Conservatively, we’ve published about a thousand articles on different flavors of van life. In the snow. Chasing surf and mountain faces. Everywhere. But until I got married, shipped out of my apartment, and voluntarily became (temporarily) homeless with my new wife, it was all abstract. Just a swirl of Instagram photos, glorious editorials, and video memoirs crafted to inspire wanderlust and likes spiked with jealousy. And that’s all I knew of it. I had no personal experience with the matter. Good friend and Senior Editor Alex Haro artfully documented his stint as a van resident and painted a vivid picture of a liberating, yet gritty existence. There’s a reality every van-dwelling human must confront during time living on wheels, and that knowledge can only be earned by doing it. Some revelations are obvious headslappers. Others more discreet. Here are thirteen lessons I learned living in a van with my wife and our dog that hopefully might help you if you’re considering a similar adventure. Without hesitation, I’d say it’s worth it. It was a really special experience, and I hope we make time to do it again in the future.
1. Pick the right van. We scored. We used Outdoorsy (who, in full transparency, hooked us up for this journey big time). Outdoorsy is essentially Airbnb for campervans, so there’s a giant selection of vehicle owners renting out their wares, and we tried to pick out a vehicle that offered everything we thought we might need. We wanted a shower, a bed, a toilet, and as many kitchen features as we could afford without smashing our budget. The Roadtrek Simplicity had all of those things. We discovered later that we found some features more valuable than others, but that’s something you only learn by living in a van. More on that later.
2. Back to the van selection process. I have to add that Calvin, the fellow who owns the Roadtrek Simplicity, had to be one of the nicest humans I’ve ever interacted with. He literally drove the van to our door ON CHRISTMAS EVE, all smiles. He gave us a pretty thorough rundown of how to operate the vehicle and even provided us with a generator free of charge. Our weather forecast looked a little cloudy, which he thought might impact the solar-powered accessories on the vehicle. What a good dude. His generosity and personal touch further motivated us to take the best care we possibly could of his vehicle. I also realized that the quick primer he gave us at the outset was essential. Aside from a Uhaul, I hadn’t ever operated a vehicle like that before, and with all the switches and gadgets and the camper van’s 19-foot mass, I felt like I was in a little over my head. Calvin allayed most of those concerns. And if we ever had questions along the way, he’d text us within a minute. We need more Calvins in the world.
3. California State Parks are a treasure. Literally. We spent a lot of time in them. Here’s a list of where we stayed, in order of which ones we enjoyed most. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so good about the appropriation of my tax dollars. I will gladly support California State Parks. They democratize access to nature in a profound way:
Kirk Creek in Big Sur: Kirk Creek is the nicest campground I’ve ever stayed at. It’s also the first place my wife and I ever spent a weekend together as a couple back in 2014. It’s got a multimillion-dollar view, and any time spent in Big Sur is time well spent. The place is majestic. Raw elevation collides with the Pacific. It makes me feel small, which I am. And I like that.
Sunset Beach in Watsonville: This was a spontaneous wildcard, a pleasant surprise. We decided to trek north out of Big Sur, and wound up here on a whim. I got to surf (completely alone) out front, which honestly was a little eerie, but the campground was spacious and clean and a totally new experience for us. It even had spotty wi-fi, and we sinfully put the Roadtrek Simplicity’s TV to the test. We had an Apple TV stashed from our move-out, and we watched a Netflix special all cuddled up one night.
Jalama: Another gem. It was the middle of winter – a day before New Year’s Eve, but it was PACKED. The surf was huge. I didn’t have a step-up handy (and honestly would have been a bit intimidated to paddle out solo in surf that large), so I watched some mysto chargers score epic waves at sunrise. I got a Jalama Burger, fries, and I felt lucky.
Carpinteria State Beach: We got married down the street in Santa Barbara, and Rincon is an exit away, so this is just generally a special area for us. We may have witnessed the most beautiful sunset of our lives during our time at Carpinteria. And there’s a brewery and all sorts of charming restaurants nearby, so if you want to indulge in a rad beach town, this is a great place.
Montana de Oro in San Luis Obispo. I want to explore here more. We were only here for a quick night, so we didn’t get to appreciate this place as much as the others. We’ll be back.
Yes, we ranked these, but they are ALL amazing. You can not go wrong at any of these places.
4. Make sure your belongings are secure before moving. We thought we were so smart. Stocked the fridge chock full of beer and food before heading out, and within six minutes of beginning our journey, we had cracked beer bottles spilled across the vehicle. Nevermind that Calvin literally told us, “A camper van is basically a small house going through an earthquake at all times.” Yes, it is. Everything wants to open when you drive. Drawers, cabinets, etc… You are in a moving vehicle. Consider how your things are stored before moving. We didn’t stock the fridge full of glass bottles before moving again. That’s a lesson thankfully we only needed to learn one time.
5. Use the bathroom sparingly. This is obvious. Calvin told us this, and we did. “Whatever you leave in there, you take with you.” The note echoed in my mind, so we made a point to reserve the toilet for #1 only. But not sparingly enough. About seven days into the trip, a rotten smell surfaced, and it demanded our attention. At that point, with the help of a very generous RV expert at Jalama, I got acquainted with how to empty a black tank into the sewer. It’s kind of a rite of passage, and one of the less glamorous, but very real parts of living in a van. It also made me realize, you don’t need a bathroom on your vehicle. Especially if you’re staying at campgrounds. Just use theirs. As Calvin said, you don’t need to take it with you.
6. Bring your dog. Calvin is one of those rad camper van owners who subscribes to the ethos: “What fun is camping if you can’t bring your dog?” So Harper, our 8-pound Yorkie, joined the adventure. In our apartment, she’s typically a distant, I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T woman. But when we take her into freezing cold nature, she becomes a cuddle bug. She becomes more dog-like, her true self. She curled up in the cozy back of the van with us each night, and we felt like a little family. That was nice.
7. Bring water. One of the best calls we made was bringing a full five-gallon jug of water. We didn’t even have to think about hydration the whole trip. Just poured it into Klean Kanteens each day, and we were good. That was huge.
8. Blankets. It got cold at night. We had a Kelty Double Wide Sleeping bag, a gaggle of blankets and pillows, and an 8-pound Yorkie. Bring those things. We slept well.
9. Level ground is your friend. One of those things you don’t appreciate ’til it’s too late. Try to sleep at a 45-degree angle from the ground. It. Is. Hard. Pick a level spot to park. Or get those cool gadgets that go under the tires to level it out.
10. We had grand ambitions to eat like kings on this journey. After all, we had a sick camper van with a stove and sink and all. But when it came down to it, boxed soup from Trader Joe’s and Ramen was the jam. It was very cold out, so soup was the answer. And peanut butter and jelly.
11. There’s a van club! You know how when you see an eighteen-wheeler, you can yank an imaginary horn, and you often get a friendly honk back? Well…everyone in camper vans tosses out a friendly wave to fellow vanlifers on the road. Just like truckers. That was cool. We did a lot of waving while twisting through Big Sur.
12. Freedom. The first few nights, all the cliches about a liberated existence on wheels felt very real. We had everything we needed within a hundred square feed and million-dollar views available at the drop of a hat. As abstract as that reality may feel as a voyeur sifting through humble brag social posts, it’s a powerful realization when the wheel is between your hands. This is obvious, but we could go anywhere, anytime with minimal friction, and that’s an intoxicating feeling.
13. One hundred square feet. Living quarters are tight. So pack only what you need, obviously. One feature we appreciated about the Roadtrek is that the driver and passenger seats swivel to create a dining area, so our tiny home felt nicely segmented with a dining room, kitchen, and bedroom. In such tight spaces, we began to better understand the things we really, actually use and need. Turns out it’s not much. And if/when a squabble might surface, after all, two people – even newlyweds – are prone to minor disagreements when sharing 100 square feet for twelve days, it’s a nice tool to focus on what’s important: being together and enjoying that journey to new, beautiful places.
If you’re looking for a camper van or RV, Outdoorsy has a great selection. And if you’re in proximity to Calvin and looking at a Class B vehicle like the Simplicity Roadtrek, you’d be hard-pressed to find a nicer dude with a solid vehicle. Happy travels.