The truth about Vanlife is that it is not always sunshine and roses. Sometimes shit hits the fan and you have to resist the temptation to chuck it all in. It is these dark moments (that you can later look back and laugh at) that truly put the bright ones into perspective.
In Italy we had one such moment. After enjoying some rather excellent cappuccinos in a small town, we jumped in our van and pulled out from the curb. Catching the front right wheel on a very sharp edge of the road, the tyre exploded with all the fanfare and dramatic hissing of a hollywood movie. Our hearts immediately sank. Sunday is our favourite day for breakdowns. What better day to choose than when all the mechanics and repair shops are closed?
And so we found ourselves stranded on a busy hill while Dan disassembled his bike frame in the hopes of making a DIY socket wrench pipe extension. You see the bolts on the offending tyre were screwed on so ridiculously tight that he didn't have enough leverage to remove the wheel and change the tyre himself. The irony is that there was a tyre shop a mere 50 metres down the road from us.
A rough night's sleep and at 8am the following morning we rolled down the road to be put into tip top shape. Fifteen minutes later and we were good to go again. In fear of a recurrence we made sure to ask the mechanic to loosen all the bolts on the wheels to the point that they could be undone by hand. Herein lies the first of many challenges you may face.
So without further ado, here is our list of...
The Top 6 Challenges of Vanlife
1.) Mechanical Failures
Driving 1000's of kilometres in a 25 year old van is not without its hitches. Your home is your transport and is therefore susceptible to one or multiple mechanical failures. Remember to breathe and take the challenges as they come. Ours tend to come in threes, as they say "when it rains it pours". Always ask for help- stop people in the street who pass by and reach out to your mechanically minded friends. It's very possible that you will break down in a non- english speaking country. While the language barrier can be a cause for stress, the use of google translate, hand gestures and a sprinkling of local words will get you far.
Some fun mechanical problems we've encountered so far:
- Windscreen wipers that wouldn't turn off (we used a temporary switch fix, but have since had the whole unit replaced)
- Broken auxiliary battery (this blew up the first time we plugged our van into external power, we rewired in a second battery)
- Broken fan belt (had us stranded in Split for the weekend while the mechanics were closed, fixed in five minutes)
- Broken exhaust pipe (this fell off as we drove through the alps, we have since had a new one built)
- Water pump won't turn off (temporary fix- taking the fuse out when not in use, we will install a switch)
- Broken Tap handle (unresolved, we are trying to source an original piece)
- Stick shift kept slipping out of gear (a scary moment where we couldn't change gears on a busy city street, a lovely mechanic tightened this up immediately free of charge)
- Burst front tyre (the latest dilemma, replaced)
2.) Vanlife cleanliness & hygiene
The lack of bathroom is a big one for me, especially as a female. You will likely decide that daily showers are overkill and that creativity and ingenuity gets you far. Make the most of swimming in fresh water, asking gyms to use their facilities and rigging up your tap to rinse off outside. A bottle of Dr. Bronners and a sponge will get you through most tough times, while a can of dry shampoo is highly lucrative. With regards to using the toilet- I am a fan of the SheWee, the ocean and cafe bathrooms. It takes adjusting to, but you will manage.
3.) Vanlife will test your relationship
Living 24/7 with your other half in a small space can be trying. Without the distractions of work, hobbies and friends you will be spending more time alone together than ever before. The key is finding the right balance and being sure to make room for "me time". We are working on ways to enjoy our own space and do our own thing so that we don't drive each other nuts. Our favourite thing is meeting people on the road and visiting our friends to mix things up At the end of the day the experience we are sharing is amazing and I couldn't imagine doing it with anyone else.
4.) Finding a great place to park
While you can luck it on some days and stay in a prime spot that is truly Instagram worthy, the truth is Vanlife isn't always so glamorous. You can do all the planning in the world and think a place will be perfect, then arrive and find it's a dud. The reality is that the perfect town to stay in a hotel may not always be van friendly. Accessibility of roads is a large part of our day. We will be compiling a list of the most van friendly towns we have encountered in Europe so far, so stay tuned!
5.) Keeping your devices powered
In this tech heavy world we live in, what would we do without being able to charge all of our devices? Luckily there are a number of adapters that will help. We utilised the usb ports in the front of our van to charge all smaller devices and got a Macbook Pro 12 volt charger. If you prefer to stay at campgrounds you can always hook up to the power mains to charge. On this trip we have been constantly on the go so managed to get by without the use of a solar panel. It is an investment that is definitely on the cards for our next trip so that we can stay in the one spot for longer.
6.) The weather
The weather can make or break your experience. It is at times your best friend and others your worst enemy. If you are going to stay sane, you need to make peace with the fact that you may get torrential rains on the day you planned that long bicycle ride. That the mountain you long to climb may be covered in formidable clouds all week. That it may be ungodly hot with no water or aircon in sight. That the summer is not endless and that at some stage you will need to think about winter tires and heating. Our main takeaway from this experience is that you have no control- just go with it and try to be adaptable. You can always come back next time! And if you find yourself shivering the nights away, you can do as the animals do and migrate south to warmer territory.
Have we left anything out? Let us know about your own struggles with Vanlife!