Living in a Van and Doing it Sustainably: The Eco-Friendly Van Life

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

“It really helped us to solidify how we want to live our lives. We’ve learnt so many things from this experience, especially not to be so hard on ourselves and to just enjoy the process.”

Earlier this year, Nomadland won best picture at the Oscars. Following the story of Fern, a middle-aged American widower, the film depicts her journey as a travelling van dweller who up and leaves her life after being made redundant.


The success and popularity of Nomadland is not only a testament to its quality – the depiction of van living and the circumstances as to why one might choose to live this way appeals to both a current social trend, and provides a commentary on the wider societal and economic circumstances pushing a lot of people to live in converted cars or vans. The reasons for choosing this way of life vary from person to person; for many, it is a convenient and immersive way to travel, while others find the freedom of movement and minimalist way of living appealing. In Aotearoa, as in the post-recession America Nomadland depicts, some are finding that van life is their only solution to getting by in an increasingly volatile housing and rental market.


After finishing my studies and not wanting to spend another year in Te Whanganui-a-Tara trying to scrape together rent for a damp flat, I bought a Toyota Gaia with a bed in the back. Not quite big enough to call a van, my Gaia has offered me the freedom to travel around our beautiful country, taking me on two kinds of journeys – one over and across the motu, and one of independence, solitude, and learning to live minimally. On my way, I’ve met lots of cool humans choosing to do the same. Currently based at the Golden Bay Sustainable Living Centre in Takaka, a town which in and of itself feels like a community of nomads and itinerant people, I’ve been exploring what draws people to the van life, what benefits and challenges there are, and, most importantly, how to do it sustainably. With over 11.3 million people following the hashtag #vanlife on Instagram, this way of living is certainly drawing attention, and with the borders closed and many New Zealanders considering travelling around their home country this summer, it is important to think about how this can be done with tiaki in mind – caring for the people and environment of Aotearoa.


Tal Batzir, an ex-student of the Golden Bay Sustainable Living Course, which runs biannually here at the Centre, and her partner Jeff, are two humans committed to living the van life with the smallest environmental impact possible.

They’ve both been travelling in vans since they each arrived in New Zealand, and have been living on and off in their current Toyota Hiace for over a year. I sat down for a kõrero with them to hear about their experiences designing, kitting out, and living in their beautiful whare on wheels. They had plenty of insightful ideas about how to maximise the resources around you to create a space to suit your needs, values which Tal is particularly passionate about and form the premise for her upcoming website www.Sussed.nz, a platform which will look to connect van dwellers and travellers with local communities. Go there now and scroll down to get on the mailing list for the coming launch.



Renovating Your New Kicks: Think Re-Use, Recycle, and “Do I Need This?”

For some people, a huge part of the van life experience is the renovations that go into turning a vehicle into a home. The tiny house movement has certainly extended itself into van living in recent years, with hundreds of DIY van conversion videos and blogs published on YouTube and Instagram – Tal admits these can be a bit of a rabbit hole for the van-obsessed! Although, when I ask her whether she is addicted to renovating vans, she is hesitant to use that word. “I think its more something we admire,” she contemplates, “like how you can recycle and renovate things. We really see the potential of an object – rather than throwing it away, asking what else can you do with it?”


Tal and Jeff compare the approach they took to renovating and upcycling their van with the values they hold towards food consumption; “If we cook a lot of food and have leftovers, it's always a creative opportunity to see what we can do with it so that tomorrow we can enjoy it in a different way. You know, some people just use things and then put them in the landfill, which is a cycle we don’t want to follow. This attitude inspires us in every way, including our attitude to van living.”


The couple bought their van off a friend in 2020. Although it was kitted out with the basics needed to pass the self-containment requirements, they took pen to paper and began to plan the changes they wanted to make in order to turn it into a beautiful home. One of the first things they decided was that they wanted to use as much recycled native timber as possible. “It’s actually really nice to use native wood in van builds,” Jeff tells me, “because they have a natural treatment for water. As it can get quite moist in vans, if you’re using MDF board, which is just compressed sawdust, this attracts water and can get mouldy and smell bad, same with plywood. So native wood is a very good thing to use because it lasts way longer.” He warns that native timber is often heavier than other woods, however, so it’s important to be mindful when planning your van build – as Tal points out, “The heavier your vehicle, the more fuel you are going to use, so for us it was about making sure we were using it in the right places and not unnecessarily.”


Where To Source Materials For Your Van Renovations

Most of the wood Tal and Jeff sourced for the van were offcuts and leftovers from a friend’s tiny house build, who had recycled the wood from a house that had been demolished. They recommend doing your research when it comes to sourcing such materials. “You don’t need to go to Bunnings or the Warehouse,” Jeff points out. “Places like

  • Demolition Traders

  • Zebra U-Pick

  • Parts World

  • Renovation Warehouse

are great alternatives for picking up second hand materials – they are cheaper and there’s heaps of the strangest things. We bought all of our handles from there.” Another bonus is that products from these places are often packaging-free, minimizing your waste during the build.


Rubbish tips, skips, and dump stores are other great places to perusue for parts. It was in a rubbish tip that Jeff and Tal found their three burner stove, which Jeff cleaned up and replaced the knobs with some he hand-carved out of kwila wood. The couple then installed the stove on a platform which slides out from underneath the removable bench top, so that cooking can be done either outside or in. This kind of resourceful engineering seems to me the most ingenious meeting of practicality, sustainability, and beautiful craftsmanship.


No corner in Tal and Jeff’s van has been left untouched. Everything down to the finest detail has been lovingly attended to – their most recent adoption has been replacing the cracked plastic air-conditioning fans with wooden slats hand-carved by Jeff from 8000 year old swamp kauri, which was salvaged by a friend. My personal favourite upcycled object, however, is the beautiful wooden sink, which Tal reveals is a special testament to the journey the couple went on to create the van with a sustainable ethos.


Sheepishly, she tells me, “our deadline was coming up for when we needed to hit the road, so we went to the Warehouse and bought a plastic fruit bowl because we needed a sink. But then we realised, no we definitely don’t want that. So we took it back and decided we just needed to be patient.” Their patience was rewarded when Tal befriended the owner of a gallery next to the café she was working at, who happened to have an unused bowl made from native timber and a lathe which Jeff could use to sand it down into a sink. It is now an eye-catching feature, and a tribute to how Tal and Jeff married their design aesthetics with their sustainable ethos.


Tips For Living Sustainably In Your Van

When you are travelling on a budget, it can sometimes feel difficult to live sustainably. Although, as Jeff points out, living in a van almost makes it easier to lower the amount of waste you produce because you are forced to live minimally – “as soon as you get to a bigger place, you almost immediately attract more things.” The couple have some good tips for conscious travelling and honouring the tiaki promise.


1. Bulk buying

Many people will know that buying in bulk is a great way to reduce waste, while also often being the most cost-effective way to shop. The same applies for van living. Your space may be smaller, but this shouldn’t stop you from stocking up on the basics. Jeff and I quickly bond over our love of Bin Inn, the place of dreams for those looking to save on waste and cash! Whenever I’m on the road, I always make a point of stopping at Bin Inn, particularly to refill my empty jars of peanut butter (a 750g jar will cost between $5-6). Even better, if you take your own paper bags and jars, you get a 5% discount. Tal and Jeff have a special storage unit for their jars which they refill with rice, lentils, nuts, and other necessities for the road. They even have a personalised spice rack which means they can refill these when needed. Another thing to look out for are local refilleries and organic stores, which offer similar services. Buying your food from these outlets helps to support local businesses, which brings me to Tal and Jeff’s next tip.


2. Keeping it local

Where possible, support the local economy of the places you travel through. It’s common throughout Aotearoa to see roadside fruit stalls and places selling free-range eggs, so it’s always good to have a bit of cash on you. Often, all it takes is a quick google when you are arriving into a town – look for any fruit and vege co-ops, community gardens, or organic stores that might sell locally-grown produce. Some places may even let you volunteer a few hours of your time in exchange for some produce. At the Golden Bay Sustainable Living Centre, a beautiful herb garden sits behind the main earth building, which the public can harvest from for koha, and organic produce is sold out of a little market stall which is soon to be expanded into a local food shop.


3. Composting

Tal encourages everyone to collect their compost when travelling in a van, suggesting that, even though you may not have your own garden compost, doesn’t mean your food scraps need to go into the landfill. “We have separate bins like you would in your home,” she explains, “so when we travel we just hold on to our food waste and dispose of it when we get to, say, a friend's house if they have a compost, or a community garden space.” ShareWasteNZ is an awesome platform for anyone – traveller or not – who may not have space for their own compost but would still like to ensure their food waste is returning to the land to provide nutrients to plants and soil (rather than just releasing methane gas as it slowly decomposes in a landfill).


4. Solar power

The couple installed solar panels on the roof of their van to generate the clean energy needed to power certain utilities. If your budget allows, spending a bit of money on installing panels not only means you can use the sun’s clean renewable energy, but it also lowers your costs in the long run, offers a reliable energy source, and ensures you can have power off-grid. Tal and Jeff power their lights, water tank, devices, and second battery (which is used when there hasn’t been any sun for some time).


Sussed.nz: Connecting Travellers & Landowners

It’s fair to say that Tal and Jeff have created a beautiful whare, and have worked hard to apply their sustainable ethos to kitting and living out of their four wheels. Impassioned by their own journey renovating and travelling to Aotearoa, Tal was inspired to take this further when she enrolled in the Golden Bay Sustainable Living Course. It was here that she came up with the idea for Sussed.nz, and has since been doing the mahi to get her website off the ground. She explains Sussed.nz as “a platform that connects locals and travellers, with the ultimate goal of enabling travel to be more sustainable.”


When arriving in New Zealand, Tal quickly noticed that there was a lot of land not in use. The idea is that Sussed.nz “will connect those in the community who own property – no matter how small – that they are willing to rent out, with people travelling in self-contained vans.” In doing so, those renting the land can receive an income, and travellers will have access to more designated camping spots, particularly in places that are more rural and may not have any camping facilities. Alongside this, Tal wants those renting their land to be able to sell any produce they might have on their property, so that travellers can get locally grown food and products, therefore supporting the local economy. She sees this as an important step in creating more radically responsible and resilient communities, which travelling van goers are a part of, rather than separate from.


Tal has big ambitions with her website, although enabling this connection between local communities and travellers is the primary goal, long term visions for the platform include creating tools for people to find out various information about the places they travel to, such as where they can compost food scraps and human waste (if their van has a compost toilet). First and foremost, though, she wants to create more options for people, outside of already established freedom camping spots and paid campsites.


Sussed.nz is scheduled to launch later this year, offering a booking system for travellers to search for places to stay and then book in. This booking system will take away the gamble that exists with freedom camping, so you know you won’t be turning up to a campsite already full. Having this system in place will also protect the host renting their land, and enable them to have complete control. Each host will be able to create a profile detailing what they are offering, if they have any produce for sale etc. By connecting locals with those living and travelling in their vans, Tal believes that community resilience and sustainability can become a part of the ethos of van dwellers, who perhaps too often exist on the fringes. After all, if we are to be radically responsible humans, we all need to have this holistic attitude when thinking about our environmental and societal impact – be you a traveller (foreign or Kiwi) or living permanently in one of Aotearoa’s many beautiful places. Click here and scroll down to get on the email list for the launch of this website.


Feeling Inspired? Embrace the Eco-Friendly Van Life!

Here at GBSLC, we couldn’t agree more with Tal and Jeff’s approach to living sustainably, and their van is an inspiring example of how we can all live simply and with an environmental consciousness, even when travelling around the country. Since being at the centre, I have met many other like-minded van-goers who pass through, volunteering their time in the gardens and sharing their own experiences of van living. In fact, the Centre is the perfect place for anyone with a van wishing to immerse themselves in Golden Bay for a few weeks or more – for more details about being a residential volunteer, see here.


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If you’re thinking about converting a van this summer, or making your current home-on-wheels more eco-friendly, remember to do your research, find out what you need and don’t need in your space, recycle materials wherever possible, and, most importantly, enjoy it! “Creating our van together was such an amazing experience,” Tal tells me. “It really helped us to solidify how we want to live our lives – like with the salad bowl from the Warehouse, which we ended up returning!

We’ve really learnt so many things from this experience, especially not to be so hard on ourselves and to just enjoy the process.”
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