Van life, while cheaper than traditional lifestyle, is still more expensive than I first thought it would be.
One very real and somewhat harsh reality that came to light early in my van journeys, is the need for cold, hard cash.
When I first set out, I had $500 saved as a cushion. I thought with the lack of a rent payment I would be able to go without a job for a couple of months. However, I was wrong.
I realized pretty quickly I needed to pick up a job to feed myself as well as to buy gas to get us back to our campsite after each day of adventure.
Finding a Job
Leverage your experience and plan carefully
My partner had some experience with the van lifestyle, and he suggested that table waiting was a valuable skill for landing short term work.
Since I had several months to prepare for life on the road, I took a job at Applebees to round out my food service experience and insure that I’d be able to find good gigs in the towns we planned to stay in.
This strategy paid off very nicely when I was hired at a swanky joint to wait tables. This job covered all my expenses while working just a few hours per week. Best of all it left my days free to play in the mountains.
My partner was also able to land a job in a restaurant as a host. Toward the end of our time in Colorado, when the seasonal work at the restaurant dried up, he picked up a short-term day job cutting down trees for fire mitigation.
How easy it is to find a job depends on where you put down temporary roots. For example, it will be easier in a tourist town than in an unknown small town.
Additionally, the economy of the area should be taken into consideration. I spent time living in Estes Park, CO, and it was quite easy to find a job.
However, in Joshua Tree, California, a smaller, less traveled town, I could not find a job to save my life.
… and more about location
Before you hit the pavement to look for work, consider that it’s most convenient to work close to where you park and sleep. I mean, one major reason for this lifestyle is to avoid a nasty commute! When looking at jobs, pay close
attention to travel logistics.
But sometimes that is not possible, or that otherwise perfect job will require some daily travel. If you will be using some type of public transportation, try to get work near a bus or train stop.
Another option is to plan to camp and work in an area that’s bicycle friendly. Even if you don’t normally pack a bike in your van, a used one can be acquired easily in most areas and then sold, given away or carried along to your next destination.
To improve your options, raise your standards
If you hate working in a certain industry such as retail, fast food, ect. do not even give this type of business a second thought.
I reached that point with the restaurant industry long ago. It took some effort, but as I upped my standards for the type of work I was willing to do, I started getting better jobs.
Craig can help
Craigslist is a great place to find some temporary work. My partner used to find odd jobs on Craigslist regularly. He found jobs as a mover, a construction worker, and a maintenance man.
Sometimes, a small job on Craigslist leads to longtime work. Other times, you want to run the opposite direction. Either way, it’s often tax-free money, and a networking opportunity!
It’s not what, but who you know
Keep in mind that most business owners don’t fill positions via ads, but by networking with people they already know.
One of the absolute best ways to network for any job is to decide on the industry you want to work in and meet people who are already working there. This is not always easy to do on the road, but it can be done.
Here are a few quick and simple places to network for short or longterm jobs
- Others you meet at the camp area. Find the folks who’re up early and heading to work and pick their brains.
- On the trail or other outdoor activities. Strike up conversations and ask folks about how they’re supporting their travel passions.
- Local coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Talk to the barista, bartender and waitstaff and strike up conversations with other patron.
- Go to the types of businesses where you want to work, and meet people who already work there. For example if you want to pick up landscaping work, get to know the local nursery and plant supply. Into horses? Head to the tac shop. Willing to walk dogs? Go to local pet stores and veterinarians and introduce yourself. Comfortable with computer hardware? You get the idea.
- Meetup.com groups related to your industry. Make friends in the industry you want work in.
Tips For Nailing The interview
in a what?
I’m not advocating for outright lying…however, it is best to avoid telling your potential employer you live in a van. If you must say something, do it after you are hired.
I personally did not tell my employer I lived in a van until I had to. This was something my boyfriend warned against, based on some bad experiences, so I listened.
If asked about your living situation, a good response is to say you are camping/staying at a friend’s place until you find a rental. If you know someone in the town, this conversation can be avoided by using their address on the application and for mail.
Showering before your interview should be among the first things on your mind. You can find showers at local outfitters, gyms, and laundromats. At the very least the confidence boost will help with the interview.
Leave your crew behind
This one will be obvious to most of you, but… my younger self had to learn it the hard way, so I’ll share this misstep.
While it may be tempting to bring in your peeps for support, it will backfire. Even bringing your crew just to wait inside (or even within eye sight) is a bad move because it rings immature. Honestly, it is just as bad as bringing your parent along!
Dress to Impress
Always dress nicely for interviews. If you don’t have any business or business casual clothing with you, try to bum from friends or buy something from a thrift shop. I know living in a van does not always jibe with dressing to impress, primarily because storing nice clothing takes up space.
Obviously if the job requires decent clothes you’ll have to buy them anyway. If not, get something decent for interviews and then donate them once hired.
Point is, don’t have “I live in a van” written all over yourself when you show up for an interview.
Scheduling and freedom
The most important thing for most rubber tramps is finding a schedule that works with their lifestyle. Finding a place that allows for flexibility is important.
When I lived in Colorado, I found a place that would work around my climbing schedule. When you go in, feel out the management and try to work out the best possible schedule for you.
You may need to interview at more than one place, so don’t be afraid to tell a potential employer you will think about their offer. I have found businesses near National or State Parks to be more accommodating.
Get paid what you’re worth
Always try to negotiate pay, no matter what industry. It won’t always work, especially with seasonal jobs. However, playing a bit of hardball can be worth your while. Once I was hired onto a position making $3 more than they offered, just because I asked.
Of course this depends on your level of flexibility, expertise, the availability of other workers in the field you’re applying for and other factors.
Keep in mind that many employers will respect you more if you are reasonably assertive and show you can take care of yourself.Try this line: “I plan to give this job my all, and to help you be as successful as you can while I’m here. In light of that, (plus my experience, my education, my talent…) I feel I’m worth $x per hour.”
Breaking up: Leaving your short-term position
I would never suggest lying to an employer about how long you intend to stay in a position. I also feel there can be gray area here, such as with jobs that tend have a very high turnover rate, where an early exit can be easily justified and even expected.
During the interview the fast food manager is going to talk about career opportunities and long term benefits, but no one (not even that manager) is going to be surprised when you leave that job within 3 months.
Of course in any tourist town, how long you stay will resolve itself as much of the available work will be short term.
As for non-seasonal jobs where the expectation is that you stay long term, you’ll have to decide for yourself if you want to fib about your long-term intentions. Ask yourself how this will impact your future work in the particular industry.
Obviously, if you’re applying in a professional situation where your long-term reputation is at stake, consider your actions carefully. Will the stress of maintaining a lie be worth a few bucks? Did you land the interview through a relationship that will be damaged if you don’t stick around? Would it make more sense to be honest and risk not getting the gig, in hopes the employer will hire you anyway?
Pros have options
Consider my partner’s advice from the top of this article. Acquire a skill that pays well and is appropriate for short-term, seasonal, or gig work.
A girlfriend and fellow van lifer, upon arrival in any town, peppers local bulletin boards, power poles, and Craigslist with fliers for pet sitting and dog walking. She’s got a list of referrals as long as your arm and she gets repeat business whenever she visits those towns. No fibbing required.
Another friend is a computer hardware wizard. He can build you a gaming box that will blow your mind, assemble a network for a small business or repair your laptop, and his skills are applicable anywhere he lands.
Simple math for nomadic income
The formula here is to have a skill that pays well, is in reasonably high demand, plus your willingness and ability to promote yourself when you need work.
I’m not saying you should starve, or even miss out on road adventures to avoid lying to an employer here and there, but do some careful thinking and planning to set yourself up for the best possible work life while van traveling.
Share your campervan work life stories
We’d love to hear your thoughts on finding seasonal work as a campervan traveler, and we’re more than happy to answer any questions you may have.
Please drop your comments or questions below and we’ll do our best to answer.
Thanks for reading.
When she’s not writing guest posts about van life, Veronica Cavanaugh from VanSage.com is camping, backpacking, or planning her next outdoor adventure. She also enjoys watching old movies and writing poetry.
Photos from Joshua Tree National Park courtesy of the author.