One of my most memorable vanlife moments occurred in late September 2017, about a month after we had moved into Dixie the Backwards Van. We had just dropped my only daughter off at university, understandably an extremely happy/sad moment for any parent. We had spent two nights very nearby ‘just in case’ (actually, we slept right on the campus outside the student union, but she doesn’t have to know that 😉) and the following day said our goodbyes and left promptly before the tears started to flow. Dixie exited the city of York in silence and we drove deep into the misty Yorkshire Moors with no direction in mind. After about an hour we pulled over in a layby on a very quiet country road. William put the kettle on and we sat in even more silence on the step of the van with our coffee, watching clouds of grey and darker grey envelope the few trees and cover the flat moorland in a carpet of fog. I was a sad little cloud, grey and heavy with tears too, staring into the endless mist of the moor. It was only our third night in England, the offspring was despatched safely to her new life, we had all we needed for the adventure of a lifetime inside our little van and a tank full of diesel to get us started but…what now?
It is a strange feeling, to have no so-called commitments. No job to attend, no reports to file, nowhere to be, not even a cat to remember to feed. We hardly recall what day of the week it is because that’s not important, it doesn’t matter. After almost a year of vanlife we have gotten pretty good at filling our days with interesting sights and scenes but that day on the Yorkshire moors I felt really lost, sad yes but something else too, scared? Definitely unsure of what was to come, definitely a little frightened. What does owning our own time look like and how do we go about it? We knew we wanted adventure, excitement, fulfilment in our lives but didn’t know how to go about finding any of it. When we have been working all our lives and filling our days with all kinds of things to do, appointments and deadlines, how do we just…stop? How do we learn to relax?
This journey is bound to be different for everyone. Maybe your vanlife experiences are limited right now to an occasional weekend off work, maybe you take regular trips away and often for weeks at a time. Maybe you’ve moved into your van but still go to your job and live nearby, in which case your routine may not differ entirely from before although you’re guaranteed to see more of that hard earned wage still in your bank account each week and surely you spend less time cleaning and more time outdoors by now. If you’ve saved for a long time and taken an indefinite break from employment, the first few weeks of vanlife may find you a little lost like I was to begin with, directionless, for the first time in your life wondering what it is you’re supposed to “do”. We have learned a thing or two about this topic by now and the straightest answer we can give is: you do you.
Time Is On Your Side
Chances are when you are in your van you have a lot more time on your hands. Say you’ve woken up in some incredible location, thrown open the doors to greet the morning and cooked up a vantastic meal, brewed the accompanying gallon of strong black coffee and broken your fast with an unusual calm as you drink in your surroundings and breathe in the peace and quiet. After the dishes are cleared, washed and stowed away neatly again, the messy bed fixed up or fixed down depending on your layout, you look at your watch and it’s only 10am. What now? Do you feel the need to rush to the nearest tourist venue to take photographs and make sure you visit every square inch of every attraction, do you plan your holiday, sight-seeing or vantime regimentally with every hour accounted for in advance? We don’t. We learned early that in vanlife there is one constant: plans fail, detours suddenly appear and spontaneity is definitely required. We look broadly at the area and decide what we’d like to visit but rarely do we assign specific days nevermind times to these excursions, we like to go with the flow and see how each day turns out. Don’t put pressure on yourself to do and see everything, that’s next to impossible and more importantly it sounds exhausting. Slow down, take your time and let your feet decide your direction. Rushing through one interesting place to get to the next just isn’t travelling. Relax!
Choose to Snooze
So you’ve got a break in your schedule for once, whether it be for a day, a week or a month and you don’t need to think about the dreaded alarm clock summoning you from your cozy dreams into the cold light of another day at your desk. I’m sure you rarely get a lie-in in the so-called “real world” so when you’re out in your van, don’t plan to wake up early and when you do wake up, if it happens to be to an incredibly beautiful view, it would be rude to not enjoy it for a while in comfort. Some people admit to feeling guilty staying in bed late on a holiday, while that’s not an emotion I am remotely familiar with (more on my own habits later) I’m guessing they might have put too much pressure on themselves and overfilled their vacation schedules to begin with. We say budget for more time in bed, not less, and make that bed as comfortable as you can too, science is on our side here: studies have proven your body reacts positively to a night spent immersed in nature and a van is just a metal tent afterall, a very warm and cozy one, don’t feel bad about staying there, especially in high winds or rain. There are lots of interesting things you can do in bed besides sleep 😉
Follow Your Heart
What is it you yearned to do all those days spent cooped up in your cubicle, what did you see yourself at instead of meetings, photocopying and filing? For us, it was hiking in the great outdoors, visiting Neolithic stones, monuments, circles, cairns and dolmen, walking in the footsteps of the druids and pagans, following ancient trails, tracks and roads. We both love to explore old castles, ruined abbeys, any delapidated building or run down property and we have been known to spend hours walking and photographing what we see. Photography is a great place to start actually if you’re looking for a good vanlife hobby to improve, its easy, you have a camera already, it’ll teach you patience and you’ll want to get out and explore more. Find whatever you like to look at, is it bridges? Farms, forests, industrial land, wasteland, seaside, if you enjoy nature vanlife is perfect, our back door offers us a window to the world and we’ve watched seals, otters, bats and all kinds of birds from the comfort of our van. Invest in a decent field guide to the flora and fauna of your area or just use the internet and get identifying, whatever interests you.
Play Your Own Kind Of Music
By now, this should all be making a lot of sense in a cyclical kind of way. Downsizing our lives into the van left us with only the items we really want to own. We had already decided what was important and what way we wanted to live, just like saving the ukelele from the minimising process meant learning to play the instrument was inevitable, clearing the clutter and other noise from our lives gives us time and focus to decide what we want to do and to actually do it. I picked up my cheap little stringed thing, a gift from that daughter, the day we moved into Dixie and a year later I’ve thought myself the basics and beyond, I can hold my own through more than a handful of songs and have found my singing voice too. Learning to play any instrument is so rewarding, great for your brain (especially at my age, 40 is coming 🤤) and with it I could never get bored, there’s always some new tune to practise and plenty of resources on the web. Top tip: try screenshotting songs to get to later when you’re buried deep in the woods and very much offline or keep a little notebook with chords and lyrics.
Write All Night
If you work a day job and have a passion for writing or anything artistic you’ll understand how time constrained your creativity is, always relegated to an out of hours hobby and every minute you spend developing your craft is subtracted from your designated sleeping time resulting in a garbled mess in which you never seem to have enough time to get really involved in either thing. I’m a night owl, I always have been, and my brain seems to come alive right about the time it’s expected to sleep, something which frustrates me to no end and I have always struggled to get my body into that natural Secadian rhythm society requires for the normal 9-5. With no 9 to worry about I’m free to stay up and write all night if I like, and I do. Ditto for reading, researching and whatever else at all, if you are crafty or you paint whether it be landscapes or stones, you can carry your creativity through the night now, sleep a little later in the morning and feel great about both.
Beat Your Own Path
One of our favourite pastimes is walking. Along the beach, in towns, up mountains, through forests, by rivers, down gorges- if there’s a trail, we will walk it. Walking is free, good for you and you can do it anywhere, use Google maps to make up your own routes and hit the trails! Set your pedometer a target or just amble around at your own leisurely pace, stopping to smell the roses along the way. Bring your backpack with water, snacks and supplies wherever you go to make your walk a comfortable one. Going for a walk sounds like an obvious suggestion for a relaxing activity but a couple of things might ruin your enjoyment like sunburn, nettles, hunger or rain. Setting off prepared to be out for hours and ready for anything the weather or surroundings might throw at you makes “talking a walk” really looking for an adventure 😉
Regions not routes
Planning an eventual destination for any roadtrip is a good idea however keep in mind your holiday (or your vanlife) is not a race, it’s not a competition to see who can drive the farthest the fastest or see the most in the shortest time possible and the same goes for travelling when you live in a van. Heading to the northernmost, southernmost or otherwise furthest place possible looks great on your map but what about all the cool things you motored right past to get there? What about the expensive thrice weekly fuel stops and the cabin fever exhaustion of driving for long hours? We cringe at the sight of an NC500 or Wild Atlantic Way route driven in one weekend. Numbers on your milometer don’t equate to how good a time you had. If you loosly plan to visit an area rather than complete any kind of route you can move slowly around, get a real feeling for the place instead and you’re never too far away to doubleback if you happen to miss something interesting, which we always seem to do….
Record Every Step
We started this blog a month before we bought Dixie as a way to keep in touch with family while we travelled and to give our impressions of vanlife as we experienced it. The Backwards Van has become a lot more than that to us now and the Facebook page keeps us busy with messages and comments and has connected us with some new, real-life friends too. I also keep a diary with our expenses and locations and we mark this map below with every overnight stop too. Start a facebook page to record your progress or at least send postcards home! Don’t get too far into your epic adventure before you realise you’ve not been recording any of it. What will you have to reference and remind you when writing your book?!
Where IS “The Road”?
People (including us) say “On the Road” as if living in our van means our lives are now consumed with driving. Wrong. We rarely drive and when we do it is in short distances. Always out of commuting hours and sometimes at night but we don’t plan far flung places to stay and we keep the mileage to a minimum. Vanlife has proven for us to be less about the physical act of driving and more about adapting to everyday life in a tiny space, learning to live lightly and finding the interesting stories behind the places we visit. The Road is less appealing than The Parkup, The Road costs us money while the mountains, lakes and waterfalls are free. The Road is essential we know to get us to our next location but unless notable for some reason, like negotiating a livestock traffic jam or a terrifying series of steep climbs and hairpin bends, driving is not a highlight of our day. In fact The Road might just be the most stressful part of vanlife, in many ways a necessary evil that gets us from one beautiful piece of peace to another. We never overnight in laybys or near traffic or houses, our favourite kind of road is not just narrow, winding and grassy, it’s one that is not really considered a road at all, a track or trail, a patch of green at a deadend with only the sea ahead.
A Few Words About Freedom
This nomadic lifestyle feels so free because it IS free. We make our days memorable whatever way we want based on how we feel that day. With no debts, obligations or commitments we are ready to float along on the breeze, to live life on our own terms. There are few rules beyond the obvious and even those we can sometimes dismiss, getting locked into National Trust properties and scaling 6ft fences isn’t out of the question. Keep an open mind, learn what makes you happy and nothing really is out of the question! We take our inner peace where we can, in living off grid, sustainably, thoughtfully and realistically, our lifestyle is balanced and not consumer driven, we stay in the quietest of places away from pervasive advertising and crowds. Relaxing comes naturally for us in isolation.
Challenges will arise, just like living in a house, vanlife is guaranteed to throw some strange curveballs your way. Running out of water, butane or some other essential, a spilled 5 litre water bottle, a broken glass jar and spiky shards everywhere, take these things at your leisure as much as you can. Worrying about an issue is a waste of precious brain power, much better used solving the situation effectively. If you travel as a pair you’ll know by now how to alleviate your partners worries, laughter is the best medicine at stressful times, after you take your actual prescribed medicine of course. Vanlife teaches resourcefulness and adaptability and the longer we live like this the more confident we are to handle any problems competently, which relieves the worry and makes everything so much easier…
Back On The Moors
That sad September day in Yorkshire is etched forever in my memory, the grey, drippy sky, the cold, flat scrub and the endless view of nothing. My heart was breaking a little, letting go of one life to start another and I was so nervous, afraid and looking back now- I was completely clueless, I just didn’t know what to do. How do you live in a van?! We revisited that very spot recently and pulled over for old times sake, boiling the kettle again and sitting in reflective silence on the step but this time the sun was shining, the day was fresh and warm and we were wearing our broadest of conspiratorial smiles. Wow, we really had no idea back then. If we had known to just look closer at what is around us, that adventure is usually just a short walk away, if we knew then to just relax and look around, that every single place has a story to tell…. we probably would have noticed, wondered about and set off to examine the 228ft Kilburn White Horse, a massive lime mural literally just behind us on a neighbouring hill the entire time with a strange and fascinating history, and a beautiful wooded trail up and over the amazing equine, past a busy little airfield…exactly the kind of weird site we love to explore 🤣 How did we miss that?!
The Kilburn White Horse was a wonderful place to visit the second time on the moors and missing something so big and obvious due to over-thinking and stressing out does make for a good lesson in life. Relax, move at your own pace and find your own white horse, whatever that may be, and look around close to home first, it might be right behind you 😉