People giving up their house or apartment, selling off the majority of their belongings just so they can fit their life in and out of a van, have intrigued me for quite some time. I remember browsing through Instagram, looking at #vanlife photographs that looked incredibly cool or watching YouTube vlogs from people that had been doing it for years. Mid 2018, while planning a long road trip through New Zealand, it seemed like the ideal moment to experience this #vanlife lifestyle for ourselves. This is the story about our New Zealand trip, living out of a (cara)van.
I learned a lot from the experience and came to the conclusion it’s probably not the lifestyle for me (for too long).
A tiny home on wheels
First thing you need to get of course, is a van (or something close to it). I considered a couple of exotic options, like a Land Rover Defender (with rooftop tent) or a VW Westfalia van, for maximum social media points. Unfortunately for a rental period of 2 months they are nearly impossible to find or it’s way too expensive. So we had to settle for something a bit less cool.
In New Zealand, there are a lot of options to experience van life. You can opt for a campervan (full, mid or mini sized), get a car with a (rooftop) tent or tow a caravan. After weighing the pros and cons, we decided to try a new concept and went for a nimble & innovative (solar panel, onboard toilet, falcon doors, USB socket, …) “Glamper” caravan + 4x4 truck combo. The idea was to be ready for all weather conditions and flexible (meaning: leave the caravan at a campground and explore the nearby area with the 4x4 car). Knowing that New Zealand’s weather can change rapidly and that the landscape varies from alpine to beach within a day, it seemed like the sensible choice. So off we went, ready for our #vanlife experience. As with all things in life, there were things we liked, disliked and borderline hated.
Wake up in paradise
New Zealand is a country of natural beauty and rugged landscapes. Moreover it has a large number of camping spots (some free, some paid) that are truly mesmerising. One of the best parts of van life is without doubt driving through a majestic landscape, looking for a spot to set up camp for the night.
Watching a sunrise or sunset from one of those locations, chilling in your van, never got old. It’s really hard (or stupid expensive) to get that kind of experience in a hotel room somewhere. The feeling of having a beautiful part of the world all to yourself, for just a moment, made this experiment worth it in retrospect.
Meet new people
This one is a hit or miss at times, but van life encourages you to meet new people along the way. On the different types of campgrounds (freedom, private or company chain owned) you meet all kinds of people: from 18 year old Europeans, doing the work-travel visa thing for a year, sleeping on a mattress in a second hand car, to 60+ locals that lost their home during the Christchurch earthquake of 2011 and had to move into a caravan. Listening to their stories puts a lot of stuff in perspective. Some choose to live like this (permanent or temporary), others are forced to do so. Every day was an opportunity to expand our horizon and learn something new.
Spend more time outdoors
Because a van has limited space and no wifi signal, you are naturally encouraged to spend more time outdoors (especially when the weather is nice). Go for a walk, read a book on the grass under a tree, or take a dip in the lake next to your van. The more luxury you have, the less you appreciate your surroundings. That was a definite plus.
Camp spot anxiety
In most countries, New Zealand included, you can’t just park and sleep anywhere you want. There are some great apps to help you pick a spot to sleep, but in some regions and/or during peak season those places are limited and in high demand. Often times you end up squeezing your van into a tight spot somewhere. It doesn’t take long before you start to schedule your day around finding a camp spot and that means leaving sights sooner than anticipated, just to be sure you have a good spot for the night.
Big and slow
I must confess, I underestimated the hassle of towing a caravan for thousands of miles in total. Many sights and remote campgrounds along the way were practically inaccessible while towing ‘our house’ around. Roads were quite narrow, sometimes winding and towns/cities were a nightmare to navigate. My skills did improve over time (especially the reverse parking), but I felt liberated every time the caravan was parked and it was only the car for a while. Driving with a trailer definitely weighs you down.
Of course I knew beforehand that the caravan was quite small, a compromise with it being light and easy to tow. But after a couple of weeks living in it, it became pretty clear that the reality was a bit less romantic than what we hoped for. It was practically impossible to keep the living area neat and tidy.
Being 6 ft 5, I had no chance of standing up in the trailer, and the bed became the only place to chill out inside. Taller people will have a hard time adjusting to the van life living space :-). It was especially tough when the weather was bad and we needed to spend significant time ‘indoors’. We had the luxury of having a toilet onboard, but you had to get out to access it. Again, when the weather is good, this isn’t really an issue. But when it’s raining outside, you are turning in your sleeping bag and you realize “I gotta go”… you get the idea.
Now this is very specific for New Zealand. In many places (think lakes, beach, rivers, …) throughout the country, there are a lot of sandflies. These biting insects are a real pest during the spring and summer season. They are quite infamous for leaving very itchy marks. Leaving the door of your van open, even for a minute, means an open invitation for a horde of sandflies. Some people accept this as part of the van life experience, but I never got used to it. A picnic near the lake, with long sleeve pants & shirt on and applying DEET excessively is a reality for a lot of outdoor van lifers.
Our road trip in New Zealand was during springtime, to avoid the huge crowds of summer. Unfortunately this also means that the weather can be quite bad at times. When the sun is out, van life can be a real treat (as highlighted above). But when it’s wet & cold for days on end, van life becomes quite uncomfortable. In general vans, cars and the caravan we rented, are not built (insulated) for cold temperatures (5°Celsius and below). So make sure your sleeping bag is up for the task, because you’ll need it. Also when it pours outside, you can’t leave your wet shoes and clothes ‘at the door’. So the humidity level inside the van spikes and practically everything becomes damp. Chances of catching a cold increase by the day during those periods, so come prepared. A good tip here is to follow the sun and adjust your road book accordingly. Check the local weather app and plan your travel route dynamically whenever possible.
In the end it was all worth it though. Living in a (cara)van for 2 months was quite the experience. Like with all things in life, cherish the highlights and learn from the disappointments. One thing I will never do again though, is tow a caravan on a road trip abroad.
Don’t hesitate to leave your #vanlife stories in the comments below.