It’s hard to miss the phenomena of vanlife. From the big screen in the Oscar-winning film Nomadland to little screens in your Instagram recommended page, vanlife is an inescapable way of life. Many dream of joining this nomadic lifestyle, selling all of their possessions, converting some rusty van and staying on the move. With the increased opportunities for working from home or freelancing as a ‘digital nomad’, it certainly is more accessible than ever. Yet, others see these photos and consider it something they could never do, listing that they’re too attached to bathtubs or beds that don’t fold out. They view it as an unattainable goal or as another ‘hippy lifestyle’.
Whether you’re for, against or undecided on the radical movement of van life, there is something to be learned from it. Because vanlife is a lifestyle that subverts everything we learned and know. Instead of getting a mortgage, working 9-5 and following all of the cemented societal rules, you’re removing your anchors and embarking into the world, with everything you own right there with you.
And in this unique choice, we can find many lessons that don’t have to stay with van life, but can be applied to the rest of us at home.So, from the comfort of your couch or behind your desk in an office, here are the five things you should take away from vanlife.
I am not a minimalist. I’ve often wished that I was, as I place way too much importance on material things and buy into fast fashion trends. But when you look at what is required to live in a campervan, you realise that you really don’t need 90% of the stuff you have around you. Campervans may offer great storage options but still have limited space, and so vanlife really requires you to cut it down to the essentials.
It makes you question each belonging, as you’d never bring something that you wouldn’t use.So you constantly re-evaluate all of your stuff, and maybe that’s something we should all be doing. Whether you believe in the KonMari method or simply set yourself regular times to question what you own, we need to ensure there is a movement of stuff within our homes and not just an influx.
I’m certainly guilty of using retail therapy to feel better about myself and my life, but it’s something I strive to work on. You don’t have to take it to the extremes that living in a van would, but it definitely encourages us to whittle away at what we own, and to remove the importance from possessions. People spend years living in their van and it proves you just don’t need all that stuff. At the end of the day, memories will always matter more than possessions, and you should focus instead on the people in your life.
With today’s rent prices, many of us are living in pretty tight spaces. My mum described my first room after university as “you can’t do a circle in it”. And she was right. I had a bed and a cupboard, so if I wanted to relax in my room, it was right on that bed. I’ve had friends with even smaller places that barely fit a bed and it doesn’t look like these steep housing costs will be improving anytime soon.
But take the space that a campervan provides, and you really learn how to exist in a tight space. It’s common for couples to embark on the adventure of vanlife living together, so then you’re sharing that small space with someone else.
A friend of mine was living in a studio apartment with her boyfriend and began to feel like they were on top of each other within the small space. She was growing frustrated with him and needed space as well. Then the two of them went travelling in their blue Volkswagen campervan for five months and truly learned what living in a small space together was. But surprisingly, there wasn’t that same resentment or crowded feeling, despite a drastically smaller area. Perhaps because they’re on this adventure together, or because in vanlife, the world becomes your home.
You stop seeing a home as a space and instead as a sentiment. You spend so much time outdoors, exploring and staying active, that you don’t feel like you’re confined to anything. In vanlife, it’s easy to feel like the world is your living space. And maybe that’s something we need to adopt at home, to not look at the cramped space of our homes but instead adopt the nearby park, cafe or library as an extension of our space. Anywhere you feel comfortable can be a home. That’s not to say that you should start undressing in a park or napping in a cafe, but that you can do many of the things you would at home elsewhere. You can work from a cafe or write in a library, you can read your book in the park, and the options are endless.
It’s also like the farmer analogy, who feels his house is too small and so he’s told to bring in all his animals and then slowly remove them. As a result, he ends up with a space that feels far too big, all because of perspective.
If you’re looking to get to a certain place quickly, then travelling by campervan is not for you. It’s a form of slow travel, in which you take your time and enjoy the journey. A campervan trip is never about visiting a certain place, but rather about the road trip that leads there. One of the best aspects of vanlife is that you don’t have to even plan ahead as you’re not anchored by hotel bookings or public transport schedules. You can plan your day as you please and follow weather queues or even cravings!
Vanlife is all about the journey and I think that’s an important message. We get so focused on our goals and ambitions, where we want to be in five years, ten years or more, that we forget to enjoy the now. I get so desperate to be a published author that I feel like my life is simply a state of ‘before’, and I have to remind myself to pause and enjoy the now, because later everything will change.
Don’t live your life five steps ahead, take a hint from van life and focus on the journey itself. Focus on the now, when you’re perfectly imperfect and making mistakes and finding your own way, because you’ll never get this time back.
It’s not uncommon to embark on vanlife on your own and to spend significant quantities of time in solitude. It’s also far easier to park your campervan outside of cities for lower campsite costs, or even wild camp somewhere remote. This leads to a lot of quiet time with your thoughts.
Time alone has become something that people actively avoid and sometimes even fear. I know I used to get scared by the idea of an entire evening alone with my thoughts. We see it as a weakness to stay in and not see anyone. But it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Being on your own is the best skill you could build. Whether that’s staying single, taking a trip alone or just planning a day to yourself. You can jump out of your comfort zone and go out for coffee or dinner alone, or just enjoy an evening on your couch with your phone out of sight. You are the only constant in your life and so you better start enjoying your company. Life can be so fast-paced with so many external voices, that it is vital we slow down and weed out our own voice.
Time alone is vital and something you should start planning in. Vanlife teaches us not to fear time alone, as you can always meet people along the way, but that it should be a choice to be with others rather than a requirement.
We all know that Instagram and other platforms are not an accurate representation of someone’s appearance or life, and yet we still judge it to be that. I look at selfies someone posted and hate how I look in comparison. I watch stories of them embarking on adventures or doing fun things, and I convince myself that my life is so dull. We judge ourselves based on someone else’s highlight reel.
Vanlife looks fantastic on social media platforms. It features dramatic landscapes, cosy van set ups and unbeatable freedom. In many ways, this is so true, as vanlife is such a unique experience. But vanlife isn’t as perfect as it appears on social media. A lot of vanlife is driving and getting stuck in traffic. It is countless repairs and a flow of money spent on fixing your fickle van. It is emptying your toilet and scrubbing it down. It is struggling to find a nice place to stay the night, especially when wild camping isn’t permitted, and then paying way too much for a crowded campsite. Vanlife is a great experience but it also has it’s downsides, and it looks better in photos, just like your life!
Vanlife is also not for everyone, and that is okay. Some people are better suited to that uncertainty and minimalistic lifestyle, and some prefer creating a beautiful home elsewhere or regularly going to concerts or the cinema. One is not better than the other, and this goes for so many things in life. Just because someone wants something different in life, it doesn’t mean what you want is wrong.
When you’re looking at their amazing vanlife photos, or whatever else is making you feel like you’re not living your life as largely as you should, they might be doing the same. They may look at your photos with friends or family, events they’re missing, and feel such a strong sense of FOMO. Because their lifestyle comes with choices, and it comes with missing a lot of events back home.
The older generation dismisses it as a Millennial thing, to drop everything and go live in a van, but it’s a practice that’s been around for decades and even centuries, just in different formats. In many ways, it is a rejection of traditional values, or more of what society dictates values to be. It’s the choice to remove your anchors, to keep your roots close to you and always moving. It’s a unique way of living, and through that, it teaches us many things. It teaches us about what we really need in life, about the importance of people but also in recognising ourselves as the individual we are. And it reminds us that Instagram will never share the truth of the matter, as I’m yet to watch someone empty a full toilet cassette on their story, and thankful for that.
Even without vanlife, there are many ways to find joy in your day. It's also worth considering how you'll enter the 'New Normal' with your new habits.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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