What do I Need for Vanlife? 25 Essentials for Life on the Road

what do i need for vanlife

My boyfriend Aaron and I have lived the “vanlife” lifestyle by traveling in our converted school bus for nearly two years now. In that time we have learned what is truly necessary and important to have with us on the road. We have made several adjustments over the years, purging things we don’t use and adding new items as the need arises.

I’ve put together a list of what we consider the most critical items, both for actual survival and for enjoyment and comfort — equally important in my opinion!

Here’s our list of 25 items you’ll need for vanlife:

1. Camp Stove

We have cooked one, two, or even three meals a day on our Coleman camp stove, nearly every single day that we’ve been on the road. We do not have an oven in our bus (something I covet but that we simply didn’t have room for) but we get along just fine with our two-burner camp stove.

It is quite efficient with propane and still works just as well today as it did the day we got it over two years ago, and there is nothing quite so satisfying as a hot meal on a cold day.

More info on our Coleman stove: coleman.com

2. Refrigerator or Cooler

Having cold storage for food opens up a ton more menu options. If you are going to be traveling in a van for any length of time or outright living it, it is crucial to be able to have fresh fruit and vegetables, safely store leftover cooked food, and keep your beer cold (okay, maybe cold beer isn’t crucial but it’s definitely more enjoyable!).

We have a chest freezer from Home Depot that we converted into a fridge with a Johnson Controls thermostat. It works great and was a small fraction of the cost of marine, truck, or Dometic-type refrigerators.

More info on our chest freezer: homedepot.com

And the Johnson Controls thermostat: amazon.com

3. Non-Stick or Cast Iron Frying Pan

The main criteria when choosing what food to prepare includes…

  • How many pots/pans are necessary?
  • How much propane will it use?
  • How easy the cleanup will be?

With non-stick or cast iron pans, you can usually get away with simply wiping out the pan immediately after use (especially if you aren’t cooking anything pathogen-y, like eggs or meat), which saves cleanup time as well as precious water, which, particularly in a van, is usually limited in quantity.

More info: walmart.com

4. Non-Breakable Plates, Bowls, and Cups

We started out with several ceramic soup bowls, and have shattered or cracked a couple of them by bouncing over potholes or along gnarly dirt roads. Now we use Corelle plates, plastic bowls, and aluminum cups which are all quite hardy and easy to clean. Walmart and Target sell some of our favorite extremely cheap reusable plastic dishware.

More info on Target bowls: target.com

5. Dish Washing Spray Bottle

This is a helpful tip we learned from a friend: purchase a cheap spray bottle, give it a hefty squirt of whatever soap you use to clean dishes, and fill it the rest of the way with water. This saves water when you go to wash dishes, because instead of running your water to wet each dish individually, you can simply spritz it with the soap spray, scrub, and rinse.

More info: walmart.com

6. Water Bottles and Jugs

We always have several water bottles in the bus, for going on adventures as well as just to remind ourselves to drink water daily. They are also handy in case you run into a weird-tasting water source, because you can use that water for washing and cooking and fill your drinking bottles and jugs from a filtered source, like a gas station soda fountain or at a Starbucks.

We also occasionally purchase water from stores when there are not fill stations available nearby, so we just take our 7-gallon Aquatainer into the store, fill it, and haul it back to the bus in a shopping cart, where we can then fill our main fresh water tank.

More info: walmart.com

7. Water Filter

As I mentioned, sometimes you run into questionable or strange-tasting water. It’s always a good idea to have an in-line water filter for when you are filling your fresh water tank or jug, so you can ensure that all of the water entering your plumbing system is clean and particle-free.

It would be quite difficult to remove our fresh water tank and flush our whole system, so we are extra careful with the quality of our water before it even reaches the tank.

More info: walmart.com

8. Blankets

We mostly try to stay in places where the weather is mild, but occasionally it is unavoidable to be in a super cold place, especially at night. We have several blankets in the bus so we can layer according to how cold it is and they range in weight from a thin beach blanket to heavy fleece blankets to an incredibly warm down blanket from Costco (highly recommend).

Blankets are also useful if you want to stargaze or sit at a campfire on a cold night.

More info on Costco down blankets: costco.com

9. Warm and Waterproof Clothing

Despite our best efforts to chase mild weather, there are still times when we can’t avoid the cold. We have been in Tucson in the winter where one day it was 70 degrees and the next day it was snowing! To that end, we have insulated and waterproof jackets, rain pants, winter hats, gloves, and waterproof boots just in case.

Waterproof clothing is especially important if you run into the unfortunate scenario of breaking down in a cold and wet location, and your only option is to go out in the elements to make repairs or assess the damage.

10. Reflectix

This flexible insulation is incredibly helpful for keeping your van a comfortable temperature whether it’s hot or cold outside, and it provides privacy. It’s easy to cut down to size, so we have Reflectix pieces for our driver door window and the rear windows that are not tinted, as well as a windshield screen made out of similar material.

We use small pieces of Velcro to hold it in place or slide it behind our curtains for extra insulation. It makes an immense difference in temperature when the sun is low in the sky and beating in through the windows.

More info: amazon.com

11. Toilet (Or At Least Toilet Paper) and Hand Sanitizer

Some people do not have any kind of toilet facility in their vans, and while I applaud them for their boldness, a toilet was a critical element for us in our build. We have the Nature’s Head composting toilet which has been so worth the expense.

We spend a significant amount of time boondocking where there are no amenities or stealth camping in cities where you often need to be a paying customer in order to use the bathrooms and there frequently are no options at all available in the middle of the night. 

While you certainly can just go outside if you are not camped in a city (following Leave No Trace principles of course), that did not appeal to me on a daily basis, so we opted to build in a bathroom. Other options include making your own composting toilet (much cheaper), having an emergency-only toilet, or using bottles and bags.

Related: School Bus Conversion Bathrooms: Toilet, Shower and Plumbing Guide

At the very least, you should always have your own supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer (public restrooms can’t always be trusted to have these “luxuries”).

More info on the Nature’s Head composting toilet: natureshead.net

12. Important Documents

You never know when a friend might suggest an impromptu trip to Baja or into Canada, so it’s a good idea to always have your passport with you. Other important items to have include your insurance cards, ID, a voided check, a piece of mail with your name and whatever address you are using while on the road, and, if applicable, visas and other travel documents.

This way, you will be covered in nearly any situation that could arise.

It is slightly nerve-wracking to have all of your documents in a vehicle where they could potentially be stolen or lost in a crash, so leave copies of important items with family members or friends, and find a good hiding place in your van for these documents, so they aren’t readily available if someone happens to break in.

13. Cleaning Supplies

In such a small space, dust, sand, dirt, mud, and debris can accumulate quickly, especially if the weather is windy or wet and you enter and exit your van multiple times. If you have a pet, your van will get dirtier even faster.

We do most of our cleaning with a simple dustpan and broom plus Clorox wipes, which can be used to sanitize our kitchen counter, clean dirt and marks off our walls, and “mop” the floor. Conveniently, it only takes about 10 minutes to deep clean the whole bus!

14. Basic First Aid Supplies

Going to a doctor while traveling is expensive and stressful, so we keep a good stock of first aid supplies in the bus to treat minor injuries and illnesses. Important things to include in your first aid kit are bandaids, gauze, an ice pack, tweezers, antiseptic ointment, and so on.

We also always carry cold and flu medicine, ibuprofen, arnica gel for bruises and sore muscles, and various other natural remedies and supplements.

More info: amazon.com

15. Fire Extinguisher and Smoke Detector

These are self-explanatory, but especially critical if you are cooking in or around your vehicle. I’ve also heard stories of people’s engines catching on fire, electrical wiring sparking, and other terrifying scenarios where these two items saved lives and vans.

More info: homedepot.com

16. Shower Go-Bag

We only have an outdoor shower and 20 gallons of water, so we take the vast majority of our showers at gyms, friends’ and family’s houses, or community centers. As such, we both keep shower bags ready to go, so we don’t have to elongate the process by packing up our things each time. My shower bag includes a towel, body wash, a shower poof, shampoo, conditioner, a razor, lotion, and flipflops.

Also read: How To Shower When You Live In a Van

17. Backpacks

I think we have a total of something like 7 backpacks in the bus which is borderline absurd, but they all serve specific functions. Uses include carrying laptops and other work gear into coffee shops, hauling home groceries when we don’t want to drive the bus, hydration packs for hiking, carrying towels and beers to hot springs, getting our climbing gear to the crag, etc. etc.

More info on our designated climbing pack: blackdiamondequipment.com

18. Portable Charger

We have solar panels and a battery bank in our bus so we can charge our devices whenever we need to, but we still find ourselves using a portable charger quite often, especially if we are away from the bus all day, or if we have several cloudy days in a row and are running low on power.

If you don’t have solar power in your van, these portable chargers are even more of a necessity so that you can charge your devices without having to stop at a Starbucks or other establishment.

More info: amazon.com

19. Cell Phone Holder

We use our cell phones to navigate on a near-daily basis, so having a phone holder on the dash is super convenient and allows us to comply with hands-free laws. We did not have one of these for the first few months on the road, so I would be sitting on the couch, hollering directions at Aaron as he drove — not ideal.

More info: amazon.com

20. Navigation and Camping Apps

Like the rest of the modern world, we primarily use Google Maps to find our way around and bookmark killer campsites. However, if you have spotty or no cell service, good luck trying to get Google Maps to load.

For these instances, we also have Maps.me which is another free app, but one that allows you to download detailed maps for offline navigation. You can choose to download only certain areas or states, or the entire world if you really want to.

For finding free campsites, we use apps like Campedium and iOverlander and the freecampsites.net website. These resources all offer important data about each of the sites listed such as whether there are any amenities available or vehicle length limitations, and they have reviews from campers who have stayed there in the past.

21. Self Defense Tools and/or Weapons

In the terrifying scenario that someone tries to break into your van or otherwise do you harm, it pays to be prepared and equipped. Most vanlifers and bus dwellers I know carry some type of firearm, or at least a weapon of some kind, whether it’s a machete, throwing axe, or wasp spray.

Obviously, be sure that your weapon is legal and properly permitted if necessary, and be aware of any states and/or countries that might not allow certain types of weapons and firearms across their borders.

More info on the interstate transportation of firearms: nraila.org

22. Spare Tire and Roadside Assistance Membership

The peace of mind of having a roadside assistance membership is more than worth the approximately $30-per-year cost.

We have only had to use our Good Sam Club membership once in two years (knock on wood) and then only to come change out a flat tire for us since we don’t have a jack (our bus weighs 6 tons so the type of jack we would need is quite large, but for a lighter van you can and should have a small jack with you to change out your own tires).

However, if we needed a tow for any reason, our $30 membership would prevent us from having to potentially pay hundreds of dollars for a tow.

Some roadside assistance programs do not accept self-converted or DIY campers, so be sure to explain your vehicle to the rep when you are signing up and get explicit confirmation that your vehicle will be covered. We ran into a snafu where we tried to call for a tow and were denied service because the rep thought that we had not proved our bus was an RV, when in fact we had.

Fortunately we were rescued by a passing pickup truck so it turned out fine, but be sure to double and triple check coverage!

We also bought an extra rim and tire at a used tire shop, which we keep stored on our rooftop deck. That way, when we did get a flat, we just had the mechanics come out and swap the tire, which allowed us to continue with our day fairly uninterrupted and get our flat tire repaired at our leisure, rather than having to be towed to a shop and hoping that they would be able to repair or replace our tire that same day.

More info on Good Sam Club: goodsam.com

23. Storage Bins

Having ample storage built into a van is key for preventing clutter and keeping the space peaceful and organized. We subdivided our storage spaces even further with plastic storage bins from Walmart, so that similar items can be grouped together and nothing tumbles around as we drive.

24. Camp Chairs

Camp chairs are an awesome way to make the outdoors part of your living space. Whether we are gathered around a campfire, playing cards with friends, or watching a sunset from our rooftop deck, the chairs allow us to be comfortable. We even occasionally bring a chair inside the bus to provide additional seating.

We opted for REI camp chairs that fold down quite small to save storage room and although they are too small for comfortable long-term lounging, they are perfect for all other uses.

More info on REI camp chairs: rei.com

25. Entertainment

This will look different for everyone depending on your preferred activities, but there are definitely going to be days when you are stuck in the van for an extended period, whether it’s poor weather, an illness, or some other reason. Additionally, a big reason that many people decide to do vanlife in the first place is so they can spend more time outdoors.

So, it’s important to have entertainment options for both indoor and outdoor activities. Personally, we like to watch movies and play card games or cribbage, so we have a big selection of DVDs and games for time spent indoors.

We also love to rock climb, paddleboard, and hike, so we prioritized our storage space to fit all the gear and equipment necessary to enjoy these pastimes. We also have a slackline, bikes, frisbees, a football, and a baseball and gloves so we can stay active and enjoy the outdoors.

 

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