10 Tips For Getting Started in Vanlife
*This getting started in vanlife blog post is a collaboration.
If you’re thinking about getting started in Vanlife, or dream about life on the open road, this blog post is for you. I bought my camper van, a Vauxhall Movano, nearly two years ago and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. That’s not to say it hasn’t been a learning curve to own a van. Camper van life has been idealised over the last few years, with pictures of lust-worthy vans with beautiful owners dominating Instagram’s feed. New vanlife festivals have cropped up all over the UK. But real vanlife is so more than just a pretty aesthetic, it’s challenging and can be an expensive investment. It’s important that before you make the jump to buying a van of your own, that you have a real understanding of what vanlife is actually like.
Before getting started in vanlife myself, I did countless hours of research and reading. I talked to other vanlifers and asked questions so I could gradually piece together some knowledge about this brand new world. Everything I learned along the way made me fall in love with this lifestyle even more. So when an amazing opportunity came up to purchase my dream camper van for a great price, I knew I was making the right decision. It was still terrifying to invest so much money, but I had a good feeling and knew I was making the right decision. So I wanted to write this blog post to share what I’ve learned and to help you on your own vanlife journey.
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10 Tips For Getting Started in Vanlife
Try vanlife out before committing to your own camper van
Before getting started in vanlife, I had already been lucky enough to experience it in both Australia and Europe. I knew I already loved this outdoor lifestyle and way of life, so it was an easy decision to invest. If you’ve always liked the idea of van living, but haven’t yet experienced it. Why not hire a motorhome of your own?
Yescapa is Europe’s largest camper van sharing platform with over 10,000 vehicles to choose from. Camper sharing means that camper vans that aren’t in use all year round and often sit on the driveway unused can provide an income for owners. Those who have always wanted to try the lifestyle can hire a camper van and explore Europe. It’s a great way of experiencing vanlife part-time or to help decide whether to buy a van. It’s a more sustainable way to approach vanlife that benefits everyone.
Build your camper van around your lifestyle
Are you planning to live full-time in your van or will you save it for weekend trips? Will you be a summer vanlifer or an all year round road tripper? You might need to think about extra warmth during the colder months. For those who plan to work from their camper vans or go off-roading or even live off-grid. It’s important to think about all of these factors when buying and designing your camper van. I really recommend hiring a van before you buy because it will help answer so many questions you might have.
It’s really hard to know until you actually live in a van what your vanlife must-haves and deal breakers are. For instance, I knew I wanted a van I could stand up in because I planned to long-term road trip. I know how annoying the lower roofed vehicles can be. When it comes to designing the layout of your van – think about what is most important to you. Do you prefer a fixed bed or a lounge area to work in? So many things to consider but the clearer picture you have before you build, the better.
Make sure you check insurance, tax and repair costs
No-one wants to invest in a camper van then get a nasty shock when it comes to the running costs. Having a van is definitely a large price increase on having a car. So it’s important to research insurance costs and tax for your potential vehicle. It’s also worth looking at different types of vans, recurring problems that have been found with different makes and costs for fixing these.
No-one wants to think in worst case scenarios, but the truth is when you’re buying a van it’s often second, third or even fourth hand. So you need to think about the van’s MOT history and anticipate when your vehicle might require larger scale upgrades – even tyres! I spend around £1,000 per year on my van – this includes insurance, MOT and tax. It doesn’t include additional service costs and any things that need fixing, or the addition of any features.
Think about camper van toilets before getting started in Vanlife
One of the less talked about elements of vanlife – but we’ve all gotta go to the bathroom. The question is – where do you plan to do it? Do you actually need – or want – a toilet in your camper van? Is it worth the investment and will you actually use it? All questions you need to ask yourself before getting started in vanlife. When I bought my camper van, it actually came with a portable toilet which was just stored under the bed and had never been used. It’s now two years on and I’ve still never used it despite living in my van for months and taking regular weekend trips.
If you are planning to live in your van full time, I can see how they would be super helpful. However, I personally haven’t felt the need has ever outweighed the thought of having to empty it. Everywhere I have been in the camper van, there has been lots of public toilets, campsites with showers and toilets, and if worse came to worse, I’m always down for a nature wee. If that sounds okay to you, perhaps it’s not worth investing in a toilet. But if you think it’s a non-negotiable when getting started in vanlife, start thinking about camper van toilet options.
First time vanlifers – Invest in your van electrics and plumbing
I cannot stress this enough – focus on your electrics and plumbing from the beginning of your build. It makes it more complicated to add these later on when the structure of your van is already in place. Be realistic about what electrics you will need in your van and whether you need to invest in an inverter or leisure battery. I have a leisure battery which charges from solar and also when I drive. I now use USB sockets for charging my laptop, camera, fridge. My lights are hooked up to the leisure battery. It’s all straightforward and I’ve yet to run out of power despite never plugging in.
It’s worth thinking about your kitchen & sink set-up and whether you want these inside or prefer to cook outside. I prefer a gas stove & bbq to use outside the van and while I have an electric pump set-up in the van, I don’t tend to use it. Make sure you get your electrics done by a professional – a lot of van insurers are starting to look at gas & electrics in vans and self-done vans naturally hold more risk.
Maximise storage when designing your camper van
I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH. Whether you live in your camper van, or just travel part-time, when getting started in vanlife it’s super important to maximise every storage opportunity. Trust me, you’ll thank me later. I bought my van with the intention of solo van life, since my partner has come along there is twice as much stuff to fit in the van. It really helps to have a higher fixed bed to maximise the storage space below, while also having storage benches as seating, and top cupboards above the kitchen and bed.
Every van is different as it is styled around your lifestyle, but it pays off later on to really think about how you want to store larger items. Even things like clothes & kitchen items need to be stored well so that your van doesn’t feel cluttered. I love that my van has a place for everything and always has lots of extra storage so if I need more, I have it ready to go!
Have realistic expectations about Vanlife & expect slow living
Getting started in vanlife means being real about what vanlife actually is. It’s not all beautiful views, open space and Instagram aesthetics. Sometimes it’s sand everywhere (I mean everywhere!). It’s emptying the toilet and washing up in the rain. Or parking on an industrial estate because there’s no campsites.
I think it is really important to be realistic about how much longer everything takes when you live in a van. You’re constantly cleaning and things like laundry are a day’s activity. There’s a lot of what I like to call van-admin – things like filling up water, topping up tyres, cleaning your solar panels. Vanlife really does encourage slower living, which is a huge benefit. However, it is to know when getting started in vanlife as this lifestyle may not be for you.
Do you need a sustainable off-grid camper van?
Investing in a more sustainable camper van suitable for off-grid living was the best vanlife decision I have made. My van came with solar panels which didn’t work. I decided to add a new leisure battery which would work off the solar but also recharge when I drove the van. It’s meant I have never once had to plug in and have lived for months without needing campsites. While it was a bigger investment upfront, it has meant saving a LOT of money on campsites and facilities. Now I use free camping spots and have access to everything I need wherever I go. It’s also amazing for working while you travel – which I’ll cover in the next section.
Make your van digital nomad-friendly
If you work online, or while you travel, it’s super important to design your van to suit your working needs. One big thing is having an endless supply of power as mentioned above – a great way to do this is through solar and a leisure battery. Think about internet access and the best way for you to manage this while travelling. When I was getting started in vanlife, I was working in digital marketing while I travelled. I needed unlimited access to the internet at all times. I used a Vodafone Unlimited SIM and found this helpful for getting signal wherever I went. It was even good enough for regular Zoom/Teams calls and uploading large video files.
Also think about the space you want to work in – are you happy working from your bed? Do you need a shady outdoor set-up or would you prefer a lounge/office area in your van? Create a space you love to work in and you’ll have cracked digital nomad vanlife.
Take advantage of free camping, free showers & water points to save money
Setting up my sustainable off-grid camper van showed how little I relied on external facilities such as campsites, toilets, showers and water points. It was a great way to save money when getting started in vanlife. But, also to gain the freedom to camp and explore wherever I wanted. I started to use an app called Park4Night which has become invaluable for locating free spots to camp. It also helps with access to free facilities such as public toilets, showers and water points. Or find free spots at pubs where you can spend the night and paid campsites where you can plug in. It’s an absolute must for any vanlifer!