Van life seems like a wanderer's dream come true: Traveling, exploring, and giving up the white picket fence in favor of adventure. Especially post-pandemic, the freedom of van life is more appealing than ever, and the lifestyle has skyrocketed in popularity. In fact, the number of posts tagged #vanlife increased more than three-fold from 2017 to 2020.
But while van life is often presented as an eco-friendly way to travel, is it really more sustainable than living in a house? Driving long distances—especially when done frequently—consumes a lot of gas, which releases carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. And what about electricity and water?
We've looked into how van life holds up against living in a traditional house. Here's what you should know before hitting the road—plus, how to make your trip more eco-friendly.
Is Van Life Sustainable?
Is van life sustainable? The answer isn't as straightforward as you would think. It depends on how you live—how much you travel, how you manage waste, and so on. All of these factors influence the sustainability of van life.
We focused on three factors that relate to everyone (and vary the most between van and house life): gas, water, and electricity.
The average American drives around 13,500 miles per year, using 656 gallons of gas. While this may surprise you, the average person could actually use less gas living the van life. Because there's no commute to work, van dwellers only drive when they're traveling between places.
A past survey found the average van dweller only drove between 10,000-12,500 miles per year, which is less than the average American. Of course, if you don't commute to work every day (or bike, walk, or use public transit), then you may use more gas living in a van. In other words, the relative sustainability of van life depends on the household.
Again, how much water you use depends on your lifestyle. Many van life bloggers have found they use less water living in a van than they did living in a typical house. While the average American uses 300 gallons of water per day at home, Amber McDaniel of Always the Adventure, says they use a lot less on the road.
"That much water would literally take up almost the entire cargo capacity of a van. Our potable water storage in total is a mere fraction of that, at just 10 gallons spread across various sources," she writes. "Two Hydro Flask insulated water bottles for daily drinking, one 128 oz. Hydro Flask Oasis growler for drinking water storage, one 10L MSR dromedary bag for extra portable water, and one six-gallon BPA-free plastic water tank connected to our sink."
If you're keeping your daily water usage to a minimum and being mindful of how long your showers are and how often you do laundry, living in a van could save water. One thing to be aware of: If you're not using reusable containers to store it, plastic bottles and jugs can add up quickly.
Of course, if you're living in a van, you'll need electricity to power your kitchen appliances, small devices, and other miscellaneous electronics. Some van dwellers limit the number of electronics on-board to reduce their carbon footprint, but everyone needs at least one power outlet to charge their phone or laptop.
As with everything else, the impact of your electricity use depends on the person. Vans can run off of standard electricity, large batteries, or solar power. However, most people will use less electricity in a van than a home simply because there's less to charge.
How to Make Van Life More Sustainable
How sustainable your van life journey is fully depends on your current lifestyle. But if you're looking to live more sustainably on the road, there are some general habits that make van life a lot more planet-friendly.
While reducing your waste and watching your energy consumption is always a great way to reduce your carbon footprint (whether you live in a van or house!), here's how to take things to the next level.
1. Drive Less Often
According to the EPA, the transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. One of the best things you can do for the planet is plan your trips carefully so you don't drive more than you need to.
Really think about which routes you're taking, and consider staying longer at your destinations. These tips are simple, but they add up, saving you gas money and carbon emissions.
Many van dwellers also emphasize the importance of choosing a fuel-efficient van. Before making a purchase, do your research and opt for the best choice for the planet.
2. Use Solar Power
Like we mentioned earlier, vans can run on standard electricity or solar power. Solar power is undeniably better for the environment. By attaching solar panels to the roof, you can charge everything you need to without worrying about your carbon footprint.
You also won't need to worry about charging your van's battery or finding an electricity hook-up. It's a win-win!
3. Go Electric
While electric options are hard to come by, they exist and are growing in popularity. And, they avoid using gas altogether, letting you travel across the country the eco-friendly way. In fact, Volkswagen is launching an electric minibus in 2022! Check out the video above to see it in action.