I tried van life for the first time and quit after a year. Here are 10 mistakes I'll avoid for my next attempt.
- I traveled New Zealand for a year and a half, mostly living out of my camper van with my boyfriend.
- Next time, I'd be more open to talking to neighbors and customizing my van earlier in my trip.
After my boyfriend and I spent over a year hopping from van life to hostels, Airbnbs, and work stays in New Zealand, I was looking forward to the simple pleasures of living in a house back home in the US .
All things considered, I spent about a year total in the van with a few breaks for the COVID-19 lockdown, the winter months, and some working stints. Our van was outfitted with a simple kitchen, a bed, and a table, but we worked throughout the year to customize it just for us.
I have no regrets about how I spent my time traveling, and I'd do van life again in a heartbeat. But there were a lot of lessons learned along the way and things that would've made adjusting to and living in the van a lot easier.
Here are 10 things I plan to do differently when I set off on my next van-life adventure.
It's wise to rent a camper van first instead of buying one
Although my boyfriend warned me that we should rent a camper van before buying one — an effort to make sure we really wanted to live this way for the next year — I didn't listen.
After just a day in New Zealand, I was anxious about how expensive hostels were, my lack of income, and our lack of freedom without our own vehicle. We ended up buying our van after just five days in the country and immediately started living out of it.
The culture shock hit me hard. On one of our first nights, we neglected to refill our fuel and water tanks before heading out to camp. We also quickly realized how much gear we'd need to make this situation work.
If we'd rented instead, we could've relied on a rental company to handle some issues or help us troubleshoot. We also would've been able to afford a nicer build if we borrowed instead of purchased.
Next time, I'd be friendlier with the neighbors more often
Many of New Zealand's freedom camping sites, where travelers can park certified self-contained vehicles overnight for free, are remote and far out of the way. Others are located right in the center of a town, in the parking lot used for weekend farmers' markets or a local school.
In these situations, we often found ourselves parked with just a few feet of space between us and another freedom camper. I wish I was friendlier with those neighbors earlier on because it's likely I missed out on meeting some great people because I was too shy to interact with strangers.
Later, some of our best friends would be people we met while freedom camping, including one couple we ended up staying with several times before leaving the country.
I wish I'd set harder boundaries with my personal space
Even in New Zealand, where freedom camping is widespread and generally accepted, passersby are still enamored with (or annoyed by) the collection of vans. These people were usually friendly, but we still felt like a bit of a spectacle.
Although I tried to be open to chatting with strangers, I reached a point of needing to set boundaries about where the public ended and my personal space began. After all, when these people came up to me early in the morning, I'd likely just rolled out of bed and was preparing my first coffee on my impromptu front porch.
It can be socially exhausting, as well as unsafe and an invasion of privacy, to constantly have people peeking into your kitchen, bedroom, living room, and car all at once.
As I got more comfortable in the country, I got better at setting hard lines with people who got too close, or avoiding interactions altogether if I was just too spent.
It would've been wise to take a few weeks to set up the van before moving in
We started living in our van as soon as we owned it, with just a few nights in hostels and at friends' houses here and there. So any time we wanted to clean, take stock of our stuff, or upgrade the van, we had to do it all in one shot because we'd have to sleep on the bed at the end of the night.
If I'd given myself the time to set up before moving in, I probably would've avoided a lot of my early frustrations about van life.
We should've budgeted for smaller upgrades
To prepare for spring, we emptied our van, rebuilt part of our kitchen, and updated a lot of things we'd been meaning to do for months.
But once we were traveling, we kept noticing little things that would enhance our experience even more. We wanted to add bungee cords to our shelves so spices didn't go flying on bumpy roads, hang net pockets to store our books above the bed, and string lights across the ceiling.
These small upgrades were totally worth it — they were a fun way to spend time together and were genuinely useful — but we weren't prepared to continue spending money on the van. It would've been frugal to budget for these smaller projects, most of which are inexpensive and only take a few minutes to implement.
Next time, I won't be as afraid to spend money on a hostel
I refrained from staying in hostels for most of the trip except when it was absolutely necessary.
We often chose to stay in the van even when staying inside was an option because it truly was our home base. Hostels felt like a hassle, since all of our clothes, toiletries, and cooking supplies were already set up in the van.
But as we got closer to leaving, I began to occasionally take advantage of New Zealand's many affordable backpacker hostels and campgrounds.
Eventually, I realized these small breaks from the van kept me from getting sick of it. They also offered my boyfriend and me some much-needed space after spending all of our time within a few feet of each other.
We should've made strategic travel plans from the start
About 10 months into our time in New Zealand, we realized we still had friends all over the country to say farewell to and a long list of places we wanted to return for a second dip.
Our last few months were planned better than our entire trip, and I wish that's what we'd done the whole year.
Although our plans changed often, we had regular conversations about where we wanted to be in the next weeks, what we wanted to see, and how much time we wanted to spend doing it. This allowed us to plan our travels so we could see everything we wanted to and stop in towns for necessary goods and services along the way.
Next time, I'll have a go-to bad weather plan
Each time bad weather struck, we scrambled to figure out our next move. It's not as if you can't do van life in crappy weather, but our vehicle was small and long bouts of rain would leave us perpetually damp and uncomfortable.
I wish we had determined a budget and a go-to plan for these bad weather days because we often ended up dipping into our money to stay at campgrounds or hostels.
I should've planned more time for myself while also incorporating social gatherings into my travels
Van life can offer the ultimate freedom, especially in a hospitable country like New Zealand. We often spent several days at a time isolated from most other campers at a freedom camp in the mountains or by the beach.
The lifestyle could be isolating at times, but we made lots of friends who also had vans, and often we'd run into them or plan to meet up at campsites or on the road.
Between all of the hiking, driving, remote working, and traveling, we often forgot to make time both for ourselves and for socializing. Eventually, we started working alone time and social gatherings into our travels.
If we try van life again, I'll make more time to rest between spurts of travel
As we got further into our trip, we became more ambitious about everything we wanted to see in New Zealand. We ended up on the road more often than not, trying to see our friends while also making time for overnight hikes and working days in the library.
Although there's something to be said for doing as much as you can every day while traveling, this wasn't just a vacation — we lived a somewhat normal life there for over a year, and a normal life should include some relaxation.
I wish I'd planned more rest between spurts of intense travel, so I could give all my energy to the next adventure.
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