Bernard’s Complete Guide to Van Life
Van Life How To: A Complete Guide to Working and Living on the Road
Last summer, my boyfriend and I traversed across the US from New York to California in our van while working full-time. Not without its challenges, this 73 day escapade westward awarded us with memories to last a lifetime. If you’re contemplating van life, I encourage you to take the leap with some advice synthesized below:
🚌 Securing the Chariot
Our vehicle is a 1974 Volkswagen Westfalia van we found on Craigslist in North Carolina. Many factors went into consideration here: size and agility of the vehicle, renting versus buying (and subsequent resale value), built-in amenities, unquantifiable cool factor. While we weighed the pros and cons of renting an RV (much more comfortable to live in but harder to maneuver and park), we opted for a more nimble and fun vintage van.
Our van, Bernard, was a gem of a find, which we purchased below market value. With two previous owners, the van clocked only 100K miles, and aside from a few rust spots on its exterior, its interior was fully intact with original upholstery, fully functioning built in sink and water tank, and ample storage. Bernard probably needs some cosmetic TLC in the future, but its mechanics were fairly solid.
What we modified within the vehicle:
New front and rear brake pads and rotors, including bearing repacking with new seals
Replaced original ignition distributor with electronic distributor with a vacuum advance
New front and rear shock absorbers with KYB gas charged performance shock absorbers
Valve and cylinder heads cleaned with new seals
New fuel pump
New water pump and wiring for the sink
New fuel hoses
New brake lines
Carburetor both disassembled and cleaned
New tires all around
New axle assemblies
Installed a Fiamma bike rack for our road bikes
The Volkswagen community is an amazing one, and you can find an assortment of available inventory through The Samba (our van is a Type 2 bus with a pop top, complete with two full sized beds). I’d recommend cross-referencing on Craigslist like we did, to find comparable deals. Prior to departure, we made sure to identify VW specialists along our route, in the event that anything happened: GT Precision Imports in New York for initial inspection, Farley’s Imports Car Care in Wyoming for a tune up given altitude changes, and Specialized Auto & Fleet in California for a last check up towards the tail end of our trip.
If you’d rather rent as most do, you can find RVs through Cruise America and more RVs and van types through Outdoorsy. We found the converted Mercedes-Benz sprinters to be a popular modern choice on the road.
🌍 Navigation and Stays
Our intended route
Our actual route
To plan our route, we haphazardly plotted major landmarks and national parks using Google My Maps, roughly connected the dots (exhibit A), and used this as a baseline. My boyfriend steered the ship while I, a trusty passenger incapable of driving manual transmission, navigated our way west like a modern day Magellan.
When it came time to settle for the night or two, I would pull up the closest RV parks along the way via Google Maps and call a few hours ahead of arrival to secure a reservation (averaging $20 to 45 a night). KOA and Thousand Trails are reputable campgrounds we frequented. Contrary to my misguided preconceptions, the campgrounds are incredibly safe and clean, with most offering full hookups for RVs (electricity, water, sewage) and sanitized showers and restrooms. One campground in Bozeman, Montana even had natural hot springs!
Highlights of our trip and where we’d recommend visiting:
Glacier National Park, Montana
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Jackson Hole Valley, Wyoming
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
Wall Drug Store, South Dakota (there’s nothing on the horizon beyond signs for this place so you literally cannot miss it)
Big Sur, California and driving down the Pacific Coast Highway
💻 Working on the Road
Scheduling: Honestly, we were both incredibly fortunate through the flexibility of our employers to be able to work and live nomadically. We mapped out our route strategically such that Monday through Friday, we were in places where we could stay fully connected while on the road, with days off work sprinkled here and there for longer weekends.
Internet and Equipment: I had the naivete to bring along my 23” Lenovo monitor (would not recommend). At destinations lacking strong wifi, we would usually tether off our personal and work phones, even for video calls. Verizon is a much better provider than T-Mobile, a lesson I quickly learned. As backup, I also purchased a 4G personal hotspot through Verizon to complement the sad limited data on my personal T-Mobile plan.
Electricity: We wanted to ensure complete independence once off the grid, so we purchased a 100 Watt solar panel kit from Windy Nation, which included a 100 Watt solar panel, 100ah AGM deep cycle battery, P30L 30A solar charge controller, and a 1,500W VertaMax Power Inverter. This fully enabled us to power our phones, laptops, portable fridge, and other devices without any fuel or connection to external power sources. We kept a dual solenoid installed so that the deep cycle battery charged via the alternator when we (or rather, my boyfriend) drove.
🧳 The (Essential) Packing List
What to pack? Just the bare necessities (something I’ve mastered as a New York City gal who’s had work within the confines of her limited closet space).
7-10 days worth of clothing: I packed enough to fit into my Large Metro Tote Deluxe by MZ Wallace. We embarked on our trip during the summer peak, so I packed light, only buying sweaters or sweats as needed along the way. Most campgrounds and hotels will offer laundry services, for which you’ll need quarters.
Summer Solar Shower 3 Gallon Bag: Sometimes you have to get crafty with hygiene when showers aren’t available.
Sonos Move: Bernard didn’t have an updated audio system (RIP 8-tracks) so we opted for a portable, rechargeable speaker with great sound quality.
Rechargeable outdoor fan: We liked this one from Geek Aire. As a rule of thumb, we opted for rechargeable items with everything we purchased since we had our own power source.
12V DC compatible cooler: Igloo has decent options for portable coolers/fridges that you can plug directly into your vehicle.
Stuff for camping: Portable gas camping stove, electric water boiler, kitchenware, pillows and blankets, portable potty (you never know), quick dry microfiber towels.
Stuff for car: Electric tire pump, jerry can for extra fuel, solar powered and rechargeable lanterns, string lights.
Stuff for survival: Bear spray, hatchet, lighter, mosquito spray.
As I mentioned above, most nights were spent either in campgrounds or in hotels. There were a few other nights spent parked in a quiet, deserted area. One such faithful night was spent in a Walmart parking lot. Evidently this is a rite of passage. As a newly converted van lifer, I was not particularly keen on spending the first night of Bernard’s maiden voyage at the local Walmart, but hey, guess it makes for a fun story.
⚠️ What We Did Not Expect
If you’ve made it this far through my guide, you deserve my complete honesty. Many things went wrong on our trip. Our van broke down in the middle of an intersection en route to Mt. Rushmore, surrounded by thousands of bikers. The emergency brake failed in a temporary parked position and the van began rolling downhill… without us in it. So, here are a couple nuggets of wisdom:
Between each breathtaking destination are long stretches of farmland, so you’ll need to find ways to entertain yourself on the long drives. We listened to quite a few audiobooks and podcasts and played many rounds of Hangman.
Bernard has no built in air conditioning so we relied heavily on open windows, electric fans, and cooling towels to stay cool. It ended up being just fine, but I was harping a different tale back in 100°F heat in Pennsylvania. Driving through Minnesota, Bernard felt like a tin can with the wind threatening to blow us right off the I-90.
Two and a half months of living out of a 15’ van and seeing the same person 24/7 will put any relationship or friendship to the test. Though we were not without our occasional quarrels, I’d say it has made our relationship stronger.
Mother Nature will sometimes have plans that derail yours, and you’ll need to follow accordingly. Case in point: our return home was delayed by the California fires.
As a coastal Asian American woman, I was surprised to find quality asian food in certain pockets of middle America. I also had moments of deep fear as an interracial couple traveling through Washington and being advised to avoid otherwise beautiful camping grounds that were home to white supremacist groups. No bueno.
Little did we know, this road trip west served as the catalyst for us both to dig deep and recognize what was important to us. Van life is not the easiest journey, but it’s undoubtedly one of the best adventures I’ve had thus far. If you’re itching for your own road trip, I’m happy to help you through the process however I can, fellow adventurer. Bon voyage!