THE TRUTH ABOUT VANLIFE: SUSTAINABLE LIVING ON THE ROAD
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term ‘vanlife’? You may think of tiny living, minimalism, freedom. A beautiful scene of a van driving through a towering pine forest. A couple laying with their back door open overlooking the ocean. Or you may think, “dirty hippies living in a van down by the river.” Regardless of what mental images you conjure up, there is a truth about vanlife that most people don’t know or even think about.
Dustin and I lived in a 1,500sf apartment in New Orleans. We owned two vehicles and both commuted an hour to work each way, daily. I’m sure you know the feeling – sitting in rush hour traffic, breathing exhaust, wishing you were home after a long day of work.
In our home we recycled and composted. We turned off the tap when we brushed our teeth, turned off the lights when we left a room - you know, the obvious things. We felt like we were doing our part. It wasn’t until we bought a van and embraced a life of minimalism and intention, we realized we could do much more.
| “It’s not just about being green.”
When many people think of vanlife they think of loaded-down gas-guzzlers, chugging down the highway. Yes, our home is a moving vehicle that burns fossil fuels, and this is our biggest carbon contributor. But we’ve learned when we travel slowly and explore places for longer periods, we can reduce our impact. This also allows us to get to know places better. We often use this time to volunteer in the local community – helping at a neighborhood vegetable garden, planting trees on public lands, shopping and eating locally.
As we’ve embraced sustainability, we’ve realized that it’s not just about being green. It’s about doing your best. It means supporting not only the environment, but also the local communities and economies we encounter. We’ve found that if we can better balance these three elements we can move closer to sustainability.
SUSTAINABLE TIPS FROM THE ROAD
We spoke with a few vanlifers who shared their experiences and some tips on how they incorporate sustainability into their daily lives - from van builds to shopping, composting, and recycling. Here’s what they had to say.
BECCA, CADE & TALA of @AVES_SIN_RUMBO
Eat Fresh, Buy Local
We try to buy as much of our food as possible in bulk and buy locally. To avoid using disposable plastic, we have most of our ‘dry’ goods like beans, rice, oats, spices, oil, syrup, peanut butter, etc. in glass jars in our cabinets. We refill the jars at grocery stores with bulk sections--most stores will allow you to weigh jars or other containers before you fill them, so you never have to use plastic bags. We also do our best to eat fresh produce in season and shop locally. The best way to do this is by taking advantage of farmers’ markets, but this can be a challenge to coordinate or find on the road. Oftentimes roadside stands and small locally-owned grocery stores will also carry local produce, so we definitely use that resource. The other bonus is that both markets / small coops and stores are usually very accommodating to us when we use our own bags. In addition to large canvas bags to replace ‘paper or plastic’, we also carry small cotton bags that work great for fruits and veggies, bread, and bulk goods, if we don’t have space in our jars. We try to get bread and baked goods at local bakeries (or make our own in our oven!). We make things like salad dressing, beans, and granola from scratch with bulk ingredients. And when we do buy pre-packaged foods, we try to avoid plastic at all costs and recycle any packaging we do use.
For drinking water, we have a 5-gallon glass jug that’s plumbed into our faucet. It’s actually a carboy (like what you use to brew beer in). We don’t like the plastic taste that comes from standard water jugs, so we built our system around the carboy and use a copper pipe for the plumbing. Generally, we refill our drinking water from friend’s houses or, when we’re traveling, we use those water ‘vending machines’ that you find at gas stations and grocery stores. We also have a 3-gallon metal “pressure shower” that we fill with water from whatever tap we can find along our way. This is water that we use for showers, cleaning, dishes, etc. Conserving (water) is really easy when you have a really limited amount on board! You learn quickly to wash a whole sink full of dishes with one pot of water and not let the faucet run for a single second longer than you need. We let the dishes pile up until we can do a bunch of them at once and only shower every few days (or sometimes longer, hah).
EVAN & KATIE of @S0WEBOUGHTAVAN
Blue Jean Baby
For our van build - most of our insulation was done using recycled denim batting. Not only is the material obviously recycled, but it's much healthier for long-term living conditions compared to traditional fiberglass insulation. We also run completely on solar. We have 3-100-watt solar panels and 4 batteries running our van on renewable energy! We were also just really careful in general about only buying what we needed and using anything we had leftover to ensure we weren't throwing away materials. For example, we had a bunch of leftover Reflectix so we sewed canvas window covers filled with double-layered insulation instead of throwing away the leftovers.
AMANDA, MATT & ROYAL of @VAN.PROJECT
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Mind your Beeswax
We work to minimize waste and we always recycle. We use cloth rags to clean up most of the time instead of paper towels. We just completed a 100% zero plastic waste month, where we didn’t purchase or acquire (including free) plastics like plastic bags, cutlery, straws, or packaging of any sort. This made it hard to eat lots of meats or cheese, so we ate 95% vegetarian, which is a bit more than we usually do on average. One of the coolest things we learned about during that month was this awesome product called Bee’s Wraps (there are a few brands that make them). They’re basically a resin and beeswax coated organic cloth that you can use in place of plastic wrap or plastic baggies and last up to a year. We were even able to bring these wraps into grocery stores like Whole Foods, Sprouts, etc. and have them sell us cheese directly in these wraps.
Worms, Woes, and Compost
Three “challenges” we’ve faced in our efforts to minimize our impact: First, we always recycle, but since we’re not always in the same places we don’t always have easy access to recycling facilities. Usually, they’re not far away but we do tend to sometimes carry around our recycling with us for a few days to a few weeks. Some National Parks or BLM lands with other recycling don’t allow glass recycling, for instance, so if we finish up a salsa jar, we may end up keeping it with us for a few weeks until we can find a place that does recycle glass. Second, we’d love to be using even *less* fossil fuels as far as gasoline and propane. We considered getting an induction stove but would have to size up our solar significantly, so right now it’s a bit outside of our budget. However, we are hoping to do that in the next 1-2 years. Finally, when we lived in our San Francisco apartment, we kept a small worm compost so that our food waste, like banana peels and apple cores, could be reused as soil and didn’t end up in the landfill. Unfortunately, we’ve not found a good solution for compost yet that works for our lifestyle. The best we’ve been able to do is make an effort to compost when we are in areas that do offer commercial compost. We’re always open to suggestions though, so if you have any thoughts about how we can do this better reach out to us and let us know!
Sustainability is not about being perfect, it’s about being real and making a commitment to learning, experimenting, and exploring sustainable practices.
EDITOR’S NOTE: See findacomposter.com to find a composting facility near you.
We recently learned about someone using the ‘dig and drop’ method on the road, which is essentially burying your food scraps or other organic matter in a hole about 10”-12” deep and replacing the soil.
While we have not yet tried this, we did some research and learned that there are a few things to keep in mind: Bury your food scraps deep enough to deter animals. Don’t bury meat or dairy. Dig far enough away from the base of trees to not damage roots.
If you have any tips for composting on the road, or any advice or experiences you’d like to contribute, please share in the comments.