Having the right equipment to do anything is key to success. Van life is not different. In fact, having the right van life essentials for your experience is vital.
It’s never about what you do. It’s always about how you do it and where you do it.
Van life is about experience. You are always in control of how your van experience unfolds. You may not always be in control of your circumstances, but you can take control of how you react to those circumstances 100% of the time.
Having the right equipment is as important as having the right perspective when it comes to van life. We’ve been living tiny and traveling nomadically for going on two years now. We know what the van life essentials are to keep us moving along with a smile on our faces.
Living tiny forces you to make some smart and unwavering decisions when it comes to your possessions. I mean, there is only so much space to put things. Sure, some vans are larger than others, but even the longest, tallest, and beefiest van conversions have their limits.
Today, we are going to be discussing some van life essentials we could not imagine living without. Most of the list will make perfect sense to those who have lived in a van or similar vehicle. Some of the items on this list may seem excessive but hear us, you will probably agree in the end.
To make things simple, we are going to break down the Van Life Essentials into four categories:
- Living and Comfort
- Safety and health
Living and Comfort Van Life Essentials
Many of our friends and family still don’t quite understand the whole “living in a van thing” we are doing. For the two of us though, we really can’t imagine living any other way, at this point in our lives.
We have had nice homes with a pool. We’ve had the house on the water. Two-car garage, minutes from the grocery store or Target. Neighborhood garage sales and trick or treating on Halloween.
We lived that life while raising our children. We just couldn’t imagine doing that same old routine for another 30 – 40 years.
Living and traveling in a van full-time is something we love and are very excited about. That doesn’t mean it is always hunky-dory though. Van life can be challenging at times.
So, it’s important to have the right equipment and essentials to keep yourself happy and comfortable as much as possible. Some van life essentials are as important as the essentials in your home that allow you to live in comfort.
For our van life experience, we will start off with the most important van life essentials in our opinion.
Living and Comfort – Van Life Essentials
We opted to go without a living area air conditioner. Growing up in Florida, it’s very hard for both of us to imagine life without A/C. We lived without A/C on our bus for six months.
When finally connected our A/C, it was a love affair with that air conditioner. Air conditioning is one of the van life essentials. How you condition the air around you is up to you.
Cool air and a cool breeze are heavenly when you are living or visiting in hot weather. That compounds when the climate is muggy and humid. The most accurate way I could describe living in the South would be muggy and humid.
Muggy and humid are not so bad as long as you have a nice cool breeze dancing over your skin. The MaxxAir fan does exactly what its name implies.
It is such a fantastic product! (many of you will catch what I just did right there) The Maxx-Air fan is one of the most important van life essentials we can think of.
The MaxxAir fan not only pulls in cool air from the outside, but it also can pull air out. Even more versatile, it can operate while it is raining.
The MaxxAir van is equipped with a rain guard that makes it possible to circulate the air even while it’s raining.
Another one of the van life essentials is having one or two 12v fans going at the same time.
Ever since we were children having a fan on while sleeping is a must. It is like having someone sing a lullaby to us while sleeping. We can sleep without a fan. However, we sleep so much better with one or two, or three fans going at the same time.
Living in a fan with no a/c is not just tolerable. If have a couple of fans going and a window or two cracked, it is downright comfortable and luxurious.
Sirocco II Complete 360’ Airflow – Van Life Essentials
We have installed two 12v fans in our build. It is the Sirocco II complete 360’ airflow fan. When this bad boy is on, you imagine that you are in a Caribbean resort sitting by the pool.
They are a little on the expensive side, at around $150 each, but so worth it! We have one mounted in our bed area and another towards the front of the van in the living area.
When we discuss van life essentials, the Sirocco II 360′ Airflow fan is our go-to fan.
Window Screens – Van Life Essentials
Having screens in your windows makes the fans go from great to amazing with the simple opening of a window. It is one of those van life essentials you will be thankful for time and time again.
The MaxAir fan has a dual-screen that keeps debris and bugs out of your fan. Our slider windows in our flairs on each side of the van also have built-in screens. What does that mean to us? It is like a mini air tunnel inside of the fan to keep us cool and happy.
It doesn’t matter if you are in the Everglades of South Florida. In the Rocky Mountains or the Northwest Pacific, you’ll have cool air keeping the inside of your tiny-house-on-wheels cool.
Refrigerator – Van Life Essentials
This is one of those items that most of us just naturally take for granted. So much, so that I was over halfway finished with this entire post without mentioning it.
Having a refrigerator in your van is both comfortable as well a necessary item. Being able to pull out a cool beverage is so satisfying. Your van refrigerator will keep your cold items cold and your frozen items are frozen. Our refrigerator is a 12v chest refrigerator/freezer combo.
We chose the 53qt Alpicool refrigerator due to its size, and Bluetooth capability, and it gives you the option of having either a freezer and refrigerator side or both sides as a refrigerator.
It has been in our van now for about a year and it has been a great asset to our full-time van life journey so far.
Down Comforter or Sleeping Bag – Van Life Essentials
Sometimes living in a van can get pretty chilly. Fortunately for us, we have two ways to take care of the cold temperatures. Staying cool and warm is two of the van life essentials that can make or break you.
Our go-to method of keeping warm while sleeping is a good down comforter. For us, we have two. We have our own Queen size down comforters. We love them! They keep us cool in the warmer weather and keep us warm when it’s very cold all around us.
Coffee Maker – Van Life Essentials
Whatever your vice is in the mornings is between you, your brain, and the Universe. It may be hot tea, chocolate milk, some kind of fruit juice, or a cold Coke a Cola. (by the way, I’m from the South, so, Coke means any carbonated soft drink)
For us, it’s orange juice and/or coffee. We can go without it, but a nice hit cup o’ Joe makes everything seen right in the morning.
We used to use a French Press method of brewing and pouring our coffee. No filter to purchase, waste, and dispose of. It keeps all of those essential coffee oils right there in the press where we want them.
Now, we use an aero-press. We love it! Compact, easy to store, and has no chance of glass getting broken. The taste though…
The taste of the coffee is what it is all about and this little baby delivers!
The smell alone of a fresh cup of coffee makes it a priority for van life essentials.
Besides, a mid-afternoon or early evening ice-brewed coffee makes the day keep moving along just right!
Pooper and Shovel – Van Life Essentials
A couple of other van life essentials that no one should head out onto the open road without is a good pooper. Not trying to be crass or cheeky here. It’s just true and real life.
I mention both of these items together because they can both be used independently, yet complement each other perfectly.
Whether you are using an inside pooper or choose to poop outside in the great outdoors, it’s a personal choice. Do what you “do” at your pleasure.
If you’d like to learn more about van life toilets, you can check it out here.
Having a portable pooper allows you to poop outside in the wilderness. Without the awkwardness of doing the “do” in front of your travel partner. It also eliminates the potential yucky smells inside your tiny home.
If you have never popped outside in nature, you have not experienced the pleasure of communing au naturel in nature. Trust me on this one.
This is where the shovel comes into play. If you decide to poop outside, then you really should dig a 6-8” hole to deposit your quarry. Having a good shovel makes digging much easier.
Besides, the shovel is not just useful for digging poop holes. It is great for filling your awning sandbags, and digging our dirt or sand should your van get stuck. Building a firepit or making a killer sandcastle on the beach.
A shovel can be versatile as your imagination.
Living and Comfort – Outside Van Life Essentials
Most people may not realize this, but we van lifers spend the majority of our time outside of the van. Weather permitting of course.
Other than sleeping, everything is done outside of the fan. By the way, sleeping can be done outside of the van sometimes as well.
So, having the right setup and essentials is critical for maximizing your van life experience.
We will group several items into this section as they all coexist so well together.
Camping Rug or Mat – Van Life Essentials
We use a 9 x 12’ camping rug for the outside of the van. It is always on the passenger side. This allows us to lounge and relaxes under our awning without having direct contact with the ground.
This is one of the most important van life essentials! It eliminates or at least, cuts down on bringing dirt, sand, and debris inside your tiny home.
Awning – Van Life Essentials
Sunshine is great and it not only feeds your soul, it literally feeds your body the essential vitamin D. Now if you love shade while it is sunny outside, then you are one of our people. Having an awning to cast shade on the ground as well as inside your van is a must.
We chose to go with a portable sunshade as our awning. It isn’t permanently attached to our van. Instead, it attaches to eye hooks that can be used for many things, but primarily our sunshade awning.
Our sunshade creates a cool shaded area outside while also allowing air to flow through the material. This allows cool wind to pass through the shade. It also allows warmer air to rise and escape the awning area.
Rain will pass right through the material, thus not weighing down the fabric and creating a potential hazard.
We can’t imagine setting up camp anywhere without having our awning out. It is truly one of the most critical of our van life essentials.
Camping Chairs – Van Life Essentials
As far as essentials go, our camping chairs are a huge part of our van life. Think of a good camping chair as a good piece of furniture in your home. We all have our favorite chair.
Well, a camping chair is no different. It is and should be your “go-to” spot for lounging during the day or evening.
The chair is quite possibly, one of the most versatile pieces of van life essential gear you will own. It’s the perfect companion for sitting around the campfire at night.
The camping chair is where I sit when doing the majority of my writing and work. Having our morning coffee, eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Sometimes, we just like to sit and listen, watch and commune with nature.
Hammock – Van Life Essentials
Another of our favorite van life essentials outdoor gear is a comfortable and easy-to-install hammock. This is the epitome of comfort, relaxation, and the mascot for van life.
A hammock is almost as versatile as a good camping chair. It can be used to sit up for social interaction. The hammock can be the perfect lounging equipment for just taking a relaxing break in the middle of the day.
The hammock is most famous for being the ultimate in relaxation for taking a nap whenever and wherever you want. All you need is two relatively close trees, a couple of posts, or a combination of both and you can have an instant and portable very comfortable bed.
Imagine lounging and sipping on your favorite beverage between two palm trees with the turquoise ocean as a backdrop. The cool salty breeze keeps you cool as the rhythmic waves slap and crash on the shore putting your brain into a melodic and relaxing trance.
Perhaps hanging between two giant pines in the mountains while the cool mountain breeze trickles over your skin and the sound of nature all around you puts your mind at ease as if you were a thousand miles from any civilization.
That my friend is the power and value of having a hammock as a part of your van life essentials repertoire.
Rooftop Deck – Van Life Essentials
Having a rooftop deck is really reaching as far as being a component of van life essentials. For us and our experience, we had to figure out a way to make this happen.
In our prior nomadic vehicle, a 32’ retired Thomas school bus, we had a killer rooftop deck that we spent lots of time on. We simply called it our “upstairs”. It was a 6 x 9 deck that could accommodate a 72” x 72” tent on top.
So, not only could we hand it out on top of our bus, we had a tent we could sit in for shade and protection from bugs and mosquitos.
Having something like that on a Sprinter 144-wheelbase van is not what most people would consider essential or even possible considering we are boasting 620 watts of solar panels on our roof as well.
Don’t ever tell Nat Silver that she can’t do something like fabricating a rooftop deck on a short wheelbase van fully covered in solar panels.
Together, we did it. We built a 6’ x 8’ deck on top of our van. We have two 210-watt solar panels laying on top of it with hinges. So, when we want to get up on our deck to sunbathe, gaze up at the stars at night or get a good view of what is around us, all we have to do is tilt a solar panel or two and enjoy our “upstairs”.
The last item we are going to mention in the essentials for van life in comfort living will be window insulation inserts.
Window Insulation and Inserts – Van Life Essentials
Mind you, some van conversions only have windows on the driver and passenger doors and a windshield.
Our van, however, has a 360’ view of windows. We cut out almost half of the sheet metal on both sides of our van and installed large picture windows. The view we now have, given the right location and environment, is phenomenal.
As you can imagine or know already, windows are not ideal for keeping cool weather in or warm weather out. Their R-value is basically zero for insulation purposes.
Also, even though we have a nice dark tint added to the glass, we would do well to cover the windows for some added privacy in the evenings while we are sporting our inside lights.
There are many fine window inserts on the internet and very effective in blocking out peeping eyes and warm sunshine. Making our own custom window inserts was what we did.
We used reflectix, water heater insulation tape, and a combination of closed-cell foam matt and thematic in between the reflectix. They are a little thick but flexible enough to fold up for easy and quick storage when we are not using them.
So, having insulated window inserts for our van is one of the van life essentials that are a must.
Solar System – Van Life Essentials
This really should be up at the top of the list, however, we are not ranking it as the most important. A good solar system is by far one of the most essential elements of van life. Especially if you are traveling and living full-time in your van.
Being completely off-grid allows us to go anywhere and at any time. There is no need to hook up at RV parks or when we are visiting our friends. Aside from refilling our propane gas tank, which technically is a luxury more than a necessity, we can live and stay anywhere we have access to water.
Our particular system is quite unique when it comes to a solar setup for a van, skoolie, or RV.
We started off by purchasing a 200wh solar generator with a built-in charge controller and a 2000w inverter. As we progressed with our build and learned more about van life and traveling nomadically, we realized if our all-in-one solar generator failed, we would be complete without power.
The solar generator we purchased does not have the best reputation for servicing its customers, so we came to the decision of having a secondary solar setup.
We already had 520 watts of solar panels on our roof with another 220 in portable ground panels. We chose to build a traditional van life solar system complete with batteries and all of the works.
Check out our solar setup here.
Our Bluetti solar generator is now our backup power system and is charged off of our 400wh of Renogy AGM batteries. In all, we now have 600whs of battery and 620w of solar panels on our roof. We still have the 220w of portable solar panels we can incorporate into the system for a total of 840 watts of solar panels.
Hot Water Heater – Van Life Essentials
One of the things people who are unfamiliar with nomadic living and van life is how we stay fresh and clean. The answer is what most would expect. We simply shower and wash just like anyone else.
Our 34.5 gallons of onboard freshwater, an electric water pump, and an on-demand propane ventless water heater.
We have hot, freshwater anytime we want it. Hot showers are the best way to wrap up a day of adventure and exploring before crawling up into our queen-size bed and recharging for another day of fun and excitement.
Levelers – Van Life Essentials
Imagine finding the perfect camping spot overlooking the pacific ocean, a vineyard in Napa Valley, the Grand Canyon, or maybe the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, only to realize the Earth you are parked on is uneven.
If you have ever tried sleeping while not lying somewhat perfectly level, you understand how poor of a night’s sleep it can be.
Having a leveling system for your van is definitely an essential you will not want to be without. Being able to level your van so your cup of coffee doesn’t tilt, your phone doesn’t slide off the table or your head is lower than your feet while you sleep (did someone mention killer headache in the morning?) is highly important.
Get a quality and easy-to-use leveling system for your van, we promise you will be grateful to have it.
Safe – Van Life Essentials
Sometimes you are not in or around your tiny house on wheels. In fact, many times your van will be sitting in all of its awesomeness all alone. Hrmmm, everything you own is inside that van.
Other than your alarm and anti-theft system in place, no one separates all of your worldly possessions and someone who may not have the noblest of intentions.
Aside from someone possibly breaking into your van, the unthinkable and unmentionable could happen to your van. ( a fire)
Having important documents and “things” protected from some potentially unsavory misfortunes would be most beneficial. Think birth certificates, social security cards, passports, marriage certificates, family pictures of heirlooms, jewelry, firearms, cash, cashier checks, etc…. You get the idea of what we are talking about now.
Having a safe is a smart and responsible essential to have as a built-in item for your van. It would be wise and prudent as well to have that safe located and affixed somewhere in your van build that is not clearly visible, obvious, and easily removed.
There are lots of places in a van built to “hide” things to keep them safe and out of sight and reach of someone who may want to relieve you of such possessions.
Of course, we are not going to give any recommendations or advice on where to store such hiding places or a safe, well, because that just wouldn’t be very nice to other van lifers or very smart on our part.
There are so many more items we could list for this category. In fact, the list is almost limitless depending on your needs, style, interests, and personality.
Let’s talk about some serious and adult subjects.
Ladder – Van Life Essentials
While having a ladder aboard your van may not sound very exciting or sexy, it is one of the van life essentials you will be glad you have. If you are like most of us van lifers, you have some sort of storage or solar equipment on the top of the van.
Being able to access those items can be very tricky without a ladder. If you are sporting solar panels, then it is likely you are going to be cleaning them a few times a week to ensure you are optimizing your solar input.
When camping in the bush, a ladder also comes in handy when you are wanting to hang your food bag away from nosey animals such as bears or raccoons. Too many times we have heard of stories of bears smashing through windows to get to some yummy smelling gummy bears or other food inside of a camper.
So, as you see, having a ladder as a part of your essential van life equipment is both practical and necessary.
Health and Safety Van Life Essentials
Whether you are a single female, single male, or a couple traveling in your van, the stark reality of living a nomadic lifestyle is that you are going to come across many people with many different personalities, interests, motifs, and degrees of morality.
It is what the world is made of. Humans can be amazingly wonderful and kind, and they can be the worst creatures on Earth.
It is a prudent and wise thing to be prepared for any situation at any given time.
Atlas – Van Life Essentials
Having a paper Atlas might seem a little antiquated considering the technology and reliability of GPS systems we have today for our vehicles and mobile phones.
Imagine though, what if you are in an area of the world that has not a single bar of cellular coverage? You are dead in the water, so to speak, and you have no idea where you are or where you are going.
A road atlas just might be the thing to save you from hours of unnecessary travel.
Self Protection – Van Life Essentials
This van life essential is not just about protecting yourself from other people. While parking in National or State Parks, BLM land, or rally anywhere, there is always the potential for animals that can be very dangerous to you and your pets if you choose to have a furry traveling companion.
If you would like to learn more about Health and Safety while traveling nomadically, click here.
Depending on your degree of comfort, self-protection can mean many things. Basically, have something to defend yourself against other people and animals should you find yourself in a precarious situation.
That could mean anything such as a firearm, pepper spray, taser, knife, sword, Klingon bat’leth, or a big stick.
Remember, you are responsible for yourself! Protect yourself and your belongings. Be smart and always err on the safest and quickest exit from a dangerous situation.
Disclaimer: if you decide to carry a firearm, please educate yourself on the laws regarding traveling with a firearm. They vary from state to state and the legalization can sometimes be misleading and confusing. This is not legal advice, but having your firearm unloaded, and locked away so as to not have quick access to it while driving may be in your best interest if pulled over by law enforcement.
Pet Gear – Van Life Essentials
If you are traveling with a little furry friend or plan on it, it is very important to consider your pet in all things regarding van life and nomadic traveling.
Pets have different needs than we do as humans. I know that is obvious, but unfortunately, sometimes we don’t always remember that when considering our pets. Many times, we often regard them as little four-legged hairy humans.
We must always have fresh clean water for our pets to drink anytime they want it. Having a water and feeding station for your pet in a dedicated spot if very important for your little ones. Most animals are creatures of habit. They prefer a routine and familiarity when it comes to water and food.
Believe it or not, pets can suffer from anxiety and depression just like us complicated humans. Understanding your pet’s needs and personality is the key to ensuring that they enjoy and appreciate van life just as much as you do.
When you are camping out in the wilderness, be sure to educate yourself on some of the potentially dangerous wildlife that you and your pet may encounter. Especially if you have a small pet.
Hawks, coyotes, mountain lions, feral dogs and pigs, bears, snakes, spiders, scorpions, and even elk or moose can be devastating to you or your pet in an unlikely and misfortune encounter.
That being said, one of the most amazing experiences of our nomadic travels so far has been witnessing various wildlife in their natural environment and habitat. The key to coexisting and appreciating all forms of wildlife is education, respect, and distance.
Outside Spot Lights – Van Life Essentials
One of the van life essential items we have incorporated into our van is having 360-degree outside lighting. Not just a porch light or entry light, but powerful, illuminating led spotlights.
We have a light bar on the front of our roof for when we are on off-road and dark back roads while no other vehicles are approaching us. We also have two 12-inch lights on the rear roof of our van to assist us in backing up at night.
For the other two spots, we have 12-inch led spotlights on each side of the van. Our reasoning behind this is for safety and security.
When we are returning to our van and it is after dark we can click a button on our remote keyfob and illuminate all four sides of the van. This allows us to see everything sound in the van for up to about 40 yards out, clearly.
While we are in bed at night and we hear an unfamiliar or strange noise outside, one click of the remote keyfob and our van is lit up like an airport. Anything or any person who may have wandered into our camping zone will quickly realize they should “about face” or face the consequences.
Windows – Van Life Essentials
Visibility and views from inside your van can serve a dual purpose. Not only do windows make your tiny home on wheels feel bigger, but, it is really a nice safety feature as well.
Having the appropriate level of tint on your windows makes it very difficult for others to see inside your van while allowing you a clear visible view of what is happening on the outside. Of course, at night, when you have lights on the inside of the van, you are quite visible even with the darkest of window tint. This is where those window inserts come in very handy.
But, let’s just say you are peacefully asleep and you get a knock on your van at say, 3:45 in the morning. With the click of your outside lights keyfob and a subtle and discreet peek outside through one of your windows, you now have a better and educated understanding of who is standing at your van door.
With the side windows, this would be a much more awkward, uncomfortable, and even dangerous situation for you. Having a 360-degree view of the outside of our van is a safety essential we would not be comfortable without.
Tool Kit/Emergency Kit – Van Life Essentials
There may be times and situations when you find yourself in need of a ⅞ socket, screwdriver, or a 14mm boxed end wrench. Perhaps you are overdue for an oil change and you want to do it yourself because the location you are in doesn’t have a reliable or trustworthy garage.
Having a nice tool kit while traveling can sometimes mean the difference between calling a tow truck or spending a few extra moments on a quick and easy adjustment or repair. We understand space is an expensive asset in a van, but accommodating the space for a small but reliable and adequate tool kit is worth its real estate in your van.
Aside from the basic tools you may need from time to time, it is just as, if not more so, important to have a roadside emergency kit.
This would include some jumper cables, a tire patch kit, a mini air compressor, and road flares or triangles.
Cell Phone Signal Booster – Van Life Essentials
We were initially going to list the cell phone and signal booster separately, but let’s face it. Who doesn’t own and carry a cell phone these days, especially someone who travels full-time?
There aren’t too many things more frustrating than not being able to pull in a steady, strong and reliable cell signal while using our phones or using it for wifi doing work in or outside of our van on the computer.
For full-time van lifers, most of us have some type of job that requires the internet. How else would we pay for all of the fuel, state and National Park passes, and adventures that cost money?
Working online is the grace that allows us to live this lifestyle before we are too old to enjoy it. So, having a reliable cell phone signal while we are in remote locations keeps things moving along.
There are lots of brands for you to choose from. Do your homework and due diligence in choosing the best wifi booster for your needs and cell phone carrier.
Just know, that without a wifi or cell phone booster, there are many places around this country where there is no normal cell signal, despite what Verizon or AT&T would have you believe.
First Aid Kit – Van Life Essentials
You would think this is such an obvious and essential item for every van lifer or nomad to carry with them. Unfortunately, it is not. Too many times we have had fellow nomads and full-time van friends as us for a band-aide, gauze, peroxide, antibiotic cream, etc…
We are not suggesting you carry the pharmacy section with you while you travel, but having basic first aid gear while you travel is nice to have when you need it.
Some items that may be worth mentioning here would of course depend on your level of travel and adventure.
A snake bite kit, something to address wasp or bee stings, (especially if you are anaphylactic) or general illness. (think, Theraflu or Nyquil cold medicine)
Traction Tracks – Van Life Essentials
Your van is your home. It typically is carrying everything you own. Your build is made up of lumber, and plywood and has lots of water and some appliances in it. All of that to say, your van likely weighs a lot.
Depending on whether you only drive on asphalt or concrete roads, you may find yourself in a position of being stuck in dirt, sand, or mud somewhere down the line.
Unless you have outfitted your van with a hefty wench on the front. Traveling with someone with a rig of their own is beefy enough to pull your van out of whatever is bogging it down. Then you are going to want an efficient and reliable way to get yourself unstuck.
Traction tracks are a godsend if you ever find yourself stuck in sand or dirt. They are light and easy to store on your exterior ladder or rooftop rack. Depending on the brand and style, you should plan on spending anywhere from $10 to $300 per pair or set.
Obviously, the less you spend the lesser quality and number of uses you will get out of them. We think of traction tracks as a sort of insurance policy. We hope we never have to use them but if we do need them we will be glad they are there.
If you are concerned with the cost of a good set, consider the cost of a tow truck while you are 50 to 100 miles from the nearest town.
Common Sense – Van Life Essentials
We are mentioning this van life essentials item lastly in this section because it is the single most important thing to carry with you on any trip or adventure.
Not everyone has the same degree of common sense, which is that much more reason why you should always have yours with you. Educate yourselves on where you are going and what you will be doing.
Who might you encounter along your path? What animals or creatures might you come across? Have a plan and route with contingency plans and routes already planned.
Utilizing your born-given common sense could mean the difference between a great adventure and a disaster. Don’t be that van-lifer that others just shake their heads at and accuse you of being “slow behind the eyes”.
Kitchen Van Life Essentials
The kitchen has always been a focal point in many cultures. It doesn’t get the attention or props it deserves in van life. Probably because there isn’t enough room for everyone to gather around the counter or bar while hanging out.
The van conversion kitchen though is as essential to a happy and successful van life experience as the bedroom, bathroom, or living area. The van kitchen is where you prepare most if not all of your meals. Suffice it to say, having the right essential tools in your kitchen is paramount to a successful and happy van life.
Counter Space – Van Life Essentials
Having an adequate amount of counter space in your van is like saying you have enough money in your bank account. There is no such thing as too much counter space in a van. Just by the mere limitations of available room in a van conversion, the counter space is worth its weight in gold.
Why is counter space such an essential asset in van life? It provides you with the ability to prepare your meals and does other projects such as crafting or other hobbies. A good size counter space also creates the illusion that your van build is larger than it actually is. That is if you keep it clear and uncluttered.
Good Lighting – Van Life Essentials
Having good lighting in your kitchen makes cooking and meal prep much nicer. It doesn’t matter what color your lighting is, as long as it is what you prefer. Nat and I prefer a warm glow type of lighting in our van.
We have an led light right above our sink as well as the house lights. This also allows us to just have the kitchen counter light on without illuminating the entire interior of the van.
Sharp Knife – Van Life Essentials
Having a sharp knife or two, or three or four, is as essential as having fresh water in our opinion. One good, very sharp utility knife is really all you need.
Not only can a good knife be used for meal prep and eating, but it is also a utility tool for your campsite as well. Prepping kindling and fire starter material for a campfire. Carry your knife with you on hikes to be used for emergency use or potentially self-defense.
Just having a sharp blade with you at all times comes in handy more than you probably realize.
Water Pump – Van Life Essentials
What is the use of having gallons upon gallons of fresh water in your van if you don’t have the means to use it? Having a water pump on board to move your water to your sink faucet or shower is a very essential van life tool.
Some may opt for a foot pump water pump while others, like us, chose an electric 12v water pump. We prefer the water pressure of the electric pump for taking showers.
A couple of the things to know about the 12v electric water pump. Be sure to mount your water pump on something that will absorb the vibration of the pump itself. We mounted ours on a rubber mat. This greatly reduced the vibrations.
Also, we chose to utilize an accumulator. This eliminates the “roaring” pump sound to push water through your water lines. The accumulator collects the water and reduces the stress and strain on the pump.
Deep Sink – Van Life Essentials
Way too many times we have had van life friends express to us how they wish they had installed a bigger or deeper sink into their van. Having a deep sink that will hold your dishes without them spilling over onto the counter is a van build essential we knew we could not live without.
Our van sink isn’t as large as the sink we had in our skoolie, but it is a good size. Big enough to hold all of our dirty dishes and pans from a meal. Also, big enough to bathe our little pup Kona.
Refrigerator – Van Life Essentials
A refrigerator in your van build is like the icing on the cake. It really makes your build feel complete. For that reason alone, having a refrigerator on board is essential. A 12v refrigerator is so much better than I had imagined. Our van, Raen, is our first experience with a 12v chest refrigerator. We love it!
To be able to reach into this awesome and essential appliance for a cold beverage or a cold snack is just like living at home.
There are so many different styles, sizes, and brands you can choose from. Deciding on the right van-life refrigerator for you depends on many factors. How much cool space do you need for your beverages and food? How many amps the refrigerator pulls to run 24/7 and the cost of your solar or electrical system will cost?
The size of the refrigerator, reliability and the amps being used were the key factors for us. We knew we wanted an electrically efficient appliance that was big enough but not too big.
Our refrigerator is a 59 liter fridge and it fits comfortably between the driver and passenger seat of the van. Easy access for a cold drink or snack while we are driving from one destination to another and also easy access while we are parked and camped.
We love our Apicool refrigerator! So far, it has been a champion for us!
Water Tumbler – Van Life Essentials
Having your own personal and dedicated water tumbler is an essential van life item, you will use more than you would ever think.
Your personal water tumbler should be large enough to last you on a 1-2 hour hike. It should hold enough water to keep you hydrated throughout a good night’s sleep. And, it should allow you plenty of water throughout the day without having to constantly fill it back up.
Definitely recommend a water tumbler made out of glass or stainless steel. Anything from glass always tastes better than anything from plastic. The stainless steel water tumbler adds the security and durability of never having to worry about it cracking or breaking from a short drop.
So far for our nomadic travels, our water tumblers are with us as much as my pocket knife, i.d., and van keys. It is something that is constantly by our side within quick reach for a refreshing drink of water.
Cook Top – Van Life Essentials
Unless you are reverting back to our primal tendencies and plan on eating everything raw, having a cooktop for your van would definitely be considered an essential van item.
When we lived and traveled in our converted school bus, all we used was a Coleman two-burner propane camp stove. We used that thing every single day for about a year and a half. It boiled our water for coffee, tea, and food. Our Coleman prepared our dog food for Bandit and Kona. It cooked our meals and it also heated out water for showers and sponge baths.
This time around, we still have our little two-burner camp stove, but we upgraded our kitchen significantly.
For our van, we have a three-top propane stove with an oven to boot. It’s a full-size apartment oven too. We can cook anything we want from a small turkey to a full pizza or a casserole in a 13 x 9 dish or a full sheet of chocolate chip cookies.
We haven’t prepared a meal for guests on it yet, but maybe we will do that soon.
Bedroom Van Life Essentials
Arguably, the most important and vital part of the van build is the bedroom.
*insert “brown chicken brown cow 70’s type of music here*
All joking aside though, the bedroom is where you will spend the majority of your time inside your awesome van build. Realizing that most of your awakening time will be spent outside of the van, special attention and consideration should be given to the bedroom.
Comfortable Bed – Van Life Essentials
First and foremost, a comfortable mattress that is big enough for you or you and your partner is essential to not just a happy van life, but a healthy body and mind.
Without a comfortable and restful sleep, your health and attitude will shortly begin to pay the price. The dividends of a quality and comfortable mattress should not and can not be compromised.
Now, depending on how tall you are, and the size and make and model of your van, you are going to need to know and decide if you will be sleeping sideways or longways in your van.
If you are 6 feet tall or more, you will be sleeping longways regardless of the van you convert. Unless that is, you end up cutting out the metal sides of your van and adding some fiberglass flares that will increase your van’s width by up to 10 inches.
Since our van is only a 144-inch wheelbase, we knew we didn’t want half of the van to be our bed, so we paid for and installed ourselves two fiberglass flares that gave us an additional 10 inches of width. Now, we can sleep sideways and even reduce the width of our beds during the day.
Good Pillows – Van Life Essentials
A good pillow, or in our case, a few good pillows is as important and essential to van life as a good mattress or bed. I don’t know about you, but we sleep with at least three pillows each. A super comfortable head pillow, our sobakawa pillows to snuggle, put over our heads or sometimes use as our main pillow, and of course, nice soft and thick leg pillows for between our legs.
Pillows aren’t just for the bed and sleeping by the way. A pillow while traveling in the passenger seat makes for a comfy drive to your next adventure or campsite. Using one of the pillows while lounging on the sofa inside of the van or relaxing or napping in your hammock on a cool afternoon.
Never underestimate or value the importance of a quality pillow or two.
Down Comforter – Van Life Essentials
Having a down comforter, or, in our case, a couple of down comforters is like having a temperature controlled electric blanket that not only keeps you warm and toasty but actually and surprisingly keeps you cool as well.
Having a down sleeping bag is nice as well, but there is no substitute for a quality down comforter that is made out of high-quality and high thread-count cotton. That is the key to keeping you not just warm when it is cool but just as essential, it keeps you cool on hot and humid nights down south.
We opted several years ago to have our own individual comforters for sleeping. Having our own individual comforter eliminates the situation of “stealing the covers” from one another. When we want to snuggle under the same blanket, we just toss one aside or double stack them.
Clean Bed – Van Life Essentials
Now, hear us out on this one. If you have ever lived one night in a van conversion, RV, skoolie, or just been camping in a tent, you and I both know that your bed can quickly and easily become gritty with dirt, sand, leaves, or other “earthy” materials.
Having and keeping a clean bed is a constant struggle with van life, but, if you stay committed and diligent, it not only is possible, but the rewards are like sleeping in a luxurious 5-star penthouse hotel bed.
A clean bed is worth a thousand nights’ sleep. Remember to wipe your feet before getting into bed and of course, never, ever getting into your bed with shoes on is the key.
If you have a four-legged traveling companion, remembering to wipe their feet before allowing them into your sleeping throne is key as well.
The reality however is this. Your bed is going to get dusty, dirty, and “earthy”. You will get used to it, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it get so bad that insects will want to start to build homes in the debris. Stay on top of it and you will be comfortable enough to get a good night’s sleep every night.
Windows – Van Life Essentials
If it is at all possible, incorporate some windows into the area of your bedroom. A van built without ventilation is nothing more than sleeping in a cargo van. Having a window or two has made all of the difference in the world for our van conversion.
Even on a warm night, having a nighttime breeze come through our sliding windows drops the temperature in our van by as much as an additional 5 – 10 degrees cooler.
Windows in the bedroom of your van is also essential for being able to see and hear what is happening outside of your van. We are always hearing sounds outside of the van. Most of us are used to hearing and expect to hear sounds outside, but every now and then we hear something that makes us wonder…hmmmm?
A quick glance outside and usually back off to sleep within seconds.
Fans – Van Life Essentials
Having something other than just a window to allow some fresh air to circulate throughout your van while sleeping or just living in it during the day and an essential van life item. We could not imagine living in our van conversion with the use of our fans.
There are three fans we rely on for comfort, fresh air, and mental stability. We mentioned them early on in the conversation in the living and comfort section but felt they we so important to the bedroom area of the van that it warrants mentioning again.
Heat – Van Life Essentials
Heat is something we rarely rely on. We are both very warm-natured people. Although we love and strive for warm weather, especially a hot tropical beach, we prefer to stay cool and in temperate weather conditions.
There are times, however, even with our warm Cherokee blood, we get a little too chilly and want and need to warm up a bit.
We decided to install a diesel heater as a part of our van build. Although we don’t really feel that a dedicated heating source is essential for our van life experience, it is nice to have when it is needed.
We have friends who have opted for a “Little Buddy” propane heater as well as 12v electric blankets that pull very little amperage for electricity.
Whatever your preferred method for staying warm is, be sure to have some type of system in place. Being cold is not just uncomfortable, it can be dangerous if exposed for too long.
Recreational Van Life Essentials
The best part of van life for us is the ability to go anywhere at almost anytime we want. We are not anchored to any geographical place. We are free to go and experience the different cultures, topography, and wildlife anywhere in the North American continent we want. (Covid restrictions apply)
Here are a few of the recreational van life essentials we could not imagine being without.
Binoculars – Van Life Essentials
I must say, there aren’t too many more enjoyable experiences in van life than overlooking a bluff or valley and seeing a wild animal in the distance. Living its life as it was meant to be. Sometimes, I think about how a wild animal I am watching and admiring would have been living exactly as this one 200 years earlier.
Being able to see wild animals, geography, and nature itself is such a calming and magical thing to watch. Unfortunately, we can always get as close as we want and remain safe. Most times, the animal is too far away to really appreciate the details and raw beauty it possesses.
Having a pair of good-quality binoculars brings you and the animal so much closer together. It allows you in many cases to see the expressions on the animal’s face. Sometimes, you can almost hear and smell the animal with a little imagination.
One of the main reasons we decided to travel full time in a converted van is so we could experience nature up close and first hand. Being able to go into nature’s world and see things with our own eyes is worth every mile traveled.
Do yourselves a favor and purchase a good quality pair of binoculars or two if you have a traveling partner. It is one of the essential van life items you will use over and over again!
Kayaks – Van Life Essentials
We are water people, simple and true. Growing up on the East coast of Central Florida, recreational water activities were just a part of our life. Water skiing, fishing, kayaking, surfing, rafting, boating, or just playing and swimming in the ocean, lagoon, or swimming pool. Being in the water was woven into our DNA.
Kayaking in Central Florida has allowed us to commune with nature in a very natural and noninvasive way. Having a group of manatee swim up to and beneath our kayaks for a back or belly scratch is both exhilarating and frightening at the same time.
Having a dolphin swim right up to your kayak and then watch it roll as it make eye contact with you is something I will cherish for the rest of my life. That has happened to me three times and each time is as special as the first.
I remember the first time I saw an alligator in the water with me. It was back in 1986, I was a teenager and kayaking in the Merritt Island Ulamay Wildlife area.
I was kayaking up a very narrow canal when I spotted the gator maybe 40 feet up ahead. His head was about 3 feet long on top of the water, so I knew this was not a little guy. Being around gators most of my life, I knew they would swim away as I got closer to them.
This fella had different intentions. This was his water and he wasn’t moving. The closer I got to him, the more my heart raced and the more my natural instincts to preserve myself increased. Not only did he not swim away, but he turned to face me head on.
That is when I stopped my forward movement and that is also when he slowly and subtly sank under the surface of the black water.
That was enough adventure for me that day. I high-tailed it out of there and didn’t wait around for that gator to show me just how much he intended on defending his watering hole.
Kayaking while exploring and adventuring throughout North America is as much to experience the different landscapes and water systems as it is to be active and remain healthy.
Kayaking can be as relaxing and slow as you want it to be in most waters. It can also be as strenuous, exciting, and challenging as you want it to be as well. A very flexible form of entertainment.
We decided to go with foldable kayaks for our van life experience. Having a 144-wheelbase Sprinter van, there aren’t many options for hauling full-sized kayaks from one place to another. Our roof is maxed out with solar panels and our van ladder is occupied by our bicycles.
Kayaks are one of those items in van life we consider to be essential luxurious items!
Tucktec Kayakes – Van Life Essentials
That is why we decided to give Tucktec Kayaks a shot at filling our kayaking adventure desires. Full-sized kayaks at almost 10 feet long and 31 inches wide. They boast a full size rudder for easy tracking.
The Tuktec kayak unfolds in about 10 minutes and folds up just as quickly. At 28 lbs and a compact 15 inches tall by 48 inches long, they store nicely in our garage area of the van.
Bikes – Van Life Essentials
Having the camper van is so much more versatile and mobile than our skoolie was. Don’t get me wrong, we loved our Thomas skoolie, Caroline, and had many great memories and adventures with her. Having a van though, is so much easier and mobile to get and go to places.
One of the activities we have always loved doing together is riding our bikes for pleasure. Whether it was a ride through our neighborhood or around the Island or a nice ride along the shore of the beach, riding our bikes is a “thing” for us to do together.
So, when we decided to go with a van to continue our travels and adventures, we weren’t sure our bikes would be a part of that. I mean, where could they possibly go in our packed-out van?
We decided that an exterior van ladder on the rear door was the answer to that problem. We can attach an RV ladder bike rack to our van ladder and take our bikes anywhere we go. After setting up camp, we can cruise and adventure on our bikes to our hearts’ and legs’ desires!
Seriously though, having a couple of bicycles to use as an alternative recreational activity or as an alternative transportation method is an essential item that makes this van life adventure more fun than we imagined!
Hiking Shoes/boots – Van Life Essentials
Exploring and adventuring across this North American continent offers so many opportunities for excursions off the beaten path. It’s easy to wander off and let the wind, sights and smells guide you on a hike into the wilderness.
Doing so without a comfortable and reliable pair of hiking shoes or boots is ill-advised though. Understand, that hiking in the wilderness is not like walking down the sidewalk in your neighborhood. Nor is it like hiking on a state or national park trail.
The raw wilderness has some pretty unforgiven steps, so having the right equipment is essential to ensure your hike is both comfortable and safe. A pair of hiking boots that are comfortable, reasonably light, and waterproof are my personal requirements.
Price is not something you will want to get too nit-picky about when considering this essential piece of equipment. The old saying, “you get what you pay for” certainly applies when it comes to quality shoes or boots.
Do your own research and try them on. Go to a local store and actually put them on your feet and walk around the store before purchasing a cool looking pair off the internet.
Water Shoes – Van Life Essentials
Just like having a good quality pair of hiking boots or shoes, having a comfortable and reliable pair of water shoes is just as important if you plan on spending any amount of time in or around the water.
We love to adventure in the desert, the mountains, and the ocean. When adventuring in the water, sometimes there are things on the bottom of the water that can be sharp, painful or even dangerous to step on.
Also, getting from the land to the water, you want some quality, safe and comfortable shoes to get you there. Having a good pair of water shoes is essential to a successful water excursion!
Hiking Stick – Van Life Essentials
While you are traversing the many different types of topography, keeping your balance is paramount to your safety and level of enjoyment.
I prefer to make my own hiking sticks out of raw materials I find in the wilderness. Never cut down a healthy tree or branch for a staff, but use one that is dead and on the ground, and repurposing it. I find it much more meaningful and purposeful while striving to connect with nature and all of the energy around me.
We also have some aluminum telescoping hiking sticks that were gifted to me from a former coworker several years ago. I always knew they would come in handy and are now a part of our essential van life gear.
In addition to assisting you while hiking on uneven and difficult terrain, a good hiking stick can be used to protect yourself in the event you come across a dangerous animal such as a venomous snake or wild animal.
The stick can be used to separate yourself from harm’s way in the unlikely event you need it. (think pesky or dangerous animal here) Also, if you find yourself in a situation where you need to reach out to someone because you have fallen or slipped into a crevice, hole, or spot that is not easy to free yourself from, then a long hiking stick could just be the thing that keeps you safe and well.
Hat – Van Life Essentials
When adventuring and exploring, especially in the desert and mountainous regions, never leave your van with a wide-brimmed hat that will help protect your face, ears, and neck from the harmful UV rays of the sun.
A hat will also help preserve critical body temperatures in colder climates and can be used as a fan and source of cooling in hotter and humid climates. If you find yourself in a sudden and unexpected rainstorm, the brim of the hat will help keep the water out of your eyes and enable you to see better where you are walking.
So, other than a very nice fashion statement, a good hat is an essential accessory to almost anything you do with van life.
Music – Van Life Essentials
Before you start thinking I have sold out to society and bringing music into the natural and peaceful existence of nature, hear me out.
There will be times, hopefully far and few in between when you may find yourself feeling alone, separated, and isolated from society. Being the social creatures that we are, despite how little appreciation you may have for another human’s company, there will be times when you just need a hint or taste of your “old life”.
Having music to relax, reminisce, and listen to can give you so much energy and comfort, it may surprise you. If you are anything like me, the very first notes of a song can instantly take you back to a point or event in time that creates warm and pleasant memories of nostalgia.
Whether you have a collection of cds or an MP3 player from days gone by, even without a good cell signal for Spotify or Itunes, you can still play your favorite tunes.
Anything that creates good vibes and energy should be an essential element of your van life.
Video Games – Van Life Essentials
This is another thing we consider van life essentials that may prompt people to think we are off our rocker.
If you are a fan of playing video games, then you are right there in our camp! You know how important and relaxing gaming can be. Especially if you are feeling down and out or the weather outside is less than desirable. Video games on a computer, hand-held device, or console are a van life essentials item for sure!
Sometimes it is good to “seperate” from where you are and create an al;ternate space for your mind to switch gears.
Having a video gaming system can make passing the down times so much easier and more enjoyable than if you didn’t have them. Having a gaming system like the Nintendo Switch, which can operate on a 12v system, makes it a cheap and energy-efficient way of passing time.
So, get in the most comfortable spot in your van, gather your favorite beverage and snacks and get your game on!
Frisbee – Van Life Essentials
Having something to play with outside is a great way to break the monotony of van life as you may know it. It doesn’t matter if it is a frisbee, a football, baseball, and glove, or some horseshoes. If we were able to fit out corn-hole boards in the van, you can sure bet they would be with us and set up at each campsite.
Sometimes, you just want to lounge around your campsite without venturing out. Having something to do other than just soaking up the awesome energy of nature itself can be just the essential element to a happy camping spot.
The Wrap-Up To Van Life Essentials
There are a lot of items that are essential for a happy and comfortable van life experience. Mind you, to each his or her own. Before you set out on the road exploring the countryside, make a comprehensive list of the items you couldn’t live without.
Then, narrow those items down to what is absolutely critical for your ultimate van life experience. If you have the room, go for it. Just remember, living in a tiny space can be crowded enough. Hauling around unnecessary items will just bog you down mentally and physically.
Let us know what some of your Van Life Essentials are. Comment below or reach out to us on Instagram.
Happy traveling and happy camping!
Nat and Don