10 Things We Learned From Over 100 Days of VANlife

A passion for VANlife has a way of sneaking up on you. If, earlier in our very different lives, you had asked us if living in a van “down by the river,” (as Matt Foley would say), would be a suitable long-term living arrangement, we might have thought you were crazy.

Even Matt Foley, SNL’s iconic “Motivational Speaker,” digs VANlife.
Even Matt Foley, SNL’s iconic “Motivational Speaker,” digs VANlife.

Having both lived a good chunk of our adult lives in homes from 2,500 to over 5,000 square feet, we have, ourselves, fallen into the delusion that S-P-A-C-E is necessary. That in order to get along with our significant other, we need our S-P-A-C-E. That the American Dream is nothing without the perpetual need to keep up with the proverbial Jones’s…

Martin came into VANlife after playing tug-of-war with that American Dream and losing hard in the recent recession. With the greatest clarity purchased only through hindsight, he took that experience as a catalyst to explore a simpler way of life. He downsized his home from over 5,000 square feet to less than 800, sold the custom Mercedes sports car in favor of a Subaru Outback, starting walking to work whenever possible, and…. Drum roll, please… he started the process of building out VANdal.

The initial intent for VANdal was to transport Martin to races as a stand up paddle boarder and trail runner; a veritable “home away from home” that would save on hotel costs, air travel, and dining out for sub-quality food, while also ensuring that Katie Lou could comfortably accompany him wherever he traveled.
Katie Lou LivingVANdal
Martin & Katie enjoying a soak in some random hot springs near Carbondale, Colorado.

But in practice, VANdal serves as much more. Not only do we still use it for the ultimate in race-site accommodations, we also started using the van for more and more weekend trips throughout the Southeast, and even based our entire summer trip on maximizing VANdal’s infinite potential.

Living VANdal Garage
Preparing all of our gear for the big summer trip. Can you believe ALL of this fits inside of VANdal’s back garage?

Clocking in over 100 nights in the van so far in 2014, we have an efficient system for delegating VANlife responsibilities, making it virtually effortless to prepare for either a weekend or a few months in the van…Just pack the fridge and some clothes, and off we go!

Living VANdal Buena Vista
VANdal’s beautiful Buena Vista, Colorado camp spot.

Our two-month summer road trip in VANdal took us almost exclusively throughout the west coast. Twenty-two states, one Canadian Province, 62 days, and 13,900 miles later, we returned to find changes in our behavior and attitudes that extended far beyond VANlife. Here’s a snippet of what we learned:

1. A small living space forces you to look right in the eye of your relationships.

Pre-Chattajack race silliness

Nobody said living in just over 100 square feet with your significant other would be easy. We are all flawed, we all get cranky from time to time, and we all seem to have those Seven Faces of Eve that bring out both the best and the worst of us. But at the end of the day, living small forces you to bump into one another more than every now and again. You get the opportunity to explore every dimension of one another – the silly, the vulnerable, the fearful, the loving… even the “hangry.” (We can both admit to getting a little angry in the face of hunger). Have you ever noticed that some of the unhappiest couples are those who insist on living in the largest spaces? Having so much space virtually eliminates the need to reconcile differences head-on, instead relying on a fundamental escapism that, left unchecked, morphs into an impervious disdain for one another. No thank you! We’ll take our tiny VANlife any day!

2. Everybody Poops.


Admittedly, the issue of “the-one-single-only toilet” in VANdal was a major one for Bethany when we first started planning this trip. But that veil of fear and vulnerability somehow managed to subside with time and a good bit of laughter. One thing’s for sure: Everybody poops.

People often ask us how our VANdal potty works so for those who need to satisfy their curiosity, read on.

The VANdal potty
The magic behind VANdal’s potty 🙂

The VANdal throne is a basic RV-like toilet in a small bathroom shared by a stainless steel shower basin and well-sized vanity with a sink. Here’s where it gets really cool, though! Unlike typical RV’s with their Number 2 pump hoses and holding tanks, underneath VANdal’s commode, in its own special cabinet, is a connected five-gallon cartridge-like plastic vessel. The potties are collected there and, when we’re ready, we just extract the portable cartridge and dump its contents into any toilet. (McDonald’s customers: Be warned that if you see VANdal in your parking lot, it’s not because we have a hankering for a McRib…We’re just giving a little something back to the fast-food industry. You’re welcome.)

3. Being cognizant of water consumption is everybody’s responsibility – not just in California.


One of the most eye-opening experiences of the trip was seeing the effects of dramatic drought conditions in states like California and Oregon. Low reservoir levels, roaring forest fires, and deficits in winter snowfalls have served as a catalyst for more conscientious water consumption behavior in many of these areas. But California shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of changing our water usage habits alone – we are all capable of thinking before we complacently leave the water running. VANlife taught us to be more mindful of our own limited water supply. Forty gallons is a finite amount we needed to ration depending on our needs for that segment of the trip. This simple water rationing act translated to more mindful consumption at home as we found ourselves taking shorter showers, not letting the faucet run as we did dishes, & doing fuller laundry loads less frequently.

4. In packing, less is more.

Packing cubes fit a ton of stuff into a small space and make FINDING what you packed incredibly easy.

The less time you spend digging for something to wear, the more time you can be out DOING. Even though space for our personal items was obviously limited as it was, we both still found that we used only a fraction of what we brought. Our strategy for easy VANlife packing is twofold:

First, the genius of the “packing cube:” Lightweight zippered compartments that separate, compress, and organize all of your duds. Our eBags (the brand we happen to have, but there are many) fit perfectly in our overhead storage bins and not only helped us cram a ton of clothing into a small space, they were also the ultimate way to organize it.

10385400_10152084768890868_1311051749395495367_nProudly sporting our Icebreakers for the Worlds Toughest 10K in the mountains of North Carolina

The second thing we learned about packing in a “less is more” way is the introduction of wool clothing to our wardrobe. This spring, a sale on Icebreakerapparel on Sierra Trading led to a life-changing love affair with all things wool. It’s temperature regulating for hot or cold weather, dries quickly, and best of all for VANlife, it repels stinkiness, thereby allowing us to get more days out of one shirt than we could ever get out of typical cotton or odor-prone polyester. As wool apparel goes, we have found Icebreaker to hold up the best and have the best warranty (though their fit we find to be highly inconsistent). Bethany’s wool sports bras by Ibex were also an amazing piece of kit for the big trip. With limited space, our woolies prevented us from having malodorous, wet clothing from filling up VANdal’s garage.

5. It’s ok to get multiple uses out of clothing before carelessly tossing them in the laundry.

The Icebreaker clothes helped with this. In general, we had to be conscientious of our clothing usage considering we only visited the laundromat once every two or three weeks during our two month road trip.

6. The most hated tasks at home are made easier when scaled down for VANlife.

Whether it’s laundry, doing dishes, cleaning “house,” or making dinner, household chores just seem more pleasant when downsized for VANlife…and usually, they were done in the presence of a spectacular view. Sweeping out the van, for instance, while taking a driving break along the Pacific Coast Highway, or cooking dinner to the tune of birds in the middle of the Redwood National Forest. Moments like these will never feel like work, and will only be etched in memory as part of the great travel experience that defines VANlife.

Roadside dinner prep with local farmers market fare while overlooking Donner Lake near Truckee, California.

7. There is no greater pleasure than being able to park, cook, and sleep precisely where you are about to embark on your next great adventure.

Twin Lakes

Speaking of simple pleasures, we took great gratification in being able to choose our nightly destination based on the next day’s activities. Want to be close to the trailhead for a morning hike? Then stealthily park the van in a (legal) spot nearest the trailhead. Want to hit up Portland’s best organic brewpub, but not have to drive afterward? Find the closest friendly neighborhood street parking and walk “home” that night.

HopWorks Urban Brewery
Hurray for the beer sampler at Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland. HUB is the country’s only sustainable, all-organic brewpub.

We can find countless examples in our travels of finding the best lodging at the most convenient places, all by design – And what decadence to be able to sleep in until the last possible moment, knowing that you are exactly where you need to be the next morning.

8. VANlife made us laid back about our travel plans.

A casual trip through Crater Lake National Park en route to Bend, Oregon.

There’s something about the spontaneity of VANlife that is divergent from our typical “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” behavior pattern. Van travel in and of itself morphs us into the realm of the laid-back, go where the wind takes us type, allowing us to relish even the aggravating moments. When your biggest problem of the day is deciding where to go next, it’s pretty clear that life is good.

Without a solidified plan that would be stressful to deviate from, we took in each day without agonizing about where we might have to be the next. Our sequence of days was determined not only by our bucket list, but also by the people we met along the way, minor “accidents” and, of course, the weather.

VANdal MTB Whistler
From happily riding the MTB trails in Whistler….
…To crash & burn and a change in VANdal’s end-of-summer plans…

Our first visit through Portland, for instance, was marked by a record heat wave, so instead of staying there we journeyed straight to the Oregon coast, (only an hour and a half away), where the temps were a substantial thirty degrees cooler. And in another surprise turn of events, Bethany dislocated her shoulder in Whistler, rendering any further paddling or mountain biking in that area unfeasible, so we cruised onward in favor of lower impact activities. In VANlife, we found that flexibility is key; our experience heightened by our ability to adapt and go with the flow.

9. We learned that we have a growing distaste toward overconsumption without discretion.


Outside Van says it best: #LifeIsSimpleInAVan. VANlife reinforced our belief that less is, in fact, more. The idea and purpose of VANdal is to collect experiences and not things. Possessions just become golden handcuffs: They’re beautiful, but they weigh you down. They keep you stationary and prevent you from experiencing, learning, and interacting with the world and the people who fill it.

VANdal, by the nature of its size, doesn’t allow us to collect souvenirs, chotchkies, or additional purchases we may desire for a fleeting moment, only to add to a landfill the next. It focuses us to “neck down” our lifestyle and possessions. VANlife reminds us that things don’t fill the void in life that should be filled with experiences, passion, and purpose.

10. It’s much easier (and more authentic) to get a “feel” for a city when you have an opportunity to stay in a neighborhood rather than be captive to a resort or hotel.

VANdal San Francisco
City dwelling in style at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco

Through VANdal, we could experience the authenticity of a city with the clarity of a local. In cities we liked and wanted to explore from an insider perspective, VANdal afforded us the luxury of staying right in the middle of the places we imagined ourselves one day living. Portland’s many neighborhoods, for instance, defined by their own cultural, demographic, and epicurean differences, were so diverse and distinct, we never could have experienced their flavor without being able to stay on local streets, walk Katie Lou on neighborhood sidewalks, chat with the neighbors, experience morning rush hour, or enjoy coffee at the best local bakery.

A VANdal day at the beach in San Onofre, California. Can’t go wrong with beach front parking, lunch and a shower.

Our experience suggests that VANlife is gaining momentum. We have met hundreds of people who have taken a keen interest in this form of minimalist land-yachting by sprinter van, but either don’t have the means or never knew there was such a thing. By popular request, we hope to have a video tour of VANdal, followed by more detailed accounts and reviews of our summer travel destinations coming soon. Cheers!

This post originally appeared on with the following comments:

Michelle – Loved reading this post! We are thinking about starting a similar lifestyle. I’m nervous about the small space!
livingvandal – Do it!! You won’t regret it :). It was amazing how effortless it was to adapt to less space. As humans, we are programmed to use all the space in our field of perception. When that downsizes, we just adapt. When we got back home, our little 750 sq ft house felt HUGE! 🙂

Rich Marquis – I’m making a splurge and renting a uhaul van for a month. I had a conversion van but it died on me. I figure if I can live in the uhaul for a month the I’ll go out and buy a new cargo van for my travels. My problem, obviously, is making “the list” of items to bring.

Sam – Great article! I couldn’t agree more. When we got back from our 5 month road trip in TARDIS, we couldn’t believe how big and wasteful our house seemed (1500 sq ft for four people and a dog, is practically tiny compared to some of the mansions in the Bay Area), even after downsizing our possessions. I can’t wait to be living in the van again. And wool – Yes! I love my wool tops. They never smell (wash wool in Kookaburra, that stuff will make wool last forever), magic! Martin, I’m so glad your build turned out to be perfect for you. And Bethany, I look forward to meeting you one day. Maybe Hood River? We bought a place and are now trying to work out when to transition. Cheers!!
livingvandal – Sam! We would love to connect in Hood, hopefully next summer :). Thanks for reading and affirming some of our experience through your’s. 🙂

Kyna – This was great reading, thanks you two! Sorry we let you down, Martin, by buying a car. You will have to get Luke to go camping one day.

Anonymous – We have for years spent about 3 months a year in a Sprinter van–we have no loo and don’t miss it in any way–there is always somewhere you can go.When we are travelling we never think of home only how long we might stay where we are or whether to move on–we never stay in campsites,just wild camp .

Paul Wilkinson – Here in the UK the weather sucks right now, It’s cold, wet and grey due to storms. Your post brightened my morning by allowing me to think back on a summer in our van (a modified ’90 VW Transporter Syncro). Beach, woodland, campsites and good food and company, plus some real offroad fun. It’s off the road due to a faulty clutch but hopefully we will be back out in it. Soon. Keep up the good vibes. They resonate.
livingvandal – Thank you so much for the kind words! We’ll be sending out good van juju that you get your Syncro back out on road very soon!!

wilkie50 – Nice blog. Curious which Outside Van model you have and what if anything you’d have done differently on the setup? I’m planning to embark on a similar mission with family of 5 (3 kids) but have the luxury to carefully plan the sprinter van setup, so any intel is super helpful. thanks!
livingvandal – wilkie50 – All of the OSV’s are custom, and our Mercedes Sprinter chassis is the standard one built out with some serious custom work both interior and exterior. Martin would love to talk van setups with you and help you plan your mission with precision. I can tell you he thought of almost EVERYTHING! The only thing I feel I’m missing when we are living out of the van is LED lights with a switch in the back for when we’re reading before bed. Otherwise, between him and OSV, they pretty much thought of everything :). Email us with your number or the best way to reach you & let’s see how we can help — Happy trip planning!

Sierra – I love all of this so much! As a fellow vanlife-er I can certainly relate to so much of this. It’s the absolute best way to travel and live. There is so much we miss out on when staying in hotels! Just published a book about our adventures, too, in hopes of inspiring more adventurers 🙂
livingvandal – Sierra – thanks for reading! Project VANlife looks like quite the adventure!

Stefan – “Live content with little”? Two people in a fully equiped lwb Sprinter is not considered little in Europe… I could live for years in that… #justalittlejealous…

Anonymous – Retired & now getting ready for 3 mths in our 16′ Scamp. I love adventure.

Don and Terry – Need more toilet info please. Do you really take the toilet tank into McDonalds??? From a stealth point of view, I could see finding a washable nylon tote bag, like a gym bag, putting the tank into it, and going into a truck stop restroom with it. They are used to people going into those with bags. Usually a bag of clothes, but hey. Doesn’t it smell awful when you are pouring it into the toilet? I’m not worried about myself, but about offending others.
livingvandal – Don & Terry, The tank is unlike anything people are used to seeing, so it doesn’t register that it’s a potty tank. We use a biodegradable poo-breakdown enzyme so it’s actually not so bad odor-wise as long as we empty it regularly. Nevertheless, this is one of the few van jobs that we attach a gender role to……Martin usually gets stuck with this one ;).

Bob Stone – Good info. Keep it comming

Ken Strandberg – Nice concise learnings worth reading about. Item 1 says it all about vanlife, and if you can’t go there, you won’t last in a van. We live eight months of the year in our converted 15-passenger GMC traveling and working on the road around the U.S and Canada. We no longer own a fixed home. We have a 2 1/2 gal Port-a-Potty and rule #1 is only go #1 in the pot. We did the opposite of your 2014 trip: from west to east and ended up in your neighborhood–Florida. Thanks for the great stories.
living vandal – Thanks for reading, Ken! Where in Florida did you end up?

Jessica Prior – Hey!! Very inspiring article and getting very excited about our road trip through California. One thing we were worried about was finding places to park up and sleep for a few nights at a time. Did you find this relatively easy? Did you have any resources that you referred to to find spots? We’re in Canada at the moment from the UK so really unsure of the laws and general vibe of just finding somewhere to park etc. Thanks! Jess
livingVANdal – Thank you! How exciting! What’s the vehicle you’ll be traveling through California in? We found that most cities were cool with street parking in neighborhoods we liked, though we had to be wary of our grey water in urban environments. Even though we use only biodegradable and all-natural cleansers, California in particular doesn’t like water from vehicles. (They’re probably just jealous given their extreme drought…) In the Tahoe area, we parked at trailheads. Along the coast, we looked for roadside pull-offs that didn’t have a “No Overnight Parking” sign (they were few and far between, but did exist). As you’re driving along national forests, all of the service roads are fair game for overnight parking/camping any time and as long as you want. Another source is local boat ramps where fishermen are allowed to launch 24/7. We’ve never been bothered at places like this either. Of course, if all else fails and you can’t find a spectacular place, there’s always 24 hour truck stops (where we would usually refuel, refill our water tank, and sometimes refill our propane), or Wal-Mart….Not ideal, but many an RV or sprinter has been known to resort to the Wal-Mart parking lot for free and relatively safe parking. Is that helpful?

Anonymous – So helpful!! Thanks! We’ll just be in something like a Chevy Astro or similar, something small with the back converted for sleeping/living. Ideally we’d find spaces where we can get the table and chairs out and do a little cooking etc. the logging roads sound perfect for that sort of thing!Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *