Is van life right for you? Two easy ways to find out

Find out if van life is right for you! Detailed descriptions of three camper van rental companies, as well as how to live out of your car to test out van life.
christina sleeping in her station wagon

In a previous post I discussed how backpacking can prepare you for van life. What if you’re not interested in backpacking? There are two other ways to find out if van life is right for you. The most obvious one is to rent a camper van and take it on a trip. Another alternative is to live in your vehicle on road trips. And don’t make a decision about van life after only one trip.

Renting a camper van

An easy way to test out if van life is right for you is renting a camper van. Keep an open mind when searching for a test-run vehicle because there are two goals. First, you want to see if van life is right for you by living out of a vehicle. Second, you want to see what type of vehicle suits you best. In other words, mobile living might suit you but in something bigger than a camper van.

There are many companies that rent camper vans, RVs and travel trailers. This gives you plenty of van life vehicle options to explore. Below I highlight three companies. 

Outdoorsy and RVshare

Both websites are like Airbnb for RVs, camper vans and travel trailers. That is to say, regular folks list their rigs for others to rent and enjoy. The two sites are quite similar. For instance, both allow you to filter by vehicle type, number of guests, instant booking and price. Additionally, you can filter by delivery or pick up and other various amenities. I did a search for Savannah, GA from May 9-16 for two people. With no filters applied my search yielded over 100 results on each site.

There are a few noticeable differences between the two sites. For example, Outdoorsy allows for more specific filtering of vehicles. They have ten vehicle types compared to RVshare’s seven. Both sites have maps showing vehicle location and prices. However, Outdoorsy will refine the list of results based on the map view you select, and RVshare does not.

outdoors.com campervan rental search results
These camper vans have character!
rvshare.com campervan rental seach results
As you can see, the first two results aren’t camper vans.

When narrowing my search to only camper vans, neither found anything in Savannah. However, both sites returned results within a two-hour drive. RVshare yielded more vehicles, but the few available on Outdoorsy were more affordable. In addition, half of the RVshare results were class B campers, not camper vans.

In conclusion, I find Outdoorsy to be the better the site for finding a van life test-run vehicle. But RVshare is still a great site for exploring your options to see if van life is right for you.

Escape Camper vans

Don’t let the name deceive you! Escape has camper vans as well as Jeeps and truck campers. Their vehicles all boast hand-painted artwork instead a normal vehicle paint job. As a result, the exterior artwork sparks conversation with others during your travels. I like this because it affords an opportunity to experience a sense of community.

Unlike Outdoorsy and RVshare, you can only find Escape in 11 major US cities. Additionally, there are two locations in Canada. If you are flying somewhere for an adventurous vacation, Escape might be a good option. They offer five different vehicles: three camper vans, one Jeep camper and one truck camper. But not all vehicle options are available in all locations.

different escape campervan rental options to discover if vanlife is right for you
Escape Camper vans vehicle options
VehicleTypical ModelLocations
Santa CruzFord Transit ConnectLos Angeles, San Francisco & Las Vegas
MavericksFord E-150All locations*
Big SurFord T-350All locations*
Jeep CamperJeep Sahara JL 4 DoorDenver & Salt Lake City
Newport Camper 2018 Ford F-150 Crew Cab (4-door)Los Angeles, San Francisco & Las Vegas
*US: Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle – Canada: Calgary, Vancouver

Since Atlanta is closest to me, I selected it as my pick up and drop off location for my search. Unfortunately, my search yielded no results. I even tried different dates, middle of the week, weekends, and different times of the year. Nothing.

For my next search I used Portland. Consequently, the search returned the Mavericks and Big Sur, as expected. Picking up on a Monday and dropping off on a Friday results in costs of $581 and $756, respectively. The per night cost, $145.25 and $189, respectively, is comparable to that of Outdoorsy.

The three available camper vans are on the smaller side and none are high top. This only allows for a limited experience when testing out if van life is right for you. However, you might find a smaller van is right up your alley!

Living or road tripping in your personal vehicle

This is the most affordable option if you already have a vehicle. It’s even more practical if you already have camping equipment. Your personal vehicle is likely to be a lot smaller than the typical camper van. However, you can still experience the essence of van life by living out of your car. If you have a vehicle with rear seats that fold back, you’re ready to go! A truck with a camper top is another great option. A minivan works as well, but it requires removal of the back seats for a more comfortable experience.

If you have a vehicle with off-road capabilities, you can venture to more remote places than the average camper van. This proper term for this is overlanding. Most overlanders have a 4×4 SUV or truck equipped with a roof top pop up tent for sleeping. However, the roof top tents are expensive and not necessary. There’s no need to buy one if you’re only testing out if van life is right for you.

overlanding jeep with pop up tent near campfire
A fine example of overlanding.

How to test out van life in your POV

It doesn’t matter if you have an SUV, hatchback, station wagon or sedan, if your rear seats fold back, you can sleep in it. With the rear seats folded down you have a pretty flat sleeping surface. For trucks with camper tops, they don’t call it a truck “bed” for nothing! With minivans, removing the backseats can be a pain. Additionally, you’ll need to add some sort of platform to make a flat sleeping surface.

You can make a bed out of almost anything. For instance, an air mattress, backpacking sleeping pad, pile of blankets, couch cushions, etc. A simple camping or backpacking stove is all you need to cook on. Add a cooler and a few jugs of water, and you have everything you need to live in your vehicle.

Of course, there are other amenities you can bring with you to make your trip more comfortable. For example, a battery-powered fan is nice while sleeping during warmer months. Or a few camp chairs and a folding table if you have room. I also suggest rain guards for your windows. That way you can leave them cracked at night for ventilation without worrying about rain.

Here are some subreddits to see how others live in their vehicles and vans:

christina sleeping in her station wagon
Sleeping in my car at a trailhead.

mattress in back of station wagon
A twin-sized mattress memory foam mattress in the back of my Sportwagen.

Our vehicle-living experience

My husband and I used milk crates to organize my station wagon when living in it on road trips. One milk crate held all our cooking gear. Another held two one-gallon jugs of water and other miscellany. A couple of reusable shopping bags served as our dry goods pantry. We also wrapped our cooler in a sleeping bag for extra insulation. As a result, we didn’t need to get ice as often.

Each night we moved everything but our bed stuffs to the front seats. A twin-sized trifold mattress served as our bed. Although we had a queen-sized bed in our house, the twin offered plenty of room for both of us. In the morning, I pulled out the cooler and milk crates and got to work on breakfast and coffee. Meanwhile, Jeremy folded the bed back up and moved the remaining items from the front to the back.

I found living out of a car a great test of whether van life was right for us. Because of the limited space in the van, we keep some things on the bed during the day. At night we must shuffle things around to go to bed. In the morning, if we want to use our seating area, those things go back on the bed. Also, finding a place to park is no different whether in a car or a camper van.

cooking breakfast on the side of the road was a good test run of future vanlife
Making breakfast at a turnout in Montana where we spent the night.
christina making coffee in a parking lot
Brewing coffee in the parking lot of Grandpa Cuts Loose the Ponies, an art sculpture in Washington State. If you look closely between me and the coffee pot, you can see the metal pony sculptures.

Carrying your fears

My favorite backpacking saying is “you carry your fears on your back.” If you’re afraid of running out of water, you carry excess water. If you’re afraid of being cold, you carry lots of extra layers and a warm sleeping bag. You get the point. But the more you backpack, the more comfortable you become and the less fears you have. Thus, you carry less on your back.

The same concept applies to testing out if van life is right for you. If you’re brand new to vehicle living, you’ll have a lot of uncertainties and fears that make it uncomfortable. The more you do it, the more confident you become. Over time you’ll have fewer uncertainties and fears. This makes vehicle living easier and more enjoyable. In short, don’t dismiss van life if your first experience doesn’t go well.

Van life test runs

Whether you rent a vehicle to sleep in or use your own, make the most of your test runs. And I do mean runs as in plural. Discovering if van life is right for you shouldn’t be a one-time test. Give it a real chance. Take at least a couple of nights for each trip. Also, take it slow. There’s no need to go out boondocking your first trip if you’ve never done anything like that before. As I said before, the idea is to get comfortable doing one thing. After that, move on to something more difficult.

For your first test run, I recommend staying in one place for the whole trip. A safe place like a campground is a good start. Heck, you can even start in your driveway! That way you’re only experimenting with living out of a vehicle and nothing more. In other words, you don’t have to worry about toilets, finding water or a place to park, only tiny living. It’s almost the same as car camping except you keep most everything contained in your vehicle. For example, try to cook out of your vehicle instead of using the picnic table. Sleep in your vehicle instead of setting up a tent.

Then try to be more adventurous on your next trip by moving each night, even if you stick to campgrounds. This allows you to experience setting up and breaking down camp each time you move. Plus, you get a taste of the freedom van life offers by traveling more. If you’re still feeling good about van life, skip the campground on your next trip. Instead, try finding a place to park for the night. After that, you may even want to give boondocking a try.

christina backpacking on foothills trail
My first multi-night backpacking trip with a HUGE backpack full of fears. That thing weighed at least 45 pounds.
christina in palmerton, pa on AT thru hike
The more comfortable I got with backpacking, the smaller my pack got. A mere 30 pounds on back two and a half months into the Appalachian Trail.

Take notes

As you are doing your test runs, take notes about what works for you and what doesn’t. Write down the things you wish you had. Also, make sure to include the things you brought and didn’t need. Afterwards, use these notes to figure out how to make your next trip better.

If you’re renting a camper van or RV to test out van life, try renting different rigs each time. Testing out different sizes and layouts gives you a better idea of what does and doesn’t work for you. This allows you to gather as much information as possible about your van life needs. So, when the time comes to plan your van’s layout and design you can make informed decisions.

Is van life right for you?

Renting a camper van or RV is a the more realistic test of van life. You spend time living out of a vehicle like one you might build or buy in the future. However, living in your vehicle is a more affordable approach. Furthermore, if you can live out of a smaller vehicle, moving into a larger one will be that much easier. Either way, after a few test runs you should have a good idea if van life is right for you.

Have you ever slept in your vehicle on a road trip? If not, is it something you would consider? Leave a comment below!

Need more help getting started with van life? Check out our How to Start Van Life guide!

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Christina

Christina

I served 11 years in the Navy, and in 2014 I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. These experiences helped prepare me for vanlife. My husband and I now live in our self-converted van, Mark.

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About Us

We left “normal” life behind and now live in our self-converted van, Mark. Our time in the military and backpacking adventures made vanlife an easy choice. The leap into vanlife and a self-conversion can be exciting yet daunting. We want to share our experiences and provide resources to give you vanlife your way, and the highway.

jeremy and christina at sunset

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