Honest thoughts about vanlife

“Because I’m so thankful for everything I have, and for just a little while I need to remember what it feels like to have none of it.” - Scott Jurek, North

To say that I moved into a van just to see if I could kind of undersells the experience. However, if I chose to narrow it down to a one-line sales pitch, that would have to be it.

There were a lot of secondary reasons of course, cheaper, able to move freely, a reason to get rid of stuff, minimalism…but to be honest, I really just wanted to test myself. As our world gets more insane, our rulers more totalitarian and prices always increasing, I am not naive enough to believe that if everything were taken away, I’d be fine.

I wanted to feel that way, at least for a while. That I’d be a survivor.

How did this lead me to living in a van for 7 months? Well, my brain works in mysterious ways…and this decision was both thought out and impulse-ish. That’s just kind of how I do things. I let them meld in my mind without any action, research the hell out of it…and then jump. My brain works overtime, so the thinking I do about a certain thing takes me 1/4 of the time as most people. I focus, obsess and go over every detail (I think) and then I jump.

If I didn’t do this, I don’t think I’d do anything.

So I decided to buy a van and live in it. In Ithaca, NY. During the winter. What could go wrong?

Actually, a lot could go wrong, and I knew that. That’s what drew me to it. The struggle. Figuring things out and learning. I am not handy. I did not grow up encouraged to fix things, learn about cars (ironic right? How something we depend on almost everyday most people know nothing about) or electrical units. My dad did that. I wanted that to change. Buying the van, deciding to live there, was the kick in the pants, the motivation to learn. After all, it was do or die (or freeze whatever) and so it was time to learn.

Isn’t it funny, how I had to literally force myself to live in a situation where basic mechanic and car maintenance decided whether I’d freeze or survive, in order to take this stuff seriously? I mean, couldn’t I just watch a few videos, maybe spend some time with my mechanics (who are my best friends now by the way) and understand?

Nope. That’s just not how I work.

So…van life.

I moved in on January 7th, 2018 during the polar vortex. It was cold, but I had a good set up. I was allowed to park in my old landlord’s lot (for a while) and also use electricity to plug in a space heater. I didn’t have to move that much during the first 3 months unless I had races or longer trips. This was VERY GOOD for me to get established. I learned how to live in the van without worrying too much about keeping my power up.

During this time I only lost complete power once. Yes, there were a lot of tears that day, as it was 5AM and I had to work at 6. My cord got frozen under water and I had no cables. Luckily my friends helped me out and I survived my first van crisis. It was kind of traumatic to say the least, but I learned not to leave my indoor lights on even if I was plugged in…it still drains the battery.

A few months into van life, my landlord told me it was actually illegal for me to live in his lot. Apparently the city has insurance laws about that type of thing (rude). I was more than gracious for the time he allowed for me to stay there, but kind of panicked when he told me. It was to the streets! (but really, I started parking on the street). I was nervous but I had my solar power, I knew how to keep my battery charged, and it was getting a bit warmer. I changed my space heater to a Mr. Buddy propane heater, which I used extensively. I also…just got good at being cold.

Most people hate being cold. I get it, it sucks sometimes. However if I take one thing out of van life (there are so many things!) that is my ability to be cold. That is, I can stand it longer, be okay and dwell in it without only focusing on the cold. I was in my sleeping bag in the single digits. My face got cold and getting out of bed that morning was sometimes a struggle. But honestly, being cold IS NOT A BIG DEAL. It’s uncomfortable, but I honestly believe being uncomfortable is the way to live my life.

I think it’s the appropriate time to share what a day in the life would be:

5AM: wake up and run

6:30AM: make and eat breakfast

7:45AM: move the van to a free parking spot

8:00AM-11:00AM: gym work, errands etc

12:00-5:00PM: work

5:00PM: move my van back to it’s overnight spot (I had a few good tried and true places)

5:15PM-8:30PM: finish work

8:30PM: dinner, reading, sleep

Parking is free after 6PM on week days and all weekend. If I parked in the lot at my job, I just had to wait until 5PM for my boss to leave and she let me have her spot.

I chose my spots based on a few factors. The first was safety. My co-workers were really supportive of my living situation so being close to work allowed me some comfort and security. The places in the downtown area I chose were also safe. Close enough to people to not get vandalized but far away enough not to get the drunk/sketchy people hanging around.

I also chose spots based on sun exposure. For my 26th birthday and Christmas that year, I asked only that my dad help me get solar panels installed onto the van. The solar panels would then charge my van during the day when I was at work and then give me power all night to charge my devices and lights. This worked really well and I’m happy I did that. An other way I got power was by driving the van, but this is really unreliable as I do not drive much. I only would rely on this if I was driving a long way or it was cloudy (which it was during the spring).

I lived in my van up until the beginning of July 2018. A few things happened in my personal life and I also felt like the van life chapter of my life was closing. I am very in tune with feeling and listening to my intuition. The personal stuff was just the icing on the cake. I didn’t intend to be a life-long vandweller, as I said above. At the end of it all, I wanted to see if I could do it.

I wanted to do the hard thing.

So, almost as fast as I moved in, I moved out. I got an apartment, which is a tiny studio that I love. It’s actually not a whole lot bigger than my van, and has encouraged my minimalistic lifestyle. I simply do not have enough room to buy unnecessary stuff. So I don’t.

I learned so much about myself, about humankind in general. I’m not going to tell you to sell all your things and live in a van to prove yourself. My path is my own. However, I do think that living in the uncomfort zone is the way to actually live. It’s sometimes the only way I know I’m alive.

I don’t have many answers, just my own story so I leave you with this, we are so much tougher than we give ourselves credit for.

Ellie Pell