#VanLife – once only a surfers dream is now a growing alternative lifestyle; affordable retirement on the road and a COVID quarantine option
If you didn’t build a van conversion growing up as a teenager in Southern California, you can at least remember a surfing friend, classmate or neighbor who did. Those who couldn’t afford or find a VW Kombi for sale usually ended up stripping down a used Ford or Chevy flat-nose van, installing cheap paneling, carpet flooring and a mattress.
Some went so far as to add a cabinet with a propane stove and sink but what they ALL shared in common was a good stereo sound system to listen to for days on end at one of the popular beaches while waiting for their next set of waves.
Times have changed over the decades and van conversions today run from the basic minimalist style to luxurious, state of the art mini-homes on wheels that can cost over 200,000 dollars.
While a lot of folks still use their van conversions for the occasional camping trip and yes, to spend a week at one of their secret surfing spots somewhere along the famed Baja Seven Sisters break points, a growing, van dwelling community is developing into what many today are simply calling ‘Van Life’.
So What is ‘Van Life’ Really?
One considering ‘life on the road’ may purchase an already finished conversion, choose to do their own work on a stripped down van or contract with a number of different companies available today to build you a custom model that fills the order of exactly what you are looking for.
In today’s online world of interconnectivity – broadband plans offered over extended coverage maps to reach smartphones, tablets, and laptops have made it easier than ever to not only stay in touch, but even work online wherever you can connect to the internet.
And those seeking to bypass the traditional lifestyle of working a 9 to 5 job to keep up with the mortgage payments are exploring new mobile living options that not only allow offer greater flexibility and freedom to live where they choose, but also help chart a much more feasible roadmap to early retirement by completely eliminating rent/mortgage payments.
Living wherever you can find a nice view with a safe place to park offers the added benefit of getting by on a much smaller monthly budget which enables these ‘digital nomads’ to save and invest a lot more of their monthly income.
A new and growing demographic in the Van Life community are retirees, seeking a simpler lifestyle where they can fulfill their retirement dreams to travel while living on a fixed income.
Many retirees are even selling their homes to live on the road, investing the proceeds from the sale to help pad their nest eggs while others choose to rent out their homes, providing them some additional retirement income and at the same time ensure they have a place to go back to, should their circumstances and future plans ever change.
An entire subculture has grown out from the once chic #VanLife phenomenon, making this once-fringe lifestyle choice suddenly a much more acceptable alternative lifestyle today,
COVID Quarantine Alternative
Over the past several months in the middle of this pandemic, we have seen a growing number of our members at TalkBaja inquire about and consider living – at least on a temporary basis – in a van/small bus conversion to self-quarantine down here on the Baja California Peninsula.
The idea does have some merit – Van Life affords the option to live in a remote area of your own choosing while helping to keep contact with others to a minimum by avoiding restaurants, hotels and what are generally more densely populated tourist areas.
The idea of being alone on a remote beach or desert area may be an attractive concept but it certainly is not for everyone.
But before you sell your or break your lease and sell off everything that won’t fit inside your future van conversion, here are a couple things to consider first.
Is Van Life Right for Me?
If you’re living alone, the decision may be easier as there is no ‘significant other’ you have to convince. But living alone in Van Life can also have its own challenges. When it’s only you, all the duties of driving, navigating, cooking and housekeeping all fall on your shoulders, as well as needing to be at least at least somewhat competent at diagnosing and repairing minor mechanical/electrical problems that may arise.
Also, being alone may may you stand out as an easier ‘mark’ for those with something less than good intentions.
While having a partner to share the lifestyle has its advantages, if you don’t mind wearing many hats and are generally pretty handy with tools as well as the soup spoon and spatula, its totally doable and especially with the added companionship of a dog who can also provide extra security.
What’s the Best ‘Rig’ for Van Life?
Once you (and your partner if applicable) have made the decision to live on the road, your next biggest decision will be to choose which vehicle will best fit your needs and plans to be able to not only survive but thrive and enjoy the Van life lifestyle.
Your personal finances will dictate how expensive a vehicle you can purchase but focusing solely on the price tag may lead to unforeseen problems down the road when you realize that perhaps your rig is simply not adequate for your needs. Saving a couple of thousand dollars is not much consolation when the Van Life you dreamed of turns miserable due to giving up too much in the way of living comfort.
If your budget simply will simply not allow you to buy the rig you need in terms of size, features and amenities, consider either buying a slightly older and more economical model or a more stripped down version that would allow for future upgrades.
Trust me, you are going to be living in your vehicle for the foreseeable future and the closer your rig meets all of your needs while providing a secure and comfy place to call home, the more likely you will love your Van Life.
So before you even go out to start pricing rigs, take some time to consider and identify the “must haves” for what living comfortably on the road means to you. Then do some research to help decide how you can best incorporate those personal needs into your own van conversion.
Van Life Checklist
Invest some significant time online researching and simply googling the #VanLife hashtag is an excellent start. You will find thousands of resources on the web to compare what others have already done with their own personal ‘rig builds’. Bookmark your favorites and then incorporate the best ones to match up with your own needs and budget. Consider at minimum including these topics when making your checklist and later sort them as to their importance / preference:
Size / Storage / Headroom
Think about living in your vehicle and all that really implies; cooking, eating, bathing, hanging out – relaxing and sleeping. Are you alone or will there be 2 of you at the same time inside? Would you ever have guests? How much storage will you need? Are you tall and/or large sized? Think about how much room you need inside for normal daily living and simply move about as well as comfortable headroom required.
When defining your ideal layout, it’s easy to undersize your sleeping area to allow more space for moving about. Recognizing the value of space inside your rig, it’s totally understandable to want to cut some corners with your mattress but don’t forget that you will be spending a third of your life on your bed – even more on days when the weather or other factors may keep you inside your van. For a few days, it may not be a big deal but over time you will discover how important your bed space really becomes. Consider some creative options out there with movable components inside your layout that may allow for a bigger bed than you first imagined. Your back and overall long term happiness will thank you.
Layout and Amenities
There are some really excellent kitchens, sleeping areas and bathroom ideas, not to mention innovative ways to economize space using dual and even triple purpose features to help you gain counter and storage space where needed – 2 very valuable items in any van conversion layout. There are so many options out there that you might even feel a bit overwhelmed as you start perusing through them all, but don’t give up! The time invested will pay off, opening your eyes to all the possibilities available that will help you define exactly what will work best for you in your own rig.
Other Things to Consider
Think about where and how you will be traveling and overnighting. Constantly moving about or staying in one place for weeks/months at a time? Remote areas or campgrounds with hookups? Grocery shopping available nearby or will you need to pack and cold store for extended periods? Will you require solar panels and additional batteries for power? Perhaps even 4×4 or all wheel drive for off-road destinations? Planning for such considerations may affect your rig purchase and layout but will help you avoid problems down the road.
Van Life Means Being Flexible!
Finding the perfect van conversion isn’t easy and not everybody can build or afford their idea of what that perfect rig might be. Your own ideas about how that perfect rig would look like may change over time as you learn to adapt and grow in the process of getting used to life on the road.
Here’s just one example…
Back in 2019 we crossed paths with a couple living the Van Life who parked for several days out here at La Chorera. Walking the dogs, we stopped by to meet them and it gave us an opportunity to see their very unique setup.
Showing us their rig, they explained how much they both love to cook but couldn’t afford the much larger van they originally set their eyes on. That particular model came with a very large gourmet kitchen and lots of counter space.
And a BIG price tag to match!
So they compromised, choosing the smaller van conversion with the basic layout and smaller kitchen costing 30,000 dollars less and instead purchased a small, economical box cargo trailer they pulled behind their van.
Inside the cargo trailer they stored two prep cabinets mounted on large/wide, lockable wheels – making them easy to move about even on rough ground. They built the cabinets themselves with the help from friends over a few months time and they ended up with a very nice outdoor kitchen setup.
The one movable cabinet had a large gas grill and oven built in while the second cabinet had a large sink on one end. All of their cooking utensils, pots, pans etc were stored in styrofoam cutouts inside of storage containers inside of the cabinets which kept them organized and safe for travel. Hoses for the sink water supply and drain easily connected to the van via quick disconnect hookups they installed.
Adding to that setup was a large canopy providing protection from the elements to cook as well as eat on a large fold-up table, also stored in the trailer along with solar panels, solar batteries, a backup generator, lawn chairs, tools and other items, freeing up a lot more space inside their van.
They loved it, telling me they found that it really all came together to make for a much more enjoyable lifestyle on the road. Over time they discovered that they actually preferred cooking and eating outdoors with the added bonus of making their overall living space feel much larger and inside their van feel much more roomy with all the space freed up while also saving 22,000 dollars over their “ideal model” they couldn’t afford.
Turns out they were quite happy that they didn’t go with the more expensive van after all and felt that they gained even more in the long run in storage, flexibility and lifestyle!