Often while scrolling on Instagram, YouTube or TikTok, you inevitably stumble across van lifers; people who live out of converted vans and lead lives of nomadic idyllic luxury. However, Elisha’s own experiences of #vanlife proved that there was more to living out of a van than VSCO filtered sunrises and ocean swims.

Perhaps the only travel trend to have fared pretty well in the past couple of years is #vanlife. It’s difficult to open Instagram these days without seeing yet another person buying a van and hitting the road on a big lap around Australia.

While grey nomads have been doing it for years, the rise of flexible working arrangements and the eagerness to still find ways to travel despite restrictions has led many down the vanlife road. And I’m just yet another who’s fallen head over heels for it. 

After living mostly abroad and out of a backpack for the past few years, as a freelance writer and photographer, I figured the only way to keep the adventure alive amidst a pandemic was to pack my belongings into an old Toyota Hiace and start driving.


Great ocean road, What I’ve Learnt From 6 Months of Full Time #Vanlife, shot by Elisha Donkin, outback, australia, road trip, lap, van, vanlife

Parked up on the Great Ocean Road


Whilst I’ve quickly adapted to the wide, open highways, I discovered that there’s a whole lot about #vanlife that doesn’t get shown on your Instagram feed (who would’ve thought that social media was so curated?). 

Read more: The Effect Of Instagram On #Adventure

So, after hitting my first vanlife milestone of six months on the road, I wanted to share some insights into what living in a van is really like.

Being a Minimalist Is Both Liberating and Limiting

Packing your entire life into a small van is never going to be easy. There are always going to be trade-offs over what you can and can’t fit inside limited cupboard space. While it certainly has more room than a backpack, it still requires you to think about life essentials and go without some added luxuries. 

It’s quite liberating to condense your wardrobe down to key seasonal staples and your pantry down to a few basics. It makes daily decisions a lot easier, until you realise that there’s only so much you can cook with a single burner gas stove. From pasta to way too many stir fries, it quickly starts to feel like you have the same menu on repeat all week.


Watching the sunset over the Breakaways, What I’ve Learnt From 6 Months of Full Time #Vanlife, shot by Elisha Donkin, outback, australia, road trip, lap, van, vanlife

Small Spaces Get Dirty Real Quick

I also quickly learnt that keeping a small space clean is not the easiest part of living in a van. My Mum’s been telling everyone for years that I’m not the tidiest person, and these past few months have proven that Mums really are always right.

The small floor area is always covered in sand, dirt, red dust, or all three, depending on where I am in Australia. And with just a small kitchen, even having my breakfast dishes on the sink makes it look incredibly cluttered and messy. I’m convinced that I’ve spent more time cleaning in the van than I ever did at home.


Admiring the ocean view for a change, What I’ve Learnt From 6 Months of Full Time #Vanlife, shot by Elisha Donkin, outback, australia, road trip, lap, van, vanlife inside van

Showers aren’t that important… are they?

On the topic of cleanliness, I’m not sure I should confess my longest shower-less streak from the past few months. The Hiace is not quite big enough to have its own bathroom which means I rely on public toilets, caravan park facilities, and other inventive ways of sourcing sanitation. 

However, you’ll be surprised that you can actually find showers in more places than you might think. Some larger service stations have hot showers, swimming pools often allow vanlifers to use their bathrooms for a fee, and you can usually find cold showers at beaches, if you’re really desperate. 

However, there’ve been remote parts of the outback and lengthy times spent in national parks when I’ve gone without washing for far longer than I’d like to admit. 

You Don’t End Up Missing All That Much

With limited space and a life without added luxuries, you could be fooled into thinking I have a long list of things I miss about living in a normal house. While hot showers, a kettle, and a dishwasher are all really nice to have, living without them gets easier the longer you do it, until you don’t even miss them much at all. (Except maybe an oven – I do miss being able to bake!) 


Cooking dinner outside the van on the Murray River, What I’ve Learnt From 6 Months of Full Time #Vanlife, shot by Elisha Donkin, outback, australia, road trip, lap, van, vanlife

Cooking outside on the Murray River

Living in a Van Makes You Spend More Time Outdoors

A campervan is basically like glamping– you can sleep amongst the sights and sounds of nature but still have the comforts of a normal bed (win-win!).

I get to step outside every morning before breakfast to breathe in the fresh air. I feel inspired to head off on a daily walk to explore the new area I’ve decided to call my temporary home and it’s easy to enjoy almost every sunset before retreating to my cosy crib.

It’s made me realise how little we actually go outside and appreciate nature when living in a house and working in an office. There’s no better way to strike a good work/life balance than to move into a van, especially if you can switch to remote work.

But You’re More Exposed to the Elements

While I’ve certainly felt safer than those in a tent when a storm rolls over, vanlife is still very much affected by the weather. Rain can turn campgrounds into a muddy, flooded paddock and the brutally hot Aussie summers can transform your van into a sweltering furnace. 

While vanlife brings you closer to the outdoors in a positive way, you also soon realise that Mother Nature can be an extremely harsh and unpredictable beast when you’re dealing with her every day.


Driving to Arkroola in outback south australia, What I’ve Learnt From 6 Months of Full Time #Vanlife, shot by Elisha Donkin, outback, australia, road trip, lap, van, vanlife

On the road to Arkroola in Outback South Australia

Beachfront Campgrounds Aren’t That Common

One of the most misleading aspects of any #vanlife Instagram page is that they always seem to show the beautiful beachfront camp spots and secluded places tucked away in a quiet forest. 

Of course, the reality is that boring roadside rest stops and crowded bush camps are a lot more common. While I’ve managed to find a few campgrounds with million-dollar ocean views in the past six months, they’re definitely in the minority.

Simply put, I’ve fallen asleep listening to road trains screeching past more often than I have peaceful waves crashing in the ocean.

The Vanlife Community Is Pretty Awesome

Before you roll your eyes and think that it’s just another trending hashtag, the #vanlife community is very welcoming and friendly on and offline. A lot of people have asked whether it can get lonely living on the road, but it’s quite the opposite.

Whether I’ve struck up a conversation with my camp neighbour or arranged to meet a fellow vanlifer via Instagram DMs, the community includes some incredible people from all walks of life. In fact, far from being lonely, you’ll more than likely be trying to avoid yet another conversation about solar panels or some other technical topic that everyone seems to be an expert on around the campfire

As any grey nomad will proudly tell you, there’s been a vibrant vanlife community in Australia way before hashtags and Instagram even existed.


Sunset in outback Australia, What I’ve Learnt From 6 Months of Full Time #Vanlife, shot by Elisha Donkin, outback, australia, road trip, lap, van, vanlife

Constantly Moving Can Be Exhausting… but It’s Also the Ultimate Form of Freedom

Driving from one place to another and having to find a new campsite every day can get tiring very quickly. However, the freedom of being able to call a new place home whenever you choose is incomparable. 

Plus, the benefit of living on the road is that if you like a place, you can always linger a little longer. In fact, I think vanlife seems to get better the longer you stay somewhere.

‘The slow life is the best life!’ is what I’ve heard countless times around a campground over the past six months and, while it’s certainly not for everyone, I reckon I have to agree.