Travel Tips

Fri, 25 May, 2018Danielle McCarthy

How I learned to love van life

How I learned to love van life

Jackie Norman is a travel writer for Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations magazine and lives on the road permanently after selling her house in 2016 to go in search of a simpler life.

I caught sight of my reflection the other day in a shop window and was shocked at what I saw. Not because I didn't like it – on the contrary it made me smile to see myself rugged up like an eskimo with my favourite pom pom hat and trusty backpack. But for the first time it really hit home how different I am from other women my age.

Not so long ago I was living just the same as most other women I knew. I had a lovely home with a modest mortgage and a wardrobe full of expensive clothes. I spent a fortune on making myself look and smell nice and loved nothing better than hanging out in wine bars and posh cafes. I kept up with all the celebrity gossip and reality shows, knew all the latest songs on the radio and played them at full volume everywhere I went in my tiny purple Mazda Demio.

But something inside me yearned for a simpler, more peaceful life. I got no enjoyment from owning or collecting 'stuff' any more. What I wanted from life was adventure and experiences, not things. I wanted to travel, wherever I wanted for as long as I wanted. So in 2016 I gave it all up for a life on the road.

While a lot of people would consider it an extreme move, in hindsight I think I had been subconsciously working towards it for a long time. In the years leading up to the move, I had gradually been whittling down my possessions and getting rid of items I felt were too expensive to use or unnecessary.

The first thing to go was the clothes drier, next was the Sky subscription and TV. At first the rest of the family complained but after a few days they didn't even miss it and found other things to do.

Then I turned my attention to the walls and on the shelves. Bit by bit I sold or gave away everything in my house, sheds and enormous garden and crammed what was left of it (including my partner and a rather overweight Cocker Spaniel) into our new home on wheels, a camper van called Ken.

Initially we weren't planning to spend more than a few months on the road. The plan was to find a new home, buy land and build a new little place in the middle of nowhere. However we had no idea we would love it so much and 18 months later here we are, still on the road.

I can't help wondering what my friends would think of me if they saw me now. The top brand clothing and reverse bayalage colour job are long gone.

One of the first things you learn on the road is that you really don't need many clothes to get you through life. The amount of clothes my husband and I own collectively would fit in the average person's underwear drawer. I've gone from having a wardrobe full of clothing which never saw the light of day to wearing what few items I have until they literally fall apart. It feels good to actually get the use out of them.

I don't dye my hair – heck, I don't even cut my hair. I don't go to beauty salons or hairdressers. I don't wear make-up or use any creams or products whatsoever. I see photos of my friends all the time, looking gorgeous and wearing beautiful outfits and sometimes I wish I still looked like they do. I feel like a scruffbag every minute of every day and I know I look it too, but what I lack in style I more than make up for in happiness. I feel so happy so much of the time, I feel like my face glowing and people can see it on the outside. That in itself is beautiful to me.

So many of the things most people take for granted and do without thinking have become completely foreign to me. At the other end of the scale, I can't imagine them doing most of the things I do either! My daily routine is certainly not that of your average 40-something professional woman. For example:

When I get up in the morning, it can take a couple of hours just to do basic things such as make the bed, make coffee and breakfast and wash dishes. Making the bed is not a question of just pulling up a duvet and plumping up pillows; more often than not it involves taking the entire bed apart, shaking out all the bedding (when it's not raining) and putting it all back together again.

When I do the dishes I don't have a dishwasher or even hot water. Now the weather is getting cold, I have to boil a kettle to take the chill off the water so I can do the dishes without my hands hurting. Where other people simply load up the dishwasher and push a button, I wash them by hand in a 20 litre bucket. I have a working sink in the van but trust me, it's not comfortable standing bent double for long when the ceiling is so low.

As for getting in the shower, you think you have trouble sharing the toilet or bathroom in your house? You should try it at a campground, it's every man for himself! I'm sure reading this most people will be thinking 'Stuff that!' And sure, sometimes it can get a little frustrating that such simple everyday things take so much time, especially when I need to get to work but you get used to it.

Once the morning chores are out of the way, then I can finally get to work. I still have the same job I've been doing for almost 20 years. For me it was just a question of moving my home office into my mobile one. Obviously the fact I could already work from anywhere and support myself made my transition into living on the road much easier, but even if I hadn't been, you wouldn't believe how many work opportunities there are for people living on the road. I could literally get a new job every day if I wanted, there are that many. Ask anyone living this way. You don't need to earn much to pay for the few costs you have on the road either; on the whole it's just food, campground fees, petrol and phone.

I don't go out to fancy restaurants or spend a heap of money on entertainment any more. It's not that I can't, I just don't feel the need to. I'd much rather pay to travel and see something amazing that will stay with me forever than blow the same amount on a meal that lasts 10 minutes. I spent an unforgettable day kayaking in Milford Sound recently for less than I used to spend on lunch at Burger Fuel. When you live with and on so little, you soon realise what real value is and what is truly important.

People automatically assume we must miss the comfort and space of living in a normal house, but that isn't the case at all. When I see people in nice houses on Facebook or on TV, I don't feel envious, or wish that I had any of that. Most of the time I just see clutter, or thousands of dollars spent on a kitchen that I'd much rather spend travelling around Asia.

The only thing I truly miss is being able to have a bath. I really miss that! But that's all. Living on the road has taught me that you don't need a fancy kitchen to cook amazing food. You don't need a $5000 bed to sleep like a baby. You don't need a state of the art bathroom to keep yourself clean.

Everybody is different. I never, ever envisaged I would be living the way I am today. But I wouldn't change it for the world. I have no debt, no credit cards; all I have today is all I need and my home is wherever I want it to be. It's a bloody brilliant life.

And crazy as it sounds, every morning when I stick my hands into that freezing cold bucket of dishwashing water, I feel so incredibly lucky, I can't help but smile.

Do you think you could get used to van life?

Written by Jackie Norman. Republished with permission of