit built around an LG Lithium-Ion battery, so it can power a small refrigerator for several days without requiring a charge. If you need more power, upgrade to the AC200P.
10 – Tool Set
Another thing you should have is a good multi-purpose tool set that can be used for anything from minor repairs on your van to fixing a broken zipper. You never know when you might need a wrench or a pair of pliers. Make sure you have a kit with the essential tools:
- Socket set
- Assorted screwdrivers
- Allen Wrenches
- Adjustable Wrench
Crescent makes a pretty decent set with a good assortment, otherwise you likely have about 80% of what you need already, so you should be able to cobble together rest fairly easily.
11 – Mirror
You’re living out of your van, but you don’t need to look like it. You can use your side mirror, but a couple of magnetic-backed mirrors are handy to position at the rear door to check yourself out before emerging for the day.
I hope this list was helpful to you. Just remember, in addition to the vehicle, you will need to eat, sleep, and bathe, so as long as you have those things covered, you will be set. The rest of the things on this list come in at a close second to make sure you stay sane.
The freedom that comes from pulling up roots can’t be beat, now go seize the day!