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What Van Life Is Really Like, According To Someone Who’s Done It

What Van Life Is Really Like, According To Someone Who’s Done It

van life

Renting a camper van and exploring the world with your significant other is the dream. At least, that’s what it looks like on Instagram. You know what I’m talking about — the wide shot of a couple in their unusually spacious van with an exotic looking guy strumming a guitar and a bikini-clad girl looking out into the sunset from the open trunk of a kombi. This is van life, and it looks so good.


Bringing it back to reality, I’m a real human being with less than a thousand followers on social media and a passion for travel. I recently backpacked through South America with my partner and we rented a camper van. I’ve always been curious about #vanlife. I can’t help but follow those Instagram accounts and fantasise about having my own van and driving it around the world.

My van life adventure lasted 11 days. We drove 1,700 kilometres from San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago, Chile. It was a relatively small trip in the van because I wanted to test it out. What if I didn’t like it? This way I had an end date. So here’s what van life is really like, according to someone who’s done it.

It gets smelly and dirty


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There are two types of camper vans: one with a built in hose for showering and one without. We rented the one without. So we had to find a place to shower every day. This would usually be at a gas station or a public beach shower. Some days we had to forego the shower altogether and power through with deodorant and dry shampoo.

Luckily, we had a sink where we could pump water to clean dishes, brush our teeth and wash our face. We also had a small broom to brush out the dirt we tracked into the van. But when you crank down the windows on the highway you don’t smell anything anyways. It felt good to let loose.

It’s not easy to find a place to camp or a toilet.


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I’ll admit it: I had to shamelessly pop a squat many times during my road trip. The route we took through Chile was very isolated, so I’m sure the toilet situation is different in a more populated area. But when you gotta go, you gotta go.

Sleeping in sketchy parking lots or being chased out of an area is a reality during van life. Thankfully, there is an app called iOverlander that proved to be very helpful in finding showers, restaurants and campsites along the way. It’s like a TripAdvisor for campers. You can mark a spot on the map and leave a review indicating if the area has a toilet or if it’s a safe place to wild camp. Make sure to scope out a place to camp before it gets dark, that way you know your surroundings.

It’s cramped for space.


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Those wide angle shots in van life Instagrams make it look so spacious! But I learned that it’s really cramped for space. You need to embrace the whole “minimalism” mantra and not bring heaps of things with you during your road trip. After a day or two, we learned how to efficiently utilize the compartments so that it didn’t feel as jam-packed.

My best advice is to ditch the suitcase and bring a backpack instead. Pack clothes that air dry fast and throw in a Turkish towel. A great way to make the space feel comfy, rather than cramped, is to bring your own pillows and blankets. As for the kitchen, use a cardboard box to store your food. It takes some getting used to, but when you’re living in a space like that for a few days, it begins feel bigger.

There will be problems with the van.

Flat tires, engine malfunctions, getting stuck in sand — it’s inevitable. But it’s all part of the experience! Rental companies usually provide a contact number and tools for support in these situations. Through my experience, I found that complete strangers are usually willing to help out.

Our engine wouldn’t start one morning and a group of locals saw us struggling. They pushed the van from behind so that we could pop start it. Taking care of this vehicle was a huge learning curve for me, but now I’m more prepared for these types of situations.

It’s the best way to explore a place, especially on a budget.


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Other than wanting to live out my van life fantasy, I knew this adventure would help us cut back on the spending that accompanies long term travel. Sure, the initial payment of the van gave me a heart attack, but I did save heaps over the 11 days. Our only real expense was gas and food. Other than that, we drove at our leisure, explored beaches and waterfalls and let the day take us wherever.


It’s fun explore new areas and take a turn that sparks your curiosity. Nothing beats the freedom of having your own car. Especially one that works as a kitchen and accomodation. I’m happy I had this experience. It brought my perception of what van life is back to reality. It wasn’t as glamourous as I thought, and because of that, it was a massive adventure. And that’s exactly what I was looking for.

Check out Qantas flights to begin your next adventure.

(Lead image: Dino Reichmuth)

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