My van won’t get any likes on Instagram, but it keeps me safe when I sleep at night and gives me a way to get from my job to the surf. It’s a beat-up minivan that goes relatively unnoticed, modified into a home with things that I pulled from my folks’ garage. That there are wetsuits hanging inside it while sarongs and bikinis obstruct the view of the interior, simply makes me look like a grom-mom.
This is just the start of listing off all the realities born of the true vanlife. Your vehicle is now your home, not just your vehicle. And these are the sometimes harsh, sometimes comical, often unexpected products of that reality.
1. There’s high value of a low value vehicle.
If you want to fly under the radar, get something inconspicuous. Older camper vans make you look like a hobo, newer camper vans make you look like someone worth stealing from. Instead, modify a workman’s panel van or make-do in a soccer mom van. This has three benefits: it’s heaps cheaper, you’re not obvious to complaining neighbors or bored cops, and you’re not a target to other street-savvy types who know that you have something good in that $30,000 Sprinter van.
2. Ain’t no dishwasher (or any other convenient electric appliances)
If you have a good kitchen set-up you can ignore most of this. But for the rest of us without electricity or a sink cooking is often not worth it. You’ll devote a lot of territory and energy into creating a culinary space and you’ll have to find a place to clean up after you cook, which can be harder than you’d imagine (carrying dirty dishes, soap and a sponge into a business bathroom isn’t exactly stealthy). Often it will cost you so much in time, modifications and tiny appliances that you’d have been better off just hitting up a café. The best bet is to keep it simple: fruit, protein-shake materials, small boxes of almond milk, and a few cans of soup that you’re not above eating cold.
If you want to set your conversion up with electricity — especially if you’re planning full-time, extended life in your vehicle — it’s certainly doable. Prepare to do some hole-drilling and welding; plasma cutters are good options to start with. Adding power involves some permanent and invasive modifications. You have two major options: working off your car battery or utilizing a power bank. Additionally, you can make use of propane gas.
Your car battery is designed to startup your engine and nothing more. It isn’t suited for running major electrical needs and you risk depleting it of its limited yet essential life if you put too much strain on it. The following options are cheap and quick solutions to drawing power but you should leave your car running to protect the battery life. You can draw power through the cigarette lighter to do some basic things like charge your phone or laptop. There are even a variety of coolers, immersion wand heaters, electric kettles and hot pots designed to plug directly in to the cigarette lighter. Additionally, you can get a low watt inverter that will convert the power so that you can plug in low-power-using household electronics.
Deep cycle, or “house,” batteries are intended to be drained and recharged regularly and, even with the strains of daily vanlife use, will last you 18-24 months. You’ll still need an inverter to change the battery’s 12V DC into 110V AC, but you don’t need to run your vehicle’s engine and waste gas.
Finally, you can avoid the complexities of an electrical system altogether by using propane gas. With it you can cook, heat water, power a heater and even a refrigerator. It’s a wonderful option and not too expensive but propane also poses a health risk if there’s a leak. It’s recommended to install a carbon monoxide detector and you’ll need to store the tank in a ventilated compartment or on the vehicle’s exterior inside a welded-on and lockable box. There are some highway and tunnel restrictions in certain states due to a fear of propane explosions, so be aware that you may occasionally have to adjust your route.
3. You’re going to need bungees. So many bungees.
Organization is essential in a small space. you can go crazy when you lose something in an area that you can barely turn around in (I once misplaced my chapstick and proceeded to lose my mind over the next hour while trying to find it). Whether you have your hands on a stripped down blank space or you’re working around an existing, non-dwelling intended interior, you’re going to want to build upwards. Utilizing vertical space is essential but it also means your stuff has to be secured, or every time you take a turn you’ll be spilling personal belongings everywhere. Expect all of your great storage ideas to fail and keep bungees on hand; you’ll be glad you have them.