Summer read: On Instagram, living and working from a van seems idyllic and whimsical, so Josie Adams gave it a whirl. She reports on the unglamorous reality for IRL.
First published November 11, 2021.
I’m one of the lucky Aucklanders who got locked down outside the city when delta first made its unwelcome debut. I was in Wellington on a little holiday when the prime minister announced the latest lockdown, and faced with the choice of going back to infection central (Auckland) or becoming homeless, I chose to stay in the capital.
From there, I decided to roam the lower North Island, remote working from anywhere with wifi and a car park. It was that or find a flat in Wellington, which has become such a squalid rental dystopia that living in a van retained more of my dignity.
Social media made it seem that way, anyway. On Instagram, fashion entrepreneur Brittany Cosgrove makes escaping both the Wellington rental market and her ex-boyfriend for a life on the road seem adventurous and full of laughs. Inspired, I saw myself waking up at a new beach every day, and taking a dip before brewing my artisan coffee. I’d send emails from my phone and dictate articles to Otter as I drove through the picturesque mountains.
So I rented a converted Toyota Estima for $23 per day, plus insurance. I reckon I’m not the only one who’ll be exploring this option, either: there’s a strong desire to escape the aforementioned rental hell in our major cities, and despite better public transport options slowly materialising, New Zealanders remain dedicated to their cars. We have the fourth-highest per capita car ownership in the world, and the amount of driving we do is only on the up.
Our homes and workplaces have already begun to meld together. I see vehicle living as the next stage in the total reduction of our personal spheres. My car, my home, my castle – and my office. To prepare you for the future, I’d like to share my experience living and working in a van, warts and all.
The work day
My dormant hunter-gatherer genes were activated in the van. I rose with the sun, and slept as soon as the temperature dropped. As well as a six-hour sleep at night, I did a two-hour spell of staring into the sun during the day. I needed to break up the driving, working and eating in the van with a dose of what yogis call “mindfulness” and I call “shark naps”: eyes open, brain dead, windows down and the ether rushing past my gills.
Our sleep cycles and our work days aren’t natural. We all know this, deep down, but the road makes it clear. I would wake up around 7am, drive a couple of hours to a cafe, and get to work. After a few hours, I got back in the van and drove again, to whatever public library called to me in the distance. Sometimes I took my fully-charged devices to some weird freedom camping site and watched all the episodes of Dynasty I downloaded. Other times I pulled up to a Mitre 10 and had Zoom meetings in the car park. I got my eight hours of work in, in whatever pattern the road threw at me.
The night was my own, but it also belonged to everyone else in the campground. Going into freedom camping, I thought I’d see a lot more hippies with surfboards – and in Castlepoint and New Plymouth this was accurate. Mostly, though, it wasn’t. Sometimes the grounds were full of retirees with tiny dogs in expensive motorhomes. Sometimes there were cars with tarps instead of windows and a backseat full of sheepdogs. Once there was a guy on a bicycle and his very nice Staffordshire.
There was a huge range of people and dogs, is what I’m saying. They mostly kept to themselves, but due to my chronic night paranoia I would not sleep until every other van in the campground had fallen silent. New Zealanders are broadly good folk, but I did not want to be murdered by man nor dog.
I recently found out Elon Musk’s global satellite internet network, Starlink, is not free nor even cheap. I don’t know why I expected otherwise; I guess I hoped he’d be making up for threatening unionised workers, the cybertruck debacle, or being embarrassingly devoted to terrible cryptocurrencies. Long story short, I did not have wifi in the van. Instead I conducted interviews from the Warehouse car park. Its wifi is both free and high quality, and there’s always a roomy parking space.
If you’d like to get out of the vehicle and work at an actual table, cafes are good. Pubs that open early are better. They usually have wifi, and very few customers pre-dinner. One of my favourite remote working sites is the 1852 Pub and Kitchen in Brooklyn, Wellington – it’s massive, empty until three or four, and has great wifi. They did not mind me nursing one beer for three hours.
Wifi for entertainment purposes needs to be accessible outside of your work hours. While some of the expensive ($20) campgrounds claim to have wifi, it’s usually some sort of ghost network your device will connect to but never be able to access. You’re better off using a library or Warehouse to download some Netflix shows.
Podcasts don’t use as much bandwidth, but they are more boring. I’m sorry, I’m tired of pretending they’re good. I listened to some podcasts but it was just so I didn’t feel like I was alone in a car surrounded by the small, smelly pile to which my worldly possessions had been reduced.
When I started my van journey, I felt empowered. I was liberated. I was a road warrior. Three days in, I found myself sleeping next to a graveyard eating a jar of peanut butter for dinner. Yes, there was technically a gas stove in the boot. No, I would not set it up so I could cook Shin Ramyun in a Taranaki downpour.
The van had water and a portable gas stove and kettle, so coffee was possible no matter where I was. Could I be bothered setting up the gas and opening the boot twice a day for a dose of the demon bean? Absolutely not. I drank van-temperature soy milk with instant stirred in. I ate roadside fruit, and also a lot of pretzel bites.
When it comes to refuelling the van rather than yourself, conventional wisdom holds. Fuel up outside the city as it’s less expensive, and get obsessive about your tyre pressure. The higher it is, the less petrol you use.
You can turn the bed in the back of your van into a rough approximation of a table and chair arrangement. However this does not appear to be possible without tearing the entire van inside out and then Tetris-ing it all back in. The end result: somehow worse for your back than just lying down.
I have conducted interviews lying down in the back of the van nestled against a bag of used baby wipes, which is great for sound quality but terrible for your posture and sense of professionalism.
My recommendation: leave the van if you can. Even just get on the ground and work from the pavement. Get your body out of the vehicle before it fuses to the upholstery.
Van life seems like the future of work, at least from where I’m parked – and it’s a pretty dismal one. It’s less swimming in waterfalls and more sleeping, working, and often pissing in the same two square metres. You can drive for hours every day in search of something better, but all that piss and soy milk and sheets of work still rattles around right behind you.
Of course, I was roughing it. If you’re serious about working from the road, you can just spend $250,000 on a motorhome instead.
We are here thanks to you. The Spinoff’s journalism is funded by its members – click here to learn more about how you can support us from as little as $1.