Is Vanlife Sustainable?

At this point, the term “vanlife” is well known by most folks with any exposure to the outdoor recreation and travel universe. In short, the term refers to the act of living full-time in a van in place of a traditional, stationary home. This approach to life on the road is different from RV travel or trailer camping in a lot of ways, though a shared similarity of both approaches is that this can be for weeks, a season, or up to years of nomadic living, depending on the individual vandweller. 

While the media at large often lumps the topic of vanlife in with the adjacent topics of conservation and outdoor recreation, it begs the question- is vanlife actually eco-friendly? Is it sustainable? 

The basis for comparison is key, here. Vanlife is not, say, super sustainable when compared to backpacking or thru-hiking, as a means to explore and travel for thousands of miles on an adventure. However, when looking at vanlife as either a full-time lifestyle choice or as a vacation option (compared to hotels, theme parks, cruises, air travel, etc.), the margin narrows.

Ultimately, vanlife can be a more sustainable lifestyle with a lower impact on the environment than many traditional stationary lifestyles, but it’s up to the doer to decide to make those choices. 

Nomad campsite

Ways to take action and deliberately choose sustainability on the road

The terms “sustainable” and “sustainability,” as related to our environment, have complex definitions whose criteria, frankly, can seem to contradict themselves depending on the situation. What it truly means to be sustainable while the broader effects of climate change can seem so murky is, naturally, not a clear equation. 

Rather, sustainability for our environment in any lifestyle is a commitment to making better choices for our earth and continuing to educate ourselves, accepting that sometimes we might inadvertently get it wrong or need to readjust, and to still keep going anyway.

Below are some ways to “do your part” on the road, and to live a more earth-loving and sustainable van life. 

1. Use reclaimed, recycled, or earth-conscious materials in your build.

Fortunately, there are tons of companies out there that are feeling the pressure to create change at the manufacturing level. From insulation to wall panels to flooring to appliances- there are a myriad of ways to choose materials that hurt the earth a little bit less, and in doing, encourage these companies (with your dollars) to maintain their efforts!

There are reclaimed materials shops like the Habitat for Humanity Restore as well as countless local reclaimed materials nonprofits across the US. Also, of course, there are Facebook groups, Craigslist “free” pages, and even just side-of-the-road scores that can help you acquire basic materials and lumber for your build (for real– every major city has stacks of pallets somewhere that are free for the taking). 

The amount of flooring needed for a van is very little, compared to flooring an entire home. You can often find a few boxes of leftover flooring from larger projects at reclaimed materials centers, or through an online forum or marketplace for cheap. Using less materials and upcycling what would otherwise be considered waste in conventional construction is absolutely a step toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

Check the fine print for energy efficiency information for any appliance you plan to purchase for your rolling home, and take advantage of passive energy-conservation tools also, like insulated window coverings. If you have an electric fridge to keep your food cold but you’re currently roaming around the desert, using window coverings to keep the van cooler overall means that the fridge doesn’t have to work as hard to do its job, which means less overall energy use. This also means less time running the AC off your van’s engine, which uses less gas overall. It’s all connected!

And of course: solar, solar, solar! Solar is a set-it-and-forget-it energy solution. Sure, it does cost more money upfront than a generator. But guess what? Then– you’re done. No changing the oil. No buying fuel. No stinky exhaust or obnoxious noise to annoy neighbors and scare off wildlife. Just clean, renewable, ever-present energy, with no upkeep costs and no fuss. There’s a reason solar is now everywhere in the nomad world- it’s a no-brainer.

2. Only buy what you need, when you need it.

Growing up car-camping in primitive campgrounds, often at least a 30-minute drive from the nearest store of any kind, our family’s protocol for food was to thoroughly overprepare. We always came home from our week or two in the mountains with leftover food– we never actually went through it all (or ran out). 

Fast forward to my full-time vanlifing days, I quickly realized that this was not the way. When you have two humans and a dog living in a 9’x6’ space, every square inch becomes prime real estate. 

Early on, as we passed a charming farmstand on our journey, I’d pick up enough juicy, fresh, gorgeous tomatoes to last us a week. But, of course, there is nowhere to keep a week’s worth of juicy, fresh tomatoes in the same tiny Dometic fridge also burdened with holding that same week’s worth of greens, eggs, cheeses, etc. 

Blankets and tables

The tomatoes would thus live on the (also tiny) kitchen counter, or in a mesh bag on a hook, get overripe and squishy, then too yucky to be appealing, and then I’d end up having a new project of cleaning up dead-tomato mess in a rest area parking lot. 

It wasn’t always tomatoes, of course, but the lesson remains. I once came across a full-time van couple who didn’t even have a cooler, let alone an appliance comparable to our own tiny fridge. At my baffled reaction to this choice, they nonchalantly explained that they only bought what they needed to eat for that day, so it was never an issue. Things that might take 2 days or so to eat because of the portion size of the packaging would not spoil in that time, so it wasn’t a concern of theirs. 

This altered my mindset in a lot of ways. It relieved a lot of my “prepper’s stress”. It made things easier on my wallet (buying small amounts of necessities every few days vs. $100+ chunks in one go), and it kept our home tidier, longer. I wasn’t throwing out the “forgotten” food in the back of the cabinet or bottom of the fridge, left to go stale or spoil after its intended meal purpose passed by. 

Morning coffee with other nomads nearby in utah

While, sure, if you’re departing for a climbing trip way off-grid where the nearest grocery store is over an hour away, stock up on your mac and cheese, protein powder, eggs, hot dogs, and whatnot. But don’t over-buy. You truly don’t need as much as marketing companies imply. Not convinced? Try it for a week, or even just a few days. Buy only what you need, when you need it, and watch your spontaneity and enjoyment go up while your waste goes down.

This absolutely applies to expendables as well, such as paper towels, trash bags, dish soap, etc. There might be a “good deal” on the big bottle of dish soap or multi-purpose cleaner, but first of all- where will you put it? And how much do you actually use it? Wouldn’t it just make more sense to refill a bottle you already have at a local community coop for a fraction of the cost?

3. Carpool, walk, or bike whenever possible.

There is so much community in the vanlife world. The commonality of the deliberate experience of living your life outside of your home creates connections with similar folks almost effortlessly. Conversations strike up everywhere, journey details and anecdotes are shared, and friendships are born.

Often, this is how a “tramily,” a term stolen from the hiking world, is born. “Tramily,” or trail family, is a similar concept in the road-life world. These folks are met along the way, and out of shared interests and a shared path, you band together. Sometimes for just a few days, but also sometimes for months at a time. 

Nomad campsite 2

This very often results in communal resource sharing, camp responsibility sharing, and also adventure and side-quest sharing. When you’ve linked up with three other rigs and your camp now consists of 4 homes but you’re all going to the same trailhead the next day, carpool! Trying to check out the brewery back down the road a bit from where you scored a good spot for the night? Carpool

Even without other motorized vehicles in the mix, you can easily cut down on your gas consumption and emissions by using good old-fashioned human power for exploring. Towns like Jackson Hole, Savannah, GA, and Portland, ME for example (among many other great towns!) are all very well-suited for bike travel. Take a walk, ride your bike, and do your part to cut emissions wherever you can. It’s usually more fun this way, anyway!

Even further, don’t be so quick to drive constantly. The “road trip” itineraries with a new stop for each day burn a lot of gas, and give the journeyer very little actual adventure. Allow yourself time to explore deeper. Go off the beaten track for a little bit, slow down, truly be present and go on a DIY tour of where you are. You’ll cultivate more unique memories, and you’ll have significantly less fuel waste. 

4. Don’t be the a**hole, and actually Leave No Trace

If you haven’t pulled into a campsite and been confronted with a firepit full of someone else’s trash, or found a gorgeous, serene space that you quickly find is littered with human surface poops and scattered, used toilet paper, you haven’t been on the road very long. (Sound gross? It is. It’s also all too common). 

Unfortunately, with the increase in traffic for the hashtag #vanlife, everyone wants their slice of the adventure. But not everyone does their part. 

As with many things, it only takes one or two a**holes taking advantage of something to ruin it for the other 98%. 

Applied to vanlife, “don’t be the a**hole” is the true application of “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Like it or not, wherever you are, you are a representative of this community 100% of the time, and people are watching. 

Access and friendly reception for vanlifers are becoming restricted all over due to the nomadic buttheads who take advantage of a town’s available resources and then skedaddle. The locals who care for these towns and neighborhoods are growing sick of it (understandably), and many ordinances are changing or being enacted specifically to discourage and even penalize vanlife and vanlife-adjacent activities. 

For folks who are newer to the road life and might be truly unaware, or for seasoned folks who might need the gentle reminder, here are a few Leave no Trace etiquette guidelines that we should all strive to live by, for everyone’s benefit:

  • Your pee and poo are your problem. If you have to do #2 at a campsite, dig a cathole, or pack it out. But ideally, just try to go elsewhere. Use a gas station, pit toilet, information center toilet, supermarket bathroom, brewery/bar bathroom, etc. It seems bonkers to explain to adults how to responsibly go to the bathroom, but it’s also becoming a massive problem in front-country and back-country areas alike. 

    Many popular foot-traffic-only areas are now advising backpackers to carry their #2s out because water sources have become so tainted from fecal matter that it necessitated restrictive action. That’s just… gross. But it’s a reality. Summary: don’t be the problem. 

Related: How to pee in the wild!

  • Leave each space better than you found it. Be the example, right? Multiple times, we’ve had to clean a campsite before actually being able to use it. It’s not your ideal “making camp” activity, but it does benefit the direct ecosystem you’re staying in, as well as taking the strain off of local stewardship groups. If we all do our part to remove any trash from the places we spend time (even if it’s just a parking lot), then the world at large suffers less. 

    Many dispersed camping areas have local nonprofits or community organizations that sponsor cleanups and caretaking of these areas because so many people abuse them and disrespect them. If everyone did their part, then these groups wouldn’t be so overwhelmed, and could spend their awesome efforts on more fruitful projects than cleaning up after lazy tourists. 
  • Don’t cut down trees for firewood, and don’t transport firewood. If there are signs saying “don’t gather firewood,” don’t do that either. This is a big one. These policies are in place for the health of the forest that you are there to enjoy. There are scientists and ecologists actively studying these areas, and their advice should be heeded. 

    If every guest to a campsite cut down a tree for their couple hours of campfire- imagine what would be left (or what wouldn’t be left). Instead, spend a couple bucks supporting the mom & pop farm down the road with the “firewood $5” sign. You know it’ll be seasoned and ready to light, and you’re also giving a little bit back to the community you’re passing through.

And never, ever ignore a burn ban. Thousands and thousands of acres of forests have burned to the ground by wildfires started by campers who presumed the burn ban didn’t apply to them.

Ultimately, vanlife, despite its inherent reliance on fossil fuels in the form of gas to power your vehicle, can actually be a viable means to a truly more sustainable and adventurous life and help provide a smaller footprint and impact on our natural world. By living in a smaller space, you inherently consume less resources in the form of building materials, land, as well as energy for heating/cooling and powering that space. 

Running all of your electric off of solar is far more attainable in a van sized home than a traditional house. However, regardless of our living quarters, the choices we make with buying food, clothing, and the packaging everything comes in as well as how we choose to interact with our natural world will further determine the overall impact we have. 

Be a friend to the land by following local guidelines wherever you’re staying. 

Other Considerations

  • While the classic rigs from the 70s and 80s undeniably have the “coolness” factor, also consider their fuel economy. Weigh the pros and cons of keeping an old vehicle running vs wasting new resources as well as the realities of fuel efficiency.  If you haven’t already bought your rig, always take fossil fuel efficiency into consideration.  Not only will it be better on the environment, but it will also be easier on your wallet when you aren’t hitting the gas station every three hours!
  • Whenever possible, pay the extra few bucks on household items to support companies that are truly making positive change in the world and real action towards a sustainable future. Not sure who to support? Google it!
  • Curious about your personal carbon footprint and impact on the planet? Check out this Carbon Footprint Calculator from the Nature Conservancy, it can be eye-opening. 
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