Here’s What No One Tells You about Van Life

By Melissa Miller

I always dreamed of van life. It was easy for me to romanticize the idea of being out on the open road for the rest of my days. Just me and my van (and maybe a dog) chasing the sun, and never living through another winter. The carefully curated photos on social media made it all the more enticing, but I never felt like it was something I could have.

Growing up in the Midwest, I thought by the time I reached my thirties, I would own a nice house filled with nice things. Instead, I purchased a blue 1999 Chevy Express a month before my thirtieth birthday. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it was my first home.

There are the obvious things I could shed light on that most people in van life don’t often talk about. Where do you use the bathroom? Shower? How do you find places to sleep? What if you break down on the road? But there’s this whole other layer I did not expect with van life: personal growth and a changed outlook on life.

On the Road

I’ve been running from my own thoughts and feelings my whole life. I filled up my time with distractions of traveling, endless hobbies, and social engagements. I thought van life would be another extension of that—more running. But what shocked me the most was being on the road wasn’t running away from everything; it put what I was running from right in front of me.

You see, when you live in a space of about 120 square feet, you have to deal with your thoughts if you’re going to stay sane. Taking a therapy session from a Walmart parking lot was something I never thought I’d experience, but now it’s something I’ll never forget. There are only so many podcasts you can listen to before your thoughts start to intrude while on the road. Van life forced me to spend time reflecting on my life, values, and hardships.

Slowing Down

The biggest benefit and challenge with van life has been learning to slow down. I’m definitely not above participating in the attention economy—I’m on all the social media apps, and it can feel like I need to see as many places as possible when I scroll through hundreds of pictures from around the country. But the beauty of living in a home on wheels is I can hit pause and stay awhile at a place that draws me in. This has helped me learn to live in the present so much more.

Connection to People and Place

Being born and raised in a town of 700 people, traveling became the act of collecting places in order to prove something. I think for a thirty-something-year-old, being well-traveled has become a symbol of success, and it is easy to fall into the pattern of “consuming” places. Reflecting on my past travels, I realized that I saw landmarks, took pretty pictures, but left with no real connection to the area or the people that live there. This has changed drastically for me with van life.

When you stay somewhere for a few days or more, you go to the grocery store, you possibly do laundry, you visit the restaurants (breweries, in my case), and interact with people and places that you don’t typically interact with when you visit for vacation. I’ve become so curious about the people living in the areas I visit and have found more community connection on the road than in any other travel experience I’ve had.

Connecting to a place is different for everyone, but having a quiet morning to myself at a beautiful campsite, or a conversation with locals and other van-lifers really makes me feel connected. I’ve noticed that when people ask me about a favorite destination on a road trip, it usually ends up being somewhere I was able to connect with people or myself the most.

Intentional Living

Another unspoken element of van life is the mindfulness that becomes practiced when living on the road. As you can imagine, my trash can in the van is not as large as it would be in an apartment. Learning to purchase only the things I need and in a way that produces the least amount of waste has become a huge learning moment for me. And being away from a full closet and other home luxuries brings so much more awareness to what I actually need versus what I want in my life.

Van life seems to be a balancing act of control and chaos. There is only so much you can control, and learning to let go of that is arguably the most freeing part of being on the road. I never thought that living in a small box on wheels would change my life, but I’ve learned to reflect and process my emotions in a healthier way, live with more intention, and build connections all over the country. I guess van life is what I dreamed it would be, but not in the ways I imagined. And I love every mile of it.