Need guidance to prepare for van life? Not sure what you need to know before living in a van? Worried about safety when wild camping?
A few months ago it was me, unsure and slightly paranoid, but still very excited.
And for this very reason, I put together this post to help you get a better idea of what it takes to live an alternative life.
I've covered topics such as van conversion costs, van accessories, wild camping, working in a van and other (hopefully) useful tips. Plus, I've included items from my wardrobe, in case you are wondering what to pack.
Ok, let's get started with the basics.
Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you make a purchase. Thank you in advance!
What is Van Life?
Van life is an alternative living, a tiny living if you like. People do it for various reasons but mostly because it affords more freedom and adventure.
However, the decision to live in a van requires some careful consideration. If you’ve never stepped out of your comfort zone before, you might find it a little difficult to get used to van life. I am still finding it challenging sometimes.
But don’t overthink it too much either. You can always rent a van first and see if you like it at all.
Before converting a van, we rented a van conversion in Sicily for 4 nights. It's a short space of time to make a decision, but you get the idea of what it's like to travel, cook and sleep in a van.
As we explored Sicily, we also made a list of everything we liked and what annoyed us the most in the van. Things like cupboards sticking out way too much or the shower room being a weird shape. Or plastic cups and plates in a van. Yuck.
It was a great exercise and I recommend trying it out first before you commit to buying a van. Which leads me to the next big question.
What’s the Best Van to Live and Travel in?
Mercedes Sprinter is considered to be one of the best vans to travel and live in. The high top, extra long-wheelbase vans are especially popular among van conversions. Because they provide you with more space.
You can have a snug, a shower and a fixed bed in such a van and still have enough space to move around. But, frankly speaking, we have it all in our Citroen Relay.
We have a swivel seat at the front, a generous snug, a shower/toilet cubicle, a fully equipped and well-functioning kitchen with a small fridge. There's plenty of storage too. And a comfortable, semi-permanent bed that transforms into a working space with a table.
Sometimes we wish our van conversion was a tad longer though. So we could have a fixed bed.
The reason we didn’t go for Mercedes Sprinter is that we didn’t want the hassle of driving such a long vehicle. It was also more expensive than we budgeted for.
Speaking of which, when buying a van, look for a well-kept vehicle. Even if it's a little bit more expensive than you'd like to pay, it's worth it.
"Custard Cream", the van conversion, even though more expensive than we planned, was in an excellent condition when we bought it. It was also very clean which made the conversion process much smoother.
If we did another van conversion, we’d be looking at buying a sprinter van.
What to Know Before Living in a Van Conversion
When it comes to van life, it's only natural to want to know about it as much as possible. Although overthinking it too much doesn't help either. Because you'll never do it.
Here are a few aspects of van life you might want to think about beforehand.
Know Where You're Going
It helps to have some sort of a plan of where you want to go. Are you going to travel around your country or want to venture abroad? Grab a map and draft a rough plan of your travels.
Or at least decide where you want to go first.
I always dreamed of exploring the Scottish Highlands and that's where we started our van life adventure. Over the 1,5 months, while enjoying the amazing scenery, we also kept a list of things that needed improving. It was a great test trip.
If you are just starting, it's also worth doing some research. Check which countries are the most campervan-friendly and start there.
Wild Camping vs Campsites
Another thing to think about is whether you are going to stay at campsites or wild camp. This will determine how stealth you want to be.
My hubby and I knew from the start that we want to do as much wild camping as possible. It's not always easy though, especially in the UK.
Wild camping is widely restricted in England, but Scotland has a more relaxed attitude. I can't wait to explore Wales in our van conversion and see what it's like over there.
Campsites in England are very expensive. They can cost £16 - £25 and up for 24h.
The good thing about campsites is the facilities. But, if it's a big campsite, they can be busy and not that clean.
Mostly, when travelling around England and Scotland, we stopped at campsites to do our laundry and have a hot shower. But that's an expensive way to travel.
A cheaper alternative to campsites is a farmer's field. For around £10 you get a parking spot and there might or might not be a toilet block.
Not a bad option if you are looking to save money and aren't too keen on wild camping.
I always felt a little apprehensive about wild camping. I wasn't sure how safe it was. But the more I stayed at wild spots, the more I liked it.
Most of the time we had another van parked nearby so I never felt unsafe. Especially in Scotland. Surprisingly, even the big and expensive motorhomes were wild camping.
Be sure to use the helpful park4night app when wild camping. It will help you find great spots to stop for a night or two.
Aires (France & Spain)
Different countries have a different setup. Little did I know that France, for example, will be an excellent choice for living in a van.
Almost every village has an Aire, a place dedicated to campervans, where you can stay for 24 hours or longer, for free. They also provide you (sometimes for a small fee of €2) with drinking water and toilet emptying facilities.
Plus, the French countryside is gorgeous.
At some Aires, if they are private, you might need to pay a fee of €4-10 for 24 hours. Aires with showers might cost a little more.
We never actually wild-camped in France because it's incredibly well set up for campervans. We used the superb All the Aires book to find a good spot and never had any issues.
For a quick comparison, we spent a mere €49 on Aires in France in just under two months compared to €248 in the UK (£223). Shocking difference.
Stocking Up on Drinking-Water
For us, the biggest challenge on the road in the UK was finding drinking water. And since England isn't equipped for van life, we had to make regular stops at campsites.
Hence the high campsite costs above.
In France and Spain, we had no such issues. Again, we used the All the Aires book to see which Aires have access to water.
In Scotland, to find water, we used the park4night app. But it wasn't as readily available.
Filling Up Your LPG Gas
Are you planning on using the LPG gas bottle in your van conversion? I recommend having one. It's so much cheaper than buying small camping gas bottles.
In our van conversion, we use the yellow 11 kg Gaslow LPG bottle. In four months, we've only spent approx €44 on gas in total without even trying to conserve it.
Our heating system runs on gas and we cook in the van all the time. I am not even counting the number of cups of tea Charlie drinks per day.
However, it can be challenging in the UK to find a petrol station which sells LPG gas. For some reason, it's not that popular. But you can use the park4night app to find it.
It's much easier to find it in Europe mainland. Just remember to get your LPG gas adaptors in advance. Yep, France, Spain and the rest of Europe have different connections so you'll need the right adaptor.
Charlie forgot about them and I didn't even know we needed them until... well... we needed them.
Needless to say, we overpaid big time at a campervan shop in France. Boo.
Finding Loos & Showers
This is the fun part of living in a van.
If you are not going to have either, you'll then want to stop at campsites or use the park4night app (I swear this is not a sponsored post).
Out of all the van accessories, I recommend getting a portable shower. It's not a proper shower, but you can wash your hair with it and have a semi-shower. Or even an outdoor shower when wild camping.
It has a rechargeable battery that pumps and recycles the water. And as long as you keep the battery bit under the water, it will work just fine.
Things Happen - Be Prepared for Unexpected
Just like living in a house, living in a van comes with its own challenges. Flat tyres, blocked drains, electrical issues etc.
Don't panic. Pack a toolbox with you for minimal repairs. Otherwise, look for a local garage on Google maps.
So far, we've been lucky to just have a flat tyre once and a minor issue with our heater.
How to Stay Safe
If you have any expensive gadgets in your van such as laptops, cameras or any other gear, don't parade them. Try to keep them out of the open.
When chatting to people, be mindful when discussing your plans. Also, pick and choose who to tell you are working online. Not everyone needs to know how you earn money. Just tell them you are on a vacation.
And the obvious - draw your blackout curtains and lock your van when leaving it in public places. Especially in big cities.
And don't sleep in laybys. I'm told this is where the trouble happens.
Try to find a spot away from the main road, and use the app. This way you will most likely have more campervans staying with you.
What Do You Need For Van Life?
Good question. There are so many campervan accessories that you can buy to make your van life comfortable. But there are only a few that you actually need.
Must-Have Van Life Accessories
Your must-have van life items are safety gadgets like a carbon dioxide monitor and travel safety kit (for Europe), kitchen accessories, comfortable bedding and bathroom items. And a few decorative accessories to make the van homely.
Also, think of your favourite entertainment. What are you going to do in the van when it's raining? What are you going to do if there's no signal?
I, for example, love reading on my Kindle reader and listening to podcasts.
Have the Right Gear
There's nothing worse than not having the right gear for your van life adventures. That's why you should know where you are going so you can gear up beforehand.
And you should always have rainproof clothing, wherever you go.
When we travelled around Scotland, the rain was our constant companion. We couldn't fight it. But with the right gear, we embraced it and enjoyed the experience to the fullest.
Scotland is at its most beautiful covered in fog and mist anyway.
How Much Does a Van Conversions Cost?
It depends on your budget and how elaborate you want your van to be. Some people do it on a very tight budget and use a lot of reclaimed materials. Others splash out and have all the latest gadgets in their van conversions.
We spent around £15-16k on our van conversion including the cost of the van + insurance. Still cheaper than buying an already converted van from a company.
Our biggest expenses included big items such as the fan extractor, solar panel, leisure battery, heating system, electrics and installing two windows.
Plus, we hired an electrician and a gasman to install gas and do the wiring. This is something you don't want to do yourself if you aren’t a professional.
But before you spend all your money, you might want to attend some sort of a campervan show to pick up a few ideas.
Charlie and I went to the Motorhome and Caravan Show at the NEC in Birmingham. We wanted to snoop around the van conversions section and look at the layouts and materials.
What we found was a lot of shiny new van conversions priced at £40-70k. Some of them looked very nice, but they didn’t seem to have much space inside and living in a van is all about space.
For some reason, they all had massive fridges and all sorts of poky corners that made the space inside shrink. But overall it was a fun and productive day and we did pick up some good van conversion ideas.
What to Pack for Van Life Living
This is a tricky one. When you think of what to pack for van life, are you thinking of van accessories or clothes? For me, it's the latter.
Packing your van accessories sounds weird, but that's what van lifers write about. I'll be true to the question and tell you what I've got in my wardrobe.
My List of What to Pack for Van Life Living:
I am not into fast fashion and like simple and timeless pieces. Over the years, travel has taught me to mix and match rather than impulse shop (still do it sometimes though).
It has also taught me to pack light. No matter the destination, I travel with hand luggage only.
I am trying to bring the same philosophy into my van life too. Choosing quality over quantity keeps my wardrobe free from items that wear and tear quickly.
And although I've been called a minimalist by many, I still think I have too many pieces.
Jeans & Trousers
1x M&S black skinny jeans | If they ever go out of style, I'll still be wearing them. They make outfits look tidy and effortless. But it's essential to invest in a good pair for it to last for many years.
1x M&S blue jeans | Another beautiful pair of jeans from M&S. They are kind of skinny, with a shortened hem. Looks great with trainers.
1x John Lewis black culottes | Culottes are versatile. They are great for dressing up and down. I love wearing them with a T-shirt and trainers in the hot weather. Keeps me cool, plus looks stylish.
1x black tights | These are for van lounging. Great for working days and just sitting around the van.
1x black yoga pants | Love this pair so much. I wear them for my yoga stretches and also for hiking. Love the pockets too.
1x Hush's Amie Joggers | With zipped ankle cuffs and pockets they looked cool. Unfortunately, they are a little too flimsy for outdoors. However, great for van lounging. Very soft and comfortable.
Shirts and T-Shirts
2x shirts | Even though they crease a little, they look great combined with jeans.
8x t-shirts | Didn't think I had that many! Most of them are lightweight t-shirts that wear well and dry quickly.
2x tank tops | These are great for exercising. Also, double as nightwear.
Dresses and Skirts
4x summer dresses | Most of my summer dresses are from Boden. I love the quality, designs and pockets. Plus they have dresses in a tall size, which is hard to come by in regular shops.
1x maxi dress | Got this one recently, but still haven't had the chance to wear it.
2x seasonal dresses | I kept these dresses in case I was travelling to any conferences or autumn destinations. Because they are slightly above my knee, I only wear these with tights and ankle boots.
1x black long skirt | Long skirt is great for hot summer days when I can't decide what to wear.
Knits and Jumpers
2x woolly jumpers| Perfect for crisp mornings and cooler evenings.
1x long woolly cardigan | A gift from my mum, therefore, this piece travels with me everywhere. Looks great with jeans and trainers. Great for city breaks.
2x cardigans | I am not into pink, but the washed-out pink cardigan is a cute little number in my van life wardrobe. I stole it from my mum. It goes well with jeans or dresses. The other one is a beige colour, very light and soft from M&S.
2x hiking jumpers | Got these two at an outdoor outlet on the way to Scotland. Soft, warm and comfortable. They are the perfect van life essentials.
1x super cosy jumper | Absolutely love this jumper with faux fur lining. It kept me warm in England and Scotland. It's also super handy for early morning and late evening photography sessions.
Coats & Jackets
1x M&S beige trench coat | Love my trench coat. It's great for city breaks and general travel.
1x Denim jacket | I'm such an 80s nerd. My Denim jacket is 100 years old and I'm not ready to part with it yet. So, it's staying.
Waterproof Hiking Gear
1x lightweight hiking trousers | Got these lightweight trousers on Amazon for my SE Asia trip back in 2016 and they are still as good as new.
1x waterproof jacket | Very recently purchased, this Regatta jacket is pretty stylish and looks great with jeans. Perfect for misty hikes too.
3x hiking socks | You should always have hiking socks in a van.
1x hiking boots | I walked many muddy rice fields in Vietnam in these shoes and they are still in great condition.
Shoes & Flip Flops
1x Adidas trainers | Love this pair. They look great. But go a size up if you are planning to get them.
1x M&S navy smart pumps | I have them in the van, just in case. You never know where you're going to end up when living in a van.
1x Dune ankle boots | Love my Dune ankle boots. They are comfy and versatile. Great with jeans and dresses.
1x flip-flops | Flip flops are essential for van life. You'll need them when using public showers or in general, hopping out of the van to take the rubbish out.
Scarves & Accessories
2x spring/autumn scarves | I absolutely adore my scarves and wear them as soon as the weather gets crispier. They make a great accessory and keep you cosy outdoors and indoors.
1x winter scarf | Having a wool scarf or a shawl is another van life must-have item.
1x across the shoulder bag | When visiting a city, I prefer wearing a small bag to a backpack.
1x black occasion bag | Bought it in a boutique shop back when I lived in Malta. It's quite versatile and not too fancy so I kept it in the van.
Undies, Sock, Sleepwear and Swimwear
5x t-shirt bras | I always stock up on bras at Debenhams whenever I'm back in the UK. They have the best stock.
7x knickers | No need to elaborate on this one.
4x invisible socks | Great for wearing with trainers.
3 x cosy socks | A pair of cosy, soft socks are a great addition to anyone's van life wardrobe.
1x woolly socks | My woolly socks are Christmas edition, and I love them.
1x nightdress | When it's cooler outside, a fun long-sleeve nightdress or PJs will keep you cosy in a van. Mine has lamas on it. Super cute.
1x bikini top | A simple black bikini top is great for mixing and matching.
2x bikini bottoms | I've got one black and one ornate for the above reason.
1x Osprey 40l backpack | Love my epic travel backpack. Osprey bags are super comfortable and look great too. I've had it for a few years now and it still looks great.
1x Day bag | A good item to have for travelling, hiking, and exploring.
How Do You Make Money Living in a Van?
One of the biggest challenges of van life is earning money while living in a van.
A lot of people (including me) who live and travel in a van, work online. That’s only natural in this day and age. It gives us the freedom that we want.
Some earn money as graphic designers, photographers, language teachers, writers, reviewers, social media managers, virtual assistants, you name it. The options are endless if you have the right skills.
I earned money as a ghostwriter for other bloggers, and also as a Pinterest virtual assistant.
Now I work online as a copywriter. I create SEO-targeted copy and campaigns for various online brands. The pay varies depending on the length of the copy.
Stealth Van Living
Stealth van living is a term used for van lifers who wild camp in a stealth van. Such a van looks just like an ordinary work van from the outside. It doesn’t have any branding or attachments like bike racks or awnings.
We kept our van pretty stealthy. The only thing that gives it away is the roof vents (when open), the solar panel and the Wi-Fi signal booster. But if living in a van wasn't your thing, you probably wouldn't even notice these details.
We came across a few stealth vans in England and Scotland, but not much in France. In Spain, we are seeing quite a variety of van conversions, which are always fun to spot.