9 Essential Tips for Surviving Van Life

My van life life began back in November of 2013 when my now husband, Nick, and I were on a 15-month journey abroad (oh how I could have used some of these van life tips then!). We were surfing in Indonesia and realized that we were probably the closest to New Zealand that we would ever be so why not pop by for a visit? We bought a converted camper van in Auckland, toured both islands, hiked our little bums off, and then sold our beloved van in Christchurch 3 months later.

Van Life in New Zealand by Wandering Wheatleys
Van Life V.1

And we opted for that van life again in October of 2016. We were living in Portland, Oregon, we had “real” jobs, and we feeling very antsy. So we decided to do what every 35-year-old does when they are feeling their life has become mundane – we quit our jobs to embark on a  road trip around the states in our 1994 Ford Bronco.

Our original plan was to drive to Tennessee and end our trip in December but we  were having so much fun that we extended it until April and went all the way to the Florida Keys and back to Oregon again! We put over 20,000 miles on our Ford Bronco, spent over 120 of those nights in a tent sleeping under the stars, and had the opportunity to check out 26 of our National Parks along the way.

Van Life in the Valley of Fire, Nevada by Wandering Wheatleys
Van Life V.2 – Big step backwards

But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Our beloved “Betty the Bronco” broke down several times. We had days where it dumped rain and we had to spend hours just sitting under a tarp. We had nights when we slept in the back of our car in a Walmart parking lot. And nights when we slept in the front seat in the most uncomfortable position because it was too cold to do anything but curl up into the fetal position. We had several mice enter our car, snack on our treats, and burrow in our towels. I had to get out of the tent to pee in the middle of the night, almost every. single. night.

Thirds time’s a charm! We rented a luxury camper van to bum around Southern Germany for 3 weeks. This van life actually featured comfy beds (inside!), a diesel-fueled heater for chilly mornings, and a chemical toilet (which was horrifying to dump so it was considered “emergency-only”… I had at least 4 emergencies every day). While the van got larger, the German streets got narrower and we both began to seriously question the other’s navigating ability.

Van Life V.3 – Now this is living!

The moral of my story is that living out of a small, confined space for an extended period of time with anyone is rough. Add in the stress of driving, parking, and infrequent showers and you could have a recipe for disaster. Follow these 8 tips to avoid catastrophe during your epic van life escapades!

Note: There are a few affiliate links below. They won’t cost you anything to use, but we’ll get a tiny bit of commission from your purchase which will help us to keep on keeping on and for that we are extremely grateful! 

Van Life Tips: 

Tip #1: Opt for a Camper Van

I’m not giving this advice because I don’t enjoy camping in a tent. Quite the contrary. I actually really love it. But if you are on the move like we were, you will be putting your tent together every night and then breaking it down to pack it up every morning. Throw in an air mattress, sheets, and a comforter and it’s no small ordeal. Then add freezing cold temperatures or extreme exhaustion and you’ll probably seriously consider sleeping hunched over behind the wheel.

And the rain. It’s impossible to fully appreciate the torture of sleeping in a tent in the rain until you actually do. And then working out how to pack up your wet tent to get it to dry out while in the car is another torture in itself.

Also by the Wandering Wheatleys:  Havasu Falls

But, if you opt for a proper camper van (or, at least, a converted van) where your bed is actually contained within the walls of the vehicle, you’ll be protected from the elements. And you’ll save yourself time and energy of all of that packing and unpacking. You’ll be warm and dry and a whole lot happier, I promise.

If you do Choose to Camp in a Tent:

  • Purchase a really comfortable air mattress that can stand up to all weather conditions. We went through 4 before we finally found one that could roll with the punches. This is the only the air mattress that stood up to our constant abuse!
  • Choose regular bedding over sleeping bags. Sheets, blankets, and a proper comforter make the experience of tent camping in the cold much more manageable. Plus there’s no zipper barrier so you can warm your frigid feet on your partner during serious cold cuddle fests.
  • Create a routine. We had a system every morning and every evening – we would set-up the tent together and then as Nick put the stakes in the ground, I would begin blowing up the air mattress. I would put the bedding on the bed while he put the rain fly over the tent. Same-ish thing in reverse in the morning. We both knew our jobs and learned to do them more quickly and efficiently every day.

Tip #2: Automobile Reliability is Key

When your car also doubles as your home, it’s pretty imperative that it is in tip-top condition. Because if something goes array you’ll be forced to find a local mechanic and hope they can get it fixed in short order. Otherwise you’ll be stranded for a while. Speaking of stranded, if you find yourself camping in the middle of nowhere and your car won’t start, you’ll be be seriously screwed.

Sunrise over the Alvord Desert, Oregon by Wandering Wheatleys
Van Life Tip: Don’t get stuck out here

If Your Ride is Questionable:

  • Equip yourself with the means to get unstuck. AAA, a car battery charger, jumper cables, and anything else your car may need in case of an emergency. By the end of our USA trip we were carrying a self-contained jump starter because I was certain we would get stuck down a lonely dirt road with a dead battery while surrounded by serial killers.
  • Have a back-up plan. This also probably involves a back-up budget. In case you have a really expensive repair or need to spend a few nights in a hotel room. Or need to get yourself a plane ticket home.

Tip #3: Get Organized

When you are residing in a tiny space (and especially if you are sharing it with another person), a small mess can be a huge annoyance. Knowing where things are when you need them can be pretty clutch – especially if you are REALLY hungry or tired or irritated. Which will probably be an every day occurrence.

Orginization Tips:

  • Store things in Tupperware. If you don’t have ready-made drawers/cabinets in your camper, opt for clear Tupperware bins as your storage solution. It’s easy to see what’s inside, they are weather-proof, and they will keep the critters out.
  • Label label label! With all of those storage bins, you’ll need to keep your gear sorted in a way that is easy to access and is grouped accordingly. During our roadtrip in our Bronco, we had a tupperware for “dry goods”, for “pots and pans”, one for “backpacking gear”, one for “bedding”, and I went a bit overboard and labeled our stove and cooler. You know, just in case we forgot.

Wondering what you’ll need for a lengthy road trip? Check out our road trip packing list and our list of travel essentials!

Our Go-To Van Life Gear



 

Tip #4: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

You know those Instagram accounts that you follow? The ones featuring photos of a couple sipping coffee while laying on their bed covered in colorful Pendleton blankets with the back door of the van opened to show the epic view they are gazing at? They are always having the best time and just love each other so freaking much. THAT’S NOT REAL #VANLIFE!

Also by the Wandering Wheatleys:  Our Top 10 Travel Packing Essentials
Van Life and Pendleton Blankets in Colorado by Wandering Wheatleys
We would never post one of those fake #vanlife photos!

When you are spending every sleeping and waking hour (and a tiny space that you use for sleeping, peeing, AND commuting) with the same person, you’re bound to want to murder them by the end of the day. Okay, that might be an exaggeration but regardless, expect to get in your fair share of tiffs.

Avoid Inevitable Arguments:

  • Compromise on the audio entertainment. I opt for serial murder podcasts but Nick knows that he’ll have a challenging time getting me out of the car mid-pod so he usually opts for music. Compromise by allowing the person behind the wheel to pick their poison.
  • Be understanding of the person driving. Driving a giant vehicle down a narrow road or an extremely windy road or just through traffic in a busy city is stressful enough as it is without a backseat driver yapping in your ear. Cut your partner some slack and trust that they will slay the drive.
Driving our motorhome in Germany by Wandering Wheatleys
Preparing to slay the drive!
  • AND the person navigating. Google Maps is literally a godsend when is comes to roadtrips and a downloaded map may save you from getting seriously lost. But Google isn’t always perfect and sometimes figuring out turns and merges and such can be confusing. As the driver, you’ll be undoubtedly frustrated but just remember that your navigator isn’t getting you all turned around on purpose unless they’re an asshole.
  • Go to sleep and/or wake up when you want. Your partner wants to get up and do a brisk 5-mile sunrise hike? Great! More power to them! You’ll probably just be waking up when they return so if they could boil some water for coffee that would be lovely (BTW, this is the most durable french press ever invented!). It’s okay to have slightly different schedules (unless you’re in a tent and the hiking spot is in a different spot, in which case, you’re screwed).
Sunrise at Temple of the Sun, Capital Reef National Park, Utah by Wandering Wheatleys
Nick watching sunrise… Val sleeping
  • Cook before you get hangry. Van life often feels like a bit of a race… trying to get ahead of bad weather, making the most of your day when the sun starts to set earlier and earlier, and hoping for epic landscape views for every sunset. You are constantly on the move – driving somewhere new and hiking some mountain. And since there’s not really anything to do other than drink wine and play card games once the sun goes down, you’ve got to pack it all in during daylight hours. So food can be an afterthought. Big mistake. Huge. Your tummy dictates your mood and you’re likely to take your hanger out on your poor partner. Calm down, pull over, and cook your dinner. I promise there will be more sunsets to watch and mountains to hike tomorrow.
  • Avoid copious amounts of wine and deep relationship convos. Imagine this for a moment… it’s just you and your partner, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Just the two of you. They already know all of your stories, all of your funny jokes, and they most certainly know what you did that day. So conversation boredom mixed with a little booze can lead to questions like “what is one thing you would change about me?” or “what do I do that annoys you?” or “do you think my sister is hot?” Avoid! Abort! These conversations do NOT end well. Keep games and movies on hand if you can’t handle casual conversations about the weather when you’re drunk.

Tip #5: Keep Certain Private Things Private

To say I have an “overactive bladder” would be fair. Actually, it might be an understatement. Like clockwork I have to get up to pee in the middle of the night. Every night. Even if I haven’t even had a drop of liquid hit my tongue for a full 12 hours prior. So yes, the thought of wearing an adult diaper to bed so that I didn’t have to crawl out of my tent or my van at 2:00am every morning to pee most certainly crossed my mind. But forcing my husband to endure the smell of urine and then change me like a baby in the morning would mean venturing into VERY unsexy territory.

Also by the Wandering Wheatleys:  What World Travelers Really Want! 18 Gift Ideas

When you go days without showering, shaving, brushing your hair, or doing laundry, picking up some other nasty habits can be a slippery slope. But if you’re like me, your #vanlife partner is also your #reallife partner and you still have to find each other attractive through the filth. If you wouldn’t do it in front of your partner back home, it shouldn’t fly in your van either.

Van Life Tip: Keep the Romance Alive by Wandering Wheatleys
Nick’s beard after 3 months of van life in New Zealand

Never, Under any Circumstances Ever:

  • Poo in your chemical toilet.
  • Leave poo-y toilet paper in the van garbage bag.
  • Clip your toenails in bed.
  • Fart under the covers and then pull them up over your partners head.
  • Leave your stinky socks laying around your tiny living space.
  • Ask your partner if you can pop their bacne and/or pluck their mole hair.

Tip #6: Keep the Romance Alive

This tip goes hand-in-hand with Tip #5. It can be far too easy to fall into the comfortable “friend zone” rhythm when you are feeling dirty and stinky and exhausted. Just remember that you’re both funky and it’s pretty unlikely your partner will even be able to smell you over their own stank. If you’re really past your prime, just try to have at least one kiss a day that is more passionate than you’d plant on your mother.

Van Life Tip: Keep the Romance Alive by Wandering Wheatleys
Do you kiss your mother like that?

#7: Expect the Unexpected

When you are out in the middle of nowhere on your epic camper van adventure, there may not be any amenities around for miles and you never know what issues you may encounter in the wild. Always make sure you have a full tank of gas before venturing to remote locations and stock up on food and water, just in case. Be sure to download any maps you’ll need while you still have reception – the backcountry ain’t got time for cell towers!

Don’t Forget to Pack:

  • A headlamp (we love the Petzl Tikkina)
  • Extra batteries of various shapes and sizes
  • A lighter and matches in case something happens with your lighter
  • Spare tire (we carried a full-size spare)
  • A self-contained jump starter in case of a dead battery
  • Wine
  • Back-up wine, just in case
Van Life Tip: Expect the Unexpected by Wandering Wheatleys
We’re gonna need more wine…

Tip #8: Take a Time-Out

Do you look like complete losers when you’re at a restaurant or a bar, sitting across from each other, sipping a glass of wine while deeply engrossed in scrolling through Instagram on your phone? Sure. Do you sometimes need some time to yourself while your partner just leaves you the hell alone? Definitely.

Who cares what other people think – ignore your partner and head down the social media rabbit hole for as long as you need until you’re ready to engage in conversation again. Your life is WAY more exciting than your judgey table neighbors anyway.

Tip #9: Go with the flow

Are you always going to want to do the things that your partner wants to do? No way. Are you going to be stuck in a van that doubles as your house and thus have no choice but go wherever they go? Sorry but yeah so get used to it.

Maybe you don’t want to hike that mountain at the moment but I bet once you get to the top you’ll be glad you did! And driving 6 hours out of the way to see some rock formation that your partner saw on Instagram and MUST take a photo of it sounds torturous now, but do you really have anything better to do? (No, you don’t…)

Van Life Tip: Go with the flow by Wandering Wheatleys
Nick: “Hey, it was a cool rock formation!”

Take a chill pill, compromise, and step outside of your comfort zone. Living out of a van can be incredibly frustrating at times but I guarantee you will create some of your most cherished memories with your favorite partner-in-grime!

Cypress Tree Tunnel, Point Reyes, California by Wandering Wheatleys

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Love your honesty! So refreshing and funny! I do not think I could do this with my husband, I think we would drive each other crazy and I would need loads of wine! I like sleeping under a roof, having electricity and a toilet! But I would love to do a road trip around the USA one day.

  2. I’ve always wanted to try out this type of touring and being able to bring more stuff with you and stop anywhere you feel like. Great tips on how, what and other small helpful hints on doing this right.

  3. Indrani says:

    Ha ha insta photos of the ‘not real van life’. 😀 I always envied that and now I feel better 😉
    Yes several small details to look into. But the freedom to move around surpasses all difficulties I guess. I would prefer to one such trip keeping all your tips and observations in mind.

  4. Kirstie says:

    You and your husband are the perfect examples of wanderlust! Seriously? Quit jobs and explore the world! That is but a dream to most but you are daring enough to make it a reality. So jealous. I bet you did become better persons after that. Life is indeed mundane when you are just stuck doing the same thing every time. Sigh.

  5. Carolina Colborn says:

    Great tips. A lot of them apply to our 5 years in an RV. I should write similar tips!

  6. These are great tips, guys. Wine and backup wine are probably my favorite. I’ll need all that, down by the river, if/when L finally manages to take me down the path of van life (she’s working hard on it).

  7. Paige Wunder says:

    These are really great tips. My husband and I camp in the back of our 4Runner a lot when we road trip in the US, but there is a huge learning curve to it. We learned quickly that bringing real bedding is huge. When we take the 4Runner out we always pack way too many blankets because we’d rather have too many than not enough. Making sure you have a means to get help is HUGE. It’s one of those things you hope you never need to use and then when you do, you’re so glad you have it. Great tips! P.s. y’all are adorable.

  8. Never experienced Van life, but would love to at the least for a short period. I do know that is not necessarily a roses and romance experience all the way. Like anything else in life it too has its challenges. These tips are really practical and sensible and great pointers for anyone embarking on a Van life.

  9. Kim says:

    Having a back up plan on the road is so crucial. When your automobile is your home and mode of transportation, you have to make sure it’s in tip-top shape! Great tips and suggestions for on the road essentials. I loved reading about your different #vanlife experiences! If you had to do it again, which one would you pick?

  10. Pedro says:

    That’s something I’d really love to do one day. But I’d have to have friends who really like to drive, since I have never taken a drivin lesson…

Leave a Reply