This Overlanding Life is a series of blog posts about the practical side of long-term travel. The first two posts – on all things financial and on health and safety – apply to all types of long-term travel. The third post, on transportation, applies only to overland travel. Today, the scope gets narrower still, as this post is geared to those curious about the pros and cons of living and traveling specifically in a camper van.
Before I lived in a camper van, I’d been studying, volunteering, backpacking, and working abroad for the better part of seven years (this blog’s archives at the bottom left of the page can attest to that!). I remember the day I first stepped foot into Bruno’s Totoyaya like it was yesterday – getting in and out was uncomfortable, the walls felt low, and there wasn’t much to see, yet it somehow was cozy and nice. Strangely enough, I don’t really remember what it was like those first few days of actually living in the camper van. I guess I was too wrapped up in romance
Living in a Camper Van (Rather Than a House)
There were challenges associated with moving from a house to a camper van. In many ways, they are the challenges I deal with even now, more than three years into living a camper van. Pretty much all of these issues come down to one word: space.
Space – or more precisely, lack thereof – is the overarching theme that colors life in a camper van. Allow me to describe how:
1. When we go shopping, we are always conscious of space. If we want an item, we have to think where it might fit, what we could get rid of to make room for it, and if we really need it. We try to choose small items or those that have more than one use. Grocery shopping, in particular, is a challenge, and things that should go in our fridge are often overflowing into cardboard boxes on the ground.
2. I can’t have everything I want with me. I have to pick and choose my clothes, my books, my shoes, my kitchen tools. I might have everything I need, but I definitely don’t always have everything I want.
3. I have a tiny kitchen. It’s fun to cook outside, but it’s a lot more challenging, and it takes a lot longer.
4. Actually, everything takes longer. Pulling out a new bar of soap or choosing my next book means folding over our mattress, opening up my personal bin, and shifting things around until I locate what I’m looking for. It’s the same thing in the fridge.
5. We don’t have space for our own bathroom, which means we have to use the toilets and showers at campsites or improvise them in the bush. In the Middle East, where there are no campsites, we thought of some pretty ingenious ways of taking care of personal hygiene, but it got tiring after a while. The most frustrating part of not having a bathroom, believe it or not, is having to put clothes on and walk several hundred meters just to pee late at night. I’ve recently begun using a makeshift bedpan at night as a form of protest. Poor Bruno.
6. We can’t really decorate. We don’t have wall space, nor surface space for flowers or candles. In fact, because our house moves, we can’t really have anything glass, and everything needs to be stored very compactly so nothing moves or breaks when we drive. This last issue isn’t about space so much as movement, another important consideration when choosing to live in a camper can.
Now, this might be beginning to sound like a rant, so let me clarify something: the space challenges I just described are only challenges as compared to living in a house or apartment, like I did when I lived in Nepal, Thailand, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. When you compare camper van travel to backpack travel, bicycle travel, or motorbike travel, traveling in a camper van is unbelievable luxurious!
Besides, there are several advantages to living in a camper van as compared to living in a house or apartment, even if that home is in some exotic country somewhere.
1. I have a lot less house-cleaning to do. It takes me ten minutes every morning to get our home in tip-top shape for the day (and that’s by using a tiny paintbrush to dust the floor).
2. If we have noisy neighbors, we can drive away.
3. If there are problems with water, electricity, or internet, we just go elsewhere.
4. We don’t need to sign leases or deal with landlords. If we don’t like the place, we just leave.
5. Our view changes as often as we want it to. And believe me, we’ve had some priceless ones.
6. We get to see a lot more of the world than we would if we were stuck in a home without wheels.
7. I can live more easily according to my values. I can put my money directly in the pocket of people who need it. My consumption is limited. I get to use solar energy. I’m not always checking Facebook. I get to live out in nature. I’m forced to live a simpler, slower, more meaningful life.
For me, dealing with the space challenge of living in a camper van is definitely worth it because of the freedom and variety that comes with this type of lifestyle. In a guest post last year for Travel Belles, I asked why live in a house when you can live in a camper van? I guess I’m pretty convinced about where I’d rather live!
Traveling With a Camper Van (Rather Than a Backpack, Bicycle, or Motorbike)
Ok, so I’ve never traveled long-term on a bicycle (but I want to!), and I’ve only traveled by motorbike for a month (in India – it was awesome!). I have, however, done loads of backpacking trips, and I’ve noticed a whole lot of benefits to camper van travel.
1. You have the convenience of going where you want when you want. As a backpacker, you need to stick to train, plain, and bus schedules, and it can be more difficult to get to more remote locations.
2. You get access to national parks and other wilderness spaces. While some parks allow cycles and motorbikes, a lot don’t, especially in Africa where there are wild animals. Without private transportation, you have to join a tour, but with a camper van, you can do your own safari and sleep in your own bed at night. Score!
3. You get to have the comforts of home while traveling. I know I just complained about some of the challenges of living in a camper van as compared to a house, but here I’m talking about a home. I mean, you get your mattress, your pillow, your sheets. You have your belongings organized and put away so you can actually find things. You’ve got a fridge full of comfort foods. If you get sick, you get to cuddle up in your home. And, you actually have stuff – like, more than a backpack’s worth.
4. Believe it or not, it’s cheaper than backpacking (which is notoriously cheap). Campsite pitches are almost always cheaper than hostel dorms, being able to self-cater is obviously cheaper than eating at restaurants, and fuel costs are rarely more than public transportation costs (well, I guess that one depends on what type of public transportation you’re willing to take).
5. You can get off-the-beaten track so much more easily, and be self-sufficient for a really long time. We have enough water capacity for several days, electricity supplied by the sun, and food stores to last us a month, easy. No bicycle, motorbike, or backpack can carry that much autonomy.
6. You can bring a bicycle along. It’s really nice to be able to park the camper van and explore the countryside or a nearby town using a totally different set of wheels.
Now, to be fair, there are some things that happen less naturally traveling in a camper van than with a backpack. You tend to meet less people because you’re not staying in hostels or riding on public transportation. You sample less of the local cuisine because you’re doing so much self-catering. You might be less-inclined to do overnight trips (like multi-day treks) because your home is so gosh-darn comfortable. But with just a bit of effort and awareness, you can still delve into the people, food, and landscape of a place while traveling in a camper van.
My conclusion is that, for shorter trips (a few months to a year), a backpack, bicycle or motorbike can be a truly epic type of travel. But for anything longer – and especially for lifestyle travel – a camper van is really the most sustainable type of travel.
Being a Camper Vanner (Rather Than an Expat)
The biggest difference between a camper vanner and an expat is freedom of movement. Most expats are tied to location-dependent full-time jobs. While it’s awesome to get to live and work abroad, it does still keep you tied down to one place. Your travel happens only on weekends and holidays. In a camper van, you’re free to move where you want when you want, so travel happens all the time.
Being an expat does have certain advantages: you get to know a place much more in depth than you tend to as a camper vanner. You might learn the local language, make local friends, and get to know the work culture of a certain place (which gives a lot of insight into a place). As a camper vanner, you get more breadth than depth.
But there’s an easy way to rectify that, if it’s important to you: choose to stay longer in a place. Do some volunteer work, house-sit, do a work-exchange program. Or, just stay longer in a campsite. Just because you travel in a camper van, it doesn’t mean you have to always be on the move. You can move as quickly or slowly as you want to. You are free to design your reality, which is a definite advantage over being an expat.
I’ve found my ideal mode of travel and living: camper vanning. I have the comforts of home on the road. I can carry a lot of belongings with me without being bogged down by over-consumption. I am free to choose depth or breadth of travel, and to interchange them as I want. I can go just about anywhere I want.
After living and traveling for three years in a camper van, it’s a no-brainer for me. If freedom, independence, and relative comfort sound good to you, you may have just found your own ideal form of travel.