I moved out of my apartment and into my van to explore the South Island.
- I worked remotely from my van so that I could have the freedom to travel through New Zealand.
- I found van life to be a lot more messy, chaotic, and inconvenient than it looks on social media.
- It was hard to find a work-life balance when I was eating, sleeping, and working in the same space.
After staying put in a shared Auckland flat during New Zealand’s nationwide pandemic lockdowns, I moved into my Mazda MPV campervan in March 2022 to travel around my native country.
At the time, I worked normal business hours as a writer for a research agency, which had a flexible policy that allowed employees to choose their work location.
I dreamt of the freedom that would come with life on the road and craved an outdoorsy lifestyle, so I made the van that I’d owned for a year into my new, full-time workspace.
I planned on heading to the South Island, where I would travel around the West Coast and Nelson Tasman region and hike in national parks like Nelson Lakes, Kahurangi, and Paparoa.
I quickly found that my new life wasn’t all sunrise swims and bliss.
After two months, I moved back into the Auckland flat with my three roommates, vowing to reserve van life for short weekend stints. Here are the things that disappointed me most.
When you search “van life” on social media, you’ll see aesthetically pleasing interiors and pristine couches without a cushion out of place.
Inspired by these photos, I decorated my camper in a tan-and-teal color scheme and decked it out with flax-linen bedsheets, bamboo memory-foam pillows, and a set of rose-gold cutlery.
After a few days of traveling, my van looked like someone had turned it upside down and shaken it.
I was sleeping, eating, and working in the same tight space, so any slight organization went out the window. The inside of my van accumulated sand, dust, and damp towels galore, turning it into a complete mess.
I could transform my bed into a couch and table, but it wasn’t easy. I had to haul everything out of my van, play Tetris to fit the bed and mattress into a couch shape, and pile all my belongings back in again.
Even if I invested all of my energy into forming this new configuration, the resulting setup still required me to hunch over my keyboard. So, I rarely went to the pain of reorganizing the furniture.
Instead, I sat on my bed with my laptop balanced on top of cushions or my chilly bin (a portable cooler) when I worked from my van. Most of the time, I ended up working in cafés.
Whether I was working from my van, a café, or even a park bench, there was no easy way to clock a clear-cut eight-hour work day.
I would fit in a few hours from my van before driving an hour or two between meetings to find a café. Several hours later, I’d usually wrap up any remaining tasks in my van.
A lot of the work locations were far from glamorous.
I took meetings parked on the side of the road, with a filtered background that hid the pile of laundry beside me. When cafés were closed, I sent emails from the driver’s seat while I was parked with my laptop on the armrest.
I felt free and untethered when I set off on my remote-work odyssey. I could park next to any beach I wanted and work off of a mobile hotspot — or so I thought.
Just days into the trip, I realized I was at the mercy of mobile reception.
Countless times, I arrived at a destination only to realize that I was in a mobile dead zone. I had to turn around and drive until I could get a few bars of reception, which was usually far from any scenic views.
Keeping my devices charged also felt like a second job. Between monitoring battery levels on my laptop, phone, e-reader, camera, and power bank, I felt like I was constantly calculating how many minutes of work I could get done.
I had a power inverter and USB charging ports in my van, so when batteries ran low I either had to drive for a while or find somewhere I could sit for several hours to allow my devices time to charge.
Because battery power was such a hot (and limited) commodity, I ended up reading a lot in my free time. As a whole, van life turned out to be very quiet.
It was fall when I was traveling, so the sun set around 6 p.m. My routine usually involved finding somewhere to camp before 5 p.m., reading for a few hours, and going to bed by 8 p.m.
When it rained, options were even more limited. I stayed huddled in my van because there was nowhere to dry out my clothes.
On most rainy days, I would go on long drives just so I could crank up the heat and throw on a podcast.
I thought the campgrounds I pulled into would be full of free-spirited travelers who swapped smiles and van-life tips over morning coffee.
But they were full of retirees in giant motorhomes and other travelers who seemed keen on keeping to themselves.
Scott E Barbour/Getty Images
I thought having my home, office, and vehicle expenses all bundled together would be cost-efficient. It wasn’t.
Because my laptop battery was limited and I wasn’t willing to go very long without a shower, I stayed at campgrounds during the week, which charged between $15 NZD (around $10) and $25 NZD (around $15) per night. And a full tank of gas cost roughly $200 NZD (around $125).
So in one month, I spent $784.85 NZD (around $490) on gas and accommodations. For comparison, my rent in Auckland was $848 NZD ($528) per month.
Other than going on weekend hikes, van life wasn’t particularly healthy. My home on wheels didn’t have a refrigerator, so storing fresh fruit and vegetables was a pipe dream.
Plus, the idea of doing dishes in the tiny sink, which had a manual pump, was enough to dissuade me from cooking. Instead, I stopped by supermarkets every couple of days to buy easy-to-prepare foods, like sandwiches and crackers.
I also ambitiously packed a yoga mat in my van, but I didn’t unroll it once. Rather, I resigned myself to an achy neck from hours of driving and contorting myself around my laptop.
My weekends living in the van were glorious. I was in close proximity to mountains for the entirety of the two months, so there were plenty of opportunities to hike and immerse myself in nature.
During the work week, I had less free time to explore than I expected.
Between searching for a place to set up camp each night, keeping my van in order, and mapping out my next mobile hotspot or Wi-Fi connection, I didn’t have many chances to enjoy the places I passed through.
If I was lucky, I could squeeze in a sunset walk or swim before the sun went down.
Van life wasn’t quite what I imagined, but it was a fun possibility to explore. One day I might give it another go, but if I do, I’ll be equipped with a much larger campervan and more realistic expectations.