Some people have vacation homes. Other people – like me – have old vans in which they can’t wait to spend their time off driving around remote locales. Having recently returned from doing some van camping in Northern California, I’d like to share with you some of my tips for making the most out of living in a tiny space on wheels.
I want to first say how important it is not to underestimate the comforts of home. On the road you will have the same basic needs: food, water, sleep. Ahead of all other decisions, you’ll need to make sure those are met. When you’re traveling by van, life can be a ton of fun, and it can also be really scary. It can be overwhelming some days, uncomfortable other days and downright boring every now and then too. There’s no better way to make sure you’re prepared for anything than with a home on wheels.
These days, with #vanlife having brought the van camping lifestyle to such prominence, it’s easy to feel intimidated by all the fancy van conversions that hashtag digs up on Instagram. I promise you though, you absolutely do not need a shiny new Sprinter with state of the art cabinetry and sophisticated fixtures to get out on the road. Any old van will do, provided it runs well, you maintain the mechanics, and you treat the interior as you would any home.
With my tips below you'll be on the road in style in no time.
I’ve had my van for almost fourteen years. When I bought it, 60k miles were already on the odometer, and now it’s nearing 275k, with the bulk of those miles put on it in the first ten years I owned it. I built my business out of my van, spending the better part of that decade living in it, sometimes staying on the road for three or even six months at a time. I eventually added a small cargo trailer, and that setup faithfully took me everywhere I needed to go to get Little Hippie out in to the world. At times, I’ll admit, things could have been more comfortable, but even when I was crawling over bins of merch to get to my bed, I still managed the space in an organized manner that made all the travel I was doing that much more enjoyable. These days, my van has retired as a work vehicle, and I keep it in Northern California, a great jumping off point for all sorts of adventures.
My van is a Dodge Ram B1500. It’s the smallest of the Dodge Ram Vans, with a wheelbase the same length as an SUV or station wagon. Since I’ve always lived in New York City when I wasn’t on the road, the shorter length was really important to me for obvious parking reasons. Because I was choosing a short van (a stubby, as I call it), I also knew I wanted the extra space created by a high top. I would recommend that when choosing any van. More headroom is always a good thing when it comes to small spaces.
I also knew I wanted a six cylinder, though in retrospect, now that I know how much towing I was going to do with it, I regret that decision. Regardless, if I had only used it for leisure, six cylinders would have been perfect. I knew my price range, and I knew my mileage threshold. With those parameters, I searched on Auto Trader, found a handful of vans within a 200 mile radius, went to see the one that looked best, and bought it on the spot.
The point is this – assess your actual needs, then shop. Let technology find you your vehicle. This isn’t like buying a car. It’s not about picking the vehicle you want and then finding the best deal on it. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll quickly see how few of them are available. If you shop first, you risk buying a lot more van than you actually need.
Wouldn’t you rather spend that money on your trip?
1. Name your van. You’ll be amazed how much better you treat it when you’re no longer calling it “it.” I named mine Lucy, as in Loose Lucy.
2. Build a great bed - make sure it’s high enough to fit storage bins under. Do not settle for the fold out seats a lot of conversion vans come with. Rip that junk out and use the holes in the floor of your van to secure the bolts of your new bed. A plywood deck with a frame built out of 1x4’s with a 4” piece of foam is all it takes.
3. Build cubbies where you can keep the clothes you wear the most so you can get dressed in the morning without having to dig through bins or suitcases (suitcases are very unwieldy in a van). If you have room for some hooks, that’s the best way to deal with towels and jackets. If you wear hats, designate a space for hanging hats.
4. If you’re traveling with someone, have separate spaces for each of your things.
5. A small set of drawers is a great addition if you have room for it.
6. Install a mirror, at least one big enough for your face.
7. Install some LED lighting that’s not dependent on the car battery.
8. Make sure your windows are tinted and/or curtained. The most important thing to sleeping well in a van is feeling safe and away from prying eyes. You'll want curtains in the mornings too - it gets bright early when you're sleeping in a van!
9. Buy a good power inverter with enough plugs for your phone and your computer; twice that if you’re traveling with someone.
10. Invest in a reliable cooler, preferably one with a drain. I usually keep mine inside the side doors where I can drain it just by puling it out of the van a few inches. That way I don’t have to lift it full or bend over to pack it on the ground. If you're feeling really baller, go for a Yeti. It will eventually pay for itself in ice saved.
12. Pack a dish rack. Drying dishes is so annoying without one. As for dishes, pack a minimum. Generally enough of everything for two people should do it with a couple of big mixing bowls and a decent size cutting board. I usually only have 1 good knife with me. Can opener, corkscrew, and that’s about it. One frying pan, One sauce pan. Get a see through bin it all fits in easily, so you can see what you’re looking for from the outside instead of having to bang around a bunch of dishes every time you need a fork.
13. If you can, have at least a couple of windows with screens on them so you can have ventilation without bugs.
14. Install a ceiling vent. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had one. You can get them at any RV store, boating store, or Amazon.
15. Set up some kind of sink. For me, that was sometimes a shower bag hung from one of my side doors and/or a jug with a spout.
16. Set up a system for trash and recycling. For me, that was usually a bag hung from the other side door. Empty it often.
17. Set up a system for your driving area. Only keep the things you really use throughout the day up there. The biggest source of aggravation for me on the road is always when personal belongings pile up on the dash and in between the front seats.
18. Keep a stash of rags handy. Paper towels are for earth destroying suckers. You will have lots of things you need to clean up quickly. Have a system for storing dirty rags so they don’t get gross before your next trip to the laundromat. I recommend a netted grapefruit bag, so air can pass through. This can be hung from the door next to the trash too.
19. Start your mornings with a quick cleaning. Put things that can fall away before driving.
20. Use a laundry bag to keep things tidy.
21. Always make your bed. A tidy van with a well made bed makes a much better impression. You’re never going to be able to blend in when you’re van living, but you definitely want to minimize the extent to which you stand out. Don’t be an eyesore.
22. Get a door mat for the area inside your side doors. This is the part of your van that will get the most wear and tear. No question, having a doormat prolonged the life of my van by many years. Leave your shoes there. Shoes have no business in the rest of your van except upfront.
23. Clean regularly. Wash the outside, vacuum, wipe down the surfaces, just as you would clean your house. Vans get funky quickly. Don’t let that happen to yours.
24. Compartmentalize everything (except your feelings). I have a bucket for cleaning supplies, and a bucket for vehicle fluids, a bag for dirty rags, a bin for shoes, a container for toiletries, etc.
25. Don’t pack things you don’t need. You really don’t need much beyond clothes, bedding, laptop & kitchen basics. Don’t kid yourself in to thinking this is the time you’re going to get in to that hobby you always wanted. I had a friend who spent an entire year in a VW van with a girlfriend and a giant bag of yarn she never knit. Then they broke up. Don’t be them.
26. Travel off-season. There are plenty of places in this country where it’s warm enough to live in a van when the rest of the world is busy with school and work schedules. Summer can be a wonderful time to go home!
27. Get off the beaten path whenever you can get away for a few days. The road will reward you with sights you never knew you’d see. Carry an old fashioned atlas so you won't be lost without cell coverage when you get there.
28. Plan ahead. Sometimes. Committing to travel plans has been known to cause me great anxiety, but some things are worth locking down. Popular destinations like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are nearly impossible to camp at without a reservation. State park beach campgrounds in Florida nearly all have gates that close at sunset. Even if the campground isn’t sold out, you won’t be able to get in after dark unless you’ve already checked in and been given the code.
29. If you do find yourself locked out of somewhere you really want to go to, go find a parking lot to sleep in nearby. Day use areas nearly all open at 8am, and you can hang out in your van all day at those. It can make for some tough nights when you can’t find a good campsite, but if you stay flexible, you can make it work.
30. Places you can sleep for free will make your trip last longer. Officially this includes rest areas, truck stops, your friends’ houses, Walmart parking lots (supposedly Sam Walton’s daughter was a Deadhead so he allowed people traveling between shows to sleep there) and other lots without parking restrictions. A lot of hotels are easy to sleep behind too. If you’re feeling really bold, you can even sneak in to a room for a quick shower when a guest leaves the door open on their way out before housekeeping makes their way to that room.
31. A lot of places you park won’t be level, and after a while sleeping crooked will eventually annoy you. You can pick up some tire wedges aka "wheel chocks" at an RV shop or on Amazon that can be easily used to level out your parking spot. It's a good idea to have them anyway, to place behind your rear wheels when parked on a hill. Logs work well too if you don't have any chocks.
32. Use a windshield reflector when parked. It will increase your privacy at night and prolong your darkness in the morning. They make a huge difference with keeping temps down too. Use it even when you’re not in the van on hot days, so you don’t have to cool the van down as much before going to sleep.
33. On really hot days, when you’re struggling to cool things down enough to go to sleep, go to a self-serve car wash and spray the whole van down. It probably needs a bath anyway.
34. Relocating every day can take a lot out of you. Sometimes you need to stay put and catch up on work or sleep and sometimes you need to set up a home base from which to explore a bit.
35. Recreate! Go to hot springs, find swimming holes, and jump in the ocean. Exercise. A lot. Go for long hikes. Do yoga in weird places. Drop in on fitness classes when passing through towns. Driving long distances and living in a tiny space is brutal on the body. You have to overcompensate for that.
36. Don’t be afraid to drive in quiet. Of course music and audiobooks and podcasts are great, but the road is one of the best places to think. Let your mind wander as you wander.
37. Document your travels. You’ll think you’re going to remember it all, but you won’t. Keep a log of places you went. You can do this in lots of ways - buy postcards, mark an atlas, post pictures on social media, write notes in your phone, keep a journal, or all of it. Whatever works for you do it. You’ll thank yourself later.
38. Don’t go too long without seeing friends. You’ll probably make friends on the road, but you also might not. Most of the people in campgrounds are retirees or families. If you do not fall in to one of those categories, it’s easy to get lonely on the road. Reach out to people when you’re in their area, even if they’re just acquaintances. Visiting someone while traveling is a great way to get to know people.
39. If you’re traveling with someone, have candid conversations about your boundaries and/or needs. The road can lead to some amazing conversations, but it’s also really easy to get sick of someone when you're stuck in a vehicle with them all day. Don’t talk all day. You wouldn’t do that at home. With smart phones it’s so easy to get some space in your own world. Use your headphones. Listen to your own music or podcast or whatever. When you're camped somewhere do some solo exploring. Take turns making meals and sometimes make your own meals instead of expecting the two of you to be hungry always at the same time.
40. Maintain a sense of connection with your goals. Whether you’re working on the road or taking time off from work, this is a great time to align with what you really want out of life. While I was on my last trip, a friend told me to write down a goal that scares me and carry it around in my pocket. It helped me to focus on one goal as a takeaway from the journey, and now I'm more driven to accomplish it then ever. Stay tuned
41. Keep your paperwork up to date and don’t speed. Getting pulled over when you’re out of state, especially where you’re somewhere remote and not particularly progressive, is bad enough. It’s a lot worse when your insurance and/or registration has lapsed. You will be a target for cops. Do your best not to stand out too much in small towns.
42. Maintain the vehicle well. The best part of van camping is being able to go to far away places and be self-sufficient. The last thing you want is to get stranded because you neglected your mechanics. I got stuck on the side of the highway in Nevada with no cell service one night years ago when my wheel fell off my van going 80 mph down a hill. It was a long night.
43. Make sure someone knows where you are. Most likely you’ll be fine, but there are dangers out there on the road, and you don’t want to disappear. Social media is a great way to keep your whereabouts known without feeling like you have to call your mom to check in every day. If disaster does strike, you want to be easy to find. And please, if you go anywhere backcountry, follow the rules of letting people know your plans. Be safe, or as my mom would say WOBC (watch out be careful!)
45. Re: sleeping in rest areas. Women if you’re alone, be careful. On nights when I need to sleep in a rest area, I will first stop one place to brush my teeth and get ready for bed, and then sleep at the next rest area where I climb straight from my driver’s seat to my bed in back without getting out of the car so no one can see me. Bad things have happened to people in rest areas. If you get a weird vibe, follow your instinct; don’t stay.
46. Pack a set of snow chains. You might never need them, but if you do ever get stuck on a snowy road, unexpectedly, you’ll certainly be glad you have them. One night I was driving across Wyoming in the fall and it started snowing so hard they had to shut the highway down and I spent the night there in the snow. You can use them to get through mud too.
47. Which reminds me, never travel without enough water, food and warm clothing to make it through a couple of nights of being stranded. I’ve never been stranded more than one night, and I wouldn’t want to find out what more nights would be like without supplies. It’s a lot easier to think calmly in a tough situation when you know you have food, water and warmth.
49. At a bare minimum, carry extra oil, radiator fluid & jumper cables. I also travel with extra headlight bulbs, starter fluid, duct tape, reflector tape & windshield fluid. I keep it all in a 5 gallon bucket in the back of my van under the bed, and I have used all of these things many times.
50. Keep a budget. One of the best ways to avoid getting stranded somewhere is to make sure you have enough money to get back from wherever it is you are. It's possible to live in a van inexpensively, but repairs add up as do supplies. Always make sure you have a back up plan, even if it's just some open capital on a credit card.
For a shopable Amazon list of the items recommended above, click here.
I wrote most of this list while lying in the bed of my van last spring looking out at the Pacific Ocean from the Sonoma Coast. I finished writing it after returning East from another trip to California where I spent two weeks in my van working remotely while visiting friends and traveling in Northern California. I built this business in that van, and it was precisely this kind of freedom to work wherever I wanted to be that motivated me to do so in the first place. Whether you too are looking to create that kind of opportunity for yourself, or you simply want to enjoy some time on the road, I hope this list helps you on your journey.
Have fun out there!
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