Things I didn't know before I decided to live in a van
The decision to live, travel and work in a classic camper van has been a long time coming. After finding myself, as so many of us do, caught in a cycle of work, burn out, recover and repeat, a life of care-free freedom with my furry companion was a no-brainer.
I spent close to a year researching (and saving for) different types of campers from self-conversions to brand spanking new motorhomes. Many evenings were spent reading blogs about travelling with a dog, being a solo female traveller, and figuring out the most burning question of all, how do you go to the loo?
Instagram was the ultimate source of inspiration. The grids full of breathtaking views from their beds, cool interiors and exclamations of HOW TO SELL EVERYTHING YOU OWN, made me naively believe van life was liberating, even easy.
It was with a massive shock that I found the process of sorting, donating, selling and packing my belongings incredibly painful, lonely and sad. The more people I spoke to about moving, from the Sainsbury's delivery man to close friends, the more I realised these feelings were completely normal.
Despite it being incredibly common, I couldn't find anything much online that discussed the emotional rollercoaster of such a life changing decision. Most articles quite rightly, focused on how it is all worth it in the end. I'm sure it is, I'm just not quite there yet.
Here are 4 things I've learnt so far;
1. Solo travel is lonely
In my early twenties I taught in Ghana, travelled America and Canada on my own. I'm not afraid of being a solo traveller, in many ways I prefer it. I am more open to meeting new people when travelling alone and nothing beats the feeling of being able to do what I want, when I want. You just have to be a little more careful as a woman.
But there are certain elements of van life that accentuates the loneliness of being a solo female traveller. I found this from the very beginning when buying the campervan. I'm not mechanically minded. I had never even topped up the oil before. Suddenly I was having to make a big decision alone without knowing a single thing about car engines. In the end I sought advice from an old travel buddy (thanks Simon), trusted the seller (thanks John) and the garage who had worked on it (thanks Doug). Luckily, it worked out. I've got a fantastic VW T25.
I was reluctant to admit that this process of going solo was lonely. It clashed with all my feminist instincts, but reading the honest account of travel writer, Anna Hart's, experience made me realise I'm not the only woman to have doubts occasionally.
I'm no fool though, I can't stay ignorant forever. I've got to learn about water-cooled systems, oil levels (don't overfill it, I learnt that the hard way), spark plugs, fan belts, changing fuses, you name it, to minimise the risk of being a solo traveller while I'm on the road.
That and I have forked out for decent breakdown cover.
2. Packing is emotional
I was really surprised at how emotional I found packing up my belongings was. I had been looking forward to a minimalist lifestyle in the campervan. Hashtags like #ownlessdomore had me longing for the simplistic life. It still does. But I hadn't counted on the emotional weight I had put on stuff.
I found it nearly impossible to part with the hundreds of books I collected over the years. Little trinkets given, treasured and kept. I welled up reading old letters and looking at photos. How can you throw those away? I marvelled at just how many clothes I owned and never wore. I dutifully donated items where I could, sold anything I didn't feel tied to, and stored the rest.
I didn't find this decluttering liberating (yet) but rather astonishingly sad. I had, after all, worked hard to afford all those things that fills a house. To find, in the end, it didn't matter much was a lonely process.
3. Renting out a house is harder than you think
"If you are lucky enough to own a property in the UK then don't mess it up," was my Dad's advice when I told him I wanted to travel in a campervan with my dog. It's sound advice too.
The house provides some stability at an unstable time so I decided to rent it out while I travelled. There are copious rules to being a landlord and tenants can be unreliable. It took three attempts before I found the right tenant who was going to treat the house as a home. It turns out she is looking for a fresh start after leaving London, much like I did six years ago. The house for me then was a shelter from the storm so I know the house will look after her as it did me.
4. Vanlife is more expensive than it looks
I have 2 weeks before I start full-time van life in earnest. I'm sure it will work out cheaper than most forms of travelling over time, especially with a dog, but the start up costs are high. The van, insurance, mechanics, interior, and equipment all add up. Instagram can romanticise the nomadic lifestyle but I would say, go in with your eyes wide open and preferably with savings, lots of savings...