I’m not much for camping. Many people I love love it (including the two awesome people I’m currently traveling with), but I’ve just never quite been able to tip the hassle-to-enjoyment ratio in my favor.
First there’s the gear—so much gear!—which all needs to be pulled down from a high shelf, dusted off and packed up, only to return a day or two later, completely covered in dirt and/or mud, needing a good wash before being put away again. And while you’re out in the wilderness, there are the dirty and cold realities of living in a tent (a challenge for a lady who likes things clean and cozy); the way my back always ends up aching from a combination of crouching over a cold-water spigot doing dishes in the dark and sleeping on an inevitably bumpy surface; and the whole problem of nature calling in the middle of the night, a circumstance that usually requires pulling on shoes, braving the cold and squatting in the woods. Give me a lovely day hike followed by beers and snacks at a nearby eatery, a hot shower and a proper bed any day of the week and I’m a happy camper.
So when Dan suggested traveling from Sydney to Melbourne via camper van over the course of 10 days, I was game. Here was a chance to experience the joys of camping—staying in national parks, sleeping among gorgeous scenery, waking up steps away from beautiful hikes—without the hassle. Gear? Included! Pots and pans, dishes, towels, sheets and pillows—all neatly tucked into the nooks and crannies of our van. A cozy and clean place to sleep? Check! Our van comes equipped with air conditioning and heat, beds for three and comfy duvets. Facilities? Yup! An outdoor grill, indoor stove, fridge and sink, not to mention a toilet and shower. Luxurious! I mean, I knew enough not to expect the kind of rosy, influencer-curated experience marked with a vanlife hashtag on Insta (Dan frying one perfect egg in a beanie and perfectly trimmed facial hair at sunrise! Me doing yoga in a bikini top at sunset! The back doors of the van thrown open to reveal our bare feet framed by stunning vista after stunning vista at both sunrise and sunset!), but still, the idea sounded pretty fun.
The reality? Well… there were definitely some incredible moments during our week and a half with Mist (Fiona’s name for our Maui 2+1 Berth Campervan). Dan will cover them in more detail (and with more photos!) in a forthcoming post, but suffice it to say there were beachy sunsets and mountain hikes and brewery stops and wide open spaces aplenty, many of them unforgettable. I would also be remiss not to shout out Australian caravan parks, where we parked most nights, which are ubiquitous, largely incredibly well appointed (including flush toilets, clean hot showers, full kitchens and often pretty elaborate playgrounds) and full of really kind and friendly people.
All of that said, somehow the #vanlife portion of our vacation mostly felt like #vanwork. Lacking the relaxing moments of either the father-daughter camping trips Dan and Fi have enjoyed or the rental-house stays we’ve done as a family, vanlife-ing dominated most of our waking hours with endless logistics to attend to, leaving no real time to, say, read a book or (as you may have noticed) draft a blog post. Here are a few challenges we didn’t expect:
Friends, we are no strangers to sharing small spaces. We spent most of Fiona’s first five years in 750 square feet and have stayed together in a single room on all but one night of this trip so far. And we’re traveling pretty darn light for a five-month trip (just one carryon-size suitcase + one backpack per person). But boy is this van small, even for three relatively slim, not especially tall humans and their stuff. So little and narrow that moving from one area to another requires communication and planning and shuffling around each other that all gets weirdly exhausting. We assumed that these small annoyances would be alleviated by spending most of our time outdoors, but just about every evening there was something that drove us in: cold or drizzle or, most often, bugs of the biting/stinging variety. And then there we were, moving around with our pots and plates and changes of clothes and toiletry kits like the tiles in one of those tiny fidget games where you can’t move one piece to the spot you want without moving a bunch of other pieces first.
The Toaster Theory
Dan has this thing about how toaster ovens don’t make very good toast. His theory is that once an appliance tries to do more than one thing, it stops being good at each individual thing and so you’d be better off getting a plain old toaster if you really want good toast. Or something. Anyway, this theory came to mind a lot in our little van, where absolutely EVERYTHING has more than one purpose. The couch is also a dining bench and a storage bench that transforms into a bed, for example. And it’s all very cool and clever until you try to brush your teeth in a sink that’s covered in a pile of dishwashing paraphernalia and books and water bottles and keys because your bathroom counter is also your kitchen counter and kitchen sink and stovetop and entryway table and nightstand. Or when you need something from the medicine cabinet which is also the hall closet which is also located right above your sleeping child’s head and items may have shifted during driving so maybe you’ll just make do without it.
The Toaster Theory also explains why we never ended up using the shower in the 1.5-square-foot booth that also housed the toilet. Sometimes less functionality is more. And sometimes (all of the time?) I’m gonna prioritize access to a toasty dry toilet.
House on Wheels
This one seems pretty obvious, but vanlife-ing requires driving your house around. And while this first seemed like a feature of this portion of our trip (no need to unpack at every stop; simply wake up and go!), we ended up wondering if it wasn’t actually a bug. First, before driving anywhere, every single item you have with you needs to be securely stowed away—no dishes left in the sink, no drawers left ajar, nothing loose sitting on a countertop. I’m tidy to a fault, but this was another level of vigilance. There was one afternoon when we hit the road after a hike and realized too late that we left the food cupboard open. Panic ensued on the windy road, no turnoff in sight, as granola bars and rice cakes went flying across the van until we could safely pull over and corral the rogue snacks.
Second, despite the van being small for a living space, it’s pretty large as a vehicle, which can make driving it… unwieldy. (I should note here that I opted entirely out of this role—I’m uncomfortable both driving anything much larger than a sedan and driving on the left, so Dan was on his own in the driver’s seat.) Dan did an amazing job, but every drive took about 30% longer than it would have in a regular-sized car and the van did quite a lot of squeaking and rattling simply due to its weight and the fact that it was loaded up with all our stuff. Also, you can’t just pull it over anywhere, like you might do on a regular road trip when a farm stand or small-town restaurant sparks your interest. You just kind of want to get it to where you’re going and then not drive it again till you really need to.
A far cry from the leave-your-troubles-behind photos on social, we found our brief vanlife experience to be quite a lot of work. Most of our days went something like this:
- Wake up
- Spend 20 minutes changing the beds back into seats, grunting and sweating as you shove comforters and sheets into too-tight storage spaces and swearing as you inevitably drop one of the extra plank pieces on your foot
- Make a simple coffee and toast breakfast, setting off the smoke alarm at least three times by having the toaster on for more than 30 seconds at a time
- Pile breakfast dishes into a bin and haul them off to the camp kitchen for washing (me) and buzz around unplugging the van, unhooking the water and, most glamorously, emptying the toilet at the aptly named “dump station” (Dan)
- Trip over each other pulling clothes out of your designated compartment and getting dressed, then bump around the van getting everything you took out the night before (books! toothbrushes! stuffies!) put back in its place for driving and making sure curtains are secured, laundry is re-hung inside and all outdoor chairs and tables are stored back in the van
- Drive 2 – 3 hours
- Arrive at a new destination!
- Spend 20 minutes backing the van into your designated space, trying to keep your tone positive as you direct/steer into a position that’s not too slanty, dusty, sunny, far from the power or close to your neighbor
- Buzz around plugging in the van, hooking up the water, unloading tables and chairs and wrestling the awning into submission (Dan) and sussing out the bathrooms and camp kitchen, getting change at the front desk, starting a load of laundry and taking Fi to get some wiggles out at the playground (me)
- Take a 15-minute break for happy hour
- Begin the herculean task of preparing dinner, which includes never being able to find the right key to open the outdoor stove, never being able to keep the burners on the outdoor stove lit and crowding back inside when the outdoor stove doesn’t end up working at all and/or the mosquitoes drive you in
- Eat dinner
- Begin the herculean task of doing dinner dishes, which involves wiping all food off of all surfaces, loading everything into a bin, taking two trips to the camp kitchen to wash everything and then immediately drying everything and putting it all away to free up surfaces for bedtime prep
- Play a round of Go Fish
- Trip over each other pulling clothes out of your designated compartment and getting into PJs, then bump around the van getting teeth brushed and faces washed
- Contort yourself into Fi’s bed to read her stories with your back pressed up against a hinge (Dan) and spend 20 minutes changing the seat back into a bed, grunting and sweating as you unearth comforters and sheets and swearing as you inevitably drop one of the extra plank pieces on your foot (me)
- Pass out
We got into a pretty good rhythm with all of it, but there was never anything especially easy-breezy about any of it. Am I glad our family got to experience a little slice of vanlife? Absolutely. Will we do it again anytime soon? Eh, probably not. As Fi cheerfully summed it up when we dropped our little house on wheels back off at the rental place: “Bye-bye, Mist! See you never!”
14 thoughts on “#vanlife”
If you had had good weather, and a place under trees with an outside table to lounge in, and a set of bicycles to enable you to explore without having to move the manse,you might have enjoyed it more. That’s a lot of ‘if’s”. Compare it to camping with Michele’s trailer, just parking and setting up once in a beautiful place. https://allysonjohnson.com/2022/03/29/freeway-free-in-ca-travels-with-rchy/
Also, add another person 🙂 Three is the square of the difficulty of two!
That did occur to me. Michele takes M’aile along, but although she probably outweighs Fiona she is over 80 in dog years and feels quite safe and comfy sleeping in the back of the Subaru while Bob and Michele are in the trailer.
Those are a pair of Channellocks Dan is holding. No home owner should be without them. ________________________________
Haha love the new term. VanWork will catch on! Looks beautiful regardless
As somebody who spent a LOT of time being both a passenger (with two siblings! 5 of us!!) and a driver (with Damon in 2010 cross country) in a 1987 vw vanogan , this is all true. I feel that “spend 20 minutes finding perfect place to park” in my soul. My dad would not rest until we were juuuuust right and exactly level.
We must swap all the van life stories when you get back!!!!
Respect. Mad respect.
We one time met some friends at Glacier Park. They were in four RV vans; we were a 45 minute drive away in a motel which was not at all nice. Each day we would drive into their campsite with our dogs, spend the day and evening with them and drive back to our little motel. On the last night (4) as we drove back, I asked Chuck a question I dreaded asking. Do you wish that we had an RV like our friends. Luckily I was answered with a resounding NO and that ended any prospect that I would have to travel in one. Great for so many; not for us.
I’ve always been fascinated with Aussie Caravan Culture. I would meet Aussies in Central America who all seemed to follow the same template of ‘Fly to The East Coast of The US, buy van, drive van to opposing ocean, spend 10 minutes celebrating that the van still ran and deliberating ‘now what?’ before turning left and heading South’. I saw A Cry in the Dark years later, noticed the through line with Jeff (of ‘Couplings’) nickname of ‘Caravan Shaker’ and have become a bit preoccupied with infrastructure assisted nomadic self sufficiency. Thanks for the insights here, I’m gobbling them up.