I've lived in a van full-time for 3 years. Here are the 5 biggest downsides no one talks about.

I've lived in a van full-time for 3 years. Here are the 5 biggest downsides no one talks about.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Raychel Reimer, a van life content creator from Vancouver, Canada. It has been edited for length and clarity.
  • Raychel Reimer and her husband Nick live in their van full-time.
  • Everyday tasks can be exhausting, like getting a glass of clean water.
  • Though living in a van is cheaper than owning a home, there are still expenses that add up.

Back in 2018, my husband Nick and I traveled to Cambodia to teach English. At the time we were living out of our backpacks when I found van life videos on YouTube. I just remember thinking, wow, that would be such a cool way to travel.

It was a seed that was planted in our heads, and I knew when we came home, it was something we wanted to pursue. Then after arriving back home in Canada, we began to build out our van.

We loved the idea of being able to travel, and we knew it would allow us to cut down on the cost of living expenses.

To do it, we began to pick up seasonal jobs, including working in an office, house sitting, and working for a brick and mortar business. Then when we had enough money saved up, we left our jobs and hit the road.

Now that we've lived out of our van for three years, we've learned a lot along the way. Although we wouldn't trade van life for anything, here are five things you should know before trying it for yourself.

1. Everyday tasks can be exhausting

When you're staying in a house, and you want a glass of water, you just head over to the tap, where people usually have an endless supply.

Or, if you want to take a shower, you might do it without thinking. But, when you live in a van, you have to be more intentional.

You're always thinking about what you're doing next. For example, if your water tank is getting low, you have to

think about where you're going to refill it.

This also all changes by the geographic location you're in. Are you off grid? Are you close to the city? Can you fill up your water tank right away? Or, maybe you will have to wait. This all changes your consumption.

Things that are in the background for others, aren't in the background for us. You have to always think about how you're going to live, including how often you flush your toilet.

2. People often ask about how we use the toilet

We don't have a compost toilet in our van, as those are $1200. But, we do have a Dometic Portable Toilet.

You can think of it like a toilet with a holding tank. It holds everything in a small tank, but then you have to head to a sanitation dump station and manually dump it. You can find those at rest stops along the way, or sometimes when you get gas.

If you're thinking about van life, how you will use the toilet is something to consider.

3. There are expenses when it comes to van life

It might be a cheaper way to live, but there are still costs. First, you of course have your gas – and the cost will be determined by how much you drive.

But then, you have your car insurance, your oil changes, and another is a gym membership. While the gym might seem optional, that is where most who choose van life shower. For us, our breakdown looks like this:

  • RV insurance: $133 a month
  • Gym memberships: $45.00 a month
  • Laundromat: $15.00 a month
  • Gas: $800 a month
  • Groceries: $520 a month

Then there's the biggest expense, van breakdowns. Once we were on a trip through the USA, and ours broke when we were in San Diego. It was stressful, as we were quoted $3,000 which is $4,500 Canadian dollars. For us, it was a huge loss because it took our emergency fund.

When your van breaks down it is never fun. On top of that expense, you have to think, where am I going to stay? Getting a hotel unexpectedly definitely adds to your expenses.

With that said, when purchasing a van, you have to consider breakdowns. While you might want a unique van, it is better to get one with an easy to fix engine, this means one that any mechanic can fix.

We are lucky with ours. Since it's an ambulance conversion, it has the typical chevy engine. It's cheap to source and most mechanics can work on it.

4. There are a lot of social stigmas

There is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to sustaining van life.

We don't all have the same income, and we don't all have the same story. Some of us work remotely, some work a regular 9 to 5 job, and some live out of a van not to travel, but out of necessity.

We personally do seasonal work. We mainly take on house sitting assignments, and other summer jobs. For example, I work at a normal 9 to 5 office job. Then once we have enough saved up, we begin our travels. It's a process that we do again and again.

Many think, people who participate in van life don't work, or we don't have real jobs. While some who live in their vans might be rich, or have trust funds, that's not true for all of us. The social stigmas are very loud, but the truth is just like everyone else, we are all different.

5. We miss moments with our family

You have to put in a lot of work to maintain friendships and relationships. You have to make the time, and make the calls, in order to stay in touch.

Whether you do van life or you're nomadic, it can be hard missing birthdays, or being away from your family. We miss things like our nieces first steps, or other big moments just like that.

It's really important for us to message them, or facetime them, that way we can stay connected.

Thankfully, we have also made many friends on the road, who live a very similar lifestyle to us. Since we're all on wheels, we often meet up with each other, and we can usually do it within a matter of days.

It's not all bad

Although van life has downsides, there are many positives, too. We love being a part of the van life community and we would not trade van life for the high cost of living in Vancouver.

There is location freedom, but there's also financial freedom, too. We don't have to make a lot of money — our summer jobs and house-sitting gigs pay for our travel. The best part is we don't drown in bills trying to pay rent. Instead, we get to go wherever we want to go, whenever we want to go.

We always tell people, if you have the urge to do it and you can, you should try it. The experience is challenging, but it's also a rewarding one.

If you have a fun, unique home and would like to share your story, email Alyshia Hull at [email protected].

Correction: July 19, 2023 — An earlier version of this story misstated the relationship between Rachel Reimer and Nick. Nick is Reimer's husband, not boyfriend.

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