How to Buy a Van and Spend a Year Traveling (On Less than $1,000 a Month)

Are you thinking about making the jump to full-time van living?

While full-time van life is 100% possible for just about anyone, it certainly takes a whole lot of planning, preparation, and the ability to deal with the unexpected to pull off successfully.

In fact, it’s completely possible to live in a van even on a tight budget. Of course, more money means a greater ability to travel and take in paid experiences, but you can definitely spend a year traveling on less than $1,000 a month with a frugal approach and just a little know-how.

If you’re grappling with the decision of making the jump, ditching your apartment, and hitting the road full-time in your van, let this guide help you sort through the pros and cons of this unconventional, yet surprisingly popular, lifestyle.

Here’s how to buy a van and spend a year traveling on less than $1,000 a month.

Make Sure Van Life is Right for You

Couple in Camper Van with Dog

Living in a van full time is a huge change for most people.

Before pulling the trigger, it’s essential to make sure this unconventional, nomadic lifestyle is right for you.

Other than saving up for your trip, buying the necessary gear and equipment, and budgeting out expenses, we strongly recommend giving van camping a few test runs.

If you already own a van, this is easy. Go van camping as much as possible. Short trips work fine, but longer trips are best. If you’re able to head out for several weeks, do so. Not only does this help ensure you actually enjoy the lifestyle, but it will help you get a better idea of all the expenses involved. 

Those that don’t already own a van should at least borrow one for a few days. Tag along with friends or use a van rental tool like Outdoorsy to get a personal taste of van camping. Once again, the more (and longer) trips you can take before your decision, the better.

All that said, know that full-time van living is much different than short van camping trips. You’ll be completely dependent upon your van. You likely won’t have a home or an apartment to go back to if things go awry. It’s just you and your van.

Most vandwellers that hit the road for a year move out of their homes completely. They simplify their lives by selling off most of their belongings. Anything left (that doesn’t fit in the van) goes into a storage unit.

This extreme lifestyle simplification isn’t something everyone can do. But if this minimalist, nomadic way of living calls to you, then living in a van for a year might just be right up your alley.

How Much Does Van Life Cost?

Before you hit the road for the start of a year of van camping, it’s extremely important to figure out exactly how much van life costs.

Unfortunately, this question is almost impossible to answer.

The reason is that van traveling costs a different amount for everyone. It all depends on how much you travel, where you stay overnight, what activities you do during the day, and how strict you are with other budget items, such as groceries.

That being said, full-time van life is certainly possible on a tight budget, even one as low as $1,000.

However, it’s imperative to understand that this $1,000 budget doesn’t include the upfront cost of the van. For our purposes today, it also doesn’t include your initial build or the cost of other camping equipment and initial preparations.

Our $1,000 budget also doesn’t include the cost of any unplanned van repairs – although it does include gas, insurance, and regular maintenance.

With all this in mind, it’s more than possible to live on $1,000 per month while van camping. The key is limiting travel time (don’t drive hundreds of miles each day) by staying in free campsites for days or weeks at a time.

Prepare all of your own camping meals on a camping stove to save even more money. With basic camping gear such as a portable power device and solar shower, it’s easy to stay in a primitive campsite for days at a time without any problems at all.

While staying under $1,000 per month is certainly possible, it’s definitely easy to spend much more than that if you’re not careful. In fact, even just a slightly larger budget, say $1,500 per month, will give you much more flexibility in terms of travel.

Once again, this all comes back to doing a few trial runs. Taking a van camping road trip for a week or two will give you a better idea of what to expect in terms of expenses.

Simply put, you need to set a realistic budget before your trip and stick to it. On top of that, we recommend at least enough emergency savings to tow your van to a mechanic plus a few days stay at a hotel in addition to the potential repair costs.

How to Buy the Right Van

Camper Van Parked on Cliff

The most expensive part of van life is undoubtedly the upfront cost of your van.

If you already own a van, then you’re in the clear here. But, if not, then prepare to spend at least a few thousand dollars on your new rig.

Most full-time vandwellers spend anywhere from a few thousand dollars all the way up to $50,000 or more. Of course, it all depends on your budget, whether you buy new or used, and exactly which model van you prefer.

While looking at new vans to buy, know that the #vanlife on Instagram isn’t necessarily a good representation of what most van campers are actually doing.

The vans you see on Instagram are often the cream of the crop. Their owners spend thousands of dollars on the van itself not to mention building out a luxurious van interior.

Just know that, while these stylish builds are certainly cool, it’s completely possible to buy a budget used van and build out a simple interior without breaking the bank.

Our ultimate van camping beginner’s guide breaks down how to buy the best van for you in more detail, but know that your main options include mini vans, cargo vans, conversion vans, and class B RVs.

Personally, a used cargo van is my top recommendation. You can find these for cheap and in reasonably good shape (although you should always have a mechanic inspect before buying).

Cargo vans are also spacious and offer a blank slate for your build. You can do an extremely simple build for under $100 or less. Or, a full-blown luxury build for thousands of dollars. The options are endless.

Finally, used cargo vans are relatively cheap to fix. You can find parts pretty much anywhere in the United States. Even small-town mechanics know how to work on them.

That said, a cargo van certainty isn’t right for every vandwellers. Another great resource for finding the best rig for your needs and preferences is r/vandwellers on Reddit.

This active community resource has answers to all the most common questions about buying a van specifically for van living.

How to Build Out Your Van

Once again, the van camper builds you see on Instagram aren’t necessarily the norm.

In fact, most vandwellers start with a very simple build and then add to it as they go. You don’t have to drop $10,000 right out of the gate for a comfortable, livable van conversion. 

Honestly, if you’re trying to spend a year van traveling on a $1,000 per month budget, you probably don’t have a ton of money for your van build.

So, it’s best to stick with something simple and minimalistic. Start by building a platform bed with a comfortable mattress on top. You can store your camping gear in baskets, bins, and duffel bags underneath the platform.

Add in a 5-gallon water container, camping stove, and camping cooler to act as your makeshift van camping kitchen. You can build a simple countertop or table inside the van to make preparing meals even easier.

As simple as this build might seem, I lived for 6 months with such as barebones setup. It’s not luxurious by any means but it’s completely doable. In fact, I’d hesitate to add anything to future van builds other than better van insulation, a portable camping shower, and possible a basic solar panel setup.

A little goes a long way when it comes to van camping. A barebones build might not make for very Insta-worthy photos – but it’s undoubtedly cheap and effective.

With that in mind, there’s no reason not to go for a full-blown van build if you have the money, time, and desire. Add in that wood paneling, build a kitchenette, make your van scream style – just know that a simple build is more than enough for a year of van living.

What Gear Do You Need for Full-Time Van Living?

Our 21 best van camping hacks lists the most important gear you need for van camping.

Personally, I like to think about a year-long trip a lot like a shorter trip. I make sure to pack all my essential camping gear first: a stove, cookware and dinnerware, lanterns and headlamps, a cooler, warm blankets, and a tent as backup. 

A camping first-aid kit and basic camper van maintenance and repair kit are essential. Beyond that, pack whatever else you like and can fit in your van, including clothing and any personal items.

To me, van camping and hammocking go hand in hand. Lounging in my hammock is one of my favorite activities at the campsite. Although there are a lot of great camping hammocks available, the Mock ONE portable folding hammock is always my go-to.

Let us know what van camping gear you pack in your van in the comments below!

How to Plan Your Trip

Van Camping as a Family

Planning a long-term road trip certainly can be overwhelming.

There are basically two ways to go about it: plan the entire thing from the beginning or go with the flow.

Personally, I recommend a combination of the two. Develop a plan for the basic route you hope to follow but don’t make any specific plans. In my opinion, it’s best not to be boxed in on your road trip.

What about campground reservations you might ask?

While important if you plan to camp in established campgrounds, especially at national parks and especially in the summer, I’ve always been able to find somewhere to camp at the last minute.

Often, these last-minute campsites are in remote, dispersed areas far outside of the main tourist areas. More than a few times, I’ve had to resort to stealth camping in a residential, commercial, or industrial area in a pinch.

 Word of mouth is an undeniably effective way to find great free campsites on the road. I always talk to other dispersed campers, especially other van campers, for tips on other great campsites off the beaten path. Freecampsites.net has also proven an invaluable tool time after time again.

 A few other things I take into consideration when planning a long-term road trip include weather patterns and the locations of friends and family.

 You can certainly tough out poor weather but it’s much more enjoyable to follow the weather around the country so you’re never stuck in miserable conditions for too long. In short, this is why many permanent and long-term travelers stick to the north and especially northwest of the US in the summers before heading down into the south and especially southwest for the winters.

 As great as van camping is, it can get exhausting after several months straight. That’s why I always plan my route to pass near friends and family if possible. Even just sleeping in a real bed for one night is rejuvenating. 

Things to Do Before You Leave Home

After you’ve bought your van and completed your conversion, it’s time to get ready to hit the road.

Finalize your budge and stock up on camping gear and other items. Start getting rid of unnecessary household and personal items months in advance if possible.

Many of those who plan on vandwelling for a year or longer sell their home or move out of their apartment. If you absolutely need to stick to a budget of $1,000, doing so is all but essential.

In fact, many full-time van lifers make the jump to save money on bills. Just because you live in a van, doesn’t mean you actually need to move from place to place. Although traveling is great, more and more vandwellers live in their van in a single city just to save money.

After you’ve moved out and put any valuable items into storage, it’s time for a last pre-trip inspection or tune-up at the mechanic before hitting the road for your year of van travel!

Use our ultimate road trip checklist to make sure you have everything you need before heading out.

Where to Stay Overnight?

Cargo Van Camper

Traveling in a van gives you a lot of flexibility in terms of where to stay overnight.

Most obvious are campgrounds. Established campgrounds prove a comfortable, although expensive, place to stay. Many boast at least basic amenities such as vault toilets and potable water while some even have hookups, flush toilets, and hot showers.

On a budget of $1,000 a month, staying at established campgrounds is a stretch. It might be worth it to you a few times per month but expect to pay at least $20 a night (if not well over) for state park, national park, and private campgrounds.

A better option for paid camping is national forest campgrounds. These campgrounds are more primitive, and usually more remote, but can often be found for under $10 per night, depending on the location.

Free camping is better yet. Perhaps the easiest type of free camping to locate, especially in the western part of the United States, is dispersed camping.

Know that dispersed camping is true wilderness camping. There likely won’t be any facilities or amenities. You shouldn’t expect vault toilets, running water, picnic tables, or fire rings. In fact, many dispersed areas don’t even have established campsites.

Dispersed campsites are often very remote. They take a long time to reach and there will often be no other campers around. The access roads are usually dirt or gravel. Typically, they’re unmaintained and can become very rough, especially after rain.

But dispersed camping is well worth it for van campers on a budget. Plus, the remoteness and privacy are considered a major benefit by some (including me).

Look for free dispersed camping in national forests, water management areas, BLM land, and national grasslands.

Other overnight options include stealth camping (Walmart parking lots work well in a pinch), RV parks, KOAs, and even motels or Airbnb’s every now and again. Remember though, that on a budget of $1,000 a month, it’s best to camp or otherwise stay for free more often than not. 

How to Use the Bathroom and Shower

The simplest way to use the bathroom and shower while van camping is to stay at campgrounds that have such facilities.

Of course, van living on a budget of $1,000 per month doesn’t lend itself well to staying at such paid campgrounds on more than an occasional basis.

While some vandwellers do outfit their vans with small bathrooms complete with a toilet and shower, I’ve found it quite easy to go without. Finding somewhere to use the restroom isn’t very difficult and you can always go to the bathroom in the woods (but remember to follow all backcountry bathroom etiquette).

Another option is to invest in a portable camping toilet. Personally, I don’t bring a portable toilet with me, even on long van camping trips, but it certainly will make answering the call of nature easier.

I do bring a solar shower with me for easy camp hygiene. Many full-time vandwellers invest in a gym membership at a 24/7 nationwide chain to use those showers while in town. Truck stop showers that are open to the public are yet another option.

Best Van Camping Meals on a Budget

An important part of keeping your expenses low is cooking all your meals for yourself.

Just like in normal life, eating out while vandwelling quickly adds up. A quality camping stove and just a few utensils makes meal preparation a cinch.

Your meals can be as complex or as simple as you like. I’ve personally found that simple meals with fresh ingredients to be the best bang for my buck. Plus, these are often relatively simply to clean up.

Working While Van Camping

Many long-time vandwellers work at least part time to cover their expenses.

Working as a digital nomad is a popular trend. This simply consists of finding a freelancing job that lets you work remotely wherever you travel.

Seasonal jobs are another option. These are often farming or other labor jobs. CoolWorks is one of the best places to look for seasonal work online.

You might also consider working as a campground host. You’ll work part time in exchange for a free campsite for the season. Hookups are often available. Some, but not all, camp host jobs pay a small wage. 

Of course, you don’t have to work at all if you have enough money saved up. Traveling for one year on $1,000 is completely possible without supplementing your savings.

Final Thoughts

Let’s be honest – van life certainly isn’t for everyone.

That’s especially true for full-time van living on a tight budget. But, even with a small monthly budget, traveling in your van – and, more importantly, enjoying yourself – is completely possible for up to a year or more.

If you have any more questions about making the jump to full-time van living, don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments below!