So often in life, we don’t dare to take a step into the unknown. Worries and fears keep us from doing so.
I would probably have wandered on safe paths all my life if I hadn’t heard a speech by the British author Neil Gaiman. There’s especially one sentence that literally left a lasting mark on me as I tattooed a fitting symbol on my left arm. This tattoo is a promise to me to stick to this advice for the rest of my life:
“Imagine that where you want to be is a mountain – your goal. As long as you keep walking towards the mountain you will be alright.”
At that point in life, my goal wasn’t to live in a self converted campervan. It wasn’t even close to it. My goal was to follow my passion for creating art, especially music. So I quit my job. A secure 9 To 5 permanent position with reasonable payment. Some might say that it was a bold decision. Truth is, I was scared as hell. Not knowing where my decision might lead me to, I totally trusted the newborn life philosophy that following my goal will at some point guide me to happiness. Spoiler alert: It worked.
It took me another whole year and one more 30h per week job as a project manager until my desire to convert a van into a camper began to flourish. I don’t know, what exactly inspired me to own a self-build campervan. But I guess it had to do with two road trips through the west coast of the USA and Denmark I did in 2018. The freedom I felt while travelling with a tiny home on wheels through breathtaking landscapes was unbelievable. What if I could feel this free anytime I wanted to?
At the end of 2018, it was a no brainer for me to buy a van as soon as possible and start converting it into a tiny house on wheels. Half a year and tons of YouTube videos about how to build a campervan later, I finally found and bought my perfect van. Inspiration from YouTube videos and Instagram pictures already painted a pretty clear picture of the van design in my head. But there was still one thing in my way: I had no freaking idea, what the heck I was doing.
Luckily at that time in my life, I had already made so many decisions without a plan that this did not stop me from getting started. A simple list of the must-have items in my future van was fastly done:
- Seating area
- Gas cooker
- Storage space
- 230 V and 12 V electricity system
- Auxiliary heater
- and of course…my own little home studio to record music on the road
Many would probably have started to draw up plans and develop a room concept. But that’s where my impatience kicked in. So I relied on the plans in my head and began working on the camper conversion right the day I bought the van.
The biggest challenge while building the campervan was having no clue how to do any of the steps involved. Whether insulation, interior design, furniture construction, electricity, or auxiliary heating. Everything was new territory for me. But that was also what made the project so exciting for me. Learning all these things through trial and error was an important part of the van conversion for me.
But let’s briefly put the romanticization aside. If you’re working on the van for a whole day to find out in the evening that everything was for nothing, you forget your love for “learning by doing”. And believe me, this happened more than a few times.
Isolating my van was one of the work steps I completed comparatively smoothly (let’s forget about the hundreds of scratches on my hands caused by sharp edges of the car). The same applied to the installation of the windows. Although it felt kind of strange to saw huge holes into the vehicle I bought just a few days earlier. But luckily nothing went wrong here.
Something I can’t say about the interior of my van. I planned to use old wooden box boards for the wall design and got some broken boxes from a dealer. Unfortunately, I miscalculated the number miserably and bought 90 boxes. As it turned out later, I didn’t even need half of it. Since the van was full of wooden boxes, I spent the next weeks with nothing else but disassembling them.
In the end, however, I’m extremely glad to have done this unpleasant job, as the wooden interior has become the most important and beautiful design feature of my van. My wish was to create a warm, cosy atmosphere in the camper. I particularly love that each old wooden panel has its own story to tell from decades of use as a wooden box.
It’s almost a miracle that the construction of the furniture worked without any big problems. After collecting hundreds of hours of inspiration on youtube and Instagram, I had a rough layout in my head. The rest of the room concept was developed on the fly during the conversion of my campervan. That’s why it was inevitable that I kept changing things that were cool in my head but didn’t work out in reality. An example of this was the wall cupboard on the left side of my van. What appeared to be an additional storage space turned out to be an impact trap for the head when you wanted to get out of bed.
The biggest obstacles when converting my campervan were the electricity system and the connection of the auxiliary heater. Two areas, which I had absolutely no idea of. But if something went wrong here, the consequences would have been far worse than throwing away a day of work. Fortunately, after an exhausting weekend of studying the basics of electricity, the implementation worked out right away. Looking back this was one of the most blissful moments during the van conversion.
The connection of the auxiliary heater was much more difficult and problematic. It took three attempts and three breakdowns with diesel leakage before warm air finally came out of the auxiliary heater outlet. I still remember vividly how I enjoyed the warm breeze in my face for several minutes, laughing tears out of happiness.
After half a year the first version of my self converted campervan was finished. However, since I’ve been on the road with my van, I’ve kept changing, adding, or removing things.
One of the best examples is my cooking area. In the beginning, I built in a gas stove with 227g gas cartridges. However, it quickly turned out that the cartridges were empty far too quickly and very expensive. This was neither good for the environment, nor for my wallet. In the end, I replaced the stove with a two-burner hob and a 5.5 kg gas bottle. Goodbye, gas supply problems, and unnecessary waste!
Also, demands changed over time. In the beginning, my campervan was only intended as a vehicle for weekend trips. That’s why I had only stored a 20l water canister in the van. Later I installed three 20l canisters in my van, which are all connected to a pressure pump. For the grey water, I mounted a 20l canister on the underbody of the camper.
After more than a year of owning the van, several things have proven themselves. I am particularly happy about my decision to have installed 300-watt solar panels on the roof of my van. When the weather is good, I am self-sufficient as long as I want. For bad weather, I also have a shore power connection or can charge my onboard battery while driving.
All in all, my van conversion cost around € 14,000. However, this number is only roughly estimated, as I still keep changing small details on the van and don’t collect all the bills.
When I started converting my van into a camper, I didn’t plan to live in it fulltime. It was only after three months of eventful travel through Europe that I began to imagine living in the tiny home. At this point, Neil Gaiman’s advice had already become so much part of my everyday life that I soon had no more doubts to quit my apartment in Hamburg. Earning my living by following my passion for creating art was still my big dream. The decision to give up my apartment was a huge step towards this goal as this drastically reduced my living expenses.
But it wasn’t just my monthly costs that were reduced. My possessions had to be limited to the most necessary things when I moved out. I donated clothes, sold furniture, gave away books, and threw away things that others didn’t even want for free. What seems like a huge challenge was a great relief for me. Every unnecessary object that I got rid of increased my feeling of freedom. Only now did I realize what a burden all the things that I owned but didn’t need to be caused. And how little I actually need to be happy. Downsizing my life was most of all an amazingly rewarding process. But saying this I also know that minimalism isn’t the key to happiness for everyone.
Besides all the Instagram glamour, vanlife does come with downsides. To name just a few:
- Parking space: As perfect as the pictures on Instagram may look, in many countries, you cannot camp in the wild. Regular changes of location, lengthy search for a parking space, dreary parking spaces, and the fear of being relegated are part of everyday life.
- Weather: Your daily routine is always determined by the weather. When it rains, you quickly feel constricted in the van. Conversely, in hot weather, you are forced to spend a lot of time outside.
- Finite resources: Whether water or electricity – the reserves in a campervan are very limited. Thrift always comes before convenience. Running your faucet while washing your hands or leaving the light on unnecessarily will quickly be punished with empty reserves.
- Shower: Very few vans have warm water, mine neither. And cold water is also only available to a limited extent. So there are no long, relaxing showers.
You can find more downsides on my Instagram profile in the story highlight “Vanlife vs. Reallife”: @mowliebig
For me, the positive aspects outweigh these negative aspects nevertheless. Living in a campervan has made me much more aware of the importance of the small things in life. I have learned to value things like running water, electricity, and a warm shower in a new way. Apart from that, I’ve been living a much healthier and more sustainable life since moving into my tiny house on wheels. Life is slower and has way more blissful moments because I became more mindful.
Vanlife is definitely not for everyone, but I can highly recommend everyone to live a bit more mindful and minimalistic. It really pays off. In the end, it is the experiences that enrich your life, as cheesy as it sounds.
For anyone, who dreams about converting a van I can only encourage you to start planning today. Whoever waits for the perfect moment often never starts. I am the best example that even a crazy step like quitting your job and apartment to live in a van as a freelancer works. You don’t even have to be that radical. To get started, all you need to do is buy an old, rusty van, test your craftsmanship and fail. And fail again. But don’t ever give up. Learn. Get better. At some point, you will miraculously stand in front of your own tiny home on wheels. Not knowing, how that happened. You might love it so much, that you even think about moving in to feel a level of freedom you never felt before.
Dreams are something incredibly beautiful. But if you don’t act, you will never achieve them. Or as Jim Carrey put it perfectly into words: “You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”
You can find tips about #vanlife and #vagabonding on my Instagram profile: @mowliebig