How to try van life without buying a van

by Сашка

4 ways to take the van lifestyle for a test ride

It’s tempting, isn’t it? Scrolling through social media videos of “van lifers” might make you think about throwing it all away to live the vagabond dream on the open road. Whether you’ve started looking for a used cargo van or you’ve managed to stop the impulse, it’s hard to shake the thought: “Maybe I’ll just go for it.”

My own van-life dreams were almost entirely fueled by covid claustrophobia, the inability to purchase a regular house in the city I’d lived in for 10 years and, yes, social media. I decided to go all in and buy a used passenger van, tore out all of the original seats and lining, and built out my dream van — or, at least, as close as I could get as a DIYer using mostly YouTube videos.

After almost two years on the road, I have a much better sense of what else could scratch that itch without having to make the full lifestyle leap.

Depending on what’s fueling your interest, there are many ways to test out life on the road. Asking yourself why this lifestyle is so appealing can help give you a sense of the scale, price and commitment level that might be right for you.

Car camping

One of the best parts of living in a van is waking up and deciding to hike a mountain a few days’ drive away. For me, planning an actual hiking trip felt too daunting: I’d have to fly somewhere, get a hotel, pack camping gear, coordinate with friends and pay for all of the little things along the way.

In a van, not having a plan means I get surprised by the places I visit, because I have no expectations about what that place “should” be. And having the flexibility to change your mind on vacation is such an underrated luxury.

Car camping can be done with as many or as few bells and whistles as you want.

First, you need a car where the back seats can fold flat; although you could sleep in the front of your vehicle, I recommend investing in your sleep setup. Most folks will put down a foam pad or other cushioning on their bed area before sleeping in a sleeping bag.

Some other cheap essentials car campers swear by are:

  • A small solar charger for devices. (Do not rely on your car’s battery to keep your phone charged!)
  • A heavy-duty cooler.
  • A giant water jug.
  • Window covers and bug screens.
  • Small propane cookware.
  • A go-bag of camping items such as a headlamp, bug spray and body wipes.

Start by picking a destination within a day’s drive, but try not to plan too many specifics. Spend a weekend testing out your setup and tolerance for spontaneity before hitting the open road.

Hipcamp

A life of spontaneity can also be exhausting: Figuring out where to be day after day takes a toll. Ironically, full-time van lifers must adapt to some level of predictability and routine to keep the lifestyle from wearing out their decision-making abilities.

Although some stay constantly on the move, staying parked for a week or two in the same spot to boondock on public land is more financially realistic. One way to test out van life is to find a camping option where you can experience the solitude of living off-grid that gives you fewer amenities than a cabin but more than a tent — much like a van.

Enter Hipcamp or other camper rental options. Unlike generic vacation rental sites, these services cater to the outdoorsy crowd that considers any walled structure a luxury. With options such as makeshift cabins and cozy greenhouses, these sites are more specifically designed to be less accessible than your standard vacation cabin, getting you closer to that feeling of being in your own tiny makeshift home in the woods.

The options can range from full-scale cabins to patches of grass, and I recommend using the “glamping” filter. You can try yurts, RVs and micro-cabins before committing to an off-grid lifestyle.

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Rent a van

Part of the appeal of van life is that it looks cool. I’d be lying if I said social media posts of perfectly decorated vans parked with their back doors open to a view of a scenic mountain didn’t contribute to my interest in renovating one.

Of course, anyone who lives in a van knows that those posts only show about 10 percent of what’s going on. Yes, there are picturesque moments camping on a beach and waking up to the ocean. Still, if you want to live in a van solely because it’s beautiful, you’re in for a rude awakening when you realize most places you “camp” are Walmart parking lots a few miles away from that beach. Those images of a perfect scene through the back door have cropped out the piles of laundry and unfinished dishes just out of frame.

If you know you’re interested in a van mostly because it’s beautiful, that’s okay! Embrace your bougie side, and don’t try to commit to the whole dirtbag lifestyle.

Depending on your location, there are various van rental options available, especially near national parks. Renting through a van company won’t be cheap; you should expect to spend between $100 and $250 a night plus gas and insurance for an Instagrammable van. But this is a great way to ensure that you get the most out of the fun parts of living in a van without committing to the lifestyle.

Just be sure to always read up on van camping etiquette before diving in.

Find a seasonal job

Social media might make you believe that the only way to live in a van is if you’re a paid influencer. The truth is that most people I know who live in a van either work remotely like me or go through cycles of seasonal work.

Instead of investing in a van to test out living remotely, check out the world of seasonal work in and around national parks and outdoor recreational areas, or try conservation work through AmeriCorps.

Using services such as CoolWorks, American Conservation Experience or the National Park Service’s own affiliated youth and experienced services programs, you can explore a range of commitment levels and skill specializations in some of the country’s most beautiful and remote natural sites.

If you’re in your quiet-quitting era, scrolling through van-life pictures and wondering whether it’s time to hit the road, I highly recommend starting with this option.

Figuring out how to support yourself can be one of the most significant barriers to full-time nomadic living, especially for young folks stuck in student loan debt or people who have not worked a traditional white-collar desk job.

Once you get one seasonal job under your belt and get a feel for the lifestyle of traveling every few weeks or months to another beautiful, remote location, you’ll know whether you’re ready for life on the open road.

Emily Edwards is a solo van lifer who writes the Stories From the Road newsletter. Follow her on Instagram: @em_inavan.

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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