We started to see posts and pictures of people living/traveling in vans a few years ago. At first look, it did not look appealing. But after doing a few road trips in our small sedan, the van started to look better and better. Van life really started to look good after a couple of trips to North Texas and Colorado in the shoulder seasons, and it got really cold. We realized that a van would be a great way to travel, still have some room, and be able to escape some nasty weather. So the search was on for the van.
So would van life be a good fit for you? That really depends on what you want to do with it. It makes sense for us because we like to travel so much, but we also come back to a home base. We wanted a small space to be able to work from on the road and avoid paying for motels every time we needed to make a blog post. Being able to stay dry and comfortable during bad weather is also a huge bonus for us. We used to just bring our large Big Agnes tent and sleep in it. This was not the most fun on extended trips. Our small car was packed with camping and backpacking gear, and it felt like it was busting at the seams.
The Simple Van Life: VANilla
Just for clarification, we are not building a van to live in. We are building an adventure van. We did not want all of the knobs and whistles that an RV has. To be completely honest, building a van that costs as much as a small house is ridiculous in my mind. Running water, air conditioning, shower, and full kitchen are not what we were looking for in a van. Keeping the build simple was our goal. A simple build will keep the budget lower, and it will have fewer systems that require repairs.
Traveling to a destination, having space to store equipment, being able to do some blogging/photography work, and having a comfortable place to sleep were our priorities. Keeping the van size reasonable was another goal. Being able to stay in back-country sites and stealth camp in free parking would be a huge bonus. This is one of the reasons we decided to call our project van VANilla.
When we decided to get a van, our wants and needs were simple. It was not our goal to build a fancy van for the sake of taking fake Instagram photos of a model sitting topless drinking a cup of coffee with a dog on the edge of some fantasy location. We are not building a van for Instagram. We are building a functional van, and more importantly, we are building our van. We’re not paying someone to build our van for us. I have a huge advantage in that department, being that I know how to work on cars and already have the tools to do so. If you decide to build your own, this is something to consider. Tools can be expensive. We are trying to build a reliable van on a small budget, so we are taking advantage and doing most of our own work.
A Small Space
Being in a van for an extended time is going to be a challenge for someone who is not used to it. Going from a tent to a van will be a major upgrade and will afford us a better chance to work while traveling, actually letting us take longer trips. We did choose to have a high-top van, so we could stand up inside and make the bed higher. This offers more storage under it while keeping the wheelbase shorter.
Our goal is to not have a shower in the van. We are planning on visiting some campgrounds that will have shower facilities. Places like the YMCA and truck stops offer showers. Another popular option is buying a membership to a nationwide chain fitness club. 24-hour fitness is very popular because you can also sleep in the parking lot while you are there. When we do not have access to showers every day, we will simply use a washcloth or Epic wipes to clean up.
Cooking in the van will be something different too. We will have a very small stove installed, so we will have to keep our meals simple. The Yeti cooler that we already own will be utilized to keep anything that we need to cool for a couple of days. Again, we wanted to keep the build as simple as possible. We will still be mobile enough that we will be able to have fresh fruits and vegetables on hand. Water will be stored in 5-gallon jugs.
Let There Be Light
Striking a balance between simplicity and functionality was the reason we chose to install a 200-watt solar system in VANilla. Having enough power to charge our laptops, phone, and cameras, as well as run a vent fan, was a critical component.
The inside of VANilla will be lit by some small LED lights that will require very little power to run. We do not envision being in the van for days on end or having a dinner party, so keeping the lighting system simple was a no-brainer. Four small lights and a dimmer switch is all we are installing.
The charging system is hands down the most complicated system in the van build. Making sure that our batteries always get charged was a priority. We will be using a 30 amp hook up that was pre-wired when be bought the van and an isolator switch to charge from the alternator. The solar panels will allow us to charge in multiple ways.
Is Van Life for You?
Only you can say. Take some time and consider your goals. Taking on a van project can take a lot of time, effort, and money. If you want to take the leap, we hope to see you back here as we build our VANilla adventure van.