A long crazy month ago, we officially left the comfort of suburbia for our new lifestyle in 66 square feet. It seems an opportune benchmark to share what we have learned in that time. Spoiler alert: IT’S A LOT. So buckle up, put your fun hats on, pop some popcorn, and get cozy, because we’re going to share our top TEN things that we’ve been enlightened about concerning all things #vanlife.
#1 - PATIENCE
You must have patience. Patience with your self, with your partner, with the crappy road conditions… the list goes on. Remembering that your schedule is fluid and that everything is going to work out in the end is paramount. You must accept that you are going to be stressed, your partner is going to be stressed, that you are both on a journey, and that all of it is perfectly ok. Any major life change is going to have you bumping up (at times, rather firmly) against your personal boundaries. You can cower and flail and give up, or you can jump in with both feet, get messy, and learn something new that will grow you. We have learned so much about each other and ourselves. We are more sure of ourselves after one month living in our van than after living together for over four years in a house. You are forced to confront things head on, and your willingness to be open - and to check in with yourself and your partner - is rewarded in turn with clarity, respect, and understanding.
#2 - SELF-CARE
Take care of yourself. You’re an adult human. Just because you are doing something that looks fun on Instagram, does not mean that structure gets thrown out the window and life is suddenly going to be handed to you. You have to take care of your self. We say this, not because we struggle with our own self-care (we’re old and generally have this figured out), but because we do feel in-tune with our needs more now than before. You see a lot of people that “quit van life” before they even really get started, and some may have real reasons, but we suspect that lack of self-care might also be playing a big role here. We were already aware of the importance of the following things, but have now developed more of a reverence for: checking in with yourself mentally, making sure we are provisioned, planning meals, not leaving important things to the last minute, keeping your body and your space clean, and being open to making simple necessary changes for the sake of comfort and safety. All of these things, when prioritized, make life - and certainly ‘van life’ - doable. They keep you sane and able to appreciate the awesome adventure you’re on. There’s no vista in the world that can be appreciated from a negative perspective. Get your mind right.
#3 - STUFF
Less is definitely more. You don’t need nearly as much as you think you do. It takes all of 24 hours of constantly moving things out of your way to realize you’d rather chuck them out on the side of the road, than try and find room for them. Comfort is important, but when space is at a premium, suddenly a full dish set, giant tote of camping equipment, kitchen appliances, overflowing spice bin, and even your beloved guitar start to make the walls close in and our perspective on what makes us comfortable changes. A month in, we cannot wait to offload half our clothes, toiletries, camping equipment, and kitchenware. One of the first things we chucked and thought we couldn’t live without, was our toilet. Imagine that! No toilet! Yes, we used it a couple times, but because we wanted to, not because we had to. We live in a land of toilets. We got over the loss of $70 pretty quickly when we no longer had to move around our laundry, cleaning supples, bag of outerwear, and vacuum. All of these things and more now live inside our huge toilet box and we feel like we can breathe again. As a rule going into ‘van life’, pack less, spend less, and do less. Don’t bring your apartment, have a budget, and don’t fall into expensive tourist traps. Ruthlessly pair down your belongings, control your spending, and discover how to experience a place for free (or nearly free).
#4 - PEOPLE
We are both introverts. We like to do our own thing and our group of friends back home is small. As such, our outlook on meeting people, and particularly making new friends, was limited. A funny thing happens when you begin to engage more with the things you’re passionate about in life. You meet people that are just as excited about those same things! I know - shocking! In one short month, we have made countless friends and contacts - more than we ever imagined - through biking, camping, and even doing our laundry. We’ve met artists, athletes, wanderers, and entrepreneurs who have engaged us and opened our hearts and minds. We are less afraid now to be open and vulnerable with people. We ask questions and share stories. We accept invitations and enjoy memorable experiences that we couldn’t have planned ourselves. Maybe people out east are extraordinary, or maybe the world is small and people in general are just nice. If you’re lonely on the road, we’re convinced that you’re doing it wrong.
#5 - SLOW DOWN
This is a pretty common theme for beginner van-lifers and we were no exception. We are programmed to fit a vacation into a tidy two weeks bookended by 350 days. You want to be efficient and experience everything you can about a place in a short amount of time. You feel like you must, even though you know better. You spend a ridiculous amount of time peeling through guide books and online articles instead of enjoying your scenic drive - fearing that you’ll be underprepared for your next destination or that, heaven forbid, you miss that one amazing coffee shop in that one little town that has a quirky look and a notable barista. Stop. Breathe. Take you’re time. Look around. Be amazed. If you miss something, chances are that there are 50 carbon copies of the same experience. Also, 99% of things worth seeing are free. Also, if you like a place, stay a while! Soak it up. There will be a place on your journey that you thought you’d spend time in that you’ll end up feeling ‘meh’ about and timing will all come out in the wash. Always be willing to slow down, pace yourself, take days to do nothing, take vacations from your ‘vacation’ and check into a campsite or hotel with a nice shower. Take time not just to experience places, but to regroup, recharge, and relax. You don’t always have to be moving.
#6 - REMEMBER WHY YOU STARTED
No one presses the ‘reset’ button on life for no reason. Every path you take in life has its big and small ‘whys’ and those whys evolve over time. It’s important not to forget about them and to check in with them periodically. We started this trip with our own personal whys and a rough grasp on our end goal. Both have morphed and even merged in this very short time. It’s important to know that this change is normal and healthy, and that having those whys in the first place is both grounding and purposeful. We talk frequently about our whys: how we feel about them, how they are changing, and how we fit into each other’s narrative. Remembering and checking in with why you started is what will get you through the tough stuff. It gives you momentum and acts as a foundation for personal growth. ‘It looked like fun on Instagram’ is not a strong why, but it’s a jumping-off point for learning why you felt that you needed to do something that ‘looked cool’. See what I mean? Stay flexible, don’t quit, and never stop asking why. Never be afraid to work hard on your self. It’s your one and only life, after all. And if you feel stuck, challenge your whys to an evolution.
#7 - BAD DAYS
There will be bad days. This is a lifestyle not a vacation. You will have moments of immense happiness and you will have moments of profound failure. You will overflow your grey water. Your propane alarm will shock you awake at 3:00am. You will run out of food. You will get lost. You will fight with your partner, have a bad night’s sleep, be scared and uncomfortable, and feel let-down. You will also discover untold beauty, share the deepest belly laughs, breathe the most delicious air, and experience the euphoria of catching your first wave on the Atlantic Ocean. Switching up your lifestyle won’t make you happy. You can’t chase happiness and hope to catch it. It’s not a cold. It’s not a place, person, or tangible thing. It’s a state of mind. It’s an incredibly subjective experience. You have to accept that there will be many challenges. Nothing in life is a walk in the park - even if it’s a really pretty park. Accept that you are a human being that feels, and that those feelings have a sliding scale. Let yourself feel, don’t deny your darkness, and work through the hard stuff. And when it comes to happiness, define it for yourself. Choose it. Decide on it. Look toward the goodness in the world and be ruthlessly positive. Open yourself up to different versions of good. Struggle when you must, and revel when the moment calls for joy. See past your expectations and let the world surprise you. It’s worth it.
#8 - SMALL THINGS
We’ve developed a deep reverence for ‘the small things’. Going for a sunset walk, having a restful sleep, warm and dry weather, a slow morning with good coffee… all of these things begin to make the grandeur of travelling pale in comparison. We’ve found that the day-to-day comforts are what feed the soul. Perhaps the very best of them is getting clean. Whenever we pass through a larger city, we go through a bit of a cleaning frenzy. We sweep out and wash the floors and surfaces, visit the laundromat, change our bedding, and find a nice place to have a hot shower. I struggle to put into accurate words what it is like to climb into a clean bed in a clean van after a hot shower knowing that the fridge is full and the laundry hamper is empty. Or the incredible joy in a simply nice sunny, breezy day - no rain, heat, humidity, or fog. Heaven.
#9 - BUGS
We were awfully smug when we brought home our $20 doorway bug curtains instead of shelling out for custom fitted no-seeum screens. After accidentally not closing a door all the way one night in the Appalachians, spending hot and humid weather shut inside unable to open the doors, and getting periodically eaten alive by black flies, we can say with absolute confidence: There is no price too high to pay for bug screens if you plan to live in a van. Especially if you plan on travelling inland in the summer. We are headed to Labrador at the end of the summer. We should be concerning ourselves with the road quality and space between gas stations. Instead, all we can think of is “gee, I hope it’s cold enough to keep the doors shut!” The bug factor is real and good screens are key to enjoying living in the outdoors. It will be the first modification we make before heading out west this fall.
#10 - SLEEP
You don’t have to live in a van to know that sleep is important. Restful sleep ensures a clear mind, a good attitude, and the mental stamina to endure daily challenges. One aspect of sleep that is specifically crucial to surviving this lifestyle, is having an idea of where you are going to sleep. Restful sleep in a van means discussing, researching, and agreeing upon a safe and comfortable spot to park your butts - well in advance of hitting the pillow. Thanks to the stealthiness of our build, community apps like iOverlander, and the fail-safe Walmart parking lot, we have - so far - enjoyed a lot of success in our parking endeavours, and have kept the dreaded “knock” at bay. Waking up feeling rested, making a coffee, and sitting outside in a comfy sweater - overlooking a harbour or rolling farm hills - is second only to the feeling of clean sheets after a hot shower (see #8). Boon docking is one of the very best parts of living out of our camper, and such, we prioritize it just as we would our food and self-care practices - and so should you! Sweet dreams!
Holy Hannah, we made it! 10 big ones. Hopefully this gave you all a little peak into the nitty gritty behind all the pretty pictures. Have a super weekend and give yourself some time for a little adventure. Follow your feet and find your smile.
Love from Sandi and Ryan xo