From the beginning, I’ve wanted to be transparent about my personal experience with Van Life. When it comes to fashion, beauty, travel, I’m an open book. As a content creator, blogger, however you may perceive and or define me in this world of Almost Fabulous Me, it’s been of utmost importance to me from the beginning to be transparent. I’ve always wanted to create a community where I’m open with my followers. From things that I like and want to share more about, to personal struggles I may be facing. You will never find me keeping things close to the chest so to speak. If I like something or found a resource helpful for example, I will be sharing it with you right here!
That being said, as you may know - or perhaps you don’t, which is okay too - we just recently returned from three months living and traveling the US in a renovated sprinter van (no we didn’t do the renovations on our own, we actually bought it from the man who did and he traveled and lived in it for a whole year!). We purchased the van early summer and took off for a three month adventure shortly thereafter. We did a fair bit of research before taking off for our grand, American Tour, however, it’s nearly impossible to prepare yourself for all that #VanLife entails. Especially when most of your research involves looking at videos of YouTubers who are professional Van Lifers and have gotten quite comfortable with this lifestyle after months and years even of trial and error.
Well, after a three month crash course in Van Life, I’m here to share with you some tips and tricks should you find yourself interested in taking on the adventure (and challenge) that Van Life brings. Hopefully, by us learning the hard way, we’re able to support you and help you avoid some of the mistakes we made.
Tips for Traveling:
Keep travel to seasons with moderate weather - Just as much as Van Life during the summer was quite challenging, I can only image what Van Life during the winter would be like. Keep Van Life travel to seasons with moderate climates where you don’t have to worry about being uncomfortable nor about getting stuck in the rain, snow, etc.
Pack for all seasons - layers are key. - The weather truly has a mind of its own and if you’re traveling the country, you can easily go from 100+ degrees to 40 degrees in a matter of days. Be prepared with layering options.
Traveling on the West Coast is significantly easier than the East Coast - If you’re from the West Coast like I am, then you know we have lots of wide open spaces out West. From the Grand Canyon, to Yellowstone and everything in between, in my opinion we’re the Coast known for our outdoor landscapes. Once you make your way out East it starts getting a bit more difficult to find that same wide open space that you do out West and thus more difficult to find free campsites. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of campsites out East and if you’re prepared to spend upwards of $50 a night to camp there then you will surely find something but be prepared to drop some serious cash and have more difficulty navigating the East Coast.
Be mindful that while the West Coast is great for camping, those wide open spaces often equal unreliable service. - The West Coast has some of the best and most picturesque camping destinations in the country however, they aren’t always the best places for service. Obviously if you don’t need to worry about the speed of your wi-fi or service in general then this doesn’t apply to you but something to keep in mind if you’re working remotely or need access to good service like we did Monday-Friday.
(Depending on where you drive during your trip), consider investing in a toll road fast pass - We encountered numerous toll roads throughout our trip primarily once we made our way to the East Coast. Thankfully our vehicle was listed under a family’s toll road fast pass but I would highly recommend investing in one to make for easier and more efficient travel. Plus, some of them are cash only and who carries cash like that anymore??
Gum and crunchy snacks to stay stimulated on long driving days. - While we both love to drive (obviously), the reality is some driving days can be looong. I always reach for gum and crunchy snacks on long driving days to keep me awake and engaged.
Be flexible if weather isn’t on your side. - I know I’ve mentioned this before at least once but the weather truly has a mind of its own. Our trip was changed a handful of times due to the weather and you know what, that’s something that’s unfortunately out of our control. We had to outrun a hurricane for goodness sakes! Nevertheless, be prepared and be flexible for whatever the weather may choose to throw at you.
Collect a momento at each stop - This is kind of a fun and silly one but so special. We decided to collect magnets and stickers in every state to commemorate all the places we visited. We covered the mini-fridge in the van with our magnets and used the stickers to decorate our Yeti cooler at home. It’s a fun way to remember all the places you’ve been and the things you’ve seen in each destination.
Identify your food/eating routine and be prepared to grocery shop at least weekly. - I will caveat this by saying I am someone who does not mind eating the same thing every day and my weekly grocery list traditionally includes the same items. However, be mindful of the fact that the refrigerator in your van won’t be the same size as the one you have at home so you really need to be on top of your food/eating routine to make it work and not resort to just eating out every day.
Tips for Camping:
Investigate (and secure!) your camping spot before dark - This may seem like a no-brainer but it’s a very important tip to take seriously. I couldn’t tell you the number of times we researched a camping spot that seemed great only to arrive after dark, realize it was in fact far from great at which point it was too late to go anywhere but a Walmart or Cracker Barrel parking lot. Investigate and secure your camping spot while you still have light out!
Research your camping destinations within 3-7 days before arrival. - It’s also not a bad idea to do your camping research at least a few days in advance. Tap into some of the resources listed in my next blog post “The Van Life Playbook,” to identify a few different spots that seem promising and then go from there. ALWAYS have a backup in case your first choice doesn’t work, which I can almost guarantee at least 50% of the time it won’t. Give yourself the security of knowing where you’re going to sleep at night by researching camping spots a week in advance.
Familiarize yourself with state laws regarding overnight parking. - Not all states allow overnight parking. So while all Walmarts in theory allow overnight parking, they can’t overrule state laws. Don’t forget, there’s a big difference between overnight parking and overnight camping. Most states allow overnight parking between 8-10 hours but most don’t allow overnight camping or setting up camp for days on end.
Read signs carefully (i.e. at Rest Stops) and when in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask. - There were countless times on our trip where signs were unclear whether it was at a Rest Stop, campsight or Walmart even. Don’t be afraid to go into a Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Home Depot, etc. and ask if you can rest/sleep for a few hours/overnight. The worst they can say is no at which point perhaps you can ask them for a nearby recommendation.
Tips for Van Life Activities:
Invest in a Planet Fitness membership - If you followed along religiously with my Van Life posts then you know our trip took a very positive turn when we invested in our Planet Fitness memberships. Not only did it give us a consistent place (around the country might I add) to get a solid workout in, but it gave us a place to shower consistently which I very much appreciated. I grew tired of cold Van showers quite quickly. I would recommend the Black Card Membership which gives you access to any of the gyms across the country.
Nike Training App is a great (free!) resource if you don’t want to pay for a gym membership. - We used the Nike Training App at the beginning of Van Life for some quick and easy, do anywhere with little to no equipment kind of workouts. They kept us moving before we hopped on the Planet Fitness train.
Pick up a National Parks pass at the first National Park you encounter (or order ahead of time online) - With an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass you get unlimited access to the National Parks for one year. The cost is just $80 and it covers everyone in your vehicle so you don’t need to get multiple passes to cover each person traveling. Also, if you’re active duty or a veteran, the pass is free so be sure to have your military ID on you if so!
Look for towns with or near parks. - Not only are parks great wide open spaces but they (usually) have a good amount of free parking too. Parks make a great place to post up and work during the day, get some fresh air and movement in, and enjoy the great outdoors.
Check out Airbnb Experiences for unique travel experiences. - We used AirBnb experiences for our Charleston walking tour and it was probably one of our favorite memories from our trip. While we didn’t plan on staying in Charleston a long time (hot and sticky and not many camping options), it was a great way to see the city and learn SO MUCH in a short period of time! Plus they’re usually quite reasonable too!
Tips for your Home on Wheels:
Thoroughly test all equipment in the van before embarking on your journey - For example, we didn’t test out our gas heater in the van before leaving because, well, for starters we left in July at a time when it seemed like temperatures wouldn’t ever drop below 100 degrees, but lo and behold, we encountered very cold temps at the end of our trip. It dropped as low as 28 degrees in Arizona the last week of our trip and boy we sure could have used that little heater.
Make sure you know the height of your vehicle - Driving a sprinter van can feel like you’re driving a regular ole car or SUV which means you may forget just how big and tall it really is. Make sure you know exactly how tall the van is and be mindful of drivethrus.
Sign up for gas station reward programs. - As you know, gas can be very expensive. Especially during those popular travel and road trip months. Look into local gas station reward programs or bring your Costco/Sam’s Club membership cards along with you since gas tends to be significantly cheaper at those locations.
Should you choose to travel during Summer, ensure your Van has an air conditioning unit - Personally, after having done Van Life during the hottest months of the year, I would not recommend traveling during Summer. However, I recognize that Summertime is often the easiest time for people to travel so should you find yourself embarking on Van Life during summer ensure that your Van or the Van you’re renting has an air conditioning unit. Our Van presently does not (and did not during our travels) which made for extremely uncomfortable days and nights or really any time the van was not on and running (we of course had traditional air conditioning while the van was on just nothing aside from portable fans when it was off).
While you may not always want to pay to stay overnight in an official campground, they can be great destinations to fill up your water tank - I’m not suggesting you pay to stay in campgrounds each night, in fact I would recommend you avoid it where possible HOWEVER it can be challenging to find places to fill up your water tank. That being said, don’t be afraid to ask campsites if you can fill up using their water onsite. Usually it won’t cost you more than $10-$20.
Stay on top of routine maintenance for the van prior to and while driving. - Make sure you have an understanding of what’s going on before taking off on your trip. For example, we needed new brakes fairly early into our trip. Honestly if we would have known that we probably would have gotten them checked much sooner and perhaps could have saved ourselves two days in the Mercedes Benz dealership in Boston. Wouldn’t that have been nice!
Lastly, and perhaps the most important tip of all is be patient with yourself. While it looks like it’s the dream experience, living in a Van, traveling the country, it’s also extremely challenging. Give yourself and your travel partner(s) grace. Allow this experience to bring you closer together and bond you over sharing this one in a lifetime opportunity that most people only wish they had. There’s truly nothing like it. I honestly still pinch myself every day when I scroll back through photos and remember all the places we went, the things we saw. We really did that…