Van Life. 5 things to consider before taking the plunge…
So we are now almost 6 months into our year-long family road trip, we’ve got the hang of things and the novelty has worn off. Living in a van feels pretty ‘normal’ now so we thought it was time to reflect on some of the things we’ve learned so far and perhaps offer some pearls of wisdom to anyone planning a similar adventure. Whilst there are a ton of wonderful things about long term family travel, we think it’s important to highlight some of the less wonderful aspects …so that if you are planning a trip you can go into it with open eyes. Here are just a few things to think about before heading off…
1.It’s not a holiday.
Despite the beautiful sunset pictures there is still work to be done. Just because you’ve left your house doesn’t mean you’ve left your household chores behind. There is still laundry, cleaning, shopping, cooking, tidying and washing up to be done. And you have no dishwasher, no washing machine, a tiny sink, fridge and freezer …and very little storage space which means you have to shop little and often. You can’t just say ‘let’s leave the washing up till later’ because then you’ll have to sit and look at it until its done…
…because the kitchen is in the same room as the lounge and the bedrooms.
Add to this the need to fill up with water, empty waste water, empty the toilet and pack / unpack the van every time you move and you can see that van life is not all about relaxing by the beach. Sometimes it’s bloody hard work.
Talking of chores – a word of warning – drain your waste water tank before setting off somewhere otherwise about 10 minutes into the drive the van will be filled with the most disgusting smell emanating from the stale kitchen water in the tank, which has been jiggled about on the drive. You can try to block the plugholes but this will likely be to no avail – that stuff is noxious.
2.Your children are with you 24/7
This can be great and it can be not so great. You know all those posts you see on Facebook in the summer holidays? The ones from parents complaining about how they don’t know how they’ll manage because their kids are home for 6 weeks? Well imagine your kids are home for a year, and that home is a 2m x 6m space. And they bicker. Every. Day.
There is no 6 hour break from it while they are at school, they are with you all day, every day…and they constantly want feeding… I mean ALL the bloody time…oh how I miss school meals! Having said that, the plus side is fantastic, you get to show them some amazing stuff, they learn some great skills, develop confidence and learn new languages and you get to make some fantastic memories together.
You will develop an intimate knowledge of each other’s toilet habits and find yourself asking ‘is it a wee or a poo?’ on a daily basis. Due to the fact that the toilet in the van has a limited capacity and it needs emptying by the grumpiest member of our team, he has insisted that it is only to be used in the middle of the night or when there is no alternative. Woe betide the child who uses it when there is a perfectly good campsite toilet a short stroll away. Our two youngest have both been forced to assist in the smelly task of toilet emptying because they thought they could sneak in a poo when nobody was looking ..or ..er..listening. You’ll get to know which supermarkets have toilets or you’ll stop at motorway services because you’d rather use them than have to empty the loo often and so you’ll force the whole family – adults included to ‘go and have a try’ if you’re anywhere near a ‘real’ toilet. Discussing toilet habits is not pleasant and definitely takes some of the mystery out of a marriage – it will test your relationship. Talking of which…
4.It will test your relationship.
No matter how much you love someone, being with them in a small space 24 hours a day, 7 days a week will lead to irritations and arguments. This will likely culminate in a full blown row – probably in the North of Italy. You won’t really know (or remember) what the row is about – it’s probably just because your husband is being even more of a dick than usual -but it will be horrid. However, because your kids are asleep three metres away you can’t shout or stomp and have a proper row so you’ll do that whispery shouting thing, you know the sort, where the angrier you get the quieter and hissier your voice becomes. Anyway it will probably end with you saying ‘Ok then let’s just go home and get a divorce’ and he’ll say ‘ok then’ and go off and sleep, sitting up, on the sofa, in a huff so that he gets a crick in his neck. In the morning you’ll both decide that you’d actually quite like to ‘not get divorced please’ and you’ll make up and you’ll cry and have big puffy red eyes – but that’s okay because you can wear huge sunglasses, because – Italy.
5. It’s not as spontaneous as you think.
Before we set off I had visions of us just stopping where we liked, moving on at the drop of a hat, a free, spontaneous lifestyle. But it’s not quite like that. Yes, we are free to go where we choose but not at the drop of a hat. If we are going to be wild/free camping we need to make sure we have an empty toilet, full water tank, fully charged electrical devices and enough gas for the hob and fridge. Whenever we move the van there are a ton of things that need to be done before we can set off, whether we are heading to a new destination or just going to the supermarket. Even if we ignore packing up the outdoor table and chairs, bikes, washing line and kids toys we still have to secure everything before the van can move off. We have a checklist which goes something like this:
- Awning in
- Steadies up
- Chocs removed
- Ladder put away
- Gas appliances off
- External blinds secure
- Bikes and bike rack secure
- External hatches locked
- Windows closed
- Roof-lights closed
- Step up
- Door locked
- Surfaces clear
- Nothing hanging
- Bathroom surfaces clear
- Condiments rack covered
- Bed locked up
- Internal cupboards secure
- Fridge on 12volts and locked
- Bathroom locked
This checklist has grown with experience: not having clear surfaces or locked cupboards means stuff flies about the van. The kids nearly got decapitated by a chopping board which flew out of a cupboard as we went around a roundabout on our first trip out. Our habitation door swung open on a busy road because we’d forgotten to lock it properly, and our window blind scraped somebody else’s van because we hadn’t rolled it away and secured it. Unfortunately, the ‘somebody else’ was a gang of German football fans during Euro 2016 … they weren’t at all pleased – I sent the kids out to stand by their Dad while he negotiated – I figured that would make it less of a macho confrontation!
Anyway we’ve got into quite a quick packing up routine now that we’ve been on the road 6 months, it’s almost like a dance now – we each know each other’s moves, we each have our own tasks and it gets done fairly smoothly, still, moving on is not quite as spontaneous as I’d pictured.
So that’s just a few things to consider if you are planning a long family road trip (or even a short road trip) I have some more in mind but they are for another post. I guess the ‘take home message’ from this is that if you think the trip will be all roses, smiles and sunshine, the kids laughing while you sip a chilled glass of Prosecco then you’re in for a rude awakening. However, if you understand that it will be hard work at times and that sometimes you’ll be utterly sick of van life then you’re probably in the right mindset and should definitely give it a go. Despite the hard work, despite the bickering, even despite the toilet I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Van life is no good if you’re looking to run away from something. It’s like taking your home life and distilling it. The good bits become amazing and the not so good bits well, you’ve just read about those.
A simple life doesn’t necessarily mean an easier life, but it can mean one that is richer, fuller and way more intense.