Living In A Van – 8 Problems & Solutions | First Days of Vanlife

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Living In A Van - first 30 days

There are 8 problems of living in a van that we have discovered in our first month of vanlife. Maybe they are just specific to us, but I am guessing they are not.

We have been living in a van for 30 days now and have started to finally feel like we understand what it means to live the vanlife full time. We found some problems we didn’t expect before we moved into our van.

Maybe there will be more and if there are, I will share them in an update post, but the ones that surfaced in this first month are:

1. Icky Smells

Do camper van (RV) toilets smell? If not managed properly, they can smell really bad. It’s not so surprising really, but it can be rather unpleasant. It generally only happens if you don’t manage the toilet properly. You don’t want to have to get used to a van toilet that smells bad, so I have made some notes here for you to help you never have to! - Van Bathroom - Problems of living in a vanThere are simple things you can do to make your van toilet less smelly. 

First up, those nasty smells are coming from anaerobic bacteria, they came from your tummy, and they produce hydrogen sulfide, that all-too-familiar methane smell. they put the “pew” in Poo!

You can use a chemical based treatment, but it will not be very effective. We learnt this the hard way!

Aerobic Toilet treatment (ECO) is the way to go. It’s by far and away the best to use aerobic bacteria-based treatments. Anerobic bacteria thrive in environments with little to no oxygen and aerobic bacteria thrive in oxygen-rich environments, places like your holding tanks. If you didn’t know, when you use a portable toilet, you need 2 things in it, other than your jobbies (poop), before it will work properly. So don’t pooping and peeing in  it before you put in 1) some water and 2) some toilet treatment. Without them you may as well poo in a bucket and leave it open in the corner, it will smell the same or even worse.

Good Treatments

There are some really good products available that work wonders. Here are a couple that we can now recommend through personal experience

MOST CONVENIENT (but a tad expensive)
Happy Campers Organic RV Holding Tank Treatment – Medium Jar, 40 Treatments for RV, Marine, Camping, Portable Toilets

CHEAP, but really good
Elsan Organic Toilet Fluid for Motorhomes 2 L – Green

The process of using a cassette toilet (that’s what we have) goes like this:

  1. Put about 2 litres of water into the tank before you start using it.
  2. Add a dose of the toilet treatment, as specified on the packaging
  3. Give it a jiggle, so it’s properly mixed together

You can now use the toilet normally, we generally flush with about 1 litre of water per use.

Some Other Good Practises
  • Leave 1cm of water in the bowl when you aren’t driving (it’s easy enough to do, just close it when you stop the flush and the water around the bowl will end up at the bottom)
  • We keep the hatch closed, even when doing No 1’s and open it only while flushing. This minimises the chance of the smell coming out of the toilet.
  • I suggest opening the hatch when you do a No 2 and aiming well (this comes with practice, to reduce ‘drag-age’ around the opening). The less to clean off the easier. Again, use about 1 litre of water.
  • Use roadside toilets wherever possible, reduce the workload on your system. Bushes are great places to pee for the boys!
  • Don’t be shy to use a friends toilet (this goes for showers too) generally it is a one-off thing and most people are totally cool with it.
  • If you’re frequenting campgrounds, always use their toilets.
  • If you use your RV/van toilet a lot, empty it regularly, (for us this can mean daily with all the kids, sometimes morning and night) but when it isn’t filled up too fast it can get a good bacterial environment going and not smell at all. This might sound a bit yucky, but i have found that when it is well balanced, it helps to leave a bit of the old water in the help kickstart the new water. but only if you have not emptied it too recently

That’s cpretty much it for the first of the 8 problems of living in a van

2. Finding Water

One other big problem of living in a van for us has been finding water to fill our tank. At least in Northern Europe and Russia, this has been a problem for us. Petrol stations in this part of the world generally don’t have taps you can use.

We discovered that there are water well pumps all over Russia and we could locate them with an app called 2GIS. The best part is the water is from the ground and is really good quality!

A Good Old Garden Hose

Most of the time you will be able to use your hose and it pays to have a couple that you can join together with the normal plastic fitting of the common garden variety and one of those male to male connectors to join them. It’s also good to have a  rubber hose fitting suitable for slipping over a tap with no thread on it so you have more options for collecting water. This type can be used to slip over a kitchen tap for instance and run the hose out of a window.

No Taps top be Found

But there will be times when there are no taps to be found. You’ll have to use a watering or jerry can and then just fill it at any basin you can find. You will generally have to do 10 or so trips back and forth from the basin to the camper van, but at least you’ll have water and you will really appreciate your water too!

Here is a good one from Yellowstone

Yellowstone 10 Litre Jerrycan

There are also collapsible containers that are really convenient because you can store them away in a much smaller space when you are not using them, which is most of the time. They come in handy if you need a water container for any other reason.


Use a Filter

We strongly recommend using at least a filter jug for the water you will be drinking or better still adding a filter after your pump so itis all filtered properly. in some countries, there have been village water wells or even a big tap on the side of the road in the middle of a village or suburb there. Central Europe is awesome in this way as it feels like there is running water everywhere.

Whale makes a great one that is the in-line style

Whale WF1230 Aqua Source Carbon Water Filter-White, 3/8 Inch

3. Finding Places to dump the dirty water

This has probably been our biggest issue, thankfully, and once you are in the countryside, there are public toilets in the roadside stops and bus stops  too and they have been our saviour. They can be rather irksome inside, but it is what it is and after the first few times, you will get used to doing it and will get good and getting in and out fast. It’s just one of those things that isn’t so great about living in a van

The Black Water

One thing you will have to deal with is the irksome feeling of walking around with a big box filled with pee and poo, I personally hate the process, but there is little to no way of getting around it. The other thing is when you do pour it out, don’t try to do it too fast, especially if you are in a toilet cubicle. It can really get a splash up and you really don’t want that!

Despite all this, I am glad we have a cassette style toilet rather than the built in type. It is much easier finding places to ‘dump’ it with a cassette than the larger fixed tanks now common in the bigger camper vans.

Special note: there is a pressure release button on the cassette that makes emptying it so much less difficult, use it!

To help you feel a bit less conspicuous get yourself a carry bag for the cassette.

Maypole MP6622 Wastemaster and Wastehog Storage Bag

The Grey Water

This can be a big issue, if you can’t find any of the very convenient dumping bays so common on the highways of central and southern Europe and scattered in other parts of the world.

Too often we have had little choice but to eject our waste water on the side of the highway when we were traveling in Russia, where there are basically no facilities provided for this waste.

We make sure to use only eco-detergents and so our grey water is pretty harmless, if a little smally sometimes due to some food waste in it from dish washing, but we make sure to really scrap the plates etc clean as thios little bits get stuck far more easily in the waste pipes of a van than they do in normal household pipes.

4. Fitting all our Stuff

While our van is so much bigger than the car was, it is surprising how much we could fit in the car compared to the van… so you might find yourself needing to trim back on what you feel is absolutely essential to have with you, we sure did. We keep enough clothes to go a week without washing, but that’s pretty much our limit.

Roof Racks

I would love to have a roof rack in some ways and glad we don’t in others. The more weight up top the more sway in the van and it can be very uncomfortable when there is too much weight up top.

A bike rack or box

These attach to the back of the van and the best ones are attached to the van’s chassis. For additional storage, this will work much better, it will keep the weight lower and let you bring more with you, without having to store it inside the camper van.

Be wary of the racks that are bolted to the back wall of the van, they are not strong, not at all and you will over pack it and could end up with it and everything you put on it landing on the highway while you keep driving on!

5. Finding things

Even though the space is much smaller, it is incredible how easy it is to lose stuff. Or at least not remember where you put it. So really concentrate on where you are putting stuff when you are putting it there and this will help.

Also make sure you give everything a home, a place where you always put it, over time you won’t have to look for anything because you will know exactly where it is. Keep the things you use often very handy and store the other stuff.

DON’T get lazy putting things away, you will be annoyed with yourself later if you do.

6. Missing a step

It turns out that it is essential to store stuff properly before each drive. I know it sounds obvious, but you can’t imagine how much stuff will shift around when you start driving.

Especially if the road is a bumpy one. So make a list for packing up to drive and unpacking after your drive. This will save you from forgetting to turn the gas system for the fridge on or off when you shift from driving to parking. Or help you remember to put on or take off the vent covers.

There are a ton of little things that are too easy to forget a step if you don’t have a list. Eventually, you will memorize it, but the list will help that time come sooner and might save you breaking or forgetting something as you get used to your new routine.

7. Moving around (Bumping into Each Other)

As I sit here and write this, I have cuts and scratches healing still. All part of living in a van i guess.

The spaces are much smaller and you are going to tread on each other. You wil get in each other’s way and bump your head and scratch your arms and legs and get bruises. At least at first, but you will get batter at navigating around each other.

8. The Need to Drive Smoothly

We were used to zipping down the highway of Europe at a blazing 130km/h. Through Germany, it could be as high as 200km/h, the stability of our VW Touran let us do this easily. It was the car before our van.

Now 100km is pushing our old girl too hard and she feels much happier at 80-90km/h. You need to be very smooth in your driving or end up with stuff everywhere when you arrive. It’s too easy to break stuff by not driving smoothly. Luckily we are driving across Russia right now, so 90km/h is the norm

Our Silent 9th problem

Well there is a silent 9th thing about living in a van that I should mention. This one is a matter of space too, but it is more about some emotional space and head space. It’s tricky having some time out when you are all living in such a small space… It’s important to take some time for yourself ona regular basis and pretty much whenever you can.

Don’t do everything together. Take turns getting the laundry done or going to the supermarket… or hitting the playground. Time to yourselves is essential for living in a van happlily. It’s wonderful to have a break from each other out of the van. But equally good to have it in the van. You can ponder some changes you might want to make. You can do a few repairs or just make a tea and think about things, anything really!

That’s it for the 8 problems of living in a van. The ones that we have figured out in the first month of life on the road.

Living In A Van - 8 Problems & Solutions | First Days of Vanlife
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Living In A Van - 8 Problems & Solutions | First Days of Vanlife
Problems we didn't expect before we moved into our van. There are 8 problems of living in a van that we have discovered in our first month.
Eric Roberts
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MyTraveling Life
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