Living Tiny – a Personal Experience

The point of departure:  2 people, a DIY-camper van, 5 m2 floor space, a lot of stuff, summer and autumn in Italy.

Last year was the driest italian summer in a long time! We met many Italians who pointed that out to us. For months it did not rain and it was boiling hot. Maybe not the best year to travel through Tuscany and starting in July, but who should have known?! My personal temperature record was 33°C (inside the van) at night, shortly before going to bed – the good news: you wouldn’t need a blanket.
After a short excursion to the seaside, meeting cramped and scorching conditions, we kept ourselves hidden in the mountainous inner regions. Above 1,000 m altitude the temperature was quite bearable – but enough of the self-pity!
I did some fantastic off-road hikes through forests and over mountain ridges, quite often finding the spiritual connection to nature that I had been looking for, but that is not what I want to talk about today. This time I want to share my experiences and thoughts about living tiny, that is, with two people in a small camper van with a floor space of about 5 m2.

wild camping. niels jobstvogt. CC BY-NC 4.0
Wild camping with our camper “lady” Alma. Image by Niels Jobstvogt, CC BY-NC 4.0.

Alma, the old camper van “lady” that we were travelling with, had all sorts of build-in luxuries, like kitchenette, water supply with pump for washing the dishes, a loft bed, a couch area (or second bed for small people), roof window to gaze at the stars, an awesome sound system, tons of storing space including a secret storage, where we kept the silver and the like. We even had a toilet, which we never used, because outside you had so much more privacy.
Being just one step away from nature (literally!), was an experience that I enjoyed a lot! The morning routine went a bit like this: being woken up by the sun, getting up, brushing your teeth, stepping outside for breakfast, either in the sun or searching for shade under a tree.

Living on the road, is not a new idea, the Sinti and Romanies and other traveling peoples did it, Jack Kerouac already wrote about his road-trip adventures in 1951, the 1968 sexual-revolution-generation did it and lorry drivers do it all the time. However, I believe it has never been so popular to live in such a small place permanently. In the USA there is a whole movement, calling themselves the tiny house community, which designs smaller and smaller versions of houses on wheels. These houses are very different to camper vans, in a way that they are most often made out of wood and from the inside just look like a real house, only much much smaller.

A few years ago I stumbled upon Jay Shafer giving a video tour of his tiny house. His prototype back than, only had 8 m2 floor space and was built on a trailer, like an RV (recreational vehicle). Certainly an incredibly bold idea, at least when you consider living in it. Shafer is one of the tiny house celebrities in the US, as he co-authored this hype and set people on fire for the idea.
The motivations for the tiny way of life are manifold, among them: mobility, owning a mortgage free house, less cleaning, less clutter, closeness to nature, do-it-yourself building, circumventing building codes (to some degree), reducing your ecological footprint and a small heating bill.

Video: Do the tiny house tour with Jay Shafer (3 min).

As with so many trends in the US, also the tiny house movement found its way across the Atlantic. In Berlin, which is famous for its squats and trailer park subculture, living tiny seems to become part of the mainstream now. Well, we are not quite there yet, but a group called the Tiny House University, designed a trailer with 6 m2 floor space, including, kitchenette, bathroom with shower and toilet, loft bed, desk, couch, storage and large windows. Seeing the trailer from the outside you would not believe how much fits inside, but the tiny space uses a trick with very high ceilings (3.60 m) and large windows, that make the space appear much larger from the inside. I have been inside with about 15 people – it was full.
The designers’ idea is to make living affordable for everyone, by shrinking the size of apartments to a bare but still comfortable minimum. Their tiny house was just a prototype apartment that they want to build as a multistorey building with 50, or so, tiny house apartments and communal areas around them.

I was fascinated by the tiny house movement, to say the least. When I asked my partner a few years ago about moving into a tiny trailer house, she thought I had gone completely nuts. Until last year I assumed , that to live tiny, I had to find a small piece of land, design and build a tiny house and then move to the countryside, to try this way of life for myself. Turns out I was looking in the wrong direction, a camper van (our “Alma”) would suffice, at least for a test run – no land required, no DIY-building necessary, no brain-melting arguments with the authorities to get a permit for your tiny home. It was that simple!

You might wonder whether 5 m2 was enough for the both of us? Well, to tell you the truth, it was alright in summer, spending most of the time outside, but coming autumn, you could feel the walls closing in on you. It is definitely a cool way of living for one person, when temperatures do not go below zero. For two people it is fun for a little while, but long-term I could not envision to live like that. It was comfortable to have your house always with you. Sometimes I felt like a snail carrying my house on my bag and stopping, eating, sleeping wherever I felt like it.
It is true that chaos is not an option, so you get used to putting everything in its place very early on. Every little item had its supposed place, so much that I was even speaking of, plates “living” in this cupboard, candles “living” on that shelf, which in the hind side seems quite odd.

I am quite a geek, when it comes to ecological sustainability, so it was a tough decision for me to buy a car. I had lived a good life without my own car for over 30 years, so why get one now? My conscious was much troubled, I tell you! I did not like the idea to get a fuel gargling vehicle rather than taking the train or cycling. Anyways, in the end I bought it and even though such big cars use a lot of diesel (between 10 l -12 l per 100 km), you might even be better off than people living in a house or apartment, at least when you consider that the infrastructure that our houses constitute do not come without a massive ecological footprint as well. I have not come across any studies so far, but would be massively interested to put that into comparison, so let me know, if you read something along the lines.

To be honest, camping wild was a new experience for me and I was very scared to begin with. Fortunately, we never got robbed. It is true, that we got visited by the police a few times, but they were much more interested in finding people/drug/weapon smugglers than making a fuss about us camping in the wild.
Italy, at least its northern half, is very recommendable for wild camping. It was super easy to find fresh water fountains to replenish our supplies, often there are special parking areas for (free) overnight camping, even though you still have to spot them. Cruising around in a camper van is quite popular in Italy, so the infrastructure is well established. In the interior of the country we felt more welcome than at the coast, were communities seemed a little more restrictive to wild camping.
We figured out that most people on the road were pensioners – big surprise. Our Alma was quite unique among the white-greyish, standard, luxury camper fleet.

cooking. niels jobstvogt. CC BY-NC 4.0
Cooking, with nature just one step away. Image by Niels Jobstvogt, CC BY-NC 4.0.

For me there were good and bad experiences on this trip. Personally, I found it nerve wrecking to constantly look for new overnight spots, despite the good infrastructure. On a lucky day it took us only an hour to find a spot, but on bad days it was a day-filling task to accomplish, sometimes ending in quarrels and low spirit.
There were days when I wished we were just “normal” tourists driving from A to B and having booked the whole package in advance. Then on the other side, the wild camping was the whole point! I learned that the sense of total freedom and the feeling of security, more often than not, find themselves on opposing ends of the emotional gradient. So, if you want to go on an adventure, you will find yourself outside of your comfort zone, security is not included in that travel package.

I want to conclude with one of my favourite moments during this trip. I will never forget when we found this bathing site at a small mountain river near La Verna (Tuscany). A guy who I talked to at a village festival had recommended it to us, but we hadn’t been sure that we could actually find it. The place was stunningly beautiful, the water shaded from the scorching sun, cool and crystal clear. Considering how dry it had been, it seemed almost a miracle that we found running water at all. We had picnic on the rocks on top of the river and decided to stay for the night.
It had been a super hot day and the van was heated up by the sun. It was still too hot when we wanted to go to sleep, so we left the back doors open. Because it was such a remote area, with barely any artificial light, it was possible to see the sky with a billion stars just from where we were, lying on the sofa. It was amazing and I felt completely at peace with myself and the world!

This trip made me realise, that I need very little to be happy. Focusing only on my basic needs, made me realize how pathetic some of the troubles were, that I had been carrying around with me all the time. I believe, that living tiny could be a long-term solution for me, but sharing a space of 5 m2 in two was definitely too tiny for my taste and I would not want to be on the move all the time either.

What is you experience living tiny? Did you ever think about it? Let me know!

goose. niels jobstvogt. CC BY-NC 4.0
Teaching my feathered friend about “human nature”. Image by Niels Jobstvogt, CC BY-NC 4.0.


Further reading:

Tiny House University Campus in Berlin (last visited 24/01/2018)

Tiny House Gallery (last visited 24/01/2018)


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