When traveling in a home on wheels, you can expect a load of van life lessons coming down the road. You’ve probably already done your research, watched a bunch of YouTube videos and have a decent idea of what to expect for the most part. We were in that same place when the time came for us to fly West to purchase our Sprinter in Portland, Oregon. Our next step was to jump right into #vanlife and drive her (a.k.a “Ace”) back to North Carolina. Andie had never driven a van of any kind, and I had owned an ’84 Chevy van for a short time many years ago, but it was not a high top nor a 170″ wheelbase. So, just getting comfortable driving our long and tall Sprinter was van life lesson #1.
We learned something on the daily during that two and a half week trip, and we’re here to share our first big van life lessons – like how to get gas in it, for crying out loud!
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Van Life Lessons Learned In Our First Week On the Road
Lesson 1: Know Where Your Gas Tank Is
I know what you’re thinking. “Who doesn’t know where the gas tank is?” We wouldn’t have expected this head-scratcher either, until it came time to fill up the tank for the first time after buying our Sprinter. On most vehicles, as we all know, the tank door is visibly near the back, on either the driver or passenger side. We didn’t even consider that it might be somewhere else, let alone hidden in plain sight. When we pulled up to the pump and got out, we didn’t see the door for the tank on the driver side. Then we checked the passenger side and… nothing. In addition, our first fill-up was in Oregon, a state we learned in that moment had “full service” gas stations only. Remember those? Side note: you’ll find this in New Jersey, too. So, having to let someone else fill our tank, we had to show our true newbie colors and admit that we’d just gotten this vehicle and had no clue where the tank was. Imagine our surprise (and slight embarrassment) when the attendant popped open the gas tank door, right next to where we stood. It’s located right behind the driver door! There is no release lever inside the van or button on the FOB, either. The driver door needs to be open for you to be able to open and close the tank door. And it’s not like on other vehicles where there’s a visible square “cutout” in the body, clearly showing the door. It’s built into a narrow vertical panel that runs up the height of the van, which looks the same on both the driver and passenger side. Hence, hidden in plain sight.
Lesson 2: Run – Don’t Walk from Winter Weather
Having purchased our Sprinter in Portland at the end of October, we anticipated the potential for some weather as we made our way back to North Carolina. We had planned on a semi-northerly route, which would have taken us through some higher elevations, like the Rockies. When the time came, the weather forecast was not looking great along that route. This wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that we were inexperienced at driving a high top. We didn’t feel comfortable risking potential high winds and frozen roads while we learned how to handle our new baby. Plus, the diesel heater for the house wasn’t working. It needed its every-few-year servicing to be operable again – a.k.a., keep us warm while parked up overnight without the van running. On top of that, a snow storm was about to roll into parts of Oregon the next day. So we pivoted, re-routed, and hit the road at the crack of dawn to outrun the snow. We were now taking an extreme southern route, all the way down through California, before heading East. No complaints there, since Cali is our home state and we’re always too happy to find an excuse to go back. Not everyone is as warm blooded as we are, or as inexperienced at driving such a large vehicle as we were at the time, so the thought of winter van life-ing might not make you as uncomfortable. But if you’re like we were, it’s best to play it safe and find another route. That’s one of the things we love most about van life – the freedom to change things up when the unexpected presents itself!
Lesson 3: Dispose of Liquids Properly (Gross!)
Our next crash course was a van life lesson in dump stations. That’s right, the dirty part of living in a van. There can be a couple different scenarios for what type of waste situation you’ll be dealing with, depending on your setup. One scenario is having a grey water tank for the sink(s), and a black water tank for all human waste – that is, if you’ve got a flushing toilet. The other scenario is a waterless toilet, such as composting toilets and compost toilets (there’s a difference between the two). Both of those are urine diverting toilets, meaning it keeps the urine in a separate tank from the, well… ya know. Since these toilets don’t require water to flush or a plumbing system, there is no black water tank. This is the category we’re in, owning this Separett Tiny compost toilet. You can merely lift out the urine tank, cap it off, and bring it out to the dump station along with your grey water. This will usually be in the form of a large drain in the ground, with a lid that you step on to open and pour into. Most stations also have running water, such as a spigot or hose to rinse your tanks out with after you empty them. Or, if a restroom is available you can even simply pour out the urine tank into a toilet! Just please use discretion when it comes to which businesses you might be strolling into, urine tank in hand, headed for the restroom. And seriously, don’t be irresponsible and dump your stuff just anywhere.
Lesson 4: What’s the Deal With D.E.F.?
If you’re new to driving a diesel vehicle, you might be asking what D.E.F. is. It’s Diesel Exhaust Fluid, which is a solution of urea and water that turns harmful emissions into water and nitrogen. If your diesel rig is 2010 or newer, it uses D.E.F.. In the case of our Sprinter, we need to top it off somewhere between every three to five fill-ups of diesel. Fortunately this is one of many indicator lights and messages our system flashes at us on the dash, well in advance of running out. We can’t say for certain, but it’s probably a safe bet most other makes give some sort of warning as well.
As for adding the fluid and knowing when it’s full enough, that’s proven to be surprisingly tricky. The owner’s manual says to fill it until you can see fluid close to the top of the D.E.F. tank’s neck. But, there are so many warnings about not spilling, touching, or breathing it, that it makes us newbies nervous just to handle the container. That is, because we’ve been using store-bought jugs of D.E.F., and it’s hard to hold it high enough to pour through the long, attached gooseneck without spilling. Some gas stations have D.E.F. pumps, which seems much easier, but we’ve yet to have the opportunity to try that method. Fortunately, we’ve been able to rely on the message on the dash turning off to know it’s at least full enough for the time being. We’re still working on this van life lesson.
Lesson 5: Expect the Unexpected
It’s inevitable. Weather, vehicle maintenance, broken heaters, running out of water, road closures – you name it, it’s bound to happen at some point. Most of our surprises haven’t been much more than just hiccups, and actually, they’ve been mostly awesome. Those pesky, yet helpful warning messages popping up, for example. They’ve caused us to dash our Roswell plans and make a beeline for the nearest Mercedes dealership instead – all the way in El Paso. Apparently when “Ace” was last serviced in Portland, the shop topped up the oil. Once we hit warmer temperatures in the southwest, we were getting ominous messages that some oil needed to be removed! Excuse me? Luckily we had a flexible schedule to make the detour, the dealer squeezed us in with no appointment, charged us very fairly, and we left with peace of mind.
Then there was an urgent D.E.F. warning message 30 miles outside of Marfa, Texas. Not wanting to chance waiting, we pulled off onto the shoulder near a building in the middle of nowhere. Turns out it was the world famous art installation – Prada Marfa – that we had been wanting to see for years! Had it not been for that message, we would have blown right past it. We got such a kick out of the situation that we made a silly Reel about “breaking down” at a world famous art installation. Sound ON!
Another unexpected detour was when we were driving through our home state of California and saw signs for the iconic Morro Bay. Despite living just a few hours away in Los Angeles for decades, neither of us had ever been. A few minutes later Andie said “wanna go to Morro Bay?” So we turned back and took a 12 mile detour, arriving just in time for a gorgeous sunset. The way it unfolded was just perfect, and we vowed to always take that detour in the future. See? “Unexpected” van life lessons aren’t always a bad thing!
Living an unconventional lifestyle like this offers so much freedom, and naturally, different types of lessons than with other lifestyles. We’ve been fortunate so far that none of our van life lessons have been terribly hard ones, and we also know that that’s not always going to be the case. But we’ve learned something new every day since we bought our van, and we’ll be getting schooled every day for a long time to come. And we’re here for all of it, cuz… #vanlife!
Just for Fun
Check out our Reel for a fun video version of these first 5 van life lessons!
If you’re wondering where to find free overnight parking while you’re out on the road living your best life, read this post for another van life lesson: Free Overnight Parking: A Guide for Newbie Van Lifers.