“It’s always the same picture – someone’s bum is out, they’re lying on their bed, and the doors are open to the ocean.”
Becky Wixon, 25, and Simone Picknett, 27 giggle as they describe an average #vanlife image on Instagram – a picture-perfect lifestyle from which they couldn’t feel further removed. That despite the fact they’ve recently stepped off the urban conveyor belt themselves, ditching their jobs and home comforts to live on the road in a van called Snail.
The newly-engaged couple, both musicians, are keen to banish the glamorous stereotype of the vanlife movement on social media. It’s a lifestyle that’s far more attainable than glossy Instagram photos would have you think, they argue.
“You can just buy a van and put a mattress in it and you can be doing your own van life. It doesn’t need to be this luxurious thing,” explains Wixon. “I think a lot of people do it because they want to get Instagram-famous. We did it because we wanted our time together to be creating, all the time. We’re not interested in getting our bums out.”
The couple were earning £25,000 and £27,000 in advertising and musical equipment repairs when they decided to jack it all in. In just five short months, they had saved up £14,000 by freelancing and selling almost all of their possessions. Now everything the couple owns fits on Snail’s back.
The offload was physically and mentally liberating. “We had a car boot sale and earned almost a grand for all our old stuff,” says Picknett. “We realised that actually we don’t need these things and we don’t miss anything.”
When the couple first speak to HuffPost UK, they are in Amsterdam after a month and a half (and 3,500 miles) on the road, taking in Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. “That time would have flashed by in our old lives, we wouldn’t even think about it,” says Wixon. “Now, it feels like we’re learning about life in a way we were never taught at work or school.”
She describes her “constant state of childlike wonderment” and being more in the moment, while Picknett speaks of the patience their new lifestyle teaches them and the revelation of just how much more sustainable van living is.
The pair shower once every three to five days – Wixon is currently hiding her greasy hair under a beanie in the hope it will soon start self-washing – and they don’t buy new clothes, keeping their wardrobe piled up underneath a small hatch in the van (and their underwear in a waterproof bag in case of damp).
They’re also learning new skills to keep costs down, skills which the best of us could use to reduce our bills – like how to shower quickly. Wixon says she’s got washing and conditioning her hair down to less than two minutes.
Do they have a toilet? Yes, but “strictly for number ones,” says Picknett – they have to empty it everyday. “I used to be worried about going for a poo at work,” chips in Wixon. “Now I just shit in the woods.” One flush of a regular toilet uses the same amount of water they now get through in a week. They marvel at how much they previously wasted (and how unaware they were of doing so).
“I eat my crusts,” says Wixon with a laugh. “I never used to eat my crusts.”
Everyday pleasures the rest of us take for granted are a treat. The pair look knowingly at each other as they reminisce. “When we were in Ireland we were sharing a pint of Guinness. Little sips here and there. We appreciate and remember that little pint whereas all our weekends of nights out used to blur into one before.”
“The pair shower once every three to five days – Wixon is hoping her hair will soon start self-washing”
There will be many who see vanlife as out of reach, financially or otherwise, and Wixon does acknowledge “there is privilege in having freedom”. Growing up 25 miles west of London, she spent most of her youth playing in bands and throwing herself into music. She did well at school, but was persuaded that her good grades ‘would be wasted’ on music: “So I ended up going to business school at King’s College London.”
Picknett, meanwhile, arrived in the UK from the Caribbean with her mum at a young age and moved schools often, struggling socially and academically as a result. ”I got kicked out of my house when I was 17, so I had to take myself to a youth hostel, put myself through uni, then got a job in music, and struggled hard. I was jumping trains because I couldn’t afford to get to work.”
Now, the pair live rent-free and even parking isn’t an issue, thanks to the van-dwellers before them who set up Park4night, an app that finds free parking all over Europe, saving them an average of £20 per night at a campsite. The couple’s joint monthly budget of £500 is half the £1000 they paid to live in Shadwell, east London, with seven other housemates... and a lot of mice.
Cabin fever is common enough among co-habiting couples, but Wixon and Picknett, who have been together five years, say they actually argue less since moving into the van and rarely crave ‘me time’. The head space opened up by escaping the daily grind has given them a greater understanding of each other, bringing them together and enabling them to deal with stress in a healthier way.
For the moment, they are living off their hard-earned savings but they plan to sustain life on the road with their art and music – the van doubles up as a recording studio from which the former bandmates have started uploading their ‘van jams’ and, if it comes to it, they can busk on the streets.
But what prompted them to make such a transformative decision? The pair realised things needed to change after writing a list of what they wanted in life: being together, living in nature, making music full-time, and seeing the world. Ultimately, they didn’t want to wait until retirement to enjoy freedom of body and mind – and they encourage anyone who feels the same to take the leap.
With their £14,000 savings, the couple spent £5000 on their converted, 17-year-old van; £1000 on insurance, tax and breakdown cover; and £3000 on a new laptop and supplies. That left them with a budget of £5000 for their first eight months on the road. They now keep themselves on £10 each per day, which includes their petrol, electricity, food and water.
Wixon lovingly describes how the van, previously called Rusty due to its flaking exterior, got its new name. “We called her Snail because she’s slow and carrying our whole home on her back,” she says. “Also, I really like that she represents a slow way of life.”
“Life was so stressful with so much going on all the time … Now it’s not moving as fast any more.”
Life in your twenties is very much about acceleration and progression, she says. “Getting that pay rise. Getting a name for yourself. We felt like we were in that bubble, balancing loads of plates: doing our jobs, our band, having our social life. It’s so stressful and there is so much going on all the time.” Now it’s not just the van moving slowly. “It takes 10 times longer to do something really simple like turn the tap on [because] we have to go and find water – we feel like time isn’t moving as fast anymore.”
Asked their biggest fear for the future, they say: returning to their former lives. “When we go to cities, as well as being, like, ‘do we smell?’, we’re like: ‘wow, look at these people rushing to their jobs and running for the train – that used to be us.’” says Picknett.
“I can’t believe I used to trade my time for money!” Wixon adds. ″You’re always thinking: ‘I’m comfortable, I’ve got my wage, I’ve got my job, I’ve got my comfortable house.’ Everything is very comfortable, everything is very safe. We had to become comfortable with the risk and ‘what ifs’.”
Certainly over Christmas, things became a little less comfortable: the pair found themselves stranded on a German lay-by following a minor crash in which Snail lost her “ear” (wing-mirror) and they were forced to spend Christmas in a rural French hotel waiting for a part to be delivered from the UK. Then the van broke down again. “Van life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows,” they email. ”But we’ve been rolling with the punches and despite our lack of control, we have a choice about how it makes us feel.”
Ultimately, Becky and Simone have exchanged socialising, status and spending for worries about where to find the next bin, how to deal with that elusive hornet nest in the van and the question of whether there are bears in Scotland. Oh, and not shitting too close to each other in the woods. Bums out after all.
You can follow Becky and Simone’s journey on their Facebook page.