Vanlife v Work. An interim report.
As a long term plan vanlife isn’t for everyone. In fact it’s probably not even suitable for a lot of people who own and regularly use a van now.
But if you can hack it then I can’t think of a better way to love the life you live.
Like most apparently simple things, it takes a lot of work.
Here’s my look at the practical side of six months on the road. It’s written to help you consider the merits of vanlife, and what to plan for, as well as give a little insight to our new world. After six months we’re no experts, but we’ve learned a lot.
We answer plenty of questions and we’ll welcome yours.
Here we go.
180+ days on the road.
Like life, the road adventure evolves.
It starts off super exciting.
You’re both grinning wildly.
The van eats the miles.
Your crazy food combinations taste great.
That weird pub where everyone stares at you becomes the stuff of legends as the story is retold over coming weeks.
The occasional (if you’re lucky) bad night with howling winds and rain is just another experience.
What started as an adventure will become your life, and to optimise the experience you must be open to its lessons.
By that token your life becomes an adventure and what could be better than that?
Watch it unfold. Celebrate its twists and turns.
It can’t all be good. We’d learn nothing if it was. I’m writing this at our deepest low so far, yet we’re still convinced of our deep good fortune.
It’s not a holiday. A holiday is a short break from whatever real life is for you, whether it’s from work, home life, caring or study.
In fact you may well take a holiday from van life. Stay in a house for a bit.
This is your life – and like any other life it, it’s best lived deliberately and with purpose.
That is a hell of a lot harder to put into practise than it is to write.
The Cornish Wanderer’s loose purpose is to travel, learn, and share the experience, which I have distilled to Wander in wonder.
That learning isn’t just about the places we visit, it’s also about us living together, efficiently, in a very small space, with little of the familiar stuff of life around us. That’s probably the hardest part!
Create your own luck.
We had the massively good fortune to be born in a rich, progressive country. And no matter how much I whinge about the parlous state of current affairs, Britain remains an amazing place in my eyes. In fact travel has improved my view of home.
The good fortune of our birthplace becomes all the more evident when touring any country that was under Communist rule.
Most of our other lucky breaks we created ourselves.
We worked hard for years, ridiculously so for the decade from 2007. That was when I was made redundant from The Co-operative Bank. We now look back on that as our big break, although it didn’t seem so at the time.
Have a plan.
Knowing what you want makes getting it a whole lot easier.
It’s a boring thing to be told when you’re young, but having a life plan is one of the most important things you can do, alongside finding the right partner, (or getting out early if you didn’t get that right first time).
Our plan included goals such as:
- Live back in Cornwall by 2015.
- Have no (real) debt by then so that income became less important.
- Manage our work lives to allow more travel. We didn’t plan to retire early, just to work in different ways from 10 hour days 5 or 6 days a week.
To achieve that we took big risks, at times carrying frightening levels of debt, and we were often working every waking hour. Most of the time it was fun, but I don’t have the energy to go back to it now!
Can you afford to travel long term?
How much do you actually need to live on?
How much is enough?
Most of us don’t know, we just know we want more than we have!
The number for us was a lot smaller than we expected.
Now that we’re on the road that figure is smaller again – yet we live well.
Our money man, former colleague and financial adviser Chris Bromiley, helped us work out how to create the income we needed.
The plan accelerated from that point onwards.
If you own your own home then chances are you can travel long term. The rent it can earn should cover at least half of your expenses. That applies for us even living in Cornwall where rents are low.
If you’re really brave sell the house, after all you won’t want such a big one after a couple of years of van life!
Hey, what’s with all this serious stuff? Isn’t this supposed to be a story about van life?
Yes. You’re right. But hopefully it’s about a new life too, and to make it as much fun as possible takes some serious thinking.
Six months in and we still love ArchieVan and we wouldn’t have done much differently.
I must reiterate three points:
- If you can get all you want out of a van, or a motorhome, that’s under 6m long then do. We’re accustomed to ArchieVan’s size, but he’d certainly be easier in towns and on small roads if he was shorter.
- Power is more important than you might think. We cruise gently, never in a hurry, never driving fast. Even so I’m grateful of ArchieVan’s 163 bhp and wish he had more. It makes for an easier, and often more economical, drive.
- Do have a toilet on board. Think hard about whether you need a shower. I suggest that you don’t.
The van is generally holding up well.
We’ve had a few electrical glitches, with lights failing and we’ve replaced the electric step with a simple plastic one – why did we have such a flash thing in the first place?
The furniture is well designed and made, and after much use we’re now accustomed to the catches, and can even remember where most things are stashed.
The swivel seat is brilliant when we use it, but it’s also cumbersome – find something simple if you can.
A simple more efficient life?
If there’s one thing we take for granted at home it’s running water.
Travelling in a van makes you aware of everything you own, everything you use.
There was a report recently that stated the average Brit uses 140 litres of water a day, for Americans the number is a whole lot higher.
It’s just a number isn’t it?
Well no. It’s frightening!
In a van you have to carry all your water. A full water tank weighs about as much as me, and then there’s your drinking water too (some people use the tank water for everything, but I’m not keen on that idea).
Seeing it, and filling up, makes you seriously aware of how much you use.
We reckon we’re using around 15 litres a day between us. When we’re on a camp site and showering daily that jumps to about 70 litres each.
Imagine carrying that from the well.
So far as the grid is concerned we don’t use any!
There’s a 150w solar panel on the roof that charges the leisure battery, and driving charges it as well.
The lighting, fridge and pumps are all electric, plus there are always gadgets on charge.
In the winter on static days you have to watch the battery levels and I’ll consider an extra solar panel next year.
We have a 14 litre LPG tank that’s used for cooking, water heating and space heating. During the summer when we didn’t need any space heating the tank lasted for a couple of months, even though we cook every day. I’m sure winter will see that usage increase, lots, but still I expect the tank will last a few weeks. LPG ranges between 50p and 90p a litre, varying massively by country.
This is where our eco credentials and halo slip rather.
ArchieVan likes to sip at the diesel.
Driven gently, and over 15,000 miles, the overall average has been 31 mpg.
That’s not great, although we are doing fewer miles than our combined car mileage when we were both working. This trip has just tipped over 11,000 miles and I hope to stay under 20,000 for the first 12 months, then maybe less next year.
We probably eat the same amount, although I suspect it’s a bit less.
What’s definitely true is that we buy less. Nothing is wasted, in part helped by having little storage space and so you plan better and only buy for the next couple of days.
The biggest issue of them all!
This is the other thing we take for granted in our homes, and we always we think we don’t have enough.
We’re living full time in a space that’s probably smaller than your bedroom.
I have stored a small amount of stuff at my mum’s. It’s in a space that’s less than 2m square. Everything else that we own is within 7m of us. I love that and yet I still have more than I need and I edit what I have every now and then.
But I do need my brogues and tweed jacket and I promise I will wear them!
If you can hack it, getting rid of stuff is liberating. Not replacing it saves you a fortune.
All we need.
ArchieVan carries all the clothes we think we need for year round travel. Layering is a whole lot more efficient than too many single purpose garments.
We have enough food and water on board for five days, although we tend to shop more often for fresh.
We only keep a few books on board. Travel guides still are much better than online research. If you’d seen how many books I used to own you’d understand that was hard. We exchange books whenever we get the opportunity.
We have two full sized bikes (Brompton style folding bikes would have saved space but cost a lot). Bikes are liberating, especially in the Scandi countries where cycling is a joy. They’re worth the space they take. Failing that I’d consider a scooter.
Bedding takes up a silly amount of space, but it makes for a comfortable sleep. Sleeping bags are an alternative that we started out with, but moved on from.
And that’s about it.
So what on earth did we fill the house with?
Oh, and headphones, two sets. They’re vital!
Space leads neatly onto the thing it affects most.
Even close couples are unlikely to have spent time in such proximity as a van forces upon you.
Your most intimate moments of personal hygiene will be carried out just feet from your partner.
We had the good fortune to set off in the hottest and driest summer Europe has ever seen. That meant we could spend a lot of time outside. Before her series of accidents Polly Dog and I walked for a couple of hours each day too.
You have to have the strength of mind to step out and breathe when things get tense!
For us vanlife started to work best after four months or so.
Partly because by then I’d overcome the depression that had previously plagued me. I believe it was strongly linked to letting go of everything that had driven me forward, the striving to get to where I wanted to be. My god I’ve achieved what I wanted – that’s not what you’d expect to send you down!
And partly because our little team had become a well oiled machine.
But four months? That’s enough to finish some relationships, and if you’re in doubt, living in a confined space will soon help you find your answers.
Creating that well oiled machine is a lot about sharing duties, or having roles. Ours aren’t fixed, but there are certainly jobs that one of us does better, or more willingly.
We both cook, but Amanda almost always does breakfast.
While I walk the dog Amanda remakes the space from sleeping to living, she cleans through the van too.
The van needs cleaning every day – it doesn’t take long, but you notice on day two if you haven’t swept through.
ArchieVan has a solid floor and knowing how much grit we sweep out each day makes me wonder how people with carpeted floors cope.
Oh the dreaded subject of the toilet! For the uninitiated – vans have an onboard toilet that collects the waste, your waste, in a removable tank referred to as “the cassette”. A splash of a fluid such as Elsan keeps odours down as well as helping break down what’s inside. You’ll need to empty it depending on how often you use it, and at least every five days.
From the outset we decided we were only going to pee in ours. While that makes for interesting mornings sometimes, it also means there’s more capacity, and less likelihood of pong.
Once you get it right emptying the cassette into designated drains is easy, but getting it wrong, especially if you make full use of it, can be an experience! I usually empty the cassette, but Minty has done the deed too.
Driving and navigating.
I drive. Minty does the maps. It was one of those learning points. We can both do both jobs, but the tension is less this way around. My more laid back approach best suits taking the wheel. Especially as that approach extends to my style of giving directions and Minty likes to know exactly what’s what.
Deciding where to go. Even this is an important process. For us the general direction is a subject of discussion, the specifics generally rest with Minty as she researches as we’re motoring.
Deciding where to stay is an important point so I’ll give it a heading.
Deciding where to stay.
Usually where to stay is easy. Minty uses the Park4Night app, or Search For Sites website for research, or we simply come across someplace that looks right.
When it’s less easy is when that place you’d decided on doesn’t feel right. If one of you isn’t happy you must move on.
Last night I pulled into a layby for a rest and to cook dinner. I didn’t intend to stay, but was too tired to carry on. Although this morning everything is great, during the night I slept in my clothes so that I could move on at a moment’s notice. That’s not ideal, but now and again it’s OK.
So are we sometimes scared? Well, nervous certainly. But isn’t that a good thing? Don’t you have to be now and then? Letting your guard down completely is foolish. Pushing yourself is part of the adventure.
I read last night that in Romania you’re more likely to see a bear than anywhere else in Europe. Polly’s late pee was a quick one!
Why are there more bears? Because its dictator, Ceausescu, brought in a law that stated only he was allowed to hunt them, so for decades they were effectively protected.
That picture is relevant too – there’s a great van community. I don’t do the waving thing, but folk generally come for a little chat, to share recommendations, or to offer help.
Even having a cold in the van is rubbish. For both of you.
We’re more health conscious on the road than we were previously, especially when it comes to hygiene, and that makes for a better living environment too.
Our diet is pretty good. Lots of fresh, very little meat. Generally van cooked.
Oh yes, meat. It makes me laugh how in so many countries supposedly vegetarian meals all contain small amounts of meat, usually bacon bits. Of course it wouldn’t be funny if you’re a full on vegetarian.
I have always snacked when driving, so to avoid crisps and other junk we have a big bowl of fruit, and a bag of nuts that we both munch en route.
Drink is a challenge.
There’s a strong drinking culture to vanlife. After a long hot drive the reward of a cold beer is immense, but that can easily lead to a long evening of drinking.
I think we’re over that and we have a few dry days each week. It was a conscious effort to do so. At the moment I’m on my own and I’m stopping in some less obvious places. I’m only drinking tea. That way I can drive on if I need to.
It’s a shame. I love the taste and sideways knock of strong beer or spirits.
I mentioned that we haven’t used the van’s shower.
We’ve really rather clean nonetheless.
We have a good old fashioned flannel scrub every morning. Some days it makes you shiver, but it wakes you up too.
Well for a start you wash clothes because they are dirty, not because you’ve worn them once. That immediately reduces the load. We tend to do a hand wash on a regular basis, but also many bigger campsites have washing machines.
We’ve stayed in a couple of apartments in big cities and the second criterion is that there’s a washing machine (the first is that Polly is welcomed).
Minty wanted this included.
I’ve cut her hair twice on the trip so far. I don’t like hair all symmetrical so I went to town on hers, and it was fun.
I usually shave my head weekly, but I stopped doing that on my birthday and intent to last until Christmas until I do it again. I’m not a pretty sight under the hat.
Being able to flick up Amazon is another thing we’ve taken for granted.
When you can’t the best solution is to decide that you don’t actually need the thing you’re considering.
A part for the van (a replacement for a faulty light) meant planning ahead to get the address of the mother of the only person we knew from a particular country (Mylo Cornwall, hang your head in shame).
We have had a parcel sent out from Becky, Minty’s sister (thank you), but other than that we have muddled along and soon forgot why we wanted particular things.
Many countries have wonderful food markets that lead us to eat new things. But others seem to have no shops other than small supermarkets and the occasional modern shopping centre.
Life used to get us with so much post.
There’s a lot less these days. We moved as many things as were possible onto email, and my lovely sister receives the rest via a redirect.
There are services that will receive you mail and scan everything, emailing you copies. It doesn’t cost much, but you probably don’t need it.
Many vans have one, ArchieVan doesn’t.
Minty likes to watch a few things on her iPad and that takes up a whole lot less space and power. It’s one of the occasions when headphones are precious.
I’m writing this from Romania. It’s the first time in ten countries that I’ve had a clue what’s going on. It’s a Latin based language, and often sounds Italian. With a reasonable command of French and Spanish or Italian you’ll be able to make out most signs, even if you can’t read a paragraph.
A great thing about being a native English speaker. Wherever you go people watch TV, and like it or not the majority, if not the best, TV comes from the US, and it’s in a recognisable version of English. And so even if people haven’t learnt English at school, they’ll have enough words for your needs simply from watching TV.
That does leave me frustrated. I want to learn a little at least wherever I go. Google translate is handy for that.
And if all else fails, Google’s voice translation is close to brilliant.
Money used to be difficult and expensive when travelling. It’s not any more.
We use Starling and Revolut app based banking, both are free to use and commission free on spending and withdrawals, although limits are low.
In Scandi and Baltic countries cash is rarely seen, not in Bulgaria I have a pocket full (and it’s worth bugger all!).
Come on First Direct, I’d much rather use you if you weren’t so expensive!
Working as you travel.
That dreadful buzz term of Digital Nomad! It makes me gag, but it’s a great concept. If you’re in the creative industries then there’s the possibility to work anywhere that has a good data signal right?
To a certain extent, yes.
A simple life takes more time. It costs you a lot less if you cook everything yourself, and from fresh or dry ingredients, but it takes time. Because we use mostly fresh we shop more frequently, that too takes time.
Simply finding the place where you’re going to stay takes time too.
Traveling, and writing, on my own while looking after the dog and getting enough exercise often takes my whole day. When we’re together we both have more time as duties are shared, but we’re rarely casting around for things to do.
What I’m coming to is that working from the van is possible, but it’s only practicable if you can deliver with considerably less hours than you’d spend in an office. Having said that I think half of your time is wasted in an office purely by being there.
So do I work now? Yes, but I have the luxury of picking and choosing. I do the work I love. And I turn the rest away. I am a very lucky man!
Although I only know a few of our readers I feel confident that most of you are already planning to do too much.
You’re probably used to bombing around in your car. Regularly knocking off a couple of hundred miles.
Your vanlife, should you take up the challenge, shouldn’t be like that.
A couple of hours of driving, several days a week is ample. And what’s the hurry? You might see more, but from the van window isn’t as good as from strolling around.
For me that principal was reinforced by my five weeks in and around Poprad, Slovakia, as Polly developed a first name relationship with her new favourite vets.
At first I was frustrated to be held in one tight area, but in the end I loved it and often didn’t move the van, I just took new and wonderful trails.
Is Vanlife for you?
We did a couple of trial runs, hiring vans and staying fairly local. We loved it but I can’t say it was a realistic trial run.
I recommend the expense of hiring, or better still, borrowing, a van and taking a longer break, several weeks if that’s possible. If you get bad weather then it’s more useful as a trial too, although it’ll be disappointing at the time.
This life is immensely rewarding.
It’s so good you have to stop and remind yourself frequently how lucky you are, how different it is from when you had real jobs.
This week has been particularly mad, but during it I’ve experienced three utterly different countries and their cultures. I’ve climbed mountains, bathed in thermal spas, ate goulash at a roadside diner, been scared sleeping in a layby, had a bellowing deer right outside the van, and seen folk whose daily transport is their ox cart. I could have spent a year absorbing just this bit, and I hope to go back through it all, much more slowly.
There are difficult times. We have experienced that in buckets these last six weeks. Amanda is now in Yorkshire, but to get her there only took an hour’s drive to an airport, and a wallet full of cash.
I hope to meet her next week in Greece, how good is that?
Friends come and see us. Airbnb and the like mean finding a place for a few nights is easy and not too expensive.
If you think you’d like to give it a try then I urge you to do so.
Ask us anything, we’ll help if we can.
Read other blogs too. I’ve popped links to a couple of good ones at the bottom of the page.
I’ve enjoyed writing this too. It has helped remind me again of what we’re doing and why, and how much we enjoy it.