10 Lessons Learned From Van Life… So Far

1. Visiting the random towns is one of the best parts

Crystal River, Florida comes to mind when I think of how powerful extended traveling can be. The stop in this town was only because it was on the way to our next destination as we were heading westward. This town is home to a manatee migration and has some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d visit this town. Add to that, the countless stops on the Gulf of Mexico or even the wine region of Cottonwood, Arizona. If it wasn’t for being close by and having to drive through these areas, we would have never realized how incredible they can be. Sure, they might not have all of the major attractions that the top tourist towns have, but they have real character that cannot be faked. The small, random towns are where you go to find fossilized sharks teeth, like in Venice, FL, or the incredible vistas in Page, AZ that you had no idea weren’t in Grand Canyon National Park. This happens over and over again, and without being able to work remotely as we travel, we would never have been able to experience this until we retired.

2. Finding camping on the east coast is difficult

Obvious to those who live on the east coast, but having been away for so long, we forgot how little “open space” there is back on the East Coast. To be more specific, coming across good camping options in the southeast states was seemingly impossible in the winter months. We quickly realized that we were competing for precious camp sites with retirees from all over the country (and even Canada) that were also trying to escape the cold winter months. Campsites, in general, would cost as much as a hotel room ($120) for a night, in return for a slab of concrete to park on 10 feet away from another RV. To say the least, we were a bit shocked compared to the expansive public land we are used to camping on in the West. But that is only if you were able to find a vacant spot, because most campsites in Florida, Alabama, and Texas get booked out months before. This just means we need to do a lot more planning for next year, but it doesn’t mean it’s still not difficult.

3.  Cell service isn’t always guaranteed

This was a big thing to deal with for two people that need internet to work remotely (obviously). We try to plan our next destinations by checking cellular coverage maps to ensure we have good 5G cell service for our internet. Well, just because it says you get a 5G or LTE signal in a place, doesn’t mean you’ll be getting the full internet speeds that we expected (i.e. +70mbps download). Some places we’d get 100-200mb download, while others would be crawling at 5-10. Luckily, we did install a WeBoost Cell Signal Booster, but even then, it has it’s limitations. This had us leaving camping areas and driving around towns trying to find the best signal. Even if that meant working from parking lots, gas stations, or even parks. At the end of the day, this is our #1 priority, and without it, this life of ours goes by-by. Which is why we finally broke down and bought StarLink!

4. Driving takes way more time and fills up weekends

We normally are only used to driving long distances for weekend camping trips or for our annual weeklong road trip. Well, the whole purposed of living this life on the road is to see as many places as possible. And this might be obvious, but we never realized that before, we were only knocking out the long drives on weekends and we never cared how long it took to get to a place. Well now, a 8hour drive, depending on when we wrap up work, might take 2-3 evenings of driving. This can really throw a monkey wrench into plans to cross states or to get back home from places like Texas or California. So now we have to plan entire weeks around moving slowly each evening, or, the worse option, to give up entire weekends dedicated just to driving. It wasn’t uncommon, that many weeks would go by without a “free” weekend because we had to drive throughout the entire weekends.

5. Weekend camps are much different than week day

Before taking this show on the road, we camped at least 30 nights a year around the west, primarily for free on public lands. On any of those trips, we never bothered to worry how close we were to a real town or what cell service was like in these areas. When it came to planning where to stay in the van, we quickly realized our weekend camping spots didn’t have the service we need so we’d need to be closer to a town to work. Prioritizing cell services over everything, our backcountry campspots just didn’t work, and sadly we found ourselves having to book campsites near towns, far from the ideal campsites. And then tie in trying to camp in areas with warm weather, close to a grocery store, or most importantly near trails or places that are fun. But hey, this is all a part of learning how to live this life on the road! 

6. Working in beautiful places is difficult

There is no way I complain about this without sounding completely out of touch and ungrateful, but it’s something I did not foresee. Any other time we’ve been in beautiful places like the deserts near Sedona or the beaches of the Florida Keys, we’ve been on vacation. So we are used to having unlimited time to go out and see these places, to go to restaurants, spend all day hiking, or out in the water. You can imagine my initial frustrations when we went to visit these amazing places, but spend 9-10 hours working during the best parts of the day and feeling like we “wasted” our time while being there. So it took a long time to rationalize with myself that getting to experience these places, even for 1-2 hours a day, is much better than not at all! Which definitely helps ease my mind about how to balance working and traveling.

7. “Some-Day Destinations” become “Why not this week?”

I’ve said this so much, and I’ll keep saying it. Of course, we have a list of places that we want to visit, like the top national parks, best beach towns, or biggest ski towns that we will no doubt visit. But then there are the “second/third-tier” destinations. These are the places you’ve heard about and say, “One day I’ll get there, but I’m not in a rush.” Well, when your traveling around the country, you don’t have to dedicate an entire week’s vacation to visiting a random town that may or may not be worth it. You can just stop in, and stay for as little or long as you’d like. It was this mentality that had us driving all around the Gulf of Mexico, stopping in some of the best beach towns we’ve ever been to, that otherwise, we definitely would never have visited. Plus, it’s a lot easier to justify a 1-3 hour drive to that middle of nowhere town, than it would be to try to fly into, rent a car, stay for a long weekend, and then go home.

8. Small spaces can bring out the best & worst (in everything)

I will be honest, there is no vehicle option that is perfect for all situations. Sure, if we were in a huge motorhome we’d be way more comfortable to eat, sleep, and work, but it would impractacle to drive 99% the time. On the flip side, trying to live and work on the road in an SUV would bring on challenges I can’t even begin to imagine. With that being said, small spaces are great to break life down into the necessities which is amazing in it’s own way. It’s that same feeling when you go camping and only bring what you need to live for a few days in the woods. But that also means when you sit down in your only seats, you’ll be working all day and eating every meal only an arms reach away from your bed and the kitchen. After a few days of being stuck any size van because it’s raining outside can definitely be a strain on your body and your sanity with whomever you share the space with.

9. Waking up in the place you want to be is near perfection

As I previously complained about how difficult it can be to be stuck working in beautiful places, I’ve come around to thinking about it a little bit differently. Waking up, in the place you want to be, has got to be one of the best parts about the van life. So what if we’re only going to be able to see the place on a dog walk in the morning, or a quick run at lunch, or the evening walk into town or down a trial. The fact that we don’t have to drive any further to the place we’ve traveled to or dreamt about being at, is fantastic. This is especially relieving when its the middle of the week and we’re seeing so much more of a place than if we only got to see it just on the weekend. It feels like a cheat-code, that we get extra days added to every week when we are staying in these places without having to take any days off work.

10. The journey is 100% the destination

This is a cliche for a reason. If the journey wasn’t a part of the fun, then there would would just fly everywhere we’d want to go. Of course, that’s impractical, but sometimes driving through these random towns is the best part. For instance, most the destinations on our 2 month road trip across the country were because they were “on the way” to another place. And if it wasn’t for that freedom to enjoy the journey, we would have never saw the Mantee migration in Crystal River or found out that Texas has some of the best beaches in the country. Plus, just seeing the way the terrain changes throughout the country in ways I never would have guessed can really put new perspectives on travel. No doubt the journey can be exhausting and grueling at some times, but looking back, its what really holds the best memories.

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