Living in a van is a simpler way of life. A way to focus more on experiences + relationships over the allure of material things. But despite the simplicity, there are some unanswered questions that we all have about #vanlife... and luckily, we know just the right person to ask.
Oiselle pro trail runner and owner of a big beautiful red van, Sarah Bard, answers all of my questions… even the weird/personal ones, so thank you Sarah!
HC: We’re going to start with the one that’s on everyone’s mind but we're all too afraid to ask… Where do you go to the bathroom? Is there a preferred bathroom of choice? Or does it just come down to the closest one you can find?
SB: Honestly, this is not really an issue – even though you’re right, it’s usually one of the first questions I’m asked about living in the van. If I’m in a rural place, like camping, I’ll just go to the bathroom outdoors (following Leave No Trace principles). If I’m in a city, there are plenty of public bathroom options: coffee shops, grocery stores, the gym, friends’ homes, park facilities, etc. There are bathrooms everywhere. But maybe what you’re asking is, have I had to go to the bathroom and not had an option? Maybe. I have a special Nalgene for that.
HC: And of course to follow that up… Showers. We’ve all seen you, you’re a clean person. Where does the showering take place?
SB: Also less of an issue than one might expect. My standard has been yoga studios and gyms, as well as friend’s houses when I’m in town for a visit. I do shower a lot less frequently than I previously did when I had a home with a shower, but it works out. In rural areas where access to a shower is more challenging, even though I may encounter more dirt, it doesn’t feel as icky as if I spend a day in the city, so I don’t mind missing showers for a day (or a few). But typically, if I’m in the city I’m there visiting friends or have access to a gym and can shower regularly. It takes a bit more planning, but…not really. I have a bag that I keep packed with all my toiletries and a towel, so it’s easy to just grab and go, with little organization and forethought.
I also have a solar shower, which I used a bunch last summer when I was in California before the van was fully built out. I’ll only use in warm weather though – otherwise it’s really just kinda cold and unpleasant. I’d rather just stay dirty.
I DO wash my face every night and every morning with hot water that I heat in my Jetboil. This makes me feel relaxed and refreshed for sleeping and tackling the day. I bought 8 very nice knitted washcloths and I use one a day. Small things, but they make a difference.
Lastly, I had read about this prior to living it, but showering less frequently has made me feel cleaner in general. I feel like my hair is much healthier and manageable now with a wash every 3 days or so. Even when I find myself with the ability to shower multiple days in a row, I’ll forgo the hair-wash and just rinse it.
PLUS. Showering is SUCH A TREAT now. I have minimal cleaning products, that are used so much less frequently, so I have the budget to splurge on nice shampoo (Living Proof, Davines) and face care (Aesop, Acure). Each shower is like a trip to the spa! It’s SO nice.
HC: Okay so now that the basic hygienic questions are out of the way, tell us about finding a place to park for the night. Is that tricky? Have you ever been confronted by someone about where you have parked?
SB: Shout out to all those people who have done a long drive, tried to pull over and get some sleep only to be woken up by the police telling them to move along. It’s a little tricky, yes. But it is so much less tricky in a windowless van.
In general though, it’s been pretty easy. It requires a little bit of common sense, like if you’re in a city, don’t park on a street where you are the ONLY car parked in the street. These neighborhoods not only tend to have watchful residents, but you’ll stick out like a sore thumb (see Netflix’s Easy: Season 2, Episode 1)
So, in a city, I usually look for quiet neighborhoods (small streets) where there are a lot of cars parked on the street. I want to look as inconspicuous as possible. Maybe that’s laughable in such a big red van, but it’s possible. In cities, I try to get ready for sleeping somewhere else than where I plan to park for the night. So I can just roll up, get in bed, and draw as little attention as possible. I imagine if anyone even notices that I’m a foreign car/new to the neighborhood, they think I’m just in town visiting a friend who lives on the street. There are certainly other little tips and tricks, but this is the general approach.
In more rural areas, there are websites and online tools you can use for finding fire roads that have been vetted by other ‘car campers’. BLM or USFS land is available (PUBLIC LANDS FTW!), but it’s nice to have some feedback from people as some places can be better than others. Often times, there’s a recommendation for a dirt road right on the edge of town with be pull offs every 200-400 meters or so where you can have your own little plot of land. Usually the rule is that you can remain there for 14 days without issue, but then have to move. It’s funny to find these little van/RV communities just outside of sometimes bustling towns.
But long story short: City = quiet side streets with other street-parked-cars. Country = BLM/Forest Service/Public Land for dreamy camp sites on fire roads.
FAVORITE SPOT SO FAR: Mojave National Preserve. Best places to sleep, hands down.
HC: Runners love to eat. How do you cook your meals? Any favorite van meal pro-tips?
SB: There are many options for cooking in a van. I chose a high end marine alcohol stove, and I also use my Jetboil (more for drinks, coffee, or quick cooking grains like oatmeal, or quinoa to add to salads).
The alcohol stove works great, though if I’m being honest propane would be stronger (read: faster). However, propane is notorious for small leaks and that’s just something I wasn’t ready to f**k with- not just because of my own health, but because I sometimes leave Sue (my dog) in the van for a couple hours at a time. I have a really nice carbon monoxide detector, but if I’m not in the van, an alarm is meaningless to Sue. The alcohol stove is a standard 2-burner cooktop, alcohol is available at a handful of easy to access places– Amazon, REI, etc. It cooks a little bit slower, but it’s a nice mindfulness exercise to cook with attention and patience.
Lentil Soup (see my saved instastories for recipe) and other varieties of soup
Flatbread Pizza, always varied, but some suggestions
- kale, parmesan, onion, roasted garlic, tempeh, olive oil, garlic sauce
- sweet potato, goat cheese, onion, tempeh, olive oil
- brussel sprouts, goat cheese, onion, tempeh, bbq sauce
Hearty Salads (Kale, Avocado, Quinoa, Pepitas, Cranberries, Cheese, Tempeh, Hemp Seeds, etc. etc.)
Eggs (obviously) – with veggies, with cheese, on toast, with hashbrowns, alone.
Grilled Cheese (obviously) – standard, or with avocado, and / or with sprouts, and / or with sliced granny smith apple. GET CREATIVE.
Curries – green curry with broccoli, spinach, potato is my fave. Typically with rice.
Soups – from scratch, from a box, whatever suits what’s on hand and the timing available
It’s a bummer not having an oven sometimes, but I make it work. I’m about to reinvest in a FryBake, which will really enhance my baking abilities. But for now, cooking is pretty much the same. My PRO TIP is to minimize dish use. Cooking in the van is actually pretty easy, but dishes are exponentially more annoying. It requires a bit of organization, but I can do all of the above in just one dish or one pan.
HC: I’m going to back it up. Where do you store your food?
SB: I have a refrigerator, specifically made for RVs, Marine-use, vanlife. It looks like a fancy cooler and it’s very efficient. It’s not huge, but it’s definitely enough. I’ve learned to store fruits and vegetables (that aren’t refrigerated) in a small hanging basket right above the fridge. This way they are easy to see and I don’t forget what I have and what I need to eat. No one likes smelly rotting food in the van. Also, no one likes waste! Then I have a small cabinet that I use for dry foods – nuts, dried fruits, canned items – coconut milk, beans, rice, and quinoa. Treats and snacks are also stored in the cabinet to keep them out of Sue’s reach.
I like food and I eat a lot, so there’s actually a lot of space in the van that is reserved for food storage.
Also, shout out to WHERE I buy food. I mean everywhere/anywhere, but special shout-out to Grocery Outlet. For real. My friend Christine introduced me to ‘Gross Out’ earlier this year and it is a super fun part of my week. They have some good quality stuff that I normally wouldn’t justify buying at typical price (read: kale chips), some good quality organic stuff, bagged salads that you’d find at WF but at half the price, AND a great beer selection! Hot tip: Sportiva-athlete and registered dietician, Maria Dalzot has an Instagram account devoted to Grocery Outlet.
HC: I for one am a heavy sweater and accrue an insane amount of dirty laundry in a single week, is dirty laundry ever an issue for you? Or do you have a secret storage spot to keep it contained until you have a chance to hit up a washer or dryer?
SB: I just store it in a small-ish bag. When it fills the bag, it’s time to do laundry!
When I rented, I always looked for a place that had laundry on-site, because who wants to spend all their time at laundromats. But actually, they’re pretty efficient. Those washers will take care of your stuff in under 30 minutes to wash, and usually 15 minutes to dry. So I can be in and out in about an hour or so – with workout clothes, sheets, towels, everything DONE. I’ve had to minimize my closet size since moving into the van. All my clothes fit into 3 drawers. So, I just do laundry often and when I do it, I try to do a good amount. So far, I’ve been traveling in pretty cool weather, so smell hasn’t been an issue. But summer is just around the corner, so we’ll see. However, the biggest issue with laundry has been rain, mud, etc. and summer usually means less of that. So maybe there will be a bit of an equalizer there.
Shout out to my favorite laundromats so far: Brio Laundry in Bellingham, WA and Spin Laundry Lounge in PDX. They both make doing laundry pleasurable – like going to a coffee shop and getting some work done.
HC: So now that you’ve been cruising along for a while, what have been your low’s and high’s from your experience?
SB: Oh, this is hard. For me, there haven’t been a lot of lows of vanlife.
I guess one low is that actual traveling is harder now because I’m becoming accustomed to having my home, and all my stuff with me all the time. A few weeks ago I flew to Vegas for a race and I had to stay in a hotel. I was really annoyed about having to pay for a place to sleep in a bed that wasn’t as comfortable. I missed my home. You can say the same thing about living in a house, but in the back of my head I kept feeling like I should have just driven instead because I could – it would have been less expensive, and more convenient. (Why didn’t I drive? Time, but also leaving Sue in the van for 4+ hours while I ran a race in Vegas in late April wouldn’t be safe.)
There are some lows, but they’re usually just due to mechanics. It’s nice having your home with you all the time, but if your home stops working, that’s an issue. It's a lot more likely to stop working, when your home is a vehicle. The first low that comes to mind is one day I was in Portland. I was meeting friends for a run in the Gorge, and I woke up and was having a quick breakfast. It was cold and a bit rainy and I had just recently installed a heater in the van that will run without the engine. The heater install was less than optimal, but I thought I was through with the headaches and frustrations. However, when I opened the door to the van after breakfast, I realized that the heater had been putting out huge plumes of white exhaust. The van was surrounded by smoke!
I shut it down and drove to meet my friends, but I could tell that very small amounts of diesel was leaking from the van. I didn’t know what the issue was, and as it was a Sunday (and most auto-businesses closed), I felt stymied as to how to solve my issue without potentially dripping diesel everywhere I went. I caught a ride with my friends and then spent the afternoon, alone, under the van in the pouring rain trying to diagnose the problem. I did end up solving things temporarily until I could consult with a professional, but it was a frustrating and somewhat scary day.
I’ve had other small things – like my windshield wiper straight up snapping in half while I was driving to Seattle in the POURING RAIN. Not only did I lose visibility on the highway – basically stranding me, but it’s hard to find a replacement wiper on short notice for a Sprinter. Luckily it worked out, but sometimes those things don't.
The only other general low is in attitudes and preconceptions about vanlife. Certainly most reactions to the van are excited curiosity, interest, and stoke. But even so, it’s a non-traditional way of living that makes some people uncomfortable. To see this discomfort manifested in personal interactions has been disappointing. However, it’s made me more cognizant of stereotypes and preconceptions, and helped me to be a more compassionate person in my interactions with others. So, it’s a low, but it’s also a high.
Here we have photographic evidence of a low and a high.
The highs of vanlife are realizing how much little stuff I need – and in fact, how stuff can really get in the way of living. The highs are in making more connections with strangers, and spending more time with friends. The highs are the kindness and generosity that I experience on a daily basis. The highs are getting to spend real, quality time in beautiful places: to really appreciate the desert, to stand in awe of huge mountains, to explore the rainforest; to embrace the cold, to literally bask in the warmth of the sun. The highs are being more attuned to my actions and my choices, and to being more appreciative of little things that make my life more pleasant now in a more dramatic way.
For me, living in the van isn’t a vacation from life. It is a lifestyle choice, and something I love and would like to adapt my life to for the long term. It's had significant changes in who I am and how I live. I am totally open to the fact that life is an experience though, and it’s possible that I’ll find myself in a position in the near or far future where living in a van doesn’t make sense. However, regardless of if I’m in the van or not, I’d like to continue living like I live in the van – which is being more mindful in my life and of my time - spending it on relationships and experiences.
Follow along with Sarah Bard, the Red Van, and her dog Sue, here!