The Ups and Downs of Van Life

After 15 days living in our little van named Winnie, it is time to say goodbye. She had mysterious stains on the ceiling, a door handle that only worked from the inside, and speakers that didn’t work on the passenger side. But, she was our method of transportation and our place to rest our heads at the end of the day so I am sad to give her back.

  Our most beautiful campsite and our last night on the South Island were in Punakaiki.

Our most beautiful campsite and our last night on the South Island were in Punakaiki.

During our time with Winnie, we had some perfect mornings and some disastrous evenings, but mostly, we had a lot of content days spent driving around and exploring. Many days spent just enjoying the van life and getting to intimately know the ups and downs of it all, detailed below.

Freedom

We ate, slept, and went wherever we wanted to. We made dinner on the side of the road, had cheese and crackers next to a river, and sautéed mushrooms in a high school parking lot. We woke up next to storming waves crashing on the beach, children cheering while flying down a zip line, and sprinklers rotating around a cricket field. And, we drove around both islands of New Zealand for 48 whopping hours. No itinerary. No reservations. No plans. That’s freedom I have never felt before while traveling on PTO days.

  A random driving break resulted in a hike to this peak. Pretty and solitary enough to break out some yoga moves!

A random driving break resulted in a hike to this peak. Pretty and solitary enough to break out some yoga moves!

Morning Coffee

Most days started early—sometimes as early as the 5:30 am sunrise—and began when the tea kettle was hot enough to pour over our freeze-dried coffee. And even though it wasn’t fancy Portland coffee, I woke up each morning excited for that cup. We drove around New Zealand at an admittedly breakneck pace so drinking coffee slowly while lounging around the van was just the dose of consistency and relaxation I needed to reset each morning.

Cooking

Anyone who knows me well knows that I don’t cook. On a typical day, I eat toast for breakfast, order out for lunch, and opt for crackers and hummus for dinner instead of turning on any appliances. In our relationship, Andrew normally assembles meals. Note, I say “assembles” over “cooks” because that is really what it is. We ain’t fancy.

  The glorious van “kitchen.”

The glorious van “kitchen.”

But in the van, I am a god damn chef! Something about standing in one spot and having to strategically utilize what minimal counter space we had was fun. Most nights, I cracked a beer, put tunes on the portable speaker, and chose to cook dinner. I cooked potatoes for the first time ever. I sautéed more vegetables during those two weeks than I have in my whole life. I MADE FAJITAS! (That is both true and a Friends quote. If you know, you know.)

  Made some veggie and bean burritos.

Made some veggie and bean burritos.

Bugs

Onto the downsides. Sleeping where you eat means that nothing is ever quite clean enough. Each night when we got into bed, we spent a few minutes luring bugs toward the light and squishing their brains out. In those moments, I could have been convinced to ditch the van and move into the nearest hotel room. But once we silenced the last buzz, I immediately forgot about the critters and fell into a deep sleep.

  I lasted about 10 minutes here until the bugs overtook me and I locked myself in.

I lasted about 10 minutes here until the bugs overtook me and I locked myself in.

Bathroom Stuff

Our van had a small pump sink in the kitchen area but no bathroom to speak of. The lack of toilet was not just a hassle, but limited where we could stay for the night. In New Zealand, you must have a self-contained vehicle to free camp in most areas. This means your van must catch dirty water—as opposed to just letting it fall on the ground like Winnie did—and have some form of toilet.

Vehicles that are self-contained have stickers to make it extra clear and are essentially allowed to camp anywhere for free! Since we were not self-contained, we often paid between $5-20 NZD per person to stay at certified campgrounds. Not terrible, but if you choose to live the van life in New Zealand, I recommend you splurge for the self-contained vehicle just to simplify things.

  The van life version of a shower—soaking in local hot springs.

The van life version of a shower—soaking in local hot springs.

Would I live that van life again? In a heartbeat. The downsides were hard to think of compared to the massive upsides.

You can read about just how far the freedom of van life took us here, complete with route maps!