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The Dirty Truth About "Van Life"

Have you been living under a rock for the last few years? Ok, so if your answer was NO then you know all about this “Van Life” movement. It is the THE things to do these days, living in a house that doesn’t move is so outdated. Social Media is making this movement seem very glorified. Everyone wants to break their leases or sell their homes, buy a van and convert it into their home on wheels. Welp Social Media won for a couple of our very own good friends… One of those friends happens to be the person writing this post…

Let’s talk about the truth of this “Van Life” movement.

So you are sucked in by the glitz Social Media has given to this movement and now you have to make a decision, either you with an old van or a new van. (We went for a 1980 VW Westfalia.) Decision made, time to start the rebuild. Since our van is almost 39 years old it needed some real TLC. You spend day after day ripping apart your “home” and rebuilding it from inspiration you found on the internet (we spent a lot of time on Pinterest). Now you have your dream home on wheels and it’s time to hit the road!

For our first trip with our van complete from our rebuild we decided to take it to Big Bear Lake, California. Since it’s only 145 miles from San Diego it seemed like a smart choice, of course we knew we would be challenging the van some amount since we would be climbing a pretty decent mountain. (You go from sea level up to about 7,000 feet in elevation).

The van made it to the lake like a real champ we were both so impressed with how well it climbed the mountain that we decided we wanted to climb a little further… This may have been where we messed up… Or maybe it’s where we learned a few lessons, either way it was an “adventure” and what would “Van Life” be if you didn’t have adventures?

We left the paved road and started ascending up a dirt “road” through the San Bernardino Mountains. We got about 7 miles deep into the mountains on a very small off road dirt… lets call it a path, (because it is for sure not a road) and our beloved home on wheels decided it was done with the adventure and turned off, and wouldn’t turn back on.

It is now very dark outside since it’s about 9pm and we are stuck. GPS on our phones doesnt work since we don’t have service and we assume we are about 4 miles from the last place we saw civilization. I am freaked out at this point and freaked out is putting it very lightly. In reality I was having a full blown anxiety attack, thinking about the van rolling off the cliff we were hugging, mountain lions attacking, etc. I pride myself in being pretty tough for a “girl” but this was past my limit of comfort so all the crazy thoughts were rushing through my head. This had my boyfriend in tears of laughter, maybe nervous laughter or maybe he really does think I’m a lunatic (probably the latter). Either way we were stuck and it was too dark outside to do anything but accept that tonight we would be sleeping right where the van had decided. The number 1 pro about “Van Life” is that because your home is on wheels we had everything we needed, I had an entire bottle of wine, and there was food, water and shelter. The great outdoors would be our bathroom.

When I opened my eyes in the morning I was quickly smacked with the reality of our situation. We were stuck on a small road on a large cliff in the middle of the mountains.

While rebuilding the interior of our van we learned a lot, just not a lot about the engine, probably something we should know a decent amount about… Ok so lesson learned. But we do know enough to know our van was having a problem with gas getting to the engine. We thought maybe we were out of gas even though the gas gauge didn’t read empty so we decided to pack up a bag, lock up the van and go for a nice little hike and find some gas. We headed towards the direction of where we had last seen a anything resembling civilization, it was roughly 4 miles uphill from where we were stuck. A few hours later we arrived at the campground. It looked empty but we decided to walk through the campground and hope to stumble across someone and hope that someone had gallons of Gasoline on them that they would so kindly let us buy off of them. We also hoped that they would be such angels they would volunteer to drive us and the gas close to the van. HAHAHA I thought, who did we actually think we were to imagine this would actually happen? Well it did… we stumbled across the one RV staying in the entire campground and its lovely owners who were sitting at the picnic table enjoying their morning coffee. We approached them with the biggest warmest welcome and asked if they by the chance of God happened to have any Gasoline on them that they did not plan to use. At first we were shut down when they said that both their RV and truck take Diesel. Panic started to set in, if they didn’t have any gas on them we would have to hike all the way back to town.

We started to say thank you and carry towards town when the wife remembered that they had brought 5 gallons of gas with them incase they needed to use their generator which they by chance did not end up using. They offered us a ride as close to the van as they could get us and gave us allowed us to take the 5 gallons of gas. We filled up the tank and with a couple hard pushes up to flat ground the van was running. It wasn’t running right but it was running. We waved goodbye and said a million thank you’s to them as we passed their campground on our drive out and drove straight to the closest gas station. Filled it up stopped for a cheeseburger and much needed beer and decided the rest of our trip would be spent at a campground near civilization.

We got to our campground and took a look at the van and realized we must have hit a rock while off roading and severed the fuel line under the van. We never actually ran out of gas but unless the tank was full it wasn’t pushing enough gas to the engine for it to run. Maybe for our first big adventure in the van we should have stayed on paved roads… Another lesson learned.

According to Social Media our trip went without any hitches, we caught an awesome sunset on a road no one else was on, we slept in the mountains with nothing to obstruct our view. We did it this trip in the van right!


Truth is “Van Life” isn’t all rainbows and butterflies, but it is freaking awesome even with the mishaps that took place on our first trip and the acceptance of knowing we will have other mishaps along the journey we wouldn’t trade it for anything.

If you ever read our weekly emailers in their entirety (try it sometime if you don’t, they are pretty good) we promised you in one from January we would one day have a William Painter Van. We weren’t lying.

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