How to start van life – a beginner’s guide

key in ignition to start van life

Thinking about van life but don’t know where to start? You’ve come to the right place! This guide will walk you through the first steps of your van life journey. First, I’ll go over what van life is or isn’t. Then I’ll give you some questions to answer to help you decide if van life is right for you, as well as ways to test out van life. The guide closes out with the fun part – the first step to van life – finding a van.

This guide is only an overview. Throughout it you’ll find links to more in-depth articles to help you start van life.

Contents

What is van life?

On Mark’s homepage I give my definition of van life:

“a social movement of individuals living a minimal, adventurous and mobile lifestyle, trading the ‘American Dream’ for a simple but more fulfilling life”

Let’s break it down.

Social Movement and the “American Dream”

A social movement is when a group of people come together to foster a social change. Sometimes social change is unplanned and sometimes it is intentional. Also, social change is controversial. But what does this have to do with van life?

The current social norms tell us to go to college, start a career, buy a house, start a family, and wait until retirement to enjoy life. They tell us to pursue the “American Dream.” However, van lifers live life on their own terms, enjoying it while they can. They challenge social norms by pursuing their own dreams. Anything that goes against a social norm is controversial because it’s different.

suburban neighborhood
Living in the suburbs was never a dream of mine, yet I somehow found myself there for years.

Minimal, adventurous, and mobile lifestyle 

Some folks start van life seeking to travel and live it up before retirement age. Others start van life because it’s their best option. They can’t afford rent or a mortgage long term. Either way, van life forces you to live a minimal lifestyle. As a result, van lifers also challenge society’s materialistic ways. They trade materialism for experiences and personal growth.

Mobile living isn’t only about traveling. Having your home on wheels gives you freedom. A stationary dwelling ties to you to one place. So, it makes it harder to pick up and go when opportunity knocks. On the other hand, van life lets you pursue whatever comes your way whenever it comes your way.

Again, when I say “adventurous” I don’t only mean traveling. There’s more to it. The real adventure starts when you free yourself of the status quo. Then you have the freedom to find and live your best life. Additionally, living in a van is an adventure in and of itself, even if you stay parked in one spot. This is because van life is simple.

van by the river with jeremy fishing
There’s nothing like waking up and walking out on your “front porch” to fish.

Simple and fulfilling life

Van life strips your life down to the essentials needed for survival and happiness. There literally is no room for what you don’t need in your life. Therefore, it forces you to take a close look at yourself and your priorities. Stripping down leads to a simple life. It also gives you the opportunity to appreciate the simple things in life. In the end, you learn what a rewarding and full life means to you outside of the social norms.

What van life isn’t

Don’t start van life with misconceptions. It isn’t always picturesque sunsets without a soul in sight. Sometimes it’s parking at Walmart or in a friend’s driveway. What you often don’t see in those #vanlife photos are the challenges of van life. Some people think that because van life is simple it’s also easy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The simplicity of van life is what makes it hard. You have limited space and resources in your tiny home on wheels.

Van life isn’t cookie cutter. Some van lifers live and work in the city. Others traverse numerous countries and work from the road. Then there are the part timers who get their taste of freedom whenever they can. Additionally, the vans themselves are as unique as their dwellers. Those who can afford it live in an expensive and luxurious vans. Those who can’t opt for a more practical vehicle and simple build. And there’s all the folks who fall in between.

van parked in a driveway and a cat
With no jobs during COVID-19, we ended up parked at my sister’s.

Before you take steps to start van life, it helps to know more about what van life entails. The following questions should help with that. Moreover, each question discusses some of the benefits of van life.

Do you love the outdoors?

Because vans are so small, you end up spending a lot of time not in your van. Many outdoor enthusiasts choose van life because it allows them to do more of what they love. Whether it’s skiing, mountain biking, surfing or whatever, van life brings you closer to outdoor hobbies. If you don’t love the outdoors, don’t worry! Plenty of city van dwellers spend their time in libraries and coffeeshops instead.

Can you roll with the punches?

For instance, a stationary dwelling doesn’t break down on the side of the road. But a van does. And when it does, it’s not only your mode of transportation that’s broken down. It’s also your home. Even if you’re not good at rolling with the punches, van life will teach you. Over time you will gain the confidence and know-how to deal with whatever challenges (van) life throws at you. Remember, it’s these challenges that fuel your personal growth.

Are you okay with uncertainty?

This ties in with rolling with the punches. For example, you won’t always know where your next parking spot is. And there are a whole lot more uncertainties with van life. However, if uncertainty scares you, that’s okay. The best part of van life is it teaches how to live. Like rolling with the punches, if you have an open mind, you’ll learn how to deal with uncertainty. You’ll learn how to appreciate what you have at that moment and live in the present.

inside van with one back door open
I’ve awoken many times in the middle of the night to the sound of rain and rushed outside to close the doors.

Are you okay taking it slow?

Many everyday things take more time when living in a van. For instance, you need to take time out of your day to find water or a place to park for the night. Before hitting the road, you need to stow your stuff. And then unpack it when you reach your destination. Things like that. While this might not seem like a “slow life,” it does take time.

Other van life benefits

A big perk of van life is it save you money because:

  • No rent or mortgage
  • No utilities to pay
  • Don’t buy unnecessary things

Now what you do with this savings is up to you. First, you can, well, save it. Van life is a great opportunity to save up for whatever it is your heart desires. Second, you can work less or change jobs. You don’t change your lifestyle all that much either. By spending less to live you don’t need to make as much money. Therefore, you can cut down your hours. Or you could pursue that dream job of yours. You know, that one you put on the back burner because it didn’t pay enough. Third, you can live like a rock star. Okay, not really, but you can use that extra money to do more of things you love.

Last but not least, van life gives you community. From large, organized gatherings to a couple vans meeting up, van lifers love to get together. But you don’t have to be in person to be part of the community. There are tons of van life forums and van lifers on social media.

christina's loaded station was a start for van life
Jeremy and I lived out of my station wagon for a whole week, sealing the deal for van life.

Give van life a test drive

Does van life sound like it’s right for you? Great! But reading about it and doing it two different things. Therefore, I recommend taking a test drive before you start van life. There are three ways to test out van life.

Renting a camper van is the most realistic way to see if van life is right for you. The van itself is likely different from what you’ll end up with, but it gives you the opportunity to live in a van. However, camper van rentals aren’t always the cheapest option.

Do you have a pickup truck or a car with fold-down rear seats? Do you have camping gear? If you answered yes to both, you already have everything you need to test out van life. The gist of van life is living minimally in a small space. Living out your vehicle is just that. However, it is more challenging. As a result, if you can handle it, van life is that much easier.

The third option is even more challenging than living in a vehicle or van life. And if you don’t already have the gear or an interest in it, I don’t recommend it. What I’m talking about is backpacking. This is the ultimate minimal, mobile living experience. In fact, I’ve noticed quite a few long-distance backpackers who transitioned to van life, including myself.

christina backpacking in the white mountains
Living out of a van is a piece of cake after living out of a backpack.

Identifying your van life needs

Providing the test runs go well, you’re ready to start van life! But to succeed at van life, you must meet your needs while living a van. Whichever way you decide to test out van life, those test runs should give you a good idea of what you need. For example, you might find a stove unnecessary, or that you hate converting a couch into a bed each night.

Also, consider what hobbies and interests you want to take with you in van life. You need space for the equipment that supports these things. Additionally, your hobbies and interests might influence what type of van or vehicle you buy. For instance, if you enjoy skiing and rock climbing you might want a 4×4 vehicle.

Finding the right van life vehicle

There are many things to consider before buying a van or vehicle. What size vehicle do you need? As I mentioned above, your needs and hobbies are factors. In addition, the number of people living in the van plays a big part.

Van/vehicle considerations

Also, how long do you plan to keep your van? If you have some doubts about van life, you likely don’t want to spend a lot on your van. Whereas folks like me plan to keep their vans until death do us part. As a result, I considered my van an investment and spent a good chunk of change on it.

Another consideration is a gas or diesel engine. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. Also, how mechanically inclined are you? The old VWs require frequent maintenance and repairs. Taking a diesel to a shop for work is expensive. Therefore, having mechanical abilities means you can save money by doing the repairs yourself. This could give you more vehicle options.

mark the green van
This big green beast is everything we wanted.

Once you’ve considered your considerations, it’s time to look for a vehicle! And remember, a van isn’t a requirement for van life. At least I don’t think it is. To me, it’s a lifestyle you can live in any vehicle. Because there are so many options, there’s a good chance you’ll find a vehicle to meet most of or all your needs. But if you’re dead set on a van, check out the popular ones.

Some find it easier to choose a vehicle after putting together a rough van layout. If that sounds like you, check out our Camper Van Layout and Design guide before looking for the right vehicle.

Take the time to find the right vehicle

Buying a vehicle to start van life is exciting! It means you’re taking that first step! As a result, some people rush into buying a vehicle. Instead, be patient. Do your research. Figure out what you want and don’t settle for anything less. Also, ask the sellers all the questions to learn as much about the vehicle as possible. And if you can, don’t limit yourself to your immediate area. Geographically expand your search to give yourself the most options.

Ways to turn that van or vehicle into a home

There are four ways to go from van to home on wheels. A self-conversion is the easiest way to save money. But that doesn’t mean a self-conversion is easy. What you’re saving money on is labor. Be prepared to put in a lot of time and hard work. However, a self-conversion is a great way to start van life, especially if you have zero building experience. It encompasses all four questions from earlier. One, most builds take place outdoors. Two, the build won’t go the way you planned. Three, having no experience means the build is full of uncertainty. Four, to prevent a lot of rework and spending extra money, you need to take it slow.

If a self-conversion isn’t for you, that’s okay! You have three more options. First, you can hire a conversion company. It’s not cheap, but it’ll get done right and doesn’t take up any of your time. Second, buy a prebuilt. It’s the fastest way to start van life because the van is ready to go. Third, buy a conversion kit. While this does involve a little DIY, all you need to do is install the kit. 

van bed frame
The van floor and bed frame are one of the first things we built, and we had no idea what we were doing!

What’s next?

For those doing a self-conversion, the next step is planning your van build. This means taking all your van life needs and figuring out how to fit it all in tiny home on wheels. Planning the design and layout might feel overwhelming. Don’t worry, that’s what Mark the Green Van is for! Check out our Camper Van Layout and Design 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 van life an easy choice. The leap into van life and a self-conversion can be exciting yet daunting. We want to share our experiences and provide resources to get you from zero to van life!

jeremy and christina at sunset

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