Van life: labour, frugality and conscious living

When we think of ‘van life’ and in this modern age, ‘digital nomads’, we sometimes forget that nomadic living is as old a concept as life itself, with migrations centred around seasons. Living in a van or caravan now is associated with either climbing ‘dirtbags’ who don’t work, Roma gypsies who are often also perceived as economically unproductive, or various other societally undesirable forms of vagrants, or on the other end of the scale, millennial hipsters living the digital nomad, Instagram-worthy life or middle-class retirees.

The van somewhere near but outside Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, in the Spanish Pyrenees.

These perceptions are something I’ve been struggling with, realising my privilege in being able to live this life but not wanting to perpetuate or abuse it. As well as the growing contradiction between previous generations of van-lifers choosing this lifestyle as a way of escaping societal/economic pressures (cue Christopher McCandless), and the present ability to continue working to support this lifestyle through mobile wi-fi and laptops, and so further perpetuating and expanding the spheres of capitalism.

Nonetheless, in spite of all my self-inflicted doubts and insecurities, this has been very much a lesson in the value of labour and skills, and in being very aware of our consumption and production. The whole conversion process – stripping it down, cleaning it out, cutting a hole in the roof for a stealthy window/ventilation (thanks to Omar’s friend James for lending an angle grinder), putting in timber battens, insulating and sealing the insulation with a vapour barrier, putting in the floor and ceiling, building the bed frame (with help from Omar’s friend Jethro), kitchen, dry toilet and cabinets, making the bed mattress covers, doing the electric wiring, plumbing for sink and gas for hobs – was a really interesting and eye-opening process, particularly for someone like me with very little prior DIY experience.

It took about a month and a half from purchasing the van to setting off, with time in between also spent on PhD applications, and only cost about £1300+ at the end. I realised there’s an impossible trinity of budget, rapid, and good workmanship – we ended up compromising between making/having well-made/reliable items and budget, but doing things yourself really saves a lot of money. A pre-made kitchen set (sink, hob, tap and cupboard space) would have cost upwards of £300-400, and we made ours for about £120 with the most expensive purchase being the gas hobs. Similarly, the toilet cost us less than £50 (most expensive item being a urine diverter which separates pee from poo and hence makes our waste smell less, not require water and easy to dispose of) instead of £200 for a ready-made set. Beyond wishing we installed latches on cupboard doors instead of just catches (been quite a few incidences where stuff fell out while driving. Having dark soya sauce all over the floor isn’t too good…), everything’s been more or less working well and up to expectations. 

Having to manage electricity (the leisure battery charges while driving but we also have a supplementary solar panel courtesy of James) and especially water supply makes us very conscious of our consumption. As a consequence of highly effective water-saving campaigns in Singapore, I have always been frugal with water use, especially with dish-washing. In the van, it’s taken to the next level, and we usually manage to wash up with about <2 litres of water – our grey water container is 5l. 

All in all, the convenience and mobility of living in a home that is well, mobile, is pretty good, but the fuel consumption (though less than flying, which I’m trying to reduce) and ultimately privilege of this lifestyle weighs on my conscience. Also, while nomadic living may have had a long history, it’s usually done in larger family groups or tribes, and the lack of community embedded-ness is wearing in this lifestyle. 

La furgoneta