One year ago we thought we were going to plant roots in a small town. We had just bought land and started the process of planning our own A-Frame cabin for the property. We were excited and focused, but then suddenly my husband’s job was transferred to another office across the country, and all of a sudden everything changed. We were crushed. But I quickly decided that we should take this as an opportunity for adventure. I had been following the van life movement on Instagram and youtube and had been dreaming of living that laidback nomadic lifestyle daily, but didn’t see how it could fit into our plans. Now it was our solution, and once I convinced my husband of this we took the plunge and bought a Mercedes Sprinter 170” WB van.
We had a tight deadline and started our build immediately. A project we initially thought would take 3 months took us 8 months, mostly because we were juggling between a full-time job plus commuting between two states and parenting. We learned everything from other vanlifers sharing their experiences through YouTube and on Instagram. My husband had some electrical knowledge from his engineering degree, but all the plumbing was definitely a challenge to learn ourselves. That only makes us happier with the end result. I believe that sometimes it’s better to not know what you are getting yourself into, otherwise you might never start. Honestly, if we had known how much work and sacrifice it was going to be, we never would have done it. But I am 100% glad that we did. Living life on the road, embracing minimalism, and experiencing unique freedom feeds my soul like nothing else.
Downsizing your belongings becomes easier when you stay focused on what truly matters to you in life. Focus on what you want most to bring instead of deciding what to leave behind. When we moved cross country in 2017 we packed up everything we owned in a Volkswagen Jetta and whatever didn’t fit had to be left behind. We spent one full month touring the country and sleeping in a tent before starting new jobs. This trip opened our eyes to the idea of minimalism, as well as the feasibility of traveling with a baby (our daughter was 7 months old at the time). Since then we have tried to stay fairly minimalists and not accumulate too many bulky possessions, although it has still been a process to decide what to bring and what to leave behind.
We built our van with off-grid living in mind. We installed 4 solar panels, 2 batteries, 2 Maxxair fans, a large Dometic fridge, a 40-gallon freshwater tank, and 2 smaller grey water tanks – one in the van under the sink and one under the van for the shower. We chose a MB Sprinter because of its size to accommodate the second row of seats and a bed for our toddler, and because these vans maintain their value well as they age. We love having 2 ceiling fans because it creates a nice airflow when we are sleeping and all the doors are closed. I chose to cook with an electric induction cooktop so that we wouldn’t need propane in the van, and so far we have had more than enough solar energy to cook, power our computer and fridge, and everything we need.
Our advice to anyone interested in this lifestyle is to go for it! The sense of freedom is even greater than we imagined, and it’s so nice to come back from the beach/walk/grocery store and not need to then drive home. You are home, with everything you need already with you to relax or cook or wash. With that in mind, here is a list of things we wish we had known before starting our build:
- For our flooring, we laid down cork in between the furring strips and laid laminate wood flooring above it. Cork helps with sound deadening but is soft and molds itself to every groove in the van’s metal floor. I wish we had known to add a layer of plywood in between the cork and our flooring to create a stiffer surface.
- There is a reason people rave about deep sinks. I didn’t get it. But now with our 4” deep sink, it is very hard to do the dishes without splashing water out. Plan the room for a deeper sink!
- When I chose a water filter I bought a reverse osmosis filter, thinking it was the best and would allow us to fill up from streams and lakes when going off-grid. What I didn’t realize, and what the brand failed to advertise clearly, is that for every gallon of filtered water it produces it expels 3 gallons of “dirty” water. When you have very limited water to start with and only want to fill up once, this isn’t an option. We were able to modify ours to keep the carbon and sediment filters but bypass the RO unit. If I could do it again I would choose a combination of a UV filter