12/06/2018 07:00 BST | Updated 12/06/2018 11:08 BST

#Vanlife: Why I Left The 9-5 Behind To Travel The World Full Time

We found out the truth behind the Instagram craze.

Lauren Winslow-Llewellyn

Weaving through the stars of endless continents, exploring off-grid forests, rejecting working for a wage. No doubt, living life on the road in a converted van feels pretty appealing.

And it seems a lot of people agree. The hashtag #Vanlife has featured in 3,180,386 Instagram posts at the time of publishing: the feed filled with sunsets, very good looking people and dreamy outstretched roads. So what is it like for the people who actually do it? HuffPost UK decided to find out.

Brighton natives Lauren, 28, and Craig, 34, have been travelling the world for ten years. They’ve bought and sold five camper vans along the way, backpacking the rest. For them, vanlife is an affordable way of exploring the globe and lends itself to a simple, economical lifestyle. But, Lauren feels the social media-fication of the lifestyle may jar with its beginnings.

“I feel like social media has made it into this mirage. It’s not always hunky dory. It can be very difficult to find somewhere to stay, at points we didn’t shower for a long time! It’s upsetting that people don’t get the reality of the situation, and some are leaving such a mess when they leave sites. They need to be respectful,” she told HuffPost UK. 

One thing Lauren and Craig didn’t realise before starting their adventure was the importance of being “careful and discreet” when seeking out places to sleep. Being respectful to the locals and finding the cheapest option for overnight parking is paramount – but finding a location that satisfies both criteria is not an easy task.

Even if they plan to stay in a certain area for a few days, they will move their parking location every night, “so that we’re not an eyesore for locals”.

“When we drove to the Grand Canyon, we slept in a Christmas tree farm one night and then drove to the other side of the canyon for the other night and slept for free. Some people were staying in the middle of it all and paying $30-40 a night,” she remembers.

One thing many wannabe vagabonds always tell themselves is that they can’t afford the lifestyle. But, according to Lauren and Craig, it can be done. In their travels, they have worked their way around Australia, New Zealand and Canada and volunteered in Scotland, Greece, Morocco and Portugal, returning home sporadically and working bartending jobs to save for the next trip.

New England-based sisters Starling, 22, and Rein, 20, supplement their vanlife experience by running a mobile vintage pop up shop out the back of their van. They drive around, changing state each week and selling vintage clothes to fund their travels.

“We have had our bus for 10 years,” says Starling. “It was broken down in a blueberry field in Maine for about 40 years and when we happened upon it and inquired about it, the owner sold it to us for $50.”

In keeping with the respectful mantra of the vanlife movement, Lauren insists it is really easily to live sustainably.

“Try and use natural and biodegradable soaps when you wash in rivers - we handwash our own clothes with the same stuff to save using electricity in laundrettes. We’ve also used a bag shower, which heats via a solar panel. You’re supposed to hang it from a tree but we hang it from the roof of the van.”

Starling and Rein also have a simple routine that keeps their lifestyle as eco-friendly as possible: “We don’t have AC, the only light we use is daylight, we coast whenever we can,” Starling says.

Remember: contrary to what the beautifully filtered Insta snaps may suggest, it’s hard work. Escaping the 9-5 daily grind definitely doesn’t mean you evade graft.

Jayme, 26, and John, 31, from St Louis, Missouri, are currently travelling around the US with their two dogs in the back of their van. Although they feel much more relaxed than they were with their previous, suburban life, John insists that things are not always easy.

“We work incredibly hard, but we have the freedom to take a spontaneous day off to check out an awesome waterfall, or go for a hike.”

From constructing van curtains out of fleece blankets to a broken windscreen on the Alaskan-Canadian border, Lauren and Craig have encountered all kinds of obstacles on the road.

Privacy is also a tricky game - ensuring your own and respecting other people’s. After all, you are likely to be parking up close to other people’s neighbourhoods, so keeping everyone happy is key. “We’ve been moved on by police plenty of times, and we’ve also been caught showering by dog walkers!” Lauren says.

But whatever problems they may encounter, Lauren says that their lifestyle is too good to pass up. Even after having visited over 50 countries in nine years, she is adamant that it’s a tiny proportion in comparison to what is left for them to see.

“What’s next? Africa? Russia? The Middle East? There’s a big world out there.”