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Since October 2021, my two border collies and I have lived full-time in a 2006 Dodge Sprinter named Saga. It’s great to not have to pay rent and to have so much freedom of movement, but living in a van isn’t a perfect Instagrammable dream!
I am lucky to have a lot of friends that help provide me with safe parking, showers, warm areas with WiFi, and a bit of storage space. When I got really sick in December 2021, I broke down and rented a hotel so that I could take steam showers and stay warm while I recovered.
Overall, living full-time in a van is tough. Many of the clean, brightly-lit vans you see online cannot possibly have enough storage space for full-time vanlife.
Here are some of the worst things about living in a van:
- Bathroom. I chose to use a pee bottle and otherwise rely on friends, family, gas stations, and gyms for human waste. All of the toilet options available for vans take up precious space, stink, and require dirty chores. I have not had a problem with my setup so far, but it’s not great! I have a Planet Fitness membership for showering and use dry shampoo and baby wipes between visits.
- Cramped living space. I have taken care to teach both of my dogs to wait on the bed while I cook (see my article on 4 essential skills for dogs who vanlife), but I still trip over both dogs constantly. This is much worse in the winter, when I don’t have the sliding door open and our world feels much smaller.
- Lack of community. I’m quite the extrovert. I love being around people and love nurturing deep, happy relationships. The constant movement means that it’s hard to nurture new friendships. It’s even harder as a single person – I have been on a lot of great dates since starting vanlife, but sometimes it feels like I’m viewed as a curiosity on Hinge rather than a long-term prospect. It also seems like all the best potential mates pop up on the apps right as I’m about to move to a new spot!
- Tiny bed. I’m only 5’2″, and the bed situation in my van is still cramped. My bed is permanent, meaning it is only about 5’3″. I sleep on my side and generally sleep diagonally across the bed for extra room. In the summer, both Barley and Niffler slept on the ground. But now that it’s cold, they sleep in bed. I appreciate the warmth, but it’s a constant struggle to keep all 3 of us comfortable. And when I’ve got a friend or Hinge date spending the night? Forget comfort. At least we’re warm.
- Cold. I chose to get a job in Breckenridge Colorado this winter rather than heading south. I LOVE cross-country skiing, so I knew I’d have to brave a winter. While my van is outfitted with a diesel heater, I don’t run it overnight or even much during the day. It uses about a gallon of diesel fuel every hour it’s running. This makes for some cold times, especially early in the morning. My water freezes and the condensation from our breath creates thick frost inside the windshield. Frankly, it sucks.
- Dog hair – everywhere. Living in about 80 square feet with two dogs just means the dog mess is unavoidable. There’s dander, hair, chewtoys, and more hair in everything I own. This is worse in the winter, when I don’t run my fan, open my vent, or leave the door open for days on end. I started to sneeze a lot inside the van, but things are a bit better since I last deep-cleaned my sheets.
- Workflow. I still work remotely while living in my van. I run the K9 Conservationists podcast, this blog, and several other gigs using the hotspot from my phone. If there weren’t a pandemic, I’d probably work out of libraries and coffee shops every day. But due to COVID, I try to work mostly from home. As you can imagine, this is a very small and cold space for work.
- Constant downsizing. It seems like every few weeks, I’m having to reorganize my possessions or downsize. The space is so limited! I still can’t figure out a good solution for my bike – I want it nearby so I can use it for short trips, but I don’t like having it on my hitch rack where it could get stolen. When I brought out all of my winter gear, I had to completely reorganize my life to accomodate a few jackets and ski socks. It’s exhausting!
- Repairs. Imagine needing to leave your car for an overnight repair (like I did to fix the A/C in Saga), and finding yourself homeless. This is the reality of vanlife. I had to completely replace Saga’s engine and turbo in March 2021. Luckily this was before I moved in, because it took over 6 weeks to complete the repair. Check out my very angry review of the service I received here. There are constant repairs that I do myself, too. Imagine that your house was built by a pair of 20-somethings with no experience and a tight budget. Now imagine that your house is also a used vehicle with nearly 200,000 miles on it. That’s vanlife. My ceiling fan leaks in the rain. My sliding door sometimes doesn’t latch. The magnet on one of my drawers doesn’t stick and it slides open on winding mountain roads. My wardrobe door hinge broke. The oil level sensor is faulty. The list goes on – and I am constantly doing repairs, big and small!
- Nowhere to leave the dogs. In many ways, I love bringing the dogs with me wherever I go. But sometimes, it would be nice to run to the grocery store without leaving the dogs. I got custom magnets explaining that the dogs are comfortable inside the climate-controlled van, but I really do worry that some superhero will try to save my dogs from the van on a hot or cold day. I am extremely lucky that, thanks to good genetics and socialization and training, my dogs don’t mind vanlife. They sleep happily during the work day and night. They don’t bark at city sounds. They don’t mind the lack of routine. My exercise regime keeps us all satisfied. But vanlife with dogs is still tough!
- No freezer. This is minor, but I only have a little fridge in the van. No ice cream, frozen premade meals, or even ice. On that note, food storage can be tricky if I’m hosting a friend for a road trip; it’s just not much space to grocery shop for two.
All that said, I’m enjoying vanlife and expect to keep it up for at least a few more months. If I sell the van, it’ll be because I’m moving to another continent, not because I hate it.
What are the worst parts of living in a van in your opinion? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Kayla grew up in northern Wisconsin and studied ecology and animal behavior at Colorado College. She founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She’s an avid adventurer and has driven much of the Pan-American Highway with her border collie Barley. She now travels the US in a 2006 Sprinter with her two border collies, Barley and Niffler. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams.