My time in San Francisco and the Bay Area has almost drawn to a close. I am currently in the process of installing solar panels on the roof of my van, and once that is done I will be setting out on the road once more.
Overall, my experience with living in the Bay Area for about three months has been positive. It is a progressive, and friendly community. The area is beautiful and the weather is fabulous.
However, I had to change up my routine quite a bit once I settled into this urban area. Essentially, I had to switch into “stealth” mode. Van-dwellers refer to this as “stealthing.” This is when you make your vehicle as inconspicuous as possible (many people will disguise their vans to look like contractor’s vans). They move their vehicles frequently and make it absolutely impossible for anyone to tell that there’s a human living in there.
Berkeley, fortunately, is van friendly. On almost every street you can find vans and RVs that almost certainly, probably, have active residents. And no one really seems to mind that much.
So for the past few months, I’ve been doing something in between full-on stealthing and my more casual “great outdoors” routine. And to be honest, pulling off the van life in an urban setting can be a pain in the ass. This experience has definitely showed me that I far prefer the open road and camping to urban stealthing.
When you’re in the great outdoors, it’s pretty easy to find a bathroom as soon as you need one. It’s not that simple when you’re parked in between rows of houses. Whenever I need a bathroom, I have to travel to get to one. It helps to be parked near a facility, but still, it’s an effort.
At first, it was a game of figuring out which businesses and public places I could access to use the bathroom, and whether or not they expected that I purchased something. As you can imagine, having to buy something every time you need to pee can get a little expensive.
In the end, the best solution was to acquire a membership with a local rock climbing gym so I could have access to bathrooms, showers, and running water (almost) whenever I needed. Also, being able to climb rocks whenever I feel like it is pretty awesome, too.
When I first arrived in the Bay Area, I stayed with a friend in San Francisco while I started my job search. I needed to move my van every two to four hours, depending on where I was parked. That got old very fast.
This is what ultimately motivated me to “live” in Berkeley and commute to work in San Francisco using the subway. Parking restrictions are looser, and I felt I could worry less about my van being broken into.
I eventually got the hang of it, but it is a bit tricky finding a parking spot in a safe neighborhood, with loose parking restrictions, and within reasonable distance to essential facilities.
Even though Berkeley is relatively van friendly, I didn’t feel comfortable with making myself completely obvious. This made it a bit difficult to cook like I usually would while camping — opening up my doors, firing up the stove, and scattering kitchen utensils everywhere.
So, to eat while not freaking out the locals, I was left with two options. I could drive to a park every time I wanted to cook, or I could eat out. I ended up eating out a lot, which gets expensive. This is where I ended up spending a lot of money over the last few months.
Not to mention, I miss cooking. Personally, taking time each day to plan, prepare and enjoy my food is meditative and part of a healthy lifestyle.
In addition to not being as open as I usually would be about the fact that I am living in a van, it’s also difficult to find privacy in an urban setting. Even when I’m in my van, cars and people are constantly passing by. I feel paranoid while changing my clothes. I might go to the park to read my book, but there’s probably a basketball game going on nearby or kids running around and shouting. I might go to a café to work on my computer for a bit, but I’ll be elbow-to-elbow with other café-goers and competing for outlets.
I desperately miss the dispersed camping lifestyle, where you can be out in the open but still alone. My night camping in the Santa Fe National Forest comes to mind, where I drove down a dirt road for nearly an hour to find a campsite and could have sworn I was the only human being for at least five miles. My only company was the jackrabbits and the gusts of wind sweeping through the small desert trees.
It’s definitely time for me to get back to that sort of place.