13 disappointing photos of van life from my weekend road trip in a camper van

Insider
Insider
Feb 7 · 7 min read

After spending a weekend in a camper van, an Insider reporter reveals the most disappointing sides of van life.

The view of a camper from inside the van.
There are some disappointing sides to van life. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

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.

The camper van parked in a Cracker Barrel parking lot.
The camper van parked in a Cracker Barrel parking lot. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

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.

Camper van parked next to garbage dumpsters. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

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.

Read more: I spent a night in camper van in a Cracker Barrel parking lot, and the experience revealed a surprising side of the van-life movement

During the winter, empty campgrounds are another popular option for vanlifers, but they can get expensive.

The camper van parked at a campground. Photo: Frank Olito/ Insider

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.

You can’t park a camper van in the city. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

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.

Looking out on a campground. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

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.

The view of the parking lot. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

You don’t see photos like this anywhere on the van life hashtag.

Read more: Social media makes living in a camper van look like the simple life. The reality is a lot more complicated.

It may seem easy to operate a camper van, but there are a ton of systems to learn and troubleshoot.

All the systems that make the camper van run. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

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.

The stove provided some heat. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

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.

Condensation in the window. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

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.

Read more: 10 things I wish I knew about van life before spending a weekend in a camper van

The bathrooms on some camper vans are so unbelievably small.

A peek into the bathroom. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

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.

The composting toilet. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

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.

Making the bed. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

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.

Storage space is limited. Photo: Frank Olito/Insider

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.

Read more: I tried living in a luxury camper van for a weekend during the winter, and I’ll never do it again

For more great stories, visit Insider’s homepage.

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