Stresses of Van Life


Living in a van is fun. It’s wonderful and amazing and you get to see beautiful things. But, it’s also very stressful. There are so many things to constantly fuss over and worry about that you end up having a lot of routines and checklists before you do anything or go anywhere. We have a process for making and unmaking the bed. We have a checklist for being able to drive anywhere. We have a standard to-research list before getting to a new area. We have a routine and mental notes about when we last dumped grey water and the toilet. And so many more routines, checklists, and to-dos.

So I thought I would go through some of the concerns we think about on an everyday basis in the form of some of the questions we regularly ask ourselves or each other throughout the day.

Am I allowed to park here?

I think this is one of the most confusing questions we often ask ourselves on the road. Every town signs parking areas differently, some are very clear about when you are allowed to park there and some are vague at best. And, each town has different types of parking areas, be they not allowed for part of the day for traffic, not allowed on certain days for street sweeping, etc. And all of this confusion is before you consider overnight parking. Overnight parking is a whole different beast because some cities outright forbid it, some allow it for certain sized vehicles, and some cities don’t care. (And of course, there are some cities like San Diego where it feels like the rules on overnight parking change all the time.) In our 4 months on the road, we have received 2 tickets, both of them parking violations. We are getting better at reading signs and knowing rules ahead of time, but it adds an extra element of confusion to rolling into a new town.

Is there a grocery store at our next destination?

This is a pretty easy one to figure out, but it’s something that we are always checking on as we leave a larger city for a smaller town or head to BLM areas. We try to buy organic ingredients and we cook often, that combined with our smaller fridge (it’s fairly large for a van but very small for a house), we have to make sure that we have enough food stocked up for wherever we plan to go or know where to get food when we arrive. So, before we depart for a new destination, we search google maps to see what grocery stores are in the area (we typically keep an eye out for Sprouts, Natural Grocers, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s).

When did you last dump the water/toilet?

This is a question that I ask all too often these days because I have a fear of our grey water overflowing (and yes, it has happened before). When our grey water overflowed last year, it was because we weren’t paying attention to how much water we had used and we didn’t have routines down for dumping the container. Fortunately, most of the water drained out the door right by the sink and we caught it early enough, but still, not fun. Now we dump water every night and check it multiple times throughout the day, especially if we switch fresh water containers.

Did I lock all the drawers and fridge?

Before we start driving anywhere, we have to make sure everything is locked down. If things aren’t cleared off the counter, locked up, or secured in some way, they will go flying as we stop at a red light or turn a corner. Ben and I now have a specific place we put our backpacks so they don’t move as we drive, and we both check that all of the drawers are locked, the upper cabinets are latched, counters are clear, and the fridge is locked. And even then, we sometimes miss things and have a drawer open up as we drive or something slides off the counter.

What was that noise? (both in the back of the van or outside)

This is kind of a funny question and a scary question all at the same time. As we drive around, we sometimes hear noises from the back of the van. Sometimes it’s something sliding around or banging in the cabinet, sometimes it’s the furniture creaking a bit, and sometimes its Arrow clawing the ground as he slips and slides on the floors during a turn. Most of the time while we are driving, the noises are something to notice but not usually something to be worried about, we have gotten fairly skilled at identifying if it is a drawer (and frequently which drawer) or something in a cabinet or the closet.

But when we are parked, the noises tend to be potentially scarier. Sometimes the fridge turns on and is louder than we think, sometimes it is just someone walking by, sometimes it’s someone getting out of their car and slamming the door, and sometimes it’s someone flipping tires outside the gym. But any of those noises could be someone trying to break in, someone checking out the van, a police officer getting out of their vehicle, or a security guard knocking on the door. And we don’t know when the noise is going to end up being harmless or a problem. So we keep an ear out. So far we’ve only had “the knock” once, we parked at a Cracker Barrel after getting the ok from an employee there, turns out, that employee didn’t know what they were talking about and Cracker Barrel didn’t actually own the lot. The security guard at least picked 8:30pm to let us know instead of making rounds in the middle of the night, he was very polite and even gave us some suggestions for other places to overnight.

Do we have enough power to cook?

This is no longer a problem for us as we have just in the last little while started to cook on a propane stove, but it used to be a huge problem. When we first started out in the van, we were trying to rely solely on solar power, which meant that we would keep a watchful eye on our battery monitor as we cooked and we’d try to cook as quickly as possible. There were definitely a few meals that we ate out because we didn’t have enough power.

Then we hooked up to the van’s alternator and could charge the battery much more efficiently. But it was still something we kept a tight eye one. We didn’t have to be quite as careful except when we didn’t move the van for a day or so and didn’t make up the power we lost while cooking.

Now that we have switched to propane for the bulk of our cooking, it’s not a problem. We have enough power to make each meal and actually use the blender and Instant Pot that we packed in the van, which is a nice feeling. We are getting more creative with our meals again and have the freedom to make more things.

We had intermittent cell signal in Sedona on BLM land and could not work there.

When cell signal isn’t great, we end up spending a lot of time in coffee shops.

Is there decent cell signal there?

Because Ben works full time and I am running this blog as well as other projects, we need wifi. Or at least decent cell signal. Which means, we can’t boondock in the middle of nowhere in some places. We tend to spend most of our week in cities so we know we will have reliable signal and access to a Starbucks for wifi. Sometimes we can park on BLM land and get signal but we have to research it ahead of time and plan our weekly schedule around it (FYI, Joshua Tree BLM land at the south entrance has great cell signal). We have a cell booster, which helps in some situations, but if there’s no signal, then there’s nothing to boost.

Other people on the road (are they going to hit us?)

We are not perfect drivers. We are in a big piece of metal that doesn’t have a center rear view mirror, so driving is more difficult. However, we are very careful drivers and have been driving this van for a little while (20,000 miles already!). We know we have a more limited view of the road and act accordingly. But there are a lot of people out there who do not drive well and who have never heard the words careful or cautious. And there are cities that have terrible traffic control, awful highway systems, and just a ton of people to constantly be watching out for. There’s always a possibility that someone will hit us, whether we see it coming or not. So we drive carefully and try to stay out of the crazy drivers’ way.

These are some of the bigger concerns that we have on an everyday basis but there are always more things that come up as we are traveling and living in the van. Other things that we worry about but not as much are:

Where are we going to get our hair cut? (I cut Ben’s every other time but we still have to find hair salons in new towns.)

What’s the weather going to be like? (We try to avoid very cold conditions and very hot conditions)

Is Arrow getting enough exercise? Is he too warm in the van? Is he too cold?

Is this parking spot flat?

Do we fit?

Where is the nearest gym? Is there one where we are going?

Are there any opportunities to meet other vanlifers nearby or soon?

Is there enough space in the grey water tank to do all the dishes before we empty it?

There are so many thoughts and plans that go into everyday life in the van. More than we’ve had at any other place we’ve ever lived. But, after a while, once we got used to it, most of the concerns become fairly routine and easy to think about and find a solution for. We don’t live in constant fear, but rather we live with questions frequently rolling through our minds. I don’t think the questions will ever go away while we are in van life, there are just so many things to keep track of, but every day, week, and month, we get better at keeping track of things. And as we revisit cities or spend longer in cities as we slow down, some of the questions will be easier to answer. Finding a routine to meet our needs in any place we are staying helps to make the daily chores and questions easier to manage. But no matter how many questions or concerns we have, they don’t outshine van life and the freedom, community, and everything else we love about this lifestyle.