Staying healthy in vanlife is one of the most important things you can do. In my opinion, this starts by looking at your vanlife mental health. For Shawn and I, our journey did not start out with the best vanlife mental health. We had to learn the hard way how to maintain happiness on the road. I hope you can learn from us and take comfort in knowing we all struggle no matter how beautiful the view may seem.
Our Idea of Vanlife
Traveling across the country in our self-converted van has been a dream for years now. We have skipped trips, family events, nights out on the town, and even spent spare time watching YouTube videos on Van Life. There weren’t many moments that were not consumed in this Van Life dream.
“Where we would go?” “How would it feel?” “What would we see?”; all these things we kept safely in our hearts to keep us warm when times were tough or when things weren’t going our way.
We imagined days filled with beautiful views, laughs, and feeling free.
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Our Vanlife Reality: An Example from Maine
This vanlife idea had built up a bit of pressure in my heart and head. I didn’t know it was happening until we hit Portland, Maine in the Fall of 2018, our first few months in the van. Combined with weeks of overcast weather and cabin fever due to the rain I began to develop anxiety.
All of these forms came crashing down on me during our time in Maine. We had taken a break from being a tourist and simply decided to work by setting ourselves in the most boring places. We switched between the Whole Foods and Planet Fitness Parking lots. We spent hours of each day attempting to get work done and not go completely stir crazy as it rained buckets outside which forbade us from going on a simple walk to clear our heads.
When it came time to go exploring, it was almost impossible for me to make a decision. Do we get out of Portland? Do we keep going North to Acadia to explore? Will we even like it? Is it a waste of time and gas? We have friends and family waiting on us in other places, why would we be so selfish and continue further away from them? All the while thoughts of FOMO (fear of missing out), not living my life, not “being in the moment”, also circled my head and drove me absolutely insane.
I did have moments of peace when we finally had a few hours to go outside and hike. It would clear my head and squelch the extreme nausea in my stomach and loud annoying voices in my head.
Somehow we managed to make it to Acadia National Park despite feelings of guilt. I barreled through, insisting we pay for a parking spot inside the park as I truly wanted the experience. We had been spending our time in parking lots and I for one was over it. I needed some star gazing and time in nature.
Despite knowing it was going to rain it didn’t quite dawn on me that it meant star-gazing was also out. That night, we had anxiety-riddled Brie and an annoyed Shawn who didn’t want to blow the budget on a $15 camping spot that was next to a bunch of other loud campers. It wasn’t exactly our perfect retreat as I had dreamed. Needless to say, we argued and grumbled our way through most of the night until morning.
Exploring Acadia National Park
The next morning we woke up ready to enjoy the day in nature. Acadia National Park was gorgeous, it rained of course but we got out anyway. We went on short excursions and saw most of the park from our van and saw the pit stops when possible.
However, by the middle of the day, we were over being in the van and were considering leaving the park. Shawn, I was convinced, believed the trip was a waste and money had been spent where it shouldn’t have been. I was in distress because I felt I had failed and we were leaving without truly experiencing the park. My stomach and mind rattled back and forth between wanting to be ambitious by finding a great hike and simply relieved we were giving up and heading out.
I finally had a moment of sadness and Shawn could finally feel it. He is great like that, he may be having his own problems flying through his head but most often he stops to see what he can do to help me sort through my own anxieties. We started to look for hikes but as we knew they were all too intense to take Milo on. I gave up again feeling defeated.
As we were driving through the park there was a small lake with a trail around it. Shawn spotted it and stopped to check it out. It was barely misting and it would be a welcome place to let Milo out and possibly have some kind of adventure before leaving. As we walked out, I noticed a trail across the road and decided it look more fun than a typical walk around the water.
There were stairs at the bottom and so I picked Milo up and began my ascent up the mountain.
It was like stepping into a Fall dream. There were trees on both sides of the trail covered in bright orange leaves, half still on the trees and the other half laid out on the ground as a sort of welcome to hikers. The trees converged overhead leaving only the views of fall ahead and above.
As we continued on, the trail quickly got steep and slippery. Despite the challenge, we carried on. We picked Milo up and decided to see this adventure through. The trail opened up halfway through to a beautiful rocky cliff that had views of the winding road and rolling hills covered in orange and dark green trees.
The rain became heavy and within minutes all three of us were soaked, well soaked but uplifted. A weight had been eliminated from our shoulders, we had gotten past our anxieties and own mind space to FINALLY go on the adventure we craved. We saw a porcupine, enjoyed the beautiful cliff views and took in the moment. We FINALLY felt free. We felt in the moment and we’re enjoying the beautiful sites that Acadia had to offer.
This was the feeling I had been searching for and even longing for. The freedom of choice, to go on a hike simply because we needed it. Quenching that thirst for adventure right when you need it. THIS was why we started Van Life. To live in the moment and see every part of the country that we so desired.
It was a beautiful moment, laughing on top of the cold mountain with rain-soaked down jackets and soppy wet hair. It’s one of those moments that you freeze in your mind, something to hold on to when things get tough again or when you simply don’t have the same freedoms. It’s a moment we would have missed, had we not decided to get past our own thoughts and decided to take action. Pull the van over, and do something about our misery.
I could lie to you and say things have been incredible since then. Every moment laced with some layer of joy and laughter, but that’s not life and it’s definitely not my life. It’s ok though, we are figuring it all out, just like everyone else. Taking the bad moments with the joyous moments and we are both extremely grateful that we have the opportunity to experience every moment as they are. My hope is that you can learn from our story and possibly avoid having unrealistic ideas about vanlife and what your life will look like on the road.
6 Tips on Managing Your Own Mental Health in Vanlife
It’s so important to set a tone for health in vanlife. It can be difficult to manage a routine but it’s important you keep trying. Here are some tips for staying healthy and happy so you can manage your vanlife mental health.
1. Set & Maintain A Daily Routine
It can be so easy to let your days run right into the other. Every day is a new day and often you are in a new place or have different things to do. Some days you are out in nature and can relax while at other times you wake up in a parking lot and need to move on quickly. It’s important that you try and set up some kind of routine that stays the same every day no matter what it looks like. This can be as simple as accomplishing a few things; meditating, journaling, and getting outside for 20 minutes a day. Set these goals every day so you know you are maintaining this vanlife routine every day.
2. Try Meditation or Journaling
A great example as I mentioned above for maintaining a routine is to practice meditation and/or journaling. It doesn’t have to be an hour practice, start with five minutes each morning meditating. Use the Headspace app, youtube, or simply set a timer for 5 minutes. When I wake each morning I do my best to journal using the My Best Self Journal. It takes about 5-10 minutes tops every morning and the same each evening. I do it every day, whether it’s a weekend or not. It helps me to feel in control of my days.
3. Get Out of the Van
Something that can be difficult in the colder months is reminding yourself to get out of the van. So many people love their vans, and I am one of them. My van is my retreat, my oasis. So in the winter when I am prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder it is so easy to want to stay holed up. Even if it’s raining, cold, or windy, it’s so important to get out of the van. If it’s too cold or rainy then go to stores and simply walk around. I recommend Lowe’s or Home Depot if you have pets. Get everyone out of the van and take a 30-minute break to clear your head. Life may look different when you return. When the weather is nicer, set a timer and go take a walk every few hours.
If you don’t have pets then get to the coffee shop, library, gym or anywhere else every day. Get yourself out of the van.
4. Consider Therapy
In our vanlife journey, we have lost two dogs. Two very very important parts of our family. It was devastating and completely broke us both down. Grief is not easy and living in a van is not going to solve these issues that your mind battles, often it can only make you come face to face with it. This is why I always recommend therapy. There are so many therapists that offer video calls and even apps that you can text your therapist. If you have insurance then therapy is probably much more affordable than you are expecting often only your $15-40 co-pay. It’s a small price to pay for relief. Buzzfeed put together a list of options for finding affordable or free therapy.
5. Go on Daily Walks
I love walking, it always helps me to feel better and my mind is so much more clear after a walk. Make sure you are taking walks, every day! Get up and get to walking. Whether it’s downtown, park trail, or on a hike there are so many opportunities for a walk when you are a vanlifer. If you can only do one of these things for your vanlife mental health then I recommend getting out and going for a walk!
Why is it so easy to do the things that hold us back but sometimes so difficult to do the things that help us flourish? Exercise is so often one of those things and I am not excluded from this. Chances are a vanlifer you have a Planet Fitness membership. If you do, use it! Not just for a shower but use it as a chance to exercise. If you don’t have a gym membership, then get outside and do 30 minutes of yoga, go running, or utilize a local park as a gym. If you are not able-bodied then look into other ways to get exercise. It’s so important to move as much as possible.
I hope these vanlife mental health tips enable you to have a happy vanlife journey. Please let me know if there is ever anything I can do to help!