#VanLife Lesson 3: The Trade-Offs


I didn’t make a list of pros and cons before I moved into my vehi­cle three years ago. I didn’t ana­lyze it for what I thought would be good things and bad things—I just thought I’d do it for a lit­tle while and see how it went. For the most part, I even­tu­al­ly fig­ured out what the good things and bad things were, and what I was miss­ing out on by liv­ing in a van (a refrig­er­a­tor and a show­er, for instance). Large­ly, it’s a very reward­ing way to live and trav­el, and when I ana­lyzed the trade-offs, they’re notable, but still worth it. Here are four of them:

1. Trade: Rou­tine for A New Place Every Day

We are crea­tures of habit, both bad and good habits. Rou­tine makes life eas­i­er in some ways—keeping our things orga­nized so we don’t have to search for them, eat­ing the same thing for break­fast every morn­ing so we don’t have to think so much about it, going to the gym on the same days every week to keep our­selves account­able (and healthy). Putting your life on the road com­plete­ly does away with any sort of rou­tine. Pulling into a new place, for me, meant find­ing a place to park the van and sleep for the night, find­ing a place where I could get wifi and work dur­ing the day, going to an unfa­mil­iar gro­cery store, among oth­er unknowns. The good news is, it also means when you live on the road, you’ve got a com­plete­ly new land­scape, so you also have to fig­ure out where to go climb­ing, moun­tain bik­ing and trail run­ning when I’m not working.

2. Trade: Com­fort for Learn­ing How to Trav­el Light

Your bed at home is prob­a­bly pret­ty com­fort­able, and your couch. And you’ve got every­thing most­ly where you want it in your kitchen. Even the word “home” is comfortable—the place you go after work and escape the stress of every­thing else. Liv­ing on the road is usu­al­ly on the oth­er end of the com­fort spec­trum, unless you spend a lot of mon­ey on a large, plush RV. In a van, you’re low on com­fort: The ceil­ing isn’t very high, so you always get dressed lying down (or out­side), there’s no run­ning water, and every­thing you own can feel like it’s in the way. You can’t take a lot of com­forts with you, because you ana­lyze every­thing for util­i­ty vs. space con­sumed (i.e., you’re not bring­ing 20 pairs of shoes or 20 shirts).


But in trade, you learn how to trav­el light, which can turn into its own com­fort. You learn to keep your entire office in a back­pack, and every­thing you need for a day in the moun­tains in anoth­er back­pack. You stay orga­nized by default, because there’s no clut­ter. It only takes mov­ing some­thing out of the way a few times before you decide it’s not worth it and get rid of it. Trav­el­ing, instead of becom­ing a stress­ful thing, becomes the way you live.

3. Trade: Rent for Gas Money

It’s a fact that most everyone’s biggest expense is the build­ing they live in, whether it’s pay­ing rent or a month­ly mort­gage pay­ment. If you move onto the road, gas and vehi­cle main­te­nance becomes your rent. If I do the math, it cer­tain­ly looks like it pays off.

My van gets 19 miles per gal­lon. Gas, in the U.S., costs approx­i­mate­ly $3.50 per gallon.

If I were to live in a small stu­dio apart­ment in Den­ver, I would pay at least $650 per month, or $7,800 per year. That same $7,800 can buy 2,228 gal­lons of gas,or about 42,000 high­way miles—which is a lot of adven­tur­ing. Even if I were to pay for $3,000 worth of main­te­nance on the van every year, I’d still be able to pay for 26,000 miles worth of gas.

Of course, liv­ing on the road is made a mil­lion times bet­ter by hav­ing lots of rent-pay­ing and house-own­ing friends who offer their show­ers, couch­es and guest bed­rooms, so it’s nice to put some of that mon­ey aside to buy them nice din­ners after they’ve gen­er­ous­ly let you stay at their house for a few days.

4. Trade: Office for Cof­fee Shop

Desks, whether at home or in an office, are great: Spread all your stuff out, put a few things in draw­ers, and have enough room for a key­board and big monitor—plus a com­fort­able chair. On the road, you don’t have the same desk. You get used to bal­anc­ing a lap­top on a tiny table next to a cof­fee cup, and your butt gets used to chairs and booths of vary­ing com­fort lev­els. Head­phones become indis­pens­able when the cou­ple next to you begins argu­ing loud­ly, or someone’s chil­dren start to have a meltdown.

You have more dis­trac­tions, but less monot­o­ny. You’re not going to the same office every day, and you avoid the “Ground­hog Day”-esque feel­ing that your life is the same day on repeat. You don’t have to stay until 5 p.m., just until the work is done. Which feels pret­ty good, and I think makes most peo­ple more pro­duc­tive, forc­ing you to do the most you can in a lim­it­ed amount of time. Of course, it might not feel like the best work envi­ron­ment when you’re try­ing to par­tic­i­pate in a con­fer­ence call in a loud cof­fee shop or laun­dro­mat, or try­ing to get some­thing done on dead­line from the front seat of your van.