Travel

The Unfortunate Truths of Living the 'Vanlife'

After months stuck at home, life on the road has never been more tempting. But don’t end your lease just yet.
Alessandro Pilo
Budapest, HU
January 18, 2021, 1:51pm
Let Daniela Girolamo with her dog and her van. Right: Bianca in her van..
All photos courtesy of the interviewees.

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

Living space has become a big issue over the last year, for fairly obvious reasons. While you were cooped up in some highly overpriced square-meterage, you might have been fantasising about cheap houses with gardens in the countryside, or a life on the road.

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On that latter point, Instagram vanlifers would have you believe they’ve hacked their way to happiness by transforming a beaten-up camper van into a dream home, with no bills and endless travel possibilities. But we all know that reality loves to come along and crush our dreams.

I asked three people who’ve lived the van-life what they learned in the process – and what you should consider before taking the step.

Antonio Armano, Journalist and Writer

Antonio Armano sitting behind the wheel of his camper van and sipping coffee.

Antonio in his camper van.

I lived in a camper van for a year, from late 2017 until late 2018. I often write travel articles, and the year before I moved into the van I’d lived in Moscow with an old lady with a heart condition, and then in an orphanage in Belgrade. Weirdly enough, people had the strongest reaction to my latest lifestyle decision – some even cut ties with me.

One of the things I loved most was the freedom of waking up every morning in a different place, feeling I was out in the world but also protected by a sort of shell. However, I’d say the biggest myth is that you get to travel a lot. Sometimes, you find a nice spot and you want to enjoy it. It’s also hard to find places to fill up your water tank and discharge your sewage, and when you do, you tend to stop and chill for a while. Your type of van also makes a big difference. Ours was an old Hymer, and it used a lot of fuel, so travelling became expensive.

We pretty much settled around the lakes of Varese [in northern Italy], where people were quite suspicious of van people. They often thought of us as thieves, and if we were stationed in the same spot for a while, they’d call the police. In Italy, if you’re parked without using wheel chocks or opening your veranda, it’s not technically unauthorised camping. In theory, no one can move you. But you need chocks to sleep well or cook, so you really have to be careful to avoid getting fined, especially if you already have a target on your back.

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Now, it’s much easier to work remotely, but there are a few things to consider. Firstly, in some camper vans you can only charge a smartphone with up to 12 volts, but a laptop charges at 220 volts, so you need a transformer and a lot of energy to run it. I often ended up working in different places, from McDonald’s to laundromats.

Unless you have a really luxurious motorhome, after a while you do miss your four walls and a hot shower, especially in winter. That’s why I don’t recommend this life if you only want to save on rent. At the end of the experience, I felt like an astronaut returning from space. It took me a while to get used to life indoors.

Daniela De Girolamo, 36, Blogger and Van Life Consultant

Left: Daniela Girolamo with her dog in front of the her camper van. Right: view from the camper.

Daniela Girolamo and her dog.

I bought my first camper van in 2015 to travel, but I just didn’t feel like going home, so I made a lifestyle out of it. I’ve been living in my van for two years, even during the pandemic. Now, instead of travelling around the world, I stay in Italy.

I usually go places off-season – free camping in Sardinia in August is unthinkable, same goes for parking near ski slopes during the Christmas break. Some towns aren’t fond of vans, but all you need to do is a bit of research before you go.

Daniela Girolamo's camper van parked at the seaside.

Daniela Girolamo's camper van.

One of the most common issues people face is rationing water and other resources, but I prefer that to having to pay bills or sharing my apartment. If you choose the van life, it’s because you don’t want anything to do with “normal life”. For me, it’s about minimalism, not being in a fixed spot, being immersed in nature. Being on the road actually helped me grow closer to family and friends, because physical closeness can often make relationships complicated.

Obviously, you still need a basic monthly income. Over time, I’ve managed to make a name for myself, and now I offer paid consultations. But I used to support myself with odd jobs as a barista or an entertainer at tourist resorts, or work as a language teacher. My expenses vary a lot, but I’d say it’s feasible to keep them under €300 (£267) per month, mainly for food, diesel or gas for heating. There are also other fixed costs, like taxes and insurance.

Andrea, 24, Graphic Designer, and Bianca, 24, Sells Hand-Embroidered Clothes on Etsy

Left: Bianca and Andrea outside their camper. Right: the interior, white with wood accents.

Bianca and Andrea their van. Photo via @ciao_dolcevita.

We started living in a converted van in August of 2019. During the first wave [of coronavirus] we had to leave Portugal and come back to Italy. Now, we live in an apartment waiting for the right moment to set off again. It took us a year to convert our van – we have all sorts of installations, like solar panels, diesel heating, gas and warm water, but you can keep it more simple. 

We just wanted to be on the road for a long time, without restrictions from public transport, hotels and timetables. Living in a van is great, but there are some negative aspects that we hadn’t thought of beforehand.

vivere-in-camper.jpg

Bianca and Andrea with their van, in France.

Constantly travelling to unknown places can be stressful, especially when you need to fill up your water tank and empty the sewage every week. You can often do it for free in camper van parks, or you can ask a campsite if they’re open. It usually costs between €5 (£4.45) and €8 (£7.13). You always need to remember to check if you closed your window, or you risk shattering the glass when you’re moving. If you forget to close the gas tank you can also run into big trouble.

There’s always something to do, so you never stop to think about yourself or reflect. Also, living as a couple in six square-metres can really test a relationship. But after a few months, you develop a routine and it all becomes normal. You work, you do your shopping at the local markets and you wash your clothes every two weeks at the laundromat.

Before leaving, we set aside some money, but we’re also working. In general, we spend around €300 a month each. All you need is an ordinary driving licence and you can drive camper vans up to 3500kg. But if you’re someone who panics easily, this life isn’t for you. You often have to be your own mechanic, plumber or electrician, and there are plenty of unexpected factors. You need an emergency plan for any type of problem – sooner or later, you’ll have to use it.