How to Live Out of Your Van for Five Months: A Rough Rundown to Living on the Road

Dreaming about van life but unsure where to start? Check out this guide from Camping & Hiking Expert Elle Matthews to learn more and hit the road!

An orange van drives in a red rock canyon.

Photo by Dino Reichmuth

When I lost my three jobs due to the pandemic, I asked my boyfriend at the time — what do you think about rebuilding your broken-down van and going on a four-corners tour of America? Three days later, he said yes! And after just three months, we’re gone! See you in another six months and fifteen-thousand miles.

“Gizmo,” the ’85 Toyota van, broke down halfway through, so we bought “Arusha,” a GMC one-ton with an extended roof. Her engine blew three hundred miles from home and we finished our trip towing our van behind us. We dropped her off where we started it all, in the back of the parking lot where my boyfriend worked. Since then, I spent a Colorado winter in the broken-down GMC van and a Florida summer with my two dogs in my ’99 Astro. I have no interest in changing my lifestyle. Maybe after I explain how and why I do what I do, you (and my mom) will better understand that success is more than living comfortably all the time.

Living in a van for five months really is a huge accomplishment. So when you do it, please share some of your favorite stories, even though it feels impossible to describe! There’s a lot that can happen in just one day on the road. It turns living in a van into a series of experiences that creates rapid personal growth—the ups and downs, the breakdowns, the fixes and the people who helped, the places you wanted to stay at forever, and the ones you couldn’t wait to leave, the campfires and the songs sung by new friends, and the strange wildlife — all the highs and lows of the journey are worth it. And the simplest answer to how it’s done? You just do it. And it looks different for everyone.

The Van Build

The author's van parked next to a large body of water.

Photo by Elle Matthews

In my opinion, having your basic needs met is plenty enough to have an enjoyable five months while living out of your van. Don’t get stuck worrying about the perfect van and the perfect build. Obviously, you can spend a lot of time building up your van to be super comfy and cozy, but setting up the essentials can be simple! I’m not going to go heavy into detail about setting up a luxury van. If you spend forever getting ready, when will you begin? And how many more adventures will I have gone on without you!

Electricity and Power

One of the easiest routes you can take when it comes to having a power source would be to own a portable power generator. These can be charged through a carport, wall outlet, or solar panels. After that, solar panels are my preferred choice and a great learning opportunity! With consistent power, you can use your van experience as a chance to pick up a new set of skills, and with the help of a community and creativity, you can earn yourself a little more gas money.

Going back to solar, let me tell you about the light of my life, Luci. Everyone should want a girl like her. I used to blow her up and now she just strings me along — do yourself a favor and get Luci Solar String Lights. She’ll bring a nice vibe inside or outside, and I bet if you don’t start your trip off with a light to hang outside your rig at night, you’ll end up with one! I’ll always choose Luci.

Temperature Control

Insulate! A simple yet effective way to keep the heat in or out is by sizing a roll of reflective insulation over the windows. You can secure it more permanently with tape if you want, but I prefer to use Velcro or magnets so I can still look outside. In the winter, I use a propane heater — it’ll get nice and toasty, real fast. Just be careful of fires!

And don’t forget to bring a fan; airflow in a small space is premium. You’ll be surprised how far a little college-sized fan will go. When I was stuck in Florida this past summer, I grabbed a free air-conditioning unit and ran an extension cord next door from where I was parked. Then I used cam straps to secure the unit to my passenger-side window and temporarily put up some cardboard to cover any openings. We were ice cold. Do what you’ve got to do with whatever resources you have, as you can always improve and redo things along the way!

Occasional-Use Items

Be prepared to repair. You’ll have mechanical issues, you’ll have to tinker with design flaws, and a lot of times, a leak will show up. It’s more common than people think it is. So bring tools! Prepare for fixes, have a fire extinguisher, pack light, but bring the fun. Don’t leave behind all the things you love! There’s room for bikes, boards, ropes, and yoga mats — whatever you’re into. There are also packable/inflatable roof racks available to use, so there is no need to drill more holes into the roof. Cam and ratchet straps will hold anything down.

Everyday Stuff

The everyday things you’ll need are pretty obvious. Forget the Costco membership, only bring a couple of dishes, put away your “special-occasion” clothes, and don’t forget your toothbrush. Unless you can power a mini-fridge, draining and refilling your cooler with fresh ice will be a normal part of your day. In my opinion, Yeti still carries the crown for best cooler and Coleman is the king of stoves.

I personally enjoyed the adventure of bringing along my own five-gallon water jug and asking around for fresh water, but Primo is a freshwater exchange that you can find in many retail stores. It’s probably the easier option, too. When you have to pee, pee outside as often as possible. The only times I didn’t love it were nights when I slept in parking lots, until I got a She-Wee for Christmas (shoutout to my sister!). Ladies, look into it. Your life will never be the same once you can pee into a bottle.

Other key items are bug spray, citronella, a camp chair, and a table. A big perk about van life is being so close to the outdoors. It’s a pleasant interaction between the home and outdoors, almost naturally encouraging you to engage with the outside world. That being said, you’ll be wanting a rug, a tiny broom, or a portable vacuum. You’ll use it every day and all the time to brush the dirt off the bed, sweep the dirt you’ve tracked in, and send it back outside! It’s just science, dirt accumulates quickly in small spaces.

Your Next Adventure

A man sits on a rock and strums a guitar with his van parked in the background.

Photo by Elle Matthew

Your Next Adventure

This is the moment where it’s easy to get nervous and find reasons to never actually see what it’s like to live out of a van. There are a lot of ways to go about the van build and there are a lot of ways you can live out of a van — choose what’s right for you.

Start small if that’s what it takes. Sleep in your driveway, backyard, your friend’s yard, a nearby campground, or a church parking lot! Whatever’s clever. Think about spending your first month near home base, but still get yourself ready for bigger trips in the meantime. Wrap it up with your work, make as much as you can, see the money that would’ve gone toward rent sit in your account, and see where that money can now take you.

When you go big, don’t go home. Drive across the country, move out of state, move every day, or move every couple of weeks. If you give up and go home, how will you move forward from how far you’ve already come? You can’t create relationships, connections, or a better understanding of what life could be like in a new area by getting a free place to stay and free food from Mommy in your hometown. Make it work!

Please don’t make excuses not to try it. No matter where you are in life right now, you can make this happen. Take a hiatus from what you’ve been doing and try something different. I was lucky that my partner went along with my big ideas, and I’ve had friends who entertain the same! Make a bet with yourself, or with someone else, if that’s the motivation you need. For my most recent giant leap across the country, I intentionally made my last day of work to be April 3, 2021 (4/3/21); it was my countdown. I needed it because I wasn’t feeling 100% ready but I knew it was what my spirit needed me to do. So I took a deep breath and I left. I’ve used every single one of these following tools along the way.

A view of the desert from inside the author's van.

Photo by Elle Matthews

Finding Cheap / Free Places to Sleep (Short- and Long-Term)

  • iOverlander and freecampsites.net: Enter your location and boom, you’ll see hundreds of free and cheap places you can park your van that are provided by fellow travelers! These websites are my go-to resources when I am constantly moving. These options are great, and you can finally leave Walmart parking lots behind as your last resort. You should look at both of these sites as you’ll run into some small hiccups, and make sure to check out the reviews so you have an idea of what you’re driving into. Some sites are tough to access without four-wheel drive, some are noisy, and some are reported to be a little unsafe. “No overnight parking” signs are being posted in places where it didn’t used to be that way, but there are a lot of gems you can find, I promise! It’s incredibly rewarding when you find a quiet, beautiful little spot that is completely free for you to use for the night.
  • Hipcamp: Hipcamp is a website and an app where people advertise an open space on their land that is available for you to camp. The nightly rates vary, but there are a lot of really great priced options here! Before you book, you can directly message the property owners and that is how I got myself set up where I am today!

Financial Creativity and Community

  • Use local Facebook groups as a way to advertise some of your skills. I’ve been successful in picking up dog-walking and dog-sitting jobs, cleaning boats, campers, and houses, installing window tints, and landscaping. If you float around the same area for a while, you could go as far as starting your own business! But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Posting in local Facebook groups is an awesome way to pick up work without being tied down to it.
  • Work Campers is a Facebook group that posts campground jobs available all over the United States. Similar to what I’ve organized with Hipcamp, it’s a way to work a little for free rent.
  • Be a regular somewhere. It’s my go-to advice when you’re new to an area. People begin to recognize you and all of a sudden, you’re making new friends and acquaintances, work connections, and hopefully snagging some free coffee. You can be successful by paying attention to these fine details.
  • Skip the gym, and go to church. Instead of paying for a gym membership or those unusually expensive truck stops to take a nice shower, check in with churches in the area! I used to get a free shower every Thursday, plus free warm food and a free load of laundry.

Honestly, you already have everything you need. Trust what’s within you now, and be open to realizing the depths of yourself. Make the jump! Look around at the world in front of you, and use the resources it is offering to help you along your journey. And don’t forget to give a wave or a head nod to passing van travelers!

If you have any questions or want to get geared up for a big adventure, reach out to a Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations.

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Written By
Hello explorers and adventure seekers, my name's Elle (pronounced like the letter 'L') ​ I grew up in the midwest and knew I wanted nothing more than to be outside. So, I sold my car and used all that money to buy my backpacking equipment. I'd go on extended trips, weekend getaways, I'd even pop a t...

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