Van Life – Lessons From the Road
Words and photos by Sonnie Trotter
"Don't throw that away" she said, "we can reuse it".
A small pot of dish water was clutched in my hand, as murky as the amazon,
"Put it in here instead, we don't have much left."
She was right, we didn't. It was cold outside, a late November evening in Bishop, California and we had more than everything we needed for another amazing day of bouldering, everything except water. If we were careful, we could scrape by and still be very comfortable. If we wasted it, we'd have to drive all the way back into town, thus wasting gas as well. Or, we could just be dehydrated and miserable.
I poured the dirty dish water back into another pot, and we reused it to wash our dishes five more times before we ran out of food two days later.
Last spring, my wife and I bought a van, moved into it full time, got married and hit the open road for four months during the cold Canadian winter. Our first stop was Bishop, California.
These days, I don't think it's crazy to tell people that we live or have lived in a van. Most of them have either done it themselves or want to, some want to do it again. And if you're thinking what a bleak existence it must have been, I beg you to think twice. Living in a van allows the entire world to be your personal backyard.
You live and love, outside.
The best part for me is connecting with the natural rhythm of life. We sleep when it's dark, we wake when it's light. We eat when we're hungry, drink when we're thirsty, and pee with the cool breeze and all, under starry nights.
What living in a van has taught me is the difference between what we want and what we need. I don't want the mountains, I need them. But the scale is much wider than that, and stretches from absurd luxuries like gold-plated yachts in the waters of Morroco, all the way down to the basics of survival such as clean drinking water. If you have everything you need, the rest are just wants.
Van life has forced us to live with less and that has given us a greater amount of gratitude. I'm grateful for that. Below are some tips and perks of living on wheels...
- You use less energy to heat the inside of a van than you do a whole house.
- You don't have to pay rent, or a mortgage.
- You only shower when you absolutely need to, thus saving more money, energy and resources. Often we showered at community centers, putting an average of six dollars a week back into the local economy.
- One mouthful of water is all you really need to brush your teeth on the road. A sip to rinse, then drink. Brush. And another sip to rinse your brush.
- Washing your face means using a wash cloth – less wasted water and a good scrubbing behind the ears.
- When we strained our pasta, we'd save the water for tea.
- When we steamed vegetables, Lydia would always drink the water afterwards, capturing more nutrients and hydrating without waste.
I remember my father always yelling at me as a kid to turn the taps off while I washed the dishes. I think he did it to save on hot water, not water itself. But his lesson was not wasted on me. I still hear his voice and I cringe when I catch myself letting the tap flow right down the drain.
[Graphic by Michael Buckley from "A Lime with That, Sir? - Transitioning to Waterless Urinals in the Workplace"]
Living in a van is not for everyone, and after a while we needed a change as well. But it's a deeply enriching experience and it's not better or worse, it's just different.
I suppose you know where this is going, but I'll say it anyway. One of the most important lessons I came away with during my van years was the realization of how much water we waste unnecessarily as a society. I am no preacher – do what you like – but one day, our children's children might not have the same luxuries we do. The things they want might also be the things they need, and water might be one of them.
Sonnie Trotter is a Patagonia climbing ambassador and photographer from Squamish, British Columbia. His lists of accomplishments encompass all styles of climbing, from deep water soloing to big walls. You can keep up with his travels at sonnietrotter.com/roadlife.
Van owners should check out Lydia's (Sonnie's wife) post on Van Yoga and the popular #vanlife tag on Tumblr and Instagram.