There’s nothing better than hitting the wide open road with your soulmate. Just you, your love, and 60 square feet of enclosed living space. Just 60 square feet for the two of you to cook, eat, sleep, poop, shower, relax, fight, make up, have sex, and drive. What could possibly go wrong for a dreamy van life couple?!
Not to be a buzzkill, but a lot of things can go wrong. It’s not easy to live in a van with a partner. It’s possible (and hell, if y’all can make it work, you may have found your “lobster”), but the truth is that a lot of vanlife couples breakup. And when vanlife couples breakup, they have more than just toothbrushes to return or couches to argue over. They have something very expensive they need to address, the big ole metal elephant in the driveway: the van.
As one-half of a former vanlife couple, there are many things I wish I’d known before I first got started. Before hitting the road. Before the renovation. And, most definitely, before I bought the van. Breakups are hard enough but planning ahead can make the whole ordeal much easier. That’s why I’ve compiled all of the information I wish I had known when I got started.
I’ve teamed up with some brilliant one-half of former vanlife couples to share practical and important advice straight from the source.
If you’re considering vanlife with your significant other, read this first!
I’m Lisa and I’m one-half of a recovering vanlife couple. My ex and I had dated on and off for five years. We were excellent business partners and were flipping houses together before we got our van. At the same time, we were terrible romantic partners. We were the classic anxious-avoidant types and were constantly up against one issue or another. Of course, in hindsight, it sounds crazy that we thought vanlife would be a good thing for us. At the same time, we were both enamored with the idea of life on the road.
The actual build process was flawless. We truly were great together in business and the conversion was right up our alley.
Once we actually got on the road, however, we quickly realized that we weren’t a match.
The end of the road came much faster than I could have ever expected.
If you follow me on Instagram, you can see that my first post from November 2017 is ominous. I’m alone in the van staring into the distance: “I don’t know what to tell you except for the truth: we broke up.”
I was devastated about the breakup. Trying to pick up the pieces was compounded by the logistics of actually separating things, specifically the very expensive things, like the van.
Dividing things after a breakup- vanlife style.
We eventually made an agreement in writing. I upheld my end of the agreement, but it didn’t matter: the day I left on my solo vanlife adventure he filed a lawsuit against me. I spent a lot of money (and sleepless nights) defending myself. Ultimately, it was having this written agreement that saved me.
Essential vanlife couple lesson- You never, ever, EVER want to be in a lawsuit. Always spend the money to walk away rather than fight for what you believe is right. Please choose your sanity over anything else. Your future self will thank you.
Are you in love with your partner or with the lifestyle?
My story above begs the question: was I in love with my partner or was I in love with vanlife with a partner? As Christopher Penn of The Off-Grid Skoolie and Tiny Home Tours highlights, it can be rare to find someone who wants this lifestyle and that can lead to you staying in a partnership that’s not right because you don’t want to be alone. As he puts it:
“someone may think van life is a cool thing to do until they have to poop in a bucket.”
Katie Larsen, editor-in-chief of Go Van, swears by the statement, “Vanlife will not break up any couple that would not have inevitably broken up regardless. Vanlife doesn’t create problems, but it amplifies your existing problems. Issues that might feel small outside of the van will become huge when you can’t run or hide from them.”
Before you commit to vanlife, she recommends to “take an honest look at the health of your relationship in its current state.”
Your significant other (or even you!) might love the idea of vanlife but that doesn’t mean that it’ll be the right lifestyle in the end. If you sense that your partner isn’t suited for vanlife or, if it’s not right for the two of you together, trust your instincts.
Don’t stay with your partner just because you’re afraid of being alone.
If you’re worried about being alone on the road, don’t fret because there are a TON of social events and vanlife gatherings all throughout the year! Plus you could always get yourself a furry co-pilot to keep you company!
Test it out with a trial van run.
You really get to know someone when you travel together. Do a trial run before committing financially and emotionally to something so significant. Vanlife can be really challenging sometimes. While there are so many incredible moments that make it worth it, it is crucial to be ready for hard times. The perfect way to get started is to rent a camper van.
Do a few trial trips to decide if it’s right for you.
Katie Larsen did this with her former partner and was very grateful for the perspective it brought, “When my ex and I first went to the dealership to look at what size van we wanted, we were leaning towards the smallest size, a 144″ WB. The salesman told us to put down a square of blue tape in our garage, equaling the dimensions of the van, and stand in that blue square for 2-3 hours the next time we got into a fight. I still believe this is pretty good advice, even beyond just deciding what size van fits you best.”
Tip- Be brutally honest with yourself! I know it’s tempting to stay in a relationship because you’re afraid of being alone. We have ALL been there. And a lot of us have moved on to realize that being in the wrong relationship is lonelier than actually being alone. I dive into the topic in What You Need to Know about Living Alone in a Camper Van and it’s an important read!
Have a healthy relationship with social media and content creation.
Social media plays a massive role in most of our lives and it can be a very touchy subject for any couple. Not a lot of people will discuss this, but social media has had an impact on many vanlife relationships! I’ve seen lots of relationship conflict over content creation and social media.
It’s important to have the same goals and values when it comes to social media. Are you taking photos and sharing stories just for fun, or are you working on growing an audience and taking your storytelling to the next level?
It is fun to document your journey and share it, but this can become a point of stress if one person is on board and another isn’t. Your teamwork skills are going to face a serious test. I know it sounds silly, but I’ve seen this cause a lot of conflict in multiple relationships, both in the vanlife world and in other communities. Make sure you’re on the same page here!
Get a vanlife prenup in writing.
Buying and converting a van together is a big freaking deal. It’s the millennial version of buying a starter home together and it should not be taken lightly.
Going through a vanlife breakup is going through a divorce without ever being married. You suddenly have an expensive asset between us– your van baby– that you have to deal with.
Do you sell the van and divide the proceeds? Does one person pay the other a certain amount in exchange for the other to keep the van? Do you pay this amount at one time or can you agree upon l0ng-term payments? How do you value your time working together on the van and how to you value the money you spent renovating a vehicle, which is essentially a depreciating asset?
It’s not easy to talk about breaking up when you’re together. Hell, it’s not easy to couples getting married to pan out a prenup! But you need it. Look at it like a business contract– you enter into a business contract like an apartment lease planning for the worst-case scenarios: What if the tenant doesn’t pay rent? What if the landlord won’t fix the AC? The contract answers those questions while everyone is on good terms so that it’s easy to work things out if things go sour.
Plan your prenup and put it down in writing that you both sign. Set it up so that there’s a way for one person to keep the van and the other can walk away feeling like they’ve been compensated for their time and money. Maybe plan out a few certain scenarios, depending on each party’s financial situation at the time.
Also try to agree that you’ll get a third-party assessment of the van’s value– we often overvalue the things we’ve worked on, so it’s good to have an independent party determine actual market value of the van if you’re going to sell it.
Agree on the ownership of the van and make sure it’s documented correctly.
The best way to plan ahead for this is to strategically plan the ownership of the van. The person with their name on the title is the owner of the van. As Matt Alexander with Enjoy The Journey Today shares, “If you plan to share ownership of the van, make sure not only are both of your names on the title, but that the names are written like this: Person 1 AND Person 2. Not Person 1 OR Person 2. If it’s “OR” instead of “AND,” then one person can sell the van unilaterally without the permission of the other party!” Good to know!
Of course, we all want to think our relationship with last forever. If it does, great! You’ll never look at the prenup document again. If it doesn’t, however, it’s a major relief to focus on healing and moving on rather than fighting over the van.
It’s not just about the van.
Laura Hughes, host of the Women on the Road podcast is another former member of a vanlife couple. When she and her partner split up, she found that there was way more to be divided than just the van itself. That’s why she recommends to “think about your gear and home goods as much as your van.” If you aren’t clear on who owns what, you might end up in a situation where one party takes more than their fair share.
It’s not easy to divide up your things when you live together in 60 square feet, but try to identify as clearly as possible which expensive items are who’s. You’re probably better off having your own gear instead of splitting costs of gear together.
Pre-plan separation details to avoid further emotional pain.
Breakups SUCK but having to keep talking to your ex about money and logistics throughout the break up sucks even more. I recommend pre-assigning mutual friend you both trust to help manage some of the logistical communications after your break-up. You don’t know how it will all go down, and if it gets messy, this way you have someone on your side who can be a buffer between you and your ex.
As Laura puts it, “Have a plan for how you both would possibly make this transition should a break-up or separation happen, and be open to setting aside funds for a plane ticket, gas money to a friend’s house, and/or a couple nights of Airbnb. Or have an emergency credit card set aside that you could use at any time if you needed.”
Note- I am a lawyer, but I am not your lawyer! You need customized advice for your unique situation. This will help you create the right prenup and breakup scenario for you.
Make sure all communication is in writing.
Some states (like Texas, where my lawsuit occurred) honor verbal contracts and some states don’t. If you ensure all communication post-breakup is in writing, there’s no way one party can claim that the other agreed to something they didn’t agree to. This happened in my situation: my ex tried to say we had a verbal agreement contrary to our written agreement.
The mediator didn’t believe him though, because every single communication was clearly documented in writing in emails and texts. Don’t talk about your solutions to these logistical details over the phone without then putting the conversation in writing and having both sides explicitly agree. I know this sounds extreme, but I’m talking about an extreme situation here.
Y’all, I can’t stress this enough: MAKE SURE ALL COMMUNICATION IS IN WRITING. Texts, emails, Instagram messages are all fine but it MUST ALL BE IN WRITING. Even if both parties don’t want to fight and everyone is on decent terms, you’re in an emotionally-charged situation. You might misunderstand each other or disagree on your intentions if it’s not clearly in writing.
For your own sanity: walk away!
The biggest lesson I’ve learned being a lawyer is that it’s not about “justice” or “right versus wrong”– it’s about your happiness and sanity. You never ever want to be in a lawsuit. If this means walking away when you know the other person is taking advantage of you and you know you’d “win” in court, think about this: a simple lawsuit often lasts 2-3 years and costs several thousands of dollars.
My entire first year living solo on the road had a cloud over it: a ridiculous lawsuit that wouldn’t go away. I had to fly back to Austin a dozen times for meetings. I typed all of my ex’s texts and emails so they for presentation in court. Sitting across from my ex-boyfriend, I listened to him re-read our texts. On camera. Under oath. In public. It all happened during a deposition surrounded by lawyers taking notes. It was like watching a train wreck.
Give Up the Fight
A few couples have decided to walk away versus fight after seeing what I went through, and I hope you’ll look at my extreme situation and do the same and move on with your life as quickly and peacefully as possible.
I completely agree with Laura’s sentiment on this topic, “My general philosophy was to avoid causing any more pain than there already was. Breaking up with someone when you share a camper van is potentially losing your relationship, house, and car all at once. This approach ultimately led to me walking away from a lot of my shared belongings. I definitely considered going to small claims court to settle things. In the end, i wanted to just move forward and not cause my ex or myself any more pain.”
Are you going through a break-up? Check out these books that will help you move on to bigger and better things!
While most vanlifers tend to be minimalistic, that also tends to mean that each item has value. If you broke up tomorrow, how would you divide it all up? Create a realistic and fair plan.
So, vanlifers, are you in a couple or traveling solo?
Tell me about your tips for a stress-free van existence in the comments.