In 2016, I took the plunge into Sprinter Van Life. I sold my car, moved out of my apartment, and had a 4×4 144″ Sprinter built out into a tiny home on wheels with a full bathroom. After logging 30,000 miles and learning what I truly wanted in a van, I sold that first van and started over. The second time around, I went with a bigger 170″ 4×4 Sprinter Van that was converted by Outside Van. I ditched the bathroom, made room for mountain bikes and other outdoor gear, and never looked back
Today I spend about 8 months a year living in a van and organize a van life festival called Open Roads Fest to inspire other people to follow their van life dreams.. My partner Ryan and I have traveled all over the United States, racking up countless outdoor adventures and encounters with all kinds of cool people that I’ll never forget. We’ve driven 14,000-foot passes in Colorado, leaf peeped in New England, road tripped the Canadian Rockies, and more. I’ve fallen in love with this lifestyle, and I’m not sure I’ll ever stop. I truly believe van life is one of the most fulfilling ways to live and travel, and for those of you who are dreaming, I’m here to inspire you and show you how it’s done.
Whether you are considering van life as a part-time or full-time endeavor, investing in or converting a van is a process full of big decisions. Navigating the many different options, set-ups, conversions, and even designing your nomadic lifestyle can feel overwhelming. So to make it easier for you, this blog post is the ultimate van life 101 guide filled with van life how-tos and answers to some most frequently asked questions.
We’ll cover everything from choosing and converting a van plus other helpful tips like how to earn money on the road and where to find essential amenities such as showers and fill stations. In many cases, we link to additional resources on our blog if you want to dive deeper.
Whatever your goals are, remember that there’s no right or wrong way to do van life — and that’s the best part. It’s all about making your life on the road work for you.
Ready to hit the road? Here is our ultimate guide to Van Life.
Why Van Life is Awesome
There are countless reasons to transition to a life on the road and these reasons differ for everyone. Whether you’re looking for a grand adventure or you want to save money, here are a few of our favorite reasons for why van life is awesome:
1. Freedom to travel and explore on your own schedule
Van life gives you the freedom to explore the places you’ve always dreamed of visiting and to do so on your own schedule. Whether that’s visiting all of the National Parks or doing a slow cross-country road trip while visiting all 50 states, van life gives you the ultimate freedom to travel without time constraints, reservations, or agendas.
2. Van Life teaches you to embrace a simpler lifestyle
Living in a van requires you to embrace a simpler lifestyle with fewer belongings. You’ll have to prioritize the important things in your life and let go of the things that aren’t essential. For many people, this is actually one of the greatest lessons of van life!
3. Spend more time in nature
Van life can be a great way to spend more time in nature. From dispersed camping to visiting National Parks, living in a van allows you to get outside and explore the great outdoors. Vans can also be great basecamps for skiing or to start and finish overnight trips like multi-day backpacking adventures.
4. Save money
Living in a van can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be. Most van lifers enjoy the simplicity of van life, which often means camping for free on public lands and enjoying the outdoors free of charge. If you’re a full-time van lifer, you also won’t be paying rent or utilities, so it is very possible to save money while living on the road.
5. Be location independent
One of the greatest benefits of living and working on the road is that you can be location-independent. You may need to find reliable wifi every now and then if you work remotely, but for the most part, location independence while living in a van means that you can go where you want when you want.
The Pros & Cons of Van Life
Before jumping into van life full-time, it’s important to consider a few of the highlights and challenges that come with living in a van. Below are a few of the pros and cons of van life that I’ve encountered on the road.
Van Life Pros
- Flexibility to travel where and when you want on your own schedule. It’s liberating to not have to be tied down to place and time.
- Depending on your personal budget, fewer expenses may mean that you can save money and reach financial goals
- Live more simply with fewer things and belongings
- Spend more time outdoors
- Meet like-minded people on the road
- Unplug from the constant stream of news and social media
Van Life Cons
- Showers are less frequent
- Space is tight, especially if you share your van with a significant other or pets
- Vans get messy very fast and require constant cleanup
- Finding fill and dump stations is an undesirable chore
- You’ll likely spend more time in public restrooms
- You have to be mindful of safety when parking and choosing campsites
- You need a backup plan in case you get stuck or your van breaks down
- City driving and exploration can be a pain
- Cell service and wifi can be unreliable
How to Prepare for Van Life
When preparing for life on the road, there are a number of considerations to think about. Questions like “What will I do with all my stuff?” and “What gear should I bring with me?” are important things to think about. There’s no one right answer to these questions, but below are a few ideas to help you get prepared for van life.
What To Do With All of Your Stuff
How you choose to handle downsizing your belongings depends on your situation, how long you will be on the road, and your level of attachment to your stuff. If you want extra cash for van life, consider selling items you don’t use or need.
However, if you have a lot of valuable things and furniture that you don’t want to let go of, renting a storage unit will be the way to go. Another way to think about storage units as a money-saver is simply to prevent you from having to buy household items again down the road. If you know there’s a good chance you’ll do van life part-time, or just want to hit the road for a short while, a storage unit is probably the right choice for you.
What To Do With Your Home
If you own your home, you’ll need to decide what to do with it. If you love your house and don’t want to sell, consider renting it out. It will help cover your bills (and maybe even bring in some extra money). Plus when you are done with van life, it will make your transition back to your homebase pretty painless.
Another option is to rent out a single room to someone you trust, like a friend or family member. They get to live there alone while you’re traveling (what a score!), and you get to rest easy knowing that someone is taking care of your house.
Buying a Van
How To Choose A Van: Considerations & Vehicle Options
Knowing how to choose the right van for van life means understanding what’s right for you. There are a ton of options out there and you probably have a few questions: Should you buy a used or new van? A Sprinter, a Ford Transit, a Dodge Promaster, or a Volkswagen? Build it out yourself or invest in a professional conversion?
There’s no one right way to do van life, but it’s important to get an understanding of what you want your van lifestyle to look like and what will work for you. Here are a few considerations to think about before choosing a van:
- Where will you be driving your van?
- Will you need 4×4?
- Do you plan on living in your van during winter?
- How much gear storage do you need?
- Are you handy with fixing things?
- What is your budget?
- Will you build it out yourself or hire someone to do it for you?
- Do you want a shower and/or a bathroom?
If you’re really not sure about how you want your van lifestyle to look, renting a van is a great way to, literally, take it for a test drive. Check out this blog post for a list of places to rent a campervan for a night, a weekend, or more!
If you’re totally sold on owning a van, the most popular types of rigs that you’ll find on the market are:
Sprinter Vans – If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, it’ll come as no surprise that the Mercedes Benz Sprinter Van is the Bearfoot Theory vehicle of choice. Because I spend my winters in snowy climates and like to spend my summers exploring backcountry roads, a 2-wheel drive was a no-go for me. The Sprinter is currently the only van in its category to have a factory 4×4 option. The 4×4 isn’t quite as good with gas efficiency, but it is a capable beast with a ton of storage space for bikes, paddle boards, and more. The downside of Sprinters is they are the most expensive van option and it’s not as easy to find mechanics to work on Sprinters.
High-roof Sprinter vans are perfect for those who want to be able to stand up and walk around in their van (and want something more modern and reliable. They also come in two different lengths – the 144” and the 170” wheelbase.
Dodge Promaster – The Dodge Ram Promaster is another popular vehicle choice for van life and it is considerably cheaper than Sprinters and Transits. It comes in two different lengths – 136” and 159” wheelbase, so it’s slightly shorter than a Sprinter and has less ground clearance, but it gets better gas mileage. The Promaster is also the widest vehicle option of the common panel vans. Promasters are typically FWD which can make driving up steep mountain passes and sandy areas more difficult.
Ford Transit – The Ford Transit is unique in that it comes in an AWD option (2020 and newer). This isn’t as hearty as a 4×4 Sprinter Van, but it’s more versatile than a traditional 2-wheel-drive van. Ford Transits are also a bit less expensive in price and maintenance than Sprinters and come with a higher interior height – the AWD has an interior height of 6’8! Transits also come with 2-wheel drive RWD options.
VW Vanagon, Westfalia, or Buses – These are great for handy folks who love a vintage vibe. Keep in mind that they might not be as reliable as newer vehicles and will require more upkeep. They also tend to not get as good gas mileage.
Budget cargo vans – Ford Econolines, Chevy G Series, Chevy Express, and Chevy Astros are popular budget cargo vans. These vans are typically much older but they are the cheapest option for getting on the road. Remember, van life comes in many shapes and forms, and sometimes a budget DIY build is all you need.
New vs Used Vans
Buying a new van obviously has its perks. It will come with a limited warranty, everything will be new, and the van becomes your ultimate canvas for a custom van conversion. But you’ll also be paying quite a bit of money for a new vehicle, especially if you then hire someone to build it out for you. Buying a used van can cut down on initial costs and allow you to put more money into the conversion.
Another option is to find a used campervan that has already been converted. You’ll save yourself a ton of time and possibly money. The downside of buying used is, unless the van was converted by a professional conversion company with a lot of experience, there are really no guarantees on the quality of the conversion. Furthermore, if you have issues down the road, it might require more problem-solving.
Where to Look For a Van
If you’re sold on a Sprinter Van, check out this blog post where I share a list of forums and websites where you search for your perfect Sprinter to buy. For more places to search for Sprinters as well as other types of vans, the downloadable PDF below contains a full list of websites, forums, and Facebook groups where you can search for a van.
Converting a Van into a Camper
You’ve settled on the type of van, got the design inspiration, and an epic road trip calling your name. However, when it comes to actually building out your home on wheels, there’s a lot to think about. Designing your van shouldn’t be a rushed process, and doing your homework before you start the conversion process is key. The more knowledgeable you are about layouts and components, the more likely you’ll be happy with the final product.
There is so much more than I can write in this one blog post about planning your van conversion, so I suggest you head to our Van Life homepage and scroll down to the section on planning your van conversion. There you will find inspiration and more than a dozen blog posts with all of the nitty-gritty details on building out a van. From insulation to flooring, to bed styles, galleys, and solar power systems, we provide all of the information you should know in order to make educated decisions about your van build.
Designing your Van’s Layout
Here’s a quick pro-tip: Take your empty van out for a trial run before it is converted. Throw in a sleeping pad and bag, a cooler, and your favorite camping gear, and go on an adventure.
You can learn a lot about how you’ll use the space after one week on the road. You may think you want room for kayaks only to find that you didn’t use the kayaks once on your road trip. Or a bathroom might seem like a necessity until you realize getting by without a bathroom (or at least a shower) in your van isn’t that difficult.
What you learn on this trial run will give you a much better idea of what you do or don’t want and will better inform your floor plan ideas.
See this blog post for more things to consider as you design your van’s layout.
Should I DIY My Van Build or Hire a Conversion Company?
After you purchase your van, the next step in van life 101 is deciding whether you will hire someone to convert it or if this will be a DIY job. There’s no right or wrong answer and you have to evaluate your personal situation to decide what’s right for you. I go over all the pros, cons, and considerations for a DIY van build vs hiring a campervan conversion company in this blog post.
If you have experience building stuff and have the tools, you’ve set aside the time, or you simply think that building out a van would be a fun and enjoyable process, going DIY can save you a lot of money. I’d just recommend setting aside more time than you think you need and having wiggle room in your budget.
If you do decide to hire a company, do your homework to make sure the company is legit. There are a lot of “van conversion” companies popping up everywhere who see the growing demand for van life. However, many of these companies are inexperienced and are delivering a low-quality product. To properly screen these companies, you need to do more than just scan their website and Instagram feed. You need more than pretty pictures to ensure you’re going to get a well-built, durable van. Your builder also needs to have an understanding of solar, materials, plumbing, and how to build cabinets in a van that is constantly flexing.
In this blog post, I share a number of questions you should ask before hiring a van conversion company.
Living in a Van and Tips for the Road
Some of the most common questions I get about van life are about the basic everyday necessities. Topics like using the bathroom, showering, finding the best overnight parking spot or scouting out a good campsite, cooking three meals a day, and even what to do about your mail are always on top of mind for prospective van lifers.
The Van Life Roadmap has a wealth of information and resources for you to use with some of my best tips and advice. Just scroll down to the section “How to Live in a Van” to explore deeper.
Auto Insurance for your Van
If you want to insure your entire build and not just the vehicle, you’ll need an RV Insurance policy. Progressive Insurance is one of the few companies I’ve found that offers full replacement coverage for class B converted vans and your belongings and this is what I use, but be warned that they only cover professionally converted vans. You can read more about the different options for choosing an RV policy for van life here.
If you don’t have health insurance via your employer, you’ll want to shop for health insurance on healthcare.gov. The key is choosing a policy that has good nationwide coverage so you don’t get stuck with a huge out-of-network doctor bill when you’re traveling.
For more tips and information about healthcare coverage on the road, read our post on Health Insurance for Van Life.
How to Get Mail on the Road
There are a few different options for getting mail on the road. If you have a P.O. Box, you can give a trusted friend or family member the key or ask a neighbor or friend to collect your mail from home. You can also use an Amazon locker for any packages shipped from their site.
Need to send yourself mail? Ship it to friends and family’s houses that you know you will be visiting. You can also ship yourself packages to many shipping and office stores. I usually google “receiving packages or package holding in xx” with the city I’ll be in and usually a few options pop up. Then I call for details on how the package should be addressed and what it will cost for them to hold the package. We have a lot more tips and ideas for getting mail on the road in our Establishing Residency & Getting Mail as a Full-Time Van Lifer post.
Where Do you Go to the Bathroom and Shower as a Van Lifer?
After two years of traveling in a Sprinter Van with a shower and toilet, I decided to nix it for my second van conversion. I found an interior shower and toilet used up too much water and took up valuable space, among other reasons that I outline in this post on why you don’t need a shower. It’s easy to find a shower and toilet in most paid campgrounds, RV parks, and even gyms or your friend’s house! Of course, with our current situation, public showering is less desirable, so if you’re worried about staying fresh and clean on the road, here are some camping hygiene tips for women.
If you know that you do want a shower and toilet in your van, we have several posts to give you some design and layout ideas:
How Do You Cook in a Van?
Van life cooking can seem daunting at first – with such a small space, limited access to water, and without the usual conveniences of home (oven, microwave, large fridge, etc.), how can you make easy, healthy meals on the road? Turns out it’s pretty easy! We have a few guides to help you whip up delicious meals on the road in no time:
- How to Meal Plan and Cook in a Small Space
- Camp Kitchen Essentials for Van Life
- 15 Camper Van Kitchens for Layout and Design Inspiration
How to Find Water Fill-Ups, Dump Stations, Showers, and Laundry
One of the least glamorous sides of van life is chores such as refilling your water, dumping your greywater, and finding places to shower. These are chores that you just don’t have to think about when you live in a house! However, it’s pretty simple to find water, dump stations, showers, and laundromats on the road.
Common places to refill your water tanks are RV parks, gas stations, and public parks. Usually RV parks and campgrounds also have dump stations to dispose of your greywater.
If you downsize your wardrobe with the tips I share a little further down in this post, you should be able to make it a couple of weeks without washing your clothes. You can also do laundry at a laundromat, by hand, at an RV park (they’ve also got showers!), or ask to use a washer and dryer at a friend’s or family member’s home.
How to Find Free Places to Park and Camp
My favorite tools for finding a good campsite are the iOverlander, The Dyrt, and Ultimate US Campgrounds apps. I also like using Benchmark Atlases to find Forest Service land and dirt roads with dispersed camping. Use our post about Finding Campsites on the Road for more ideas and resources. If you plan on stealth camping in cities, we have a post on that, too.
>> Get a FREE 30- day Pro Membership to the Dyrt Campsite Finder App! <<
If you’re signing up on mobile, use the code “Bearfoot”
How to Get Internet/WiFi in your Van
One of the biggest concerns I hear from prospective van lifers is how to stay connected and find free wifi on the road. If you work remotely, this is an important consideration you’ll need to address before hitting the road, but truthfully wifi and good cell service aren’t hard to come by. I use an unlimited data plan on my phone as a wifi hotspot or if I need more reliable internet, I’ll head to a library or coffee shop.
For more tips, be sure to read our post on Van Life Internet Access and Staying Connected on the Road.
Finding Fun Local Activities & A Van Life Community
I love to use the AllTrails and MTB Project apps for finding hiking and biking trails. Aside from that, one of the best ways to get good beta on fun things to do is by hanging out at a restaurant, cafe, or bar and chatting with the locals.
Here are a few other resources for finding local hikes and other fun things to do:
In addition to finding awesome things to do in the places you travel, building a van life community is another great way to enjoy the road. Social media is an easy way to connect with other van lifers by searching van life hashtags on Instagram or joining dedicated van life Facebook groups.
If you’re not big on social media, check out van life gatherings to meet other nomads. We host Open Roads Fest (taking place July 15-18th, 2022) near McCall, Idaho and it’s the perfect place for nomads and aspiring nomads to meet. You don’t need a van to attend!
Is Van Life Safe?
It’s totally natural to have some fears about being out on the road. When I first started van life, I was a solo female van lifer, and I’ll admit that the first trip I went on, I was very scared, particularly at night.
Now that I have some experience under my belt, I’ve learned how to manage my fears with a set of practical van life safety tips that help me feel more confident and secure when I’m traveling in my Sprinter Van. Things like blackout curtains will provide privacy at night, only parking in places I feel 110% comfortable, parking facing the road so it’s easy to drive away quickly, having a designated spot for your keys, and having an indoor solution to using the bathroom in the middle of the night are my go-to safety tactics when I’m out on the road alone.
Can I bring my dog or cat in the van?
Absolutely! Van life with pets is awesome. We’ve been doing van life with our adventure dogs Charlie and Gumbo for over 2 years. I truly think van life dogs have the best life. Between running around outside, greeting strangers, and getting scraps of food leftover from camp cooking, van life dogs have it made.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t important considerations and precautions you need to take when living in a van with a pet. It’s essential to think about how to keep them cool if you leave them in the van alone, whether they’re welcome at campgrounds or parks, what extra cleaning you’ll need to do, among other things. To learn more about these and more, read our Van Life With Pets post.
The Importance of Leave No Trace
No matter what you’re doing, it’s so important to be responsible enjoyers of the outdoors. Even in a van, where you can easily come and go, being mindful of your footprint will make a huge difference in preserving these places for years to come.
Before you head out, familiarize yourself with the Leave No Trace principles to help minimize your impact at the campsites, on the trails, or even answering nature’s call in the woods. Also, make a commitment to leave places better than you found them by picking up any trash left behind by other campers.
Need to brush up on your Leave No Trace skills? Read about it here:
- Basic guidelines of Leave No Trace
- How to pick a campsite and Leave No Trace
- Safe campfire tips
- How to poop outdoors
- Leave No Trace and Van Life
Gear you Need for Living in a Van
The gear you need for van life can be boiled down to only having the items that you use most often in your daily life. Pay attention to what you’re currently using—or not using—so you can downsize to have only the essentials in your van. This is a great time to evaluate what you really need to be happy and to start thinking about ways you can potentially simplify your gear.
Check out a shop like The Container Store (it’s heaven for organizing nerds!) for different sized boxes, bins, and you guessed it, containers that can be easily stored in your van. Another great item is a handful of packing cubes that you can use to stash your clothing and soft goods and prevent clutter.
Deciding what to bring clothing wise may be one of the most difficult parts of downsizing for van life. In my post on Van Life Clothing, I outlined the basic packing tips that have allowed me to maintain a minimalist wardrobe that is neat, comfy, and versatile. Check out these tips for van life clothing & gear:
- Keep it simple with solid colors or simple patterns that can go with anything.
- Only pack wrinkle-free, machine washable clothing.
- If you have a piece you really like, bring two or an extra in another color. It will make getting dressed very easy.
- If you don’t wear it often already at home, leave it at home.
- Make sure you plan for the change in seasons.
- Ditch the books – invest in a Kindle or iPad to cut back on the space that physical books take. We love the Libby app where you can link a library card to download e-books and audiobooks for free.
- Quality over quantity: what items will most efficiently accomplish the task and take up the least amount of space in your van?
For the rest of your gear, you’ll want only the things that bring you a lot of joy and you use at least once a week. With that in mind, check out these blog posts to get the full list of the best gear for van life:
- 50+ of the Best Van Life Gifts (treat yourself!)
- The Best Van Life Gear at REI
- 15 Kitchen Essentials for Van Life Cooking
- Road Trip Essentials: A Packing Checklist for Adventure Travelers
Making Money on the Road & Van Life Finances
In 2016, right after getting my Sprinter Van, I spent nearly a year completely apartment-free. It was a liberating time, but it also came with challenges. Transitioning from stationary life to van life looks a little different for everyone, especially when it comes to your work. Luckily, I am able to work remotely, but my experience as a full-time working van lifer is different than someone who can quit their job and live off their savings for a year and that’s totally okay. The whole point is to create a lifestyle that works for you while giving you more freedom.
If you’ve saved enough money to quit your job and travel, kudos to you! But that’s not a realistic scenario for most people, including myself. If you want to do full-time van life while still bringing in income, there are a number of options. All you need is motivation, a skill set, a decent internet connection, and enough power to charge up your electronics.
Remote Job Ideas for Van Lifers
Finding a well-paying job as a freelancer in the gig economy is perfect for those who work from home, especially if you’re home is on wheels. Set up an Upwork or Fiverr profile for anything from writing, graphic design, web development, social media management, or even consulting. We also recommend checking out the Basecamp Outdoors Facebook group to find remote jobs specific to the outdoor industry – that’s how we found two of our current team members!
If you already have a job, consider asking your boss if you can work remotely and take your career on the road. Alternatively, starting your own business is a viable and lucrative option—it worked for me and has worked for many others, too.
For more remote job ideas, check out these blog posts:
- 20 remote jobs for van lifers and travelers
- How to start an outdoor travel blog
- How to make money on the road: career tips for van lifers
Seasonal Work Ideas
Don’t mind being semi-stationary? Get seasonal work somewhere, for example, the National Parks are a great option, and ski resorts are always hiring multiple positions during the winter for all you ski bums out there. Cool Works is a great website to find seasonal gigs.
If you’re planning on moving around more often and need something temporary, get in the habit of checking Craigslist to see if there are events in need of staff or other places just looking for some extra help. If you like pets, trustworthy dog walkers are always in high demand!
How Much Does Van Life Cost?
Van life can fit into any budget. Whether you’re looking to live cheaply on the road or not, the cost of van life varies from person to person. Expenses depend on a lot of factors such as where you camp, how much you drive, whether you eat out often, and what activities you do along the way. We know van lifers who live on $800 a month and others who spend $2,000 or more.
The biggest expense of van life will most likely be buying your van and converting it. New vans cost around $30,000-$45,000 while conversions can vary from $10,000-$20,000 if you do it yourself or upwards of $125,000 for a professional, fully decked out van built by a conversion company. Keep in mind that these are just estimates. Costs are different for everyone depending on their budget.
The cost of daily life on the road depends on whether you treat van life like your real life or a vacation. Do you eat or cook in? Do you pay for campsites or stay on BLM land? Do you focus on free activities or splurge on big adventures? In this blog post, I share some my budget and the common expenses you should plan for as a van lifer: How Much Does Van Life Cost? A Breakdown of Common Expenses.
I also share tips on saving money and living on a budget in your van.
Now, It’s Time for Your Adventure!
Once you’ve got all your systems dialed, it’s time to put them to good use and go have some fun! Learn how to plan a stellar van life road trip with our detailed road trip guides and itineraries.
We hope this post has answered your van life questions and given you the inspiration and confidence to start your own van life adventures!
What questions do you still have about van life? What would you add to this guide? Leave us a comment below & be sure to sign up for our van life newsletter!