These last two hectic weeks have been the ride of a lifetime. I find that it is easier going into van life blindly your first time rather than living it for a year and a half, leaving it and then coming back. That is for one reason: EXPECTATION.
Selling our SUV marked the last thing on our To-Do list before finalizing our Spanish visa and jumping on an airplane to a life of more unknown than either of us realize. While we couldn’t be more excited, we find ourselves clinging to every single second of this van life to a point of feeling disappointed when it isn’t going the way we imagined.
You see moving to a slower paced life on wheels is more of an adjustment than you may realize.
Sure, there’s the space constraints and the lack of a toilet (which is most people’s concern). In reality, that stuff is nothing. You learn that quickly with some organization and indoor/outdoor living. The hard stuff may not be what you think.
These are the top 5 things that you wouldn’t expect to be an adjustment when living van life:
1. Slowing your BRAIN
Our first night back at life in a van Myles looked at me and said “well, now what”. We laughed because this is not the first time we have felt that way. Unwinding can be a difficult thing to master. But once you get it, it’s hard to go back. So hard in fact that most of our friends get frustrated that we are late for EVERYTHING. (Sorry everyone!)
No longer do you have this beautifully taken advantage gift of overhead lighting. Well, you do, but far less than ever before. While nighttime can turn into meaning fire time, generally speaking you begin to wind down as the sun does. In turn, you also wake up a great deal earlier to take advantage of all the beauty the sunlight brings. This change in sleeping patterns takes some adjusting but really becomes the most wonderful thing.
Waking up with no more alarm clocks: YES PLEASE!
3. Getting used to being on display
While we intentionally put ourselves on display on occasion, as with our various social media handles, we are on display for more than just that. We live in a van that gets A LOT of attention. It also is surrounded with windows and to top it all off it looks a bit like a clowns car when the two of us and 3 dogs all jump out.
Just about every single time we stop, be it for gas or in a “secluded spot” we have at least one person come to talk to us. Something we love, but oftentimes it’s done when we have a mouthful of toothpaste, are feeding our dogs, or changing our clothes.
4. Being a slave to mother nature
When you live in a big house, if you don’t like what is going on outside of you simply don’t look out the window. How many times have people gone about their day without even noticing what the weather outside looks like? Well, NOT IN A VAN. With so many windows, dogs and only so much square footage you learn to get outside.
Needless to say, tarps become our friend. If you find yourself waiting for those picture perfect sunny days, chances are you are not going to like living in a camper. Instead, learning to embrace no matter what mother nature throws your way will take you to new highs.
5. Understanding that where you are is not where other people are
Once you’ve gotten used to living a camper lifestyle it can be really quite hard to go back. While you are not in a rush and perfectly happy driving in the slow lane, taking naps in the middle of the day, reading for hours on end and just being, you will find this is a concept most people don’t understand and won’t like. We aren’t in a rush.
So many times WE ARE THOSE PEOPLE that you’re honking at for driving too slow, yelling at for making conversation with the barista at Starbucks, holding up a parking spot because we are in absolutely NO RUSH. Time slows down but realizing that everyone else’s time doesn’t can be a challenge.
The problem is, we know our time is limited. We know we have only 5 short weeks to enjoy this lifestyle and we so badly want to skip past steps 1-4 and jump straight to 5. Well, here’s to ENJOYING our next few weeks living van life with as minimal expectation as possible.
Did our list surprise you? Or unlike us, did you expect to have these challenges when living a camp-based lifestyle? We’d love to hear if anyone else experiences this when they take extended camping trips and how you turned into vandwellers.
Summer is just around the corner which means one thing… CAMPING SEASON!!! If you are anything like us, you are counting the seconds until May long weekend where it is finally acceptable to start camping. Just kidding, we are camping in April in the middle of a snowstorm.
Even if you don’t have an 80’s van like us there are many things to think about when summarizing your rig. This is especially important if you are starting your camper for the first time after a long winter. It’s much easier to do repairs in your driveway than stranded in a campground.
For those with a camper rather than a trailer, paying attention to the engine is important. Checking that everything is in order before firing her up will save you money and a headache later. Nobody wants a bigger auto repair bill just because they were too eager to get on the road.
The first thing you should do is check your vehicle’s oil level. When you take out the oil dipstick check the colour of the oil. Even though we changed our girls oil before we sat her, we found her oil looked really dark again so we had to change it again when summarizing. We recommend not changing it in the winter when she’s going to sit and instead give her fresh oil once the weather warms.
How Often To Change Oil? Around 3000-5500 kms – depending on your vehicle and oil type. If you use synthetic oil you’ll be on the higher end of this spectrum.
We all know that low oil can cause havoc, but a high level of oil can do the same. It can put added pressure on the gaskets which can cause them to stretch and even blow out. Our old van has a system that burns off excess oil. This is great, but can be scary. We filled our oil too full and were alerted to this by a huge trail of white smoke coming out of our tailpipe. Luckily, my mechanic diagnosed this without charging me anything.
Oh how many horror stories we’ve heard about owners of old campers not checking coolant levels properly and facing a blown gasket because of it. Do yourself (and your wallet) a favor and check your antifreeze levels!! Not just the overflow tank but also the main reservoir. Yes, some cars have two tanks!
What is coolant for?
It essentially allows your car to run hot without it overheating. Coolant fluid has a higher boiling point than water which allows your vehicle to stay cool even when idling in stop and go traffic..
If your van blows some smoke when you first fire her up don’t worry this is normal. Water can accumulate in the tailpipe which will show as white smoke.
Is antifreeze the same as coolant?
Essentially yes. This liquid essentially changes the boiling and freezing point of your engine so you can drive in hot and cold temperatures without ruining your engine.
There are two main types of coolant: concentrate and premixed. The concentrate type requires you to add water when you add it to your car. Most people will just add tap water, but this can add minerals or deposits to your cooling system. It may seem over the top but we have used distilled water instead of tap water. The premixed solution is great if you are on the road and need a top up.
How to check coolant level?
Simply find the right tank in your engine bay and see if the liquid level is in the proper range. This will be indicated on the outside of the tank.
If our van ever starts acting up the first words out of Samara’s mouth are “time to change the spark plugs”.
While it may not be the actual cure all that she thinks, more times than I would like to admit I humor her and change them and she is right – the van fires up perfectly. Even before the spark plug wrench is out of my hands she’s in the drivers seat ready to fire up old Gurt.
It may be because we drive so much, or maybe these old vans just go through spark plugs faster than other vehicles. But it seems that changing spark plugs on our van really is a cure all.
How much are spark plugs?
If your rig is idling rough try changing them. It should cost less than $20 and can do a lot for your van. Spark plugs for our van (a 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon)
How to replace spark plugs?
Changing them is easy and only requires a ratchet. All you need to do is unscrew them from their socket. The head of the plugs should be relatively clean without any debris. If you find them to be dirty or black it is time to change them.
When replacing them make sure you don’t tighten them too much as they can break off into the head of the engine. We tighten them by hand and only use the ratchet to snug them up.
When to change spark plugs?
We find we get between 3,000 and 5,000 km out of our spark plugs which is MUCH less than most vehicles on the road. We justify this because she is both old and we ask A LOT from her. Gurt burns a little rich so she uses up spark plugs rather quickly but this is to be expected on a van that’s pushing 35 years.
What do spark plugs do?
Spark plugs are what ensure your cars engine runs smoothly. They create sparks which ignite the gasoline to move the pistons in your engine. When they get dirty they don’t fire properly which can cause your engine to misfire or run poorly. This can significantly reduce your gas mileage and cause issues if left for long term.
It is worth checking the integrity of your timing belt (sometimes called a serpentine belt). After prolonged sitting they may start to deteriorate, something that is relatively easy to fix if you catch it.
Trust us, the worst feeling is having a belt that breaks when you’re miles away from the nearest town, let alone an auto parts store. We now always travel with a spare timing belt after this happened to us.
One of the biggest timing belt symptoms can include timing belt noise. If your camper is making a high pitched squealing noise when it first starts it may be time to check your timing belt health.
A broken belt can also cause more damage than you can imagine. I’ve read horror stories of people’s belts breaking and snapping spark plugs or even fuel lines. Luckily when ours broke we were quick to pull over and shut the engine off.
What is a timing belt?
A timing belt is a band that controls a specific area of your car. On our van it’s job is to keep the alternator running properly. When our belt broke our car battery stopped charging. If we continued to drive like this our battery would have died as it wasn’t charging.
How much does a timing belt cost?
These don’t cost much at all. In total ours costed less than $20. Ever since ours broke we make sure we have an extra one on hand so we can replace it before it gets too worn.
Timing belt replacement
Replacing your timing belt can be as easy as loosening a bolt and moving a wheel. Our van was incredibly easy to replace once we figured out the configuration. It will have to wind around some pulleys in a specific pattern – it’s worth googling if your belt broke.
You may need a timing belt tensioner when you’re replacing yours. This tool essentially helps you loop the engine belt around the pulley and to tighten it when you’re finishing the job.
Going Through Your Campers Interior
If you have an older camper like us, you may have some moisture trapped inside. This can be seen in condensation on inside of windows. You can air it out by opening the doors and windows – and popping your top (if you have one).
How to stop condensation on windows?
The first thing you’ll want to do is seal up the leaks you have. There are also moisture bags you can get that will absorb moisture out the air. This will get rid of moisture before it turns into mold and mildew. Throwing a couple of these in your camper when winterizing it is ideal. You can also use an RV dehumidifier which essentially cleans the air inside your camper.
If you seem to have more moisture that normal you may have a leak. It’s very common for older trailers and campers to have cracks in their roof that let water in. Windows are also a huge weak point. When we first got our van it has a cracked skylight lens cap (among many other rough spots) which was letting water pool and drip onto our carpet. These can be a simple fix if you catch it soon enough.
Since leaks usually happen on the roof you can simply run a bead of outside silicone on the issue. The best part is you don’t have to be too neat or tidy since nobody will likely see it.
If you can’t find any leaks on your roof but still think that is an issue check your window and door seals. This is another common place where water can enter. Older vehicles have old seals that can dry out and crack which can let water in.
First Start of The Season
The first time you fire your vehicle up let her warm up before you rev the engine. The more time that has passed since you started it the longer you should wait. Oil will settle and if you rev her before the oil has a chance to circulate you can cause damage to your pistons.
Ideally, it is best to lift your van up so that it is not sitting on it’s tires throughout the whole winter. We know, more than likely this wasn’t done but keep in mind how harsh prolonged sitting is on your tires.
This can affect not only how your camper drives but also things like fuel economy. It can be common to have to inflate your tires air pressure after it’s been sitting a while. Tires that don’t have enough air in them can wear the tire tread quickly and cause your gas to empty faster than normal.
The brakes on your car is one of the most common auto repair people make. There are many components of your braking system including: calipers, brake drums, disc brakes, brake pads and brake rotors.
You may find your brakes make weird noises when you drive your camper for the first day. This is very common and will likely go away but it is wise to give them a once over (even just a visual inspection). Most brake shops will give your car a free brake inspection.
Make sure you don’t have any rocks or debris between your pads and rotors. If you have the tools you may want to take a tire off to check how much of your pads are left. It’s really not that difficult and can save you from having to pay a shop to do it. Brake pad change cost can be steep if you go to brake service shops around you.
With summer fast approaching (well, not fast enough) we recommend getting a jump on camping season by getting your rig ready. This will save you a lot of time and money down the road and can leave you and your family having a summer you will never forget. If you haven’t already, check out our our post on how to find the best free campsites. We have traveled full time for almost 2 years and have only paid for about 5 nights!
Are you getting your camper ready for its first trip of the year? Let us know your yearly routine in the comment section below!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links which means we may get a commission if you make a purchase. Our opinions are our own and we only share what we believe you’ll find helpful. We also use all the products that we have links to. You can even see them in the photos we post.
Our first day on the road was full of thousands of emotions. At night time, we couldn’t wait to sleep. We took an exit on the highway, drove down the street and almost instantly
found a small dirt road to pull off and rest our heads. Five months later we have slept everywhere from beside hot springs and the ocean, in the forest, Walmart parking lots, to residential streets. Surprisingly, sleeping anywhere and everywhere has been one of the easiest transitions for us. With only paying for three nights in over five months, we quickly learned we can fall asleep just about anywhere. That is something very important with this lifestyle. While, obviously, we prefer the nights where we wake up with an amazing view in reality that isn’t always the way it happens.