Living in a Van down by the River

Alright, so we will get the classic Saturday Night Live joke out of the way. Yes, I was living in a van down by the river!!! So now that that is out of the way we can get down to the glories of this wonderful way of traveling. As I mentioned in my earlier blog, I spent nine months living in Hawaii and seven of those months I lived in a van. I look back at this as a quite spectacular point in my life and, ironically, as I write this blog I am in a sense living in a van again. I am currently working at a hostel in Kaikoura, New Zealand and they gave me the choice of living in the staff dorm or living in the old van out back. I, of course, chose the van. The main differences here though is this one does not move, does not belong to me and I hardly spend time in it unless I’m sleeping.

However, back to the van life in Hawaii! I originally got pushed into the idea of living in the van because I had no idea how long I wanted to stay in Hawaii and everywhere wanted me to sign a yearlong lease at minimum. So, I thought to myself, I also wanted a vehicle of some sort. As fun as hitchhiking around the island was, when it’s how you get to work every day it’s not the most reliable. Then inspiration struck: I’ll kill two birds with one stone and started my search for a van to turn into a home. When you’re searching for a van to live in it’s much like searching for any car and rule one is that you don’t jump on the first decent car you find. This was especially hard for me because I was living in a tent! Naturally I wanted to buy the first decent van I could find but you must resist the urge, otherwise you can get ripped off. A week can make all the difference. I could go into all the things you should look for when buying a car but this is not that kind of blog. If you want to hear about tires, steering, brakes, exhaust dust, good gas mileage, tinted windows, and all that car stuff look it up on YouTube or go to a mechanic blog – they will be much more informative than I am. These are, however, steps you should take to know what you’re looking for when you go out searching for cars. After much patience I found myself a van and set to work. Turning a van into a home is a strangely exhilarating experience. It’s all yours. The sky is the limit – you can do whatever you want. You can keep it simple or you can make it spectacular. If I were you I would go for the latter. Fact is, you are living here so spend the couple extra bucks, put in the extra time and make it nice. When you’re done and take a look at your work you feel a sense of pride that you can’t explain but is enormously satisfying.

Now I put some real time on my van in Hawaii. I bought a 1998 Toyota Sienna. First, I disposed of the backseats. The interior was clean and spacious and there were some tears on the backseats which made it so I got a good price and didn’t matter to me because I was trashing them anyway. After seeing how much space I had to work with I drew out my plan. I knew I wanted a comfy bed and a bookshelf to organize my things and also to put my laptop up so I could watch movies. I measured all the needed dimensions and set off to Home Depot. Making your own bookshelf is personally how I feel you should go; you know the dimensions are what you want and you can make it your own. After that I found a mattress to fit the space I had left, and picked up some creature comforts like bungees to keep my books from falling over every time I drove. Sheets and pillows made it look nice and I had a basic home on wheels. Now there was more to this process than what I’m saying but, figuring this all out on your own is half the fun so I don’t want to give away all the little secrets.

Freedom! Now that we have all the technical stuff mostly out of the way I can start to tell you about the real beauty and joy that comes with living in this unorthodox lifestyle. Just think where you can go and how long you can stay when you don’t have to worry about a house or apartment. You’re free of being restricted about thinking “where I’m going to sleep tonight.” You don’t have to spend a fortune on hotels when you go farther than you’re willing to drive in one day. One of my favorite things to do in Hawaii was know I had tomorrow off and drive to the beginning of a trailhead the night before, get a great night sleep and then start my hike bright and early with no early drive. Another good thing about starting here in your travels is this is a good stepping stone. If you’re struggling with diving into traveling maybe just put a toe in first. Set up your van at home then start out with just a short trip west or south and go from there. Your still get most of your creature comforts but you still end up somewhere different every night and open your opportunities to see many more beautiful and amazing things. Van life will also teach a very valuable life lesson – how to utilize space. Not nearly as extreme as backpacking, but like I said this is a good start. You really start to think about taking extra crap when you can’t lay down in your van because you have too much stuff.

Now to tell of how extreme and impressive van life can get this is the story of the best live-in van I have ever seen and I have seen quite a few. I was hitchhiking in New Zealand on my way to Waunaka when I was picked up by a German guy in a van. (Yes, I know it sounds like the beginning to a horror story.) As I stepped in my jaw dropped. I thought I had a good set up in Hawaii but it was a pigsty compared to this. It honestly looked better than some people’s homes. First curtains, he had gone to the store and gotten very nice curtains and curtain rods and installed them to cover every window. Then he built a shelving unit/cupboard. He had a place for books, laptop, kitchen equipment, even decorations. He had a sick statue of a kiwi ridding a shark. He then rounded all the corners and put varnish on it to add color. It even had fancy knobs and handles for every drawer and cupboard. He also installed carpet over the entire floor and it looked like a professional had done it. He had a dry erase board for notes on the side. He had a battery and a solar panel charger that went over the back window when he needed power. He told me he was planning on picking up a router for wifi. When I asked how he got the tools to do all this he said, “All my tools were my multi tool, a piece of sandpaper, a sewing needle and thread.” So if you really think you can’t afford this option or that it can’t look nice or you don’t have the tools; this German guy is a prime example that all you need is a little patience and the desire to make something great. Hope to see you on the road and having a blast!

Travelers note- Routine maintenance!!! This is true with any vehicle but you can avoid many costly mechanic bills just by doing routine maintenance and learning a few skills yourself. Once a week, check all your fluids, brakes, tire pressure, gauges, spark plugs, battery, and learn how to change your own oil and filter. It’s very easy and takes 15 minutes max and if you’re lost, YouTube is an amazing thing!