I have been re-writing this article over and over again multiple times. I wanted to add more and more details, but eventually, I just started over. Initially, I wanted to write an article about the challenges of the van-life, but then I’ve realized that there are plenty of articles describing that. And most people want to hear a story behind that. Not only a Story, but a healthy balance of things that are awesome about van-life, as well as problems that are possible along the route.
Why would you ever want to start the van life in the first place? I would describe it personally in one sentence:
You want to challenge every possible aspect of your life and the way you see the world.
A video version of the movie review is available here.
We have our society set up around materialistic values, going to a job every day (including weekends, at times), and paying rent. Nobody likes paying rent or having mortgage payments, but it gives us some sense of security and even connection.
This is what you see 90% of the time and this is what surrounds you. It’s either a desk at home or a desk at your office job and the colleagues that you communicate with. Sometimes you are working with the same people for decades. You get to know them and they get to know you. This gives you a sense of security and safety.
However, once you decide that you are ready to fall out of this secure bubble — that’s where your challenges start to begin. Questioning the way society is constructed is always going to bring you up to uncomfortable questions, decisions, and discussions.
This is perfectly described in the movie. Once Fern decided to start living in her vehicle many people tried to comfort her, suggest to start living in the house, and try to question her lifestyle overall. Instead, it makes her even stronger.
The Beginning of my Journey
Like a Fern (the character from NomadLand) it got to be a trigger for someone to start a Van-Life and the chain of changes it brings along the way.
Typically, a trigger is either a loss of job, a partner, or just a desire for changes. For me, it was a desire of changing my life. I bought a Van in April of 2017 and quit my job just a few months after.
I had a great job in IT. I am a Test Engineer and anything related to computers will always be a meaning of my life. That and writing.
However, deep inside me, I knew I wanted changes. I didn’t want to settle down, buy a house, and commit to a career in an office where I would be locked for many more years to come. I enjoyed my line of work, but I knew that I want to have multiple streams of income, meeting more people, and seeing more places.
The only thing that I don’t understand is why it took me so long to realize that. Maybe there were people around me that suggested otherwise, maybe it was a fear of losing everything. But then I thought about the words that Steve Jobs once said:
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
We cannot just simply turn around, roll back a few years and get it all back. The age is just a number, but that number increases rapidly and there is no point of return.
I voluntarily quit my job in 2017 and I had no work lined up. There was no plan except traveling extensively and looking up online gigs that I could pick up. I got everyone confused why I am walking away from a job that gives me food, the ability to pay the rent, and just something that gives my life stability.
Stability? No, thank you!
The most important thing to realize is that there are people who are forced into Van-Life or Car-Life. And then some people voluntarily start this journey.
If you start that journey voluntarily typically you have time to adapt, you have some savings and you are not there because of desperation. That van builds that took months to build? Probably you had it planned already.
You are exploring, challenging yourself, and adapt to living in either nature or somewhere in the city. You are not rushing anything and if you have any issues with this lifestyle — you can always rent a hotel or find accommodation if you really need to.
However, if you start it out of desperation you will need to figure out things almost immediately. You will have no time to build your van. Most likely you will start living in whatever car you have right now.
Since I’ve started voluntarily I had time to shop around for a van and pick the one I liked. I initially started with expensive vans (e.g Promaster) and was ready to spend a large amount of money. But then I’ve realized that a vehicle is not an investment. It will lose value without a doubt and better to buy something cheap and then if you like that lifestyle — upgrade it for something more expensive.
That’s what I did when I’ve purchased my Chevy Express Van. I bought it for a reasonable amount of money, bought a bed and a frame for approximately $300, bought a portable battery and I was ready to hit the road.
Where to Stay?
When you start doing Van-Life typically think about the places where you would want to stay, explore those, and then divide those into categories and decide what works the best for you.
Typically those categories are:
- Public Lands. Free and you can stay there for up to two weeks.
- Walmart. Free, but you need to ask for permission and not all the stores allow camping. Also, it’s a good idea to buy something there, just as a gesture of appreciation. Good for overnight camping only.
- Campgrounds. Wide range of possibilities here. Sometimes those cost a little and sometimes the cost of a campground is more than a cost of a motel.
- Casinos. Yes, you can stay at casinos for either free or a small charge. Typically a casino expects you to spend some money inside by either playing there or having dinner there.
- Stealth camping in the City. This is the option that I like the least. Typically you stay in the city and make the impression that you don’t actually live in your vehicle. City rules typically discourage that and you might get a knock-knock from police in the middle of the night, forcing you to move out to another spot.
- Rest areas. Not all of them allow free camping, but the ones that allow are not a bad choice overall for overnight camping.
- Your private land. Consider buying a piece of land just for camping. It might be a good solution to buy a camper there and live rent-free. I think this is the ultimate solution.
The decision of what type of camping to take is usually up to you. I like the cheap campgrounds, casinos and public lands. Typically you find out what works out the best only after you spend some time in all those places.
That’s why I recommend people to start their van-life journey in whatever vehicle they have and upgrade along the way (if necessary). Everyone has a different level of comfort and that’s what matters the most. I have a video about my experience camping for free in the Mojave Desert in my car at that time (Honda Civic). You can watch it with English subtitles and see how does this lifestyle fits you.
I personally liked the efficiency of small vehicles, but it was not really comfortable for long camping trips. That’s why I eventually bought a van. But I do miss the gas mileage of a small car. Oh yes, I do.
Problems along the way?
You save the money on rent and you are seeing places. However, what’s the catch? Well, the catch is that you car might either get stuck or break down in the middle of nowhere.
Both those situations are perfectly shown in NomadLand’s movie. I was also stuck in the public land in Nevada.
Thankfully, it was easy for me to get out of this whole situation. Breaking down somewhere in the middle of the road is another fear that I always have at the back of my mind. It’s always better to stay positive, but you never know what surprises the road might show. It might be a windy road, your tires going bad, or anything else in between.
I have this reflected in one of my videos. My car battery went bad and I was not able to start my car. Thankfully, it’s not a big of a deal and there was a Park Ranger nearby. I got this figured easily, but imagine if it was some serious issues?
I don’t want to discourage you, though. Most of the time camping seems like the best experience of your life. Hiking trails in every possible direction, picturesque locations, and meeting great people along your journey. Yes, it’s absolutely worth the effort!
This is another complex issue perfectly reflected in the movie. If you travel by yourself, loneliness is what eventually will get to you.
It might take days, weeks, or months, but eventually, the van-life will become your routine and you will feel loneliness along the route.
Everyone manages it differently. Some people start shooting videos, some start reading extensively and watch movies.
Others try to join nomad tribes and that described in NomadLand. No rule fits everyone. The more you travel alone — the more you will understand about yourself. You will get an overall idea of what you want and what exactly drives you.
NomadLand shows a Van-Life in all the true colors. It starts with desperation and shows what triggered the main character to live that lifestyle. Later on, we can see that the story changes significantly.
Instead of feeling stuck, Fern sees that the nomadic lifestyle gives you freedom of choice, good friends, and people who simply care about who you are. You might meet people along a route that look down at you, but that’s such a minor concern that it’s not even worth mentioning. Eventually, you will ignore all those negative vibes from those people.
You might get back to your normal life in the house or you might commit to full-time RV or Van living. I would never understand what I want until I try that. Van-Life perfectly works out for me part-time, but I also love traveling internationally and that’s why I am fine with whatever accommodations I can get.
I mostly care about the cost of my travels and what experience I get out of those. Van-Life is a great lifestyle, but I am personally not sure if I can do it full time. For me, it’s a combination of different travel modes: van-life/camping, Airbnb’s, cheap motels, and cabins. I want to try out tent camping sometime in the future, but so far I’m fine with camping in my Van.
But for our movie characters, it seems like giving up Van-Life was never an option. They grew to like it and not willing to give it away. This lifestyle has a lot of benefits for sure. But it has the challenges as well, like anything in life.
I want to focus on Bob Wells’s personality from the movie. This guy is a real person and it definitely inspired me on starting the digital nomad lifestyle. I think his suggestions, help, and courage are what eventually shown me that this lifestyle is possible, fun and there is nothing wrong with it. Society norms are just what we are supposed to do, but living “by the book” doesn’t work for everyone.
Thank you for reading! What do you think? Are you ready to start your nomad journey or there is something that holds you?