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The Vanual – Guide to Living in a Van (thevanual.com)
232 points by dkthehuman on Nov 22, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 110 comments

As someone who is going through the process of building a van to live in... this is a terrible resource. Better ones are:

- Almost anything on https://www.reddit.com/r/vandwellers/

- http://www.alwaystheroad.com/conversion-ebook/

- http://www.sprinter-rv.com/sprinter-rv-conversion-sourcebook...

- http://vandwellers.org/

- https://www.campervanlife.com/

From memory, reading about this, the guy built out the van (for $12k) and then built the Vanual site with proposed Ryobi sponsorship. He pitched it to Ryobi and they essentially paid $10-12k. You'll see the "powered by" graphics and tool promos throughout the site.


On Ryobi: "Good question. They pretty much covered the entire cost of the project. But the van and entire site was done before they agreed. Pretty big risk for the amount of time it involved."

"Nope haha. I finished the site and mocked it up as if they were already the sponsor and sent it over in a cold email. Guess they like what they saw."

Moral of the story is though, do it then ask. Much easier for both sides in the end.

Correct. Pitch a plan to Ryobi and all their marketing team would see is uncertainty and months of committee work to organise something like this. Show them a product ready to go, and they don't have to assume the worst of your ability or guess at what it might look like. I think the Vanual itself is a bit fluffy, but as a scheme by the owner, it's great.

Thanks for the links!

I don’t yet know enough to evaluate the quality of the instruction here. Why do you think this is a terrible resource?

I don't know that it's a terrible resource, I actually think it has a nice layout and has the right type of information, it could just use more breadth.

It offers one specific method for each area which you can see on alot of blogs, etc. The approach in paricular (At least for electrical) is also pretty basic and rough.

For example - the electrical buildout basically just drills a hole in and epoxied into your roof. As opposed to something like a cable box w/ waterproof connectors.

I think it's a great start and would love to see more depth and also a few options like: "Want to power alot of stuff? 400w of panels and 2 deep cycle batteries" vs. "Just need to power a cell phone?" etc.

Here's a great guide for the electrical side that I have been working off of for our van: https://gnomadhome.com/van-build-solar-electrical-wiring/

And here's a nice overview which would be good to have for n00bs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1k9qlZM1ars

Just glancing through the sight it seems like some things like his insulation strategy are a bit poorly though out.

Google around a bit on you'll see there is a lot of debate on how to deal with condensation to prevent rusting out the metal of your van. It isn't clear if he's intending his system to deal with this by creating a vapor barrier with all that spray foam or if he's just going to end up with a bunch of condensation trapped in the space between the foam and the metal leading to rust.

And reflextix isn't particularly useful between two layers where it isn't exposed to radiant heat to reflect so I think he just wasted a bunch of money sticking it under the foam.

You're welcome!

Personal experience outside of van building: His insulation instructions are pretty suspect with even a basic understanding of how insulation works. Electrical is done in a way that works, but will make modifying your rig in the future very difficult.

Personal experience on van building: I'm on my 3rd iteration in 6 months of building. This is because as I build it out and try to live in it, I realized that certain things have to change for comfort/safety/ease of use. It's never really done, you're constantly tweaking things.

If you build it out according to the Vanual, you probably won't die/freeze to death/etc. But it might not a great existence (e.g. comfortable or enjoyable).

There is also tiny ebook called The Tiniest Mansion written by guy who used to live in RV for couple of years. It costs few dollars and it is more like introductory type of reading, but it is not that bad (although few years old now).

I read it when I was considering living in RV myself, that was before vanlife boom so there was not much information available back then.

I agree. "Manual" is a little generous. Especially for solar there are some much better resources if you step up to the RV world: https://therecklesschoice.com/2016/04/29/diy-rv-solar/ or https://handybobsolar.wordpress.com/

Here is another:

Fair warning: that guy is a long way from Valley Values, but he knows what he's talking about and how to convey that knowledge as he travels throughout the western US.

Are we really at a point where you need to put a warning on a post just because the guy likes hunting ?

It’s Signaling, also a “Valley Value”. I guess, ‘cuz I don’t even pretend to know what the hell thats supposed to mean.

Do you know of any good resources for doing this in Europe?

ebook, ebook, ebook... Remember when the internet didn't suck? (that subreddit community rocks though)

What's the problem? It costs 20 USD and its a PDF. No DRM. You instantly get the book. No trees were harmed during the printing.

I was actually surprised to see photos of books on The Vanual website. It looked so clean and small, and then he owns books. Doesn't make sense to me. My e-reader works for weeks, and it can contain thousands of books.

Imagine what will happen if you get the flu. You're suddenly stuck in a tiny living space, on a street where you know no one, and can't leave the van for fear of discovery, at 3 in the morning. You're going to spend the night vomiting with only a tiny cassette toilet and what ever plastic bags you can scrounge up to hold it in, and if it's strong enough, you might be too weak to even drive.

Now go and read that site's health and hygiene, realize the owner never even considers this a possibility, and that his own van doesn't even include a cassette toilet. That he can only defecate during a store's business hours, and he uses a laundry bottle filled with bleach to pee into if he needs to urinate in the middle of the night.

You really want to listen to this guy?

If you're so sick you can't drive, and you don't have a partner with you, wouldn't you be in a similar position if living in a house? Is throwing up in a bucket that difficult? How often in your life are you "too weak to even drive", and how often does that situation arrive without days notice so you can get near help? If I come down sick, I typically get 24-48 hours warning. And in decades, I've never been truly bedridden or unable to drive.

Why can't you leave your vehicle when sick? What's the fear of discovery? "This guy is really sick and needs our help. But wait, he was secretly sleeping in a stealth van - let him die!"

You strike me as particularly risk averse!

Some tree planters live in the bush for months.

I knew a tree planter who lived in a tent within a tent and inside the outer tent was a dozen jugs piss. He never bothered to empty the jugs until the camp relocated.

Also, it’s not impossible to defecate without a bathroom. Tree planters I knew would deficate in the bush a million miles away from a bathroom and they’d wipe their bums with sticks and leaves - they would do this regularly and brag about it. They enjoyed to defecate in front of people too and that’s how you knew they wern’t lying about the sticks and leaves.

If you were sick, you would lie in yr tent until you were not sick puking in garbage bags. If you got too sick someone could drive you into town.

Some people are just hard like that and guess what - those are the people that are going to want to live in a van and save $$$ on rent.

See, this shit is why I refuse to have tree planters as roommates.

Want to know what generally happens when a person living out of an automobile feels a fever coming on? They check into a cheap motel.

The lifestyle temporarily regresses into a costly and luxurious first-world domestic one when they're too ill to live in their preferred mode.

Your post is uninformed FUD as far as I'm concerned. Anyone living in a van by choice should be able to afford a cheap motel for a few days - and should budget for it, since sometimes the van breaks down and needs to check into a far more expensive motel of its own, the mechanic's garage.

- Someone that has spent multiple years in aggregate living relatively comfortably, by choice, out of vehicles and campgrounds.

Just because it's not for you doesn't mean it's not for everyone.

My brother has been living in a van for years and he loves it. Yes, there are tradeoffs, but when you are saving the cost of renting, and gaining a lot of freedom WRT your location, some people are willing to give up a lot of comforts.

It's not for me, but I think it's great for people who can tolerate it.

My point was the moment something relatively minor that happens to us all, happens to a van dweller, it becomes a major crisis. The things we take for granted, like being able to go to the bathroom when we want, or live without fear of police knocking on the door and demanding we suddenly up and relocate because we've broken laws, don't exist for this guy. If he gets into an accident on the road, he just imperiled his entire house.

And he's doing it for what? The great experience of having to sleep every night in a wal-mart parking lot or a side street? Not being able to live in one place, invite his friends over to his house, have a long-term girlfriend, and more?

Living in a van is hard. It doesn't become less hard because a yuppie does it as a voyage of self-discovery, or makes a pretty web site about it.

editing my language some. I'm sorry, I get really strident about things like this.

I lived on a boat for a few years. The experience is almost interchangeable with van dwelling. The biggest destroyer of boats? Docks and other boats.

One of many things I took away from that life is that I was truly free. The only money I was required to pay were cruising permits, annual registration, and insurance (you'll want it if you're not a complete idiot). Having to move everyday was a minor, minor inconvenience.

Am I missing something that's exceedingly lethal to van dwellers but not traditionally-homed humans?

Worse case, you drive to the nearest ER. Worst case, call 911 or stumble out onto the street and ask someone to do so. No different than if I had a heart attack in my house.

Reacting to this so negatively is ignoring the billions of humans around the globe who live in much more rustic conditions and (largely) manage not to die.

I have no experience in this but it occurs to me that the van won't be inspected to the same standard as a building permit inspector or some such.

Imagine you screw up the ventilation and have a carbon monoxide problem, or, you screw up something electrical and put yourself at risk of fire. I suppose there are a lot of spotty contractors out there that still manage to do their thing on more traditional dwellings too, but DIY in the tight space of a van seems like some of the things described are not without risk.

Granted. But these things aren't rocket science.

There was a time when everyone managed to get by without building codes. Sure we had a few fires and collapses, but statistically speaking they were still outliers.

Don't let the 1% risk of bad hold you back from trying good, is my only point.

Lol. Living in a van isn’t hard. If you’re going to be judgey at least pick a topic you know something about.

> Just because it's not for you doesn't mean it's not for everyone.

Your argument appeals to the subjective (and I do love the idea), but the parent's points are more about the objective (flu, health implications, hygiene, etc.); also, having to pee into a bottle at night is definitely not for everyone.

From reading about van living, people often have a bucket for emergency defecations. And people on the road say they often go months and months without needing to use it. Toilet issues seem to be the greatest fear of people going into van living, but eventually discovered to be a non-issue, from recaps I've read.

Every time you buy anything at a store, you get a plastic bag. In an emergency, just crap in one of those. Place the used paper on top, tie the handles together, and find a dumpster. Really not that terrible.

> Every time you buy anything at a store, you get a plastic bag.

In some countries that is true, in others you have to choose to pay for a bag, so most people don't, instead they re-use their existing (non-plastic) bag.

The UK for example charges 5p for a plastic bag and this has had a significant effect:


Some people use $50-100 portable toilets, but others favour what is essentially a bucket with a toilet-styled lid, lined with multiple heavy duty plastic bags, and then filled with cat litter or dirt.

People have different lifestyle preferences and there’s no reason to put someone down because they’ve made different trade-offs than you would.

Those trade offs are unsustainable. They are something the very young do without thought of what life will be in that situation five or ten years down the road. or even in the moment. His entire "what happens if the van breaks" section boils down to fix it yourself or call AAA. The fact that maybe it might take multiple days to fix the van, requiring you to live in a hotel or motel never seemed to warrant a notice. The expenses of what can go wrong can be very serious.

I've never seen these lifestylers put serious thought into what goes wrong. They rely on youthful immortality to carry them through.

again editing for language and adding content.

> They rely on youthful immortality to carry them through.

To be fair, having your small, mobile house suddenly become less mobile is typically not a disaster - unless it happens in the middle of a desert, or in the middle of winter. Someone living in a van in Hawaii or California is likely not going to be in serious danger if their engine suddenly seizes up, or if an axle breaks.

Plus, if the alleged savings from not paying rent are actually put away into some sort of savings account, staying in a hotel or motel for a week or two while the van is repaired isn't likely to be a tremendous setback.

It honestly doesn't seem any more risky than living in an apartment - which can flood, catch fire, or otherwise become un-inhabitable as easily as a van, and are more difficult to repair and harder to move your stuff out of.

I think your point about sudden illness or injury is a much more serious problem facing a would-be van-dweller.

I think you are not familiar with the circumstances that the majority of the people on earth survive through. Living in a van in the US, assuming a moderate income, sounds far preferable to what many others endure.

What I think you are assuming is that this lifestyle goes hand-in-hand with poverty, in which case the people living it would probably be worse off if forced to sacrifice an even greater portion of their income on living expenses. Why would an older person, assuming equal income, be worse off in a van in the case of a medical emergency? Just call an ambulance like anyone else would.

And by the way, old people practically pioneered the art of van living -- it's called an RV!

> I've never seen these lifestylers put serious thought into what goes wrong.

Then you're not looking, because even as an outsider with a casual interest in this lifestyle I've come across many thoughtful resources online as well as candid accounts from people actually living in vans.

A week in a motel is less than what someone so inclined would save on renting a house. If the van is broken, it's immobilised, like a house... If something breaks in your house or with your car, you likewise fix it yourself or call in an expert.

How much have you looked into this subculture? There are people of all ages and they indeed put serious thought into contingencies. There are retirees, there are young travellers, college kids, remote workers who like travelling around. There are people with nothing in their bank account who can't afford to live another way. There are others with money to burn, but just wanting a lifestyle change. Some are solo, some as couples or with a family, others with pets.

It's not for everyone, but then not everything is.

What honestly frustrates you about it? Do you wish that you could overlook the fears and take a risk yourself?

What honestly frustrates you about it?

I was wondering the same thing as I got ready to reply, then I realized it’s probably a case of extreme Worrywartitis, and a reply would be wasted. Some folks can throw some tools and a tent on the motorcycle and head off to Alaska for a month. Others will have to pack until they can’t see over the handlebars, because what if? I’m more of the former. If it breaks, I’ll fix it. If I need parts, I’ll put the tent up and wait for FedEx. If I am in a situation that I can’t get myself out of, I’ll fire up the satellite communicator. But in general, if things go wrong I’ll figure it out somehow. Always have. Might not at some point in the future. Hopefully it’s a dramatic end.

Takes all kinds to make a world, the nonchalant and the less so. Problem is, the latter often can’t leave the former alone about it.

I guess then, can that author delve deeper and wonder what sparks that worrying, especially on behalf of other people? Is it a case of "I'm too scared to do it, so I want to talk others out of it so I'm not the only one left safe at home and missing out?"

If you're not into being totally nomadic a variation would be to own a bit of property where you can park your home. Unimproved property can be very affordable.

Note: Isn't mixing bleach and ammonia a bad idea? Probably bad to be pissing in a bleach bottle then.

Just get a hotel room.

Living in San Francisco, I've always fantasized about living in a Van and saving 40 to 50K on rent annually. Have a cat.

Serious question: I couldn't find a section for the 3 Essential Ss for every man - Sh*t, Shave, Shampoo.

What do these guys who live in Vans do for that? I know that the Google dude who lives on Campus in Parking lot can use the Company showers and Toilets, but what about the average everyday man in the City who wants to try this?

I lived in a Honda civic for ~2 months in Oakland/Berkeley, and am semi nostalgic about it now that I have a regular housing situation. I would usually mess around at a late night cafe until ~11-12, use the bathroom, go setup car for sleeping and then drive to a good spot. Wake up and go straight to the gym, light workout, sauna, shower, bam ready to go before 8ish. The main downfall was that I am 6'1 and a civic is not ideal for comfortable sleeping.

If you really want to try it though just do it some night, I started by just folding the seat down and putting a sleeping bag and pillow across it. It is pretty uncomfortable, but the absence of repetition really slows time and makes each day seem more vivid. Also if you have any qualms about using public restrooms you will get over them real quick.

Interesting idea. Thanks for sharing. Did you have any issues with attempted break-ins in the car at night? Or was it generally safe?

I imagine people don't usually break into cars that have people in them.

He was living in the East Bay. Thieves there do attempt to steal from cars that have people in them. Also, vandwellers often take steps to make it appear there is no one in the car, so thieves mightn't know until after they've broken in.

Unless the desire is around building it yourself, why not just purchase a small ~20 ft Class-B or Class-C RV? They have all the amenities built-in (including a toilet, shower, and waste storage tanks). Brand new they can be expensive ($50k+) but these depreciate quickly and you can find them routinely for a fraction of that.

If you're in the US, a motorhome counts as a house. Which means loans are mortgages: 15-30 yr terms and tax-deductions on property-tax and interest. (2018 may change that of course).

You then have to pay to park in campgrounds, and those fees are a huge added expense. Vans are absolutely horrid as houses, but they can hide themselves among normal vehicles to stealth camp on streets and same their owners money.

How about a box truck? Seems like it would be a lot easier to hack up the box than a van and you start with much more usable space. They won't look out of place parked on a street either, especially in the lower rent parts of town. You also don't have to worry about cops looking in those pesky windows.

Some van dwellers get a gym membership and use the facilities there. If it's a widespread chain then this can work for travelling to multiple cities.

Shit: rest areas, walmarts, starbucks, cathole in the bush, or a porta-potty in the van.

Shave: Grow a beard, truck stop restrooms in the morning, you'll blend right in with the truckers doing the same.

Shampoo: In the city swimming pools are a decent bet, sometimes you can just ask if you can just shower and they'll let you. Gym memberships like Planet Fitness can be reasonably priced for just the shower. In more remote areas, campgrounds are a good source of showers, sometimes free, sometimes a modest fee. Plenty of van dwellers will even setup a cleaning area in their van, usually some sort of bucket they can stand in a pour heated water over them selves, or at least a sponge bath.

I'm not a fulltime van dweller, I started off just skipping out on hotels during 2-3week long road trips, eventually moved into my car (Pontiac G6) for 6months in the Boston area. Now its more sporadic, a month or two here and there while doing some long distance hiking.

Reminds me of a joke I've heard:

What's the difference between a thru hiker and a homeless person? Gore-Tex.

> eventually moved into my car (Pontiac G6) for 6months in the Boston area.

That's crazy! May I ask where you parked in the evenings?

I wasn't right in downtown Boston but a bit north, I often parked between a few different Walmarts in the area or at the office park the company I worked for had their office in.

Though I guess I phrased that a bit poorly, I spent Dec-Mar in the Boston area and fled south after some significant snowfall in January and February (record breaking snow in 2015). While moving it was almost always in rest areas or trail heads (backpacking on the weekends).

There is a section on that: http://thevanual.com/health-and-hygiene

If you have a bigger vehicle and are doing some modifications you also can fit it onboard - basically add the same kind of bathroom setup any other small RV would have (small enclosed/encloseable space, shower-pan as the floor, chemical toilet, fold-out sink)

You forgot the most important S of all. How do you explain to your date that the vehicle _is_ the destination?

If your social skills are good enough, your date will explain that _their_ place is the destination.

What if they live in a van too?

Then I guess it won't be a problem for either of you.

(Assuming some minimum degree of limberness and agility.)

There's movie on Netflix called Talulah that begins with this premise.

Do you meant Tallulah from 2016 starring Ellen Page [1]?

[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1639084/


Just pick the right date, some of them would be quite excited.

What would be exciting about going back to a guy's van?

I mean, the whole thing is a living standard compromise to save thousands on rent. That doesn't make it an exciting destination - quite the opposite.

> the whole thing is a living standard compromise to save thousands on rent.

Actually I think you would find that almost universally, that's not the outlook of van dwellers.

> What would be exciting about going back to a guy's van?

I'm a heterosexual man, so nothing at all would be exciting for me.

But I'm willing to consider that others would find it exciting. And quite frankly, I can think of quite a few ladies I know who might.

You have not explored a viewpoint other than your own on this topic.

> that's not the outlook of van dwellers.

> You have not explored a viewpoint other than your own on this topic.

What is the outlook of van dwellers?

You're not really considering the demographic here. Pretty much all of the vandwellers I met are surf or climbing bums and some girls are absolutely into that - not to mention a few were girls anyway. Not everybody is after the clean cut young professional life.

> What would be exciting about going back to a guy's van?

So she can tell her girlfriends that she did it in a Van. Jokes aside, isn't it true that most women just wanna have fun / adventure? So it might be a new thing, depending on the lady in question.

Saving money on rent is a side effect of vanlife, not the premise. Many do it for the geographical freedom.

> the whole thing is a living standard compromise to save thousands on rent

Is it though?

3 S's: Starbucks, Starbucks, and... rec center.

Your problem living in a van in SF would be parking somewhere reasonably quiet without being harassed by cops, ticketed, or towed.

Its actually not that hard, Ive only been woken once at night.

Shave? You just need a small basin with some water and a mirror you can hang. And even the latter isn't strictly required.

Hmm. What I'm dreaming about is doing the same but with a proper bus or an old flatbed truck instead of a van. That allows for stuff like a proper shower and toilet (given you have a place where to dump the sewage, and I don't mean dumping it in the next available river), in addition that you can actually stand up in a bus.

Why not buy an RV? More space or just the fun of customizing the thing from the ground up?

1) more space (especially as I'm a 1.87m guy)

2) proper toilet and shower instead of chemo toilet and something that's more a droplet distributor than a shower; in addition you can physically separate the toilet and its gases from your living room.

3) trucks and buses are designed for maintenance by the fleet owners and have space to actually work on the components, in contrast to loads of car based RV models

4) RVs at truck/bus scale are either expensive or so worn-out that a rebuild is the same cost

5) customizing - I like building stuff, for one, and normal RVs don't come with adequate 230V outlets or other IT infrastructure.

Good to know! I figured there was a good reason.

I built my own because RVs in my price range are built like shit. They use cheap materials and low end components. They're designed for occasional use, not full time living.

I wanted solar and lithium batteries so I would have had completely redo the electrical system. None of them come with a desk or work area.

Love it. Every few years, a site like this gets posted, detailing somebody's transition from rooted to nomadic. If you work remotely, this can be an exciting idea.

It doesn't really talk about where to park your van. I feel like the hardest part would be understanding where you can sleep and make camp for a time period.

Yeah, it’s the biggest issue by far. You have to research into local laws and locations.

Walmart parking lots welcome van campers

I thought this was on the front page, but it's not true at all of them. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/14/us/walmart-parking-rv.htm...

They do welcome vans and campers if the local laws allow them to do so.

I don't believe that's universally true. Some communities have cracked down on that.

I'm sorry, but is living in the Bay Area really worth all this?

I remember reading old dystopian sci fi about middle-class people sleeping on the stairs, is that a reality now?

Also doubles as a guide for how to live in an affordable Vancouver, Canada apartment.

... down by the river. Matt Foley will tell you what his life is all about.

Vintage SNL - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xv2VIEY9-A8

> Well, la-de-frickin-da, we got ourselves a coder here

Hi! I wonder about anyones experience doing full- or part-time van-life, with an electric van (idea sparked by seeing the Tesla car on YouTube) in Europe?

Been researching it for a while now. It isn't feasible yet. The best output I've seen is a thousand pounds of hauling on an electric truck. Which is about 200 pounds less than the most efficient truck camper I can find. Thats enough data to extrapolate to most forms of living such as this.

On a vaguely related note, Nomadland (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34068480-nomadland) is a really good book that describes both living in a van and why a lot of people are considering (aka being forced into) the (van/RV)-dwelling lifestyle.

How does this work out for individuals or couples with one or more children?

It doesn't. You can put yourself through misery and mooching off of the society, but you shouldn't subject children to it.

This is the most drop-dead gorgeous, well thought-out and smoothest website that i have ever seen. Opened the site and was just stunned at how sensible the structure, transitions are. Brilliant.

More vital information can be found here:


I've read those reflective insulation doesn't do much with keeping out cold.

The Reflectix would reflect back in your body or cooking heat. It's not going to have a role "keeping out cold". Van converters often use a mixture of foam board insulation, Reflectix, spray on foam, etc to either keep out heat (in Summer) or keep in heat (in Winter).

i don't know if this is the best resource for modding a van, but on the other hand it is the best implementation of a resource for modding a van, by far.

just what is going on with housing in america?

The instagram links are broken.

affiliate spam under the cover of 1 paragraph "tutorials"

I'm dreaming of living in a Tesla Semi

That’s actually a very cool idea. Truckers sleep in their trucks all the time. You’d have a huge living space. Solar panels, power wall. I wonder how far you could get on that for driving.

you could also have a small cargo area to deliver a few things.

This is an amazing site! Great work.

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