Recently I was able to spend a month living out of my very full SUV as I traveled back to my home province from a nursing contract in BC.  While I have lived out of a vehicle before, this time was a little different. My SUV was full to the brim with 3 months worth of belongings, which left the option to either unload everything at night to sleep in the vehicle or pitch a tent, regardless of the weather.  I usually went for the tenting option.  It was a crazy month filled with learning, laughter, some mistakes, and a truckload of memories. Compiled is a list of nine lessons that were learned while living life on the road.

Lesson 1: Organization is Key

My most valued possessions during this trip were my rubbermaid bins.  These bins kept my belongings organized and made it easy to move things in and out of the vehicle if need be. When the weather wasn’t great, I had the option to put my belongings outside and sleep in the vehicle without worrying about everything getting wet or dirty.  It also made packing a breeze. I was able to organize my bins so I could have dry goods in one, kitchen supplies in another, clothes in another, etc. Bins are a must-have for unorganized people like myself.

Lesson 2: Personal Hygiene

Where does one shower or shave with no running water or facilities? Thankfully, there are apps to find such facilities. My experiences ranged from free (very cold by the end of summer) outdoor showers at the beach to paying $2 for a 5 minute (warm) shower. Usually, rec buildings will have showers for a low cost.

As far as bathroom facilities, taking opportunities to use outhouses at parks, or restrooms at restaurants, grocery stores, or gas stations is a good way to go.  If absolutely necessary, and there are no washrooms nearby, remember to dig a hole if going number 2 and bury it. Pack out any toilet paper or tissues used. Or better yet, just pack it all out with you and throw it in the garbage.

Lesson 3: Since we’re on the topic of water

  • Dishes

I sometimes washed dishes at a beach that had an outdoor tap, or I got water from natural springs to use. Just be careful to not contaminate rivers, streams, and lakes with dish soap. Using a small bin to wash dishes in is a great option.

Talking to locals or getting an app to find water for washing dishes or drinking is the best way to go.  Not all water coming out of a tap is drinking water, so be aware of that. Watch for signs that warn against using the water for drinking.

  • Drinking water

One of the best investments for water is to get a water filtration device. They can range in price but are around $50 and up from MEC.  Also available at many other stores. These will make your life SO much easier as you can get water from streams and rivers without having to worry about boiling it.  

Lesson 4: Coolers or Fridges

During this trip, I was able to get away with using a cooler. The big blocks of ice usually lasted about 3 days. I was able to buy meat and other produce when I went shopping, as long as I knew I was going to be able to use it in a few days.  There are some pretty cool options for fridges that are made for camping and van life purposes, including solar-powered fridges. However, it depends on what kind of budget you have, as they can get a little pricey. But definitely an investment to think about if you’re planning to vanlife long term.

Lesson 5: Meal planning will make you’re life and wallet happier

Ah, food. The highlight of the day. Nothing like enjoying food with friends.  However, it can get expensive, and hard to be creative, when you don’t have a full kitchen or fridge to work with.   That’s where meal planning comes in. I was able to use fresh ingredients for most meals, although with my cooler situation that meant going grocery shopping every few days.  Meal planning can actually help you become more creative, think outside the box, save money, and eat healthier.  I’ll cover this more in another blog post, but for now, just know that it IS possible to eat healthy, creatively, and on budget, even when living out of an SUV, car, or van.  

Lesson 6: Making new friends

This one is short and simple. Be open to meeting new people and having some really cool conversations! You’d be surprised at what you can learn and how you can connect with others while traveling around. 

Lesson 7: Have a plan, but be flexible

While on route, it’s good to plan where you want to go, where you’ll be at certain times, and what kind of sightseeing or activities you want to do.  This will help you be able to plan the details such as where you’re going to sleep and what you’re going to eat or where you’re going to go grocery shopping, etc.  But, sometimes, those plans just don’t work out. Maybe you ended up staying somewhere longer than expected. Maybe you got stuck in traffic, and now it’s midnight and you’re in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere and you don’t know where you’re going to sleep. Often those make for the best stories, even if it doesn’t feel funny at the time.  That being said, having backup plans along the way and being aware of the area you’re in is a good way to be able to navigate and make the most of your trip should any issues arise.

Lesson 8: Seek the advice and knowledge of locals

Locals hold a wealth of information. Besides the odd grumpy local who hates “those van lifers”, I found most people to be fairly friendly and open to chatting. They may not want to tell you their favourite “secret” camping spots in the area, but they usually will give some good ideas as to where you can camp, sights to see, good restaurants to eat at, where you can get water, or different events that are happening in the area.

Lesson 9: Learn to laugh at the misfortunes

This one is similar to lesson 7.  Sometimes, it’s just problem after problem. Things don’t always go right. Sometimes it means staying in a tent when it’s just rain, rain, and more rain in the weather forecast. Maybe it means changing locations sooner than expected due to unforseen circumstances or just needing a change of scenery. But there’s always something to learn. Usually the misfortunes of the road are actually quite comical, if given enough thought.

During my trip, I actually ended up having the opportunity to experience things I never would have, if things had gone exactly as planned. And it made for even more of an adventure!

Living life on the road is a way to escape the everyday nine to five and live a life of adventure and learn how to navigate without the “normal” comforts of life.  It can be challenging and rewarding. Often with enough memories (and pictures) to fill up multiple scrapbooks, if you’re into that sort of thing.  So what are you waiting for? Time to pack up, buckle up, and start exploring!