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I left my full-time job to travel the world in a camper van. Here are the 8 things that surprised me the most.

INSIDER logoINSIDER 9/3/2020 insider@insider.com (Zoë Hannah)
Nela Zisser standing in front of a truck: The writer purchased a camper van and has been traveling with her partner for a few months. Zoë Hannah for Insider © Zoë Hannah for Insider The writer purchased a camper van and has been traveling with her partner for a few months. Zoë Hannah for Insider
  • I've lived in a camper van in New Zealand with my partner for a few months, and many things have surprised me about my new life. 
  • I learned I still need to have a routine and make plans even though I'm living a spontaneous lifestyle.
  • It's also important to find places to park, since we can't set up camp and sleep anywhere we'd like. 
  • Traveling around the world in a van can be cheap, but I'm glad my partner and I saved up plenty of extra money before embarking on this journey.  
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Days after being laid off from my full-time job in October 2019, my partner and I began looking up flights to New Zealand.

This was our first concrete step in realizing our plan to leave our jobs in the United States and move across the globe.

After years of saving up, we flew to New Zealand and bought a van on sight. We planned on taking advantage of the country's freedom camping program, which allows those with certified self-contained vehicles to camp overnight for free in hundreds of locations around the country.

Since then, we've spent about two months on the road, and while my current travel plans are on hold, I'm reflecting on everything I've learned about van life so far.

Here are eight things that have surprised me about living out of a camper van. 

Buying the most photogenic van is expensive, and it's not a wise decision for someone on a budget 

a person standing in front of a truck: A van doesn't need to look fancy to be functional. Zoe Hannah for Insider © Zoe Hannah for Insider A van doesn't need to look fancy to be functional. Zoe Hannah for Insider

A lot of the camper vans you see on travel blogs are stylish Volkswagens with a bright, colorful paint job, wooden ceilings, and kitchens you can stand in. 

But you don't need an Instagrammable van to travel the world. They can be really expensive, and they're pretty much just for aesthetics' sake.

In reality, most vans within our budget were retired trade vehicles that had been converted and then passed around to backpackers for a couple of years. Plus these used, plain vans come with perks. Since they are inconspicuous, they're often not a target for theft, which can be common in many cities. 

Sure, newly-built vans are nice, but I'm happy with ours, which we've lovingly named the "One Punch Van."

Our van has dings and scratches and needed a bit of work that we addressed as we went along — but it is certainly not a target for theft, it provides us everything we need, and it's still really fun to photograph because it has such character.

Traveling together saves us a ton of money, and it's nice to share financial responsibility with someone else 

Sharing space is not easy, but I'm surprised at how much traveling with my partner has mitigated the financial stress of van life. Having a travel buddy helps financially as much as it does emotionally.

My partner and I split nearly everything we buy down the middle, including the van. By co-owning the vehicle, we take joint responsibility for gas, van-related purchases, and repairs. This takes the edge off of bills that can seem extra expensive when we don't have a steady income.

It's crucial to have more money saved than you think you'll need

After saving up from full-time, part-time, and freelance jobs for about four years, we were comfortable enough with our bank accounts to leave for New Zealand.

We also made sure to save much more than the required amount for New Zealand's working holiday visa, just in case something unexpected happened — like a global pandemic, perhaps — that would require us to spend a lot of money quickly. 

No, we can't just park anywhere we want to and set up camp

a group of people standing on top of a mountain: Not all countries have the same laws when it comes to camper vans. Trent Burns for Insider © Zoë Hannah for Insider Not all countries have the same laws when it comes to camper vans. Trent Burns for Insider

No matter what country you're in, it's important to research where you can park overnight so that you maintain respect for nature and the local community.


Gallery: 14 common mistakes to avoid when renting an RV, from someone who just did it for the first time (INSIDER)

In many places, it's not legal to sleep in your car just anywhere. In New Zealand, it's also considered rude to park your van in non-designated areas and sleep.

Although you may think of van life as similar to living in an RV, it's actually a lot more like camping. In our van, we cook outside most of the time, so setting up in any old neighborhood would be quite obtrusive.

Although our life is quite spontaneous, we actually spend a lot of time planning our days

When your home travels with you, spontaneity just happens. We've discovered plenty of breathtaking landscapes, delicious meals, and cute towns just by stopping in places that seem interesting to us.

But sometimes, especially when we're gearing up for a big hike or are needing a shower, planning ahead of time becomes imperative.

Using offline maps from apps like Campermate, we plan where we'll sleep and where we'll have access to food, gas, Wi-Fi, electricity, and showers.

We also have to plan around our limited water supply. On one of our first nights with our van, we headed out to a semi-remote campsite with no bathrooms, no running water, a full gray water tank, and a quarter tank of gas. We learned our lesson that night, and have been planning better ever since.

It's now become routine for us to post up in a coffee shop or laundromat with Wi-Fi to make a loose plan for our next few days.

I miss some of my material items, but I've learned they aren't that important  

a view of a beach next to a body of water: Camper vans have limited storage, which forces you to limit your belongings. Zoë Hannah for Insider © Zoë Hannah for Insider Camper vans have limited storage, which forces you to limit your belongings. Zoë Hannah for Insider

Although I miss my Doc Martens and the wall art from my old house, having everything we own fit into our rolling home is extremely liberating.

We have nice things in our van — we recently put twinkly lights on our ceiling and decorated our space with a cheap duvet cover — but all of our material items fit underneath our bed and in our roof box.

We have only what we need to be safe and comfortable, and the rest doesn't feel important when we're on the road.

Living in a van is a great way to ask yourself who you are without all your stuff — or, more simply, to ask yourself whether you really need 15 pairs of shoes.

Van life requires a lot of streamlined systems when it comes to cleaning and setting up 

Even with the addition of our roof box, storage space in the van is limited. It took us about a month to find an organization system that we were comfortable with, and it sort of felt like adjusting to a new apartment. 

Now that everything has a proper place to be stored, we're able to move the van more quickly. We can pull up to a site, convert the bed into a table, set up our camp chairs, and start to make a meal within five minutes.

Having these systems is important because it allows us to spend more of our time enjoying the views, hikes, and each other.

Routines and alone time are still just as important as they were before 

a truck driving down a dirt road in front of a mountain: It's easy to lose track of time when living out of a van. Trent Burns for Insider © Zoë Hannah for Insider It's easy to lose track of time when living out of a van. Trent Burns for Insider

After spending years learning how to fit exercise, cooking, and leisure time into my daily life, it was hard to let these "adulting" routines go.

It took a bit of time for me to realize it wasn't about dropping my old routines, it was about turning them into new ones that suited my new life better. 

It's easy to lose track of time on the road, so we make sure to get dressed, wash our faces, and make breakfast every morning. We still set goals and routines even though we don't always have somewhere to be. 

More broadly, we make sure to spend some time alone each day by taking a solo walk away from the campsite or reading a book. Fitting our hobbies — taking photos, doing yoga, playing guitar — into our days keeps life seeming normal, and makes our van really feel like our home.

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