Life on Wheels: A Beginner’s Guide to Avoiding Van Living Mistakes

Embarking on a van living journey offers unparalleled freedom and simplicity in life, making it an appealing choice for many seeking to explore, save money, or redefine their daily routines 1. With the rise of the digital nomad culture, van life has surged in popularity, presenting a unique way to merge travel, work, and living by avoiding common van living mistakes. Yet, diving into this lifestyle without adequate preparation can lead to problems with living in a van, touching on issues ranging from van conversion mistakes to challenges in route planning 12. Is van life dangerous? Not inherently, but recognizing potential pitfalls is crucial for a smooth transition 2.

In navigating the vast realm of van living, making informed decisions from the outset is paramount. From selecting the right van to understanding the nuances of maintenance, there are numerous aspects to consider to avert the common pitfalls of this lifestyle. This article aims to guide beginners through the essential steps and considerations, shedding light on how to avoid mistakes in van conversion, the importance of connectivity for digital nomads, and effective route planning to enhance the van living experience 1.

Not Testing The Van Before Buying

Test driving a van is not just a preliminary step; it’s a critical part of the van buying process. By taking the van for a test drive, you can assess its comfort level and ensure it meets your standards for either a smooth or performance-oriented ride 3. This is especially important considering that you’ll be spending a significant amount of time driving and living in this space.

During the test drive, pay close attention to the van’s performance, including acceleration, steering, handling, braking, and road noise. These factors are essential for a safe and enjoyable driving experience 3. It’s also the perfect opportunity to check the functionality and compatibility of tech features like infotainment systems, driver safety aids, and control layouts, which can significantly enhance your living and driving experience 3.

Furthermore, an in-person evaluation during a test drive allows you to determine if the van provides adequate interior space for passengers and cargo, aligning with your specific needs 3. It also helps you become familiar with the vehicle’s features, controls, and overall driving experience, which is invaluable before making a purchase decision 4. Lastly, a test drive can reveal potential issues such as unusual noises, vibrations, or malfunctions that may not be apparent from simply looking at the van 5.

Misunderstanding Van Maintenance Needs

Maintaining a van involves more than just addressing visible issues; it requires a comprehensive understanding of the vehicle’s needs and regular checks to prevent future problems. One common misconception is that oil needs to be changed every 3,000 miles, but for newer models (15 years or younger), the recommended interval is actually between 5,000 to 7,500 miles 8. Additionally, while many believe that car batteries last for about 5 years, the reality is that their lifespan can vary between 3 to 5 years, influenced by driving habits and climate conditions 8.

Another area often misunderstood is the servicing requirements under a vehicle warranty. It’s a myth that all maintenance to keep the warranty valid must be performed at a dealership; in fact, vehicle owners have the freedom to choose any qualified service facility for regular maintenance and repairs 8. This flexibility allows van owners to shop for service providers that offer competitive pricing and convenient locations, potentially reducing maintenance costs.

Regarding safety and performance, the importance of regular maintenance cannot be overstated. Vans, which often carry heavier loads and may store valuable tools and equipment, are subject to quicker wear and tear. Ensuring that tire tread depth, brake fluid, and other critical components are regularly checked and maintained can significantly impact both the safety and longevity of the vehicle 9. For instance, tire performance begins to deteriorate more rapidly once tread depth reaches 4/32”, suggesting a need for earlier replacement than the commonly cited 2/32” 8. Regular checks and maintenance not only keep the van in optimal condition but also enhance its resale value and reduce the likelihood of costly repairs down the line 910.

Not Doing a Test Run

Embarking on a test run in an empty van is a pivotal step in van living preparation. It allows us to design the layout of our van based on practical experience rather than just theoretical planning 7. During this test run, we encounter firsthand the realities of van life, such as dealing with space constraints and adjusting to limited amenities. This real-world exposure is crucial for understanding the significant lifestyle changes involved in transitioning to van living 15.

During the test run, we also evaluate the comfort and functionality of our van’s setup. Essential aspects like the sleeping arrangements, storage solutions, and cooking facilities are put to the test, providing us with valuable insights into what works and what doesn’t. This trial helps in assessing whether the space is livable and what improvements are necessary to make it a comfortable home on wheels 15.

Furthermore, a test run can reveal unexpected costs associated with van living, from fuel consumption to maintenance needs. It also allows us to identify any technical issues with the van, such as mechanical faults or electrical problems, before they become major inconveniences. For instance, Victoria Scott’s journey to Greensboro highlighted the challenges of long-distance driving and the broader impacts of external factors like pandemics and natural disasters on her mental well-being and lifestyle choices 1516. This practical experience is invaluable in confirming whether the van living lifestyle suits our personal preferences and coping capabilities.

Lack of Preparation for Connectivity

In our van living journey, ensuring reliable connectivity is crucial, especially for those of us who work remotely or enjoy streaming and staying connected on social media. One popular option is the Visible Cell Phone Hotspot, which offers a basic plan at $25 per month and a higher speed data plan at $45 per month, providing unlimited data, talk, and text in the United States, with high-speed data suitable for tasks like recording podcasts or Zoom calls 18. However, it’s important to note that this option allows only one computer to be linked as a hotspot at a time, and data is throttled after half a gig in Mexico and Canada 18.

For those venturing into more remote areas, Starlink Satellite Internet emerges as a viable solution. The service costs $150 per month under the Rome plan, plus a $599 initial hardware cost. It offers the advantage of high-speed data and the capability to be used abroad for up to two months at a time 18. However, users must manage expectations regarding the bulkiness of the equipment and the clear view of the sky required, which can be challenging in forested areas or during constant movement 18.

To optimize our connectivity solutions, combining different services can be beneficial. For instance, pairing the Visible hotspot for urban areas and Starlink for remote locations ensures continuous internet access. Additionally, investing in a Peplink router with a MIMO external antenna is recommended for remote workers to enhance reliability, especially in constantly changing environments where redundancy is crucial 1718. Regularly monitoring data usage and having a backup plan, such as a secondary mobile internet solution or access to public Wi-Fi networks, will also help manage connectivity effectively and avoid unexpected charges 19.

Ignoring the Importance of Insulation

Insulation in van living is not just about comfort; it’s a fundamental aspect that impacts both the efficiency and habitability of your mobile home. Proper insulation helps maintain a stable temperature inside the van, reducing the need for excessive heating or cooling, which is crucial in both sweltering summers and freezing winters 21.

Types and Installation of Insulation

Various insulation materials are available, each with specific benefits and challenges. Reflectix, Spray foam, and Polyiso are popular choices among van lifers. Reflectix acts like a radiant barrier which is perfect for reflecting heat away, while Spray foam offers excellent coverage, filling gaps and providing a high R-value. Polyiso boards are known for their thermal resistance and are effective in a wide range of temperatures. However, the effectiveness of these materials depends largely on correct installation. It’s essential to include a vapor barrier and ensure there is adequate ventilation to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to mold growth 21.

Advanced Insulation Strategies

To further enhance the insulation, integrating passive heating or cooling systems, such as a wood stove or an air conditioner, can be effective. These systems work in tandem with the insulation to maintain a comfortable living environment inside the van. Additionally, materials like Thinsulate are recommended due to their hydrophobic properties, preventing moisture absorption and making them ideal for environments where condensation might occur. It’s also important to address thermal bridges that can lead to heat loss; adding thermal breaks can mitigate this issue effectively 22.

For those living in colder climates, it’s crucial to insulate all water system components and utilize heat tape on exposed pipes to prevent them from freezing and potentially bursting during harsh winter conditions 25. This not only ensures the longevity of your van’s systems but also contributes to a safer and more comfortable living space.

Not Closing The Fresh Water Tank Valve

One common oversight in van living is not closing the fresh water tank valve. This mistake can lead to water leakage, as discussed by FFX160_CT and Van in the forum discussion 26. Furthermore, if the valve remains open, it might allow contaminants to enter the tank, posing health risks and potentially compromising the water quality 27.

To maintain the tank in optimal condition, it’s advisable to drain and refill the tank every two months or use the tank’s water regularly. This practice helps prevent issues that arise from stagnant water 27. Additionally, leaving the valve open for extended periods can cause the gasket to dry out and harden, which may result in cracks or breaks, leading to further leakage and damage 27.

In some cases, as experienced with a 2010 auto trail Arapaho, improper handling of the tank can cause water to overflow from the filling point and from under the van. This usually occurs if the water tank is not properly sealed. A practical solution to this issue includes checking if the drain valve on the tank and boiler are closed 28. Moreover, users have found that adding a simple valve to the end of the overflow hose can effectively prevent water from overflowing from the low point drain, thus safeguarding against unintended water loss and damage 30.

Not Understanding Van Plumbing and Drainage

Understanding the intricacies of van plumbing and drainage is crucial for a hassle-free van life experience. The system comprises several components including a water pump, fresh and grey water tanks, and plumbing hardware, which work together to provide running water and manage waste efficiently 25.

Key Components and Installation

  1. Water Pump and Accumulator: The water pump is essential for maintaining pressure in the system, ensuring that water flows immediately when a faucet is opened 25. An optional accumulator can be added to create a pressure buffer, which helps in reducing the frequency of water pump activation and provides more consistent water pressure 25.
  2. Fresh and Grey Water Tanks: A fresh water tank should be equipped with a test plug to seal the fill hole and a water tank filler with a valve for easy filling 25. The grey water tank collects used water from the sink, and a quick-disconnect system simplifies the process of dumping the water 25.
  3. Sinks and Water Heaters: For the sink, a Dometic VA7306AC Round Sink made of Stainless Steel with a strainer and drain is recommended 25. An Eccotemp L5 Portable Tankless Water Heater ensures there is always hot water on demand, which can be used for the sink and other needs like an optional bike wash 25.

Maintenance and Monitoring

  • Regularly draining the system during the winter months or using RV antifreeze can protect the plumbing from freezing temperatures 25.
  • It is also vital to sanitize the water system bi-annually or as necessary by circulating a bleach solution throughout to ensure water safety and cleanliness 25.
  • For advanced monitoring, upgrading to a Simarine Pico system can provide detailed insights into tank levels and system status, helping to prevent overflows and manage water use more effectively 25.

By understanding and implementing these components and maintenance steps, van lifers can ensure a reliable and efficient water system that enhances their on-the-road lifestyle.

Ignoring Regular Maintenance Checks

Regular maintenance checks are essential to ensure the longevity and reliability of our van, particularly when it comes to the battery, tires, plumbing, and appliances. Here’s a detailed breakdown of what we need to keep an eye on:

Battery Maintenance

The battery is the heart of the van’s electrical system, powering everything from the lights to the ignition. Regular checks should include ensuring the battery terminals are clean and free from corrosion, the water level is adequate (for non-sealed types), and the charge holds well. A failing battery can lead to unexpected breakdowns or inability to start the engine, which is the last thing we want during our travels 34.

Tire Inspections

Tires are critical for safety and comfort on the road. Regular inspections should look for adequate tread depth, signs of wear like cracks or bulges, and proper inflation according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. We must rotate our tires according to the schedule suggested by the tire manufacturer to ensure even wear and extend their life. This not only keeps us safe on the road but also optimizes fuel efficiency 34.

Plumbing and Appliance Checks

Since our van serves as a home on wheels, the plumbing system and appliances greatly contribute to our comfort. We should regularly inspect all plumbing connections for leaks and ensure that the water pump and other fixtures are functioning correctly. Appliances such as heaters, stoves, and refrigerators also require routine inspections to ensure they are operating efficiently and safely. This involves checking for gas leaks, electrical issues, and proper ventilation to prevent carbon monoxide buildup inside the van 34.

By adhering to these maintenance checks, we can avoid many common issues that might disrupt our van living experience. Regular upkeep not only prevents inconvenient and potentially expensive repairs but also ensures our van remains a safe, comfortable, and reliable home on the road.

Failing To Plan For Down Time

In the whirlwind of van life, it’s easy to overlook the importance of structured downtime. We often focus so much on the logistics of van living—route planning, maintenance, and daily activities—that we forget to allocate time for relaxation and self-care. It’s vital to remember that our mental and physical health needs as much attention as our vehicle’s mechanical health. Setting aside time for rest, relaxation, and personal care is not just a luxury; it’s a necessity for sustainable living on the road 36343738.

Budgeting for Enjoyment

To make the most of our downtime, planning financially for leisure activities is crucial. This might include budgeting for entry fees to parks, dining out to sample local delicacies, or investing in gear for hobbies like photography or hiking. These activities not only enrich our travel experience but also provide a much-needed break from the confines of our van. They allow us to immerse ourselves in the cultures and environments we explore, adding depth to our van life journey 36343738.

Preparing for the Unexpected

Moreover, downtime in van life isn’t always planned. Sometimes, it’s forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control such as vehicle breakdowns or unexpected repairs. In these instances, having a contingency plan is invaluable. This includes setting aside a reserve fund for emergency repairs and maintenance, which ensures that such interruptions don’t cause undue stress. By anticipating these potential delays, we can handle them more efficiently, keeping our adventure on track without significant disruptions 36343738.

Ignoring Vehicle Maintenance

Neglecting routine maintenance tasks such as oil changes and air filter replacements can lead to engine wear, decreased performance, and even catastrophic failures 39. A poorly maintained vehicle can result in reduced gas mileage, meaning more frequent stops at the pump and less money in your wallet 40. Skipping brake inspections and ignoring warning signs can lead to brake pad wear, rotor damage, and brake fluid leaks. The consequences of brake failure can be life-threatening 39.

Neglecting transmission fluid changes and inspections can result in transmission slippage, rough shifting, and overheating. Transmission repairs are notoriously expensive 41. Failing to address electrical issues, such as a malfunctioning alternator or a dying battery, can result in frustrating breakdowns and costly repairs 40. Neglecting your vehicle’s suspension and steering components can lead to a bumpy ride, uneven tire wear, and compromised handling 41.

Neglecting tire maintenance, such as proper inflation and rotation, can lead to reduced traction, decreased handling, and an increased risk of blowouts 39. A neglected exhaust system can result in reduced engine performance, increased emissions, and even carbon monoxide leaks into the cabin 39. A poorly maintained vehicle loses value more quickly than one that receives regular care. Neglecting maintenance can significantly impact your vehicle’s resale or trade-in value 42.

Not Investing in Solar Power

Investing in a solar power system for van living provides not only a sustainable and eco-friendly energy source but also significant long-term savings and autonomy in energy usage 45. A typical solar setup includes solar panels, a battery bank, a solar charge controller, and an inverter 45. Solar panels harness sunlight, converting it into direct current (DC) electricity, which is then managed by the solar charge controller to regulate energy flow 45. The inverter plays a crucial role by converting DC into alternating current (AC), necessary for running household appliances and electronics 45. Excess energy generated is stored in the battery bank, ensuring power availability even when the sun isn’t shining 45.

Components and Longevity

  1. Solar Panels: Choosing between rigid and flexible solar panels is crucial; rigid panels are generally more efficient and durable 45.
  2. Battery Options: Lithium batteries, though more costly, offer advantages in size, weight, and efficiency over traditional lead-acid batteries and are particularly suited for full discharge cycles without damage 45.
  3. Maintenance and Durability: Solar power systems are remarkably low maintenance post-installation and high-quality solar panels can last between 20 to 30 years, making them a wise investment for the long haul 45.

Incorporating solar power into van life not only caters to energy needs but also enhances off-the-grid living capabilities, providing a reliable power source for essentials like LED lighting and high-energy devices including desktop PCs and monitors 4648. Advanced solar generators like the Growatt Infinity 1500 offer portable, lightweight, and easy-to-maintain solutions for energy needs while traveling, further emphasizing the practicality of solar power in van living scenarios 47. Moreover, understanding and planning according to one’s energy needs are essential, with a focus on selecting the right combination of solar panels and inverters to meet specific energy goals 46.

Neglecting Van Security

In the realm of van living, security is a paramount concern that often goes overlooked until it’s too late. Ensuring your mobile home is secure from theft and unauthorized access involves implementing a multi-layered security approach. Many van lifers, including us, start with a basic security setup such as the SimpliSafe system, which provides a solid foundation for van security by monitoring and alerting us to any unauthorized entry attempts 7. Additionally, visual deterrents like stickers indicating the presence of a GPS tracker or alarm system, along with flashing LEDs on the unit, can effectively dissuade potential thieves from even attempting a break-in 50.

Advanced Security Measures

To fortify our vans further, we consider additional physical security measures:

  1. Installing Multiple Locks: Adding a second lock, such as deadlocks or slamlocks, enhances door security. Deadlocks need to be manually operated, while slamlocks automatically secure the door once it is shut, providing an added layer of protection 50.
  2. Utilizing Wheel and Steering Locks: Devices like the DiskLok help prevent the van from being driven away, even if intruders manage to gain access inside 50.
  3. Securing Valuables: A safe, such as the Yale Premium Laptop Safe, bolted to the chassis or walls of the van, offers a secure place to store valuables and sensitive items 50.

Comprehensive Security Systems

For those of us who take security extremely seriously, installing a 12-layer security system ensures almost every potential risk is covered:

  • Layers 1-3: Include blackout curtains to obscure the view inside, a functioning central locking system, and upgraded door handles with protective metal plates 35.
  • Layers 4-6: Feature thunderbolt locks connected to the central locking, stickers indicating alarm systems, and anti-bash film on windows to prevent break-ins 35.
  • Layers 7-9: Comprise alarms sensitive to the frequency of glass breaking, security cameras linked to our phones for real-time monitoring, and a car lock system that alerts us if the van is tampered with 35.
  • Layers 10-12: A hidden safe for valuables, personal defense tools like pepper spray, and comprehensive insurance coverage for any losses 35.

By layering these security measures, we significantly reduce the risk of theft and unauthorized access, ensuring peace of mind as we enjoy the freedoms of van life. Each of these strategies plays a crucial role in a holistic security approach, protecting both our physical assets and our sense of safety as we travel.

Not Considering Connectivity Needs

In our journey of van living, addressing connectivity needs is vital, especially when considering the broader scope of lifestyle logistics. Essential aspects like auto and health insurance, mail handling, and finding reliable internet or Wi-Fi access are just the tip of the iceberg 2. These considerations ensure that our nomadic lifestyle remains not only viable but also enjoyable.

For instance, managing mail while on the move can be quite a challenge. We’ve found a practical solution by receiving mail at Kathryn’s parents’ house in Austin, TX. For packages, we often use Amazon Lockers or the addresses of friends and family when we’re passing through their areas 7. This method not only secures our deliveries but also integrates a touch of home connection into our travels.

Moreover, ensuring consistent internet access is crucial for both work and leisure. This connectivity enables us to stay in touch with family, manage reservations for camping or parking, and even discover local activities that enrich our travel experience 2. By planning these elements carefully, we maintain a seamless flow in our daily van life, keeping the adventure alive without the stress of logistical oversights.


1. What are the initial steps to prepare for van life?
To start preparing for van life, you should first try living in a van temporarily to see if it suits you. Choose a vehicle that meets your needs and load it with necessary items. It’s crucial to prepare safety or emergency equipment, invest in a portable power system, and install essential travel apps. Additionally, plan a budget for your van life expenses and get accustomed to working while on the road.

2. How can I start van life with little to no money?
Starting van life without money requires careful planning and resourcefulness. Focus on minimalistic living, seek opportunities for bartering services for necessities, and consider jobs that can be done remotely or on the go. It’s also advisable to connect with the van life community for support and resources.

3. Is living in a van a practical choice?
Living in a van is a practical choice for many, offering a cheaper lifestyle that allows for greater savings and flexibility. This lifestyle supports the freedom to travel, especially for those who value mobility and simplicity over traditional living arrangements.

4. How can you live comfortably in a van?
To live comfortably in a van, plan your routes and budget carefully to avoid unnecessary expenses. Keep your space minimalistic and organized to make the most of the limited area. Embrace off-grid living by learning to manage without constant utilities. Always prioritize safety and stay informed about your surroundings. Lastly, engage with the van life community for support and company, and remain flexible and open-minded to adapt to various situations.


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