I suppose I should add ‘n absolute’ in between ‘A’ and ‘beginners’.
We hadn’t really researched how to live in a van successfully; we arrived in Canada with a daydream of picking up a Chevrolet Astro and that’s about as far as we got. We had heard of the phrases ‘vandwelling’ and ‘guerrilla camping’, so we knew it was a thing; but the first week or so was shaky whilst we got ‘good’ at it. I wished that I’d read some kind of guide beforehand, and after 2 months of living out of the back of a van, feel accomplished enough to write one of my own. Vandwelling fast became my favourite mode of travelling; because I could sleep, cook and move around all in a self-contained box on wheels. The dizzying heights of freedom I felt were unparalleled to my previous travels, and I couldn’t recommend it enough. I hope this and my videos from my time in the van inspires someone to go on an ‘advanture’, and if so I hope this guide makes getting started a little easier for you.
1. Do do your research. In particular, the buying process, as each country seems to be slightly different. In Canada, where we picked up our van, we spent hours in the dealership doing forms and being given what we assumed were the deeds. Little did we know, due to lack of research, that we were then supposed to go to a county tax office and collect the titles of the van. Although the police accepted our paperwork when they stopped us, it became impossible to convince would-be buyers that we hadn’t stolen the van when it was time to sell it on. We had zero proof that we’d bought it, and the assumed deeds were nothing more than a fancy receipt. We lost a lot of money when it was time to sell the van on due to this.
2. Don’t buy a conspicuous camper van. This is good practice in general if you are planning on doing daytime activities and will be leaving your possessions inside; but is also good when it comes to guerrilla camping at night. You don’t want people to think that there is someone living/sleeping in the van when you’re parked up. The shadier characters roaming the world could peer through windows and see your rucksack; and the paranoid middle-class families who live in the suburbs aren’t generally fans of having travellers sleeping on their roads. We opted for a cargo van, whose previous life was as a rental vehicle for painter-decorators. When we parked on the roadside in the day, passerby’s assume that it is just that, parked up while a painter is at work; and at night time we could stealthily hide our van in the suburbs looking like a working-van off duty.
3. Do read the signs. America and Canada in particular were very good at letting us know where we could park for free (‘2 hour parking 9-7’ for example, indicates that we could park from 5pm and stay there until 11am if we wanted to), where overnight parking was out-and-out banned and any days that had no restrictions (San Francisco had free parking all day every Sunday – result!). From Mexico down, it seems there are little to no parking restrictions – just don’t be too obvious and give your new neighbours a reason to come knocking (see #4-7 below). By playing by the rules, you reduce the chance of the police paying a visit and moving you on in the middle of the night (not an enjoyable experience).
4. Do rock up in the dark. We whispered “Super stealth!” every time that we hunted for a parking spot, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. Once it’s dark, it’s safe to assume that workers have got back from their jobs; and are now having dinner/watching TV/getting ready to sleep. The perfect time for a van to silently park up on their street and do the same. When we parked up in broad daylight, we had a stream of people peering through the windows to see ‘the mysterious vehicle’ which lasted all the way until midnight.
5. Don’t make noise or flash lights once you’ve parked up. Once we’d found the perfect spot, in our stealthy van, under the cover of darkness, it seemed pointless to then ruin it by doing anything than just going to sleep. A laptop light, a torch, music or the obnoxiously loud chatter of two lads travelling around the world undoes all the hard work; making it more likely for neighbours to call the police and get you moved on.
6. Don’t park in well-lit or dark places. Streets with too much lighting makes for a disruptive night’s sleep unless you fork out for curtains to block them out; but the many drug-deals or general illicit behaviour that goes on down (or that we think is going on, which is just as counter-productive for a good nights sleep) unlit roads in cities is equally as unsettling. We looked for the perfect balance of the two so that we could avoid both annoyances. No dodgy characters, no overnight lighting. Perfect.
7. Do leave early in the morning. Just like arriving late, leaving early is just as important if you want to avoid children asking their parents “Where’s that van come from?” as they walk to school. It was fairly easy to do because one of us was awake by sunrise every day and could drive the van, waking the other up in the process; and was beneficial in getting us to our next destination early, giving us more of a day, every day.
8. Don’t stay in the same place multiple nights in a row. This gets really tempting, especially when we found the perfect suburban spot and wanted to stay in the area for a few days; but houses (especially with children) get a bit wary of a reoccurring van outside their house. The same street worked well for us, but unless you get friendly and ask permission (something we were told to do in Texas and New Mexico), you’re asking for police interaction if you hit up the same spot outside the same house night after night.
9. Do sleep in Walmart’s wherever possible. This tip was given to us by a retired American couple on the ferry as we crossed from Canada to the States, and was one of our most useful (second only to the one explained in #10) that we had been given the whole time we were vandwelling. Rumour has it that the CEO of Walmart is a big fan of RV’ing, and allows RVs, campers or vandwellers to sleep in his stores carparks. Not only do you get the guarantee of a hassle-free night, there is also the added bonus of cheap food and supplies only seconds away, toilets and- in some cases- free wifi. There are still some restrictions, and we always checked with a trolley-boy before parking up (most stores have a designated area that they want vandwellers to stay in); but as a general rule every 24hr Walmart that we visited was happy to have us – and in the States in particular, there is one in every major town (only downside is they never tend to be in the most social of places).
10. Do download Maps.Me, for Apple or Android. This has instantly become the best recommendation that we received; and one that we received within minutes of our vandwelling experiences. We were in Surrey, Vancouver and about to begin our walk to the second-hand car stores, when James spotted someone he recognised from school. Convinced it was him and desperate to prove me wrong, he tapped the guy on the shoulder and asked if he was from Goring, a small town on the outskirts of Reading. Incredibly, it was; and even I had once been in his mum’s class. He gave us a lift to the car dealerships and told us to download Maps.Me, a great app that works as a GPS even when your phone isn’t connected to the internet. You simply download the city/state/country that you are in, and you can then browse the area; check distances and even use it as a sat-nav. We used it daily to scout out the suburbs in each city before arriving to save time, as well as hunt for Walmarts. Despite leaving the van-life behind, now having lived out of rucksacks and hostels for two months, this is an app that I still continue to use daily. Free as well!
I hope that the above points give anyone thinking of jacking in their job/rented property and living out of a van (either as guerrilla-camping travellers or as full-time vandwellers – check out Instagram for some of the most successful examples) some useful pointers. I will never claim to be an expert but if you have any questions about my experiences or potentially yours, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
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