17 Things we wish we knew before starting living in a van

What we wish we knew vanlife

You see a lot of posts about things people wish they knew from living vanlife. Usually they are written by people who have spent 1-3 months in the summer holidaying around sunny climates. They talk about wishing they knew how freeing it would feel to travel in a van, how welcoming everyone is or how much adventure there is out there. Sure, this can be true on one day, but it is also completely false on another day. You will soon find that van life has the same honeymoon period as anything else. It’s only after the dust has settled and the excitement dies down that the realities set in and you can start to appreciate the things you really wish you’d known before you started living in a van. We started living full time in our van in January 2017 and have endured hot summers and cold winters. So we put together our list of the 20 things we wish we knew before starting living in a van; a list of some practical things, some broader things, some good and some bad.

1 – Vans really are small spaces

Small campervan

Ok so I thought we’d start the list with a broad one and one that may seem obvious but it bares repeating; vans are small. When you’re converting your campervan or viewing pre built motorhomes you will probably think you have a tonne of storage. Under the bed has loads of space, there are plenty of cupboards and draws galore. You then pack your van ready to move in and you start to see that space disappear, so much so that on the day you move in the van is bursting at the seams. Things are about to get worse though.

As soon as you actually start living in your van you will start to see space disappear even more. You do a big shop for food and have to find space to store it all. You start eating the food and now you’re carrying around rubbish and recycling which takes up more space. You spill things on your clothes and so you need to start carrying dirty laundry somewhere. Living just takes up more space. We recommend that when you first move in you don’t fill your van to the brim and you leave yourself plenty of space to grow into your new home, you’ll thank us a few weeks in.

2 – Start planning for breakdowns

Just like with any home you are going to need regular maintenance to keep it all working correctly, and a van is no different. How well you plan for this maintenance and the inevitable breakdowns will dictate how easy the whole process will be for you. Since we moved into our van we have replaced brake pads, discs and drums, sensors, cables and lights, injectors, turbos and fuel pumps. It’s not cheap!

By planning ahead of time for this kind of thing we were able to afford to keep ourselves on the road and not put an end to our van life. There’s many ways to do this; we use a credit card that will round up whatever we purchase to the nearest £ and put the extra into a savings pot just for van fixes, it’s surprising how quickly this can add up. We also earn a little extra money in our spare time doing some online work. Whatever you do just make sure you are planning for what might crop up, and if nothing does, you have a nice little savings pot for more adventures.

3 – Buy a gas level monitor

From the broad to the practical; during our first year of living in the van we ran out of gas 4 times, each time it came as a surprise to us and in the middle of cooking our dinner. We wish we had known about a simple £6 device (This gas level indicator) which simply magnetically sticks to your gas bottle and provides you with a reading of how much gas you have left in your tank. Now we have one we don’t have to worry about running out of gas mid pizza making session!

4 – Vanlife winters really are tough

Vanlife Winter

The lists you’ve read about things they wish they knew before vanlife from people living in vans for only weeks and months just talk about the hardships of travelling around Europe in the summer. We know this because if they had lived in their van through a UK winter then that’s all they would be talking about, trust us!

When you’re in a house I don’t think you really appreciate how cold it can be both day and night. We had a van without heating in our first winter and we would get into bed at 8pm just to stay warm. Your large van with wonderful views from the ever open sliding door becomes a small, damp, dark box for 5 months of the year. Your solar panels stop bringing in enough power to keep your laptop in Netflix for the whole night and every time you get back in the van for the night the battery has less juice than the day before. Van life in the winter is tough!

5 – Not every day has to be an adventure

It’s so easy to feel the need to make every day an adventure, after all everything we see about vanlife on Instagram looks like an adventure. Whether you’re working during the week or travelling full time the temptation will be to push yourself to be in wild spots with your van or getting up for the sunrise every morning. However you need to remember that that simply is not sustainable! You need to go back to society at some point to stock up on food, water and internet signal, plus getting up for the sunrise every day is frankly exhausting. Don’t forget that just because you live in a van it doesn’t mean that your whole life has to change. You can still drink tea and read a book or waste the evening watching Netflix, that is allowed.

6 – Use rainy days to relax and catch up

If you’re like us you will want to avoid getting wet in the rain. Not because we hate being out in it, but just because we find it so hard to get ourselves and our clothes dry in the van. So we soon learnt that rainy days were best utilised relaxing or catching up on some much needed life admin. Now when it rains we take the chance to do our laundry, we clean our cupboards, empty rubbish and generally give the space a spruce. Thankfully because the van is so small (see point 1) this rarely takes too much time which leaves us plenty of time for relaxing, be it Netflix, boardgames, books or music.

7 – Eating well doesn’t have to be hard

It might seem daunting having to cook in a kitchen that is usually around the size of your normal kitchen chopping board. Add to that the fact most vans don’t have an oven. When we first moved into our van we hadn’t really thought about how we were going to cook the normal food we would cook when we lived in our house and so when we moved in we ended up veering towards simple meals such as pasta and pesto or plenty of sandwiches.

Before long we realised that you can in fact do most of the things you would normally do in your old kitchen in your van. Nothing stopped us from eating fresh and interesting foods. We could prepare everything as easily as we did before and even the limitations we did have, such as no oven, was not an issue. With the help of this cheap device, an Omnia Oven we were able to make oven baked recipes on only our hobs. (If you are looking for recipes for your campervan cooking we recommend some books for you in our post Best Vanlife Books here)

8 – Van Life laundry is far easier than you think

We get asked about how we wash our clothes. I know we asked similar questions before we moved into our van. We really shouldn’t have been concerned because it really is far easier than you’d think. If you’re happy to pay money you can simply go to a laundrette where you can pay for the use of their machines and be in and our within about an hour. For the more frugal amongst you there are gadgets you can use such as the Laundreez wash bag which allow you to hand wash your clothes really easily.

9 – Being sick in the van is no fun

No one likes being sick at the best of times but as soon as you are sick in a van it can feel very small and claustrophobic indeed. Without access to a flushing toilet for all your needs, no heater and the fact everything from brushing your teeth to boiling the kettle is just that bit more difficult means that being sick in a van is even less fun than it is normally. You might find yourself seemingly living atop a mound of scrunched up tissues and empty medicine rappers so you’ve got to do all you can to keep the small space tidy, if only for your own sanity!

10 – Finding park ups is easier than you think

Park Up

The anxiety around where you will sleep for the night is real. Worrying about whether the UK has places to sleep for your campervan or finding places where people won’t notice that you’re living in your van are common place. However as small as the UK is there are tonnes of amazing places you can stay over night in your van and people are so involved in their own lives that more often than not they don’t notice you in your van even if you are just parked on their residential street! If you’re looking for how to find these park ups then check out this article on how to find them.

11 – Finding park ups is harder than you think

I know we’ve just told you that it’s easier than you think but we’re also here to tell you it can be tricky! Many an hour we have spent driving around side streets looking for city parking for the night only to decide we don’t feel safe after unpacking everything only for us to pack up again and start looking all over again. Some days it’s just not that easy or you will feel uncomfortable or you will be asked to move on. It’s the nature of the beast but not something you should be too upset about, like we said there’s always somewhere to sleep you just have to find it!

12 – You will begin feeling safer

We’ve never had any issues with our van and being unsafe. I know people who have but this is very much the minority. A lot of people create escape hatches in their van just incase something happens, or refuse to build and block out the cab from the back so they can jump in the front and make a quick getaway if needed. While we’re not saying people should be wreckless we are saying that the paranoia you have before you start living in your van that people will try to break in while you’re there or try to attack you in the dark starts to disappear once you’ve spent more time living in your van.

Safety really comes from the avoidance of trouble. If you do what you can to avoid parking in dangerous areas and don’t draw too much unwanted attention to yourself you will find that rarely will you feel unsafe. And the instance you do you can just move on to somewhere where you do feel safe.

13 – Fill up where you can

Unlike a lot of Europe, the UK isn’t really set up well for van life. We don’t have motorhome specific service stations where you can empty waste and fill up your water. It’s therefore important to make sure you keep yourself topped up on your water where you can because you never know when you might find that illusive tap available for you. You don’t want to be caught short without and be forced to find somewhere when in need. As with most things in the van, preparation is key.

14 – No van is perfect

We really wish we’d known this before we started this whole thing, we would have finished converting our first van much sooner if we had. We spent s long trying to achieve the perfection we saw on Instagram only to fall short and become frustrated. It was only after we spent some time in most of the vans we saw for inspiration and spoke to our friends the owners of the vans that we realised that none of them were perfect. They all had rough cuts and patchy woodwork, the vanlifers all complained about things not working or slowly breaking in their vans. It was at that point that we realised no one’s van is perfect and so I stopped worrying about the wonky draws Id made in our van and started loving them instead.

15 – Everything takes longer

Planning is all well and good but without experience of van life it’s really hard to judge how long your plans will actually take to unfold. Making breakfast, washing up, putting the bed away and getting dressed can really take most of the morning. Laundry means finding a laundrette or boiling a kettle which just adds to the time. If you’re planning make sure you are giving yourself plenty of time to account for what we like to call van time, the time it takes to do things in the van. Van time runs about half the speed as normal time!

16 – Charging things takes time

It’s not just chores that take longer in a van, charging your devices will take far longer than you are used it. You may be used to the now standard quick charge feature of most devices now however these depend on a 240v system pumping out those higher amps. You will most likely going to be charging your phones from your vans 12v system which will be giving you far less juice and so it’s going to take longer for them to get charged. While it’s more efficient to charge your devices this way it can be frustrating when you’re waiting to go out but need to top up your phone quick sharp. That’s why we never go anywhere without this power bank, an absolute life saver that we always have plugged in to the USB in the front of the van to charge while we drive so it is always topped up when we stop.

17 – The community is welcoming and helpful

Vanlife Community

I think the vanlife community gets quite a bad reputation. They’re portrayed as social media obsessed, always trying to sell you something and snobbish about people they don’t deem to be living vanlife “correctly”. However what we learnt from being around more vanlifers, speaking to more people and getting more involved in the vanlife community is that they are insanely helpful, caring and generous. When our van broke down we got messages and phone calls from people we’d met only once before offering help, advice and guidance. When we were freezing in minus 20 degree temperatures it was a fellow vanlifer who gave us our heater to help us get through Christmas. It’s one reason we love running our UK Vanlife Facebook group, everyone is so nice and inspiring. (If you haven’t joined already you really should, join here)

In summary

There’s loads of things we wish we’d known before we started living van life. Everything we found was geared towards travelling around the world in your van, written by people far to early into the process to know what’s really important. We wanted to make sure you knew before you went in what life in the UK in a van is really like and that hopefully you will learn some of the lessons we took time to learn.

If you’ve got things you wish you’d known before moving into your van let us know!

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