Downsize for Van Life With Minimalism, The Guide

Minimalism and downsizing goes hand in and hand with van life. The lifestyle is a tool you can use for a multitude of purposes, but a common thread among vandwellers is that this lifestyle has in some ways lead to them to take additional considerations to material and consumer goods in their life.

I refer to this as material minimalism. We’re here to talk about the reduction and downsizing progress from the current living arrangement and into your new abode. This is about how to let go of your things for the freedom and thrill of the road.

The Decision

Everyone that has ever decided to come into this lifestyle has had to make a decision. This is the decision of deciding what is more important to them, their current items and assets or something else. The something else could be the drive to explore or your disagreement with having a landlord to lord over you.

Maybe this decision comes under the guise of your own ethical inclinations to find out what Henry David Thoreau was on about. Perhaps you’re the person that just wants out or needs more adventure in their life.

The fact of the matter is, downsizing is a requirement for most of us. Regardless of why you want to live mobile, this article is written to be helpful independent of that. Addressing downsizing is a very real task to be dealt with if you’re going to get into the van life and be a vandweller. This is why van life is a gateway into minimalism.

The good news is that it’s not impossible. It doesn’t have to feel like a slog, in fact, if I’m being entirely honest with you, it can feel very liberating to part ways with material goods. This is because all items occupy the mind. What I mean by this is that every item requires your attention on some level.

Take for instance something as minute as a small decorative item on your coffee table or desk. Whether you are entirely aware of it or not, you have made the decision that the item is worth spending your time to move and occasionally dust when you clean this surface. 

Other items might weigh on you more heavily, such home ownership, vehicles and additional assets. Maybe you’re planning to rent out your house and keep it, but you will still need to find out what you’re going to do with all of the stuff inside of it.

Perhaps you’re the person moving out for the first time. Depending on your family, you may still have to deal with all of the things you collected in your childhood.

The Trash

Picture of mutli-colored trashcans on minimal backdrop. They are quite large to signify the need for downsizing for Van Life

I recommend dealing with what you know is junk first. This is the pure trash, no questions asked. Throw it away or donate it and do not procrastinate about it. If you feel guilty about throwing it away, your choice is either to have your abode be the landfill, or the landfill be the landfill.

From here you can begin to collect items you would consider maybe keeping for their utility. These are items you’re confident aren’t trash. Put these into an area, a pile where you can not ignore them. Somewhere visible that you will pass by or see every day, or constantly is preferable.

Keep these items in your mind and each day, come back at a pre-planned time to this pile and ask yourself the question again. Do I need this? More often than not, you will find yourself willing to part ways with these items over the course of a few days. 

Valuable Items

Minimalism inspired important documents arranged in colorful folders on a shelf. There are many of them to signify the need for downsizing

More valuable items can be listed locally on Facebook, LetGo, Craigslist and nationally through eBay and other auction services. Think of these items as items you have rented. You have paid for them at some point in time, and now you’re going to sell them for money. What was the cost to rent them? This makes letting go of valuable items much less distressing for most of us.

Try your best to not concentrate too much on “what if I need this” in regard to van life during this stage of downsizing. Almost everyone overestimates what they will need when getting into van life. Few people realize just how much they value space, organization and peace of mind while living out of a small space- in other words, how much they value minimalism.

For this reason, I encourage you to sell what you have for a profit and buy what you need as you begin the process of transitioning into the lifestyle. Write off your rental fees and be glad you were able to get something back.

If you come across an item that you are so obviously convinced will be essential, set it aside and put it in another pile. Make note of this item and ask on vandweller and van life community forums about the use case if you’re at all unconvinced or undecided about what utility it will provide. Better yet, provide a full list of items you’re convinced of keeping for feedback.

When I first began downsizing I made the mistake of purchasing an overhead cargo carrier, to hold additional things and had been absolutely 100% certain I would need them. All of those things were useless and either thrown away or donated once I started learning about what I actually needed.

This is not an exaggeration, not one item in that cargo carrier was worth carrying, nor was it worth the gas mileage hit. The cargo carrier was donated within a month of travel.

Paperwork & Sentimental Items

Man out of focus signing important documents, minimalism inspired photography.

Important paperwork and other items can be scanned digitally and placed safely into a file on Google Drive or your cloud service of choice. Sentimental items such as letters, notes and photographs can be scanned as well. I have done exactly this and revisit these about once a year to reminisce.

The purpose of keeping these items is to remember, because memory is finite. You retain the purpose of keeping these by retaining their imagery in the cloud and accomplish this goal entirely without having the actual physical items. It’s a win, win. Items that can not be easily scanned can be photographed and also uploaded into your cloud service as well.

The impact upon viewing them is exactly the same as keeping them around.

A word about cloud services. The information you put in these will be extremely important to you. You want to be sure you have your passwords stored or memorized in a dependable way. Enable two factor authentication to give these services additional security and always have a back-up email on file with your cloud service.

Losing your password would be akin to your house burning down and consuming every photo album and nostalgic trinket, quite literally. 

If you absolutely have some items that can not, under any circumstance be lost consider opening a bank safety deposit box. Don’t fall into the trap of opening up a storage space just to get on the road sooner.

These items that you never use or access will occupy your mind every time the bill comes to greet you. Storage spaces act as a monetary vampire and serve only the purpose to have things which we do not need and do not use. They are the definition of letting your things own you in a very real sense. 


Hand holding book that says

If procrastination is a problem for you, I recommend setting a schedule and sticking to it. Design a calendar on your phone that sends you notifications when it’s time to do something if you have to. I’ve seen many people that simply linger and never take the plunge because they will get to it someday.

Remember, someday is not a day. It’s not on the calendar, make hard deadlines and a clear path to your van life goals. Minimalism may not seem like the objective, because it absolutely isn’t in most cases.

For most people it’s just coincidental that people find themselves learning how to employ it when preparing for the lifestyle.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” 
– Henry David Thoreau

The Reward

Minimalistic ariel photography of a beach, depicting rewards from being able to down size

As you work towards your goal you will notice the feeling of a weight off your chest. Material minimalism in and of itself is a very vindicating and satisfying outcome. When you’re on the road you will need to ask if items are really worth your space and time, in a very real way. By doing this you’re practicing what most material minimalists recommend when dealing with new items after getting rid of old ones.

Facing these kinds of questions naturally directs you to think about what you need versus what you want. It brings mindfulness into your consumption patterns which is substantially better for your mind and the environment. If you’re trapped in a cycle of consumerism and trying to buy out your happiness for that temporary jolt of satisfaction, you’re going to have to come off of that addiction in the process.

When you’re out of that mindset and fully onboard with minimalism you won’t want to look back!

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
Henry David Thoreau

In Closing

Minimalistic sunset with palm trees, showing the closure of a day. A minimal picture to showcase the emotional impact of downsizing

I hope this piece has helped you figure out how to go about downsizing in your life for your future goals in living the van life. I understand not everyone going into this mode of living considers or identifies themselves as a minimalist. Given the reality of the situation, to some extent you will be very much a minimalist if you are to start the process of downsizing to get out there.

Having done this is probably the best thing that has happened for both my mind and wallet. Without sounding cliche, the van life taught me minimalism. The only way to learn is to begin and take direct action.

Keep yourself motivated and on point throughout the process of downsizing. Don’t let yourself get discouraged. I understand this is very hard for some. Revisit this piece if you need additional encouragement.

Set a calendar up to ding you when it’s time to make progress and tell some friends. Most importantly, don’t be the someday person. This can be now and today can be that day.

The closer you get to living the adventure you want, the happier you will be and the better off you will be for it.


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