I met Lynelle last year over coffee. We talked vans, yoga and adventuring. I watched as she and her boyfriend prepared to live on the road for a year and continued to follow their journey as they set out in September 2016. I interviewed them back in August and was captivated by their amazing van with 4WD that they built out beautifully. I was envious of their traveling lifestyle. But things are not always as they seem. When they returned back to Denver four months later, I asked her why their trip ended so quickly.
Vanlife isn't for everyone, and it can be difficult to admit that in a community that feels the opposite. But I think it's important to share both sides of the story.
My boyfriend, Matt, and I spent four months and nearly $8,000 building out the tiny home on wheels of our dreams.
We sold nearly all of our belongings, quit our jobs and moved into our beloved van full time. We craved simplicity, freedom and adventure.
What we experienced was nearly the opposite.
I think the biggest draw to vanlife is the total feeling of freedom to explore over land. When home is where you park it, the entire country can be your backyard. Right?
When we hit the road, we dreamed of spending every night falling asleep under the stars, with an epic view out the back windows to awake to. But more times than not, we spent our nights urban camping.
Usually that meant Walmart parking lots, street parking and rest areas—a far cry from waking up in the bosom of Mother Nature as we had intended. We found that many state and national parks only offer paid camping, and even with resources like freecampsites.net, dispersed camping was sparse. Finding safe, free parking had to be addressed in the daylight, so usually by the end of lunch, we were already plotting where to spend the night. It took the spontaneity out of “the freedom of the road” and fueled my anxiety.
The best way to avoid the search for parking every night was to pick somewhere to stay for a few days/weeks. In our situation, we hit bad, unseasonable weather everywhere we went.
We had been on the road for two months and hadn’t spent more than one night anywhere, except for a Walmart parking lot (they’re just so easy!). If I could do it all over again, I’d move into the van in the spring and do most of my exploring in the summer. Fall is beautiful, obviously, but you start to hit cold, wet weather. Our van sprung a new leak every time it rained, so our options became the beach or the desert. And, being mountain people, it was hard for us to muster excitement for those options.
It’s not that we missed having electricity or television or showering every day (just kidding, I totally missed showering), it’s the things like doing the dishes, exercising, caring for our cat and getting a good night’s sleep that felt exponentially more difficult. I was so excited to escape the chores of apartment life. I thought moving into a van would mean a significant decline in cleaning and more time for activities. But rather than doing chores once a day, we were doing them every couple of hours. They took longer and were way more of a pain. For me, doing the dishes without a consistent source of running water was the worst, especially when we were cooking three times a day.
One of the hardest parts of vanlife for me was the fact that my ability to exercise was so dependent upon the weather. There were so many days where all we did was drive and sleep. We chose vanlife because it seemed like it would be easy to prioritize our health when we weren’t having to allocate time and resources to things like rent, work, etc. But we both felt like our health took a hit when we moved into the van.
We did cook nearly all of our meals, rather than dining out, but neither of us moved our bodies as much as we wanted to. I thought we’d spend our days hiking, doing yoga outside, climbing rocks and reading books in hammocks, but rarely did the weather cooperate.
We were so excited to be free from the 9-to-5 grind. But not working in any capacity made us feel like total freeloaders. I felt bad every time I asked to fill up water at the gas station or took too long in the bathroom because I had to brush my teeth and sneakily wash our dishes. We became solely consumers and we felt like we weren’t offering anything back to society or the environment (especially with the amount of gas we were using). That felt weird and wrong for me. I think if I’d had a job I could travel with, I would have had more of a sense of purpose.
I still can’t believe we lived in a van with our cat. It started out bleak. He would shake and pant, but after a week, he totally settled into the lifestyle and just slept all day while we were driving. However, that meant that we were on opposite sleep schedules as our cat, so we never got a night of uninterrupted sleep. When one member of your family is awake in your 60-square-foot home, you can hear every single thing they are doing—eating, shitting, pawing at your sleeping bag, puking. The other thing about traveling with your pet is that unless they go everywhere with you, you’re going to have to leave them alone in the van. We were afraid that we wouldn’t ever feel comfortable taking any long day trips climbing or hiking, or even overnight backpacking trips—activities we thought would make up the bulk of our vanlife experience.
We have so many fond and ridiculous memories from our trip, but the fun for us didn’t feel sustainable. Our motto had been to continue on until the fun or the funds ran out, and they both felt like they were dwindling fast. So we drove back to Denver and signed a short-term lease until we figured out our next adventure.
We are so privileged to have had this opportunity and the one that comes next. And we are so grateful that we get the freedom to choose, even when that means making the wrong choice sometimes.
Did you try vanlife and it wasn't for you? Share your experiences in the comments below.
Follow Lynelle & Matt of A Life on Land
Produced by Kathleen Morton.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to Lynelle Fowler.