In News

5 things living in a van has taught me about my impact

By Lucy Harrington, WEN Guest Blogger

The van! Credit: Lucy Harrington

Ah, just what the doctor ordered…some unsolicited information on #vanlife. 

There is a lot that can be glorified about living in a van (as I’m sure you’ve seen on social media), but I’ve found it to be a challenging adjustment from living in an apartment. My daily habits have turned belly up – I’ve plunged into a life without the luxuries that my apartment afforded me.

What I’ve realized about losing the comfortable amenities is that they made it convenient to use as much water as I wanted, to dispose of trash without a second thought, and to consume to my heart’s content – all actions that increase my impact on the planet.

  • All waste has to go somewhere

Garbage, recycling, and everything in-between (I’m looking at you, plastic-coated paper containers) piles up in the van. When I lived in an apartment, it was as though I was casually dating my waste. I would walk it down the steps to the dumpster each week on trash day. And then it would disappear forever, replaced by the trash bag of next week. In the van, it’s as though we are in a serious (dare I say, toxic?) relationship. I’m constantly thinking – when will I see the next public bin to put the trash in? Will there be recycling? I sleep, eat, and brush my teeth within an arm’s reach of the trash. It spills out from under the sink if there hasn’t been an opportunity to dispose of it. There is no “out of sight, out of mind” luxury. The flipside is that this annoyance has pushed me to be more mindful of the amount of waste I generate.

  • No need to make waves dishwashing

Oh, dishwashing. America’s favorite pastime. In the van I can store 10 gallons of water at a time for drinking, washing, and the occasional bidet. This means that when dishwashing, I try to use as little water as possible because filling up the water tank and disposing of the dirty water is inconvenient. My dishwashing method has evolved from a few cups of water and soap, to a few spritz of water, to its final form: a silicone spatula. I wipe any food bits into the trash and voila! Now, would I serve this quasi-clean dish to a guest at a dinner party? Heck, no. But why would I be hosting a dinner party? I live in a van. 

  • Skipping showers is okay

If you told me last year I would be showering every 2-3 weeks while living in a van, I would have been horrified. The reality is I have to go out of my way to find a shower (which usually involves paying a fee). Thus, I’ve been compelled to extend the time between showers. Early on I craved a shower after just a few days, but as time has gone on, I’ve gotten used to the infrequent shower schedule and I’ve adapted to it. My hair won’t get as oily as quickly and my body won’t feel as dirty. Do I smell? I won’t answer that…but even if so, my smelliness would have resulted in saving money, time, and water.

  • Less is more

To downsize from living in an apartment, I sold off, donated, or gave away a lot of stuff. Then I did that purge again. And then one more time before I finally, just barely, fit everything in. Every item has its designated spot – like Tetris – and there’s absolutely no space for more. To maintain this state of harmony, I’ve curbed my consumption. No more impulse purchases of unnecessary items. The items I have are all the items I need. 

  • Shout out to solar power

This may be a surprise to absolutely no one in 2022, but solar power is incredible! The solar panels on top of the van completely power all my daily energy needs – including charging my phone, computer, refrigerator, etc. As I’m typing this, my computer is running off of solar power. How cool is that? Solar is efficient, reliable, and generates more than enough power than I need for a day.

View of the Sierra Nevada mountains from the inside of the van. Credit: Lucy Harrington

Living in a van has pushed me to change my habits, and in turn, I’ve reduced my impact on the earth. I generate less waste, I use less water, I consume less, and I primarily use renewable energy. But wait…is th

at a large-eared, long-trunk, terrestrial mammal I see? The elephant in the room is that I drive more. I’ve driven more than I ever have. Combining my house with my car means that for every errand I run, I’m bringing the 15mpg gas guzzler with me.

 Whenever I eventually move back into an apartment. I’ll remember the lessons I learned from this time living in a van. Primarily – whether it’s obvious to me or hidden away by modern conveniences, I have an impact on this planet. And more optimistically, I have the capability to reduce that impact. 



Bio: Lucy Harrington is gainfully unemployed, living in a van, rock climbing, and taking time to enjoy the natural world. She is passionate about climate change action, nature-based climate solutions, and promoting equity. She recently worked as a research analyst at the sustainability consultancy, GlobeScan, in San Francisco. Feel free to reach out to her to connect, discuss a blog post, or just chat on LinkedIn.