Why I Live in a Van While Traveling

An abandoned, apparently lived-in van somewhere in Kentucky.

When people learn that I live in my van while traveling America, I hear one of two replies: Seriously! and Seriously?

I’m always shocked that anyone could think this way of traveling is anything less than awesome. Generally, people seem intrigued that I spend a good part of my year tooling around this vast and magnificent land, but it’s the “living in a van” part that many seem aghast at.

Sure my van, Purple Thunder, doesn’t have a couch or a television. It does not have a refrigerator or an oven or a garbage disposal. There is no running water, let alone a shower. I can’t keep a large wardrobe or much of a library. The Post Office won’t deliver mail here nor can I legally consume beer within its walls. Topping it off, the police don’t need a warrant to search my things.

I can see how some might think this sounds like hell.

To me it’s home.

There are many reasons for this. First are the economics. Increasing my time on the road requires more mileage from my dollars. Keeping boarding rates low prevents my bank account from being despoiled. Budget motels can run up costs into the high thousands over several months. American hostel rates aren’t much better. Even camping at state parks can cost upwards of $25 per night. But sleeping in Hotel Thunder is absolutely free.

Hotel Thunder is by no means luxurious, but it has a bed and electricity and is therefore comfortable enough. But that’s beside the point. I’d prefer the minimal comforts of Hotel Thunder even if I had the dollars to bed down in motels or hostels. This is in keeping with a tradition of roughing it that harks back my first road trip. For that excursion, three others and myself threw down on a busted-up brown van we named Sexual Chocolate, which we then drove without licenses to New Orleans.

We were cash-strapped and reckless, but enjoyed every moment.

Passing through Missouri on our way back, we were pulled over and Sexual Chocolate was impounded, its title signed over to the bail bondsman.

Though the trip ended differently than we had planned,  the journey overall was nonetheless formative. At once I was seduced by the prospect of strange and surprising encounters in wayward places. I loved how the initial exhilaration of hitting the road gave way to the deeper leisure of feeling untethered from the influences and obligations of sedentary life, one shaped less by chance than routine. Even as the officer approached our van that morning, screaming for us to put our hands in the air, a little part of me couldn’t help but think how marvelous it all was.

Like hitchhiking, car camping is a dying art. Sites like carliving.info are among the few that offer guidance for novice car campers. An ebook entitled Everything I Know About Living in a Vehicle imparts more than a decade’s worth of van dwelling wisdom for those on the road and those on land.  The Urban Van Dweller writes about his life living in a Ford Aerostar, though he hasn’t posted since early 2009.

One of the best car camping blogs I’ve come across is A Year in a Car For No Apparent Reason, which follows Jessica, a San Diego or L.A. resident who lives in a Prius she retrofitted with a bed. Her chronicle takes readers beneath the sights and sounds of her travels to tackle the day-to-day aspects of vehicle dwelling, addressing perennial questions like, Where do you shower? and How do you get used to sleeping in public?

Vehicle dwellers are a diverse bunch, each with their own reasons for adopting this lifestyle. Some do it simply to save money, to sidestep having to pay rent and utilities. Sadly, others are destitute and a vehicle is their last refuge. Many who blog about vehicle dwelling seem to enjoy the challenges it presents, treating the occasion as an experiment in minimalist living and personal limits. And yet others, like Jessica, do it simply because it’s something interesting to do. Her tag line I think sums up that reasoning well: Because Adventure Needs No Justification.

Indeed, adventure may need no justification, but it does require a special wherewithal to cope with the unique challenges vehicle dwelling presents. Bad weather can be a little demoralizing and, depending where you are, can keep you cooped up in your vehicle for hours at a time. In cities, finding a spot to sleep that’s both safe and discreet is a crap shoot. Mechanical issues are also a constant source of anxiety. Not only is there the expense of repairs, but you lose your home while they’re being made.

For me, van dwelling strikes the perfect balance between mobility, comfort and expense. Sure, I may not have convenient access to modern amenities and I may wear the same few clothes all summer, but these things just come with the territory. The trade-off is a constant wide open sense of freedom that only grows more intoxicating as I skip along the grid. One day I could be driving south along the Mississippi only to find myself days later camping in the mountains of Colorado, treading happily along my own slice of heaven, with a little help from my van.

3 Comments

  1. thomas moore says:

    I am seriously considering this.  I’m 58, tired of everything and would love to try this.  If done right from van selection to building the inside correctly it sounds like a blast.  So many nice folks on the computer explaining various things about this life i thank them all for their input.  Vandwelling  here i come.  I look forward to running into Vandwellers alike.

  2. Joe says:

    Hi, Really enjoyed the article ,errrr post. Amazeing that the same things that excite and have meaning for you has meaning for me a 62 year old man traveling lifes highways. I wouldn”t do or imagine doing any thing else. I retired from the Army and discovered that I had no more Bosses to tell me how or what to do. Life is what you make it of course but,,, make it a good one………HoboJoe

  3. Joe T says:

    Hi, I really enjoyed your post. As a matter of fact I am also embarking on journey similar to yours. I am 64, planning to retire end of this year and being by myself, going to hit the road. For this purpose I have purchased a Dodge Ram van, wired it for 110v, put a nice and comfortoble bed with storage underneath, and put in a refrigirator and microwave oven. I am preparing to leave for Arizona like in February 2016, vowing to drive only a maximum of 200 miles a day, then camp wherever I can and sleeping sleeping in my van. Motels and hotels don’t excite me. I need to be one with the nature. I am going to be on the road for a long, long time.

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