Van-life practicalities I: Water

When contemplating the idea of living in a van, one keyword in mind was simplicity. Cutting down the material stuff is obviously compulsory when switching from a regular, mid-sized apartment to 6 m2 of living/storage space. Life also feels more simplified when you need to pay more attention to the basic needs: food, shelter, water. Paradox. You need to pay more attention because these things get more complicated the moment you leave the comforts of a permanent home (permanent in the meaning it’s not moving around constantly). Heating doesn’t come from a municipal-central-facility-thingy. Hot and cold water don’t flow from taps in abundance.

So about water, then. Our water system is three-fold: drinking, tea and cleaning water, in declining order of purity.

While tap water is perfectly drinkable, I suppose, throughout western Europe (they tell you when it’s not: eau/aqua/aigua non potable/potabile etc.) we have opted to drink bottled water after leaving Scandinavia. Though first I was a bit against the idea with all the plastic bottles involved, my conciousness has been consoled since with the seemingly efficient recycling system of plastic and other containers (emballage) in France and Spain. We use roughly one 2 l bottle per day between the two of us, not because we enjoy being dehydrated but because we drink other stuff too.

Bringing us to tea water. That is the water we take from various taps along the way to two 6-8 l bottles. This we use for brewing tea and cooking, anything really where the water is ending up in tummy but gets boiled first. The dog (poor thing) drinks this water unboiled. Concidering the tap water comes quite often from a spring in the mountains we should really drink that instead of the bottled, but once you’ve established a system… Tea water consumption is about 3 l per day between us three, dog included.


Lastly, we have a 40 l “fresh” water tank at the rear of the van which provides for the two taps in kitchen and toilet. As the water might lay in the tank for quite a while, it doesn’t actually stay too fresh so we use this only for dishes and washing ourselves, excluding teeth. We don’t have a water boiler or proper shower in the van (that’s middle class), so the washing-ups are limited to hair with the aid of a friend + a tea pot and other areas you can bend over the toilet sink. The consumption of tank water varies greatly. If we are in the woods and lacking water supply for several days, we wind down the consumption, consequently smelling more. Never have paid that much attention to the exact amounts, but I’d say we survive 4-5 days with a full tank. The tap water is drained to a grey water tank which also takes 40 l and thence needs emptying at the same pace as fresh water tank needs filling.

Overall the three different sources make about – very crude estimate – 15 liters of water consumption per day for two adults and a dog within the confines of the car. Add to this the occasional showers, laundry, toilet stops and other watery deeds outside the van and I think we still stay safely under the over 100 litres I assume the average European consumes fresh water daily. Yes, the canonization process for making us martyr-saints is about to begin in the Vatican. And if despite our efforts Earth doesn’t make it, at least we’re fully adjusted for life in planet Arrakis. Point I want to make is that you can come by with fairly little water and still retain basic hygien/living standards. I leave you to plan your own moist van life with the water info below and these two words: Baby. Wipes.

Where to top up water tanks?

Europe, especially France, is full of self-service stops for camper vans where you can fill your fresh water tank, empty the chemical toilet and the grey water tank. In France these are known as aires de camping car and I will praise these in fuller detail in a later post. More often than not these are free of charge. Sometimes (we have rarely done it) you pay few euros for the water, but in these cases the quantities provided are usually designed for bigger camping cars with bigger tanks (100 l is quite normal). A hose with standard connection can be convenient here, but the good old bucket + funnel system works just fine, too.

Many villages especially in/near the mountains have public free flowing taps bringing water from mountain streams (so I suppose). With these it’s good to top up modest amounts of water since the water fluctuation is usually not very strong and often you can’t get the van parked close to the tap.

Petrol stations also come to mind intuitively when looking for water, but they don’t always have taps. We’ve only rarely taken water from them.

Lastly, use the fresh water streams at your own discretion. Don’t drink water you’re suspicous of; the van is not ideal place for stomach diseases (we’ve avoided so far, thanks to bottled water?).

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2 thoughts on “Van-life practicalities I: Water

  1. So many practical questions I didnt get to ask now answered 🙂 such a paradox that getting off the rat race takes u to another kind of race. But at least its a different race eh 🙂


  2. I guess we’re textual communicators, you and I 🙂 It’s a race still, yes, but once you learn the tricks, you can decide the speed. All the little mundane tasks needed to keep the life spinning just feel so much more meaningful when you’re doing them for the direct benefit of your own wellfare. (And the person next to you. And the dog.) In Finland we could coin it “Chopping the wood at summer cottage -efect”. Though I suspect more and more people buy their wood ready chopped these days…


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