5 things I wish I knew before starting vanlife

Considering living in your vehicle full-time? Check out these tips for life on the road from an experienced vanlifer

Photo: Michael Clark

If there’s one thing that every vanlifer, roadtripper, or nomad can agree on, it’s that there are lifestyle changes you never considered when taking on these adventures. Things like staying clean, sleeping safely, or meeting friends force you to face obstacles you may not have expected. Even your physical health may be impacted by the tolls of extended driving.

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Here are the top five things I wish I knew when I started vanlife, and have since integrated into my lifestyle on the road. Whether you’re going on a weekend car camping trip or setting out on the journey of living in your vehicle full-time, I hope these practices can help you make the best out of your time on the road. 

a package of flushable wipes sits on a counter next to a sink
Photo: Michael Clark

1. Use wet wipes and dry shampoo 

One of the most common questions I’m asked is how I shower in the van, and unfortunately, it may not be often. When I’m in remote areas, like Alaska or Northern Canada, far away from my gym membership, I might not have an opportunity to shower for days, or even weeks. I do have a personal portable shower in the van, but if I’m in a city, out of water, or the weather is cold, the last thing I want to do is step outside to shower. 

Instead, I use wet wipes, baby wipes, and dry shampoo. Many wipes are antimicrobial, and although I won’t pretend they’re as cleansing as a shower, it pays to keep your hygiene on track, and they are surprisingly refreshing. An added bonus I’ve found is that using them on mosquito bites significantly reduces the itch. 

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2. Stretch

Something that is overlooked by many roadtrippers is the fact that the human body isn’t designed to sit for hours on end. Whether it’s at a desk, or on a 45-hour drive across the country, it pays to get ahead of the damage you’re doing to your body, and implement a daily stretching routine. After a long drive one day, I found my back spasming to the point where I couldn’t move. I started a stretching routine and I’ve had no issues since. 

My favorite stretches for targeting muscles specifically impacted by long drives include upward and downward dog poses, a standing quad stretch, and others that target the lower back, hips, and knees.

a person sweeps out the back of a converted campervan
Photo: Michael Clark

3. Don’t cook or do van chores where you sleep  

If you’re like me, you may not always be parked in a campsite, and you may want to keep the fact that you’re sleeping in your vehicle under wraps. For this reason, if I’m opening my doors to air out my van, cooking, or doing something where I know someone may notice me, I’ll park in one place, do my chores, and drive a quick ways down the road to sleep. That way, I can pull into my parking spot, keep my lights off, and head to sleep once I arrive. 

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A great place to do chores while on the road is in strip mall or plaza parking lots. These  places provide room for you to maneuver for chores, stock up on needed items at nearby stores, and access bathrooms. Plus, if you get asked to move, you were planning to already.

4. Get a lock box  

My work sometimes requires me to go on long hikes, paddles, climbs, and other activities that can result in lost or destroyed keys. I invested in a small lockbox that I keep hooked to my vehicle’s frame and hidden out of sight. I’ll put my spare key in the lockbox, and bring one with me on my journey. 

Just remember to pack a headlamp. Once, I returned back to my van at night with no set of spare keys in my pack, and I couldn’t see the lockbox keypad to unlock my keys. I had to cross a river and knock on a nearby cabin door to ask for a flashlight. 

a person holds their phone which is plugged into a white van while in the drivers seat
Photo: Michael Clark

5. Use helpful apps and the online community  

When I first started vanlife, the allure of figuring out where I would park next and the unknown was half the fun. However, the world of roadtripping has changed over the years and there are now resources we can use to make life easier. This includes Campendium for finding vetted campsites, Roadtrippers for route planning, keeping up with your van’s maintenance and to find parking lots to stay in your van overnight. Reddit also provides a treasure-trove of knowledge and experience that I’ve personally found helpful. If you have a question, Reddit users can usually give you an answer.