A few days ago I was once again asked what I thought of vandwelling, and if I thought it was feasible to do currently. This was by someone in the prep stages of setting up a van for extended, possibly even full-time travel. I didn’t answer immediately because I have had a lot of thoughts about vandwelling mulling around in my head from the experiences of my last few years, as well as from today and thinking about and looking toward the future. For what it’s worth this is my 2+ cents. I am so very very thankful for the 5+ years I traveled the USA pretty much non-stop. I have lived in my van (actually 2 vans) for just over 5 years traveling by the seasons mostly off-grid and since November 2nd of 2014 I have been at a home-base site in the South. So… from my perspective…
I have found that many RVers are very different from my idea of what freedom is. Many go from RV Park to RV Park and campground to campground. For me when I traveled 24/7 I was 98% off-grid aka self sustaining, via my battery bank and then 200 watts of solar adding to that. Even though I have been at a home base site for a few months now I still look for low tech and no power ways to do things. So yep I guess there is a survivalist inside of me. But unlike my son who looks down on that part of me, I see it as a huge benefit and asset.
I wouldn’t take anything for my experiences of the last few years. My thousands of memory pics literally take me back to so many awesome moments, discoveries and experiences. But I also have seen the USA change over especially the last 2 to 3 years. It used to feel free-er than it does now or began to feel in the last couple+ years. For example: Asheville NC used to be a favorite place to go to for 2 to several weeks on the way to or back from wherever USA to the Upstate of SC, as I tried to get back to the Upstate of SC to share Thanksgiving and Christmas with family. Anyway, Asheville was a great place to off-grid stealth vandwell. There are several really nice Walmarts in a few mile radius, several nice public parks and other public areas by rivers etc that were perfect for day parking (which I had to do for several hours per day on weekdays for my telecommute work). It is also a very diverse place with an eclectic main street, Biltmore Village, artsy areas, lots of murals everywhere, great green spaces and lots of natural scenery, much culture, entrances to much of it bordering the Blue Ridge Parkway etc etc etc… (awesome weekend exploration there and all around there). Whatever you are into you can probably find it there. I loved it there. The people were friendly and everything was a fit there. An eclectic mix of ultra cultural types, artsy types, yuppies, hippies, hillbillies, long time mountain folk, the ultra svelte or the very much not… everyone fit there. It was a great place to hang out as a vandweller. I felt very comfortable there. Campgrounds there? Very nice ones but too pricey and besides I mostly did off-grid so I overnighted at Walmarts (as did many others, both vandwellers, car dwellers and RVers of all types). For the most part everyone kept things clean and were respectful. There are always a few that take advantage by pouring out a jar of urine on their grass or take their dogs out without picking up the poop or leaving garbage where they shouldn’t, but that was rare in not only Asheville but also in most of the places I have been to across the USA. For my first three years I would stop off in Asheville. Each year one more Walmart (and other places also) would have become off-limits for overnighting and even ‘loitering’. The city councils and powers that be, continued to pass ordinances and laws that shut it down. 5 years later… there are no places now to legally overnight there… not even t the Truck Stops/Travel Centers!!! The last time I was there I had my door knocked on twice to just to check and make sure I was OK and see what my story was. I had never been questioned there prior. Now… Asheville is just flat out no longer vandweller friendly at all. It went from super vandweller/mobile dweller friendly to not at all in basically 3 & ½ years. I saw similar situations take place in Boone NC and in some areas in and around Charleston SC. I went to place that were awesome, just downright awesome. But the last couple years I was getting far far far more knocks on the door (I HATE THAT) than I had in the first 3+ years. There was no reason for it. I was always in legal parking places and have no reason to be concerned about law enforcement but I hate having anyone check me out. It bothered me because I could see the Country as a whole becoming less and less free. It was and is saddening to me.
There are places that for me were very vandweller friendly like Pensacola and the surrounding areas in the panhandle of FL, and up in several of the Great Lakes areas in WI and MN up to the Canadian Border. Loved it! But some areas didn’t feel right so I would move on. So yes there are the great areas and the not so much, and that is to be expected. But what concerns me is that many of the places that were free and accepting places are one by one becoming not so anymore. As long as you are in areas where you can get to somewhere else easily it is workable, but you must remain flexible to make the necessary changes to go somewhere else if needed or a better experience for you. Where that wore me down was the place I went to that I didn’t like much and that was Northwest NY. I was so excited about going to Niagara Falls and I loved the Falls and the Rapids from the Falls. But the Niagara Falls NP was super consumerized. Tons of shops and restaurants etc. It was far more of a touristy like shopping extravaganza than a National Park. Again I loved the Rapids and Falls but in comparison to The Great Smoky Mountains NP or many of the others, it felt like a joke to me. (I apologize if I am offending anyone it is just my opinion.) On the other side of that I have been in some form of Marketing and Marketing related management my entire life and it highly annoyed me that the city of Niagara Falls was dirty and just not utilizing the incredible opportunity they had! They had millions of visitors constantly flowing into their city and yet it was dirty and unkempt. (Sorry I know not the point but doggone it how stupid!) So in that area when it got hot, the places to plug in were very expensive and the nice ones were insanely expensive. Rural NY didn’t have the cell or wifi signals I needed to work so I felt very stuck there. But as a vandweller… there was one great Walmart where many RVers and vandwellers and you name it went to. I met several people there from Europe etc. I loved the multi-cultural aspect. But… almost every night or morning I could hear the police talking to or arresting someone in ear or eyeshot of my van. I would go to the wayside areas to park etc and the Border Patrol and the police would constantly be there. I saw some form of law enforcement constantly while there. I felt stifled. It felt very unfree. I can’t explain it. Some people love Buffalo, but the area I saw of it… didn’t feel safe. They didn’t even have ATMs there because it was too dangerous to! That is the only place in my entire life that that has been the case.
As a vandweller you have to be able to reassess and go somewhere else if where you are doesn’t work. Being up in a corner way up there made that difficult when working each week day. Finally, over the July 4th weekend of that year (2013), I drove down to the High Country mountains of NC.
There are nice and not so nice areas most everywhere. But I began to find more and more places were more restricted or becoming so. More and more places where the ordinances and by laws included restricting people from living and/or sleeping in their vehicles. At the same time there are still many really cool places where people are very vandweller and mobile dweller friendly. So… I think this lifestyle is very enriching. (I still live in my van and will still do some traveling although most of it will be in close proximity as opposed to 1500 or more miles away.)
I honestly think that I had it better than someone just starting out now. Our world is changing. I don’t like it. But I see it, I feel it and I have experienced it. Would I recommend vandwelling as a lifestyle today? Most definitely. But I would NOT recommend someone leave everything and everyone they know without testing the waters first. Take some trips on the weekends or whenever you can. Find out what is and is not important to you. What do you want to do? What is important to you? What are your goals? How will you make money? If you plan to do odd jobs then start doing some now and see how it works for you. Don’t just jump out there on a whim and a hope. Being a nomad yes… most of us share that. But test the waters prior to leaving it all behind. You can plan and read and prepare (all good to do and I did for 20 years before I went fulltime) but nothing will ever take the place of getting out there and seeing and coming to terms with what works for you.
I think often we tend to fanaticize ‘the life to be’, while we are beyond weary with our life of the ‘today’s’. And then when we get out there and find there is a lot of relearning how to do things in ways that work in this new way of life, some (a few) become disenchanted rather rapidly. It is a process. I almost gave up after my first year and oh how I am thankful I didn’t and instead stayed out here and experienced all I have.
So… yes, prepare, buy and prepare the van or whatever rig, and dream your dreams and take some trips and live your dreams as you can until you can jump out there ‘full-time’ or whatever your soon coming or future plans might be. But know that our world is changing and be prepared to make changes as a result as needed. My son calls me a survivalist as if it is a dirty word. IMO we who live this lifestyle and even prepare for this lifestyle are far more prepared for emergencies and whatever else may come than those that live in homes and don’t know anything other than you plug things into a wall socket and power comes out. We learn how to produce power, we learn what is realistic and what isn’t and what it takes to power etc. We learn how to stay clean with or without showers. We learn how to do many things in new & often low tech ways. As far as technology, we also learn that we live in such a mobile and tech-rich world that that side of things is pretty easy! If a storm comes in tonight and the power goes out for several days, most people, even many in travel trailers only know how to live via being hooked up to shore power. I have solar power and what I need to make it with or without shore power, so I could get by very easily (& have for years completely off-grid until November) when most others couldn’t.
I don’t know if I could ever see myself paying for an apartment or a traditional stick and brick home again. It makes me cringe to even think of doing so! I have been in this lifestyle long enough now that it has become a part of who I am. I love the freedom of this lifestyle, including the reduced income needs it allows.
Sorry this is so long but I really wanted to lay it all out there. So yes… prepare and take the trips. Get rid of stuff and live free. But stick your toes out there in the water and then do some dog paddling and then swim while you can now… Take weekend trips etc. Take a month trip or work camp or whatever you choose to do with experimentation if you can first. Some people enter this lifestyle because the job ended and they don’t want to sign another lease. Or going through a divorce or something else threw them out of the life they knew. And that is fine too. Most of it is just a matter of mindset anyway. (As is most of life IMO.) Yes I think the dream is still out there. But be prepared for the changes that are happening in America or in the part of the world you live in. I have found most people to be good, and most places full of wonderful discoveries. But for most of us, this lifestyle and all the changes it brings with it, is a process. A few just jump into it and it is awesomeness from day one. But for most of us… it is a process. So there you go, clear as mud lol.
If I had it to do all over again to end up exactly where I am today? Oh yes, most definitely yes. I am beyond words thankful for this lifestyle, the places and people and all that goes with it that I have been able to experience. I still love this lifestyle. As the old saying goes… some of us just live to the beat of a different drummer than the masses. I call us ‘uniques’ and I am proud to be one of us.