Four Things Vanlife Can Teach A Couple

Whenever I see one of those idyllic Instagram shots of a couple posed in the back of their campervan, I wonder how they make it work. No—not how they quit their jobs or built out their rig. I wonder how they make their relationship work as a couple living and working out of such a small space that’s always in motion. That kind of existence will test any couple’s commitment. I know, because it tested my boyfriend and me when we lived for a year and a half out of a 2005 Chevy Astro. Spoiler alert: our relationship survived. We learned so much about ourselves and each other. And for anyone thinking about moving into a van with their significant other, here are a few things you’ll learn. How you respond is up to you—maybe it will draw you closer. Maybe it will expose that you’re actually not cut out for each other. Either way, the reckoning will come.

Neat freak or slob?
You cannot hide clutter in a van. How much messiness you can tolerate is obviously personal. But when you share such tight quarters, it can be a big deal. I realized quickly after I moved into the van with Brendan that his tolerance for chaos was low, lower than mine. In my old apartment, I may have left some clothes on the bed or on the floor for the day before putting them away—I could not do that in the van. I adjusted, for both our sanity. But Brendan also had patience with me, and my stuff not always being as neat as his would be. Every once in a while we’d purge all the junk I’d collected in seatback pockets and door pockets. I realized that if two people have drastically different ideas about organization and clutter, cohabitating in a van will intensify those differences. It intensifies everything. So be ready—either to compromise or to have conflict.

Introvert or social butterfly?
If you don’t know already, you’ll find out quickly how much time alone your significant other needs. When you live in a car with someone, it takes purposeful planning to allow for individual alone time. You might have to get creative with thinking up ways to get some solitude. But if your partner isn’t on the same page, don’t let your need to be social or need to be alone build up until it boils over. Get in touch with your needs and communicate them. Maybe one of you can drop the other off for a day of climbing with friends or a mountain bike ride, while the other takes the car for a quiet afternoon alone. However it works, the important thing is that both partners’ needs are met so you can come back to each other refreshed and happy to be together.

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Similar work and spending ethic?
Living with someone in a van—and only a van, not just vacationing—is a really quick way to understand their perspectives on earning, saving and spending. Are you both on the same page about how much time to spend working versus playing? Will you both have a similar amount of spending money? Is one of you open to helping the other out? It’s difficult to hide financial issues living in such intimacy. So it’s a good way to make sure you’re on the same page, whatever that looks like.

Dirty, smelly and—happy?
This one might seem obvious, but if you’re fairly new into the relationship, it’s worth thinking about and maybe discussing. How long are you willing to go without a shower? How long are you willing for your partner to go without showering? If you’ve never spent days or weeks at a time together when you’re dirty, greasy and stinky, you might want to give it a test run first. Baby wipes, deodorant and dry shampoo go a long way, but unless your rig has a bathroom and shower in it, you’d better get comfortable with each other’s real, real selves. There’s not much room for self consciousness.

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Living in a van for a season—or several seasons—is a fantastic way to build trust and intimacy with someone you care about. Whether you spend more time playing or more time working, whether you go dirtbag style or glamping style, it doesn’t matter. What matters is learning how to compromise and how to make each other happy, which is a beautiful gift.