I tried living in a luxury camper van for a weekend during the winter, and I'll never do it again

Frank Olito camper van
I spent a weekend in a camper van. Frank Olito/Insider
  • I rented a camper van for a weekend to take a small road trip to Philadelphia and see how I like van life.

  • The heat in the van broke, the electricity ran out, and the bathroom was too small.

  • I learned I could never live in a camper van full time because they're not real homes with working systems.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

In the past few years I've caught myself fantasizing about quitting my job, breaking my lease, and embarking on an aimless and endless road trip in a camper van.

In my daydreams, I could picture myself traveling along the coasts, parking next to the sea, and opening the back doors onto picturesque landscapes. I dreamed of seeing the world and doing it in a van, just as a record number of people have done since the start of the pandemic.

To see if van life was really for me, I found a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter that was turned into a luxury camper van on Outdoorsy, a site that's like Airbnb for RVs. I decided to rent the van for a weekend in January, for $1,770, and to take a small road trip to get a taste of van life.

By the end of the weekend, I was surprised to learn that I was eager to get home and excited to never step foot in another camper van.

The van arrived at my Brooklyn apartment Friday morning, and I was instantly intimidated by the size of it.

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The exterior of the van. Frank Olito/ Insider

The owner pulled up with the van outside of my apartment, and my jaw dropped on seeing the massive size of it. I remember thinking how ironic it was because this was supposed to be a tiny house, but when compared to a normal size vehicle, there was nothing tiny about this van.

Measuring 24 feet long, there was practically nowhere to park it on my tight Brooklyn street, and the height of the van seemed to scrape every branch.

Once I stepped inside, I saw that the van was even more luxurious than I expected.

Frank Olito camper van
The kitchen. Frank Olito/ Insider

Stainless-steel appliances and plenty of counter space made my Brooklyn kitchen look like a dud.

Right next to the kitchen was the bathroom, which I feared because of its size.

Frank Olito camper van
The toilet. Frank Olito/ Insider

The moment I saw the bathroom, I knew it was going to be a problem. I could barely stand up in it, and the composting toilet was an unknown territory that I did not want to explore. I vowed to not use the bathroom — the toilet specifically — for as long as I could.

In the back of the van was a seating area that folded down into a bed.

Frank Olito camper van
The benches convert into a bed. Frank Olito/ Insider

The owner of the van demonstrated how to quickly convert the benches into a large bed. I took a mental note of the instructions, but then he followed it up with a 30-minute instructional tour of the van's many, many systems.

He pointed to countless buttons, explaining how each one runs a different system. I vaguely remember him saying to press this button when I need water pressure and then this button when I need warm water. I couldn't press the button next to that one because something bad would happen. I had to remember to turn off this button or else something even worse would happen.

He showed me how to work a generator and how to plug the larger van into a campsite — without ever explaining why I would need to do either of those things because the van already had electricity from its solar panel. There was a very quick demonstration on how to turn on the heat, which seemed like you just pressed the same button five times, and then it would start.

For someone who has never camped or lived in a tiny house, I was ill prepared for the number of systems I needed to know in such a small time to transform this into a livable home.

I convinced myself I understood it all. Predictably, this would be my downfall.

Finally, we embarked on our road trip late Friday night and headed toward Philadelphia.

Frank Olito camper van
My friend driving. Frank Olito/ Insider

Since I'm not a great driver, I enlisted the help of a friend who was more confident driving the van than I would have been. She, too, was afraid of the size of the vehicle, which was much larger than anything she has driven before.

After a terrible traffic jam that delayed us a full hour, we arrived at the spot where we would be spending our first night: a Cracker Barrel parking lot.

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The van at Cracker Barrel. Frank Olito/ Insider

There are some big brands — like Walmart and Cracker Barrel — that allow for overnight RV parking. During the summer months, these parking lots are much busier with RVs and camper vans.

On this night the parking lot was empty. We had the entire Cracker Barrel lot to ourselves, so we got to work making our new home comfortable.

Almost instantly, my friend and I felt how difficult it would be to move around the small space.

Frank Olito camper van
It was cramped in the van. Frank Olito/ Insider

Just a few hours ago, we both marveled at how large the vehicle was in the city streets. Now, everything was turned on its head. We were two people trying to unpack their belongings and move around a very tight space. We kept bumping into each other and having to announce our movements.

"I want to grab my book from my bag in the back," I said. In other words, "Get out of the kitchen, so I can get by."

Slowly, we developed a kind of choreography. When we had to slip by one another, we learned how to make ourselves as small as possible. If someone needed something that was closest to the other person, we learned it was just easier to get it for them.

Read more: A YouTuber spent 24 hours in the world's smallest tiny house and said he felt 'extreme fear' at times

After struggling to maneuver ourselves in the van, I decided to eat dinner outside so that I could feel some openness.

Frank Olito camper van
Eating dinner outside. Frank Olito/ Insider

I've covered van life and the tiny-house movement for over a year now, and almost everyone has told me that the space is small but that doesn't matter because you're outside most of the time.

I tried to follow their lead by eating outside. But what these outdoorsy tiny house owners didn't tell me is that this practice isn't exactly doable during the winter. As I ate my Wendy's chicken nuggets, I shivered.

After the arduous task of making the bed, my friend and I ran into our first major issues.

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Watching "The Bachelor" moments before the outlets broke. Frank Olito/ Insider

We started watching "The Bachelor" on a laptop but noticed it was about to die. I went to plug it in but realized none of the outlets were working. Ominously, at that exact moment, my friend noticed that the heat wasn't working either.

We both decided it was too late and that we were too tired to worry about either of those things. We went to sleep and bundled up under many blankets instead.

Unfortunately, I woke up several times that night shivering because the temperature dropped significantly. I remember curling into a ball and holding my knees to my chest for warmth. When I finally got warm and fell back asleep, a garbage truck came into the parking lot to pick up the trash from the Cracker Barrel and startled me awake yet again.

After a horrific night's sleep, I ordered a comfort breakfast from Cracker Barrel.

Frank Olito camper van
Eating Cracker Barrel. Frank Olito/ Insider

I ate the breakfast awkwardly, standing in the middle of the kitchen. Although it was delicious, it did little to wake me up or shake the deep cold that still radiated throughout my body.

I gave the owner a call, and he walked me through a complicated troubleshoot via FaceTime to get the outlets to work. He told me he was going to get back to me on how to fix the heat. Spoiler alert: He never did.

Read more: I paid $1,000 to sleep in a tiny house on a remote island in the middle of New York City — and it was not worth the price

Later that day, we drove to a campground just outside Philadelphia, in New Jersey.

Frank Olito camper van
The van at the campground. Frank Olito/ Insider

The Philadelphia South/Clarksboro KOA was an expansive RV park and campground in Clarksboro, New Jersey. There was a pool, a playground, a lake, and a few small cabins. Since it was winter, the park was largely empty, and we were directed to a spot all the way in the back.

We decided to spend the day in Philadelphia, and we debated bringing the van with us into the city, but we knew how difficult it would be to maneuver the massive vehicle through city streets and to find parking. We made the decision to leave the van at the campground and take an Uber into the city. I remember thinking how ironic it was that we were living in a van that was meant to give you the freedom to go anywhere but that excluded major cities or other places that would be difficult to bring a massive van.

While in the city, I took advantage of my time away from the cramped van.

Frank Olito camper van
Philadelphia. Frank Olito/ Insider

We met up with a friend in Philadelphia who was staying in a hotel. I practically begged her to allow me to use her toilet and shower because I still refused to use the ones in the van. Luckily, she agreed, and I felt a feeling of success that I avoided the van's bathroom thus far.

After spending the day shopping and eating our way through Philadelphia, I arrived back at the van to find even more issues.

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Bundled up in the middle of the night. Frank Olito/ Insider

I stepped onto the van late that evening to find that not only did it have no heat but it also now had no electricity. I considered hooking up the generator, but it was under the bed, and I had no light to find it nor read the directions on it. My phone died earlier that day, and I planned on plugging it in when I got to the van, so I couldn't even use that as a source of light.

I could not see anything. I moved around the van by touch and feel while shivering from the cold.

After depressingly shoving my face with cookies in the dark, I crawled into bed defeated. I attempted to fall asleep but couldn't. I was just too cold. I put on a sweater, a pullover sweatshirt, a zip-up sweatshirt, my winter jacket, a large scarf, and gloves. I then buried myself under blankets. This wildly layered outfit was still no match for the freezing temperatures inside the van. I could feel the cold air seeping through the double doors from the back of the van.

I decided to finally situate myself in the far corner of the bed and sat up, shivering, waiting for the sun to rise.

After my night of no sleep, I called the owner again, and he told me to just turn on the gas stove for heat.

Frank Olito camper van
The new heat source. Frank Olito/ Insider

At first I thought it was a stupid directive, but I did it anyway. Instantly, the van filled up with warmth, and I almost cried as blood rushed back into my extremities.

Turning on the stove gave me the idea to cook a meal in the van, and that night we cooked taco bowls.

Frank Olito camper van
Prepping a meal at the sink. Frank Olito/ Insider

It was surprisingly easy to cook a meal in the tight space. My friend managed the stove while I managed the sink and cutting vegetables. We stayed out of each other's way, and it worked perfectly.

After the meal, it was, unfortunately, time to use the bathroom for the first time.

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I could not fit in the bathroom. Frank Olito/ Insider

I squeezed into the bathroom, which was nothing but a closet space, and maneuvered my way onto the toilet. I say maneuvered because it was impossible to just sit. I had to twist and turn to get the right angle of approach. When my butt finally met the toilet, I instantly started laughing because I did not fit. I was hanging off it and my knees were up against the wall. I felt like a giant sitting in a little child's chair.

After a very uncomfortable toilet experience, I made another vow: I will never use a composting toilet again in my life.

Later I dressed in my five layers again and got ready for another freezing night.

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It was time to endure another cold night. Frank Olito/ Insider

I lit the stove for 10 minutes before I went to sleep so that it would warm the van. I woke up a few times that night because of the cold, but it was significantly less freezing than the previous two nights.

The next morning, my friend and I raced home eager to get rid of this van.

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Leaving the campsite. Frank Olito/ Insider

Throughout the weekend, I thought about the people who love van life. I could see how this lifestyle could be considered a great way to travel and how it could be a great road to financial freedom. I could even see people with more patience than me reveling in the idea of fixing broken heaters and outlets. But I quickly realized I wasn't one of those people.

After three restless nights with no heat and systems that failed at every turn, I was ready to be reunited with my dependably warm Brooklyn apartment.

Throughout the weekend, I tried to remind myself that van life is less about the van and more about the freedom that it affords you, but my counter is: At what cost?

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Interior of the van. Frank Olito/ Insider

These camper vans are still just vehicles that have been turned into makeshift homes. The heating, the water, and the electricity aren't all meant to work like a traditional home, which means they are going to run into issues along the way.

The vanlifers I've spoken with have all said that systems break down in their van all the time and that the lack of space can sometimes get to them, but that it is all worth it because they get to see the world and go wherever they want.

I don't think the freedom is worth that price tag. Of course, I spent only a weekend in the van, and if I lived in it full time, I might find the troubleshooting and the system failures less daunting and more like second nature, but I don't think that would be practical living for me.

I want to turn on my heat and know that it will work that night. I want to plug in my phone and not have to run through a 45 minute troubleshoot to get my outlets to work. I don't want to press a button for water pressure and then have to remember to press it again to turn it off. I don't want to worry if I'm using too much water to brush my teeth.

In some ways, I'm disappointed that van life isn't for me, but I'm glad I learned this lesson before I pulled the trigger on a new lifestyle.

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View from the van. Frank Olito/ Insider

I've long dreamed of living on the road and calling a camper van my home much like the many others who are doing it happily today. Now that I know it isn't for me, it feels like I failed in some way. It feels like I am not as adventurous or as flexible as I thought I was.

But when I boil that dream down to its essence, it wasn't about the camper van. It was about seeing the world and experiencing every corner of it firsthand. Just because I can't do it in a van, doesn't mean the dream is fully dashed.

I'll see the world one day, just not out of the windows of a camper van.

Read more: I spent 3 days living in a 350-square-foot house in a community of tiny homes — see what it was like

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