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Living out of a van – is it worth it?

by | Mar 16, 2017 | Drive, New Zealand | 2 comments

We’re now almost a month into our New Zealand roadtrip and our latest stint living out of a van.

It’s not exactly our first rodeo.  We lived out of a car in Alaska, a people carrier masquerading as a camper van in Oregon and tent camped through Australia to save cash.

Our current ride is a four door Nissan mini van with a mattress platform built into the back.  We’ve named him Nigel.  This seems appropriate whenever he’s panting dejectedly up one of New Zealand’s many hills, though he does occasionally surprise us with a sexy little gravel slide on the unpaved sections.

What Nigel really has going in his favour is that come rain, snow, sleet or gale force winds, he provides a mostly dry and relatively warm place to sleep.

This luxury comes at the cost of sleeping with a jumble of hiking backpacks, dirty laundry and unread paperbacks for company.  As possessions slowly migrate out of their allotted space, we’re as likely to wake up clutching a dry bag full of camera gear as one another.

This is cosy and kind of romantic for a while.  But when Terry’s post-Kepler Track boots made their way into the equation, things started to become decidedly foisty.

And that’s a polite description, by the way.  Those things smell like a possum has crawled under the sleeping platform and died there.

Every week or so, one of us will ask the other how much they’re loving life.  Is this greatly anticipated leg of our trip living up to expectations?  How badly are the sandflies doing your head in?  Is van life still fun, or are you secretly starting to hate it?

Well.

Hate is a strong word, no?  But there are definite pros and cons to this kind of travel.  On a good day, the pros include total freedom, waking up in the middle of nowhere with no one else for company and eating breakfast while a friendly South Island Robin pecks sandflies off your feet.

But a bad day can mean dealing with overcrowded campsites, seriously nasty drop toilets and cooking in the pouring rain.

Par for the course, you might say.  And you’d be right.  But maybe you’re considering whether living out of a van is for you.  Or maybe you just want to know how we’re getting on with it.

So here’s my two cents on whether living out of a van is really all it’s cracked up to be.

Personal Space

This was the number one reason I wanted a van for our New Zealand roadtrip.  Honestly, I was sick of dorms.  I didn’t want to share my sleeping space with strangers anymore. 

I didn’t want to pay a lot of money for the privilege of listening to someone I wasn’t married to snore while I stared at the bunk above me resisting the urge to leap out of bed and throttle them.

We couldn’t afford private rooms, so a van was the next best option.

For us, anyway.

I’m sure there are plenty of folks who would prefer having communal space to laze around in and a bed that they didn’t have to crawl into.  A real kitchen, perhaps, and showers on demand.

Personally, I prefer to have less space and for that space to be absolutely, exclusively mine.  Or ours, anyway.  I will happily subject myself to six weeks of getting dressed lying down to achieve that.

Of course, it helps that we spend most of our time outside.  At the beginning of the trip we had a few days blighted by rain and huge numbers of sandflies and that definitely made me question our choice.

In the end, those days were spent putting some miles down and cosying up in some lovely little cafes on route.

It would be nice to have a little more room of an evening.  I’d like to have a table to play travel monopoly at rather than scattering the pieces over a duvet.

But nine times out of ten, I’m happy to compromise on space.  It means I avoid strangers leaving their shit on my bed or packing their bags, loudly and inconsiderately, at four in the morning.

Freedom

Hitting the open road isn’t a new concept, but it’s definitely one that keeps us choosing to roadtrip country after country.

Exploring a new place unrestricted by public transport timetables and tour group itineraries is the absolute best.

Having your own wheels makes it easier to be spontaneous and to plan day by day.  Raining in Queenstown?  No biggy, let’s head down to the Catlins to swim with Hector dolphins instead.

In Alaska, it would have been almost impossible to explore very far without a van.  As for accommodation, we often slept miles away from the nearest campsite, let alone the nearest town.  Living out of a van for that month allowed us to explore further and experience more than we could have done otherwise.

Along with the actual freedom of driving wherever you want, whenever you want, is the less tangible feeling of freedom that this lifestyle affords you.

In my humble opinion, it doesn’t get much better than waking up and peering out at the sun rising over lakes and mountains.  Or drinking your coffee in the middle of a forest.  Or… well, you get the picture.

Of course, your level of actual ‘freedom’ will vary from country to country.

In New Zealand, freedom camping is strictly limited to self contained vehicles and there are zones where even they aren’t allowed.  Fortunately, there are plenty of beautiful DOC managed campsites to choose from.

In Alaska, you can just park up by the side of the road, though trail heads are usually a better bet.

While not every campsite is going to be a perfect idyl of getting back to nature, it’s a bloody good place to start.

We’re currently working on a post detailing the best campsite apps for the countries we’ve visited, so keep your eyes peeled.

Cost

Oh, those dollar dollar bills, y’all.

The truth is that money, or lack thereof, is what sees so many young backpackers buying or renting a vehicle to call home.

If you’re planning on roadtripping a country for an extended period of time, buying your own vehicle can be a great move.  You can sell it on again at the end of your trip and maybe even share costs with a friend or partner.

There are obvious pitfalls with this approach.  You will probably end up buying a vehicle from another traveller, who won’t necessarily have looked after it all that well.

Unexpected maintenance fees can be a real kick in the teeth and take a huge chunk out of your budget.

Terry has gone through whether it’s better to buy or rent a car (specifically in the USA) in detail, so head over if you’re unsure which option would be best for you.

The main thing to watch out for is that you’re not choosing this option just because it’s the cheapest.

Living out of a van is intense and often grimy.  If you don’t like the idea of it to begin with, chances are you’ll soon start resenting your decision.  You may also start resenting the person you’re travelling with, which is less than ideal.

Renting a van was the easiest way for us to roadtrip Newzealand as cheaply as possible.  But it was also something we wanted to do because we love exploring on our own terms and with our own wheels.

And we’ve done it before, so we knew what we were letting ourselves in for.

Living out of a van to save cash is only worth it if it doesn’t end up ruining your trip.  Try it out for a week or so first before you commit to it.

Ease

I like rain.  I like the sound of it on skylights and car windows.  Hiking in the rain is fine by me, as long as I can warm up afterwards.

I even like the feeling of being all snug and cosy in a tent while it rains.

What I definitely don’t like is taking a wet tent down.  Even worse is trying to put a tent up in bad weather.  Getting smacked in the face by a wet fly and wrestling the wind for poles is not the dream.

In Australia, we had a tent.  But even in Tasmania, it didn’t really rain that much.

In New Zealand, it rains a lot.  So we opted for the relative ease of living out of a van.

In our van, we can get dressed and wriggle into the front seats without even leaving the vehicle.  Waking up to the relentless pitter patter of water doesn’t cause a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Without the need to unroll sleeping bags or blow up sleeping pads, it takes us about two minutes of rearranging bags to get our van ready for bed.  We have a comfy mattress.  We even have a built in sink and grey water tank.

Because we sleep in our van, we can camp in carparks and on gravel.  We don’t have to worry about finding a ‘nice spot’ for a tent.  It doesn’t matter if the ground looks uncomfortable.

We’re a self contained van, which makes it even easier in New Zealand, because we can freedom camp in certain areas.

Driving a van for the first time may not be so easy.  You can ask the bollard Terry introduced Nigel to last week for more details on that.

So…is living out of a van worth it?

For us? At the moment? Yeah, I reckon it is.  I’d love to have rented a proper little camper with a fridge and a table.  But then I’d also love to go on a live aboard in the Galapagos and cruise Antarctica.

You can’t have it all.

But our little Nigel gives us freedom and convenience and adventure for a price that we are able to pay.  He keeps us cosy and he keeps us warm.

And so far, he’s taken us to all kinds of amazing places.


Have you ever spent time living out of a van? How did you find it? Tell us!

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2 Comments on "Living out of a van – is it worth it?"

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Mary Mayfield
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I think this looks like a wonderful way to travel and explore, though maybe I’m just seeing the romantic side of it, imagining it as some modern-day gypsy caravan. In reality I’m not sure how long I’d last in such cramped quarters.

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