Van Life Isn’t As Great As It Looks: Here Are 12 Major Downsides
Van life is a truly wonderful way to see the world. By combining your home and your vehicle, you seriously open up a whole new level of exploration and adventure possibilities. We have been van lifing off and on for the past couple of years. Funny enough, our van life journey actually started back in the San Francisco Bay Area when we decided to forgo spending hundreds of dollars on rent (at an apartment we didn’t even like) and instead bought a 1995 Dodge Van that we promptly named Terra Yacht (or Terra for short). We lived in our van in the crazy city for over 8 months. It was tough, but it was also really freeing. We didn’t have to worry about paying rent, instead we got to worry about where we wanted to go that weekend.
After those 8 months we decided to switch it up and instead road trip across the country… on a motorcycle. Yep. We bought a very large, cross-country motorcycle, packed it up, quit our jobs and hit the open road (funny enough that is where the name Backroad Packers came from). But by about night three of that motorcycle adventure, we were already missing our cozy van (the constant rain didn’t help).
Once the motorcycle trip was finished, we both agreed to never do another road trip without Terra — at least on USA soil. From that point on, Terra has been our mode of transport on numerous road trips. And she has for the most part been a total rock star. Yes, she has bad clearance and even worse gas mileage. But she gets the job done — and doesn’t really complain that much about it.
So you might be wondering, if van lifing has been that fun, why are you talking about the downsides of it? Well, in truth, van lifing hasn’t been all rainbows and sunshine. And we found this to be especially true once we decided to van life full time and work remotely 40 hours a week.
Below are 12 downsides to van lifing that we have personally experienced and think should be known before you yourself embark on your first van life adventure. If you are considering living in your van full time (and especially if you are planning to do that and work) then you definitely want to consider these 12 things. Obviously, these downsides are totally from our own opinion and personal experience and we 100% know other van lifers will disagree. But we wanted to be honest. Van lifing is amazing. But it is also exhausting.
So with that, here are 12 downsides of van lifing full time that you should probably know about.
1 | It Can Be Tough to Meet New People
This downside to van living actually took us a bit by surprise. After setting off in our van, we totally expected to meet cool people everywhere we went. But in actuality, we found that van lifing — especially while working remotely at the same time — was a bit isolating.
In our experience, it seemed all of the other van lifers were kind of doing their own thing and weren’t as interested in talking to new people and making new friends. Maybe we just had bad luck everywhere we went, but after a while it started to feel like this setup (an overall lack of meeting people) was more of a trend than an exception.
In fact, after meeting two other van lifers — in a public library no less — and talking to them about how they made friends on the road, we started to realize we were definitely not alone in this feeling of isolation. It seems people are less likely to talk to you and try to be your friend while you are out van lifing — and even more so if you are van lifing and working remotely.
2 | It is Often Much Harder to Make Long-Term Friends and Stay Connected to Loved Ones
Similarly, we found it was super hard to make long-term friends while van living. For the most part, the friends you did make seemed to be more like “fly-by friends.” You know, those kinds of people you connect with while mountain biking or chilling at the local watering hole but then never make an effort to see again. In most instances, this is totally understandable and fine. But if you are someone who wants to make long-lasting friends, this can feel a bit depressing.
Likewise, because you are out living a nomadic lifestyle, it can be equally as tough to stay connected with your old friends. We always try to put in the effort to stay in communication with friends while we are out traveling (in the USA and abroad) but sometimes it can be tough to connect — both by just constantly talking via phone or social media and just connecting in lifestyles.
We would say that this downside (having a tough time staying connected to friends and family) is not exclusively from van lifing but from a nomadic lifestyle in general. If you are thinking of going nomadic and you want to stay connected to your friends, be prepared to put in some extra work. For it is much easier to stay connected with people when you live in the same town and can therefore see them regularly than it is when you are a whole state or continent away.
3 | It Can Be Tough Not Having a Home Base
This downside to van life also took us a bit by surprise. We had been living a pretty nomadic lifestyle before hopping in our van Terra and hitting the road. But it didn’t take us long to realize that we were really missing a home base. Maybe it was because we weren’t in the best head space, or maybe it was because we were really tired of packing up and moving, but by around the 3 week mark of our road trip we both realized that the idea of having a home with plenty of space for our gear and a designated work area sounded really nice.
It is more than likely that this desire to have a home base had been coming for a while and that van life only sped the desire along. For a couple of years we had both talked about having a spot that we could base out of and travel from — be it a small home in the mountains or an apartment by the ocean. It seemed van life just made us want that a little bit sooner than expected.
4 | Van Life = Decision Overload
This is often one of the most common downsides of van lifing. Though surprisingly, it is the one you most likely won’t consider before starting out.
In truth, van life is made up of thousands of decisions, some big (like where do we want to drive to) and some small (where do we want to store this random item). No matter the size though, decisions have to be made day in and day out. Now this is true of almost every lifestyle, but in van life it just feels a bit more overwhelming and exhausting. Having to decide where to camp every night or where to find water or where to go for a shower, all of these things start to weigh on you after a while. In our case, by the time we reached Northern California we were pretty done with making decisions.
In the end, that is why we decided to bypass most of Oregon and just book it up to Washington. Do we regret missing out on all the beauty that Oregon has to offer? Yes, a bit. Do we regret that big decision? No.
5 | The Amount of Time it Takes to Accomplish Basic Tasks
Kind of like the statement above, van living is made up of a lot of time spent doing really basic things that aren’t always that fun. For example, you will find that you spend a weirdly large amount of time looking for drinkable water. This super basic necessity can become quite a chore when you have to visit multiple parks and then just hope that the water is indeed potable (sometimes it isn’t and you have to start all over in your search).
Then there is the even larger amount of time it takes to find a shower facility that isn’t closed or too pricey to use. Sometimes this means you have to clean up in a nice river, and sometimes this means you have to splurge and get a hotel for the night (bonus points if it has a free laundry facility).
During our road trip up the West Coast, we were pretty lucky in the fact that we had friends dotted along most of the route. We ended up not going more than a couple of days without a shower, which we were pretty stoked about. But there have definitely been other van life road trips where this was not the case and we found ourselves always on the hunt for the next spot to clean up.
In the end, one of the biggest downsides to van life in our books is just the large amount of time it takes to acquire basic necessities, like drinking water. While singularly it might seem super basic when you combine that one task with other necessary tasks (like buying food or finding a safe spot to camp) it starts to feel like a real chore. Plus, this chore time can really start to eat into your allotted free time that could instead be used for things like hiking, mountain biking or surfing.
6 | The Small Space Can Be Constricting
This is especially true if there is more than just one of you living in the van. In fact, we found that the overall lack of personal space can really start to mess with your psyche and emotional well-being. Because even if you absolutely love your travel partner — be it your boyfriend or girlfriend, wife or husband or best friend, the overall lack of individual space does often start to weigh on you after a while. This is especially true when you have to combine your living space with your workspace.
If you are someone who likes having some time alone, then we definitely recommend either planning out space with your van partner or reassessing your van set-up and full-time van life plan.
7 | Overall Cost of Gas
Unless you happen to be van lifing in a high-tech, super eco-friendly vehicle, it is very (very) likely that your biggest expense will be the cost of gas. We actually found that about half of our budget went to gas. And depending on when and where you are planning to vanlife, this percentage could be even higher (for example California is always much more expensive than other states).
While you can totally save money while van lifing, don’t expect to save all of your money — especially if you are planning to move around a lot. Vans are usually highly inefficient and the cost of gas can quickly add up. Our van Terra gets about 15 miles per gallon on a good day, so going on long drives or going out of our way to see things we weren’t 100% interested in started to become more of a money decision than a travel decision.
We would say that if you are seriously looking to use van lifing as a means to save money, then definitely plan to slow down and spend more time in one spot instead of constantly moving around (this is also a great way to get to know a place more deeply). Likewise, when you slow down and spend more time in one specific spot, you also cut back on your overall carbon emissions — which is great if you are also concerned about the environment.
8 | The Surprising Cost of Other Necessary Goods
While gas is likely going to be the biggest chunk of your expenses, you also should be prepared to spend a decent amount of money on other, often random, things while van lifing. We were surprised to find many unexpected costs while working remotely and van lifing up along the West Coast; including spending more money on going out to eat because we ran out of fuel for our stove (and then of course the cost of getting more fuel), the cost of doing laundry, the cost of using shower facilities (especially if you go to a gym), the cost of water fill-ups at grocery stores, and the cost of getting a coffee at a café in order to use their wi-fi for a couple of hours. All of these things are not very expensive on their own but when you put them all together they definitely start to add up.
Luckily, many of these purchases can be decreased with proper planning. But also sometimes you just don’t have a choice and you need to spend the money. While you can obviously still save some money from choosing to van life, depending on what your level of comfort is and where you are planning to van life, you could find yourself spending more money than you originally thought.
9 | Fewer Options for Cooking and Meals
The two of us genuinely enjoy cooking, so it was obviously pretty tough to go from having a full kitchen in a house to living in a van where you only have a two-burner Coleman stove (we do love that stove though). Of course like many things with van lifing you adapt after a while: for example, you give up making awesome enchiladas for dope ramen. But this lack of kitchen space and kitchen tools can still be a tough thing to swallow, especially in the beginning.
We have found that when van lifing we tend to resort back to the same tried and true recipes (pasta, stir-fries, super salads) which are definitely delicious, but once again, after a while those meals get kind of old and you start to dream about having an oven (or a food processer at the very least).
10 | The Cleanliness (or Lack Of)
This is maybe the smallest downside to van living, but one nonetheless. When you sign up to live and work in a van full time, be prepared for your level of “clean” to go down quite a bit. Soon you will be 100% okay with dishes being “camping clean” aka clean enough to not be dangerous instead of spotless and shiny.
This level of overall cleanliness often extends to other things too — including your clothing, your floor and your overall body. While this change can be a bit tough to get used to — especially if you are kind of a clean freak (no judgment from us) — it can also be sort of freeing. We found that it is much easier to just go with the flow of it than to fight it.
11 | The Fact that You Can Only Do So Much in a Day
While an overall lack of cleanliness definitely didn’t bother us that much while van lifing, what did really start to weigh on us was our overall lack of time — especially our lack of free time.
Van lifing often looks really freeing and easy, especially on social media. But for the most part, van lifing is a lot of small chores that eat into your time and keep you from always doing those fun things that you want. And this is even more true if you are planning to van life full time and also work remotely.
We found that there was this kind of Venn diagram when it came to how to fill your time while van lifing. In one circle you have working remotely 40 hours a week, in another you have getting those important chores done (see point 5), and in the third you have fun outdoor activities. Where they overlap you have a solid, full schedule (i.e. working 40 hours and also mountain biking a couple of days a week or working 40 hours and always having freshwater). But in the middle where they all come together, you just have chaos, exhaustion and burn-out.
What we are really trying to say here, is that if you don’t want to feel overwhelmed while van lifing then be prepared to forgo and sacrifice a few things. We found that unfortunately this meant giving up some awesome hiking opportunities or bypassing some super cool mountain bike trails. And those decisions came about because we were instead spending time grocery shopping (again) or looking for a public shower, or worse, driving.
12 | Overall Exhaustion
The final downside to full-time van lifing is just overall exhaustion. Van lifing is an incredible thing to do, but it can also be one of the most tiring things you get to do. It combines driving long distances with living in a small space with making hundreds of decisions every day (not to mention it can sometimes be harder to even sleep in a van due to anxiety). Then combine that with working full time (if you plan to combine the two) and of course you can imagine how it would get to be just so exhausting. Van life burnout is a very real thing.
While there are definitely ways to counteract this exhaustion from van lifing (a great one is slowing down and spending more time in one spot), for the most part, you often feel like you are constantly moving, thinking, planning and executing. We are both super energetic people who enjoy a challenge and who love exploring, but we even found our most recent van life adventure to just be so tiring.
Here is the deal: living on the road can be one crazy, exciting adventure. The opportunities you get to have, and the places you get to see are absolutely amazing. We genuinely enjoy van lifing (as much as this post might seem to say otherwise). We just want everyone to know that van life is not this magical adventure like you usually see on social media. There are some real drawbacks to van lifing full time, and especially van lifing full time and working remotely. While we love road tripping and exploring new places, right now we aren’t totally sold on doing it full time in our van Terra. And you know what, that is okay.
If you are thinking of trying out van lifing for the first time, we would say 100% go for it! You might absolutely love it. We just wanted to be honest about our own feelings and experiences with van lifing full time (and especially van lifing full time while working remotely).
Hopefully, this article gave you some insight into the other, less social media-y side of van lifing. If you have any questions or comments please leave them below or reach out to us at www.backroadpackers.com.