The Why, The How Much, and Other Difficult Questions About Living in A Van

This article is part of the #VanLife series where I talked about our Sprinter van, what goes into building it, our daily life on the road, and other sorts of fun and challenging things about living and traveling full time in a van.

It’s been 6 weeks since we left the in-laws’ garage with our converted Sprinter van. Our goal for the trip revolves around visiting the various climbing spots in North America. Maybe hit a few national parks on the way. Mainly, we just kind wanted to see what it’s like to travel, live, and work in a van.

Sunset at Joshua Tree NP
Sunset at Joshua Tree NP

We’ve driven it to Joshua Tree National park for its maiden voyage, an 8 hour drive from North California.

We loved it so much there that we kept extending our stays. Our planned 1 week trip in Joshua Tree stretched into 2, then 3.

But finally itching for some multi-pitch climbing we headed to Red Rock and Vegas suburbia. I like climbing in Red Rock a lot, but at the end of the our stay I was getting tired of long approaches and suburban Vegas.

So we headed to Bishop, a town in the Eastern Sierras known for its sports climbing and world class boulders. It’s one of our favorite climbing areas in California.

I remember waking up one morning in Bishop noticing something different with the scenery. Last night’s high altitude storm has brought a fresh dusting of snow to the surrounding mountain. As I was taking it in, breathing in the smell of fresh sage, I looked at Jack, “Life is good, eh?”

He handed me a fresh cup of coffee with a shot of Bailey’s, just the way I like it. Just when I thought life couldn’t get any better, someone comes and brings me coffee!

I have to say, I’m loving this lifestyle.

So how did we get here? How did a white Sprinter van become our home on the road? On this post, I try to answer questions I have found asking myself as well as those others have asked.

Why a Sprinter Van?

When we started looking into the whole van living thing, we learned that there were plenty of options to choose from: Ford Econoline, Westfalia, etc.

But Sprinter had always been on the front runner on our short list ever since we learned of its existence last year. Jack’s firm requirement is to be able to stand up, which shortened our short list considerably.

My biggest hang up was the price. Sprinter is the high end vehicle of choice for van living. It’s still cheaper than an RV, but for what we paid for a 7 year old Sprinter van we could’ve gotten a brand new car.

But in the end, there are 2 of us and the bigger space that the Sprinter offers would give us the room that we needed. A girl needs her space, you know?

Our living room/office/porch in a 2008 Sprinter van
Our living room/office/porch
We loved having people over!
We loved having people over!

Why live in a van?

When Jack proposed the idea for the first time, I was like, “Who are you? What did you to do to my husband?”

To throw caution to the wind, quit a full time job, and live in a van to travel full time? It didn’t sound like him AT ALL.

But you know what it sounded like? It sounded like a freaking brilliant idea. I jumped all over it and before he had a chance to come to his senses, came up with a list of Sprinter vans for sale nearby within a few days.

We looked at our finances and realised that we could afford it. As a matter of fact, since we’ll be cutting down our expenses significantly (San Francisco ain’t cheap), we can travel full time in a van AND still save money on one income. Shoot, why didn’t we do this earlier?

I love to travel. I love road trips. He loves to climb. This way, we get to do the things we both love to do.

In short, we live in a van because it sounded it was going to be an exciting adventure. And because we can. And if that’s not a reason to go ahead and do it, I’m not sure what is.

Reading by 'candlelights' in our Sprinter van
Reading by ‘candlelights’ in our Sprinter van

How much did it cost to convert a Sprinter van?

We bought our 2008 Dodge Sprinter van for $18000 from a used car dealer on Hayward. So far we’ve spent less than 3k in converting the van into a place we can live in.

The break down for the major expenses come up to be roughly:
$300: insulation and flooring
$250: countertop and cabinet (bought at Home Depot)
$400: solar panel and Yeti 400 Solar Generator
$270: mattress from Ikea
$220: rear camera
$100: 2 burner stove (this one)

Our grape solar panel from AM Solar
Our grape solar panel from AM Solar

We opted out for not having a kitchen inside the van nor a fridge inside.

The idea of having a kitchen with all of its associated food waste and spillage in such a small space, practically in our bedroom, didn’t hold much appeal to me.

So instead of a kitchen, we got a 2 Burner Stove. And instead of a fridge, we bought a $40 cooler from REI. Its main purpose is to keep our beer cold for after-climb refreshment. So far this arrangement has worked out so well.

(One thing I love about the cooler? It also doubles as a seat.)

MORE: See pictures of the conversion work

How long did it take us?

About 2 months, give or take. We took a break from working on the van to travel in Asia for a month. We needed it because we worked on the van everyday and we were in danger of burning out. I think I went to Home Depot more times in those 2 months than I’d been my whole life!

One thing worth noting here is that we wouldn’t have been able to do this without the support of our families. They provided us with the workspace, the tools, and the expertise we needed to convert the Sprinter into a home. Not to mention a place to live for the time it took us to do the work.

It was truly a group effort.

Building our shelves
Building our shelves

Boring details about living on the road:

Keeping clean
Not any different than how we keep clean during weekend trips: baby wipes, supplemented by occasional showers at local gyms, laundromats, or hostels.

Since we go where other climbers go, there are always places to take a shower because nobody wants a bunch of dirty climbers around.

Cooking

We used to do French press until we realised that pour overs is tons easier!
We used to do French press until we realised that pour overs is tons easier!
Camping food - Delicious breakfast burrito with campfire-roasted potatoes
Delicious breakfast burrito with campfire-roasted potatoes
One pan breakfast skillet
One pan breakfast skillet

I’m not sure if it’s the fresh air or the fact that we’re usually exhausted when we get to camp, but food simply tastes better outdoors. How else can you explain the fact that we survived on baked beans and pasta and curried canned fruit in Iceland?

A half-cooked sweet potato with burned skin, covered in campfire ash? DELICIOUS! It’s practically GOURMET!

I’ve gotten SO much better cooking simple meals using leftovers. AND, I’m quite proud to say that in the past 6 weeks we’ve learned things like: how to cook rice without rice cooker (if this is how you make rice now, quick – get a rice cooker. You can thank me later), how to roast potatoes in campfires, how to have no-mess fondue, and how to open cans without a can opener.

Bathroom

Timing is everything. When we know that we’ll be staying in a place without facilities (like Walmart parking lots), we’d find a bathroom right before we settle in for the night. Most nights though, we stay in campgrounds where there are at least pit toilets.

How much does it cost to live in a van?

The Sprinter in Death Valley - $17/night
The Sprinter in Death Valley – $17/night

So far living in a van is costing both of us about $60 a day.

That includes campground fees that range from $2 – $20 a night, which along with gas and food comprises of the majority of our expenses.

Then there’s Internet/cellphone, insurance, as well as the occasional stays in hotels or Airbnb’s when we needed a break from van living.

This is on par with what I estimated before we left. I’m curious to know how the average will do the longer we’re on the road. It all depends a lot on how much we move around in the future. Which brings us to the next question…

Where are we going next?

We’re thinking Colorado for March. We heard that there are some sweet alpine multi-pitch routes in the Rocky Mountain National Park, classic trad lines in Eldorado Canyon, and craft beers in Boulder.

Maybe along with awesome climbing, we’ll also learn the secret of why climbers hailing from Colorado is this bunch of fearless, hardcore, you-call-this-runouts, sufferfest lovers. Maybe there’s something about those 300 days of sunshine?


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2 Replies to “The Why, The How Much, and Other Difficult Questions About Living in A Van”

  1. I think it’s really cool you guys are doing this. If you don’t mind me asking, what kind of work do you do that lets you travel like this? And how do you get Internet on the road?

    1. Hi Anita, we both work as web developers. Currently, we tether off our phones for Internet or take advantage of free wifi in coffee shops. We also stay with Airbnb hosts when we need more reliable/24-7 internet time.

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