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My boyfriend and I live in a 1989 Ford Econoline in a fairly large city on the West Coast. We didn’t know anything about vans before we moved into one, but we have learned a ton over the past two years.
Vancognito is a website where we can share the knowledge we’ve accumulated along the way with you. We will share tips and tricks, as well as certain life hacks we’ve picked up along the way.
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Is the thought of living the rest of your life having to worry about every penny of your paycheck going to bills keeping you up at night? Do you see those get rich quick schemes and think.
I could totally do what he’s doing and make a killing!
Only to be disappointed when it doesn’t quite work out, and you’re left to continue the daily grind.
What if I told you I had a way to escape all that madness, and you could be free?
And you don’t have to buy anything, you could just start doing it.
My boyfriend and I are in our late 30’s, and while most people our age are buying homes and settling down, we have decided to forgo all of that, and live in a van full-time stealth camping.
If you are researching this lifestyle then you’ve surely been inundated with picturesque Instagram accounts showing beautiful people traveling to amazing locations while in their vans.
That is not us.
We are just two regular people with 9-5 jobs, probably just like you. You wouldn’t know it to look at us, but at the end of our day we don’t go back to an overly expensive apartment in the city, we go back to our tiny home on wheels.
Types of Vehicle Living
I think most people when first considering full-time vehicle living, are drawn to RVs. The great thing about RV living is it’s not too much different from apartment life. Depending on the model, they usually come with a bed, a bathroom (complete with a shower and a toilet), and a full kitchen. Basically, you’re living in a small apartment on the road.
This is great in theory, but you’ll find out right away that most towns are very strict about on-street RV parking. In our neck of the woods, on street RVs are synonymous with homeless people and drug use.
We have a problem with certain parts of town attracting multitudes of beat up RVs covered in tarps. Not only does it not look nice for the neighborhood (property values go way down), but it’s also unsafe for anyone wanting to spend time outside in their yards.
This is why the nicer neighborhoods that you really want to park in, will kick you out immediately if you roll up in an RV.
2. Converted School Buses
Converted school buses are another popular option for those of us who live on the road. They are usually cheap to buy, very spacious, and easy to live in. I find that it’s usually more families with kids that tend to live in school buses.
The issue here is with how easy it is to stealth park. Big school buses tend to attract attention, and that’s something you don’t want when trying to park discreetly. It gets old quickly when the cops are banging on your windows every night threatening you with tickets or worse, arrest.
People who are paying upwards of three hundred and fifty thousand dollars for a nice house in the suburbs WILL call the cops on the nice young family parked in front of their house in a school bus.
I hate to say this, but if the town can’t collect property taxes from you, then you are basically public enemy #1. That’s why I think the safest bet when it comes to stealth parking is to live in a nonflashy van.
3. Van Life
Our current rig is a 1989 Ford Econoline. We purchased it about two years ago from a guy that used to drive it up and down the west coast chasing waves and sleeping wherever. He had already done most of the interior work so we were ready to go.
He had installed a small propane powered camp stove inside as well as a gravity sink for hand washing. He set up a bed in back with plenty of storage underneath, and a swivel TV so he could sit outside by a campfire and watch movies.
Last but not least, he installed really thick daylight blocking curtains. Not only does it keep daylight out, but more importantly, it keeps your interior light in. That is VERY important when you’re stealth camping in a populated area. Nothing says “Hey, I’m sleeping in a van tonight” like the glow from your laptop being visible to everyone.
Vans are very common vehicles, you see them every day. They don’t stand out like RVs or school buses and are very easy to park on side streets discreetly, which is why they are my top pick for a vehicle living situation.
What are the benefits of van life?
Well, it’s simple, we have all the freedom in the world and no house payments. In our city, rental prices for a studio apartment START at $1,300 a month.
Think about it, the average American makes about 45k a year. That translates into a rough take-home amount of $3,100 per month. So if you subtract $1,300 from your starting $3,100 that leaves you with $1,800. That doesn’t sound too shabby until you factor in ALL THE OTHER EXPENSES.
This is what an average American Pays per month:
Health Insurance -$321
Student Loan Payment -$203
Car Payment -$400
Car Insurance -$105
Cell Phone -$60
That leaves you with an average 201 dollars…a month. $50.25 leftover a week for entertainment, car repairs, doctor’s co-pays, and saving for retirement.
Living in a van gives you the freedom to save all that money from rent (or mortgage), electricity, and water/sewer/trash.
To the average American, that’s a savings of $1,533 per month.
That $1,533 is HUGE! If you just plopped that money into a savings account, at the end of the year you would have $18,000!
So you can see, van living will save you a ton of money and give you a bit of a respite from the paycheck to paycheck life.
What are the drawbacks of van life?
Living this life has its ups and downs. Some of the drawbacks are:
Not having access to a private bathroom- If you’re living alone in a van, this won’t be a problem at all. Fortunately, I live with my boyfriend. During the day, I can use the bathroom at work, but in the middle of the night when nature calls, we get a little more intimate than most couples get to experience.
Finding safe, quiet parking- This is a big one. The spot you park in needs to be quiet enough to sleep in but populated enough to not call suspicion to your van being parked there overnight. There is a method to this that I will go into further depth on in another post.
Stigma- Depending on who you are, this could be a big one. Believe it or not, I was not the one to decide on the van life. My boyfriend was a huge factor in the decision. He was renting a house and the owner decided to sell, so he was basically left stranded. I was living in a windowless basement in a house with five other people, for $700 a month. He ended up suggesting van life one day and I immediately turned him down. “That’s for weirdos!” I thought to myself, but after doing more research I decided to give it a try.
Power Sources- If you’re like most people, you have a fair amount of electronics that you’re attached to. Van life doesn’t mean having to give that up! There are so many options available to you when it comes to charging and using your devices. The easiest one is to just charge whatever you need to while you’re at work. Another way is to get a small solar charger that you can place on the top of your van while parked to soak up the sun’s rays. We have a house battery hooked up that charges each time we drive the van. It’s fairly small, but we are able to charge everything we need while parked!
Food- Admittedly, we are still working on this one. As of now, we have a built-in ice chest, and a variety of smaller coolers if needed. Honestly, we rarely use them for perishables and just store dry goods in there. I am a chef, so I am very fortunate to have ample access to food all day every day. We have some dry goods around to snack on when needed, but we don’t spend a lot of time indoors cooking meals.
Cooking meals every day in the van creates another problem which leads me to my next point…
Stuff-Where to put it
As an adult, by now you have probably accumulated a fair amount of “stuff”. This can be anything from clothes and shoes to bigger things like that blender your aunt gave you for Christmas three years ago. Van life really makes you take a hard look at what you actually NEED to live, and what is just clutter.
I found out quickly that all of those fun food gadgets I owned, I’m a chef don’t forget, would not have a space in the van. We do have some cabinets and storage areas, but you would be surprised how little you can actually fit in there.
As of right now, I keep all of my items in a regularly sized storage bin that fits under the bed. And when I say “all” of my items, I mean it. Van life means paring down on the things you don’t need…like the giant closet full of clothes I had been accustomed to. Now, I keep just a few seasonal outfits around in the bin.
To supplement our space, we do rent a storage unit in town, but at this point, we are trying to get rid of that as well. It’s funny how not seeing your stuff constantly around you for a few months truly makes you understand how much you need versus what is just taking up space in your life.
You would be surprised at how easy it is to adapt to a simpler life once you actually try it.
The bathroom conundrum
There are a lot of things to say goodbye to for the sake of downsizing and living in a van, but a toilet is not one of them. If you have the money, they make small toilets that you can stash in your van that actually flush!
If you don’t have the money or space, there are tons of other solutions out there available to you besides the “creative” solutions other van lifers will tell you about in hushed tones.
We have a small portable setup which is basically a bucket with a toilet type lid on top. You just set the toilet up, and line it with bags, your specialty “toilet bags” and do your business when you need to right inside the bag, in comfort.
It is essential to have somewhere to go in the middle of the night. I’ll admit, I hardly ever use it, but on those few occasions where I’ve needed to, I have been so thankful to have a bathroom on deck.
For regular day-to-day bathroom excursions, we just try and use work as much as possible which is fine for us. For other people, it could be worth it to park somewhere that’s open 24 hours so you have access to a toilet whenever you need it.
Parking and safety
For parking options, there are lots of different factors to consider.
Do you need internet at night?
Do you need access to a toilet that is not inside your living quarters?
Do you keep odd hours?
If any of these situations apply to you, you might want to check with your local Walmart to see if they allow overnight parking for RVs. Most do, and it’s a great way to have access to a few small luxuries that you might not get otherwise.
The other reason Walmart could be the ideal situation for you is safety. Walmart parking lots are extremely well-lit, and there are usually cameras everywhere. This will deter most criminals from trying anything sketchy with your van. Just to be on the safe side though, we usually have pepper spray close at hand, as well as a very loud alarm that we can use.
If these situations don’t apply to you, or if you just don’t care, this is where the stealth aspect of parking comes in. If you stay respectful and quiet, you can park almost anywhere.
The key takeaway from this is to try not to be noticed.
Upkeep of your van exterior is another key in the stealth camping game. Maybe sure your vehicle looks well maintained and not like something that has been abandoned. If you have rust, fix it. If you don’t stand out as an eyesore, you’ll have better chances of being able to live quietly in the neighborhood without calling attention to yourself.
Keep your curtains drawn after dark, don’t play loud music, and don’t loiter just outside the van being creepy. Try to look like any other vehicle parked out overnight, change locations every couple of days, and 99% of the time you will have no problems at all.
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