Why I decided to live in a van

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve joined the #vanlife movement. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m really out here, wandering around, peeing in a bottle, soaking up each new day as it comes.

I’m often asked why I decided to start living out of a van. I ask myself this same question most days. Why did I do this? Here’s my attempt to find some answers to this question.

I was traveling down the ‘normal’ path, busted ass in undergrad to get into grad school, busted ass in grad school to get a good first job, busted ass in my first job to get a raise. And yet, I wasn’t satisfied. I was too comfortable. I did the same things every day. I had created a behavioral rut that I was digging deeper and deeper with each monotonous day. Is this how I wanted to spend my time? Not at all... I craved adventure & novelty, not comfort & uniformity. Here’s how Jon Krakauer illustrates this mindset in a section of Into The Wild:

“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality, nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.”

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Chris McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp)

I didn’t want to become the next Chris McCandless, but I was itching for change. With this mental foundation, one day I stumbled upon #vanlife it just clicked. It felt right. It became the goal I would strive towards making a reality. I’ve pulled out 3 themes of #vanlife that speak to me: Essentialism, Travel, & Expansion.

I would describe essentialism as a lot of ideas smashed into a particular way of viewing & prioritizing your life. Here’s how Greg Mckeown, who wrote the book on Essentialism, describes this way of thinking:

“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”

In other words, it’s about deliberately deciding to spend your time, energy, & money on ONLY the things you find essential, which also means cutting out nearly everything else. Let’s start with material things.

Luckily my newly found paychecks after graduation didn’t transform into piles of junk. However, you can only fit so many things in a van, so prioritizing what was essential to take required reflecting on what I value. I have a week’s worth of clothes, bedding, a weed-sprayer (I’m the weed that needs to be sprayed off when I stink), a fridge, a Coleman camp stove, a 7-gallon water container, two sets of dishware, backpacking gear, a kayak, a basketball, camera gear, a laptop, some tools, some books, and a speaker. These are my essential items.

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The place that would become my new home

I was also able to cut out the cost of rent. Rather than taking out an auto loan for a fancy Sprinter, I bought a 2006 Chevy Express and renovated it myself (with the help of a handy father, thanks Dad). I could have paid for a professional renovation, but it would’ve doubled the cost. Plus I enjoyed the father/son time as we figured everything out together. Family time is essential, not professionally installed cabinets.

A benefit of the DIY path is that now I know exactly how everything works and thereby how to fix anything (fingers crossed). I learned how to use various power tools. I learned that drilling a screw into a hidden wire is no bueno. I had to install my ceiling 3 separate times because of silly mistakes, so I really know how to put that back up if a pothole ever brings it down.

That covers the essential material things that I’ve discovered by living in a van. But more importantly, this lifestyle forces you to think about how you spend your time.

The obvious way to spend your time living the #vanlife is to travel. I view John Steinbeck as one of the grandfathers of our van community. In 1960 he traveled around in a custom-built camper-truck and documented his travels.

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John Steinbeck’s rig “Rocinante”

He describes travel so eloquently by saying:

“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

I love the idea that ‘we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.’ Living in a van enables this trip to last as long as you’d like, and span as far as you’d like to go. That was extremely appealing. Part of my plan was to not have a plan. I wanted the journey to lead me where it wished.

So far, this journey has led me to meet some extremely interesting people. I stayed with a guy who had a severe stutter growing up but then invented a device that treated his stutter so he could hold normal conversations. I’ve hiked with a lady who hosted hundreds of couch-surfers in NYC, & herself has couch-surfed all over the world. I’ve played pickup basketball with an NBA trainer, along with the high school kids he’s training through his camp. I never know who I’m going to meet next, but I’m open to meeting whoever this journey would like to introduce me to.

The same holds true for discovering the natural beauty of our world. So far, the National Parks have served as my guideposts. I can look up photos of the jagged mountains that jut from out of nowhere or read facts about the width, length, & volume of rivers, but experiencing these parks in person always exceeds my imagination. There’s no way around it, you just have to meet these places with all 5 senses to truly appreciate their awesomeness.

Plus, there are countless places to visit outside the National Parks that I never could’ve imagined existing. These places are starting to hold a special place in my memories: the lesser-known dirt roads that lead you up a mountain away from the crowds. This journey frequently introduces me to narrow dirt roads to call home for a night or two before wandering back into society.

In a previous chapter of life, I studied infant cognitive development. I watched hundreds of hours of infant headcam video (think GoPro for babies, aww) to try to understand how babies learn so much about the world in such little time. To state the obvious, babies experience a lot of new things every day. In fact, given the choice between a familiar object and a new object, babies will spend more time playing with the new object. Researchers studying babies refer to this as a novelty preference. That is, babies prefer novel experiences. I love this finding. Humans are wired to expand their understanding of the world by seeking out new stimuli in new environments.

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In adulthood though, it’s easy to fall into patterns of familiar experiences. We stop trying new things, meeting new people, exposing ourselves to new experiences. We stop expanding. Living in a van allows me to pick back up where I left off during childhood by constantly having unique experiences. I can try a new restaurant every single day. I can go backpacking in some new forest every weekend. I can drive on new roads that lead to new towns each day. I can go rock-climbing in Colorado, practice astrophotography in Maine, try fly-fishing in Wyoming, or any other countless combinations of new activities in new places. The world has quite literally become my playground.

I borrow this idea from my favorite new author, Jedidiah Jenkins. He rode his bicycle from Oregon to Patagonia and wrote about his experiences in ‘To Shake The Sleeping Self’. I’ll let him give some more color to this idea:

I have learned this for certain: if discontent is your disease, travel is medicine. It resensitizes. It opens you up to see outside the patterns you follow. Because new places require new learning. It forces your childlike self back into action. When you are a kid, everything is new. You don’t know what’s under each rock, or up the creek. So, you look. You notice because you need to. The world is new. This, I believe, is why time moves so slowly as a child — why school days creep by and summer breaks stretch on. Your brain is paying attention to every second. It must as it learns the patterns of living. Every second has value. But as you get older, and the patterns become more obvious, time speeds up. Especially once you find your groove in the working world. The layout of your days becomes predictable, a routine, and once your brain reliably knows what’s next, it reclines and closes its eyes. Time pours through your hands like sand.

That’s it. That’s why I live in a van. Thanks for explaining, Jed.

I’m relearning how to have that child-like fascination with the world. I’m exposing myself to new people, in new places, trying new things, and trying to savor every second of it. By following my curiosity and consistently exposing myself to fresh experiences, my hope is that I’ll continue learning and expanding into a better version of myself. Thanks for listening. Cheers!

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Written by

design researcher. psychology nerd. full-time traveler.

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