Kathryn from Wandering Bird quit her job to explore Europe in a motorhome with her (bewildered) husband. Read here what she wished she knew before living in a Van.
Have you ever wanted to change everything about your life? You know, like sell your stuff, get rid of the house, quit your job, pack a bag and head off over the horizon?
What stopped you?
Common sense, right? Come on, it’s not like normal people actually DO that.
Hi. I’m Kat. Three years ago I quit my (well-paid and stable) job as a London air-traffic controller so that my husband and I could tour around Europe in a motorhome. Permanently.
This wasn’t a gap year. There was no ‘let’s see how it goes for a few months’. We jumped in with both feet, got a van, saved like crazy people for nearly a year, sold most of our stuff, and set off.
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That was in 2018, and life sure has been an adventure since then. There have been incredible highs and some much tougher times (you know, like a global pandemic and total lockdown!) But I wouldn’t change a thing (except for maybe that time our brakes failed as we were coming down a mountain…!)
I know living alternatively is not for everyone. But if, deep down, living in a van sounds like something you’d LOVE to try, here are 9 things I wish I’d known to expect- to help you be more prepared than I was!
1- How you live in a house is NOT how you live in a van
In a house, we were used to spending time seperately. And having separate rooms for different activities. My husband had his office, and his garage and his ‘man shed’. And I had a kitchen, dining room/ craft room, plus a spare room/ office/ gym/ dumping ground (oh, the luxury.)
But in the van, of course, you don’t have all this space. Depending on the layout of the van you buy, one space will have to do EVERYTHING. For all of you. At the same time.
We learnt very quickly that when my husband was working (luckily, he’s able to do 90% of his job remotely) he drove me NUTS if I had to sit next to him and listen to him on the phone loudly discussing computers and software and other things I don’t really understand. For hours.
So we learnt to adapt. I’d take the dog for a long (long!) walk whilst he got some work done, and he promised not to completely rewire the van or start messing with the internet whilst I was trying to watch the F1.
The point is to compromise. We were so used to doing things independently, in separate rooms, without even really thinking about it, that when we only had one space, especially on a raining day, it took time to find a rhythm which worked for us.
2- You will overpack. Massively
I hate to say it, but you do NOT need as much stuff as you think you do. I promise.
Case in point, when we first started living in a van, we carried four warm, snuggly blankets with us. FOUR. There were only two of us onboard!!
We have also carried a juicer, blender, hand whisk and cake tins. None of which we have used.
I’m not saying YOU shouldn’t carry all these things. If you juice every day or bake cakes regularly, then great (and can you come travel with me?!) but we don’t do those things. So we shouldn’t be carrying that stuff. Downsizing is hard, but living with clutter is harder. Be ruthless!
3- Vanlife will not make you healthier
Confession time. I thought living in a van would make me… better. I’d get up earlier, meditate for at least an hour, go for a 75 mile run before breakfast (which would be carrot sticks and fresh fruit) and within a week I’d be a stick thin model with blonde hair. Oh, and I’d be able to surf.
SPOILER- it didn’t happen. I do actually wake up early, because I have a dog, and walking at sunrise is one of my favorite things. But we travel in Europe. And have spent a lot of time motorhoming in Spain and France. Where there are croissants. And freshly baked pain. And pastries. So no to the stick-thin model (or the blonde hair!)
And I’ve tried surfing. Several times. I’ve also tried running. I’m not a natural at either, although one is definitely more fun than the other.
Living in a van doesn’t magically change YOU (or the people you travel with!) You will still be the same person, with the same likes or dislikes. As with anything, you have to work for change.
4- You will try to do too much
We’ve learnt that we have a tendency to plan too much driving – and we not enough sightseeing time. Within a few weeks, we were exhausted from traveling almost non-stop. So we now try to do one driving day and then one or two exploring days where we stay put or at least stay in the local area.
We’ve also learnt that things go smoother if we plan specific days for work and for fun. This is great, until you discover that the only sunny days that week are the days you designated as ‘work time’, so try to be flexible if you can.
And definitely plan some downtime, where you can just read a book or do jobs on the van or sunbathe on a beach.
5- Chores still need to be done (and they take up so much time!)
Sadly, living in a van doesn’t negate the need to do chores, like cleaning or the laundry. And they take a LOT longer when you need to go find a laundrette, or when you don’t have a powerful hoover with you.
On the plus side, it’s a much smaller space, so things get clean in a third of the time they might take in a house, so that’s a huge upside!
The van also needs regular maintenance to keep it in good shape. Don’t ignore this- it’s important to avoid breakdowns.
6- Family and friends will NOT understand your choices.
There are two types of people in the world. Those who cannot comprehend the idea of living in a small space, like a van or a boat… and those who plan, dream, save and hope to one day do exactly that!
My parents are firmly Type One. In their eyes, you should work hard, get good grades followed by a good job, buy a big house you can just barely afford, spend 40+ years paying off the mortgage and all the other debts, then eventually you get to retire and enjoy yourself.
To say my family and most of my friends were shocked by my choice to leave my career and downsize to a van is an understatement. In their world, I was far too young to be freeing myself from the shackles of responsibility.
I spent ages trying to explain my feelings- how I wanted to explore the world whilst I was young enough to enjoy it; how having a big house wasn’t the most important thing to me and how trapped I felt by the 9-5.
Eventually, I realised that this was MY life and it was ok for me to have different opinions and dreams than they do. To them, it made no sense to leave a secure job in search of freedom and adventure.
To me, it made no sense to stay. If you have relatives like that, expect some stormy waters for a while.
7- People become weirdly curious about your finances
In ‘normal life, you’re unlikely to ask strangers about their retirement plan. Or how they’re going to earn enough money. Or what happens if they get sick.
But, for some reason, living alternatively, especially if you’re travelling and not working a ‘real’ job makes people curious. VERY curious. And I don’t mean the people you meet on the road (they get it), but other people you might meet, like friends of your parents.
As a British girl, bought up not to talk about money, it can feel oddly intrusive having complete strangers asking about your financial situation. I’ll be honest, sometimes I’ll talk openly, other times I’ll shut it down.
I try to be much more open with anyone considering changing their own life- I remember how daunting the money aspect of leaving my job felt and how worried I was about making things work.
Also, before I left work, I never realised how much of our social identity is based on our jobs- or how often we ask that question as an ice-breaker when we first meet someone. Losing that was odd and it took me a while to find an answer which worked for me.
It’s also been fascinating to see how people interact in different social groups. Meet someone whilst on the road and they’re more likely to ask about where you’ve been and what modifications you’ve made to your vehicle, instead of what you do for work.
8- Too much freedom can feel overwhelming
Having said that, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that too much freedom can feel daunting. Being able to go anywhere and do pretty much anything, whenever you want to do it, can be overwhelming.
Since we’ve started, I’ve discovered that ‘wandering where the wind takes me’ doesn’t work for me. As ex-military, I need solid goals. Things to tick off a list. Places to visit and things to do.
Yet having the freedom of being able to stay somewhere we like for longer than we thought, or being able to detour if we hear about an event or festival taking place, is one of the best things about not having time-constraints (or having to be back at work on Monday morning!)
It’s definitely a balance and one we try to get right- between over-planning and allowing time to enjoy what life brings us.
9- The people you meet on the road will change your life
Talking of other vanlifers, you’ll immediately find yourself in an incredible community of like-minded adventurers. Anyone living in a van, whether short-term or full-time, has a certain way of looking at the world.
They will get your decision to change your life, or quit your job or take life by both hands and LIVE it.
We’ve had some wonderful nights around campfires, sharing beers and stories with total strangers. We’ve chatted with people from all over the world, even if they don’t speak the same language.
These are the people who inspire us to visit places we’ve never heard of and the people we love to stay in touch with and follow their adventures.
I know that changing your life is tough. There are a million reasons NOT to do it- most of them revolving around the known being less scary than the unknown and the ‘what ifs’.
We did a lot of research before we finally took the plunge. We knew how to budget, learnt to live on one wage and we’d already spent 15 years living on a boat, so we were used to living in a small space together. We thought we were prepared for anything.
The points above are the things which most took me by surprise, or things we’ve learned since. Some are good, some less so, but all contributed to this incredible adventure we’re on. I wouldn’t change our decision for anything, even with the troubles we faced in 2020.
I encourage anyone thinking about changing their life to go for it- really go for it. You only get one life and it could be the best decision you ever make.