Living in a Van for Beginners | A Van Life Manual

Angela Devaney

Since 2018, we’ve been living in a van full time.

We bought a 4×4 Sprinter minibus and converted it into a campervan. Her name is Baloo and she’s now our home. 

When we set out, we intended to travel around South America for a couple of years and see how things played out before deciding our next move.

We shipped her from Europe to South America and haven’t looked back since.

We have much more to see and while our journey continues, so does our van life.

The van life movement gained quite some popularity over the last few years.

Since becoming van dwellers ourselves, we can see it’s for good reason.

You only need to spend a few minutes on social media looking at dreamy images of vans parked in incredible locations, their owners seemingly living a carefree life on deserted, sun-drenched beaches.

While it’s not all quite the lifestyle Instagram stories would have you believe, van life is a simplistic way of life we’ve embraced. And we wouldn’t want to leave it in a hurry.

So if you’re thinking of living in a van, this guide provides all the information you need to help make the decision and get started.

parking overnight while living in a van

What is van life?

People have been living in vans for decades. In the 1960s, hippies began living and travelling in their vehicles and the idea has only grown in popularity since them.

The term “van life” is pretty on-trend thanks to the social media movement. 

Some people refer to van life as something they do at weekends.

Where once families and friends might go on weekend camping trips, now they spend the weekend living the van life.

Perhaps they’re not ready to make the leap to full-time van dwelling. Maybe they never will. And that’s ok too. 

There’s no prescription. Van life is as individual and unique as it is liberating.

Some van dwellers work full time, others travel full time. 

For us, van life is more than an on-trend hashtag.  It’s our full-time lifestyle and our way of life.

We have no house, apartment or 9 to 5 jobs to return to. Hey, we don’t even know what day of the week it is sometimes, let alone when it’s the weekend!

The simplicity of our life is something we’ve grown to love.

A Mercedes Sprinter camper van driving across a bridge in Brazil

Van Living Costs

A key aspect of deciding to live in a van is whether or not you can afford it. But how much money do you really need? And how much money do you save living in a van?

There isn’t a stock answer to these questions because it depends on so many variables. 

Like most people, we don’t have an unlimited pot of money. We need to keep a tight rein on our spending to afford our travels.

Van life on a budget is completely possible.

What van will you buy? How much will it cost to convert and what are the running and maintenance costs?

Even once you’ve accounted for the initial investment, what lifestyle do you want to live?

Will you seek out free boondocking and dry camping sites, self cater your meals and limit pricey activities? 

Or will you hunt out fabulous amenities at established campsites, eat out often and throw caution to the wind when it comes to entertainment and buying tickets for tourist attractions?

There’s no right or wrong answer but to live happily in a van, your lifestyle needs to have a healthy dose of the things you enjoy most.

Do you plan to travel long distances relatively quickly or take a slower pace? Will you need to ship your vehicle anywhere?

What countries will you travel to? The cost of living from one country to the next can be quite different.

So how much does van life cost?

Over the past 2 years, our daily spend has averaged a little under £45 per day. This includes every penny we’ve spent (except a little 3-week trip to Antarctica). 

There’s no doubt we save money compared to our pre-van lifestyle.

Working under the awning beside the camper van

Pros and Cons of Van Life

Social media images may have you believe living out of a van is a stress-free lifestyle. 

Often it is but there are times when this is far from the truth. 

Breakdowns happen but when it’s your home broken down at the roadside what do you do? 

Finding a place to park overnight to sleep isn’t always easy, especially in cities. The laws around the world differ. Some states in the USA for example have banned sleeping in vehicles altogether. 

For those without an onboard bathroom, finding somewhere to shower and do your business can be a challenge too.

Moderating the onboard temperature, keeping a sufficient supply of drinking water, enough electricity to power essential devices and even getting consistent internet access are all van life challenges we deal with regularly.

But so many challenges are balanced, if not outweighed by the advantages. 

Of course, there are cost savings. The cost of living is drastically reduced.

Not just because there are no typical household bills to pay but because you naturally reduce the purchase of “stuff”. 

With minimal storage space, we’re quite particular about what we buy now. Everything needs to be completely necessary and wherever possible, have more than one use!

We never forget anything because we always have everything we own with us. Our house may be tiny but our garden is massive!

We can go where we want when we want.

When we get there, we can stay as long as we like or leave at a moment’s notice. 

If we want to escape and live off-grid for a while, we drive away. 

Breakdowns are just one of the challenges of van life

Is Van Life for You? 

Our lifestyle is certainly unconventional and while we love our life on the road, it’s not for everyone.

If you need structure, certainty and plush carpets underfoot, van life may not be the long-term lifestyle for you.

But if you thrive on being flexible, being your own boss and love the idea of waking to a new view every morning, then living in a van may bring you the freedom you’re seeking.

A camper van travelling in remote areas of South America

What’s the Best Van to Live In?

You wouldn’t choose a new apartment from a quick search on the internet, would you? 

Your van will be your new home so it’s no different.

Choosing the best van to live in takes time. Think through how your tiny home will meet your criteria? 

Do you need to be able to stand up inside? Do you need storage for bikes or surfboards? How many people will live in your van? The list of questions goes on.

To help you through the process, take a look at this post on choosing the best van for a camper conversion.

Living in a van off grid

Converting a Van

A DIY campervan conversion is a big project, especially if you plan to do most of the work yourself. We know! 

When we bought Baloo she was a 16 seater ex-military minibus. We spent 2500 hours stripping her out, planning the layout then converting her into our home.

Whether you’re preparing for van life, short road trips or have exciting overland travel plans, a DIY campervan conversion is, in our opinion, the perfect way to go. 

You get to spec it out to meet your exact requirements, know how everything is installed (useful if you need to fix things in the year to come) and save a wedge of cash by doing it yourself.

Even if you plan to buy a preloved van or have a professional fit, understanding what is essential to you and the life you want to live in your van will help you choose the right vehicle and spec for you.

We have a dedicated section right here on our blog to help you with your campervan conversion. It covers everything from planning to installations and lots in between.

Living the dream van life and travelling in Bolivia

Campervan Electrics

Unlike a weekend getaway where living off-grid may be your goal, you’ll want a way of powering at least some electronics for full-time van life.

Whether you just have simple low volt lights and a smartphone to charge or power-hungry laptops, camera batteries, a fridge and more, you need some way to harvest and preferably store electricity.

It’s best to consider your needs as you design your electrical setup but you can retrofit things like camper solar panels or an alternator later. Portable solar panels provide a good option for starting out.

The key to setting up a system that works for you is to understand what your consumption demands will be.

Regardless of whether you plan to install the electrical system yourself or get someone to do the job, take responsibility for specing the size yourself. 

We have an in-depth article explaining everything you need to know about campervan electrics

While it goes into a bit of techie detail about alternators, solar panels and batteries, importantly it’ll help you assess your needs upfront. 

Our campervan electrical design supports our style of living in a van. 

We charge laptops, camera batteries and phones. Our fridge is running constantly and our cooker and heater take a chunk of power to start up too. 

We charge our campervan batteries from the running engine as we drive and hook up to main power when we’re on campsites too.

We have solar panels fitted and because it’s scalable and we had space on the roof, we could extend the capacity while on the road.

Fitting extra solar panels on the road

Water Supply in Your Campervan

Of course, there’s no main supplied water to a campervan and having enough drinking water is essential.

You can make the setup as simple or complex as your conversion budget allows.

We have a sink, a campervan shower, hot & cold water and a water filter but you could have a far simpler setup if you don’t need hot water.

Some vans don’t have sinks in which case, grey water disposal isn’t a consideration either.

You must think about your water demands before starting your van build or buying a pre-loved camper. Retrofitting a water system would be a pain in the butt!

Take a look at this post on our campervan water system design to see how we’re set up.

Filling our tanks with fresh, clean drinking water is one of our regular chores. We find free potable water at campsites, tourist information offices, fuel stations and sometimes at supermarkets.

Off grid living in a forest in a camper van

Heating & Keeping Cool

If you plan to live in your van year-round, in both hot and cold climes, you’ll need a way to keep warm or cool, depending on the season.

Insulation plays a massive part in keeping your van comfortable.

Weather appropriate clothing, blankets and hot water bottles will help keep you warm to a point but depending on the outside temperature you expect, you may need a little more help.

The most popular heating solutions are electric heaters, wood-burning stoves, diesel air heaters and propane heaters.

We have a diesel heater in our Sprinter van and it keeps us pretty cosy. 

Make sure you take the necessary precautions when operating a heater in small spaces.

Having a carbon monoxide detector inside your campervan is an absolute must and crack your windows or roof vent open a little for ventilation too.

morning coffee while living the van life

Eco-friendly Van Life

To many who see us driving through vast swathes of South America (and hopefully beyond), our lifestyle may not appear eco-friendly. 

After all, our Sprinter van is a little less than 4 tonnes and runs on diesel. Gasp! Horror! We hear you cry!

But living in a van can be eco-friendly and in many ways, it’s easier than living in a house or apartment.

Our van maybe diesel but she has an average fuel consumption of 20 miles per gallon or 14.2 litres per 100 kilometres. And that includes ALL our heating and indoor cooking fuel.

Not only that, we travel slowly. In the past 2 years, we’ve driven a total of 25000 miles or 40000 kilometres. 

The average mileage driving in the UK is around 7200 miles per year per vehicle. 

When we were in the UK we had a car each, and each drove about 12000 miles per year because of work commitments.

While our overall mileage is higher than the UK average, it’s considerably lower than our average mileage if we weren’t living in a van.

Most of our electricity is produced by our solar panels. Our onboard leisure batteries are topped up as we drive and occasionally we hook up to shore power in a campsite

Overall, the carbon footprint of our electricity consumption will be a fraction of that if we were living in a house.

We never buy bottled water, most of our food is locally sourced and our waste has fallen dramatically.

There are still things we could improve on. For example, it’s difficult to find eco-friendly toiletries in South America but we continue to try.

Eco friendly living in a van

Van Life Essentials

Packing for van life isn’t quite the same as packing for a road trip.

Nor will a few car camping essentials cut it. 

Van life is a lot more permanent than a short road trip – even if you do intend to drive some magnificent road trips while you live life on the road.

And it’s a lot roomier…spacious even….than car camping.

Deciding what to pack is a serious step in preparing to live in a van. A few van life hacks can help keep packing to a minimum.

Essentials are probably all you’ll have space to pack. But what should be on the list?

Try to make sure everything has a dual purpose where possible. 

Don’t overestimate how many clothes and shoes you need. If you’ll only use it once in a while, don’t pack it. 

Outdoor cooking and living in a van

Where to Park Your Van

One of the most wonderful aspects of van life is the wealth of opportunities to park in some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. 

But finding a place to park your van for the night can also be one of the most challenging aspects of van life.

Established campsites are a safe option if there’s one nearby. 

But free camping is a budget friendlier. In parts of Europe, there are loads of free overnight parking options at the roadside aires

Camping in South America, especially in the remote regions of Patagonia, unfenced areas beside glacier lakes make for idyllic overnight parking spots. 

In the USA, you’re allowed to camp for free on BLM and Public Land.

Overnight parking in the city is often more difficult. If you have a stealth van (one that doesn’t look like a campervan), you could simply find a parking spot. 

But please be responsible and respectful of local laws that prohibit overnight parking or sleeping in cars.

If you know where to look, there’s an abundance of free campsites. Just make sure to camp responsibly. Check out our guide to free camping in your motorhome, campervan or RV for more info.

A camper van parked for the night beside trees at sunset.

Campervan Kitchen | Cooking and Eating in a Van

Your kitchen setup is integral to your van life.

Boiling the kettle for our morning coffee and cooking meals inside the van is something we feel is essential for us to live full time on the road.

Outdoor cooking is no fun in the cold or rain.

But for many people who chase the sun, living in fair weather year-round, a fully equipped onboard kitchen may not be as important.

Think about what you need and want when equipping your campervan kitchen. 

Do you need a fridge? Even in hot climates, you can get away without a fridge by buying perishable produce the day you plan to eat it.

Is an oven essential? You can still make bread and even road potatoes without a campervan oven.

What about your stovetop? Will it be fitted or portable.

If you’ve bought a pre-loved van, then adapt to what’s already fitted. If you’re converting a van to live in for yourself, think these things through before you finalise your plans.

And please, don’t think you need to fill your camper kitchen with collapsible or plastic picnic ware. 

We’re not on a weekend camping trip. Neither are we children. 

There’s no reason not to use glass glasses, silverware and (almost) ceramic dinner plates.

Camper van living in foggy bad weather

Campervan Storage

When living in a tiny home, well organised storage is a must. There’s nothing worse than not being able to find something in such a small space. 

For us, everything has a home and whenever we finish with something, we put it back where it belongs. Seriously, with 2 of us living in the van, it’d be a nightmare if we weren’t so disciplined.

You may overpack to begin with but, with space at a premium, you’ll soon work out what’s essential and what isn’t.

And of course, your tiny home on wheels is mobile so think about how you’ll strap things down.

Relaxing under bamboo shade

Hygiene in a Van | Toilets, Showers and Laundry

So what about basic hygiene? How do you keep clean when living in a van?

In Mowgli, we had a chemical porta-potti. Emptying a portable toilet isn’t so pleasant, the chemicals not kind to our planet or easy to get in some parts of the world.

Baloo, our current van has a campervan composting toilet. We don’t have to worry about where to pee in the night or getting caught short if we’re spending a night in a town.

But the toilet does take up a fair amount of space – one of the most precious commodities on board. 

Many van dwellers opt for no bathroom or toilet and find alternatives. There’s plenty of campervan toilet options on the market.

We installed 2 showers in the van too. Both are outdoors.

One runs off the engine and is ideal for showering with water from a river or lake so we don’t use our precious drinking water.

The other runs off our freshwater tanks, the hot water heated as we drive. 

When we built the van we decided not to install it in the bathroom. If it didn’t work for us, we’d re-route the plumbing and fit a shower try. 2 years in and we’ve never looked back. 

Again, many campervans have far more basic or no shower facilities on board at all. 

They still manage to find places to shower and keep clean, whether that be in fuel stations, campsites or through a gym membership. 

In fine weather, hand washing is the most convenient and frugal way to do van life laundry. It’s eco-friendly too. Just carry a washing line and some pegs and some kind of container to wash in.

Most towns have a laundry facility for items more difficult to hand wash or to dry in wet weather too.

Composting toilet for living in a van

Van Life Insurance

Living in a van full time doesn’t take away our need for medical insurance. 

If you travel away from your home country, travel insurance is critical. A decent policy will get you home under some circumstances and cover any emergency medical needs. 

Long-term travel insurance is important but your health needs don’t start and end with emergencies. 

What happens when you need to see a doctor for a non-urgent issue or for pre-existing conditions your travel insurance provider has excluded? 

You’ll either need to pay for it yourself or if you come from a country that provides a national health service like the UK or Canada, go home.

Going home isn’t an easy option for long-term travellers, especially when they live in a van. 

Angela Devaney

Angela Devaney, a former IT project management professional, embarked on an adventurous journey of full-time travel, which included touring West Africa in a converted overland truck and converting an ex-military 4×4 Sprinter van into a camper for a five-year South American expedition. She now utilizes her hands-on experience to create practical RV living and van life advice as a full-time digital media producer, reaching over a million users annually through her YouTube channel, blog, and newsletter. Angela also lends her expertise as the editor-in-chief of the Campervan Electrics Handbook.

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