One of the biggest topics of conversation when talking about living in NZ for the last four months is van-life. The ups, the downs, and all of the day to days. Since it’s hard to cover the van details and van living in every conversation, I figured I’d just lay it all out for you here. So without further ado, if you’ve ever been interested in what van-life is really like or what our experience has been, I’d suggest you keep reading!
Part 1: The Van
This is Leo - our home for the last four months. He's taken us 15,000 kilometers and to every nook and cranny of New Zealand that our hearts were set on exploring. Leo is a 2013 Mitsubishi L300 LWB. When we bought him, he had 125,000 kilometers and currently clocks in at about 140,000. Compared to most vans on the road in NZ, Leo is a baby and as a first generation backpacker van, we were the first in a line of future explorers to make Leo a home.
$12500 NZD or about $8700 USD later and we were signing the papers to call Leo our own. Now this might seem like a lot, so let me break down why our frugal selves were comfortable dishing out this kind of dough:
Leo was one of the newest camper vans we’ve seen in NZ, which meant (knock on wood) that there was less likelihood of mechanical issues coming up along the way.
Leo came with a mechanical warranty, so even if something did go wrong, we wouldn’t be stranded in the middle of nowhere, needing to pay heaps for repairs.
Leo was self-contained, which meant we could freedom camp, saving us about $3,000NZD or $2,100USD over the course of 4 months.
This would be our home. Our rent and garage parking for a typical month in Kansas is around $900USD. So, that means that 4 months of rent would be $3600 USD or about $5000 NZD deducted from our expenses.
Reselling a young van with such low kilometers would hopefully be a breeze, gaining us back the majority of our initial cost
All this to say, the investment was absolutely worth it.
Part 2: Living in a Van in NZ
So what was van-life really like?!
Frustrating, but incredible.
Life changing, but a little gross.
Complicated, but really, really simple.
I'll break it down...
To start, van-life was cramped, to say the least. On the positive side, this means we were out and about WAY more than usual. If there's not much reason to stay inside, it's a really good reason to get outside. So much fresh air and sunshine is like nothing I have ever experienced before and something I hope to embrace from here on out.
On the other hand though, when the sun went away and the rain came rolling in, we were damp and stuck sitting inside hoping everything would dry out by the time we were ready for bed. There’s not much that’s better than sunshine and fresh air, but there’s not much that's worse than damp clothes and bedding.
Van-life is restrictive, but oh so freeing.
Our bed in the van is 1/2 the size of what we’re used to at home, doing dishes involves rocking the entire place as you ferociously pump the sink to get a few streams of water, and freedom camping requires turning in at 3pm most days in order to get a legal spot.
BUT, the freedom that comes from having your home and literally everything you own with you, being able to stay in the most beautiful and practically untouched areas, and living simply is completely unmatched.
Wellness can be a bit of a...whirlwind?
On the plus side, travelling and living in a van with limited cell service and no WiFi means ample time for focusing on health and wellness with very limited distraction. With the constant encouragement of getting out and moving, as well as the time to do things like meditate and reduce stress, parts of your wellness could definitely improve like they did for me.
On the other hand though, living in a confined space that wasn’t necessarily designed with living in mind means condensation, potential toxins, and almost inevitably, mold. It also means that unless you want to be meal prepping and cooking all day and night, your eating habits are going to change. Now bear in mind that Leo did not have a fridge or any way to keep things cool, so our meals had to be creative and couldn't be prepared in advance.
For us, this meant preparing one cooked meal a day and either eating uncooked foods or eating out for the others. While we still made healthy choices the majority of the time, our bodies were not used to the way we were eating and we definitely suffered for it. While I’m sure we could have spent the time and money to modify our van in order to maintain our normal healthy eating, it just wasn't a practical option for us.
Disclaimer: you might find this next conversation a little gross, but it’s the reality of van-life, so I feel like it needs to be had.
Normal shower and laundry routines are just not possible.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch...
While normal routines may be possible, they’re very, very....very difficult. If you don’t like doing laundry or showering, this is a HUGE plus haha, but if you’re the kind of person that can’t go a day without a shower and the thought of wearing dirty clothes grosses you out, van-life is not for you - maybe consider wwoofing instead?
Being completely honest here, our showers have averaged out to about one every week to week and a half, depending on how much we’re hiking - and we have done laundry a total of 3 times in the last 4 months. So yeah, not exactly the normal routine!
When you have to travel out of the way to find facilities and pay for these sorts of things, they become less important. We have gotten a little stinky at times, but it’s pretty incredible how quickly our bodies, minds, and expectations adapted to limited maintenance.
Gross? Maybe, but we’re always willing to sacrifice a little luxury for a lot of adventure.
Part 3: The Takeaway
We knew that living in a van on the other side of the world was going to be an adjustment - it was going to be uncomfortable at times - and there would definitely be things that we wouldn't like about it. But for us, there was no better, more affordable, more rewarding way of doing it.
Sure, we could have seen beautiful places by staying in a hotel and renting a car, but we couldn’t have experienced the feeling of laying in bed with the trunk popped as we watched the sun go down or waking up in the middle of the night to appreciate the millions of stars just above our heads.
We may have missed our warm showers and freshly cleaned clothes at times, but we will never regret having pushed ourselves out of our comfort zone and seeing how much we were capable of.
While it may not be for everyone and I’m not sure that I would do it as a permanent solution, living in a van has been 100% worth it. It's changed my perspective on what I value in life, my understanding of what I can handle, and my appreciation for what this world has to offer that "man-made" never could.
Personally, I would trade comfort for adventure, convenience for simplicity, and normality for nature a million times over again.