A Guide to Australia Van Life on a Budget

The time we lived in our van in Australia was undoubtedly one of the best times of our lives.

Vanlife

Yes, vanlife does come with it’s challenges – but for us the freedom of being able to drive wherever we wanted, and find a new place to park our tiny home every night, surrounded by nature, was the best feeling in the world. Spending days exploring mountains, or lazing around on the insane Aussie beaches – then in the evening setting up outside the van, cooking on our camp stove with a few drinks and watching the sun go down in a brand new place.

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However, to enjoy all of this… getting set up in a van was definitely a little testing at times! Choosing a van was one of the most challenging parts, as was packing our life up into it and getting ready to hit the road, as it’s hard to know exactly what you’ll need and what’s unnecessary. We wanted to share a handy guide to getting you ready to hit the road, in the hope what we’ve learnt along the way will make your adventures all the more amazing.

Choosing Your Van

When we first thought about getting a van in Australia we had plans of being able to go completely off the grid like we had seen in so many #vanlife posts. We had visions of solar power, a fridge, a beautiful wooden interior, all of it. When we started budgeting we realised just how expensive this can be. On top of this, we had only moved to Australia about 4 months before, we didn’t have anywhere to convert a van (which we had hoped to do), access to any tools, or know or anywhere to get materials cheaply (and if you want to buy a lot of this stuff from hardware shops like Bunnings, it isn’t cheap). We also knew we may only have our van for about 8 months… so did this really warrant spending $10,000+ for the kind of set up we had imagined?

After a lot of research we realised that we could actually get a decent van with a bed in the back and a lot of space for less than half the price. That extra money allowed us to travel for longer before we next needed to work… and that freedom was the whole point of travelling in a van anyway. But if you’re planning to be in your van for longer or you have more cash to spare, then there’s nothing wrong with going for something more kitted out.

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We should also mention that if you’re doing a short-ish trip you might even want to consider renting, use websites like Vroomvroomvroom to compare which is cheapest. This way you’ll get a state of the art van and lots of security with it, without having to worry about selling it at the end or having to spend money on repairs for a short trip.

If you are going to buy, the places we would recommend looking are:

  • Facebook Marketplace – This is where we got our van in the end. This is a really popular way of buying/selling in Australia and we’d definitely recommend it.
  • Facebook Groups – Theres also lots of van/car and buy sell swap facebook groups that are useful, for example (Campervan Sales Australia).
  • Gumtree
  • Ebay 

Key things that you need:

  • Somewhere to sleep: We bought a van with a bed that had been built to fit perfectly, with loads of storage space below and plenty of space to sit upright and chill. However, if you do need to build something, Pinterest is a great place to start for design ideas and how-tos. Another option is getting a roof tent, some friends of ours had them and they seemed pretty good.
  • Stuff to cook & eat with: K-mart/Target/Big W are the best (seriously we loved shopping there). Also Marketplace and buy/sell groups could come in handy too. We went for a simple set up of a single camp hob, 1 pot, 1 big frying pan, a couple of plates, bowls etc. We didn’t have a kitchen built into our van, so every night we set up outside and just took everything we needed out, which we loved. With that in mind other great buys are camp chairs and a folding table as well as a good lamp or two. (And also don’t use cooking equipment inside your van unless you have the proper ventilation!)
  • Rego – You’ll receive the current registration papers when you buy your van and in most states you’ll need to go to a service center to switch this over from the previous owner, or you’ll be fined. It’s worth checking the exact rules for the state you’re in as they all have different rules.
  • Lots of water. You’re in Australia. And you’d be surprised sometimes at how far you can drive without finding a shop/somewhere to get water. We picked up a 10L water tank with a tap from Bunnings that we could refill along the way (also a great way to reduce plastic waste!)
  • Good insurance/breakdown cover – there’s a really bad misconception going around backpackers in Australia that you automatically have 3rd party insurance with your rego. Do not believe this! All you will be covered for with this is 3rd party medical! You might be driving a $4,000 van/car, but if you hit a Ferrari you will be responsible for the repair costs if the crash is your fault. We went with NRMA and the peace of mind of having fully comp insurance was so worth the amount we paid for it (about $75 a month). We met a backpacker who skidded into another car in the rain and had to pay almost $10,000 because they didn’t have insurance.
  • Tools – Ok so we feel kind of like frauds saying this as we actually didn’t really have everything we needed… but we definitely should have! Twice we killed the battery and had to borrow someone’s jump leads when we should have had our own.
  • A space you enjoy. Our van wasn’t a fancy set up, just a bed in the back of a van with a huge chest that doubled as a table, space to move around, and as a bunch of sliding and hanging storage. But we loved it so much and we made sure it felt so cosy and super comfortable in there. We made sure to get a Long Wheel Base van so that we both had a bit of extra room so we could sit up in bed and (this made so much difference) and had loads of floor space even after the bed was in, and we spent a little money in K-mart/Target getting nice bedding, extra pillows, fairy lights, and other bits to make the van feel homely. Vanlife IS going to be stressful at times, but this is massively reduced if you’re comfortable in your van.
  • Storage – Organising your van will make it a lot nicer! We had a nice wooden k-mart chest accessible in the van, as well as storage boxes and our suit cases under the bed that were easily accessible when we needed them.
  • Somewhere to keep food cool – Again, we would have loved to have a fridge, but for our budget this wasn’t really possible. We got an esky, and refilled the ice every few days. Even though we ate a lot of long life food, it was nice to be able to keep veggies and drinks cool for a few days.

 

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And a few things that are nice to have:

  • Awning – we already had awning on our van and we loved it so much! Because we didn’t have a proper inside set up having the awning gave us a second living area even in the beating sun, or rain (we weren’t actually meant to have the awning out in the rain but luckily it was sturdy!)
  • Camping Chairs & a table (we went a while without these, but having a comfy place to chill, and a good place to cook and eat make it a whole lot nicer). Again, you can buy these so cheaply from K-mart
  • Charging facilities – if you do have a second battery/solar set up then you’ll be able to charge way more. We got a USB charger for the cigarette lighter port in the van, and already had a few power banks from travelling, while we drove we’d make sure to charge our phones and power banks up. We had friends that had devices to charge their laptops/cameras etc from the cigarette lighter while driving. But we just charged our stuff up at paid campsites/coffee shops/McDonalds. It was a bit annoying, but vanlife made it sooo worth it, and for the amount of time we were in the van it definitely seemed worth paying the odd $3 for a coffee (or 50c for a McDonald’s ice cream :P) over a lot more for a second battery and inverter setup in the van.
  • Good curtains – we made our own using a really thick material from Spotlight. It made it a lot easier to get a lie in when we needed to, and meant that we were a able to stealth camp on residential streets (see more info on this below).
  • Lights – this will make it much nicer in the evening. We had lots of fairy lights in our van (some that we took outside at night), and camp lights. This was essential to do anything in the evening (especially cooking).

 

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Camping

Another thing you need to bear in mind is that sometimes it can be quite tricky to find somewhere free (or cheap) to sleep. Depending on what state you’re in the laws change – for instance, in Queensland it is illegal to sleep in your car. But in NSW it is technically legal, so unless you’re causing a disturbance or annoying residents by doing anything weird like trying to cook in the street, you’re usually fine (we parked and slept in Bondi and Coogee in Sydney and had no issues). However, different shire’s have different rules, for instance Byron Bay is one of the places it is really not recommended to sleep in your van on the street, as they have banned it and the police are really strict, and in Sydney it’s not allowed within a certain distance of popular beaches. They have signs up everywhere though, so you should easily be able to tell. Our main tip when planning to camp on the street is to call the local council and ask what their rules are.

Camping Apps are so helpful! These will tell you where you can sleep (you can filter this by free camps, cheap camps, and the more expensive caravan pars). They also show you where you can shower, get drinking water etc. The most popular one is probably WikiCamps, which is about 5 dollars but so worth it. We also used Spaceships a lot, which is free, still has quite a lot of info and is very easy to use. We’d recommend using multiple apps as they all seem to have some camp spots that are missing from others.

We generally did a mix or free and paid, there are lots of ‘rest-stops’ which are free places you can sleep (often on motorways). These can be quite nice or sometimes quite grimey, but they’re great places to crash for a night and save some money. We also spent up to $30 some night on caravan parks – these are in better locations, have MUCH nicer facilities, fridges, bbqs, kitchen areas, washing facilities. Even if you’re on major budget we’d still suggest using them sometimes! With two of you even the most expensive ones are about half the price of a hostel, so you’re still saving loads. A lot of the time it gives you such a nice experience, and is basically essential in busier places like Noosa, Byron Bay & the Gold Coast.

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Obviously this guide is for a very simple, back to basics vanlife experience. Which was perfect for us. We didn’t mind not having a fridge, and quite liked sitting outside or on our bed. Occasionally having our laptops die and having to go without for a night wasn’t the worst thing in the world either (stargazing is unreal in Australia once you get away from the cities… much better than any Netflix show). We think we’ve covered all of the basics you need to get out and about. A tip we saw online was just to get the basics and get out there and see what you need – this is what we did and worked so well for us! We got the things we knew we needed and figured it out along the way – a lot of the things we almost bought before we left, we’re so glad we didn’t as we wouldn’t have needed them! Plus you will pass so many Targets/Bunnings/K-Mart’s on the motorways. So our advice would be just to get out there and have fun – it was one of the best times of our lives and we know it will be for you too!

We’re going to be writing more blogs all about our favourite parts of Australia, and camping spots, so check back soon for more!

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