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Van Life or Traditional Housing?

Jennifer is a full-time van lifer who enjoys a minimalistic lifestyle more than high housing costs. She is owned by a Chiweenie named Gypsy.

Traveling Gypsy is the name of my home on wheels.

Traveling Gypsy is the name of my home on wheels.

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures: Why I Chose Van Life

After having a disagreement with my roommate, I decided it was time to move and find alternative housing. I was working as a retail manager at the time, seven days a week. I did not want to pay over $1,000 a month for rent for an apartment I would just be sleeping in. The van life appealed to me, and I felt like that could be an affordable option over traditional housing.

The city I lived in also had a lot of crime, with fatal shootings occurring in the apartment complex I was moving out of. According to a report compiled in 2020, my city was the 31st most dangerous city in the United States.

I downsized my belongings to a minimal amount, keeping only the bare necessities, packed up my belongings, and moved into my van with my dog, Gypsy. We have been on our van life journey for over a year.

Necessities for a Successful Van Life

Michigan is a beautiful state, but it can be a difficult place to live in a van full-time. Summers can be hot with high humidity levels, and winters can reach temperatures in the teens and lower.

There are many things to consider about the van life, whether you're traveling full-time or living in one city:

  • Electricity: Deciding how much electricity is needed will depend on how many objects you will need electricity for and how much power those devices will use. Things like coffee pots, air fryers, and air conditioners use a lot of electricity quickly. Many van lifers use solar panels to provide their electrical needs.
  • Heat: A diesel heater is the most affordable and safest option for a heat source for the van life. You can also use a space heater if you have enough electricity in your van or are somewhere where you can run an extension cord from an alternative electrical source. Also, keeping a Little Buddy propane heater by Mr. Heater can provide you with heat when electricity isn't accessible. Occasionally, you will see a van lifer who uses a wood stove to heat their home.
  • Air conditioning or fans: Staying cool in high temperatures can be a challenge, especially if you don't have air conditioning. Many van lifers install intake/exhaust fans in the roof, so they can circulate the air and keep the inside of the van cool. USB fans are convenient because they don't use much electricity to operate. Air conditioning is also an option if you want to invest in your electrical system to power it.
  • Food storage: A small fridge is a necessity for keeping food from spoiling. An excellent option is a 12V cooler that is more energy efficient than a mini-fridge that operates off of 110V. A cooler could also be used, but then you have to purchase ice almost every day to keep your food cold.
  • Bathroom facilities: Some van lifers build bathrooms side the van that also have a shower. However, this is not realistic for many with income limitations. Whether you purchase a portable toilet with a removal tank that has to be dumped in a toilet or you make a toilet out of a five-gallon bucket and a pool noodle, the convenience of having one in your van is worth it. For showers, there are many ways for van lifers to clean up, such as sponge baths, solar showers (handy for more than just showers), propane-powered showers, weed sprayer showers, or a gym membership (Planet Fitness is an affordable place to take showers, and many times you can park in their parking lots to sleep).
  • Privacy: Blackout curtains or custom-made window coverings are a must-have for privacy. When you are parked somewhere questionable, you don't want other people to know you're in the vehicle living the van life. The more stealthy your van is, the less noticeable it is to others.
  • Food preparation: There are many options for ways to cook your food, such as an air fryer, a microwave, a small grill, or a Blackstone griddle, just to name a few. Cooking with electricity is convenient; however, having a secondary way to cook using propane would be beneficial in the event that electricity isn't available.
  • Mailing address: You will need a place to receive your mail and any online products you may order. Amazon has drop-off locations all over where you can have products shipped and held until you can retrieve them.
  • Where to park: Some van lifers will pay to stay at a campground; however, that is not affordable for those who are trying to avoid high housing costs. Boondocking can be challenging, but it is possible to do. The trick is to not wear out your welcome. Park in different places regularly. Ask permission from management if you're unsure.

The Pros and Cons of Van Life

The van life is not for everyone. The lifestyle can be tough, especially if you're not alone. But it can also be enjoyable if you're a naturist and love to be outdoors and travel.

Pros of Van Life

  • You can avoid high housing costs.
  • You can move whenever you want.
  • The view from your living room changes often.
  • You can park for free in many places. Planet Fitness and Cracker Barrel are a couple of examples of places that do allow overnight parking.
  • Soup kitchens welcome you because everyone thinks you're homeless (insert humor, although if times are tough, take advantage of this option).
  • If you have adult children, they can't move back home.

Cons of Van Life

  • There is more wear and tear on your van.
  • Purchasing products needed for the van life can cost you money.
  • You will have to downsize and get rid of material items to fit your life into a van.
  • Everyone thinks you're homeless and living down by the river.
  • Sometimes when you wake up, you forget where you are.
  • If your van breaks down, you'll need to be able to afford a hotel room or Airbnb for a period of time or have a backup place to stay.
  • If you are alone and have a fatal medical emergency in your van, it could be a while before someone finds you.
  • Finding an insurance company that will properly insure you can be challenging.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Jennifer McLeod