Living in a van can be challenging at times. Finding a safe place to park, making sure you have enough water and power, and navigating life in a confined space are all part of the daily routine.
It gets easier as time goes along, especially when you start working out little van life hacks on the road. Florian (my husband) and I live in our Peugeot Boxer van conversion full-time, so we’ve had plenty of practice at making life that little bit easier.
Here’s my top 17 van life hacks:
1. Glove compartments
When you park your van somewhere and have to go out, leave your glove compartments wide open and empty. This will show any opportunist thief that there is nothing in the cab worth stealing.
2. Get a steering wheel lock
We invested in a good quality steering wheel lock right at the beginning of our journey. It gives us peace of mind when we are in the supermarket, and helps prevent opportunistic thieves from stealing the van.
If someone really wants to make off with your vehicle, they will be able to break it off a wheel lock with some tools. But most car thieves will notice the lock and go find an easier target.
3. Install a hidden kill switch
As we don’t ever visit the city in our van, we haven’t installed an engine kill switch.
But for people that park in high-risk places, you can install a hidden kill switch very cheaply and easily. Whether the potential thief has your keys or is trying to hotwire, the engine won’t start if you’ve flipped the switch. It’s very unlikely anyone will stick around to find out why.
You can pay a mechanic to do this for you, or install it yourself with help from the video below.
4. Barking dog recording
Even if you don’t actually have a dog, you can still scare off any potential thieves with a prerecorded barking sound!
I have several Van Life friends that keep a Youtube recording of an aggressive barking dog in their favorites bar on their laptop. If they feel unsafe with someone walking around near their van, they play it loudly with the curtains closed, to make people think twice before approaching.
5. Fairy lights
Occasionally Florian and I visit a friend’s house and sleep at their place. If we have to leave our van out on a residential street overnight, we leave a set of battery fairy lights on and close the blinds almost all the way.
We leave about half an inch of space open at the top of the blinds. If someone tries to peer inside the back, they will see the soft lights but they will not be able to see if we are in the van. This helps give the impression we are ‘at home’ and prevents attempted break-ins.
6. Multiple credit cards
It’s a good idea to have at least two different debit or credit cards. Keep one in your wallet, and hide one in an obscure place in your van like a biscuit tin or box of tampons.
If you do ever lose your wallet, you will be able to access some emergency money in a pinch.
7. Rainy day parking
If you’re camping on a rainy day, try not to park under any trees. You might think this will provide you better shelter, but it makes it really hard to sleep. Even when the rain stops, water falls from the branches and drums on the van roof all night.
Who wants to get up and move the van at 3 am?!
8. $10 bed build
We have a ‘home-made’ bed that pulls out from a sofa into a double bed. We bought a lightweight metal bed frame from a goodwill store.
Then we sawed it into two pieces lengthways, pulled the second half a few inches back, and popped in a few screws so it could slide into a single bed size.
We then repurposed two single mattresses from my childhood bedroom that were on their way to the tip!
We place one horizontally and one on its side, creating a sofa. When it’s time for bed, we just slide out the bed frame and place the second mattress flat. We have a really comfortable double bed set up in seconds, and it cost us $10 in total.
9. Cure for homesickness
If you are ever really missing your loved ones, here’s a little something I do with my sister. We arrange a night when we are both free and choose a movie to watch together. We press play at exactly the same time and watch it with our phones on loudspeaker mode.
Even if we aren’t chatting throughout the film, hearing one another laugh at the same jokes or gasp at the same twists helps us feel connected again.
10. Mesh packing cubes
I use mesh packing cubes to store my clothes. They are meant to be used for packing suitcases, but they make such a huge difference to how many clothes I can keep in the cupboards.
I can fit twice as many clothes in a cupboard that has these mesh cubes in them, and I can keep all my shirts, pants, and underwear separate and easy to find.
I am really surprised how effective they are, so I highly recommend you get some for yourself.
11. Dashboard cooking
If I am baking bread, I make the dough by hand. All you have to do is mix 500g of flour with some yeast, water, and a splash of oil and then knead it. To help it to rise before baking, I put it in a large pan covered with a clean, damp tea towel and then place it on the dash of the van.
The dashboard gets really warm when there is a little sun, and the bread dough rises in no time!
Then I pop it in my Omnia oven pan and bake it. Nothing beats the smell of fresh-baked bread.
Bonus hack: we also place our solar shower on the dash on a sunny day, and it heats up super fast.
12. No fridge – no problem
You don’t have to have a fridge in order to cook safely, you just need to know a couple of simple food hygiene hacks.
If you open a carton of sauce or milk, squeeze all the air out of the top and seal it with a peg. It’s harder for bacteria to grow without air and food keeps for longer. Try and eat food within 24 hours after it has been opened, and make sure you re-cook by boiling for a good 5 minutes to kill off any bacteria.
For example, if I cook pasta and tomato sauce for lunch one day, the next day I can use the rest of the tomato sauce in a curry if I squeeze out the air after the first use, and boil it in a pan for 5 minutes before eating.
When in doubt – smelling your food will give you a very good idea about whether it’s safe to eat!
13. Hinged solar panels
As we live in our van full time, we rely heavily on our solar panels. In summer we don’t have any worries, but after a few rainy winter days, our batteries can be nearly depleted.
Luckily, Florian invented a little hack to help us with this. With a bit of trial and error, he soldered a couple of heavy-duty iron hinges for our solar panel. This allows us to open our solar panels to a 90-degree angle instead of leaving them flat on the roof.
We catch the sun even when it is low down in the sky, and can charge up even on the most gloomy days of the year.
14. Chargers at the ready
Never go anywhere without your chargers!
We have found all kinds of unusual places to charge up our mobile phones and laptops. From public toilets to churches, to restaurants or museums, you never know when you are going to come across a handy plug.
If possible, you can always ask a member of staff to mind your phone and charger behind the bar or reception desk. If you ask politely and without entitlement, people are often willing to give you a hand.
15. Clean hair hack
If you want to keep your hair cleaner for longer, finish your shower with a cold blast of water. It’s actually not as terrible as it sounds, it’s pretty good for your immunity and makes you feel very alive!
It also closes the pores in your hair, meaning that it takes longer for your hair to build up grease. You will notice your hair stays cleaner for longer, and that period will keep increasing the longer you leave between washing it.
16. Stop wearing deodorant
I’m not kidding, deodorant and antiperspirant make you smell worse in the long run.
This is because our bodies adapt to the aluminum salts that are designed to block up our sweat glands. Many deodorants contain ingredients which lead to hormonal imbalance and, you guessed it, cause us to smell even more.
So although they can be useful to use occasionally, weaning yourself off chemical deodorants will actually prevent you from smelling bad in the long run. This is really useful when you are living in a van and can’t necessarily shower every day.
Just make sure you wash with a flannel every day and ask a brutally honest friend if you smell the next time you visit!
NB: There is an adjustment period as your body is so used to toiletries, bear with it if you can and you’ll thank me later.
17. A hidden key
I kept this hack right for the end in the hope that only real Van Lifers would still be reading.
If you want to protect yourself from being locked out in the rain, you can keep a second key hidden on the outside of your vehicle. You can take a very thick metal wire and place it through the loop on your key, securing it with a pair of pliers.
Then lay underneath your van and find a place where you can wrap the loose end of the wire and tamp it down with the pliers again. Make sure you have done this extremely securely so it won’t fall off on a bumpy mountain road, and also ensure that it’s difficult to find unless you know where you are looking. You can further conceal it with some heavy-duty duct tape
Florian and I regularly park in isolated corners of snowy mountains, so losing a key and being locked out for the night is too dangerous to risk.
Note: Try to avoid posting this hack directly onto any social media sites, because we want to keep it safely among the Van Life community!
How about you?
I hope you found some of these ideas helpful. Do you have some Van life hacks of your own? Please comment below with any suggestions, we would love to hear from you!
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Rachel is a full-time traveller, living in her self converted Peugeot Boxer transit van with her partner. Powered by solar panels and a lot of love, she travels slowly around the most beautiful places of Europe. She spends her days hiking, wild-swimming and long boarding down the oceanfront. Her blog can be found at www.highlysensitivenomad.com