There’s something alluring about van life. Living with the minimal of possessions and moving wherever life takes you. Satisfying our nomadic instincts with a home that acts as a place of shelter and as a vehicle to take us on new adventures. It sounds like a travellers’ ultimate dream!
I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with Mitch and Marisa, two fellow Canadians who left their home in 2016 and have spent the last 14 months traveling through New Zealand. When we talked about collaborating, I knew I wanted to learn more about their experience and understand the challenges that a unique living arrangement could present.
Have you considered living the #vanlife?
What made you decide to pursue living and traveling in a van?
Marisa: The whole pursuit of vanlife for us in New Zealand probably began when we had a first experience of what it really was like travelling around Iceland for 10 days and living in a converted mini-van. It made exploring that country a heck of a lot easier when everything we brought along was always with us and we never had to worry about checking in or out of places, unpacking/ repacking, carrying around our stuff (aka backpacking) or worrying about things getting stolen while we were out. Vanlife was the perfect option for us to travel around and live in country without the worry of what we would bring along.
Mitch: I cannot remember the exact moment that I decided vanlife was the life for me, but I do remember when it clicked in my head to start living in a way that allowed us to spend less in order to get the most out our living situation. When I stumbled upon the idea of living in a vehicle I knew right away it was definitely going to have its challenges, but the gains were more than worth it to face those difficult times.
How did you prepare?
Marisa: Before leaving Canada, we started looking online at vans for sale in New Zealand and how much we would have to spend on our very first tiny home on wheels. To be honest, I wasn’t keen to spend more than a few grand on a caravan. However, it seemed like to get something decent and livable we we’re most likely going to have to fork out in the $7000-$15000 range.
It also didn’t help that during this time I was also paying off some car debt, which left me with the tough decision to either sell or deal with a financial burden that I would most likely struggle with when the day came we would come back home again. If I was moving to New Zealand for a year (or possibly longer), I needed to commit to this next adventure we we’re about to embark on, cut out the unnecessary debt, and realize that my car was just another thing that I could live without in order to enjoy the simple things in my life.
Mitch: Making a budget only first as a way to track how much each one of us was contributing to food, gas, vehicle expenses, and anything that we split. The way we have done it is everything is down the middle 50/50 for shared resources. Our personal expenses are own problem of course. Once we set up a spreadsheet to track it all we realized it would be great tool to plan future endeavors. And once we knew how much we were making, spending, and saving per month we understood how long we could live without jobs, because in the end we didn’t travel across the world to New Zealand to work the whole time. We wanted to explore and work the bare minimum.
What were the first few weeks like?
Marisa: The first few weeks were pretty tough on the both of us. It was lucky that I had some extended family living in Auckland where we arrived, which helped cut down the living expenses as we tried to get this vanlife dream to reality. We arrived at a peak time for van buying, but financially we weren’t prepared unknowing the timeline of how long it would take to get bank accounts set-up, money transferred into them and the time running around hunting for a vehicles on the daily. It took us about 3 weeks of constant investment watching what was for sale online, going to car auctions, meeting with sellers and trying to make deals even if the money wasn’t all there yet. We just kept crossing our fingers something would come about and we would finally find a dream van to call our home.
By the third week it wasn’t looking too promising for vans in the Auckland area, which left us with the last minute decision to fly to Christchurch and continue our van search there. I would say we got very lucky with how everything came together in the finding of our “diamond in the rough” caravan. The actual day we found our van was probably the longest and emotionally hardest day for us being that we pretty much gave up on the whole vanlife idea itself. After the continued badluck of looking at unreliable and overpriced junk, we decided to do one last online search before calling it quits. A pop-top van, low in mileage and for half what the market value was selling these for showed up less than 5 minutes to our viewing. Mitch called the owner and we we’re at his doorstep within the next 20 minutes. It didn’t matter to us what it looked liked or whatever needed to be done. We wanted this van and this was going to be our home for the next year!
Mitch: The first few weeks were no doubt the hardest most stressful weeks of vanlife, because we couldn’t find a van that we liked. We searched long and hard for 3 weeks before flying across the country from Auckland to Christchurch to look at some we found on the internet. All of these turned out to be pieces of junk once we got them into the mechanic as they were overpriced and full of issues. One needed all new belts, the exhaust was leaking, and the internal electrical was fried. The next needed new brakes and tires and the owner wouldn’t budge on his price. Where it started to look up for us was while we were test driving one of these pieces of junk and a great van popped up on TradeMe. We immediately called the owner of the ad and bolted over to his place with the current van we were test driving. The van was exactly what we were looking for and it was a done deal within 20 minutes of seeing the vehicle. We returned the first van to its owner and took the bus back to our newly acquired van. From here on there were challenges, but nothing near as stressful as those first few weeks.
I’m sure living in close quarters and without many of our usual comforts had its challenges. What were the toughest things about it?
Marisa: Living in a 50 square ft. space for the last year has had its challenges, but we’ve learned moving from city to city that it’s all about having a system. The toughest thing about this van lifestyle was making it happily work for the both of us, especially the times we both we’re working. It’s easy to travel on your own schedule and do as you please solo, but when it becomes a party of two and a couple like us… there are times when you have to give and not just get. Living and spending almost 100% of the time with each other can make one if not both go insane. We try to at least remember even as a couple we still have individual needs and that we’re not attached at the hip with everything we do. We’re successful as a couple by supporting each other’s passions and giving that space to branch off and grow as individuals.
Mitch: I mean it had its obvious shortcomings like the lack of a bathroom. The where do we shower is quite a popular question we get. Well believe it or not mostly all towns have a civic center of some kind, and there is always free public washrooms around in New Zealand. Aside from no bathroom, we have everything else a normal house has but in small doses. We have water, but only 20 liters at a time so one must be resourceful in not to use it up in one day because it is a bit of a pain to take the jug out and refill it at a water source. Realistically its not that hard, but just an inconvenience on your valuable time. The same goes for power. We have a deep cycle battery and a converter, but it doesn’t last forever. One must keep tabs on the battery level and go driving to charge it up. This inspires road trips on the regular. We might as well drive across the country to go bike a trail if we have to charge our battery anyways. Other than that you’re just back to the normal challenges that a relationship poses. What to make for dinner? Who’s making dinner? Doing the dishes? How often to call the parents and check in? Where should we travel next in the world? How are we going to make money? Should we ever grow up?
What particular skills and personality traits would a person need to have to live a minimalist, nomadic life?
Marisa: The big thing I’ve realized is you have to be okay with adaptability. Meaning, you have to be willing to go outside the comforts of having everything so easily given to you now these days. We’re lucky that we live in such a modern and technology advanced age and that all the questions we may have can be found with a search on Google, but the will to do it yourself is still another story. Being a minimalist is bringing your lifestyle and skills back to the basics. It’s how my grandparents lived during most of their lifetime. For us its become a humbling experience and a lifestyle where we put first the things of need over want in order to enjoy our hobbies and spend all this time with each other.
Mitch: One needs to be charismatic and industrious. The person who lives in a van must be outgoing to reach out to people when help is needed, but also must be willing to get dirty when things go sour. Part of living this lifestyle is it meant to unlock a lot of time that we used to spend working hard to pay rent, and instead use this time to pursue life’s sweeter things like walking in the woods and learning how to fix your vehicle when it craps out. The answers are all out there and the information is easier than ever to access. The only thing that has ever been stopping us is time. Time is what we all want more of. In order to buy more of this time we must sacrifice some of the finer 1st world amenities like running water and a steady stream of power. At this point it hardly seems like a sacrifice anymore, it seems more like why didn’t I start this sooner!
What advice would you give to future vanlifers?
Marisa: My advice would be if you want to pursue the vanlife or just try it out, it’s not as simple as buying a van and driving off into the sunset. You have to put the time in and do your research otherwise you may end up with a lemon costing you more than you financially bargained for. It’s a great way to learn how to downsize, budget your means, build a system or routine that works for your situation, and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. You grow as a person living this lifestyle and find that you don’t really need as many shirts and shoes as you once thought.
Mitch: Vanlife is like anything in life. It is what you make of it and it will only work if you are 100% dedicated to the cause. No one ever had fun doing anything half a**. If you are on the fence about letting go of your first world amenities and don’t want to leave your suit and tie 9-5, then it can continue to be a spectator sport for you. What we have found is that having outdoor hobbies compliments vanlife perfectly. It inspires us to drive to the next belt of mountains to explore the trails and not one extra moment is spent in the van then we need to. The van allows us park by the trailhead with all of our gear without having to actually pack anything, which is something I have definitely grown fond of. Lastly for vanlife to be successful, one must make friends in the community so you can occasionally associate back with reality. These friends are easily made from jobs, which you will still have to do because vanlife is cheaper but it will still never be free.
Live4theRush (aka Mitch & Marisa), an engineer from Saskatoon and a geologist from Calgary, who met ski touring in the Rocky Mountains and decided it was time to leave the busy corporate world to travel, live a simpler lifestyle and focus the majority of their time exploring the remote backcountry by splitboards and mountain bikes.