Updated: Feb 25
What Living In A Van Has Taught Me About Sustainability
I'd always dreamed about living a sustainable life.
I grew up watching David Attenborough films and traipsing barefoot through the backwoods of my little hometown in Ohio --watching birds, climbing trees and collecting crawdads. I even formed my own Wildlife Club in school, handing out homemade pamphlets and planning meetings, driving my teacher and the fellow second graders crazy with my obsessive desire to save the planet. As someone who has always felt deeply connected to the planet, and concerned about it's fate, it seems only natural that I would gravitate toward a sustainable lifestyle.
But I haven't. I grew up, I went to school, I got a corporate job. And like many of my fellow Americans, I became too wrapped up in the challenges of daily life to consider in too much detail the true impact of my actions.
It wasn't intentional. I always wanted to bring cloth bags to the grocery store instead of using the plastic ones. I always intended to shop local, eat less meat, and know the source of my food. I always thought about consuming less water and electricity, buying only what I needed, creating less trash, decreasing my carbon footprint. But the simple fact was that I just kept running out of time. My life was too fast-paced, too busy, too immersed in the American Dream and all of it's glorified consumerism to allow any room for sustainability.
Then I hit the road in my newly converted Ram Promaster, with it's tiny fridge, 7 gallon water tank, and a power system dependent entirely on solar energy, and everything changed. For the first time in my life, I was faced with exactly what I consume on a daily basis--what I eat, what I drink, how much I spend, and what my carbon footprint really looks like.
As I began to take a more honest look at my own lifestyle, I began to learn what sustainability is really all about, and how important it is not only for the survival of our planet, but for our own well-being as well.
Gone are the days of shopping at the big chain store once a month and spending a fortune on enough food to feed a small country, only to end up throwing half of it away. I'm ashamed to admit how much of what I used to buy would go bad before I even had the chance to eat it.
The tiny size of my van refrigerator forces me to plan my meals in advance and buy only what's necessary. And my tight budget encourages me to use every bit and not waste a morsel.
I've also made a promise to myself to shop and eat only locally sourced food while traveling. This was actually easier than I thought it would be, and so far I've been pleasantly surprised with the opportunities I've come across during my travels.
One great way to find locally sourced food is to use Harvest Hosts, an app that connects travelers in need of a place to camp overnight with local farms, wineries, and landowners with available land. Many of these places will offer their product - produce, meat, wine, etc. for sale. Even if the site itself doesn't offer a product, the hosts can often direct you to great nearby spots.
Another way to seek out great local finds is to research nearby farmer's markets, simply by using Google Maps. I'm been pleasantly surprised by my finds, and it's a great way to mingle with the locals!
On the rare occasion that I eat at a restaurant, I make a point of seeking out locally owned, locally sourced places, and ideally those that offer organic food. This is also easy to do in today's era of google searches and cell phones, and is much more interesting (and healthier) than pulling over at the nearest fast-food restaurant to fill up on meaningless calories.
*I plan on posting an interactive map with all the great locally owned businesses I've come across during my travels, so stay tuned!!
Van life also makes me eat less meat. Meat can be hard to cook and store, when all you have is a little induction stove top, a tiny fridge, and a power system that depends entirely on solar energy. I have found it much easier to quickly cook up some veggies, eat some fruit and granola, or make a big salad.
The water tank in my van holds 7 gallons.
I use it to wash my dishes and hands, brush my teeth, and on occasions when I can't find a shower, to bathe and wash my hair.
I turn the water off in between dishes, and while actively brushing my teeth. I use a spray bottle with soap to help clean the dishes without having water actively running. I do all this not only because I want to be eco-friendly, but also because it's a really big pain in the ass to have to refill water tanks.
On the road I shower, on average, every other day. This is a huge change for someone who is accustomed to taking a hot, steamy, 15 minute shower every morning (and sometimes in the evening, too). I make do on off-days with baby wipes and dry shampoo, and it's really not as bad as I thought it would be. When I do shower, it's often at a local gym, and I feel the need to hurry so that I'm not in anyone's way. (Walking into a gym for the sole function of showering is an awkward experience, and definitely one that takes some getting used to).
My van doesn't have a built-in toilet. I considered installing one, but the thought of having a permanent fixture basically sitting in my kitchen and right next to my sleeping quarters did not appeal to me. What I do have is a portable toilet that I can pack away in my garage space when not used. Living in a van has made me acutely aware of how many times I pee during a day, and in turn, how many times I flush a toilet. Using my portable toilet, or simply pulling over and popping a squat by the road (probably the only time in my life when I've truly envied men), has really cut back on the amount of water I use every day.
Here are some statistics to put this all into perspective:
- The average American uses 101.5 gallons of water EACH DAY.
- One flush of a toilet will use anywhere between 1.6 and 7 gallons, depending on the type and age of the toilet.
- The average American shower uses 2.1 gallons of water per minute. So, if you're like me and like to take a 15 minute shower every morning, that's almost 32 gallons of water in one sitting. Cutting back to three showers per week rather than seven would mean that I'm saving about 128 gallons of water each week.
I've always lived in an environment where if I wanted light, I flipped a switch. If I wanted entertainment, I pressed a button on a television. If I needed to charge my cellphone, I plugged it into the wall. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I'd never considered where all that power comes from, and what negative effects that usage could have on our planet.
Although electricity is a clean and relatively safe form of energy when it is used, the generation and transmission of electricity affects the environment. The very use of electricity in your home or business will cause emissions and increase air pollution and smog.
My van is powered almost entirely by solar energy. On rare occasions, if there isn't sufficient sunlight, I will have to plug-in to shore power to have enough for bigger functions like cooking and making coffee. But for the most part, the sun powers everything I need to function on a daily basis.
*A detailed description of my power source, appliances, and major van equipment coming soon here.
You can't be a major consumer when you live in a box.
During my first three-week trip in the van, I didn't buy anything other than necessary food, some wine, and a t-shirt. .
I re-used the same water jugs to refill my van the entire trip. I shopped local, actually used my cloth shopping bags, and had a tiny waste basket in my van that I only had to dump every few days.
Thinking back to my life at home, where the trash can would fill up magically every other day, I've been impressed with my lack of waste production out on the road.
Slowing Down and Taking Care of Myself
If there is a common theme in this article, it's that a sustainable lifestyle is a healthier one, too. On the road I'm able to slow down and live in the present, rather than constantly feeling depressed about the past or anxious about the future. (See my recent post, Sit For Awhile).
By focusing on living a more sustainable life, I have seen positive effects on my own body and mind. I eat healthier, I sleep better, and my recent issues with debilitating, chronic pain are all but gone. I am learning to live in the present and enjoy whatever the current situation might be- whether that is watching a beautiful sunrise, figuring out what I'm going to eat for dinner, or finding a safe place to sleep for the night. I'm seeing a direct correlation between this more intentional lifestyle and an improvement in my own well-being.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, there is a rapture on the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the sea and music in its roar: I love not man less, but nature more
As we struggle through our daily lives -- shuttling between work and home, shut away in man-made buildings, isolated from the rest of the natural world, it can be easy to ignore the ways that our lifestyle choices affect the planet we inhabit.
It's not so easy to ignore when out in nature -- constantly surrounded by other sentient beings and the many spectacular wonders of this planet -- because this is the very reason we strive for a sustainable future in the first place.
While traveling around in a van, I spend the majority of my time outside of city limits, surrounded by the great outdoors, and I'm constantly reminded of all that we risk losing if we don't choose a more eco-friendly, responsive way of life.
The Elephant In The Room - GAS
I’m driving around the country in a cargo van that gets, at best, 16 miles per gallon, and I would be a hypocrite to write an article about sustainability and neglect to mention this.
This is where, once again, the importance of slowing down comes into play. The less miles I drive in a day, the smaller my carbon footprint. And the less miles traveled, the more time I can take in each place to relax, breathe, and take in my surroundings.
If there's anything I've learned while out on the road, it's that travel, as life, should never be rushed.
Writing and Photography by Teresa B. Schumacher