aussie #vanlife free camping: a guide to working remote and not paying rent
Here I am, sitting at my favourite pub in Melbourne drinking an expensive pint of craft beer and not really caring that much about the cost that much because so far this month because I've spent a grand total of $0 on rent. I'm half a pint into authoring this blog post, and, for the first time in an extremely long time, I'll likely have quite a few (TM) because it's nice to treat yourself from time to time and this blog post is long overdue.
Money is strange with this lifestyle - how you look at and allocate money is just so completely different. An expensive taxi trip home won't be required because I can walk home from the brewery because home is where you park it. Tonight my house is parked just outside of the local Jarcar as tomorrow I need to pick up a multi-meter to figure out why the fan in the composting toilet isn't working.
Adjusting to this lifestyle hasn't been easy - truth be told it has taken a full year of learning through failure what is about to be shared with you. I'm three years in on the journey of #vanlife - a full year was spent on construction and it has taken another year on top of this living the nomadic lifestyle before I've become comfortable.
It's not an easy life, but it's a smart one. As we head into the inevitable recession that is ahead of us a great deal of Australians are now struggling to find affordable housing.
Last year a $400-a-month single room that had been retrofitted with a shower went viral and highlights the absurdity of the situation aka why the younger generation is screaming bloody murder. Australia isn't quite at the "crackshack or mansion" phase that Vancouver went through but we are close...
Since then the housing crisis in Australia has only gotten worse...
Anyway, people still routinely ask me how long I see myself working from a van even though I've covered this question in the blog post below which breaks down the math and logic of why deploying $912,382 in capital into a single asset class as your sole investment is a terrible idea.
Since authoring above there have been some pretty major updates that I haven't shared here yet - I've secured a parcel of land on which I'll be building a forever home for my children and myself. Whilst the DA isn't in yet as I'm still chewing on details of the design here is a sneak preview of what I've been considering if I build a house...
If life progresses as planned, then I'm going to be building on below. Would you believe the total cost for 2HA of land with these breathtaking water views and sunsets/sunrises was $170,000 AUD? Again, there are so many better choices than buying a place in Sydney if you think outside of the box.
If like many Australians, you have been feeling helpless on the topic of housing I hope above gives you some inspiration. Let's face it, thanks to the pandemic our country remains divided between those who can work remotely (the laptop class) and those who cannot.
If you currently have the ability to work remotely then you should hunt and grab these opportunities whilst they still exist because they won't last long as the younger internet native generations - who will work remotely by default - will enter the workforce and likely do what I've done.
Until the house is complete I've been working remotely from my house on wheels and being actively involved as a father in my children's lives - as much as humanly possible - hopping in and out of Sydney to care for them and taking them on more grand adventures around Australia during school holidays. It would be so easy to go full nomad and do big trips around Australia (or the world) without them for extended periods of time but that would not right (tm) as kids need fathers in their lives. Every dollar I don't spend on rent is one that can be reinvested back into my kids lives - both short-term (providing for them / enabling weekend quality time / nice holidays) and long-term (building them a house).
So here's a breakdown of everything I've learned about this lifestyle...
Fit in. I can't believe I need to say this but it's important to fit in. Always be mindful that people will treat you differently if they perceive you as a visitor/traveler that is freecamping. If you are in the country then some steelys and old jeans will go along way. If you are in the city then wear nice shoes, and clean clothes and look the part. If you are in the outer suburbs of a city then a dirty af flouro (ps. never wear a shiny vest) is a fantastic way to disappear.
The best way to prepare for this lifestyle is to start on the journey towards being a prepper. If you aren't familiar with the topic then below is a good introduction to the topic.
Figuring out what to pack is something that is incredibly personal and is best learned through experience. After many iterations of overpacking and underpacking I've settled on these items as my "must have":
- My compositing toilet.
- A full set of DeWALT power-tools - including a reciprocating saw (with plenty of metal and wood blades) and bolt cutters for emergency situations.
- A Hultafors Hultån Hatchet.
- 4WD recovery skids, snatch straps and an assortment of towing accessories, spare water and diesel.
- A Honda 2200 watt 240v EU2200i generator and spare petrol jerrycan.
- A OZtent RS-1 Series II Swag + Oztent RS-1S King Single Stretcher.
- A OZtent Screen House Hex.
- Two Helinox Chair One XL's, a Helinox Savanna chair and a Helinox Table One.
- A Coleman Powerhouse 2 Burner Dual Fuel Stove, bottle of shellite and a cast iron pan.
- An Instant Pot Duo 3L pressure cooker (only 700watts during the first couple of minutes!)
- Leather gloves to reduce burn injuries when working with fireplaces and BBQs.
- Firestarters, waterproof matches and ciggie lighters which are all kept separate from each other.
There are BBQs literally everywhere in Australia. If you are cooking meat, pull it out of the freezer in the morning, whack it on the dashboard and you'll have an early dinner in no time at all.
If you are after inspiration then "Xtreme Gourmet: High Energy Light Weight Recipes for Outdoor Enthusiasts by Sonya Muhlsimmer" is very good (tm). It is the only cookbook that you will need and the recipes are tasty af.
Safety truly is never guaranteed in life but situational risks related to vanlife can be mitigated:
- If something doesn't feel right then move on. The advantage of a portable lifestyle is that it is portable. If you get a funny feeling, then act upon it by moving on.
- Always park your vehicle towards the exit so you can just drive away.
In my travels I've never come across anything that made me feel unsafe however I'm not a woman...
Consider sharing your location with friends and family, investing in an Apple Watch with LTE, installing a SPOT Trace satellite GPS tracker on your van and stuffing Apple Airtags inside of all your high-value items.
Whatever multi-purpose tools you choose to keep around for self-defence, you should be planning to use the tool in your van, so plan accordingly. If someone is attempting to murder you, legality is the last thing that should be on your worry list. As the saying goes, it's better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6.
Quality of sleep matters. If you aren't getting good sleep then you won't be able to do good work. If you are unable to sleep due to concerns or thoughts about safety then that's a sign to move on. Saving money on rent is a nice life hack but if doing so hinders your ability to do good work then make changes such as working from a van park for a couple of weeks to rest up.
If you are working remotely like I am, then where you will work should be a primary concern.
This lifestyle is nice but it isn't a holiday.
I used to get huge anxiety about the topic of internet connectivity but that has been largely resolved with the addition of mounting a Starlink dish onto the top of my van.
Knowing that I'll have internet connectivity literally anywhere in Australia has been a huge game-changer. I often find myself at a campground sharing out my internet connectivity with remote workers in exchange for a few cans of beer. Lack of internet connectivity (Starlink fixes this) has been the #1 thing holding back this lifestyle.
If you are heading to the snow or anywhere below 6c consider that your lithium batteries won't be able to charge until they heat up. Ration your power consumption when in cold weather climates.
Carry spare water with you. It is within the realm of possibility that your primary water tank will break (like mine did recently) or become contaminated.
If in a forest - showering isn't really required too often but if you find yourself located near a city then there are standards to maintain. Base yourself where there's easy access to a shower. See below for ideas...
In Australia there's a mobile application called Wikicamps which is "the ultimate camping companion" but the problem is that everyone knows about the application. Spots that are listed are overrun with people and filled with trash.
There are extreme chances of getting fines if you urban camp at any spot listed in the Wikicamps app. Especially if it is a beachside location.
When I first started out Wikicamps was the bible, over time I've learned how to spot good spots by driving with Google Maps Satellite imagery and have discovered secret spots around Australia of which knowledge of their whereabouts I'll take to my grave. 🙃
The rules and regulations vary from state to state but camping in State Forests is generally limited to a maximum of four weeks.
If camping in a forest, carry a UHF radio (so you can communicate with logging trucks/there maybe no be mobile reception) and keep a careful eye on the weather report/fire risk briefings. Forests are microclimates in themselves and conditions can change from safe to unsafe in hours.
Other aspects to consider include:
- Where is the nearest hospital? Do you have first aid and at min a snake bite kit?
- Are you carrying powered and unpowered tools and have the capability to clear a tree that is blocking the road?
- Don't park under trees. It doesn't take much wind to crush your van and spoil your day.
- Where possible, use a lightweight stove for cooking. If you must build a fire, please follow the fire regulations, be conservative in your use of fuel, and ensure your fire is completely out before you leave.
Country towns are where it is at. You'll always find friendly faces and the facilities that councils in the city never deploy - such as dump points to empty your toilet or places to refill your water. Keep an eye out for showgrounds for a cheap way to camp for circa $10/night with power.
The Caravan Motorhome Club of Australia is the peak body that runs the initiatives to encourage country towns to deploy infrastructure. I recommend becoming a member.
The east coast of Australia has plenty of beach towns with spectacular views but the endless summer days of waking up to sunrises at the beach are over as the locations have been unfortunately abused. The majority of beachside locations now have 1P and 2P parking signs with rangers that patrol them at night and in the morning who are structurally incentivized to slap you with a "no camping" fine.
If you want to live the Instagram beach lifestyle then do it doing the day. Head to the beach to go for a swim and use the beach shower facilities as needed then head to some other urban or industrial area away from the beach foresaw.
Cities are hard work, are stressful and it can be quite hard to get a good night of sleep. You'll need to build up a network of friends in each city to make this work as simple everyday tasks such as finding a place to wash your clothes can be quite daunting in Sydney (everywhere that has been gentrified no longer has a laundromat)
Keep an eye out for gyms (showers), swimming centres (showers), McDonalds (24/7 store / emergency place to work from / toilets). Parks usually have BBQs and are great places to work from during the day but terrible places to free camp as are likely to have parking limitations and are monitored by local councils.
on "no camping" fines
One is able to sleep in vehicles in Australia (ie nothing that prohibits this activity at a federal level) and states such as New South Wales actively encourage pulling over as part of road safety. It's worth doing research into the topic on a per-state basis as the topic can be rather grey.
If you are "pulling on over for a rest" in a different spot every night are you really camping or are you having a rest stop mid-way through a large drive to a destination? 🙃
Some councils and city's actively prohibit free-camping and these policies are enforced by council rangers who have a burden of proof to establish that you were camping. The way they do this is by evidence gathering - recording registration numbers during the afternoon then coming back first thing early in the morning and specifically wearing body cameras, asking questions, and hoping you self-incriminate
Let's pick apart the case of Eddie and Gail from the above story who say they were hit with a $275 fine by council officers ‘banging on their door’ at 4 am when their motorhome was parked on a residential street.
“We thought we were being broken into to be faced by two very aggressive council officials who were not prepared to listen or understand our situation,” he said. “We were issued with an on-the-spot fine of $275.”
The Sunshine Coast approached Noosa Shire Council for comment as part of publishing the story and the community services director told the Sunshine Coast News that:
“Eddie also confirmed he did not have a booking for the motorhome for two nights while visiting the area, including the night the illegal camping infringement relates to”
In addition to this...
Ms Contini said a review of body camera footage of the interaction showed council officers had been ‘courteous and professional at all times’.
Eddie and Gail, if you ignored the rangers then they would not have had enough proof to issue the fine. Sure, an RV on a suburban street is a red flag to a bull but who is to say if you are staying inside the RV or sleeping in the house you are parked next door - "we are in town visiting friends" but all that goes out the door when you self-incriminate whilst likely wearing PJs.
Eddie told the Sunshine Coast News that the ‘aggressive’ officers refused to hear their excuse and his attempts to have the fine waived — even providing a medical letter — were rejected.
have a plan b
Again, quality of sleep is what matters, if you are having difficulties getting to sleep or are getting concerned about your surroundings then it's important to move on.
The lifestyle is portable, one should always have a plan-b, and plan-c and be prepared. Here are some alternatives...
- Stay at a caravan park.
- Stay at a friend's place.
- Stay at a service station (fill up with fuel and ask if can grab a couple of hours rest // find a truck stop)
- Stay at a showground (if country town based)