The Call of The Wild: How to Live in a Van, from a Real-Life Hobo

Posted on September 19, 2013

We have teamed up with our friends at The Inertia to bring you the "Call of the Wild"- a monthly series of editorial features that will cover every aspect of heeding the call. This month the subject is how to best prepare to experience the "freedom" of van life.

A few days ago, my girlfriend was mistaken for a homeless woman. “Here, take this,” a kindly older gentleman said to her through the front window of our van. “Buy yourself something to eat.” My girlfriend does not need something to eat, nor does she look homeless. Our van, however, makes her look like someone living in a van.

We’ve been living out of our van in Venice, California, which to me, is similar to living inside a circus – only the performers all have incredibly short cut-offs, fantastic haircuts, and awful tattoos. Ah, youth.

We’re in the middle of a three month experiment, testing out all those so-called “freedoms” that everyone says come with the #vanlife. It’s not easy, especially on a budget. Just last week, I spent almost four hours pulling the exhaust off in the dark, lying in a parking lot of an O’Reilly’s Autoparts (who, by the way, lent me a hacksaw after I spent a good half hour using the catalytic converter as a sledge hammer – very nice folks).

Sure, it sounds great. Everyone I tell about our trip says the same thing: “I’d love to do that!” But would you? Would you love to piss into a bucket in the middle of the night? Would you love to lie in the sweltering heat while apparently unmuffled motorcycles scream by three feet from your head? Would you love for someone to think your girlfriend is homeless? Probably not. No one would. I sure don’t. But there are benefits. Road trips, for one. You can go where you want, when you want – and that’s where vans really pull their weight. They’re not made for living in a city. They’re made for the open road; pulling over when you’re sick of driving, finding waves and napping in the shade. But since a long road trip may entail a few weeks here and there of parking in a city, I’ve compiled a few tips for those looking to experience the “freedom” of van life.

1. Clean your house. The most suspect vans are the ones with the blacked out windows. You’ve seen them: ink-black tint peeling off a corner of the window, exposing a garbage dump with a pair of filthy feet sticking out. If you give your van a thorough cleaning and leave the curtains open, the neighbours will see that you’re not, in fact, a filthy hobo and be less inclined to call the cops or worse, give you dirty looks and spare change.

2. Don’t get too comfortable. A few days ago, we parked in a residential area next to a few seat-shaped rocks shaded by a palm tree. It looked idyllic. I pulled off my shirt, sat down on the rock and poured a margarita. My girlfriend opened the doors wearing one of my shirts and bikini bottoms. It was all so perfect – smiling at each other over our mugs, laughing at some silly nothingness, sunburned and salty – until someone walked by, and we realized that we’d turned the sidewalk into our living room, officially making us hobos. Try to avoid being a hobo.

3. Bring tools. For God’s sake, bring tools. Bring all of the tools you have. Wrenches and hammers and duct tape and hacksaws and screwdrivers and twine and batteries… man, just bring everything. Pack it in there. You’ll probably use it. I know it sucks because you might not have room for your photo albums or your grandmother’s quilt or whatever, but grandma’s quilt isn’t going to tear your exhaust off in an O’Reilly’s parking lot, and no one wants to see your photo albums anyways.

4. Bring books. If you don’t read, then start reading. Bring lots of books. Bring ones you don’t think you’ll like. Bring ones you’ve read before and re-read them. One thing about not having a house is that you don’t notice how much nothing you actually do until you have no place to do it in. And honestly, one of the best things in the world is pulling over, opening all the doors, letting a breeze in, and reading in silence for a few hours with a girl’s leg draped over yours.


5. Simplify, simplify, simplify! “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.”


Have any tips on how to live in a van (down by the river doesn’t count)? We want to know about it! Add them in the comments section on this post at Best one wins $200 worth of gear from Howler Bros, which may not fit in your van. But you should throw out more stuff to make it fit. While you’re at it, take a peek at previous installments of The Call of the Wild Adventure Series powered by Howler Bros.