What Vandwellers Are Giving Up

A plastic toilet and stand-up shower is better than no toilet and no shower.

One of the early criticisms about My House Has Wheels is that I didn’t spend enough time on van living and free camping. Over the years I’ve stayed in contact with the vandwelling community and, though I can understand the appeal, I just can’t get behind the lifestyle, except in high-cost urban areas.

For one thing my wife would deep six any living space that doesn’t have a bathroom and a shower. To be fair, I’m with her on that one. There’s also the space issue. While 300 square feet was tight but adequate, trying to jam us into 60 square feet would have been misery. I need a private place to work and my wife sleeps at odd hours.

The Toilet Problem

Vandwellers are solving the bathroom problem with a variety of containerized solutions, like a bucket of cat litter or a pee bottle. Many vandwellers have some running water but few have plumbing beyond running water for the sink. With 60 square feet of living space to work with there’s not much room for a toilet, but most Class B van conversions manage to squeeze in a toilet and black water tank. Unfortunately, Class Bs look like a camper and that profile destroys the stealth aspect of van living. In urban areas many vandwellers are taking most of their bathroom breaks at the office.


Showers are at the health club or office for vandwellers and, with a little planning ahead, this is a totally manageable problem. On the road most truck stops have showers, though my wife would likely prefer to be consumed by ants than use one. A fair number of vandwellers on the road are making stops at state and national parks that also have showers and bathhouses. Clean ups in between are going to be an occasional challenge. Surprisingly, it’s not showers that are a constant annoyance to vandwellers as much as doing dishes.

Air Space Issues

Vandwelling is easier if you’re single but there are quite a few couples that manage. There are definite issues with two people sharing that volume of airspace for an extended period of time. Even with a minimal amount of air exchange, vans can get pretty swampy. A few are solving those problems with a combination of fans and some type of incense or air freshener. Febreze to the rescue! It’s not a pretty topic but body odor, food odors and your bucket toilet are all going to pose challenges in a small airspace. You will run into the same issue in small campers but not as bad. The only time we ran into odor issues in our 300 square foot camper was when we were cooking.


I’m still amazed that, in the era of cheap appliances, laundromats are still in business. Laundry is the great equalizer and the one area where vandwellers and RV fulltimers have a rough parity. The difference is most RV parks have laundry facilities but there are still enough coin-ops around that having clean clothes is no real problem. You have to go with a pretty big camper or coach to get one with a washer/dryer stack or a combo unit.

Parking Place

This is where vandwellers have the edge when it comes to cost. One of the daily challenges living in your van is going to be figuring out where you’re going to park. The good news is almost any Walmart or Cracker Barrel becomes an overnight oasis, but that’s also true for campers and RVs. The difference is vandwellers can make it a lifestyle, with a camper you need to eventually get to a campground or RV park before your tanks get full. With both vans and campers you can usually squeeze in a couple nights in a friend’s driveway without too much trouble, especially over a weekend. But you can’t park your camper on the street and crash in the back, like you can in a van. Many cities are cracking down on the practice and all but making van living illegal but it’s tough to police when all you need is an 8×10 chunk of unoccupied pavement for eight hours. In an urban area vandwelling may be your only realistic option.

Wherever you camp you’re going to need a good set of window shades.

With a camper you’ll probably be staying in an RV park or campground. That means you’ll be paying roughly $400 to $600 a month for your parking space. For a small camper that figure will buy you bathhouses, on-site laundry, electricity, running water, Wi-Fi and usually a clubhouse, nighttime security and maybe a pool and jacuzzi. To me the convenience of a having a shower and bathroom in your camper makes that trade off a good one. Some RV parks, especially the ones co-located with trailer houses, can look a little trailer trashy but those also tend to be less expensive. Honestly, I’m more concerned about how the neighbors act than how the park looks. That also means you’ll be farther from town and typically a long way from the big city.

Those are the tradeoffs in choosing between living in a van versus a small camper. When you see those awesome pictures out the back door, keep in mind the price you’re paying for that view in terms of convenience. We’ve had some pretty awesome views out the back window of our camper, with a shower and toilet handy.

Your expenses will be higher than a camper, though a fraction of a traditional apartment. That middle ground between a van and apartment is what makes RV living appealing to me. You can’t find any decent apartment for $400 a month anywhere.

Before you head out, read the book! It’s the best $2.99 you’ll ever spend.

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