If you believe Instagram, #vanlife—the act of hitting the road in a van—is all spectacular views, immaculately modified vans, and ultimate freedom. But, finds Shoshi Parks, it’s also peeing in buckets, bad hummus, and being awoken by rowdy teenagers at 2am.
I wouldn’t say I was suckered into vanlife. I knew that living in a 50-square-foot Town and Country minivan for six months would have its challenges. But the rewards—waking up to incredible vistas, spending my day hiking instead of behind a desk, traveling North America in quiet contemplation of the beauty of the west—would be worth it. The #vanlife Instagram photos proved it.
And those photos were right. It really was the adventure of a lifetime. But it was also half a year of grime, loneliness and frustration. The joy of adventure has a way of going AWOL when it’s 2 A.M. in Hood River, Oregon, and teenagers—blasting hip-hop and throwing bottles at each other—decide to pour in to the Walmart parking lot you’ve chosen to bed down in.
Vanlife is as much about attempting to preserve the small luxuries of non-mobile civilian life as it is about adventure: Where to use the bathroom when there isn’t one in a 50-mile radius, how to stay clean when you have no running water, what to eat when you have no way to cook a meal. It isn’t glamorous. But it is an education.
I was in Navajo country the first time it happened. In the Bisti Badlands (or De-Na-Zin Wilderness) in the northwest corner of New Mexico there is no foliage—just hoodoos, eroded sandstone and not one bit of privacy when you need to pee.
I had been waiting for this moment and I was prepared. In the back of the van, my bucket awaited. It was gray, the kind used by nursing homes that comes with a fitted lid, lined with a scented garbage bag and filled with two inches of kitty litter.
That was the first time I peed in a bucket but not the last, not by a long shot. Yeah, it was gross, but that bucket, my makeshift van toilet, never once splashed or stunk up the joint. The trickiest bit was where to dispose of its contents.
Luckily, in the US, you’re never far from a Walmart with a parking lot full of trash cans. And it’s not just the trash cans that the nefarious box store offers: It’s a place to sleep, a source of running water and a grocery store all rolled into one. Before vanlife, I could count the number of times I’d been in a Walmart on one hand. But once you’ve hit the road, the store becomes a beacon of reliability in an uncertain reality.
The simple issue of refrigeration, a problem that was solved back in the 19th century, is one of vanlife’s biggest, especially if you’re traveling during the summer.
I lived my vanlife on a shoestring, and lived off my very meager savings for a whole six months. Campgrounds cost money; hotels cost more. But Walmart parking lots are free, and most 24-hour stores allow for overnight camping (in a vehicle, not a tent). Everyone has their own strategy when it comes to picking a spot that’ll allow you the best chance of sleeping through the night.
My advice? Park as far from the store entrance as possible and, if you have the option, choose the opposite side of the lot from the RVs and long-haul trucks—they tend to be noisy in the early mornings as they prepare to hit the road.
There’s no getting around the burning envy you will feel towards travelers in tricked-out RVs. They’ve got everything you knew you’d miss but thought you could comfortably live without. You can live without these things, yes. But not comfortably.
The simple issue of refrigeration, a problem that was solved back in the 19th century, is one of vanlife’s biggest, especially if you’re traveling during the summer. In preparation for vanlife, I purchased a fantastic little fridge that plugged into my minivan’s 12v socket. Because it was insulated, I figured when the engine wasn’t running, my items would stay moderately cool. They didn’t.
Grocery shopping became an exercise in food preservation. Pretty much everything spoils when it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) outside, so either buy only what you can eat in a day, or carefully select items filled with preservatives that will keep a little longer. What won’t go bad? Most condiments will hold up, even mayonnaise (yes, mayonnaise). Pickles are trustworthy, so is salsa (for a few days at least) but you can pretty much forget about cheese or beans; and nothing smells as bad as hummus on its second day of being un-refrigerated in blistering heat. Curiously, you won’t find too many shots of funky, heavily-filtered hummus on the #vanlife Instagram hashtag.
And then there’s the issue of cooking. Campsites, with their fire pits and sometimes even simple grills, are a luxury. At dispersed campsites on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and National Forest lands you can use a camp stove (carefully!) but in a public parking lot, your options are limited to bites of cold canned chili, cereal without milk and peanut butter sandwiches.
Raw vegetables and packaged salad mixes with pouches of dressing single handedly saved me from coming down with scurvy but even so, and despite hiking my way through my vanlife, I ended the trip having put on an extra 15 pounds from the poor choices I turned to when I just couldn’t stomach another raw carrot.
I got used to being constantly on display, to sleeping in parking lots, and to peeing in buckets. It didn’t matter that I rarely got to cook a meal, have a shower or sleep in a real bed.
Cleaning your dishes is as problematic as cleaning yourself. Baby wipes and sponge baths will save you from the most offensive smells your body and your dirty dishes will produce, but only a hat will keep others from seeing your greasy, stringy and unmanageable hair. For me, a weekly night in a hotel was more about finally feeling clean than about comfort. And while I’ve heard of magical truck stops with public showers, the only place I ever actually found one was at the marina in Juneau, Alaska. It was $3 well spent.
In vanlife, there’s a constant push and pull between the need for privacy and the need for connection; especially if, like me, you travel alone. In a van, curtains and a windshield sun shade are essential to preventing you from feeling like you are constantly on display.
But oddly, as time passed, I began to feel more conspicuous when my curtains were up than when I was protected just by moderately tinted windows. People seem to be more willing to scrutinize a car in a parking lot with curtains than one that just looks like a car and, as a woman traveling alone, that made me nervous.
What else put my nerves on edge? An unexpected overnight snowstorm in late May in Fort Collins, Colorado. A slip and fall on a hiking trail near Bellingham, Washington, in which I severely sprained my tailbone. Driving an eight-hour stretch of desolate road in British Columbia where far too few gas stations kept far too limited hours.
Eventually, I got used to being constantly on display, to sleeping in parking lots, and to peeing in buckets. It didn’t matter that I rarely got to cook a meal, have a shower, or sleep in a real bed. Vanlife is gross, frustrating, lonely, and nowhere near as glamorous as Instagram would have to you believe.
But it also shifted my perspective on myself and my values, and tested the middle class urban identity I’d cultivated over the last decade. Without stuff, without excesses of cash, without a comfortable room to return to every night, vanlife taught me how to enjoy simple pleasures that I’d overlooked in regular life. It wasn’t easy, but it sure was worth it.