Radical is a nonbinary writer, content creator and social media manager with a passion for individual growth, alternative love and social justice. They travel part-time in their van, and they are a strong proponent for inclusive and diverse education and communal healing. Follow them on Instagram for more content like this! @rewilding.radical
So You Want To Try Vanlife…What Now?
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If you’re anything like me, you feel stifled and trapped by the idea of living in a house in the same city for months or years on end. Yes, I say this after having lived in the same house for 14 years (a privilege), but the feeling was exacerbated by living in my van for six months. The freedom and spontaneity that comes with living in a converted van is unparalleled, but that doesn’t mean it’s not tough! A lot of people who think they’ll love vanlife will end up hating the reality of living in a converted vehicle, which is totally okay, but I’ve found that with the right mental and physical preparation and minimal expectations, living in a van-turned-home can be one of the most enlightening and thrilling experiences of your life. If you think vanlife might be for you, read on to learn about (one version of) my first six months living in a 1988 Dodge campervan!
The way I ended up living in my van is a story I tell sparingly because it involves a relationship upon which I’d rather not reflect. In the fall of 2020, I was living what I thought was the dream, in a studio apartment in a 1940s heritage house, with a rent of nearly $1400 per month (with a shared washroom). I was dating someone I thought was my life partner (naive, but true) when I started dreaming of travelling – with or without them. I grew up in a travel-oriented, adventurous family, so living nomadically came pretty naturally to me. In my case, this decision wasn’t about the crazy rent, because I wasn’t the one paying for it. It was more about the sense of freedom and self-sufficiency that came with living nomadically. I now realise that my desire to run away in an RV was likely a desperate escape from the feelings of isolation and patterns of abuse into which my partner had cornered me during that relationship. However, that doesn’t dismiss the validity of my deep-seated desire to see more of the world, spend more time outside, and truly get to know myself.
That autumn, I spent many hours immersing myself in Craigslist ads, trying to find a small camper that would allow me to run away to the woods and finally achieve the “reset” I’d been craving for so many years. What surprised me was this: the first van I test-drove was the one I bought. This came as a surprise not because of my impulsivity (I knew this about myself going in), but because my father is a mechanical engineer and had encouraged me to see a bunch of vans before choosing one. When I visited what later became my van, it was like looking at a blank canvas ready for revamping, rebuilds, additions, and projects popping up in front of me as I explored the space. After test driving it, I knew it was going to be my home! I also knew that I’d be learning a lot about cars because this one was made in 1988. I named her Eddie, and I was instantly in love with her despite–and because of–her quirks and issues.
I moved from that pricey apartment into another house with six roommates, where I adjusted to living in a smaller space before starting to sleep in the van and live in the house. This was a fantastic transitional period because I was able to experience vanlife without the pressures of finding electricity or a place to shower right out of the gate. After about three months of living between the camper and the house, I cleared out many of the physical things I had clung to in my first years of university and moved the remainder of my belongings into the van. My first trip was a short one; I spent the weekend by the Squamish River, just a few hours north of Vancouver. I parked in a pullout off an unmaintained logging road by the river and woke up with the sun. I remember feeling absolutely sacred on that trip, doing yoga barefoot in the mud and letting incense smoke drift up into the trees. That adventure was a beautiful and greatly welcomed opportunity to reconnect with myself and with Spirit – or rather, to connect with myself and Spirit for the very first time, an awakening of sorts. If you’d like to know more about my experience during my first trip with Eddie, I have a blog about it! You can read it here.
The first six months of living in my van were simultaneously the best of my life, and the hardest. Not only did I find out how difficult it can be to sustain yourself without consistent running water and electricity, but I also discovered a deep-seated fear of being alone with myself. If vanlife taught me one thing, it is how to be alone, even when it's the last thing you want to do. I want to elaborate further on this series of topics, but I’ll reserve it for another blog, because by this point, you're probably wondering how in the hell you can start living in a van with the rest of us. Don’t worry – we’ll get there :)
It’s funny – the things I thought would be most important in a van turned out to be less impactful when placed in the greater context of the experience as a whole. I thought that having a shower in the van would be crucial for my comfort (and honestly, my sanity), or at least ensuring I had the room to install one. As it turns out, that wasn’t a necessary amenity! When the weather was nice, I washed up in the ocean or in rivers, and when it wasn’t so lovely, I borrowed the shower at friends’ houses. My point here is this: if you’re thinking about vanlife, try not to fall into the trap of thinking you know everything. I was under the impression I would need a shower, but that I wouldn’t need many mechanical skills – and I had it all backwards!
When you’re shopping for the vehicle that’s going to be your home, it’s crucial that you get one with an engine that functions well and is reliable, especially if you plan to take longer trips. I’m toying with the idea of moving back into my van after a few months off, but knowing her engine, I’ll be sticking to my city and the surrounding areas in order to avoid breaking down on an unknown highway. That is an adventure you might be ready for, but I can say with confidence that I’ve had my fair share of breakdowns in unknown places, and I’d rather avoid more for the time being (not that they’re not beautiful and empowering in their own way, I’ve just had enough in the past year!).
The rest of the build is usually largely flexible if you’re willing to put in the work. My van has a full-size bed at the rear, that I’ve wedged a full-size mattress into, but if I stuck with the RV mattress pads, I could’ve had a 4-seater dinette that converts into a bed! With the mattress permanently set up in the rear, I had the luxury of not needing to set up and take down my bed every time I wanted to rest, but I was left with minimal seating. One of the projects on the docket, if I do decide to move back into the van, is to install a bench seat with storage underneath it because I have the room, and I need the storage! My point is this: while the build is important, it’s crucial to make sure you have the fundamentals, and if you’re missing anything, you need to make sure you have enough space to install or rebuild what you need.
I think that’s enough on the priorities when it comes to your conversion van; let’s talk about the emotional side of things. And yes, in the spirit of vanlife and its particularities, we’re diving right in. When you live in a vehicle, it’s far too easy to run away from your problems. Preparing yourself for the emotional journey of living in a vehicle is crucial to the success of your physical journey. I jumped right into vanlife, hoping for deep and soulful connections, profound joy, and quick-and-easy learning opportunities. Instead, I was handed loneliness, existential dread, and complex life lessons. Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t trade my vanlife experience for the world, but the glorification of vanlife on social media platforms really is misleading. There will be days where you sob in bed, sob in the driver's seat, maybe even sob over your smoking engine because your transmission caught fire (been there). There will also be days when you don’t wear shoes for the whole day because the weather’s so nice, and you survive on coffee and cigarettes and the vigour for life in your heart. There will be days when you don’t leave your van, when you’ll be broken down for a week or two at a time when you’ll need to stay in a town you don’t like all that much in order to get repairs done. And there will also be days when you’ll be blasting Steve Miller Band as you bomb down the long, straight highway toward a sunshiney destination, singing along with everything your precious lungs can handle, feeling full of immense human joy and the grace of Spirit in every breath and note and word.
All this rambling is to say that my point here is this: if you choose to live in a van, be prepared to be alone. Soulful connections come with effort, alignment, and Divine Blessings. You can’t force a connection with someone. I will probably write more on this later, but one of the most transformative experiences I had while travelling with Eddie was when I spent three whole weeks, broken down in a gravel pull-out near a beach in Seattle. I was distraught because I was catastrophizing the whole thing, thinking I would never escape the muddy gravel parking lot that was my home for the moment, thinking I would have a full-scale mental breakdown right there in the puddles full of rain. But I didn’t. I put fifteen hours and about $150 into my engine, processed some trauma, visited my best friend, and moved on. I got my car towed (six times), replaced the engine, rebuilt the transmission, and got the carburetor cleaned. I now look back at those muddy few weeks and thank Goddess that I was gifted that time with those people.
Three months and $4000 later, she works like a charm (as much as a 1988 Dodge can)! I wouldn’t have made this all happen without the endless and generous support of my parents, who helped me out consistently when I found myself tightly wedged in tough financial and emotional corners. And while I credit the many people whose energy carried me through these tough times, I also credit myself for my emotional strength, my resilience, and my ability to apply the lesson that everything is love and that everything functions better when infused with love.
Vanlife is not easy, but it is worth it–absolutely, no doubts about it. I’m currently in yet another exciting yet stressful process of deliberating on whether or not I want to move back into my beloved campervan after a few months off, living in a collective full of 11 wonderful (and dramatic) hippies. The decision is hard, because I’m inclined to avoid the emotionally and financially tumultuous reality of living in an old van, but images of the spiritual expansiveness and profound joy in simplicity that came with living in my little old van will not leave my mind, nor my heart. If your heart is telling you to live in a van, live in a gosh dang van already! With the right preparation and a healthy mindset geared towards learning and exploration, you’ll do just fine.
See you on the road!
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