I failed at van life after a month. Here are 6 of the worst mistakes I made.
I wanted to adventure and explore the outdoors, so I moved to New Zealand and bought a van.
I didn't research enough about cars or purchasing a van beforehand.
Don't tailor your life around the van, but rather choose an option that already fits your needs.
In college, my life revolved around the library, so by the time I graduated, I couldn't imagine spending my days holed up in a cubicle. I yearned for adventure and the great outdoors.
So I decided to spend a year traveling around New Zealand on a working holiday visa. It sounded like exactly what I needed: rugged mountain peaks, clear ocean waters, and no offices in sight.
I had never seriously considered van life, but it seemed like the perfect way to explore at my own pace. Infatuated by images of little vans surrounded by vast, sweeping landscapes, I decided to buy one.
Several thousands of dollars and an embarrassingly short time later, I found myself on a plane back to the US. Here are six of the worst mistakes I made.
I didn't know anything about cars
If you want to live out of a van and you're not a car person, prepare to become one.
Vans are expensive — even a bare-bones one will cost you much more than a car of the same age and mileage. So you're probably looking at something less glamorous and more prone to catastrophic failure.
To minimize your chances of buying a lemon, do your research beforehand. Knowing what problems to look out for and the typical costs of repairs will help when you're first evaluating vans to buy and when something eventually breaks down.
This sounds obvious, but my partner and I did little research before buying our van. We knew enough to learn to watch out for aged cam belts — a costly part to repair that's prone to failure in older vehicles — but not what one looked like.
We checked out a van without any documentation of whether its cam belt had been recently replaced but were satisfied when its owner popped the hood and showed us what looked like a sparkling new one. Weeks later, we realized he'd actually shown us the fan belt.
I didn't realize that the outdoors would make its way in
I didn't feel like I had a true inside to retreat to, because the outdoors always made its way in.
When it was cold outside, it was chilly in the van. When it was wet, we would drag the water in with us. I forgot what it was like to be able to truly separate myself from the environment.
Our van also had cockroaches. Although I've dealt with bugs and mice before, each pest had been unpleasant in its own right but I always had somewhere to get away from them.
In the van, they were always looming over me — they were where I cooked and slept, accompanying me as stowaways everywhere I went.
I wanted the van to be my home, but I didn't know how to make it into one
I had spent hours scrolling through images of #VanLife, admiring one cute cozy van after another. But I really didn't like the way ours looked and didn't want to be too heavily associated with it.
Determined to adjust the exterior, I purchased spray paint but never opened a single can since I quickly grew so apathetic toward the van that I saw no need to improve it.
I didn't have the energy since just the basic maintenance wore me out.
I thought that I would only have to get the van set up once, but it turned out to be a never-ending work in progress. The curtains consistently fell down, the water frequently leaked, and the insulation was always insufficient.
The truth is that being out in the open 24/7, constantly being driven from one city or town to the next, and sustaining the life activities of two individuals is really hard on a vehicle. I didn't realize how much upkeep our van would require just to be livable.
If you're truly living out of your van, there probably isn't much room left once you've crammed in the necessities, so you have to get creative and dedicate serious time to make the inside feel nice.
I tried to adapt my lifestyle to the van, rather than adapting the van to my lifestyle
Once I bought my van, my life didn't drastically change to become more compatible with the lifestyle.
Van life won't change your preferences. If you like regular showers now, you'll still want them when you're living out of a vehicle.
Consider the possible things you can and can't live without, like a reliable toilet and shower, blackout curtains, storage, and living space.
If you're uncomfortable with the idea of your bedroom being in the middle of a Walmart parking lot, you're not going to feel any better when you roll into town and find that's your only option.
I let all of the issues get to me, big and small
The van and its management took up more mental energy than I expected. My entire lifestyle revolved around keeping it in a state of sufficient harmony, cleanliness, and mechanical operation.
I became preoccupied with every small thing that went wrong, whether significant or superficial.
Rather than a trusted friend to take me on my adventures, the van became a reluctant chaperone.
I purchased the van in a rush
This was the most egregious mistake I made. I had set up a Workaway — an arrangement where we would work in exchange for food and a place to park our van — starting a day and a half after we landed in New Zealand.
When I was planning things out, it didn't seem like a problem since I could look at vans that people were selling on Facebook and for-sale sites, but I couldn't tell if they'd actually run from thousands of miles away.
The day after we landed in Auckland, we made our way to a used-car sale on a big lot, where travelers from all over congregated to pass off their overpriced vans.
We didn't have New Zealand bank accounts or mailing addresses and had not prepared for making a large financial transaction in a foreign country, let alone within mere days of arrival.
We pushed our Workaway start date back a day and didn't want to again, so I desperately messaged people on Facebook and sale sites, looking for whoever would sell me a van in the least amount of time.
We checked out a van in the dark after less than two full days in the area. I had made a list of the specific models I was most interested in and the features I wanted, and even though this option fit very few of these specifications, I was so desperate to buy something that I didn't care.
I created many justifications about how this van was actually great — it was a little cheaper than some others we'd seen and had a funky look — and took a blind leap of faith.
I've since learned that some leaps are best replaced with small, safe baby steps.
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