In search of a freer, more affordable and adventurous life with fewer monetary stresses and strains, Save the Earth blog contributor Gina Harrison decided to bite the bullet and live full-time in a van. This was a decision that was to change her life beyond recognition.
Read on to discover how Gina escaped the shackles of modern living and at what cost – is van life truly a viable and sustainable alternative to traditional accommodation?
“Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood.” – Carl Sagan
In the Beginning …
In January 2014 my husband Rob and I were thoroughly fed up of city living. No matter how hard we worked, our full-time earnings could never match the outgoing bills we were expected to pay out each month, resulting in zero funds for holidays or treats and little to look forward to. We decided to depart the dismal rat race of Northern UK cities and headed to the laid-back, surf-soaked county of Cornwall (South-West UK).
In search of a more freeing way of life we moved to a surf hostel on the outskirts of Newquay and then into a caravan on one of the neighbouring farms.
But still we felt pressured trying to scrape together rent money while pursuing our dreams of music and writing. So in October 2016 we took out a modest bank loan and bought an old LDV removal van, which we turned into a log cabin on wheels.
The economical features of the van include a compost toilet which we empty at our allotment, water containers that hold water from a borehole free of harmful chlorine and fluoride chemicals, a wood burner stove that heats the van in the winter and can be used to cook on, a large American cooler box that acts as our fridge which holds supermarket ice solidly for two days and a small solar panel that just about charges our mobile phones for work, leaving only candles and a torch to provide the rest of our lighting. We scavenge firewood from our local woodland floor and use fallen leaves and mulch in our compost toilet.
Thankfully a friend was kind enough offer an old metal container for musician Rob to practise the drums in and I use Internet cafés as my office space for writing and blogging.
As a van dweller who struggled to make ends meet and cover the costs of running a pile of bricks, I can rightly say I am now a proud advocate of the liberating lifestyle that is full-time van life. Becoming supporters of this local roadside movement, we can gladly say it is the best life decision we have yet made.
While writing this piece I felt a genuine surge of adrenaline for what feels like an act of revolt against all things mainstream. Nine months ago I was so timid and scared to be on the road. A week in I woke at 8am to two angry voices talking about our parked up converted Luton van. I listened tensely from my bed by the air vent; scared they might shake the van or bang on the window.
“They come down here (to Cornwall), they can’t even pay council tax, can’t keep a roof over their heads, then they park up in our village instead …”
The man was absolutely right! We can’t afford to keep a roof over our heads, well, not a damp one made of slate anyway. But the man’s tone made it sound as though we had a choice in the matter. At the current £7.50 per hour minimum wage, I’m surprised we don’t see more people living on the streets. It made me laugh that a human’s housing arrangement can actually make them a target when the alternative is out of reach. Perhaps the “friendly” neighbour felt we didn’t deserve to be in beautiful Cornwall, if we couldn’t afford the house prices.
It takes guts to live in a van, and a yearning to reject mainstream society is far from the only motivation – sometimes it’s out of pure financial necessity.
A Different View
Strangely, this blog has taken me weeks and weeks to type up. I spent more time on the backspace button than anything else. With so many blogs, YouTube channels, and Instagram posts glamorising van life, I knew I had to take a different approach. I’m pushing rustic pallet-wood cladding and Moroccan van wet rooms aside and jumping in with the nitty-gritty. Imagine if van-life was your ONLY choice, imagine not been able to AFFORD to live in a house. What if van life is the only option that saves you from becoming homeless?
Here are some before and after monthly outgoings of mine:
Pile of Bricks:
Council tax: £110
Gas & Electric: £70
TV License: £12.25
Car Insurance: £68 (two people)
Fuel: £40 (local)
Van Insurance: £90 (two people)
Fuel: £100 (if travelling around a lot in a 3.5 tonne van)
Gas bottle: £30 (every 8 weeks if used)
Heating: Free (log burner)
Water: Free (collected from the allotment borehole)
A Staggering Difference
At first the change in lifestyle was a culture shock, especially since my husband Rob and I moved into the van when it was half finished. But as soon as we found our own van roles the benefits only increased.
From an adventurous viewpoint the road has become our oyster. On days off we pick somewhere we haven’t been yet on the map, a different coastline, a historic landmark, and we go. On work days we park up at a budget campsite and treat ourselves to a hot shower and charge our phones.
Compared to a conventional existence, we liken living in a van to living outside in the elements. Fetching water, collecting logs, cutting wood, it all becomes a crucial part of everyday life.
Our survival is now in our own hands. If we don’t collect wood and water we won’t be able to cook, drink or warm ourselves. Such tasks feel far more harmonious, true and natural than flicking on the switch for the central heating or turning on the water tap. Now we’re composting our poo and washing ourselves in a bucket. A caveman existence to some no doubt! My lifestyle has never felt more rewarding and pure. We find we’re subconsciously earthing ourselves too, spending so much more time in the woods and on the beach, reconnecting with a great big world that for some frightening reason seemed to get lost by the walls and roof of a socially accepted dwelling.
Rob and I make a habit of parking up in areas without phone network on evenings so we can truly disconnect from technology and relax. With no Internet connection we find the highlight of the night is cooking a meal, or lighting the wood burner. It’s hard work at times, especially in the winter and it can be frustrating when you’ve grown up in a world where everything is just there, but by being pushed out of the comfort nest our minds have opened. Van life has encouraged us to explore other sustainable ways to live. This year we have enjoyed our first successful harvest of organic vegetables from an allotment space which we share with some other like-minded friends.
The Alternative Housing Community – Meet the Tribe
I posted a Facebook status several weeks ago requesting pictures and comments from those on the same path as myself, hoping to make more connections and be inspired by the stories of others. I received many pictures and comments from some beautiful creatures all living very different lives, but sharing one thing in common. The running theme – PURE FREEDOM! I hope their lifestyles and comments might inspire you:
Jimi – Newquay, UK
Jimi is a full-time van dweller from the Fistral area of Newquay, Cornwall, UK. He is currently pursuing a career as a drone operator.
Jimi: “I’ve chosen my van lifestyle as I love being connected to the great outdoors. I was a pipe fitter for ten years but then I realised I needed a job I could travel with so now I’m pushing my business as a drone operator which really suits life on the road as I can make money as I travel. I’ve taken the van to France, Spain, and Portugal and will be heading back out there in March next year. It’s the fresh air, and the ability and peace of mind knowing that I can disappear at anytime with my life’s belongings at the turn of the key that holds me to life on the road.”
Adam, Jill, & Baby Zee – Darwin, Australia
Adam is a musician, Jill is a festival fairy, and the star of the picture is Zee, the happiest little boy I have ever had the pleasure to meet. This colourful family spend their life swapping between two vans depending on which country they are in. I had the pleasure of meeting Adam, Jill, and Zee last summer when Adam was performing at a festival in my local area. The fact they make van life work with a child is a huge inspiration.
Jill: “Life on the road has its ups and downs just like ‘real life’. Our little family of three trips between a coaster bus in Australia and a transit van in England. We have the happiest nineteen-month old boy, who is wise beyond his years. Everyday for him is different, new, and exciting. I sometimes question our choice to live on the road, but the answer remains the same… WE ARE FREE!!!”
Marcus – South Devon, UK
Marcus and his beloved pooch Dingo are based in South Devon, UK. Marcus and Dingo live in a yurt that he built with his own two hands, situated on his privately owned land. Marcus is a knowledgeable woodsman, so wise I am sure he must be a grand old tree himself.
My husband and I had the pleasure of pitching up on Marcus’s land in our van over winter as a mini holiday and what a magical few days it was. We found ourselves collecting water from the well, sharing stories and dahl by the fire, learning about the environment, and dancing to our shadows.
Marcus: “I live life in a yurt because I believe small is beautiful. We should only take what we need. If it’s not sustainable don’t have it. If it’s not recyclable don’t have it. Most of all we need to accept that we are part of nature. Love it, respect it, and don’t forget to love yourself.”
Dani – Newquay, North Cornwall, UK
Dani embraces the open road solo in her homemade camper named Isla Blue. She is a keen wave rider and studied photography at Nottingham Trent University.
Dani: “I choose to live in a van so I can wake up every morning with a view of the swell. In the summer season I live and work in Newquay, Cornwall, UK hiring out surf gear or cheffing in restaurants, anything to put fuel in my van and to save for my next winter excursion. In past winters I have lived in Australia and Morocco. This winter I’m heading to Sri Lanka with my board and camera for a surf/photography trip. Without cheap alternative living I wouldn’t be able to afford to do what I love, life would be hard, and travelling the world would remain a dream. Because of van life the world is my oyster.”
Kyle – Calderdale Valley, West Yorkshire, UK
Kyle is an adventure seeker who works as an outdoor instructor. He lives in a van full-time in the UK awaiting his next big trek.
Kyle: “Why do I live in a van? Mainly because I love hiking and every 1.5 years I leave my job throw everything into a backpack and set off on a trail. I have completed Te Araroa in New Zealand, which is 1600 miles North to South, Pacific Crest Trail which is 2600 miles Mexico to Canada covering California, Oregon and Washington, and Appalachian Trail which is 2200 miles covering Georgia to Maine through fourteen states on the Appalachian mountain range. The thought of returning to the UK and having to find somewhere new to call home, spending a quarter of my wage on the privilege of a roof no longer made sense to me, so I scored a van instead. He’s a 2002 SWB Transit called Casper and he’s awesome! It’s luxury compared to living out of a rucksack! The only bad parts are not having a shower or toilet on board. But my local gym easily resolves this, a place where I can happily abuse the facilities. The phone application Park4Free is a massive help too.”
Birdy & Doozer – The Open Road
Birdy is a full-time artist and her partner is a full-time touring musician. They tour all year round in their van, which they also live in.
“Initially when we started this journey in 2013, I was about to lose my flat due to being unemployed and Doozer was working as a toilet cleaner in Essex – we were on the brink of homelessness. We caught a lucky break when we were given the opportunity to do some school music and art workshops for a friend which earned us the money to buy our first van. It was either the Ford Transit or go homeless. I remember saying, “We have to do jobs we are good at. What’s the worst that can happen? We’ll end up skint and unhappy? Well, we already are!” Four years in, Doozer averages at playing around 30 Festivals per year plus up to 100 gigs and I’ve been making a steady income from my artwork. The hardest part about living on the road and being self-employed is finding a work/ life balance that is healthy, while being on the road, driving everyday and gigging several times a week. It often means working through the night, cramming in admin and work sessions in laybys or at service stations and not having a bath. The best part about living on the road and being self-employed is that every day is different, we meet new people and go to new places, we have the chance to experience life differently while we can. I love that we are in control of our own success and I’m always grateful that we have so many people who believe in us and what we’re going, because without them, we wouldn’t be here. If you want to know more about us and what we do, we both have our own websites: www.doozermcdooze.com /www.birdyroseart.com.”
Jyoti & Joe – Bristol, UK
Jyoti is a Yoga teacher and Joe is a musician. They have opted for the best of both worlds when it comes to alternative living, with the comforts of a stationary caravan but a camper van at the ready for those days when the luring open road calls them.
Jyoti: “My boyfriend and I, along with our beautiful dog, previously lived in a van for around two years, mainly in the South West; Cornwall and Devon. We now live in a caravan in the centre of Bristol, but keep a smaller van on the road with a bed in the back for regular road trips. Life on the road isn’t easy, winters can be tough, but for us it is the most rewarding and exciting way of living. A rolling home with an ever-changing view, bringing you closer to nature, and more in tune with life is like treasure. It brings you back to basics, forcing you to realise how much we have but don’t need, and by having less we actually have more. A lot of unnecessary worries melt away, the mind clears leaving focus for the more important things. Last winter we moved into a room, but a month or so in I started to dream about life on the road once more, the lure was strong causing me to feel claustrophobic, restless and unhappy in a house. For us, living this way makes us feel alive!”
If I was not already a van dweller and I had heard such beautiful experiences I would sure as hell be putting my notice in and scanning eBay immediately, desperate to jump on the alternative living convoy. Van life is not easy and it is not for everybody, but I hope the true and realistic comments above have inspired you to gain some form of liberation on your life journey and to make that step to acquire it
In the words of Jack Kerouac, known for his novel ‘On The Road’, an American classic that defined the Beat Generation:
“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”