Life and Travel in a Van | Q&A

We asked our friends on social media if they had any questions for us about life and travel in a van and this is what we got back. Thanks so much for for helping us out! We did our best to answer all of your questions along with some of the more common ones we get asked in passing. We hope this is helpful for anyone who’s interested in doing a similar kind of trip. If there’s anything we didn’t quite cover here or anything else you’d like to know, just ask.

How do you fund your voyage?

This is one of the more important questions so it seems like a good place to start.

Without money, you can’t live life in modern society. Not even vanlife. In the words of Wu-Tang Clan, “Cash rules everything around me”… So having a comfortable budget, which means different things to different people, is crucial no matter what lifestyle you live.

We both have jobs. We aren’t on vacation and we don’t have rich families. Kyle is an account manager and media buyer for an online marketing firm and has more or less the same earning potential whether he’s mobile or stationary. Kate does social media marketing; however, she made a lot more money when we lived in one place because she bartended, taught art workshops, had art shows, along with several other sources of income that were based in Orlando. Knowing ahead of time that she was going to make less money on the road, she saved up as much as possible before we left to help cover expenses.

We don’t pay rent, utilities, cable, internet, etc., which frees up a good amount of money for travel. Our monthly expenses include a storage unit back in Orlando, cellphones, gas, groceries – and that’s about it as far as fixed expenses. Don’t be fooled into thinking this lifestyle is cheaper than a stationary life though. Having the aerodynamics of a brick & being extremely heavy, our van gets 9-10 mpg and we’ve logged around 7,000 miles in 3 months. With gas ranging from $2.20 per gallon to well over $3.00 in Canada, that’s a pretty hefty expense in itself. Kyle is also diligent about keeping up with maintenance and repairs and, being a 30-year-old van, there have been some unforeseen bugs that had to be worked out along the way. We also spend more on food/drinks/entertainment than we absolutely have to, but sometimes you just have to treat yo’self (especially after a shit day of fixing the van in a parking lot in the summer heat).

Overall, van life isn’t much cheaper (if at all) than the stationary life that we lived in Orlando. Therefore, it’s a good idea to have a source of income rather than attempting to take a trip like this on savings alone. Shit happens. Stuff breaks. When traveling, it’s always good to keep the mindset that you’ll need more money than you think and try to maintain a reserve. You can always curtail spending by staying put in one place while rebuilding funds and cutting food/entertainment/life costs. But having to do that frequently and unexpectedly would add a level of stress and uncertainty to the trip while detracting from the experience itself, perhaps to the point of having to ask “why am I doing this?”… At which point, the juice probably wouldn’t be worth the squeeze.

There are so many opportunities for making money online now, its nuts! Pretty much no matter what your skill set is, if you’re computer literate, you can find a way to make a wage. weworkremotely.com and indeed.com provide listings for a bunch of companies that offer online positions. If computers aren’t your thing, there are other ways to make money on the road as well. Websites like work-for-rvers-and-campers.com offer job listings for work at campsites and for seasonal jobs. Also, if you’re not in a hurry, there are WWOOF’ing opportunities all over the place, which give you the chance to regroup after stints of travel and spend time in some pretty cool places.

camp site picnic table with breakfast and laptop

Where do you bathroom/shower?

Sooooo… This can be a tricky one. We don’t know if there’s an “optimal” way to go about these things, but we’ll let you in on our practices. Hopefully some of you find this helpful and no one gets grossed out in the process.

Toilet Situation:

We don’t live in a luxurious RV with a shower, toilet, hot water, etc. We live in a van, and a relatively small one as far as long-term travel is concerned. There is no bathroom aside from a little “incase of emergency” portable toilet that we store under our bed. If we’re in the wilderness, we just take care of business the way the rest of the animals do, which is totally fine with us.

During the week, we wake up, put the bed back into couch position and head straight to a coffee shop for work, so typically we just use the bathroom there. On rare occasion, we’ll stay in parking lots of businesses that support the cause and use their facilities if that’s the case. Throughout the day, it’s never presented much of an issue because we’re either in populated areas with bathrooms all around or we’re hiking and just use mother nature’s bathroom. Late night seems to present the biggest challenges, and we’ve both had to stealthily water the bushes in rather precarious situations on more than one occasion. Luckily we have each other to keep a look out.

PSA: We can speak from experience when we say **YOU NEED AN EMERGENCY TOILET**. It has saved both of our lives on more than one occasion. Although it may seem like something you can do without, it’s much better to have one and never use it than not to have one and be stuck with nowhere to go when nature calls.

Shower Situation:

To be completely honest, showers on the road can be far and few between. This depends a lot on where you’re traveling, since some areas have tons of options and others just don’t. Our main showering options are as follows in order of most desirable to least:

  • friends’ houses
  • truck stop showers
  • campground showers
  • gym/rec centers
  • outdoor showers using our water storage

On the first leg of our trip, we got to visit a ton of friends – which was great because we love them and also because we had ample opportunities to shower. Unfortunately, we haven’t stayed with any of our friends in a couple months now, so that hasn’t been a possibility. We also found that having a gym membership for showers turned out to be a bust through the entire middle of the country and Canada, so we canceled those about a month in.

The first time we took a truck stop shower on this trip, Kate was really nervous about it. Will there be single showers? Will there be glory holes? Ya know, the type of unknowns that can really weigh on a gal. It turns out truck stop showers are the best! With most of them, you pay at the counter and you’re given a ticket with an access code. Peck in the code at the door of your assigned shower and you have a whole bathroom all to yourself… Sink, toilet, shower, vanity – with all the hot water you could ever hope for. The space itself is honestly larger than most hotel bathrooms. They’re cleaned after every use and they even provide you with towels (we typically use our own).

We’ve found that there aren’t many truck stops in super mountainous areas (semi trucks seem to stick to flatter routes between more populated cities, for the most part), so we’ve had to use a lot of campground and rec center showers as of late. Facilities at campgrounds vary from big, cozy stalls to tiny tomb-like showers with lukewarm (sometimes cold) water and timed push button valves that shut off every 30 seconds. The same goes for recreation centers, which are usually pretty small and have the same kind of timed shutoff valves (we really hate those valves, in case you were wondering). Often times, men’s facilities at rec centers have group showers, so Kyle has suffered crowds of naked men ranging from age 2 to 90 in his efforts to maintain basic hygiene. Whichever type of facility you find yourself in, a symphony of screaming children echoing through a communal shower will really make you reconsider how long you can actually go without bathing.

The longest we’ve gone without a proper shower is five or six days and for the past few weeks, that’s been the regular schedule. We do have running water in the van, so we can brush our teeth daily and take bird baths as needed. Also, we can use a water hose and garden sprayer to take outside showers with our water storage, but that’s been more of a last resort to this point. Having cleansing wipes on hand helps a lot. Typically, by the time you’re ready to jump in a fire to clean yourself, the opportunity to take a hot shower will present itself.

If you’ve ever backpacked or taken longer camping trips, you’ll know that these are the types of sacrifices you make to do this kind of travel. If you’re the type of person that can’t skip a shower, there are vehicles with pretty elaborate bathroom setups that are about as comfortable and well equipped as a house. Keep in mind though, having a complex water system with grey/brown water tanks imposes a lot of limitations on places you can stay and adds a lot of work (most of which we think is undesirable) to your weekly routine.

Van Water Storage

People ask us all the time what the white pipe on our roof is. We covered the construction of the water system here, but since we’ve gotten some requests for a more in depth explanation on how it works, here’s Kyle with the lowdown:

To fill the system, we connect a drinking water hose from any half inch spigot (which is the most common garden hose size) to the half inch inlet at the bottom of the 90 degree elbow. After that, we remove the access cap on the top and let it fill up til water runs out. It’s extremely easy to do, but finding places to fill up isn’t always. We’ve found the best method for procuring water in a pinch is simply to ask nicely at gas stations or other businesses for “a few gallons of water”. “Sixteen gallons” (or even worse, “60 liters”) sounds like a lot, so being vague seems to soften the request.

RV dump stations and radiator fill stations usually have water available, but there won’t always be one of those nearby. It’s also important to note that their hoses can be pretty gross so if you go that route, come prepared.

Where do you park/sleep?

When we’re in cities, we most often try to blend in on the streets of residential neighborhoods. We try to choose nice, safe looking areas not directly adjacent to schools or playgrounds because, let’s face it, 80’s model vans are a little creepy. Once our window covers are up, we’re pretty stealth. We’ve only ever been hassled for overnight parking one time because we parked in the same place a few nights in a row while Kyle had the flu. Sticking to the “never park in the same place twice” philosophy and being somewhat selective is really key to the cause.

We consider parking on a street with a bunch of other vans and RV’s (which is actually pretty common in the Pacific Northwest and Canada) a best case scenario. We’ve even happened upon areas with a bunch of vans and RVs congregated in the middle of urban areas (Nashville is a great example), which is extremely convenient. Safety in numbers seems like a safe bet as long as your neighbors aren’t cooking meth or anything, so its nice when things work out like that.

Arriving in cities too late to get a feel for the area can make it tricky to find a place to park. In those instances, we usually try to find a Walmart or something of the sort to park in front of for the night until we can get our bearings. We also make nice new friends from time to time that let us park at their places and we truly (TRULY) appreciate the hospitality.

We’ve had to stay at campgrounds occasionally, but actually prefer to do impromptu camping when the necessity presents itself. We have a great app called iOverlander that we use for finding free unofficial campsites. On there, users share descriptions, photos, and coordinates of places they’ve found to stay the night at. Once you find one that meets your requirements, the app connects to maps for directions… Definitely clutch on any road trip.

Because we have Meatball, we’ve either stayed with friends or stayed in the van every night for the past three months. We would totally go on multi-day hikes and camp, but unfortunately 3 miles is about her limit and there really isn’t any point in camping when you can just sleep in the comfort of your own bed.

sleeping in fold out van bed

What is it like to have a pet in a van?

Before we started, we were super stressed out about having the dog on this trip. Kate has had Meatball for nine years and leaving her behind wasn’t really an option. We’ve had to make concessions and there have been some sacrifices, but all in all, it’s been so much easier than we thought it was going to be.

We try to take her with us everywhere we can, but that varies from place to place. Being in areas that only have nice weather for a couple months out of the year can make it difficult to find restaurants and cafes with available outside seating. In Canada, we’ve also found that many patios aren’t pet friendly, so that’s limited us a bit more still. In a lot of places (seemingly more out west), people just tie their dogs up outside like horses instead of bringing them onto patios, which is interesting coming from the east coast where people walk dogs in strollers and fear things like dognapping. Meatball is a loose cannon around other dogs and attacks rolling objects like skateboards, so leaving her unattended on a sidewalk isn’t really an option for us. We’d like to think she could hold her own against a dognapper, though.

When we go on longer hikes or pretty much anytime we have to leave Meatball in the van, we have a pretty easy setup process that we’ve demonstrated here:

The only other Meatball related inconvenience is that about once a week, we have to refill her food container from a larger container that we keep in our cargo bin on top of the van. This requires us either taking down our bikes to access the ladder or Kyle having to lift Kate to the roof of the van. Neither task is that much of a hassle, but food storage is definitely something to take into consideration. We’re just glad to have so much cargo space on the outside of the cabin so we don’t have to buy small bags of food all the time.

refilling dog food from roof mounted van storage container

Other than that, having a dog on the road is pretty much the same as having one in your house, only way more enjoyable for the dog we think. She’s outside more than ever, which she loves. She goes on a couple of hikes a week and gets to hang out all day in parks or on patios while we work instead of alone in a house or apartment like most dogs. She’s also been swimming in tons of rivers and lakes, which is one of her favorite pastimes. With a little bit of forethought on behalf of the owner, van life can really be the ultimate dog life, too.

Do you find it difficult to maintain a healthy diet?

Both of us have pretty specific dietary restrictions, so there’s a lot to note here. The assumption might be that we’re eating a ton of fast food and/or gas station snacks because that’s the lowest hanging fruit while on the road, but this really isn’t the case at all. We have a refrigerator/freezer and a Coleman stove with two burners so we do store and cook a variety of foods. That said, storage is limited and cooking elaborate meals isn’t really an option, so our menu has definitely simplified.

We practice intermittent fasting, which basically means we try to eat all of our meals between noon and 8pm. We are human and we totally break that from time to time, but this is a basic outline for our eating schedule. During the week, we have coffee in the morning. Around noon, we make a salad that’s usually comprised of kale, a million veggies, and a packet of tuna. For dinner, Kyle has chicken, Kate has fish, and we typically have a couple of sautéed vegetables.

As far as snacks go, we both have protein shakes a few times a week. Kyle usually has some sort of dairy, nuts, and berries everyday while Kate switches out the dairy for things like crackers and hummus.

On the weekend, we usually make breakfast, especially if we’re going to go on a longer hike. Breakfast is usually eggs, avocado, and if we plan on really getting in the thick of it, we’ll add in some potatoes and up the portions a bit. It’s pretty basic, but chock full of nutritious goodness. We also sneak in a fair amount of dark chocolate – the super dark, bitter stuff is preferred. We should also note that we do eat out a few times a week and go out for drinks fairly regularly, too. Like we said, we’re human and we are totally into things that taste good.

cooking on coleman stove attached to barn door of van

How do you get mail and how does that affect your shopping habits?

Making the adjustment from online shopping to having to find things out in the world took some getting used to. Our biggest recommendation is to try to prepare yourself the best you can before you start your journey so this isn’t a constant issue. We’ve had things shipped to friends houses, which is fine if your friends don’t mind and the timing works out. We’ve also had things shipped to UPS stores before, which is a little inconvenient because you have to wait around for the package to arrive and pay a daily storage fee.

Another thing to consider is that our living space is very small so there isn’t a lot of extra room for “stuff”. If we buy new clothes, we donate old ones. Same goes for DVDs. Morty came with a sweet TV/DVD combo, so whenever we buy a new movie we give an old one away (accept for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, which is a mainstay). Living in a van forces you to be minimalistic and its pretty surprising how much you come to realize you never really needed in the first place.

view from highline trail in glacier national park
Remember, it’s not about bubble baths or trinkets delivered to your door in 24 hours or less… Being out here is the reason for taking a trip like this 🙂

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