By Frank Olito
When it comes to the growing van life movement, reality rarely meets expectations.
Before renting a camper van for a weekend road trip from New York to Philadelphia in January, I was expecting a scenic journey with some carefree adventure — that’s what I’ve seen on the van life hashtag on social media for years. But after a weekend filled with mishaps and frustrations, I quickly learned there are some disappointing sides to the van life movement.
Here are photos of 13 disappointing moments from my short stint with van life.
Finding parking can be difficult with a camper van or RV, so many vanlifers turn to random parking lots.
When I took my weekend road trip, it was the middle of winter, so many campgrounds and parks were closed for overnight parking. Instead, I had to sleep overnight at a Cracker Barrel parking lot outside of Philadelphia in one of their designated spots for RVs.
This is a common practice among RVers and vanlifers. Many stay overnight at Walmarts and Cracker Barrels all over the country despite never showing it on social media.
Sleeping overnight at a parking lot is less than ideal, especially when it’s near the dumpsters.
I had to park the camper van in one of the RV parking spots at this Cracker Barrel, which happened to be directly across from the restaurant’s garbage dumpsters. Unfortunately, a garbage truck came into the parking lot in the middle of the night to collect the trash, which startled me awake.
During the winter, empty campgrounds are another popular option for vanlifers, but they can get expensive.
I stayed at the Philadelphia South/Clarksboro KOA, which was a large campground in Clarksboro, New Jersey. Although the campground came with full RV hookups, a pool (which was closed for winter), a playground, and a lake, I thought the $60 per night price tag was high. If I planned on staying there for the full month, it would have cost me about $1,800, which is more than I pay for my Brooklyn apartment.
Parking a camper van in a city is also a challenge.
Most vanlifers avoid cities and explore national parks and other natural landscapes, but if I was living in a camper van full-time, I would want to go into a city from time to time.
I quickly learned that isn’t a real possibility. Maneuvering this large vehicle, which was 24 feet long, through city streets was a bit challenging, and finding parking was near impossible.
Although most photos show vanlifers opening their back doors onto beaches, the reality is far from that.
My social media feed is filled with images of vanlifers opening their two back doors to showcase a picturesque landscape. In reality, those people aren’t staying there overnight or waking up in those locations because parking there is illegal.
When I woke up in the campground, I took a photo of my back view. There was no beautiful beach or alluring landscape. It was just an empty parking spot and an RV.
Sometimes the view is just a parking lot.
You don’t see photos like this anywhere on the van life hashtag.
It may seem easy to operate a camper van, but there are a ton of systems to learn and troubleshoot.
Before renting this camper van, I knew there were some systems that I would need to learn to turn this vehicle into a tiny house.
When the owner gave me a 30-minute tutorial on all the systems, I was surprised by just how much I needed to know. There were buttons all over the van that all had different functions. Under the bench, there was an intricate system of wires and machines that I realized I needed to understand if I wanted the camper van to run smoothly.
Systems in camper vans often break, leading vanlifers to improvise.
During my weekend adventure, the heat in the van broke, so it was unbelievably cold. Since I didn’t understand how to fix the system myself, the owner told me via phone that I should turn on the burners to create heat. Although it helped fix the temperature issue temporarily, it felt unsafe to keep the burners going for an extended period of time.
The windows of camper vans are constantly filled with condensation in the winter.
I was surprised by how much the windows fogged up in the van. Although it wasn’t a major inconvenience, I did have to wait for the condensation to clear on the huge windshield before driving each time.
The bathrooms on some camper vans are so unbelievably small.
Not every camper van has a full bathroom, so when I saw that the one I was renting had a toilet and a shower, I got very excited. When I saw it in person, though, I was disappointed. The bathroom space was smaller than the width of my body, so I couldn’t fit inside it without sticking my leg or arm out of the door. It was impossible to fully stand up inside it, and the toilet felt like a child’s chair every time I sat on it.
Some vanlifers instead go to the bathroom in bottles or use public bathrooms, but the luxury of a bathroom on board isn’t too much better.
The composting toilet is a major and unsanitary hassle.
This was the first time I used a composting toilet, and I would never use one again. Whenever someone went to the bathroom, the whole van smelled like a public bathroom for a few minutes. If the scent got too strong, I had to place a pink pod into the toilet, which is meant to mask the smell, but it never eliminated the stench quickly enough.
Also, I had to deconstruct the toilet at the end of the weekend to empty it. The process was much harder than it sounds, and carrying a composting toilet to a public bathroom to empty it somehow feels like a demoralizing act.
Making the bed in a camper van is an extremely difficult task.
In the camper van I rented, I had to convert the two back benches into a large bed. First, it was difficult to find a place for the large cushions in the van when I had to unfold the platform. Once the bed itself was built, I had to put the sheets on the bed, which was another hassle. Since three sides of the bed were up against a wall, it was very difficult to put on a fitted sheet.
Although vanlifers get very creative about storage, space is still very limited.
For my weekend road trip, I packed a small duffel bag and a backpack. When I put both of those items in the overhead storage bins in the back of the van, all the available storage space was taken. The rest were filled with machines that help the van run, kitchenware, and first aid kits. I couldn’t imagine fitting my entire life into the limited storage space even if I did downsize most of my belongings.
For more great stories, visit Insider’s homepage.