Van Life Sustainability – 11 Tips for Eco-Conscious Nomads

By Christopher Harvey

Living in a van has become increasingly more popular in the past few years. With the real estate market making homeownership and even rental property more unaffordable, many jobs allowing for virtual employment and a reevaluation of the values and goals in many people’s lives, van life has become more and more appealing to those who want to live their best lives now.

But like any social or cultural movement, with so many new people entering the van lifestyle, the vanlife movement is bound to have a negative impact on more than just the environment. And it begs the question, is van life sustainable?

What used to be a movement of mostly eco-friendly minimalists seeking a simpler way of living, this new wave of van dwellers has led to a renewed focus on the impacts that the average person has on the world around them.

In this post, we’ll cover a few of the primary issues facing sustainable van life and some common principles and practices that can make even the least environmentally conscious van lifer more engaged in sustainable living on the road.

Van Life Sustainability Challenges

Sustainable van life begins long before one even purchases their van. So if you’re interested in more positively contributing to vanlife from an eco-conscious standpoint, you’ll want to consider these common challenges and the creative solutions for how to address them.

Choose the Right Van – Keep Your Carbon Footprint In Mind

Vans are more compact than some of their larger RV relatives and thus one of the biggest advantages of living in a van is the reduction in the van’s emissions over time. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty years, you know that the consumption of fossil fuels has led to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Eco-friendly van dwellers will understand their basic carbon footprint and the impact they have on the environment from a carbon emissions standpoint. Typically newer van models have a reduced carbon footprint due to environmental regulation placed on manufacturers.

And while the most popular van models for van life all have around the same fuel efficiency, if you want to do it right you’ll get an understanding of exactly what kind of energy consumption these vans need before committing to purchasing it.

Build with Eco-Friendly in Mind

Many building materials are not great for the environment. And there are even those which can be particularly harmful to you when you consider that your van is not a traditional house and the small spaces can cause extended exposure to harmful chemicals.

One of the best ways to build your van in an eco-friendly way is by researching materials such as paint and insulation that are nontoxic both for the environment and for you. They may cost a little more. But in the long run, you’re adding to sustainable van life and your health at the same time.

You may also want to consider using salvaged materials that reduce the overall waste of your build and can lead to creative additions to your tiny home on wheels. From recycled rubber floor mats to repurposed wood for framing your camper van, you can get pretty creative with how to make van life sustainable from the moment you start your van build.

Camper van solar roof panels with skylight top view Motorhome
Camper van solar roof panels with skylight

Power Your Life With Renewable Energy – Install Solar Panels

Solar power is arguable the most affordable and easiest renewable energy to capture and use, particularly in van life. In fact, you won’t come across many camper vans that are not equipped with the best solar panels.

While the average van dweller is likely not inclined to consume massive amounts of energy by plugging into traditional energy sources at campgrounds, not only will solar power save money in the long run but also it will reduce your overall environmental impact.

You would be surprised how such a robust solar system for your van will actually fit on your roof and in your budget.

Reduce Water Consumption

Most DIY camper van builds include only the bare necessities – even when it comes to water. The average American turns on the faucet and likely doesn’t think about how much water they waste. But even a newbie van dweller will know that you have to learn to use less water for everything from hand and dishwashing to showering.

One of the principles of sustainable vanlife is conserving water on a daily basis. Whether that means collecting wastewater to reuse, or simply skipping unnecessary showers that would otherwise have been taken out of rote routine, reducing your water consumption is a great way to live in a van with minimal impact on the environment.

Have a Proper Toilet – The Power of a Composting Toilet

Van lifers know that waste reduction applies not only to the things that they consume but also to how those wastes are collected and disposed of. While not a pretty topic to discuss, using a composting toilet or a cassette toilet will allow you to reduce the amount of waste you dispose of and modify how it is disposed of.

Both types of toilets separate your solid from your liquid waste with either minimal or no water use. Composting toilets allow you to actually turn solid waste into compost which is safe enough to even be disposed of in nature.

On the other hand, cassette toilets collect waste in compartments that can be disposed of in traditional toilets or sewers. Both reduce the amount of human waste that enters the sewer system and the amount of water wasted in flushing.

Vanlife Dumping Grey Tank
Vanlife Dumping Grey Tank
Van Life Sustainability: Ford350 Bobby Composting Toilet
Ford350 Bobby Composting Toilet

Stay Longer, Move Less – Reduce Your Fuel Consumption

Although purchasing a newer, more eco-friendly and fuel-efficient van is the first way to start out in sustainable vanlife, making the choice to move slower and to stay longer in a location further reduces your carbon footprint.

Just because your van may have two or three times the fuel economy of larger RVs and other standard vehicles used by the average American doesn’t mean that you aren’t inclined to drive more miles in your van.

But if you can make a conscious choice to cut down on how quickly you move from one place to the next, not only will you save money in gas (which seems to be increasing at unsustainable levels) but also you’ll save gas from unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions.

Reduce Your Waste

Expecting zero waste is impossible, even for the most eco-friendly van dwellers. Whether you are a conscious consumer and cut down on the use of single-use plastic and commit to less food waste as a principle, you’ll find that some waste is unavoidable.

Search for food without plastic wrapping. Reuse plastic drinking containers or find a way to incorporate washable mason jars into your shelf space. Even if you have to accept plastic bags from retailers, you can repurpose the bags to collect rubbish in and around your van or to double them up to collect dog waste as well.

Over consumption is another cause of unnecessary waste. So being aware that everything you purchase must all go somewhere in the end should help you buy only what you need.

Dispose of Waste Properly

In order to make vanlife sustainable everything must have its proper place. This applies not only to the things you pack and use inside your camper van. But also to the waste you create while you camp.

If you stick with van life long enough you’ll eventually run across campsites that are overrun with trash. Somewhere along the line we were convinced that fire destroys all waste. But unfortunately, campfire impacts waste disposal because not all waste can and should burn.

Glass and aluminum cans are best recycled properly. And plastic and styrofoam should never be tossed into the fire. If you’re headed into the great outdoors to camp for a few days, practice the leave no trace principles of packing out your waste.

Separate your recyclables and seek out recycling bins once you return to civilization. Plan ahead for less waste and don’t find yourself overrun with your own trash that may tempt you to discard it in unsustainable ways.

Trash at Campsite
Trash at Campsite

Reusable is Key to Virtually Everything

The van life lifestyle lends itself well to minimalism. By default, you will not have room to store more than you absolutely need. So the quicker you accept the idea of reusing as many things as possible, the quicker you’ll find peace with having everything you need.

While single-use plastics are the enemy of the environment and one of the largest contributors to global waste, you can turn them into a friend by using them multiple times. Lunchmeat containers may be meant to toss out after use.

But they make for great storage organization and for leftovers when you consider them to be reusable containers. And while you may find that you end up collecting some plastic bags over time, you can use them over and over again every time you go grocery shopping.

Buy Biodegradable Whenever Possible

Conscious consumers will find that more and more items are biodegradable. From soaps and shampoos that you can use for outdoor showers to reusable bags and straws that you invariably collect at some point, biodegradable products make a huge difference.

Leave No Trace – The Best Policy For Pretty Much Everything Van Life

The seven principles of “Leave No Trace” have long since been instilled into most van life travelers’ minds since most of us began this journey out of a love for spending time outdoors. If you haven’t already familiarized yourself with the principles, it’s best to do so now.

Not only does it ensure that the plants and animals you may encounter during your time in the wild are not infringed upon, but also it bodes well for keeping the van life community on good terms with the rest of society.

Van life is notoriously associated with many of the opposite principles of Leave No Trace simply because one camper here or there disregarded the principles at one time or another. Even when overnight parking in places like Wal Mart or other big box stores, it is easy to see how a disregard for these principles has led to shutting down and reducing the number of options available to campers.

Whether in the wild or in the Wal Mart parking lot, leaving no trace means just that: make it so that nobody who comes after you ever knew you were there.

Wrapping Up Vanlife Sustainability

Is van life sustainable? Part of this answer depends on us as individuals and another part depends on us collectively as van dwellers. As individuals, we are responsible for our personal decisions and how they impact our own lives on the road.

There is nothing wrong with receiving a plastic bag at checkout from time to time. And plugging into shore power at a campground isn’t going to label you environmentally unfriendly.

But how we treat each other and the environment on the road collectively will have a big impact on whether van life is sustainable for all of us caught up in the movement. Trashing campsites on public lands and improperly disposing of human waste are two quick ways to divert from sustainable van life.

But in the long term, practicing principles of reducing your needs for power, water and consumable products are perhaps the best way to ensure that the world we know and love will remain open and free to explore for those of us who find ourselves addicted to van life and the incredible experiences it entails.


Author Bio

Christopher Harvey has lived out of his RV (a very big van!) with his wife and two cattle dogs since 2018 as they’ve wandered the North American continent from Alaska to Mexico. He is the owner of Called to Wander and Van Life Movement, two websites that provide information and inspiration for anyone seeking to pursue their best life on the road.