I Lived #Vanlife for One Month and This Is What I Learned

Earlier this year, I left my cushy job, snatched my things out of my stylish studio apartment and shoved them into a storage unit, and excitedly moved back in with with my folks while I built out a van.

There’s a lot that lead up to this decision, which you can read more about here, but since there’s a lot of ground to cover, I’ll just say that I felt incredibly stalled in life and knew that I had to make some big changes in order to get my gears moving again.

The plan was pretty loose but my goals were clear:

  1. Do something that I never done before
  2. Travel to places that I had always wanted to travel to but hadn’t
  3. Challenge myself in new and uncomfortable ways

It’s important to note that the van wasn’t even in my plan originally. I was going to make the 10,000+ mile journey in my Honda Accord Coupe, which would have provided unique challenges, but was too limiting in the end. If I had gone that route, I would have had to make reservations for pretty much every night of the trip, which was the complete opposite of what I wanted to do. I wanted to fly fast and loose — no ticking timeline, which meant certainly no reservations.

Reservations are limiting. They are there to provide certainty — to combat the cruelty of randomness and shield you from life’s many jabs. I knew that by leaving behind everything comfortable in my life I was throwing certainty out of the window, so I vowed to make as few reservations as possible.

My family had an old cargo van that had been used to transport motorcycles and occasionally camp in, but the interior was rot with dust and grime. The second row seat that served as a bed had wire that was threatening to poke through the cushion and into my skin. My Dad offered to help with building it out properly so that we could all make better use of it, and I jumped at the chance.

Within a month, it had a basic buildout that enabled me to travel in the way that I desired to travel. I’d be able to camp in remote areas, eat when no restaurants are around, and relieve myself without proper plumbing.

Within the first few days on the road, it was apparent to me that this way of traveling was unlike any other. I had taken long road trips, but they were always linear. There had been a Point A and Point B and all of my stops along the way were carefully curated. When I began this trip, I hadn’t even mapped half of it. For someone as careful and meticulous as I am, this came as a shock, but for some reason, I was okay with planning as I went. I felt that as long as I had shelter, food, and the adrenaline of the road, I’d be ok.

It took a while to adjust. The majority of my first week was spent acclimating to my new routine. I’d wake up (usually shaking from the cold), find the nearest cafe, and spend the rest of the morning carving my route. At night, I’d sink into my sleeping bag with a book or whatever I had downloaded from Netflix and let my mind drift until the sun set and my eyelids closed. This might have been one of the biggest surprises of all: routine follows you everywhere.

When I pictured life on the road in my head, I pictured a life free of routine. Sure, there would be coffee at cafes and dirty dishes and laundry, but the daily routine as I knew it would cease to exist out there. What I found is that routine follows you everywhere, but just takes a different shape. I was thankful to have routine too. If it weren’t for my routine, I would have often been paralyzed by the number of decisions that had to be made each minute, and decisions demanded a lot of my time and brainpower.

It’s funny. When you have few constraints, it opens you up to a new problem: the paradox of choice. The paradox of choice is heightened while on the road. If you’re not familiar with the term, it essentially means that if you’re faced with too many options, it becomes more difficult to make a decision. This is a harsh, often overlooked part of this lifestyle. When you look a map and you can go anywhere, where do you go? This is usually when we refer to our bucket lists to help us narrow it down.

I limited myself to the Southwestern corner of the US, which was helpful in eliminating options, but gave me thousands of others. I’m not the best at making quick choices. I like to take my time and choose the best option, but I often didn’t have that luxury while on the move. It was a real test in decision making, but it did strengthen my confidence in making them.

I can’t write this article without addressing the elephant in the room: the stigma of #vanlife. Overcoming the stigma and what other people think of you is never easy, but it’s heightened when you chose a lifestyle that is highly criticized and often mocked. I understand why, too. It’s not lost on anyone. Influencer culture may have brought and old and not-so-dreamy lifestyle to the limelight, but they did so in a way that wasn’t totally realistic or honest. In the early years of the #vanlife movement, Influencers posted the photos that were glossy and beautiful and didn’t show the ways in which living on the road is gloomy, lonely, or challenging. They made the lifestyle feel glamourous.

Living out of a van is NEVER glamourous.

It certainly has its pros — you can wake up in a location that many only dream of, but you are still met with the challenge of living in a space that is no bigger than 60 square feet. It feels like your dishes get dirtier faster and you have to hike (sometimes a long freaking way) to find a restroom. You still suffer from boredom and burnout. Every morning that you wake up on top of a mountain, you wake up in a valley (speaking both metaphorically and literally). It equals out in a way that is both surprising and predictable.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Living life out on the road in this way has changed me. It’s challenged me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined and taught me lessons that I didn’t think to learn. That’s why the majority of us are out here. Not to take the best picture that will get the most likes or make anyone jealous, but to do something we’ve never done, travel to places we’ve never traveled to before, and challenge ourselves in uncomfortable ways. If that’s your aim too, I’d suggest getting out there in whatever you have.

You’ll learn a hell of lot and have a hell of a time doing it.

As always, thanks for reading. If you’d like to hear more my thoughts on travel, please consider following me here and subscribing to the email list.

**Oh, and I’ve just found out that you can clap for a story more than once, so if this really resonated with you, don’t be afraid to be generous with those hands :)**




Person, Writer, Photographer, Adventurer, & Pursuer of Things Unknown.

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Mason Thurman

Mason Thurman

Person, Writer, Photographer, Adventurer, & Pursuer of Things Unknown.

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