How to Get Started in Van Life
Imagine yourself at home on the open road: There’s nothing tying you down, and a world of adventures is ahead of you. Now imagine that you can make that life not just feasible but comfortable, with everything you need to work and play right at your fingertips. This is van life.
In late 2018, my fiancé and I began planning our foray into elective nomadism, leaving behind offices and apartments for work, play, and life on the road. We spent six months living happily in our van, seeing sights and visiting friends. And although the pandemic cut our trip short, we’re looking forward to restarting our van adventures once that crisis is fully behind us.
The community of “van lifers” is only growing, filled with adventurers who see the vast expanse of living potential in that middle ground between lumbering RVs towing golf carts and bare-bones minivan mattresses. But how do you even get started? You can spin your wheels for a long time mixing and matching creature comforts and practical realities, but there are a few major paths people take.
First, a Difficult Choice
Say you’ve finally decided that life on the road is for you. You’re planning to work from home, hit some national parks, visit new cities, and see old friends.
Your first job is to decide what’s really important to you. Can’t live without a flush toilet and a shower inside your home? You should probably go with an RV or a professionally converted camper van. Are you envisioning a mini-home that you can leave behind at a campsite or in a relative’s driveway while you go off adventuring in the city? You might consider a teardrop trailer or a larger towable camper.
But if you want an all-in-one compact lifestyle that doesn’t require hookups and special campsites, van life is for you. Now you need to get some wheels.
On the cheap: You’re in for an adventure! The more DIY talent you have, the better—you’ll lean hard on your car maintenance skills, carpentry know-how, and creativity. Get the advice of a trusted mechanic when picking out your used vehicle, because this can be a trap where you end up spending more on maintenance than you save. Prioritize insulation and efficiency in your build. Plenty of people love the look and vintage feel of a Westfalia camper or a VW bus, but maintenance can be tough on the oldest vehicles. Younger vans, such as the Chevy Astro or Dodge B200, are favorites among DIYers.
$20,000 – $50,000: This is the budget range that most middle-of-the-road van people choose. At this level you might be able to afford a professional conversion, but you’ll get more for your dollar if you do at least some of the work yourself. If you’re mechanically inclined, a secondhand van could be right for you. Pay attention to things like wheelbase width and interior height, especially if you’re tall. You’ll get to choose some comforts—consider a composting toilet, an indoor shower, or a permanent bed.
Money is no obstacle: Get a professionally converted van. You’ll be able to add in whatever personalized features you think would be fun to your new vehicle—van conversion companies offer a wider range of perks than average DIYers can manage on their own. Think wood-burning stove, solar panels and batteries, pop-up roof. Some will do artistic tiling or woodwork. Spring for custom racks for surfboards or road bikes, specialized cooking equipment, swivel-out hammocks—go wild.
Three Popular Van Choices
We chose something like the middle road of van life. We bought our 2017 Dodge Ram Promaster van from friends who had done most of the build themselves, adding a high-end composting toilet, big solar panels with a hefty DIY battery, and a top-of-the-line ventilation fan to complement the relative simplicity of the layout and storage system.
They skipped a shower, opting for a national gym membership and access to the facilities there. When we took ownership of their custom house-on-wheels, we added new homemade window covers, redid the storage in the pantry area, and took out the pet paraphernalia they’d installed for their exuberant Australian shepherd.
💡 The rest of this guide outlines what we found useful in our time on the road. This is one way to be successful out there, but definitely not the only way.
Eating out all the time gets old—fast. I’m an avid home cook, so selecting the most versatile kitchen tools to fit into our miniature cabinets and countertops was a challenge. Once on the road, anything that didn’t get used regularly (or used too much power) got left behind. Here’s what you need:
Fridge/freezer: Being able to carry your own ice cream on a road trip is a game changer. Having ample room for fresh veggies, eggs, leftovers, and more as we traveled made life on the road cheaper and more delicious.
Induction cooktop: This cooktop was power- and space-efficient, easy to pack away when not in use, and quick to boil a pot of water.
Frying pan: Not all pans work with induction; you need one with enough iron in it to be magnetic. So we invested in a good nonstick pan to go with the induction cooktop. This one was easy to clean and fried eggs beautifully.
Dutch oven: This Dutch oven, my all-purpose pot, has accompanied me through two apartments and into van life. It has hit the floor once or twice and just keeps chugging along. And it comes in fun colors!
Collapsible kettle: This one’s debatable, but as a frequent tea drinker it was a relief not to pull out the Dutch oven every time I needed hot water. It also came in handy for heating water to wash extra-dirty dishes.
Knife roll: In a traveling van, storing sharp objects in a block or on a magnetic strip is risky. I wrapped mine safely away in this knife keeper.
Spatula: This may seem silly, but you’ll want to cut down your utensils as much as possible. This spatula takes the place of four different kitchen tools for me, and it has no hard-to-clean crevices or wooden parts.
We spent nights parked on quiet streets, in noisy campgrounds, and (once) near enough to a swamp to hear the alligators. It was disruptive to sleep in a new place every few nights, but having familiar pillows and sheets helped our van feel like home. The ventilation fan I mentioned earlier made a breeze and a soothing white noise, but a few other items helped us get some quality rest.
Foam mattress pad: Our van had a dinette that converted into a bed, which meant we slept on an assemblage of bench cushions. To hold them in place and make things more cozy, we added this as a layer between the cushions and our sheets.
Mood lighting: A kit like this one provided mood lighting at night. Energy efficient and conveniently equipped with a remote control, these helped us read by warm light as we prepared to hit the hay.
Blackout curtains: These curtains blocked light, muffled sound, and insulated us from temperature swings.
Organization Is Everything
When you’ve got around 70 square feet of living space, every inch matters. Packing and storage solutions that helped us save space (while not losing anything to the far backs of cabinets or benches) were vital to our trip.
While some van lifers swear by vacuum bags, we didn’t find them necessary. If you plan to travel to a wide range of temperatures and need to store heavy jackets, you may want to consider them.
Packing cubes: Living in a van means you have a capsule wardrobe by default. My fiancé and I each had a cube for shirts and a cube for pants, plus smaller cubes for socks and underwear. They stowed away neatly in our cabinets and made laundry day much easier to manage. This set is a good start. They open and close smoothly, and ours held up to a lot of stress.
Plastic organizers: We had these in our fridge to keep fruits from rolling around, in cabinets to store can openers, lighters, tape, and scissors, and in our pantry to hold spices, oils, and sauces. I expected them to take up too much space, but they were actually space savers, keeping our mess contained.
Velcro straps: My grandma, who travels in an Airstream trailer, bought us these as a van-warming present, and I was skeptical we’d ever use them. But they became invaluable for everything from tying back curtains, bundling up cables, and attaching rattling objects securely to our tie-downs.
Don’t Forget Fun
When we first set out in the van, we brought a PS4 along. The unit and its controllers and cables just barely fit into our cabinets. And in order to play it, we found that we needed to wait for “PS4 weather.” Cold but sunny weather gave us enough power to run the high-energy console while not overheating the van.
Not ideal for everyday use. Other gadgets ended up being more compelling.
Nintendo Switch: It’s the perfect van game console—compact, energy efficient, and endlessly entertaining. There are a lot of fun two-player games for the Switch, but it was also an unobtrusive way for my fiancé to climb mountains in Breath of the Wild if I was sleeping or reading.
Kindle Paperwhite: This waterproof e-reader helped me keep my book hoarding to a van-friendly volume. All the other e-reader advantages apply too, like the long battery life and backlit screen that allows reading in the dark.
Basic binoculars: There’s so much to see when you’re crisscrossing the country. I kept my binoculars in the glove compartment, where they proved handy for roadside birding, spotting dolphins off the coast, and even picking out campsites from a distance. Pair this with the free Merlin Bird ID app for a brand-new way to explore the world around you.
National Park journal: We visited a dozen national parks in six months, making the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass a deeply worthwhile investment. This sturdy little notebook includes a map of all the parks, gorgeous artwork, stickers, and lists of park must-sees—all of which we found useful and fun.
Extra-long phone charging cables: Our house was about 10 feet long…and so was our longest phone charging cable. It was frankly very fun.
Our Day-to-Day Routine
A typical day of van life started with waking up in our cozy bed and checking the weather— immediately. The weather dictated things like how much solar power we’d have to use for the day, and how much time was feasible to spend outside in whatever rain or humidity we’d encountered.
After breakfast (often oatmeal and a cup of hot tea), we’d make sure all cabinets were closed and the fridge was latched. We didn’t leave anything to rattle around, and it was important that everything had a place to be stored away.
Then, because we were working, most of the time we’d move from wherever we’d slept on to wherever we’d found WiFi. Often that meant coworking with a friend, but we also made good use of coffee shops and public libraries across the country. Once, we found a bench outside a national park gift store for a few hours of work. It wasn’t the most reliable internet, but when our work was done we were beachside and ready to take a snorkel over a beautiful coral reef.
Sometimes, I’d take advantage of solar power midday to precook our dinner. If my fiancé needed to pull a lot of power, midday was the right time for that as well.
In the late afternoon, we’d figure out where we’d be sleeping for the night. If we were finding a new place to camp, it was much easier to figure out appropriate locations before it got dark. Then we’d either get dinner out or move to our sleeping site to cook, clean up, and get cozy once again.
What I Surprisingly Liked
Capsule wardrobe: You really can’t be a clotheshorse if you live in a van. For my fiancé, cutting down was easy—he mostly wears the same T-shirts, cargo shorts and Birkenstock sandals every day. For me this was much more difficult, since my style varies from fairy princess on one day to kindergartener-on-a-field-trip the next. But by being limited to a few packing cubes and a single cabinet (plus one wedding/funeral formal outfit for each of us stored deep under our bed), I found myself loving the simplicity and embracing a casual vibe.
Gourmet cooking: I didn’t expect to be able to cook well in the van, but I did bring my entire spice collection just in case. As it turns out, you can work wonders in a small space if you’re creative. Although many of our meals were cooked on a single induction burner, we had the advantage of fresh produce from farmers markets and farm stands across the country, plus a wealth of local specialties to try out as we traveled.
What I Surprisingly Hated
Water usage: One of the biggest limiting factors for us was our water tanks. Just seven gallons fit under our sink, so we carried a few extra gallon jugs in our storage space and stocked up before heading out into the desert. Having such small water tanks meant filling up was easy and relatively inexpensive, but it also meant washing dishes was a pain.
Noise on the road: When we slept in friends’ driveways or on the street, we really had to prioritize finding a quiet spot—no ambulances, cars passing at high speed, or humming power lines. On the positive side, when we were in the woods we’d wake up hearing every bird in the trees above us. On the negative side, if a neighborhood had a rooster, it sounded like it was standing on the kitchen counter. If I were to build another van, I’d really prioritize sound insulation in the walls.
A Last Note for Beginners
The most important thing is finding a place to stay. You’ll want to nail this down as far ahead of time as is reasonable, especially if you’re trying not to pay campground fees every night. We contacted friends ahead of our visits and asked about safe parking places. And we relied on a few websites (freecampsites.net is one) that help van lifers find free camping spots on public land or in state forests, some of which allow campers to stay as long as 14 days.
One more popular van life tool is a subscription to Harvest Hosts, a site that connects self-contained campers to vineyards, farms, and golf courses that will allow overnight stays with the expectation that you’ll buy something at their store, stay for dinner, or play a round.
Also follow the good weather. People often say they live “out” of their van, rather than in it, so if you’re staying in torrential downpour for days, your life will be a bit more complicated. And remember, you’ve only got a tiny bit of floor space, so if your shoes are wet when you walk inside, soon the entire floor is wet. It’s also worthwhile to consider how comfortable you’d be if temperatures dropped overnight, or if your fan isn’t enough to keep you cool at night.
And, maybe it goes without saying, but be sure to visit as many state and national parks as you can. These areas are preserved for a reason, and every park we managed to visit showed us something beautiful, and something worth seeing. If you plan to stay in one state for a while, you can often buy an annual pass for the state parks. Canada offers a Discovery Pass that covers monuments and parks in that country, and for $80 the U.S. National Park Service has an America the Beautiful Pass ($80) that covers day-use fees at more than 2,000 federal sites.
Published at Sun, 30 May 2021 13:00:00 +0000