Considering living in a van full time or even for a long trip? Worried about the pros and cons, and wondering what it's REALLY like? I quit my job to travel Europe in a motorhome several years ago. In this post, I'll share some of the most surprising things about vanlife, including problems with living in a van and things I didn't expect.
Don't forget to grab your FREE van life maintenance checklist below
*We work hard to make this the best motorhome blog and road trip website possible, full of helpful content for you. The website is supported by our readers, so if you buy through links on this site we may earn a commission- at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain our own.
If you find this post useful, you can also treat us to a coffee at the bottom of this page- we promise to enjoy it while creating more useful content like this- we might even indulge in a biscuit (or two!)
Living in a Van full time- the truth
Have you ever wanted to sell the house, get rid of your ‘stuff', tell your boss you quit your job, pack some essentials and head off over the horizon in your van?
What's stopped you?
I mean, come on, it’s not like regular people actually DO that.
Er… Hi. I’m Kat. Four years ago I quit my (very well-paid and secure) job as an air-traffic controller, in order to tour around Europe in a motorhome long-term with my husband.
This wasn’t a ‘gap year'. We didn't say ‘let’s see how it goes for a few months.' We got a van, saved like crazy people until we hit our goal, sold most of our possessions, and headed off over the horizon.
That was in early 2018, and we sure have had some adventures. There have been highs and lows, like our van catching fire and a global pandemic, but I still say quitting my job and living in a van has changed my life for the better.
I know living in a van full time or even for a long time is not for everyone. But if, deep down, it sounds like something you’d LOVE to try, here are 9 things I wish I’d known to expect- to help you be more prepared than I was!
How you live in a van is NOT how you live in a house
We've lived on boats for 15+ years and had a house for a short time too and on both of those, we were used to having a bit of space to do different activities and spend a little time apart.
My husband had his office, and his garage/ ‘man shed’ for tinkering with the motorbikes.
I had a dining room (which was mostly a craft room), our bedroom and I used our spare room as a home gym/ dumping ground (oh, the luxury!)
But when living in a van full time, you don’t have all these extra spaces. Depending on the layout of the van you buy (get advice on how to choose and buy the right van for YOU here), one space will have to do EVERYTHING. For all of you. At the same time.
We learnt (very quickly) that the two of us struggle working in the same space. It drives me NUTS having to listen to him on the phone for hours, and I'm sure he feels the same listening to me trying to film a YouTube video (and repeating one part over and over and OVER again).
(Talking of Youtube, we are SO CLOSE to hitting our subscriber goal. If you aren't already, you can subscribe right here for free. We really do appreciate your support.)
Over time, we learned to adapt how we live and work together from the road. I take the dog for long (long!) walks whilst he gets some work done, and he promises not to completely rewire the van or start messing with the internet whilst I am trying to work on this motorhome blog, film a youtube video (or watch the F1!)
The point is to compromise. We were so used to doing things independently, in separate rooms, without even really thinking about it, that it took time to find a rhythm which worked for us when we only had one space.
You will overpack for vanlife. Massively
I promise, you do NOT need as much stuff when you're living in a van as you think you do.
Yet we all overpack when we first start vanlife. For example, when we started living in a motorhome, we packed four warm, snuggly blankets with us. FOUR.
And yes- these were just for the 2 of us!
We also packed a juicer, blender, hand whisk and cake tins. None of which we used.
I'm not saying YOU shouldn't pack these things. If you juice every day or bake cakes regularly, then they should absolutely be on the list (and can you please come and travel with me?!) but we didn't use them.
So we shouldn't be carrying them. Downsizing is hard, but it's important not to go over your payload and living with clutter has its own challenges. Be ruthless!
TOP TIP: It can help to put some things into storage if you're going to be living in a van full time, and then see if you need anything. But, honestly, my guess is you probably won't!
Full time vanlife will not make you healthier
I honestly thought that once I lived in a van full time, I'd get up earlier, meditate every morning, go for a run each day, eat fruit and carrot sticks for breakfast and within a week I’d be a stick thin model.
Oh, and I’d finally have the time to learn to surf and be a hot surfer chick with blonde hair.
Shockingly enough, it didn't happen.
I do actually wake up early most days, but that's because we travel with a dog and walking in the morning is one of my favourite things.
But we travel in Europe and have spent a lot of time motorhoming in France. Where they have croissants on every corner. And freshly baked crusty baguettes. And delicious cakes. So no, funnily enough, I've not lost 2 stone.
And I’ve tried surfing. Several times. I'm RUBBISH at it. More beached whale than beach babe sadly. I'm also not blonde…
Just remember, living in a van won't change who YOU are (this applies to the people you travel with too!) You will still be the same person, with the same likes, dislikes and habits.
You will try to pack too much in
We learnt very quickly that how you travel while on holiday is not how you should travel when you're living in a van full time.
We had the tendency to plan in too much driving – and not enough sightseeing or exploring time. Within a few weeks, we were exhausted from travelling almost every day and in danger of burning out.
Now, we try to plan one or maybe two driving days and then one or two exploring days where we stay put or at least stay in the local area. My husband prefers to drive, but he's been ill recently and too much driving tires him out. So living on the road is even more of a balancing act.
We've also learnt that things run smoother between us if we plan specific working days and fun days. And it's essential to plan some downtime, where you can read a book, do maintenance jobs on the van (get your FREE motorhome maintenance checklist here) or just sunbathe on a beach.
Also, remember that it's OK to not move anywhere for a week. Or two. Or three. Travel slowly, at your own pace. No one is keeping score. Here are some tips for planning road trips if you need them.
Chores must still be done (and they take longer!)
I'm sorry to say, living in a van does not remove the need to do chores, like cleaning or washing clothes on the road. And, even more sadly, some things take a LOT longer- like when you need to go find a laundrette.
On the plus side, the van is (probably) a much smaller space than your house, so things get clean in a third of the time!
The van also needs regular maintenance to keep it in good shape. Don’t ignore this- it’s important to avoid breakdowns. You can grab your FREE motorhome maintenance checklist here.
Family and friends may not get your desire to live in a van and travel
There are two types of people in the world. Those who cannot fathom the idea of living in a van or a boat… and those of us for whom living alternatively is the ultimate dream.
To say my family and most of my friends were shocked by my choice to quit my job and travel in a van is an understatement. Most of them tried to talk me out of it.
I spent ages trying to explain my feelings- how I wanted to explore the world whilst I was young enough to enjoy it; how having a big house wasn’t that important to me and how trapped I felt by the ‘9-5' (I was an air-traffic controller, and we worked shifts… but you get the idea.
Eventually, I remembered that this was MY life and it was perfectly ok for me to have different dreams and life goals than they do. They get even more confused when I occasionally take a trip by myself to experience solo female vanlife.
To them, it made no sense to leave a well-paid and secure job in search of freedom and adventure. To me, it made no sense to stay. If you have relatives like that, expect some heated debates for a while!
Living in a van makes people curious about your finances
In the ‘real' world, you’re unlikely to ask complete strangers about how much their lifestyle costs them. Or their retirement plans. Or how they earn money. Or what happens if they get sick.
But, for some reason, living in a van full time or long term, especially if you’re not working a ‘real’ job, makes people curious about how much it costs to live in a van.
Like most Brits, I was bought up not to talk about money. Even now, years later, it can feel odd to have people ask how much we spend each month.
In truth, I try to be much more open with anyone considering changing their own life; I remember how daunted I felt by the money aspect of living in a van and leaving my job and being scared we wouldn't be able to make the financials work.
The other thing which surprised me about leaving my job to live and travel in a van is the question ‘what do you do?'
Before I left work, I never realised how often we ask that question when we first meet someone, and how much of our social identity is based on our jobs. This was one of the biggest problems for me about living in a van- I struggled for a long time to find an answer which worked for me.
It’s also been fascinating to see how people interact in different social groups and the different questions vanlifers ask each other when you meet on the road. Those who have been living in their vans full time for a while are much more likely to ask about where you’ve been and what modifications you’ve made to your vehicle, instead of what you do for work.
Living in a van full time can feel overwhelming
One of the biggest lessons we learned is that too much freedom can be daunting. When you're looking at a blank map and can go ANYWHERE… where do you go?
Since we started fulltime vanlife, I’ve discovered that ‘wandering and winging it’ doesn’t always work for me. As ex-military, I prefer having solid goals and a plan. Things to tick off a list. Places to visit and things to do.
Of course, there are massive advantages to that freedom too.
Being able to stay in a place for as long as we like, or being able to detour if we are invited to an event or discover a festival taking place, is one of the best things about not having to be back at work on Monday morning!
It’s definitely a balance between over-planning and allowing time to enjoy what life brings us.
Want to create a life you LOVE?
Whether it's quitting your job to travel, downsizing, or living in a van full-time, changing your life and living ‘outside the norm' can be scary. To help, download our FREE 5 steps to Freedom mini-guide on how to create a life you LOVE
The people you meet on the road will change your life
Talking of other vanlifers, once you start living in a van full time or on a long trip, you’ll discover an incredible community of people who think along similar lines to you in terms of priorities and looking at the world.
They will get your decision to change your life, or quit your job or take life by both hands and LIVE it.
We’ve had some wonderful nights around campfires, sharing beers and stories with total strangers. We’ve chatted with people from all over the world, even if they don’t speak the same language.
These are the people who inspire us to visit places we’ve never heard of and the people we love to stay in touch with and follow their adventures.
Final Thoughts about living in a van
Changing your life is tough. There are a million reasons NOT to go for it- most of which revolve around the unknown being scary and the many (many!) ‘what ifs’.
We did a lot of research before we finally took the plunge and decide to downsize and live in our van. We had already spent 15 years living on a boat, and we learned how to budget and how to live in a small space together.
However, even with all that, the things above still took me by surprise. Some are good, some less so, but all contributed to this incredible adventure we’re on. I wouldn’t change our decision for anything, even with the troubles we faced in 2020.
I encourage anyone thinking about changing their life to think it through but don't let fear hold you back. After all, you only get this one life and van living could be the best decision you ever make.
And, of course, join our tribe and get our weekly newsletter where we share plenty of tips about vanlife and road tripping. Sign up form is below.
Want more tips for motorhome life?
Here are some more ideas you might find useful:
- Essential Motorhome accessories every van should have
- Best Sat-nav for motorhomes or campervans
- Motorhome Security– tips for at home and on the road
- How to get Internet & wifi in a motorhome
- Europe- essential gear for travelling to Europe
- Best gift ideas for motorhome and campervan owners
Want FREE checklists, eBooks and additional tips to help? Visit our resource page