It’s sunrise. You open your eyes to mountains. That night, they close surrounded by the trees of a forest. The next, the sea. After that, a cityscape – or anywhere else. Wherever, whenever you want. Sounds pretty good right?
Can you imagine a lifestyle where this routine isn’t that uncommon? Well, whether you can or you can’t, this article is about a man who lives it by travelling about in his self converted van.
Now, if you’re anything like myself, you’ll have at some point fantasised about doing this yourself. However, there’s a practical side to this that distinguishes the dreamers from the doers. Written below is a quick insight into life on the road through the eyes of a man known as Mike “Vandogtraveller”.
Mike lived in Sheffield before he decided to take up the lifestyle. He worked as an electronics systems engineer, mainly for the offshore oil and gas industry as well as a big nuclear power client. Despite a love for engineering and electronics, he told me,
“This was the wrong job for me. I followed the money. I never really cared about getting loads of money and a career. I just wanted to give myself time to learn, grow, be creative and to be daft.”
Eager to know more, and with a sudden lack of creative questions, I fell on a well overused cliche. I asked what it was about in the van lifestyle that drew him from his job. To get it out the way, he answered, “It’s exciting. It’s an adventure. I always loved the idea of living in a van and just being able to go and live anywhere.”
But from here he began to elaborate, “It’s also about DIY and being a bit more independent of the mainstream and ‘the grid’. Living like this gives me time to do the things I want.
I like doing things myself and it’s nice to be able to fully power my computer with solar panels in the back of a van… and then write a book whilst parked up on the Greek coast… and run a blog from everywhere.”
As you might imagine, getting hold of a man like this isn’t always the easiest. As such, I was pleasantly surprised when I managed to contact him. A quick pit-stop back in the UK after 18 months driving around Europe in an LDV Convoy gave me the time I needed. I asked what it was that attracted him to that particular LDV van.
Quite simply he replied, “It’s the cheapest van available in the UK, they rust a lot but have hard engines.”
He continued, “It’s also based on really old designs that have hardly changed since the 70s. I like older looking things. I used to joke in school that I’d live in an LDV Convoy when I’m older. I don’t know if that was some seed I accidentally planted but the image of a crappy old LDV was funny for some reason.”
The thought of having to take on an unreliable old van and turn it into a home that you can trust to take you across countries and motorways, is quite a daunting one. I wanted to find out if Mike had any practical knowledge before he decided to take up the lifestyle.
“No not really like this. I was always into making things though. I have a lot of experience with electronics and building circuits and stuff. My van was the first thing out of wood, apart from making dens when I was little, and the first mechanical and oily thing that I’ve worked on.”
To learn what he needed to convert the van, Mike approached each problem when they arose. Every issue was broken down, “into loads of small sections and jobs.” The trick was to focus on one task at a time. Mike went on,
“Whenever I looked at the whole project I just got overwhelmed with stuff I didn’t know. There is no one job that is really difficult. It’s simple stuff really but it’s just quite time consuming.
With no clue how to start planning a conversion myself, I asked Mike for some tips. In return he gave me three purely practical tips to think about when planning a van conversion:
- Do you want to live or camp? If you want to live you definitely need a van that you can stand up in.
- Will you be spending most of your time off-grid? If so you should think about investing in solar power. It’s well worth it.
- How many people does it need to sleep? It’s worth deciding how many people you want it to sleep comfortably and how many people you want it to sleep uncomfortably. Think about this before you put anything inside because the bed will be the biggest thing.
Before I went out and bought the first rust bucket I could find. Mike explained some of the drawbacks he’s encountered. “There are the practical things like having limited water and power. It’s also a bit difficult to get things through the post. Another thing I’ve realised, by far the worst thing about vanlife for me, is that vans rust quickly.
I guess it depends what van you have but for me it’s a constant battle to kill the rust. It eats through whole panels and wrecks everything – not a nice thought.”
Adventure is inherently linked with the potential risk of harm. Of which, I wondered if Mike has had his share whilst travelling about. “Not mega disasters,” was how he answered my question,
“I’m lucky to have not even witnessed any mega disasters. But in Slovakia I did come inches away from losing the van off the side of a mountain road. I was scared then. The back wheels were off the road and I had no traction. I was pressing so hard on the brake until someone came past and pulled me out with my slackline. Always carry a slackline.” Another practical tip for you there. Although not a disaster, it still sounds pretty major to me.
Whilst on the road, Mike and his van have got to about 20 European countries, although he wasn’t too sure of the exact amount. I decided to try and pinpoint, out of all these places, what’s his favourite place. He replied,
“It’s always the people that make the place. Sometimes you get amazing people in an amazing place though. That was Hungary where the SUN festival was. A van is perfect for festivals because you’re already set and ready to go. My whole summer in 2014 revolved around that valley, those people and that community. It’s a pretty special atmosphere there.”
I had started to try and work out how many miles about 20 European countries could be, but quickly gave up. Instead, I asked about the benefits of going to these places in a van, “you see all the weird little in between places that maybe you would never see otherwise.
For one you are much closer to nature but still relatively comfortable – and without the discomfort of camping in a tent. In the city you are much closer to the street and people. I guess you’re just more exposed to the world which gives a much higher probability of random, interesting and magical things happening.”
I thought he had finished, but he quickly interjected with another major perk – not having to pay rent or bills. “That has to be one of the best things.” He pointed out. But ultimately, “It’s just nice to have your home on wheels.”
I’ve always felt that the thought of home is tangled up with a sense of community, I asked if Mike’s found much on the road. “There’s definitely a community feel amongst travellers and vanners you meet. It’s nice, if you pass another van you both wave at each other.
You meet up with other vanners and spend a few nights together. I seem to get on well with all the van people I’ve met. But I think two van people can still be in completely different worlds – just like anyone I guess. Even in the van world I feel like it’s made up of different subcultures and communities. You have the people who only stay in campsites, the surfers, the teknival/soundsystem people, the hippies and rainbow people and the adventurer/ climber/ extreme sports people.”
Whilst on the subject of home, I wanted to know if he could ever see himself moving out of his van. I may have touched a nerve, he replied, “The question I get asked the most is ‘how long are you going to do this for?’ But how long are you going to be doing that job? How long are you going to live on that road in that house? I see everything as temporary.
I feel like we are taught to aim for something permanent. That’s the goal in life. But it’s making people sad. It’s like running at a hologram. I don’t know how long I’m doing this for. Of course I cannot see myself living like this forever. But for now, it’s great. The thought that the mainstream is the only way to live and that anyone who steps outside the lines for a while is just ‘finding themselves’ or will ‘get back on track’ is bullshit.”
On this line of thought, I wondered if Mike thought that living in a van is a completely alternative lifestyle. “It can be if you want. It’s up to you how you live in your van. I’ve noticed there’s a whole spectrum of vanners. Some have ‘normal’ jobs and normal ‘mainstream’ kind of lives except that they go back to a van instead of a brick house.
Other vanners are completely disconnected from the mainstream. It’s interesting – if you really want to escape and have freedom then a van is perfect. For me, I get a bit tired of mainstream. Living in a van just lets me live my own life and control how much I’m involved.”
As our time together drew to an end, I asked if Mike had any advice for people thinking about taking up the lifestyle. He left these words, “Don’t think that this is just a dream that can never happen. Everyone can do this! My advice: trust that it will work. Trust yourself to make things work.” He must have had rust on the mind because he couldn’t help his final tip: “And some practical advice.
Spend time choosing your van and take a magnet with you to check if the body is actually metal and not a mixture of bodged fibreglass and body filler.”
If you’d like to find out more about Mike’s van conversion, you can find his blog at vandogtraveller.com. He’s also released a book called ‘From Van to Home’ which details his process of turning an old van into a permanent travelling home, and how other people can do the same. He explains and photographs every step of the way, as well as some key tips that were learnt the hard way.