For those of us who are ‘vanabonding’ in cities where we don’t know anyone, here are some tips we found to be useful on the road:
1. Blending In
Try to make your van as stealth-like as possible. This can come in many forms and as you travel you will discover ‘region specific’ variations and new ways of making your van as stealthy as possible.
Most commercial vehicles are white, so keeping a white colour for your van immediately adds a bit of camouflage, especially in cities! We decided to further use black curtains and a sunlight blocker to keep out any light (or curious eyes). This will be useful when you are doing something in your van and with your lights on too! Try stepping outside and seeing how much light pervades your curtains, to see how stealthy your van really is.
Try not to hang out where you sleep. It helps for you to simply arrive at your sleeping spot, turn off your engine and drop yourself into bed. This way you can be sure to not have alerted any one.
When you’re parking your van you want to search for safe places to sleep (so avoid very poor just as well as very rich areas). The spots you sleep in should be as non-intrusive as possible. Whenever you are wondering whether this is a good spot – imagine you live in the house nearby or you are a passerby and all of a sudden you see this new car hanging around where you live. Would you be worried? Can you clearly see someone camping out and could you be worried that the person in the van is dangerous? This is why it is always a good idea to use your sleeping spot for sleeping only. Beware that you are not in a parking spot which could be prone to accidents.
Generally, there are many places to park up for a night. A good place to sleep can range from a business district with other vans, residential areas where lots of people park their cars on the streets, or even in the near a park, between some bushes, or off the side of the road. The most important thing to keep in mind when parking your van is how likely is my parking here going to cause trouble? Look out for local laws.
What we’ve found is it doesn’t hurt to just ask people! If it isn’t an ungodly hour; introduce yourself, explain your story, and gauge what reactions you get! If you have at least 4-5 spots where you can sleep, rotate between these and shuffle them around such that you try to never sleep in a spot for more than a night. You could however eventually get a space from people you meet, at which point it becomes much easier.
2. Living in a City with a Van and Staying Clean
This often seems like the hardest part of the van life. Where will I use a toilet? Can I shower more than once a week? Where can I do laundry? Fortunately a lot of places have 24h gyms. It really is beneficial to have a gym membership. You can use the toilets and showers at your own convenience. And hey, you will most probably come out a little bit fitter than you entered. If there is no gym nearby look for local options. 24h stores are often a great place. In Australia we were able to find a “Public Toilet Map” released by the government, which indicates where you can find all public toilets in Australia! (Don’t forget to use wikicamps as a secondary option).
For laundry, you will obviously start making friends who have washing machines. Otherwise local laundromats are always easy to find in cities. For the outback there are portable washing machines available but we have found to never need it. Always check if you have one at work though!
3. Common Sense & Honesty.
Getting mail is always necessary if family or friends want to send you something, or you need an address for your bank / insurance / vehicle registration, etc. Use a UPS box, a hotel with whom you might’ve stayed, or even a friend’s house. These should solve most situations!
5. Cooking / Eating
Most people might look at you funny if you pull out your gas stove and start cooking vegetables in the middle of a city but just get used to doing it! It is not illegal as long as you’re not on private property, and you can have some wonderful conversations from curious passerbyers.
Make sure that when you’re cooking there isn’t a regional fire ban especially if you’re traveling through Australia! If you would much rather cook in your van, we recommend a fan because you don’t want your bed and everything you own smelling like the garlic from your dinner three weeks ago. Most work places also have kitchens where you can make meals too! Just make sure you do not do it in the same place that you will be sleeping in. A relieving factor for people who see you sleep in their neighbourhood is the idea that you will leave in the morning – cooking where you will sleep will make it look like you’re setting up a home base next to their parking spot. Avoid giving that impression.
Charging your electronics is always an annoying but necessary chore. It’s not fun to ask for a plug at every cafe or restaurant you visit nor is it fun to be forced to sit in a McDonald’s for two hours whilst charging your camera battery. To solve this we recommend getting an external battery. We decided to go with the Thumper Redback 120AH deep cycle battery, which is plugged into our car’s battery as well. This way, when we drive, the battery gets charged but when we use the battery to charge our devices, it does not drain anything from our car battery. A solar panel is always helpful to have around when you don’t spend much of your day driving. Having them on your roof-rack is an easy way to keep them out of the public eye whilst always supplying power! Add a 300-Watt Inverter and you can charge anything.
The above-listed products last us about a week with little to no driving and no use of the solar panel. The solar panel can fully recharge our battery on a very sunny day, within one day. We have never needed more than two days to recharge the battery!
An alternative is going to 4-5 star hotels in busy areas with a nice shirt and acting like you’re staying there… These places always have public toilets and sockets. Finally, having an external battery to charge things on the go is always useful too – we opted for the Anker Powercore 26800 and it really is as good as they say.
7. Take in & Explore
Keeping these things in mind you are now ready to explore and enjoy! Realise, that you are now in a home that can be moved within 5 minutes. The world is a map waiting to be explored and you can finally do it without all the background noise. You become reliant on your intuition and fall in love with the diversity of the road. It is a lifestyle we think everyone should give a chance to!