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.