10 things to know before traveling in a camper van, according to someone who lives in one
- As someone who lives in a camper van, I’ve learned a lot of great tips and advice about traveling in one.
- Some of my best decisions were investing in easy-to-clean clothing, paper maps, and titanium utensils.
- I’ve found it’s helpful to dump and fill our camper van’s water tanks every chance we get.
- Having power banks and a high-quality, large backpack has also made my travels easier.
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Living in a camper van feels sort of like camping all of the time — I cook my meals on a small gas stove, spend a lot of time outside, and don’t have a lot of creature comforts.
As someone who loves camping, this is a great way to live, but there was a big learning curve when I started traveling in a camper van. But after a few months, I learned tricks to making van life work.
Here are some of the most important things to know if you plan on hitting the road in a camper van, according to someone who lives in one.
Investing in high-quality clothing can make travel easier.
Buying good-quality clothing is imperative for camper-van travel because there’s limited storage space and few opportunities to wash clothes.
Since I could only afford to invest in a few high-quality things, I made sure to prioritize items that were lightweight, quick-drying, SPF-infused, and convertible (like hiking pants that zip into shorts).
One of my best purchases is my SPF hat — I wear it almost every day on the road because it helps keep my face and ears from getting burnt while also keeping my hair out of the way.
I’ve also had luck investing in items made out of materials like Merino wool, which dries super quickly and doesn’t need to be washed after each wear.
Buying extra storage is great for long-term trips.
When I upgraded my van with a roof-storage compartment, I gained the equivalent of a closet where I keep luggage, extra linens, firewood, and cleaning supplies.
Since I plan on traveling across seasons, it’s nice to have extra space to store items that I don’t use every day and bulky items that don’t easily fit in my vehicle.
My roof box also allows me peace of mind — the durability and key-locking system make it tough to break into. Plus, with less frequently used items stored up above, my in-van storage is much more accessible.
I suggest buying backpack that distributes weight and holds a lot of things.
Since camper-van travel requires a lot of posting up at coffee shops and eating meals in parks, it was important for me to get a spacious, well-fitting, comfortable backpack.
This is one of the items that I end up using almost every day — and I usually have to pack it full, especially in cities where I’m not comfortable leaving my valuables unattended in my van.
I don’t think it’s necessary to spend a lot of money on a backpack, but I made sure to get one with hip and sternum straps to take the load off of my shoulders when walking around.
Even though I bought my pack online, many stores that sell outdoor gear offer free fittings to make sure backpackers are wearing their packs safely.
Easy-to-wash, multi-use utensils and dishes can save you a lot of time.
Many rental camper vans come with a kitchen outfitted with plates, mugs, and utensils.
Since I bought my van outright, I had to make sure to fill it with kitchen items that are easy to wash and are multipurpose, since kitchen space is even more limited than storage space.
My partner and I use titanium sporks, which are commonly used for camping or through-hiking, since they are very durable and easy to clean.
Camping plates are also great because they help cut down the number of dishes we use since they typically have a wide lip, meaning they can be used as a bowl or plate. They also make eating on your lap easier, which is a common occurrence on van nights.
When cooking, try to keep the dishes you’ll be using to a minimum.
In a full kitchen, I might use multiple cutting boards, prep bowls, eating dishes, and different utensils for each part of the process. In the van, I make sure to minimize the number of dishes I use as much as possible.
So before we cook, we make a plan for all of the dishes we’ll use during prepping, cooking, and eating.
With small kitchens and even smaller sinks, plus no running water, we have to wash everything by hand and with a hand-pump sink. Since we aim to leave no trace, washing dishes in the river is not an option.
For single-serving meals or if I’m especially tired, I’ll sometimes even eat right out of the pan.
Always be prepared for cold and rain, even during summer months.
In many places, like in New Zealand where I’m currently traveling, the weather can change on a dime.
Rainy, chilly van days can be super cozy and comfortable — but I’ve found it’s important to be prepared. I always have my rain jacket with me because it’s pretty miserable to crawl into bed in a camper van when you’re damp from the rain.
I also use my Buff, a type of multifunctional headwear, almost every single day because it keeps my neck warm in the winter and wicks sweat in the summer.
Even on warm days, it’s nice to have a Buff or neck gaiter to cut the chill of the breeze (plus it doubles as a face covering for safety).
Having a few different types of lights is important.
In a camper van, indoor lighting can be harsh, drawing in bugs and ruining a cozy vibe. And, most importantly, I can’t bring these lights with me when I need to use the bathroom or get something out of my storage compartment.
On a daily basis, I use a cheap headlamp that takes AAA batteries and is very efficient.
I also recommend buying a few solar-powered items — even though they can get expensive, in my experience, they’re totally worth it.
For example, my partner and I use a solar-powered lantern every night for soft, portable lighting. It recharges itself and we’ve found that some bugs are less attracted to the incandescent light, too.
Dumping and filling the water tanks in a van is crucial, and my partner and I do it every chance we get.
Most vans come with a clean-water tank, which feeds into a hand-pump or electric sink, and a gray-water tank, which collects water from the sink drain. In vans with a toilet, a separate brown-water tank holds toilet waste.
These tanks obviously fill up, and my partner and I have learned to dump our gray and brown water every chance we get, so we never have to deal with having to brush our teeth with nowhere to spit.
It’s imperative to always use leave-no-trace etiquette when traveling in a camper van, so we check a map to find a designated dump spot as we approach cities and towns.
Generally, when we dump our tanks we fill up our clean-water tank since many dump locations and gas stations in New Zealand have a nearby drinking-water tap.
It’s also important to read the signs at every dump and fill station — my partner and I have watched several people wash dishes in the same location that someone just poured all of their wastewater out. This is a great way to make yourself very, very sick.
Electricity isn’t always easy to come by, so power banks come in handy.
I’ve had some trial and error figuring out how to charge my phone and laptop while on the road or parked in a remote camping space.
With my power inverter, I can use wall plugs in my van — but only while the van is on. Through internet research, I learned that unless I had a leisure battery, which is a second battery typically stored in the back of a camper van, I would be drawing power from my car battery if I charged things while the van wasn’t running.
Because of this, I’ve learned to carry a couple of power banks for my smaller electronics that I can recharge while I’m driving or when I stop at a public library for some WiFi.
We always download offline maps and carry a paper map just in case
Being able to view maps on our phones makes life on the road a lot easier.
We use Google Maps and, when we have WiFi, we download offline maps for large areas. This is a lifesaver for times when we lose phone service, and it’s also less taxing on our phones’ batteries.
In addition to downloading offline maps, I recommend keeping a paper map on hand just in case. There have been a few times where our phones have died and we found ourselves on a road that Google hasn’t quite mapped yet.
Keeping a paper map is also great for tracking our trajectory, and we’ll likely keep it as a souvenir after our travels.
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