We've all seen the Instagram posts, the declarations of free and easy living in the slow lane. A quick search for #vanlife shows just how much this lifestyle has taken off in recent years. And it's hard for us outdoor lovers not to fantasise about the freedoms and adventures we could have with a van. The views you'd see. The road trips you'd take. But what is van life really like? What's behind that rose-tinted filter of social media? And most importantly, is it worth it?
We caught up with Jeni Bell, someone actually living the van life, to find out.
Van living is simple, cheap and flexible
I’ve lived in a van for about 4 years now with my other half Bill, and our troublesome terrier Millie. It started with a simple intention to travel and explore, to take time out from life and discover what was on our doorstep at home in the UK. And so began the start of our epic van life adventure. As Frank Turner would put it – the horizon, for that short space of time, was our home. We experimented with van-life, practised budgeting, mixing up campsites with alternative camping spots (usually BritStops or designated overnight parking) and lived our lives as free and simply as we could.
We fell in love with van dwelling but knew we couldn't travel forever. Eventually, reality caught up with us and our dwindling budget rolled us back home, where we decided we would make it a permanent choice. Now, we're full-time 'van-lifers', which is epic, but not quite as glamorous as 'van travellers'.
It was a practical choice as much as anything. Even when not travelling, we decided that vehic dwelling was still the best way for us to live. It’s cheaper (rental costs where we are based are astronomical), so it allows us to save money, and it lets us stay flexible (weekends away after a week’s work are an essential lifestyle choice in our minds). We enjoy not being tied down to things like a mortgage and electric bills, plus if the opportunity to travel comes around again we are in the perfect position to hit the road and roll on out.
Some people will think you're awesome, some just won't get van life
People have mixed views on van life. There’s those in the utterly baffled category - 'but how do you live in such a small living space?!'; "what do you do whilst the other is on the loo?!"; "how do you shower?!" etc. All valid questions, to be fair, van life isn't for everyone. Sometimes they give you a puzzled look with a faint smile and narrowed eyes, swiftly change the subject.
Then there are the aspirant van-lifers. The ones whose faces light up when you talk about living the van life, the ones who flood our Instagram with questions - 'what are your storage space hacks?'; 'how do you make money on the road?'; 'how can I have this lifestyle too!?' etc, (questions which we're always want to answer by the way. We love going deep into the realities of van life)
Of course, there is also a third response, the ‘oh cool!’, which usually comes from another van dwelling (or other alternative housing) adventurers. Meeting these people often leads to the best conversations - how did you convert your vehicle, what vehicle did you convert, what's your best breakdown story, tips on storage, recipe swaps, etc.
These are the ones who make you feel like what you're doing is awesome. It’s great to have the acknowledgement that what you’re doing isn’t that far-fetched and that there are quite a few others in the same community who have also chosen this lifestyle. It makes it much easier when things get hard.
Van life isn't all Insta sunsets and open-road cruising
For the most part though, living the van life doesn’t mean our lifestyle is drastically different, it’s really quite similar to everyone else’s - we just do it in a smaller space. Van life for us isn’t just an endless pursuit of freedom, nor is it just a way to entirely abandon our responsibilities and take to the never-ending road. For some that works, but the every day for us looks like a lot of other people's.
We are based in a stable location, a quiet corner of a friend’s farm, where we live unnoticed. We go to work, cook dinner, walk our dog. There’s no Instagrammable view here, but we don’t live in a camper van just for those moments. We love vanlife because our vehicle is our home and because we made a choice we made to live in this way.
Plenty of people comment on how lucky we must be, how amazing it must feel to have no ties and how they too would love to convert a camper van and live in it, ready to take off on the next trip at the drop of a hat. They have rose-tinted dreams fuelled by filtered Instagram photos and ‘living the dream’ captions.
We're guilty of contributing to this. There have been posts of the camper gilded in gold from the setting sun with the sea stretching out in the background. Or the nutritious (but delicious) one-pot wonder we’d whizzed up and were just sitting back, tucking in, nestled beneath a stunning mountain view. And don't forget the mugs of steaming hot tea in front of rain-spattered windows. It all looks very idyllic.
Of course, we left out the pictures of the vehicle in council car parks, or the state of our ride after cooking a big main meal. Or the less than smiling faces after spending a prolonged period of time in a cramped space, in bad weather, only to discover the shower is broken. So, when these guys tell me of their full-time van living ambitions, I want to stop them and tell them to look past the pictures. To remember that it’s been cleverly staged to hide the washing and dirty plates, and the concrete background of a council car park. That it’s not a permanent holiday. That we still have financial worries and life worries. We still have to go to work, make money, keep ourselves afloat.
Just like in a ‘normal’ home, things can go wrong - vehicle break down, you get leaks and flat tires and some mornings you wake up and the water pump has mysteriously decided to stop working. Or the heater’s stopped for no apparent reason. You have to find ways to fix them and if you can’t do it yourself (or bodge it with tape and WD-40) then it’s going to get costly.
Van life isn't always easy.
Van dwelling life can be slow, messy and stressful
Especially in the winter when it’s wet, muddy and damp and you’ve got to find a place to dry your washing without adding to the already increasing condensation problem steadily developing. Cooking a main meal isn’t just as simple as bunging it all in the oven, we only have two hobs, so it takes careful planning, and usually takes twice the time because you have to stop and wash up halfway through the prep just to give yourself a bit more room.
You can’t help but get under each other’s feet every day, squeezing past each other in the mornings whilst one of you tries to get ready for work, the other tries to make coffee and the dog has taken up a full-time job role as a permanent trip hazard.
Everything takes longer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, we don’t mind it, and you quickly develop systems that make life a bit easier. It’s just a learning curve. But these are all things to be aware of if you’re considering this life.
Oh and keep in mind that the UK, year-round, is not an endless summer. You won’t spend every night sleeping with the doors open in a wild beauty spot – you’re probably going to find yourselves hunched under the duvet, half-asleep hoping there’s not going to be a knock at the door to move you on.
You don't always feel like you have a base to call home
Alongside all this, there is an undercurrent of unsettlement to living in a vehicle, a creeping feeling of always needing to move on to the next place. Something that is entirely missed in the romanticised vanlife Instagram feeds. Having said that, I’ve spoken to plenty of van dwellers living this way that don’t feel like that, so maybe it’s just me. But I’m acutely aware of it; making it hard for me to relax when we’re on the road.
You won't always feel welcome during van life
Campervanning is a controversial past time in plenty of locations now, especially after the rise in staycations as a result of Covid-19. With campsites full, holidaymakers have headed out and camped up in local beauty spots, with little regard for restrictions and discretion. They leave behind litter, waste, and burnt out campfires.
As a result, resentment from landowners and the locals that live in these places has made camper van culture somewhat controversial. It's a shame, because those of us choosing to do vanlife consciously, respectfully, to leave no trace, are now starting to be tarred with the same brush.
Still, whilst it’s not perfect, I do agree– it’s pretty cool to live in a campervan. Just remember it’s not all plain sailing.
A big thanks to Jeni for this one. We're pumped to get out there.
Fancy trying out a bit of van life?
Why not hire a camper for your staycation from our campervan marketplace partner Camptoo (think Airbnb for camper vans). They make a great transport option to and from one of our adventures. Road trip anyone?
FAQ with Em - Call to Adventure's van aficionado
Is it realistic to live in a van?
If you want it enough, definitely. Over half a million UK citizens live in vans, campervans, motorhomes and caravans, proving that it is possible (and enjoyable!) to live with few possessions and a smaller amount of room.
You should take time making the decision, it can be frustrating not having anywhere to collect post, registering for things without a permanent address, coping with the small space. You should think about whether you can sustain it financially & whether you'll have any community around you. Is the vanlife dream realistic, yes. For everyone? No.
Is vanlife even legal?
Yes, there aren't any laws in the UK that say you can't live in a van. As long as it's taxed, insured and fully MOT'd you're fine. This doesn't mean you can simply park up and live anywhere though, and there are illegalities when it comes to where you choose to stay.
How do you choose where to park when living the vanlife?
You could choose to live somewhere permanently. Lots of farms and landowners now offer a piece of land to pitch up a van, shepherds hut or caravan, and this is a great option for many. If you're on the move often, you have to think a little more carefully. If you wild camp, you should get the permission of the landowner, which isn't always easy and can be draining to have to do this often. There's a whole host of apps such as Park4Night which show you places you can legally camp in the UK. Think carefully about staying on the move though, it can be exhausting to constantly find new places to stay.
What do you do for an address when living the vanlife?
Great question. Most people don't consider how they will receive correspondence from your bank, credit card provider or doctors when they dream of sun-kissed mornings on the roof deck, but it's definitely something you need to consider if you're moving full-time into a vehicle. Thankfully there are services such as Van Post which offer virtual mailboxes. Depending on where you stay (for example, if you're in a farmer's field), you could always talk to the landowners and come to a solution.
What is van life like with a dog?
Full of cuddles, exciting walks and a lot of dog hair. If your pet's company is worth as much as ours is, you just make it work, and you cherish their company as you would in a house. There's a lot more preparation and thought involved in the whole process when you have a dog, however. For example, we can't leave our dog in the vehicle for the day (whilst you might in a house) and you have to make sure you're in dog-friendly spaces. You need to think about temperature, budgeting and water supplies even more carefully.
What do you van lifers cook?
We are experts at one-pot cooking these days. Cassoulets heaped full of beans and stock, warming risottos, clever pasta dishes. You get the hang of these things pretty quickly, and it's amazing how many tasty things you can make with a smaller kitchen. You just have to think about it and plan a bit more. That's the key to successful van dwelling really, a lot of careful planning and preparation.
What are some of the best parts of van life?
Having the flexibility to up and move and change up the view whenever we want. Waking up in incredible places. Spending more time outside, being more in tune with nature. Living slower, not slobbing in front of TV every night or eating junk food, but living and thinking consciously about how we choose to spend our time and what we choose to do in our space.
What can you do to make sure you leave no trace?
You can use chemical-free products to wash dishes, hair and the dog so as not to contaminate water sources. Remember to dispose of our waste properly, minimise the impact of any fires, keep the noise down and leave the wildlife alone. You shouldn't be considering van life if you're not prepared to do these things.
What is the biggest learning curve?
That convenience is not a thing when you live in a vehicle long term. You can't get a takeaway one evening because you don't feel like cooking (unless you can go out and get it somewhere), you can't turn on the tap and have litres and litres of hot water. You can't nip to the shop at 10pm for a pint of milk. If you don't have a shower, you can't just take one to warm you up, or because you feel like one. You gave to plan it, as you do with most things. Movie marathons have to be thought about, will you have enough battery? Washing up can't be hidden away in the dishwasher. Everything takes more effort. In a lot of ways. it makes life slow down, which isn't always a bad thing.
Is there a certain vehicle I should look at getting?
It depends what your budget will allow, but look for as low mileage as you can get and a history of its services and works. More than anything though? Make sure you can stand up in it. If you're going to be living full-time in a vehicle, this is an essential (and you'd be surprised how many don't think of it!)
I want to live in a camper, should I convert it myself or get it done 'properly'?
Again, this depends on your budget, skills, time and what you want out of a vehicle, so that ones hard to advise on. Think about what's most important to you (shower? toilet? power?) and if you could feasibly install it yourself. If you are going to do it yourself though, make sure you do your research. Talk to friends, get in touch with the (myriad!) Facebook groups and ask questions. If there's one thing van lifers love doing, it's talking about this life.
Do you miss your friends and family?
Of course, and sometimes they find it hard to relate, but generally we catch up with them as most people do, we arrange trips back home, call them as often as we can and Skype if we have wifi. We've also made a LOT of other friends since embarking on this lifestyle though, the van life community is incredibly welcoming and friendly.
Do you feel safe?
Yes, we tend to stay in rural areas where the only real danger would be waking up to a cow sniffing your vehicle, but you should be prepared for any danger, particularly if you're alone or in a city. Have your keys in the same place each night so you can quickly drive away if needs be, and make sure your valuables are hidden away or stored in a safe.
How do you earn money living in a van?
It depends. Some vanlifers have a permanent spot on some land and commute to their jobs by bike or foot as many other non van dwellers do. Lots end up choosing van life because they work remotely, and have the freedom to work from wherever so long as they have an internet connection. Those are two fairly different lifestyles though (permanent vs nomadic) so it's important to think about what you want to get out of this life in the first place. Do you want to live more sustainably and cheaply but have a permanent base, or do you want your vehicle to take you places, to wake up in different places each week. This will impact what type of work you do (and vice versa).