Yes, You Can #VanLife This Summer Without Spending a Fortune

J.J. Starr
· 5 min read
Seems great, but for most of us, a purchase like this is out of reach. Photo by Airstream Inc. on Unsplash

If you’re entranced by #vanlife YoutTube and Instagram, but less so by the price tag of a Sprinter, then this is for you. Overlanding does not need to be done in a luxury van, nor does it require a vehicle that you can stand up in. All that is necessary is will, some minor carpentry skills, and a little creativity.

And I should know. I traveled cross country in a Buick Century several times. This fall, I purchased a 2006 Pontiac Vibe with hopes of it being the ultimate camp vehicle. It has great gas mileage, a 110 v plug, roof rack and 8 tie-down loops in the back. Currently, I’m in the midst of building it out with a bed, closet and slide out kitchen. And, I can’t stress this enough, if I can do it, you can do it.

Here are the three steps you can take to get your road trip further than your driveway.

Driving goals. Photo by George Hiles on Unsplash

Step 1: Choose Your Vehicle

Photo by Lex Sirikiat on Unsplash

While a van is a great option, it’s perfectly fine to use what you have. A minivan is enough. A station wagon is perfect. Hell, I’ve seen a built out Toyota Yaris 2-Door a couple took from New York to Alaska and they were pretty damn happy about it. The key here is to have a reliable vehicle with good tires. If you can sleep inside, this will be beneficial, but tents have done the job for thousands of years.

The key here is to take it easy. If you already have a reliable car, then you have the vehicle you need. If you want to trade it in and you can afford it, then, by all means, do so. But you don’t need anything fancy to get the job done.

Once you have decided on your car, you will need to find a set-up that works for you.

Yes, please. Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

Step 2: Design and Build

What you can build will depend on the size of your vehicle and the size of your creativity. Building a platform bed in the back of a station wagon allows for storage space underneath, and it’s shockingly easy. I did it, and I’m not a carpenter. I did enlist my brother, also not a carpenter, for help. First, because he had tools, and second because I could trade him some work on his farm. You can also try a local high school wood shop (you’d be surprised) or asking the folks at your local hardware store for advice.

Portable, easy kitchens are key to feeling comfortable.

Many people opt to build out the back of their vehicle into a kitchen area — much like the ever popular teardrop trailers. You can also install drawers under your platform bed that can slide out and become a kitchen and workspace. Others build kitchens into van doors or put solar showers on their roof racks. There are many, many options.

Speaking of options, if your vehicle has towing capacity, consider a teardrop or other small trailer. There are so many options on the market nowadays that a match can be found for virtually any vehicle. If you’re super nifty, you might even build your own trailer.

Definitely check out the many YouTube channels on RVing and road tripping. My ultimate favorite is Cheap RV Living where (mostly) retirees are interviewed and give tours of their rigs ranging from colossal Class As to tent and car. These folks have tons of ideas for builds and even more inspiration for letting go of the idea of “perfection.” How much time do we lose to procrastination for fear of getting it wrong?

Nothing like a day with your head in the clouds. Photo by Jared Erondu on Unsplash

Step 3: Do It

Photo by Landon Martin on Unsplash

Don’t just plan, do. Build your build. Make that trailer purchase. Get the tent you’ve been eyeballing for weeks — the instant tent variety is supremely wonderful for car trips and your backpacking tent is so small that you can still bring it. The idea here is to make it easy for yourself, so you can put the key into the ignition and turn.

But, before you pull away, DO make sure you’ve set yourself up for support by purchasing a roadside assistance service like AAA and renter’s insurance — and I shouldn’t have to say it, but car insurance too. The best way to avoid disaster is to prepare.


If you have the will, you can find your way. Good enough is exactly that. No one needs to spend tens of thousands to enjoy the wilderness. Just a plan, elbow grease, and the ability to stay humble.

Happy Trails, Friends.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

J.J. Starr

Written by

Pleaching my poet self with the rest of me.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

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