• Hilary Bird

Urban van dwelling: 3 pros and cons

The city slicker version of van life! Urban van dwelling is staying in a city or town for an extended period of time while living in your van, as opposed to going off the grid or camping in the woods. After four months on the road, I've had a few stints of this stealth van living and it presents some difficult challenges...and great conveniences.

Sometimes life events force one into urban van dwelling. For example, a van breakdown means a few days in the mechanic's shop, or running low on cell data means poaching Wi-Fi from a coffee shop until your monthly plan renews. Other times, you're simply stuck in an area with no worthy off-the-grid options. So here are a few things to consider before beginning your stay in a city or town. I will note, these are all coming from my own personal experience that may differ from others.

Urban Van Dwelling Pros & Cons

1. Nearby Food Options

PRO: Amenities are close-by–this is a given. Restaurants, coffee shops, and even entertainment options are within a short driving distance. You don't have to get tired of eating those select few items that are slowly going bad in your cooler or fridge. What's more, you can take in the "vibes" of a new location by strolling through its downtown or checking out local breweries and restaurants.

CON: You spend more money! The temptation to go out to eat exponentially rises when options are abound and your cooler food isn't making the cut. It's also more difficult to find private areas to set up your dinner-making station outside your van, thus encouraging a restaurant visit instead. And even if you find a nice parking lot to make dinner, somehow eating dinner with Walmart as your backdrop instead of a beautiful mountain range or river, is not quite as enjoyable.

2. Overnight Parking in a City or Town

PRO: From my experience, finding overnight parking in a city or town can actually be easier than out in the boonies. This is partially because I'm picky with my overnight locations; I require cellphone coverage and no camping fees! And oftentimes, being out in the boonies means giving up one of those two factors. What's more, during the summer, free dispersed camping areas can be crowded and over-run by locals. When you leave a great camping spot to explore for the day, there's a good chance it won't be available by the time you get back. This can be especially frustrating if you end up driving many miles down dirt roads to get back to this place, only to find it taken.

In the city, I know I at least always have the option of staying in a hotel parking lot. Walmarts, Flying J gas stations, Cabela's, and Cracker Barrels are other solid options. I know I can leave these places for the day and still be guaranteed a spot by the time I come back that night. If I'm in a really small town without those establishments, simply parking on the side street of a suburb works. Hopefully I'm not creeping out the neighbors in the process...

CON: Side streets and parking lots are noisy! I've heard strange conversations, screeching cars, garbage trucks, trains, and other city noises while trying to get a good night's sleep. One time, I was sleeping in a hotel parking lot where a group of young kids pulled in next to my van late at night. They all got out and one of them either kicked, or "grinded" off my van, because I felt my van shake. Then I heard them discuss how they'd all go in one at a time, as not to draw suspicion for the partying they were about to do in a hotel room. Once they left, you can bet I did too.

Besides the noise, you lose the ability to have any privacy outside your van. Be prepared for peeing in a jar, keeping audio levels low on your Netflix show, and keeping your interior lighting dim so as not to draw attention. You do not want people knowing you're sleeping in there for the night. You also don't want to spend more than 1-2 nights in the same hotel parking lot–don't want anyone catching on!

3. Gas Usage and Amenities

PRO: Depending on the size of the city, you'll probably be driving less than you would be to get out into the boonies. This is nice for obvious reasons–less gas spend and less money spend. You can still pack your day with unique adventures without driving miles into rural areas, then backtracking to a camp spot for the night. Some of my favorite (and usually free) in-the-city adventures include:

  • Hitting up a public beach (whether that's a lake or ocean)

  • Visiting public parks

  • Hiking popular (and typically short) dog-walking or running trails

  • Going to the drive-in (not free, but cool if there's one around!)

  • Touring local museums (they're usually cheap!)

  • Visiting a public library

  • Googling what a specific town or city is known for, then checking that out

It's also nice to know that amenities such as laundromats and gyms are nearby. You don't have to travel far to refill on water at Walmart, do your laundry at a laundromat, get a work-out in at the gym, followed by a shower at the gym. Obviously, for those not worried about getting dirty, these aren't necessities. But I say this from experience–staying at a camp spot without shade and without river access is the worst in the summer! The only way to cool off and rinse off the sweat is by using your precious, limited water supply.

CON: Things can start to feel very repetitive after a few days of making the rounds. For example, I once stayed in a city for over a week waiting for my cell data plan to renew for the month. Every day I would grab a coffee, go to the public library to work, then head to the gym for a workout and shower. From there, I'd get dinner and watch shows in my van. This was FABULOUS for the first two or three days. Then, I started to feel like I was in the twilight zone. Without friends around or anything to mix up my day, things started to feel hollow and boring.

I have found this lifestyle can amplify feelings of loneliness more than if you were just alone in the woods. This is because you're surrounded by people all day, but none that you actually know. You have many short, meaningless conversations with service people about what groceries you're buying or wishing them a good day. There's something about being out in nature secluded though, that makes you feel connected to earth, and thus not alone. That is irreplaceable.

Overall, urban van dwelling can be just as rewarding as off-the-grid van life. While many think of #vanlife as strictly being out in nature, cities and towns offer many unique experiences if you're willing to stick around. These places give us a glimpse into the culture that has developed within these areas; the little nuances of everyday people and everyday life that the outdoors can't always provide.

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