Van Life: Shari May
Native Australian Shari May (@vanlifewithme) sold most of her belongings two years ago and moved fulltime into a converted camper van called “Milly.” In addition to the usual reasons for moving into a van like lost cost of living and ease of travel, Shari was drawn to the minimalism of this lifestyle, the smaller environmental footprint of this lifestyle, and the freedom overall to go where life takes her. Working for National Parks and Wildlife Service keeps her busy and most days involve getting in the water, whether for a surf—she has two surfboards under her van floor!—a snorkel, a kayak, or a hike to a waterfall.
Name: Shari May
Vehicle type: 2012 Ford Transit
Time spent in van: 2 and a half years
Van name: Milly
Hometown: Newport, NSW Australia
Average monthly expenses: $1,500 travelling full time
What made you decide to move into a van?
Shari: I’ve been obsessed with tiny living as long as I can remember. I tried to move into my treehouse on multiple occasions throughout my childhood. A little older, I tried convincing my parents to let me put a small cabin in the backyard, to no avail. By the time I was in my early 20s, a little-known idea called Tiny Houses emerged, which was basically just small cabins made for full-time living; I was so excited that others could see the appeal of tiny living too! I love the practicality of everything in your home doubling in its use, I love the cosiness of the space, and I love that the environmental footprint is much smaller than a regular home. There is so much love, creativity, and innovation in the tiny house industry and it has moved into the mainstream, which makes me pretty excited. For the last decade, I’ve been craving a Tiny House to call my own, but I have been enjoying a more transient lifestyle and haven’t wanted to limit my ability to wander. About 5 years ago, I met some awesome humans that were living in their vans full-time, regular people like myself who had been to university, weren’t unemployed or broke, just sought a different lifestyle. I had a 4WD at the time which had a bed and camping gear in the back as a weekend escape and adventure car, but somehow it didn’t really click until I saw vanlife in the flesh. Vanlife became the ideal living situation for me for many reasons such as my deepest desire to live in a small space, wanting a smaller environmental footprint, the unaffordability of property, the need for my own space, freedom and flexibility. A growing interest in minimalism during my 20s perfectly aligned with vanlife, so I enjoyed the purge when I finally made the move into my van. Now I enjoy living with only items I use and love.
Where are you living right now?
Shari: I’ve been travelling around Australia for the last 7 months and am currently in beautiful Tasmania. Usually I’m based in Northern NSW (or elsewhere in NSW depending on my work).
What do you do for work?
Shari: Only the best job ever! Sometimes firefighter, sometimes park ranger, sometimes fauna surveyor - I work for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and usually take temporary contracts, trying out different roles and different locations. It’s the perfect mix of stability and flexibility for me.
How do you shower?
Shari: I’m in the water pretty much every day. Whether I’ve gone for a surf, checked out a waterfall or gone swimming in a creek, water is a large part of my lifestyle. I don’t have a shower in my van so I enjoy hot (or cold!) showers whenever I can get them.
What’s something that surprised you about living this lifestyle?
Shari: I actually really enjoy being much more conscious of the resources that we all take for granted and knowing how to live without excessive water and electricity. Every drop is precious!
I was also surprised about how well van living works with my lifestyle. A combination of already having a semi-nomadic lifestyle and designing my van fit out for minimum set up and long-term comfortability made living in a van much less of a hassle than it could be. Van living comes with its own set of challenges of course, but so does living in a house. There’s a bit of a “bumbling around” stage at the start where you hit your head on the doorway or forget to put things away that then fly around the van when you drive off. After a while, you get used to all these things and it just becomes normal life and seems no more difficult than living in a regular home.
What are some of the ups and downs of van life?
Shari: There are SO MANY positives of vanlife which is why I am still living it! One of the greatest advantages is FREEDOM! I find myself saying YES to so many things, because I can! I can up and go and it’s no hassle at all. Want to go camping this weekend? Yes! Come to a festival a few hours away? Yes! Take a job opportunity on the other side of the state? Yes! With my van at my side, I never forget anything, and I never have to pack anything; I’m always ready for the next adventure!
I’ve also met so many people through this lifestyle as I’m hardly ever in one spot and I spend lots of time in public areas like beaches and parks. Sometimes, passers-by stop and strike up a conversation, want to take photos of my van, or ask me questions about the van or my lifestyle. Most of the time I find this part of vanlife pretty awesome, but it can also feel like your bedroom is constantly on show for the public – a good motive to keep your room tidy!
There aren’t too many negatives of vanlife that I’ve found. OK, I would love to have a bathroom, but we can’t have everything we want, can we? Loneliness can definitely be a big one for a lot of people. I’ve always been a pretty independent person and loved my own company and it’s not the first time I’ve lived on my own, however when you are feeling lonely and you live in a van, the feeling can be amplified. When I started travelling fulltime in mine and was away from my friends and family that I could normally call upon, I felt the overwhelming solitude of it all and battled through the loneliness. One thing I’ve done to overcome this was create a photo wall in my van of people I love and adorn it with personal affirmations. When I’m feeling particularly lonely, it’s a great reminder that I am loved, and these people are always there for me. It’s been a while since I felt like that loneliness, and overall, it’s been an extremely positive experience.
What are some elements you added to your van that are unique or that you personally wanted?
Shari: One of my favourite things about my van is having my surfboards live under the floor. My mate Jono actually came up with the idea when we were standing in my new empty van, speculating about where to put them. I can fit two longboards under the floor and one of them can even keep the fin in (which is the one I use most of course) as it slides in underneath the bed. My mates who are left untying straps on their roof racks are immensely jealous when I fling open my back doors, slide my board out at waist height and I am ready to go. Of course, that used to be me tying it onto the roof racks!
Another great feature—slightly less unique, but a must for me—is having a double bed that folds away into a couch/single bed. Being alone 95% of the time, this arrangement allows me to make the most of the space, creating a loungeroom, so I’m not just hanging out on my bed the whole time. A permanent double bed set up commits most of the van space to this dedicated function. I also made sure I bought a van that I could stand up in; being able to stand in my home which I planned to live in long-term was non-negotiable for me.
I also just love having a space that is actually my own. Before I bought my van, I was getting a bit sick of jumping between share houses, living out of a suitcase, and just starting to make a room feel like my own before I was up and moving again. It might sound contradictory but moving into a van gave me some stability in my life. I can drill holes into the walls, hang up my guitar permanently, put up pictures, fairy lights, and knick-knacks that I won’t have to tear down again in a few months’ time. I’ve really enjoyed the feeling of owning my own space. Milly really does feel like owning my first home.
What kind of small touches have you added to make it feel more like home?
Shari: Fairy lights are essential for making a space feel homey for me. They give off the warm mood lighting that you normally get from lamps and candles around the house and they make me feel comfortable and cosy. I added a bookshelf after the initial build as I realised this was something else that made me feel like it was really my home, however impractical lugging around a stack of books might be. Adding real houseplants is something I totally recommend, even if it takes you months of testing out different plants to see which can survive the harsh conditions of vanlife. Other little things that make it homey include knick-knacks I’ve collected, feathers, embroideries I’ve made and my photo/affirmation wall.
What’s one of your favourite spots you’ve camped in your car?
Shari: Too many to choose from! My favourite spots are parking up at beaches, up on headlands, looking out across lakes. Usually, I stick to coastal areas so there are plenty of sweet spots.
What are your favourite outdoor activities?
Shari: Hiking, exploring, and surfing mainly, but you’ll find me doing almost anything – kayaking, snorkelling, scuba diving etc. I love taking photos out in nature so am often found dawdling along bushwalking tracks taking pictures of sweet flowers or fungi.
How would you say being a female living in your van differs from what you think or know the male experience to be? Did you feel like you had to take further precautions or were perceived differently than men who live in their cars?
Shari: Even though I am so lucky to live in such a safe and free country (Australia), of course as a woman, I am wired to be a little more cautious than your average male. I would never sleep without locking my van doors, even on the hottest of nights, whereas I have male friends who sleep in their vans with the doors open on such nights or don’t even bother locking up at all. When designing the build, I also made sure there was space for me to get to the driver’s seat from the back, so that if something sketchy happened, I wouldn’t have to get out of my van in order to leave. Luckily, I’ve only used this feature when it’s raining or I’m too lazy to walk around the outside of my van, haha. I haven’t had anything too weird happen that’s put me off living in a van and I think it’s as safe as living in a house, as long as you use your common sense and street smarts. Most people in this world are good human beings and travelling Australia alone in my van has proven that to me. I think women in today’s society unconsciously take extra precautions every day; living in a van is no different.
I’m not quite sure how I am perceived from the outside, but I’ve had all kinds of reactions from “do you need help?” to “that’s so badass” and I much prefer the latter. It’s definitely a lifestyle choice and not something I’ve done out of necessity. It’s very easy for people to make quick judgements from the outside about what kind of person you might be or what kind of life you lead. I think for the most part, the reception has been pretty positive, especially when people actually see my van. Neither of my parents supported my idea to live in a van, but once they saw my vision become reality and how happy I was, they came around and thought it was wonderful. My mum even wants to get her own van now which would be epic and a pretty big turnaround!