Mikey's Head Half

5 Pillars Of Vanlife in 2021: Welcoming Brutality And Living The Artist’s Dream

Vanlife in 2021

Nomad culture. Buslife. Vanlife in 2021 is having a second wave as a hot topic. Instagram has made being homeless seem like the greatest experience you could ever have. I did it, for a long, long time. So the question I get the most is, “Is it as good as it seems to be?” The answer is absolutely yes and absolutely no at the same time. Simultaneously. What you see on social media is a cherry picked version of vanlife. That is actually how it is, about 30% of the time. On the other hand, 20% of the time you are out there you are dealing with an existential issue and for part of the time, you’re kind of bored. Thats right, you’ll never hear that from an influencer but its just like normal domestic life. Once you get used to being out there, you get bored sometimes.

Everyone thinking of taking the dive into vanlife fantasizes about pristine nature experiences each morning with their coffee. Life would be so much easier out there. All you have to do is wake up on a beautiful beach in the middle of nowhere, fondle your perfectly fit significant other for a bit, and then saddle up for a day of incredible sunshine and adventure. What a dreamy life! Well, that’s actually what this side of vanlife is, a dream. Again, about 20% of the time vanlife is that dreamy. The remaining 80% is not. So with all that said, here are my 5 pillars to use as the foundation of your vanlife experience or how to make 100% of the strange and wild trip an experience of a lifetime.

1. Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride

Interior of my old bus

Assuming you are a normal person with normal finances, you are not going to be able to afford one of the vehicles you are used to looking at in vanlife fantasy world. It’s one of the bigger fairy tale parts of vanlife. The now ubiquitous Sprinter build out is going to cost you north of $50,000 and can run as high as $150,000. So get that out of your head now. You’re going to need a vehicle that suits you, which I will get to later, and that you can afford. My battleship of choice has always been decommissioned school busses. I have traveled in 3 different ones and all 3 were very affordable. Around $3,000 after purchase, title transfer, weaponry and all the accoutrements.

Now, with this type of vehicle you are going to run into issues. It WILL happen. Expect them and you will be prepared. You bought the ticket, now take the ride. Some of the best times of my life have been sitting around a broken down bus on the side of a road thinking my way out of a hairy situation. You will survive and if you can employ this mindset you will thrive. The breakdown is part of the experience. Embrace it and let it teach you. Just like Siddhartha’s suffering finally stopped the moment he learned to accept his fate, you can employ this mindset too.

2. Avoiding Burn Out, Or Live In Both Worlds

For a few years, I toured and traveled in a bus with my band Suns. It was a 35’ long, mid 90s International. Great bus. Our band never lived in it full time. We did live in it for periods, sometimes a couple months at a stretch. This was the only way we could all afford it and make it work and it kind of worked out beautifully. We never got the chance to be totally burned out on it. We always had to come back to Chicago, only to pine over our next trip out onto the blue highways of this insanely beautiful place we now call America.

A couple years after we said adios to the Suns bus after its final breakdown at SXSW 2013 in Austin, TX. I would go on to live full time in another bus that I’ll discuss later. Living out there full time is incredible. It’s exciting, challenging, moving and inspiring. And then slowly but surely, you get burned out. Like the water shapes the rock, over time normality sets in.

Its just human nature. Once we are used to something, it becomes normal and we deal with all the banal minutia of normal life again, just wrapped in this new context. Except in this new context, there are no showers. There is no couch to kick it on and decompress for a day. You are homeless, you live outside, and you smell. So things that would stress you out in normal life when you have all the little comforts around you can become existential meltdowns if you are totally fried.

This is why I recommend straddling both worlds. Find a way, and there are many ways, to go on long trips. In my experience as someone who has done both this is the best way to experience vanlife. A month here, 6 weeks there is the way to go. If you are able to live full time and never experience burn out then you should live your best life and just go for it but testing it out for periods at a time before taking the dive in is still best practice.

3. Learn To Love Living Outside

Are you the type of person that checks the ground for critters before sitting down? Do you run from bees? How do you feel about pooping outdoors? Some dirt blows on your sandwich, you view it as extra minerals or you think its ruined now? You will be living outside most of the time. Even when you are inside your vehicle, you are essentially exposed to the elements. Sure you can buy a fancy generator for cold nights. You can use enough bug spray and citronella to push the federal government’s definition of “human safe” You can buy all the fanciest gear and prepare like you’re Sir Edmund Hillary. Nature will win. Nature will own you and you will be at the whim of whatever nature has in store for you.

Learn to love it early on, and you will do fine. If you are not that type of person you should not try to adopt vanlife. Its really a make or break piece of the puzzle. There will be cold rain and deadly heat and more bugs than an Indiana Jones movie and you just have to buckle up and learn to love it. 

While this piece is a 5 part example of the essential mindsets you’ll need out there and ultimately how they will make you a better artist, I am going to give a little direct advice here on where to stay, live, resupply etc. We will get to pillars 4 and 5 after this digression so skip ahead if you want.

-National Forests Are Way Better For Camping Than National Parks

The National Parks are incredible and a huge part of my life. I have been to roughly 40 of them and I go to new ones every year. Camping in them is a nightmare. You can get lucky but for the most part they’re cramped, loud and expensive. Surrounding almost every one of the Parks, however, is a National Forest. These are always much less crowded, mostly cheaper, and the sites are usually bigger. Sure, you have to drive roughly an hour each morning to go into the park, but its a beautiful drive and well worth it.

If you are a little gnarlier than the average bear, you can check this free campsite data base for a free spot, usually in a National Forest. These are down some pretty primitive roads a lot of the time. Mostly Forest Service fire roads frequented by some pretty heavy duty trucks so make sure your vehicle can handle it and be prepared for trucks to be whipping around any given corner.

-BLM Land (Bereau Of Land Management)

For the even gnarlier among us, there is BLM land. Always free, always open, the U.S. Bereau Of Land Management sets aside places all over the American west designated as wild spaces where you can pretty much do whatever you want within the parameters of federal law. Drive out there and camp for up to 14 days in the same place. 100% free of charge. There are no toilets or potable water so you have to bring what you need to filter water from a natural source and be prepared for the compromising reality of natures proverbial call. But again, totally free which is a big deal when you’re out there. If your vehicle can handle the very primitive driving conditions and if you are, we will use the word “woodsy” enough to thrive out there, BLM land is an excellent option for you.

-Walmart SuperCenter Parking Lot/A Truckstop

Another free option is always the Walmart or the TA, Loves, Flying J etc. There is usually one of these a stones throw off any given highway in America and they allow overnight parking there as long as you buy some stuff and don’t raise any hell. This is a much less glamorous option but it is one you will be happy you know about when you are out there. I have spent probably a few hundred nights in these parking lots passing through areas of the country without other options and I have only had a couple unpleasant experiences and never a dangerous one. Staying in a parking lot is not ideal, but will work in a pinch and it %100 will come up.

4. There Is No Perfect Vehicle, There Is Only Your Vehicle

When you are out there you will meet folks in Sprinters, vans, busses, cars, mini vans, even mail trucks. Its like a MadMax movie. Everyone has a different vehicle that suits their needs. If you can afford the Sprinter and like the way it drives, then go for it. If you aren’t sure, think of every feature you want in your vehicle and compile them into a list. Then check that list against the qualities of any vehicle you are considering. The size of your vehicle will matter the most. In a tall vehicle, you can stand up inside of it, but you will have trouble with low bridges in places like New England. In a very long or wide vehicle, you’ll have more room inside but have a harder time in cities with narrow streets and with parking.

A term I use a lot is, “Its like pulling corners of a blanket.” There is no vehicle that has it all. You take from one area to have more in another. Know this going into all your research and buy the vehicle that fits you and what you want to do. Then learn about it. Learn what usually goes wrong with its components and what to look/listen for when these things start inevitably failing. Learn how to fix what you can yourself. Get your hands in your machine and wrap your head around how it functions. Learn about how the engine works. This will all be very crucial out there. When you are confident in diagnosing what is going on with your vehicle you can rest much easier at night knowing you are taking care of it.

To this day I have never been more dedicated and vigilant over anything as I was with my 30’ long 1989 International Harvester. Manual transmission, 444 cubic inch diesel engine. No turbo. All American steel and grit. It was a truly beautiful machine. And one that still runs and drives in its new life as a local brewery’s traveling bar.

5. Take The Long Way, Experience The Rapture Of The Truck Stop

The final and most important pillar is to take the long way whenever possible. Be present out there. If you follow all this advice and do it the right way, when you come home eventually you will miss being out there adventuring. You will want to have left it all on the field and fully experienced every part of it.

Seeing it from the post vanlife perspective is the only way to fully know this. So when you have extra time, go into your GPS and select the “avoid highways” option. Take the strange journey down the blue highways of America. You will be very happy you did. Meet people when you can. Shake their hands. Try to connect with them no matter where you are. Make this a priority of your overall journey and keep it in mind. Americans, no matter what part of the country you’re in, are by large and in general very kind, gracious, honest people. We live in a time where we have lost site of this fact and we desperately need to be reminded of it.

So There you go. Everything you need to know to have the best attitude you can and have realistic expectations for vanlife. Admittedly this post is little off-topic for Nighthouse, but still on brand. The way I relate this to what we do here is Ty and I are both better artists because of our time spent out living on a bus, and for that I wanted to share some of the things I learned so that other creatives feel more confident and also have a better understanding of what its really like.

Creativity comes from excitement and enthusiasm. We get inspired to create things by living inspired lives. If you can follow all this information and find ways to make it work for you, it will pay off in all areas of your life and in ways you can’t imagine. If I did it, anyone can do it. So get out there, find a weird patch of Earth to call home for a little bit, think and be present there. You’ll eventually figure it out, one Walmart parking lot at a time.

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Mitch Teemley
2 months ago

Thanks for the visit. Cool post, too.