Surviving Your First #VanLife Trip Together

by | Nov 7, 2016 | Gear, Lifestyle

I wrote about surviving a cross country #VanLife drive with a significant other (or random accomplice) a few months ago, but what about #VanLife itself? We’ve finally kitted out our van and hit the road between cyclocross races, training and working the whole time. So, in our fairly compact Ford Transit Connect XLT, how have we managed without killing each other? I’ve broken it down into what I think the best advice is.

Systems Are Everything

I like to consider myself organized, but my stuff can definitely sprawl out of my suitcase if given the chance. Peter is much more regimented with his stuff. (That might also relate to the next point.) But to get through living together in a van happily, you need to have systems for how things are organized, and it’s a lot easier to handle daily life when you know where the forks and toilet paper are. And even daily duties—coffee-making, breakfast, dinner, washing dishes, bringing trash to the dumpster, et cetera—need to get discussed. Split some up and do some together! And if one of you wants to keep things organized and put away, do your best.

You ARE Overpacked

No matter how many times I write about, think about and read about minimal packing, I somehow end up with ten bags too many. With two people in a van, this is a much worse problem to have. Before you roll out, talk about the goals of the trip and pack together: you can avoid duplicating things like bike tools, tooth paste, iPods, charge cables… But clothes are the biggest issue for me, and probably Peter’s biggest headache this trip. In this particular case, it was a perfect storm of a bunch of gear coming to me that I had to check out, plus a temperature range of 20 to 90 degrees in the five weeks in the van—and another few months of travel already on the radar for right after. So, I thought I packed smart. But it turns out, I way overpacked. And the more you overpack, conversely, the less of your stuff you actually use in #VanLife, or at least, that’s what I’ve found. You see, when your suitcase is bulging full to the point it needs to come out of the van every time you need something, you end up with a small bag of stuff you’ll wear for the day… and then use that same bag for the next three days. Seriously, I cannot stress this enough: the less you pack, the more variety you end up actually having in your wardrobe. (Same goes for makeup, kitchenware, office supplies, etc.)

It’s Tight Quarters

This is a lot of time spent in super close proximity. Even if you’re madly in love, you’re now sharing a much smaller sleeping space, and—especially on bad weather days—you’re working really close to each other, all day. Especially if you’re sleeping in a van, do small trips before you go to test bed/sleep situation and storage options.

Tight Budgets Are Tough, But You Don’t Need Bells and Whistles

Van life isn’t a free ride, and that’s certainly something we’re getting used to. It’s really easy to start wanting more and more high tech goodies, especially when you walk into a store like REI. But we’ve agreed to pace ourselves and see how often we’re using the van for actual sleep/as a team setup for racing before we make any more major purchases. So I think a huge tip is to sit down and discuss what the van looks like for each of you, and how you want to outfit it—and what you’re each willing to spend. And to be honest, I don’t think you need a ton of camping or van-specific gear to get started. A little comfort is great, but until you know you enjoy doing the whole on-the-road thing, keep it as basic as possible. A plug-in cooler is great (we have one, finally!) but a $5 styrofoam cooler can work fine for your first week out. And you don’t need to cook: you can get eggs pre-hard-boiled, sandwiches and salads are simple, and if you’re like us, you really just need something to heat water for coffee-making.

Weather Doesn’t Care About Your #VanLife

On this trip, we had great weather and amazing luck with a rad camp site. But on the last day, we had some rain—just a few showers—and that took a surprising amount of work for the fact that it was really just drizzles. But when you’re working at your desk a lot of the day and your desk is a picnic table… Well, it makes life a little tough.

It’s Not Going to Look Like Pinterest

Bad news. Unless you stage the crap out of photos (and I admit, we definitely tidied up to take some of ours), your actual life in a van is rarely going to look like Pinterest or Instagram account versions of #VanLife. Case in point: the above photo of Peter charging his laptop, and the other photo above that of the ridiculous tarp setup when it rained. That’s OK. You really don’t need fairy lights and perfect blankets and the right lighting to have an amazing time. And honestly, if you’re doing cool stuff—mountain biking, climbing, hiking—you probably have a ton of gear, and that takes up space. The prettiest of the Van Life Pins and Instas tend to be the ultra-minimalist version of Van Life, where Van Life is the hobby. So chill about picture perfect.

Understand Bedtime and Sunset, Wakeup and Sunrise

Unless you have an insane light setup (we don’t, just a couple lanterns and the car lights), it’s pretty much bedtime when sun goes down. Or at least chill reading and wine-sipping time begins. You’ll likely go to sleep earlier. And waking up needs to be discussed too: turns out our idea of early isn’t the same when camping in the van. For example, we agreed to get up early to run one day. The sun comes up and it starts to get light around 7:30AM, but Peter’s ‘early’ was 6AM, meaning we had a lot of darkness to contend with. I was pretty grumpy with it that dark out to start a run. Of course, five minutes in, I was happy again, but getting started was tough. If we’d just agreed on the wake-up time earlier, it wouldn’t have been an issue.

Always Take the Bathroom Break

Enough said. Especially when you’re not parked close to a bathroom, or don’t have 24-hour access to one.

Agree What’s Important

For us, these trips are awesome for exploring, riding, doing rad stuff. But we’re also both remotely working, so being able to respect each other’s work time is hugely important for us. It can be hard sometimes, if one of us is facing a deadline and the other has their work already turned in… The nice thing is that days get simpler when you’re working out of a van: less options like housecleaning or decorating or wandering from room to room. But we do need to make sure key work happens, we get fed before dark, and we actually make time for the adventures we’re hoping to go on.

Take Time for Yourself

Just because you’re in this together doesn’t mean you can’t spend some time apart (how’s that for a triple negative?). Take a long shower, walk, workout, whatever you need to do to get some space for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a bit of time alone: most people don’t see their significant other for 10 hours of the day, and you’re in a small van with someone for 24.

Remember Why You’re Doing It

Because sunrises and sunsets don’t just mean bedtime. And hiking, riding, and hanging out together in a new place is the best.


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