How to Live the ‘Van Life’—Without the Van

Vans are a convenient vehicle for traveling across the country to mountain bike, but they are also pricey. Our writer tried a different way.
Photo: Melissa Stevens

If you searched #vanlife on Instagram right now, you would likely find over 15 million dreamy photos of beautiful people overlooking pristine beaches, or touting their cup of steaming coffee with the Alps as their backdrop. They may depict van life as a utopia, but savvy scrollers can tell which are photoshopped and will recognize those pictures probably aren’t portraying the whole picture. 

 Despite considering myself one of these savvy scrollers, van life has enticed me. What better way to experience nomadic freedom? In 2019 I had a taste of van life when friends and I spent a week exploring the south island of New Zealand from a rented van, and it left me wanting more. 

Shortly after the pandemic, van life exploded. It was the summer of 2022 when my partner and I started shopping, hoping to make this life a reality. Fast forward a year and we are still exploring the country with our mountain and road bikes, just not from the anticipated van. Here’s why we chose to forgo van life, and how SUV life treats us instead. 

What We Considered When Shopping for a Sprinter Van 

Of course, everyone’s wants and needs will vary, but I hope that anyone considering traveling across the country will benefit from our experience. Here are a few things we considered when we shopped for a van and ended up with a Toyota RAV4.

Our Priorities

You may be thinking kids, dogs, maybe a van life cat? Actually nope, just our bikes. We wanted to be able to haul 4-6 bikes (1 road bike and 1-2 mountain bikes each) across the country. This is doable in a van, but does take quite a bit of creativity when fitting them on the inside. Most sprinter vans will have a tray-type bike rack rather than a hanging rack since the back door of a van swings out to the side to open it. 

Another priority for us was finding a turnkey vehicle. We had just started a rather daunting basement and bathroom renovation and didn’t have the time (yeah let’s go with time, not skillset) to build out the inside of a van for living in. Some companies or individuals will do a build-out for you, which leads us to the next section.

The Price

Purchasing a van would have cost anywhere from $40K to $80K more than we paid for a lightly used SUV. This is just considering the initial price, including any customization. The price gap between the SUV and van continues to widen when factoring in maintenance and fuel. 

Life After the Trip 

Since we live (permanently) in an outdoor mecca that goes by the name of Utah, it wouldn’t be hard to utilize a van after the trip. We found our only caveat to be four-wheel drive. Living in Salt Lake City, we wanted to take our van up the canyons in winter, and four-wheel drive vans in a reasonable price range proved hard to come by. Reselling could always be an option, but I researched enough to find out that the demand spike from the pandemic was falling and it could potentially take quite a while to sell. 

Vans can be as expensive as they are dreamy. Photo: Hannah Morvay

Why We Chose an SUV

After factoring in those considerations, we were no longer sold on the van but still wanted to travel with our beloved bikes. A little thinking outside the box allowed us to explore an alternative. Many years ago, a friend of a friend that I knew traveled the country from her Jeep and continued to explore many different countries, all while being able to live that work-from-home lifestyle that some may now refer to as “the new normal.” 

What’s the catch, you ask? There’s always a catch. You must be flexible and you must like animals. She utilized an app called Trusted House Sitters, which allows you to house sit in various locations across the world. Most don’t pay, but you receive free room and board in exchange for caring for some pets. 

After calculating that a Sprinter Van would cost an extra $40K-$80K at minimum, we figured we could utilize pet sitting in most areas, and splurge on AirBnBs in others, while still spending less than we would have with the purchase of a Sprinter. So far, this has worked out well. We have stayed at two AirBnBs in Bentonville and Knoxville, two hotels in Colorado and Kansas, and otherwise have been staying with friends and family, or pet-sitting in a house. 

Don’t get me wrong, we did have concerns before settling on an SUV. Would our stuff even fit? After a little compartmentalizing, we decided it would. We purchased five plastic storage bins. One for bike parts, one each for bike gear and bike clothes, one shared for other clothes, and one for miscellaneous stuff. Plus a cooler from the basement and we still have room in the car to spare. We have some solid locks, but also purchased this bike alarm. So far we haven’t had any stolen bike worries, although we never leave them outside on the car overnight.

I don’t love lugging the bikes inside when we arrive at a new location, although I have come to enjoy living out of plastic containers. I’ve found that staying organized is easier in smaller spaces. The smaller the home, the easier it has been to keep our belongings from exploding throughout the home. I made that realization recently when moving from an apartment into a house, but this trip has been a reassuring reminder.

I don’t feel like we missed out on space by not opting for a larger SUV. Decent gas mileage is another priority of mine and finding a hybrid or electric SUV in Utah with less than a year-long wait was out of the question. For every month I waited for a new vehicle, the wait was pushed two months farther. Meanwhile, used cars were hard to come by and sold the same day they were posted. As soon as I saw the listing for that used RAV4, I knew if I didn’t see it that day, it would be gone.

Life on the Road

In the blink of an eye, we found ourselves in a new and unfamiliar state, ready to embark on our first house sit. As we crossed the border, an undeniable sense of intrigue washed over me. It never ceased to amaze me how, despite being mere lines drawn on a map centuries ago, each state possessed its distinct aura, a unique blend of culture and landscape that set it apart from its neighbors.

As soon as we pulled into the driveway and stepped out of the car, we were welcomed with open arms. 

“Welcome! It’s so great to meet you in person! Come on in, I’ll show you everything and tell you all about the area and the best places to bike.”

The experience was new and unfamiliar, but so incredibly welcoming. Nothing like that first encounter everyone has at an AirBnB, fumbling for a key in a lockbox, feeling like you are some kind of clueless criminal attempting a break-in. I can truly say that each pet-sitting experience for us has been low-stress and more accommodating than we could have imagined. 

Would we have been better off in a van? Four months into the trip it’s hard to tell. We have been on the East Coast the whole time thus far, except for a few nights in Colorado and one in Kansas. On the Western side of the country, there is far more BLM land, making van life much easier and cheaper. BLM land does exist on the East Coast, although it is few and far between. 

With that being said, free or low-cost camping does exist outside of BLM land and it would’ve been fun to explore some of these spots on the way. Those couple of sporadic nights spent in budget hotels would’ve been far easier, more enjoyable, and cheaper spent in a van. Amenities such as a shower, sink, and toilet, likely would allow us more self-sufficient freedom to go where we want, when we want, with minimal planning. 

For those considering traveling long-term (over a year), I would recommend alternating living out of a van and pet sitting. We came across one woman who has been doing this for years with a few bikes, and it seems to combine the best of both worlds. So far, we haven’t regretted opting for the SUV instead of a van.

When it comes to living a free-spirited life on the road, my nugget of advice is don’t be influenced by the influencers. Explore your options, talk to others first, and decide on your intentions and priorities for the trip. Choose your own adventure.