Note: in 2015, I moved into a van — like a lot of people have done before and since. I’ve posted various versions of this list on social media, though this one is the complete living document that houses them all.
After 6 months:
- The single most important aspect of traveling long term in a vehicle is having a comfortable place to sleep.
- People as a whole are simultaneously much cooler in general, and occasionally also much more fucked in the face, than a settled familiarity might have you believe.
- Unscented baby wipes, while not entirely sustainable/earth friendly, are one of those industrial world things I am not going to give up. When dried out, they make great firestarters. Also: ALWAYS keep your extra napkins.
- A spray bottle of water within reach is a godsend when you live in a van with no amenities or air conditioning, and are a great substitute for running-water showering. When it’s extra hot, like when I was working outdoors in Austin Texas in the dead of summer, adding about 20% alcohol to a bottle of water makes the cooling effect more pronounced.
- Trapping a sweatshirt in a rolled up window and driving around a bit does, in fact, do wonders for getting rid of the smell of campfire smoke from ones clothing.
- A tiny bottle of lightly scented hand sanitizer works great for smelly arm pits between spraybottle showers, and has allowed me to use cancer stick deodorant very sparingly, generally only during ‘that time’ of the month when even two showers a day wouldn’t fend off the pitfunk.
- Keep every zip-lock bag that comes with anything you buy. Not only are they absolutely essential to making your first human poop pickup a bearable experience by giving you a method of hermetically sealing the doobag until you find a trash can somewhere, they are great for stinkyfood trash, storage, and keeping things dry in your ice chest.
- Have an ice chest/cooler.
- Keep grocery bags, too. They are good for trash, the aforementioned poop scooping incident, and also keeping the neverending trickle of things you realize you don’t actually need/want to give away organized.
- If you are penilely challenged, get yourself a pstyle. Changed my entire world.
- Thermos. You need one. Make it a good one.
- The dead of night is the best time to get shit done. Also night shift waitresses in 24 hour diners really appreciate people who are not being drunk assholes and sometimes offer to fill your thermos with road coffee for you.
- Hiking pack > Rolling suitcase.
- Grocery store > Fast food.
- Wherever you go, there you are.
After 1.5 years:
- Spraying swampy sockfeet with 90% isopropyl at the end of a night means you have fresh socks to put away in the morning after they’ve dried. Actually, a spray bottle of hefty alcohol is pretty much a must. I use it to clean my cookware, sanitize my pstyle, clean my greasy phone, and on and on.
- Chicken noodle soup in a pot, heat to simmer, kill the flame, sprinkle some dehydrated mashed taters, stir, cover, wait a bit. Bam. Cheap, salty, satisfying comfort roadfood in about 5 minutes.
- The little touches (for me: having a few flavors of artisan bitters, keeping spices around, hand-rolling cigarettes, having a zippo filled and at the ready, stocking a bar of excellent dark chocolate), add an immense polish to an otherwise pretty grungy, simple life. Oh, and if you’re gonna bother with it at all, always buy the expensive beef jerky. Don’t skimp on the tortillas, either – they are a great staple and can be used to wrap up damn near anything, but not if they tear and taste like cardboard smeared with dog shit.
- Relatively-full, mid-range hotel parking lots (Days Inn, La Quinta) are excellent places to park for a night, especially if you roll in nice and late; and these hotel parking lots are usually a little less interrogation-room lit than truck stops or Walmarts — which both tend to have birds trying to get laid at all hours of the night from the lights being so fucking bright.
- These sorts of hotels are also excellent places to refill water jugs, camp shower bags (also a must), and bottles — A lot of them have outside spigots for the maid service workers. Same for ice — many hotels with outdoor room access also have ice machines that are outside.
- AAA is a requirement, and completely, 150% worth every penny. I’ve used it at least twice a year since I left, from towing to running out of gas on the highway. I will ride without insurance before I will ride without AAA. Seriously; don’t even fuck around with not having it.
- Vanlife costs money. Bella Stinkbutt is now at 210k miles (from 180k when I got her), and all told in gas, repairs, maintenance, towing, insurance, registration — has cost roughly $.40c a mile. She has gotten anywhere from 11 to 14mpg highway in the time I have had her, and been towed so many times from breaking down on me I’ve lost count. This is not a cheap life. Far from it. Don’t let the trust fund couples in their reliable $60k rigs fool you. It costs money no matter what way you go.
- Speaking of the #vanlife social media complex and their $60k rigs, one of the big lessons I’ve learned after doing this for a while is how fucking lonely the hard times are when you don’t know anyone else who is doing it. When I am stranded in bumfuck with a blood curdling estimate while already in thousands on emergency credit, I don’t have any pals to talk to who will actually understand what going through that in your house with all your shit is like. I suggest doing a better job than I have of networking with other itinerant people, and establishing a support network of others in similar situations.
- It’s true what they say, about travel and prejudice. Having spent most of my adult life in the charmed self righteous liberal mecca bubble of Seattle, I had a lot of notions about the midwest and the south. Those few notions I still hold have taken on a much different shape than they once did, and there is context to them I didn’t have before. Hit the road with humility and openness. Everybody’s looking for something.
After 2 years:
- You don’t need all the crap you think you need even after you’ve thought long and hard about all the crap you think you need so give yourself the room to shed that crap you think you need as you grow into familiarity with your new life. Though I ebb and flow in terms of belongings, I have about half of what I started my first trip with, and a good portion of it was valuable currency for another traveler.
- Overhead storage (as well as towing) affects gas mileage a lot. Make sure you actually need whatever you’re throwing up on your roof – including the container/rack itself.
- Even if you don’t think you want to learn the mechanics of your rig, unless you have money to throw at every silly problem you encounter, you will end up learning the mechanics of your rig. I now largely change my own brakes, oil, and most fluids whenever I am visiting a friend with a garage, change my own flat tires, and recently repaired a spewing coolant hose leak myself in a driveway (for about $40) — not only is it saving me money, it’s significantly reduced my overall stress to have prioritized learning my rig over time. What was at first a huge scary monster of a machine is something I have no qualms about hoodpopping and figuring out.
- Having a bike or other form of transportation is essential to having an actual sense of a home base, vs. diving a big lumbering vehicle full of all your shit everywhere you go, not to mention super handy in an emergency
- Bikes are useless without air in the tires, and sometimes the problem with the main rig is electrical. Similarly, those fancy USB charged battery jump starters are small and light and flashy, but they don’t do shit for you if they’re out of juice or otherwise malfunctioning — have simple versions of basic tools that will work without modern amenities as backup.
After 3 years:
- Don’t skip that national gym membership. I did this for my first two years because, frankly, I couldn’t afford it. But through the slow incremental growth of my patron base, and a particularly welcoming experience at Anytime Fitness in Ocean Springs Mississippi when I called (on the edge of my sanity and desperately needing a fucking shower), I finally took the plunge. Jumping on random shower opportunities, needing warm enough weather to use my camp shower, or spending $10 a pop at truck stops worked, I guess — but this is better. Infinitely better. Not only do I move more again, my gym has wireless, showers, is open 24/7 — hell, I am updating this post from an AF in Fort Walton Beach Florida as we speak. I managed without it, but now that I have this, I use it a ton, and it helps me to feel grounded even though I’m bouncing all over the place.
- #kneepads. On the subject of movement, one of the major issues I have with vanlife is that I can’t stand upright in my rig. This is a major problem for me as I’m a homebody, and I stay inside a lot, hunch over instruments and art supplies a lot, and have a 16+ year circus aerial career under my belt, which includes a lot of old injuries. At nearly 40 years old, and in a rig that is comprised of milk crates and lots of moving parts that I have to twist and stoop weirdly to tetris around to get anything done, a good pair of knee pads are instrumental in keeping my back healthy.
- Two words: Dumpster diving. Gone are the days when I dumpster dived the AT&T store to swipe pairs to plug into my Oki, however, you can’t even fucking imagine what stores like Walmart throw away. Look for perishable food especially in places where it’s cold as a witches titty outside.
- I pee in an old plastic 5 liter oil jug. I like it because it looks inconspicuous in the van, has a liquid level indicator, and is rugged af. But peeing into anything successively gets gross, fast. To curb this, I put a little bit of liquid laundry detergent — which I keep in a poweraid bottle at the bottom of my laundry bag, and which is an absolute mix tape of small amounts of liquid soap from every pal who’s let me do laundry at their house over the last 3 years — into the pee jug. On first pee, I add about a tablespoon of laundry detergent and shake. Helps a lot!