This is a kind of awful admission, but sometimes Benn and I just sit around and brag to each other about how great we have it. Before you judge, remember that we have to have something to keep us going — we live in a floating shed and aren’t even allowed to be in the same country for most of the year. Who can blame us for consoling ourselves with a little smug self-satisfaction?
When we’re having this conversation — which is basically once every two weeks or so, when we remember to force ourselves to be grateful for what we do have and not what we don’t have (you know, like the legal right to live together as married people), one of the ways we reassure ourselves is by going over our amazing living/travel setup. No, we don’t have a house — but who needs them? We have a boat and a camper van, which means we have two magical, moving houses, no mortgage, no grass to cut, and no neighbors.
Lately, a lot has been made out of “vanlife” (or, #vanlife, as the influencers call it), and I have to admit that the photographs and blogs and wildly colorful instagram accounts do make it look pretty attractive. But, then, there are also a gazillion sailing blogs (#boatlife, I guess?), which are no less fun nor wildly colorful and also have the same sort of exotic travel/no work/lots of swimwear appeal.
Now, if, by any chance, you are debating adopting either lifestyle (or both, as we have), you have come to the right place. Being the proud owners of both a boat and a van, we feel we are are singularly well-placed to compare the two. Before we start, there are a few points to take into consideration:
1) Operation: Turning the Wheel v. Harnessing the Wind
Both vans and boats have the number one, all-time advantage of being mobile.
Vans, however, are easier to operate. Most people know how to drive. Admittedly, this is not actually the case for us, as I don’t know how to drive manual transmission and our van is not automatic. This means that Benn does all of the driving, which basically means that the van is incredibly easy for me to operate, since my entire role in the affair consists of sitting there and repeating the Google Maps directions loud enough so Benn can hear them over the diesel engine.
Boats are a bit different. Our narrowboat was engine-powered and a lot simpler to operate than a car. Mooring was a bit difficult, but it seems that most narrowboaters could really care less about this aspect and are happy to bash into anything that stands in their way. Sailing is a more complicated affair. You actually have to understand a bit more about it than how to turn a key and start the engine. That being said, sailing is a whole lot more fun than driving.
2) Living Space: Shoving Things Under the Back Seat v. Stowage Lockers
Our van is a perky, friendly little 1992 Volkswagen T4, which we bought in Berlin before moving to the UK. We’ve driven her all around Germany, the UK, and Ireland (and a bit of Austria — she loved the Alps), but in her previous life she also did a fair bit of vacationing in Denmark, Norway, France and Italy. T4s are pretty common in Europe and make great camper vans. Vannie, as we call her, easily converts from a regular old 6-seater to a dining room for three to a living room for five to a cozy bedroom-on-wheels for two people and a husky.
All of that aside, she is way, way smaller than even the tiniest liveaboard sailboat. This is pretty much true of all vans. On vacation, it usually doesn’t matter so much — unless you’re on a surfing holiday and everything is sandy and water-laden and you have a wet dog with lots of hair and dirty paws who feels her rightful place is on the upholstered seat, not the floor, where wet dogs belong.
That being said, vans are expandable. You can easily set up an awning and cook outside or hang up wet clothes to dry. The designers of both camper vans and boats have also figured out all kinds of clever ways of creating storage spaces and modifying existing features and converting this into that, and people living in them long-term have generally successfully found strategies for dealing with the small space.
Nevertheless, either lifestyle requires downsizing; both force you to make a conscious decision to prioritize adventures over stuff. This isn’t an easy decision to make. While the minimalists encourage us to “give it all up” and embrace a live a life of mindful awareness and conscious consumerism, when choosing either vanlife or boat life you aren’t just donating a few boxes of 20-year old Christmas ornaments to Goodwill; you are also giving up really convenient stuff, like vacuum cleaners that remove pet hair and consistently operating toilets.
Which brings us to…
3) Hygiene: Random Gas Station Bathrooms v. Heads
The number one worst thing about living in a van is trying to find a place to use the bathroom in the middle of the night — particularly if you’re parked up in a city.
Unless you are at a campground, your urban bathroom options are: a) find a dark alleyway; b) use some kind of container in the van and throw it out in the morning, chamber pot style; or, c) keep a chemical toilet in your van and drive around with a stinking mini-port-a-lette in your backseat. None of these options are glamorous and either way they leave you feeling depressed about every life decision you have made that has led to that point.
This was particularly a problem when we camped for a few days in a residential area about 2 miles from York city center. It was a perfect place to park — dark, quiet, safe, and only a short bike ride to absolutely everything that makes York one of the most incredible cities in the entire world. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly a place with a lot of bathroom opportunities, and after drinking way more pints than usual, I found myself awake for a good part of the night, mentally listing the all of advantages of hotel rooms.
Boats have toilets, called heads. Sometimes the toilets are chemical (boats on inland waterways can’t really just flush sewage into the canals), but they are almost never located 2 feet away from your partner’s face. They also have showers, which is great.
4) Travel: Road Mileage v. Distance Made Good
It’s kind of obvious that you can get farther in a boat: you can’t exactly drive a van across the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, boats aren’t known for being fast. Our narrowboat, for instance, would take us from our marina in Isleham to the nearest town, Ely, in about 3 hours. Our van would take us there in 20 minutes. To get to the beach where we used to go surfing in Cornwall (and will go again if I am ever allowed to re-enter the UK), it takes about 6-7 hours, whereas it would take 2 weeks in our boat.
Vans can also travel to all kinds of wonderful, hidden inland places, like tiny villages, wild mountains, or back roads where tourists fear to tread. They’re not so good at islands, but when it comes to sightseeing, they’re a lot more versatile.
That being said, some of the most wonderful places in the world are on the coast, anyway, and, judging from photographs, most vanlifers seem to agree, as they are always hanging around the beach and taking pictures of the warm glow of the sunset reflected on the watery horizon. This might be because the whole vanlife movement developed out of surfing culture, but it does bear noting that, when it comes to surfing, a catamaran like Pas de Deux can actually moor up where the waves are breaking and has a view of the ocean wherever it’s parked.
5) Ecofriendliness: Lots of Fuel v. Not Lots of Fuel
This is kind of obvious, but vans use a lot of fuel, boats don’t use that much — and, if they’re powered only by wind, they don’t use any. Both are more eco-friendly than a house, however. What you use in fuel you make up for by not squandering all of the water and electricity that house-dwellers do. They can both be easily outfitted with solar panels which, providing the weather cooperates, satisfy all the phone-charging and refridgerator-powering needs a person could possibly have.
6) Cost and Maintenance: More Expensive than You’d Think v. See Ya Later, Savings Account!
Both boats and vans need constant repair, which means you should either be good at repairing things or travel with someone who is. For instance, there was the time that we went off-road in our decidedly not offroad van, just because we thought it was funny that Google had suggested that a muddy, pot-hole ridden dirt path was the quickest way to get to Dunwich from Southwold. The hilarity ended when we realized that we had knocked our exhaust pipe loose on one of the bumps, and Benn had to fix it to the undercarriage with duct tape in the parking lot of Leiston Abbey (well worth a visit, even if you don’t have repairs to do). Later, back at the marina, I had to help him install the new exhaust pipe, which was a strangely fun bonding experience.
Sailboats are a lot more expensive to repair than vans. They are also without a doubt more expensive to buy. Our boat cost about 6 times what our van cost and it was still insanely cheap. And, while vans do require upkeep and parts can be pricey, boat repairs are more essential: if there’s a hole in the body work of your van, it just looks a little busted; if there’s a hole in the hull of your boat, you sink.
7) Sacrifice and Inconvenience: Get Ready for a Life of Toil and Hardship
Whether you move onto a boat or into a van, be prepared to revert back to the life of a 19th century homesteader: handwashing everything, going without showers because you don’t have time to heat the ice cold water (or your heater explodes), foregoing all cleaning or cooking appliances, and obsessing about how much fuel you will need to heat your home over the winter. Everything you need to do for basic survival requires three times the amount of physical labor that it would in a house. Also, you will never, ever have the right shoes to go with the dress you want to wear on the one night you decide to go out and pretend that you have a normal life like other 30-somethings.
Boats do have room for a bit more stuff, however, and boat dwellers are usually able to pull off a slight air of respectability that might elude vanlifers; there are, after all, some normal people living on boats — not many, but they do exist.
In a recent New Yorker article, one former vanlifer tells the interviewer that a big part of living in a van involves “learning to live with discomfort.” I love this phrase. Life on a boat or in a van takes work. Some people think that we’ve somehow avoided paying our dues by adopting this lifestyle. We haven’t been through the purifying fires of the 9-5 job, the mortgage, or the credit card debt. We’ve entered early retirement in our mid-30s and that doesn’t seem quite fair to people who are waiting until age 65 to fill their life’s dream. What they fail to realize is that in choosing to live on the fringe, we are constantly paying our dues. There’s a lot we’ve had to forgo in order to live our strange, mobile lifestyle, and we have paid for every moment of joy or adventure or freedom by giving up, bit by bit, many of the conveniences that make modern life worthwhile: sufficient clothing, warmth, cleanliness, personal space, and the sort of respectability that goes along with having a regular job and a regular life.
Both vanlife and boatlife involve a conscious decision to prioritize life over comfort, to identify what it is that makes living worth the effort and to fling yourself wholeheartedly into its pursuit. It’s about exchanging the familiar for the unexpected, despite the sacrifices and inconveniences, simply because any minor hardships are preferable to a short life spent driven by fear or a false sense of duty or someone else’s values and beliefs. That also means accepting that there will be people who believe that you have failed because you have not found the level of professional success or financial security that signifies social worth these days. We’ve struggled long and hard to find a way of responding to people who object to our lifestyle , and so far the best we’ve come up with is: OH, WELL.
So, which is better? Well, it’s hard to say. We’d probably choose boats over vans, but in the end the decision is really a personal one. If you’re still hesitating, however, we’ve listed a few factors below that might help you make up your mind.
Glamour: BOATS. #vanlife might be trending on instagram, but there’s no escaping the timeless grandeur of life at sea.
Ease of Use: VANS. Obviously.
Affordability: VANS Although the cost of repairs, petrol, and campgrounds is still something to take into consideration, nothing can compare with the constant stream of cash you need to funnel into a boat.
Versatility: BOATS. Boats might be limited when it comes to inland travel, but you can always rent a car if you end up in a place you’d really like to explore.
Comfort: BOATS. They’re bigger. I mean, if the waters are choppy, you might get seasick, but nothing is perfect.
Dog-Friendliness (or Human/Dog Compatibility): TIE. Boats have cockpits where wet dogs can stay. They do not, however, have places where dogs can easily relieve themselves. Animals can also get seasick just like humans. On the other hand, what’s sweeter than a pup on a boat?
Fun: RESULTS INCONCLUSIVE. I don’t know, I guess that both are great. Whichever you choose, however, it’s sure to be preferable to a grueling workday at the office.
Now, gentle reader, which would you choose? Do you have any additional insights/complaints/input? Let us know in the comments below!