Life tips

Select the Right Van for You

Know what makes van camping much easier? Selecting the right van in the first place! A few of the most common types include:

  • Minivan – Small and discrete, a minivan is a good choice for those that prefer a simple van camping setup.
  • Cargo Van – One of the most popular types of vans for custom builds, a cargo van is spacious, stealthy, and very versatile.
  • Fixed-Roof Campervan – Designed straight from the manufacturer as a camping van, these vans have a fixed roof that doesn’t change in height.
  • Pop-Top Campervan – Very similar to a fixed-roof campervan but with one key difference: these vans have a pop-top roof to extend while parked for more interior space and standing room.
  • Class B RV – A more luxurious take on a campervan, these extra-long van-sized RVs usually have a complete kitchenette and very small bathroom onboard. Of course, if you already own a van, there’s no reason you can’t build that model out to suit your needs. Our beginner’s guide to van camping has more info!

Consider a Simple Build

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the beauty of many camper van builds. The ones that you tend to see on Instagram, YouTube, and blogs are most often the cream of the crop – they took a lot of time, skill, and effort to create. Not to mention money. Although browsing van life builds on the Internet is great for inspiration, we recommend setting a realistic budget (and sticking to it), starting with a simple build, and upgrading as you go. All that you really need to do for a simple build is remove the back seats. This allows you to throw in your sleeping bags and the rest of your camping gear. Kick this up a few notches by building a storage/bed platform with a comfortable mattress. Overtime, you can add more specialized features like insulation, heating and cooling, a mini fridge, kitchenette, and more. Of course, if you have the money and the time, there’s no reason not to do your dream van build from the beginning, especially if you plan on full-time van living. r/vandwellers on Reddit is one of the best hubs of build inspiration and info.

Make Sure You Have all the Right Gear

No matter your van model or the complexity of your build, there’s a few simple pieces of camping equipment that every van camper needs:

  • Sleeping – You have a lot of options here. Keep it simple with a sleeping bag and sleeping pad or opt for a mattress (a 4-inch thick memory foam works perfect) and your favorite blanket, quilt, or comforter.
  • Cooking – Many van lifers build a kitchenette in their van. Don’t want to get so fancy? A camping cook stove works just as well. And don’t forget your cooler or mini fridge!
  • Warmth – Start by insulating your van from the cold (this also helps insulate against the heat in the summer). Next up is a portable space heater. Both propane and electric models are available. Don’t forget to bring along any van-specific items you need to keep your camper van running for the trip (such as a roadside emergency kit).

Stay Organized

Organization is key when you’re working with a small amount of space, such as camping in a van. As you become more familiar with van camping, you’ll undoubtedly come up with your own storage hacks. But for beginners, we recommend using soft-sided bags – duffel bags work great – to store supplies inside. Another storage tip is to keep items you use most near the top of storage bags and bins. For example, I keep my cookware and sleepwear near the top and other supplies underneath. Most serious van builds take storage into deep consideration. One popular storage hack is to build a platform bed. The mattress goes on top with plenty of storage space underneath. For more complicated builds, multi-purpose and fold-away items are essential. Pop-up shelving, fold-up tables, and items that double as seating (such as a cooler) are popular ideas.

Start Small and Build Up to Longer Trips

Just because you’re excited doesn’t mean you have to rush into van life. Start small. Take a few quick weekend road trips in your new van. Work up to week-long trips and maybe try a multi-week road trip in the summer. You’ll quickly learn what works and what doesn’t on these shorter van camping trips.

Find Free Campsites

It’s easy to find free camping – if you just know where to look. National Forests, National Grasslands, BLM land, and Water Management Areas across the country offer free dispersed camping. Note that free camping is usually primitive with few, if any, amenities – so be prepared for van boondocking. FreeCampsites.net is an invaluable resource for finding free camping in North America.

Invest in a High-Quality Cooler

A camping cooler is one piece of gear I will never skimp on. Although it can be tempting to pick up a budget model, I all but guarantee you’ll be much happier with a high-quality, rotomolded model with extra-thick insulation. A high-end cooler keeps your food much colder for much longer, especially when you know how to use a cooler correctly. Another option is a portable refrigerator for van camping.

Cook Simple Meals

Honestly, one of my favorite parts of camping is cooking. With just a few simple tools and a camping stove, you can whip up delicious meals. That said, I prefer to stick to simple one or two pot meals to minimize cleanup. Pasta, tacos, and grilled cheese sandwiches are a few of my favorite hot van life meals. Try to prep your meals at home before your trip to make van cooking even easier.

Make Privacy Screens

Curtains or privacy screens are a must for van camping. You can make these as simple or as luxurious as you like. Old sheets work well for very simple curtains. But, personally, I like something that's a little nicer to look at. It’s easy to make DIY van curtains with the fabric of your choice, picture hanging wire, and a few screws.

Try Stealth Camping

Many van lifers turn to stealth camping when traveling through cities or towns. Simply put, stealth camping is parking in a residential, commercial, or industrial area for the night. The goal is to fly under the radar. No one should know you’re inside your van. This is why we recommend that you arrive late, leave early, and don’t exit your vehicle at all.

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