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9 Lessons I've Learned About Life From Living in a Van

Updated: Jun 27, 2019


New Zealand #vanlife

I've been living in a van with my girlfriend Uschi on and off for almost one year now, and while I know that this lifestyle is not for everyone, I can say with all honesty that I LOVE it. For me, right now, in this moment, I wouldn't want to be living any other way.




Not only do I enjoy the lifestyle that accompanies #vanlife (less showers, less problems), but I just genuinely enjoy living in a van. I look forward to sleeping in our bed and cooking outdoors, and it makes me happy to own less and to have the freedom to go wherever the wind blows us.



Home Sweet Home

Thanks to our DIY campervan conversion, our van Jack truly feels like home, and while in the (very far off) future I would potentially like to own a home without wheels, life on the road has greatly altered my perception of what I would like that home, and my life, to look like.



#vanlife in Canada - exploring the Rocky Mountains

Living in Charlie, our Canadian campervan, and now Jack, has taught me so much. While life in a van is DEFINITELY not bereft of challenges, the knowledge that I have gained about myself, Uschi, and life in general makes every speed bump worth it.




And so, I have created a short list of a few things I have learned on the road, which I feel can be applied to life in a broader sense.



1.) Sharing is Caring


I should have learned this in kindergarten right? Probably. But although we're all supposed to know this, sharing is one of those things that is often easier said than done.


During our life on the road, Uschi and I constantly encounter new people, and I am continually AMAZED at how far their generosity extends.



Hostel living in Napier

In the backpacker community most people don't have very much. Consequently, everybody shares what they have. Uschi and I have been given everything from beer and food, to sunscreen, clothes, and laundry powder.



We were treated to many delicious meals and desserts at our host John's house in Christchurch

"Need an onion for your pasta? Here you go! Out of cigarette filters? No problem, take one of mine. Want a beer? The last of my wine? Let me show you this cool hike! " The list goes on and on - sharing sips, puffs, advice, clothing, tents, tools, you name it.



There's always free food to share!

I love to give, but still find sharing challenging at times. Being a part of this nomadic community has inspired me to share more freely what I have.


Sharing fosters feelings of trust, joy, and togetherness. And making somebody happy is worth more than a $2.50 jar of pasta sauce or $5 beer. You know?



2.) All You Need is Less


Okay, you knew this one was coming.


But in all seriousness, it's true. This is something I noticed IMMEDIATELY when I first began living in our van in Canada.



What more could you need?

Living in a van it's simply not possible to own a lot of stuff. We have minimal storage space, which forces us to get rid of things when we begin to accumulate too much. Consequently, the things we do keep are things that are important to us - things we use daily or that have strong sentimental value.



Making the most of minimal storage space

I won't lie, of course I was nervous to sell almost everything I owned and live out of a van. But what I learned, was that I don't NEED to own a lot to be happy. Once I began to strip away everything that was unnecessary, life became more simple.



Selling (almost) everything I owned before coming to New Zealand

I'm not going to sit here and self righteously tell you to get rid of everything you own, but I am going to tell you, speaking from experience, that it feels SO GOOD to live with less.


In a world where people are constantly striving for more, I find myself craving the opposite.


I buy my books one or two at a time from second hand stores and then give them back when I'm finished. If I buy a piece of clothing or jewelry I take time to think about if it will truly bring me joy before impulsively and compulsively purchasing it.



This hat was made for her - a must buy from a vintage store in Napier!

By doing this, I am able to take more joy from the few things I do have. The one book that I own holds more importance than if I had 20 others. My sweater is more valuable because it's one of three, not one of 10.


I am able to spend my time investing in experiences that bring me joy - building my relationship with Uschi, creating friendships with other travellers, and working on my relationship with myself.


One thing I will definitely take away from my #vanlife experience, is that by owning less, I have truly gained more.



3.) Mess isn't Always a Bad Thing


I fully admit that I am still in the process of learning and accepting this. But hear me out.


I have a lot of OCD tendencies. I have anxiety. I stress over everything and nothing. And I NEED to make the bed.




But, if there's anything that living in a van has taught me, it's that there are more important things to do than clean up the mess.


Van life brings with it a daily dose of chores. We don't have a dishwasher, a laundry machine, a vacuum cleaner, or the luxury of space. So when we finish our meals we wash our dishes right away. We fold and put our clothes away immediately after they've been washed.



Is there anyone on the planet who actually enjoys washing dishes?

And if we don't? The van becomes a mess very quickly.



See?

I'm learning that I can't stress over the mess, because if I do, I will ALWAYS be stressed.


And after all, what does mess mean anyways? It means that you are LIVING. Those dirty dishes in the sink signify that you've enjoyed a meal. The sand on the floor means you've recently walked on a beach. The unmade bed shows that you had a warm place to sleep last night.




I don't think I'll ever be able to ignore the mess completely, but with a constant stream of beaches, mountains, and lakes at my door, I'm finding it easier to live in the now, and save the sweeping for later.


The dishes will always be there, my time won't.



4.) RESPECT


This is a big one.


It is a common belief here in New Zealand that backpackers are disrespectful. Disrespectful to the country, the hospitality of the Kiwis, and even their fellow backpackers.



When freedom camping in New Zealand, it's important to respect the campsite

Although I would love to come to our defence, sadly, I have witnessed this disrespect first hand.


I have seen backpackers and locals alike throw garbage on the ground, break beer bottles, and rage well into the early hours of the morning while other campers are trying to sleep.



Respecting the land, especially protected areas, is SO important in order to ensure that everyone is able to visit and enjoy for generations to come

It is true, some backpackers are disrespectful. But I say some. Others, like Uschi and myself, work to minimize their impact on the environment, while simultaneously enjoying everything this beautiful country has to offer.



Freedom camping in Arthur's Pass

For me, it is extremely important to show respect while traveling around a country which is not my own, especially while living in a van. We have the opportunity to visit and camp for free in so many beautiful, natural places, and the last thing I want to do is take this hospitality for granted and contribute to the growing feeling of dislike for backpackers.




Traveling is both a privilege and a right, but whether traveling or not, it is always important to show respect for people, places, customs, and cultures that are different from our own. And perhaps most importantly it is important to show respect to the earth herself.


Lose the attitude, the arrogance, and the entitlement, and show a little respect. It's not that hard.



5.) Stop and Look Around Once in a While


As I was driving home to my hostel the other day I found myself mesmerized by the landscape around me. Occasionally I have these moments when it hits me that I am living halfway around the world from my home, working, exploring, being, and that this is it, this is my life.


This is not a vacation, this is my life.



Napier Port

It is easy to lose sight of the big picture, whether you have lived in the same city your whole life, or in many different places. Life has a way of distracting us from what's important. But sometimes we are offered brief moments of clarity, like the one I had the other day, in which we remember how damn beautiful this world is, and how damn lucky we are to be here, living.



Taking time to stop and enjoy the view

Living in a van in New Zealand has allowed me to visit so many unbelievably gorgeous places, and occasionally in the blur of constant movement, I don't appreciate them as much as I probably should. Often the curse of familiarity numbs us, but sometimes it's just the opposite.




Regardless of where you live, if you're on the move or not, or how you choose to live your life, make sure to stop and look around once in a while. There is beauty to be found everywhere, we just have to remember to take the time to stop and look.



6.) Plans Change


As a planning freak, this was something I had (and still have) to adjust to daily.




Living in a van, my life consists of constant movement and depends greatly upon a number of factors which are often out of my control. Weather, money, other people etc...


Something I have learned from this lifestyle is that no matter how much you plan, I can almost guarantee you that your plans will change. They will change based on how you feel that day, how your travel companion feels that day, the weather, how much money you have, where there's work, where there's accommodation, the people you meet, advice you get, and a million other factors.



Often the best moments are the ones you don't plan

This lesson was one I badly needed to learn, but it took living in a van to fully realize.


It doesn't matter how much I want to control everything, and it doesn't matter how much I want things to go a certain way, those factors will not make it so. The desire to control everything will only bring me negativity in the forms of frustration, anger, and stress. It is easier, and far more graceful to learn how to adapt.



And your favourite places end up being the ones you never knew you'd visit

Why do I want to control everything? Because it's safe. Because it's comfortable. Because I want to know exactly what to expect. But what does that give me? Predictability may be safe, but no growth stems from it, no excitement, no new opportunity.


Being uncomfortable is good for you once in a while, and being scared certainly isn't a bad thing. It signifies that you are trying something new. Maybe you won't like it, but you can't know until you try.




#vanlife has taught me to focus my energy more on cultivating feelings of inner calm and to go with the flow, rather than to freak out every time something doesn't go as planned. It's challenging, but I'm working on it.


Ultimately you can only control one thing: you. Plans change, might as well make the best of it.



7.) Nothing Lasts Forever


Life in a van perpetuates a state of flux. We are constantly on the go, visiting new places, meeting new people, making new memories.



Forever exploring and always on the go!

We have met some incredible people and visited some incredible places, only to have to turn around and say goodbye just as quickly as we said hello. We've made friends and felt connections with people who we may never meet again. We've made memories in places we might only see again in pictures.



Spending Christmas on the beach with our beautiful Chilean friends Mari and Matias

I'm learning that nothing lasts forever, and that's okay.




Once you accept that nothing lasts forever, you become free to fully enjoy your experiences, you take less for granted, and you realize that although you may be letting go of something good, there will always be something else out there. Another experience to be had, another friend to be made, another place to explore.




Change is the only constant in life, of that I am almost sure, and living in a van has given me a little taste of what that truly feels like.



8.) Sometimes You Have to do Things You Don't Like


Let's get real for a moment.


Nobody likes washing dishes. Nobody dreams of emptying the grey water tank, paying the fuel tax or showering in a public park. But these are all things that I do in order to live in a van.




#vanlife has taught me that although I don't want to do any of these things, I need to if I want to continue to do what I want to do: live in a van. Sacrifices need to be made in order to live the life I want.



The glamorous side of #vanlife

Living in a van is not glamorous, no matter how many gorgeous pictures you see on Instagram, it's just not. There are struggles and challenges, things get messy, you get dirty, living in a small space is hard. I am not going to sugar coat it to try to convince you that this lifestyle is something that it's not. Because although it's incredibly rewarding, and it's what I'm choosing right now, it can be very difficult. But I am willing to do things that I don't necessarily enjoy, in order to live a life that I do.


This is the point.




More often than not in life, people are forced to do things they don't want to do, in order to attain the things that they do want. This is inevitable; I can't see any way around it. Nobody's life is perfect, and no lifestyle lacks struggle.


So, make sure that you are struggling for something good, something you really want, something that is WORTH IT for YOU.



Breakfast on the beach? Worth every cold shower.

Living your best life does not mean that there won't be any challenges; you will ALWAYS have to do things you don't want to do. It means that all those little annoyances matter less because they are part of what allows you to live the life you've always dreamed about.


So what are you waiting for?



9.) Just Because You Are Doing a Cool Thing in a Cool Place Does Not Mean That You Need to be Happy All the Time


Pretty self-explanatory, but I want to stress this one because I think it's extremely important.




I am living the life that I want to, that I choose to, spending every day exploring a beautiful country, making new friends, traveling with the woman I love, but that does not mean that my life is perfect or that I am happy all the time.


I have days when I feel empty, days when I feel stressed, days when I feel anxious, days when I feel alone. Uschi and I fight with each other, I fight with myself, and that is okay, that is perfectly okay.



Happiness comes easier when she's around

It is so easy to show and tell the good stuff, the beautiful photos and exciting stories, all the while filtering out the bad. We all know that social media is a highlight reel. But guess what? Traveling is hard. It is taxing emotionally and physically. Often we are tired, stressed, annoyed, and hungry. We don't always shower, our hair is unwashed more than it is clean. We argue, we get lost, we lose things, we have to make tough decisions. And although a lot of the time I'm so happy I could burst, I spend almost an equal amount of time feeling lost.




There are no magic cures for sadness, loneliness, anxiety, worry, anger, or confusion; they don't go away because you're in a beautiful place, or with amazing people, or checking another item off your bucket list.


I want you to know, that no matter who you are, what you're doing, or where you are in the world, it's okay not to be happy.


It's okay not to be happy.


It's okay not to be happy.

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©2017 by Sarah Griffith.