5 things no one tells you about #vanlife

Megan Holstein

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I spent two years fantasizing about the #vanlife before I joined, and in that time I swear I read every article, saw every Instagram post, and watched every YouTube video in existence that mentioned #vanlife. Now I’m living the dream. While I wouldn’t trade it for the world, there were some things no one warned me about…

1. Wasps (And Other Bugs) Are Everywhere

I don’t know what it is about a camper van, but if I’m in an area where wasps exist, they always get into my van. It’s cooler, there are lots of interesting smells from my food and beauty products, and lots of holes in which to build a nest.

For the first year, I simply had to keep my windows shut when wasps showed up (which was always). Now I have a bug net over my doors so I can open my barn doors in a park without inviting wasps in.

While wasps are the ones that upset me most, there are plenty of other bugs. Ants frequently find their way onto my floor. Sometimes flies show up smashed on my windowsills. A few days ago, I found a monarch butterfly that had somehow gotten trapped in the door of my fridge, flapping slowly on the edge of death. (Nothing makes you feel awful like killing a butterfly).

This is a fact of RV life — it is extraordinarily difficult to keep nature out of a space so small. No matter how clean I am, there’s almost always a bit of dirt on my floor.

If you’re a clean freak, you wouldn’t do well in a camper.

2. Most Nights Are Spent At Walmart

Photos like this one and this one make #vanlife seem like a never-ending parade and beauty, but that’s not quite how it is.

Don’t get me wrong — there are moments of beauty. But every night spent in a location of beauty, I spend nine or more in a Walmart parking lot.

But I like Walmart parking lots. A full bathroom with plumbing is just a parking lot away, and if I want anything from BBQ sauce to paperclips, I don’t have to drive anywhere to get it. Hell, it’s more convenient than living in an actual house.

3. Entire Cities Don’t Allow Overnight Parking

I got into Boise, ID, eager to spend the week in the city preparing for ConvertKit’s Craft + Commerce…. Only to find the entire city of Boise has an ordinance against overnight parking. Everyone with a camper who pays for a campground or parking spot at an RV lot is in the clear, but people who rely on places like Walmart to park for free are hosed. Even if Walmart wanted to let me park overnight, Boise has made it illegal.

In order to park in the area, I have to drive twenty minutes down the highway to a rest stop or truck stop to sleep for the night. Which isn’t so bad — after all, how many of us have a twenty-minute commute? But it’s just annoying enough for me to know I’m not welcome.

Boise is not the first city I’ve come across with this ordinance. Colorado Springs is another. This sort of restriction is common in conservative cities in liberal states — liberal states tend to get more of us outdoorsy, travel-on-a-shoestring-budget types, and conservative towns don’t want migrant liberal bums milling around their home (because let's face it — migrant bums are rarely Republicans).

Not that I’m a bum, of course, but there are a lot of people who can’t conceive of someone traveling in their camper being anything but. Real adults get real jobs and real apartments and real cars, not broken-down vans from the mid-nineties to trundle around the continent.

That’s the core of this problem — I am not welcome everywhere. The government of Colorado Springs and Boise have made it clear they are real cities, for real people, one of which I am most clearly not.

4. I Can’t Own A Gun

The constitution protects our right to defend ourselves and our home — but camper vans hadn’t been invented when the Founding Fathers wrote that, and they never got folded into those protections.

In other words, I can’t legally use a gun to defend my camper van the same way someone might defend their home. If someone breaks into your home and you shoot them in the foot, you stopped a robbery. If someone breaks into my camper van and I shoot them in the foot, I shot a guy in the foot in a Walmart parking lot. I can own a gun and take it to the shooting range, but legally speaking, that’s all I can use it for.

4. My Van Can Be Searched Anytime

While a cop can’t search your house without a warrant, cops are allowed to search your car without a warrant, thanks to the automobile exception. And of course, RVs and camper vans count as a ‘car,’ not a ‘house.’

And cops have a lot of reason to search my car, or indeed anyone who stays overnight at Walmart:

Say a cop finds me parked behind a Walmart passing through town. They knock, waking me up and opening my door. They just found a young woman alone in a car behind a strip mall — this is weird and unusual to them, so their guard is up. Since their guard is up, and it takes little legal requirements to search a vehicle, I’m at much greater risk for a vehicle search.

To combat this, I make sure my van is as clean as possible before going to bed. If they open the van door to find a woman sleeping in pajamas in a bed full of stuff thrown about, they’re going to think shiftless homeless chick, whereas if they open the door to a clean van with everything put away, they are more likely to think traveling young woman. I also own a safe for private business, since cops do need a warrant to open a safe.

But honestly, I shouldn’t have to combat this. I shouldn’t have to give up my right to privacy or to defend myself because I’m on the move instead of stationed in one spot. Such is the price of rejecting societal norms.

Despite these things, I love #vanlife and wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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Self-help writer with 3M+ views on Medium and Quora. Covering personal growth, relationship skills, and career growth.

Columbus, OH
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