Everything You Need to Know About Van Life (and Some Cool Gear to Take Along for Ride)

Whether it’s a seasonal excursion, a lifestyle change, or the ultimate and seemingly endless road trip, the van life movement has become increasingly popular. We interviewed four van life experts for tips on surviving the modern nomadic lifestyle. As a bonus, we’ve also included a few gear recommendations that will make living in a van just a little more like home.

Meet the Van Life Experts

Aaron Bible

For the last 20 years, Aaron has been building out and traveling in vans either full- or part-time. He and his wife, along with the recent addition of a daughter and another on the way, have owned four Volkswagen Vanagons, two Suburbans, and two Ford vans. To say that they’re experts may be an understatement. Their current rig is a Ford Transit E350 High Top. Both are journalists and digital media specialists, which allows them the opportunity to lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle. When not traveling, they can be found at their permanent basecamp located at 9,200 feet above sea level in Nederland, Colorado.

Peter Holcombe

Peter and his family have been living the van life, or in this case, the RV life. full-time for the last five years — and it’s not over yet. This June, the trio plan to place their 4X4 Winnebago Revel on a container ship bound for Europe to spend the remainder of the year adventuring across the continent before continuing on to South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia for an extended overlanding trek. 

Cally Arndt and Tyson Lukasavige

Cally and Tyson have used multiple vehicles over the years but are now using a 2016 XLR Hyper Lite 27 HFS. The current adventure rig has a 9-foot integrated garage where they store their dirt and mountain bikes. The remainder of the 30-foot trailer houses the living space. They spend their summers working and their winters living the nomadic lifestyle in the quest for epic skiing and adventure. The duo never leaves home without their faithful canine sidekick, Hank, and they’re both convinced that people like him more than them.

Andy Cochrane

Working as a freelance writer, photographer, and producer, Andy has a little different approach than the other experts. He has spent the last three years living out of his Toyota Tacoma with a camper shell traveling the American West searching for his next adventure and story. 

Van Life Tips

Storage

Aaron: Storage is a constant battle but the most important thing is staying organized and having dedicated van equipment that doesn’t get used for the house or other expeditions. We keep separate sleeping bags, cooking gear, down jackets, flip-flops, and some other clothing essentially packed in the van at all times. It only comes out for cleaning after long trips and goes back to its place. You have to be super anal and fastidious to have an effective van life. Having bins or duffel bags very well-organized and color-coded works pretty well. It’s not as good as having storage built into your van but many people don’t have the storage they need in terms of cabinets and such. If you do have good cabinetry and under-bed storage, over-cab storage, etc., then as I said the most important part is organization and staying organized. I like to wear the same clothes for as long as possible and just clean my body every day. Then when a pair of boxers or a T-shirt is really stinky or soiled, it goes in a stuff sack that doesn’t really get touched until the end of the trip or we have a stopover where we are doing laundry. But again, have a place for lights — lighters, candles, headlamps, lanterns — and keep that shit organized.

Andy: This is probably the most important thing to master for long-term van life. I’ve built most of my drawers and cubbies custom, minus a Thule box on top. Once you get your storage built and dialed, you want to make sure you only bring along what you need. Less is always more.

Peter: We use Patagonia Duffle Bags that are color-coded to keep each person’s clothing and gear separate and organized. Much of the cooking and communal gear is kept in drawers and cabinets.

Cally and Tyson: Staying organized is the best way to maximize your available storage. Small bins are perfect for sticking in cabinets to keep your clothes, food items, etc. contained, compact, and easy to find. Try to find a home that makes sense for everything in your van and your life will be a lot easier.

van life tips gear experts cooking getty images
Matthew Micah Wright/Getty Images

Cooking

Cally and Tyson: The more you plan ahead, the better off you are! We try to plan our meals in advance of trips and at times we’ll even, for example, cook a bunch of taco meat and then freeze it in a vacuum-sealed bag and then throw it in the freezer. Try to minimize the amount of cooking you do in the van – especially in hot weather! We have a Primus Kamoto fire pit for the van, which allows us to not only have an outdoor contained fire, but is also a great source for cooking and grilling food. Once again, simplicity is key here and the more planning and preparing you can do ahead of time, the better off you’ll be.

Aaron: This really depends on your kitchen setup. We use a water boiler (like an electric tea kettle) as much as possible and do coffee, oatmeal, dehydrated meals … no dishes, basically. It’s advised to have a way to do dishes well on the road. Don’t pack them up and wait to do them when you get home. That’s how stuff gets lost and put back with your household items or other camping gear. Some people have stoves in the van but we like to cook outside for the most part. Folding camp table and a variety of camp stoves are employed. Nice dishes and nice cutlery are always a bonus. Cutting board, spices — everything you would have at home or at least car camping. Again, these should have a home in the van. We have a kitchen box kind of thing that also has cleanup and a couple of plastic dish pans, that goes either out on a picnic bench or cooler or on the rear slide out.

Andy: I keep this more basic than most. Double-burner stove hooked up to a 20-pound propane tank. I have two pans, three pots (MSR), a few bowls, and sporks. Honestly, you don’t need much more than this. I eat simple meals – lots of rice and beans, quinoa, and veggie scrambles.

van life tips gear experts sleeping getty images
Daniel Guerrero/EyeEm/Getty Images

Hygiene

Aaron: Just like on an extended expedition, the cleaner you stay — both the van and your body — the better off you will be. Baby wipes, hand sanitizer, and ways to wash up without a shower are critical.

Cally and Tyson: You’d be surprised with how long you can go with a simple wash of the face every night before bed. Finding a shower once a week will have you smelling and looking fresh. The ultimate spots to get clean include wild hot springs, inexpensive neighborhood aquatic centers, or a friend’s hot tub. If you’re giving yourself showers from your van (outdoor shower accessory) make sure you’re using environmentally friendly soap. Baby wipes are the perfect on-hand shower to keep you feeling fresh and *sort-of* clean.

Andy: If you want to shower a lot, make a lot of friends. Or, get a gym membership that has outfits in most major cities. I typically look for rec centers too. They often offer cheap showers. I use Dr. Bronner’s for just about everything, from showers to dishes.

Peter: This is an eternal issue. We use friends’ homes, rec centers, climbing gyms, campgrounds, and rivers.

Parking

Cally and Tyson: At times, the most stressful part about van life can be figuring out where you’re going to park at night. There are so many options when it comes to parking/camping and it truly depends on personal preference. For us, we like being in the middle of nowhere where we can wild camp. We will often find BLM or National Forest land to park on for the night. It’s important to know your boundaries and not park on private property. Also, bear in mind to not be disrespectful of the land you intend to camp on. Don’t drive somewhere that is not intended for driving, don’t create “new” campsites, and most importantly, leave no trace. And that includes trash. It sounds silly that we should have to emphasize this but unfortunately, it’s more common than one would think.

Sleeping

Andy: I use a foam mattress bought off Amazon, with sleeping bags. On cold winter nights, I’ll put one bag inside the other, kind of like layers for your clothing. I don’t have a heater and I don’t really think you need it. I use iOverlander to help me find spots.

Peter: We have a full bed in the rear of our van. It uses body flairs to allow more length sideways. In the mid-cabin is another single-sized bed that folds out for our daughter. This uses hinged bed support and a very thick and comfy Therm-a-rest mattress.

Aaron: You’re there to be comfortable. Otherwise, you’d be in a tent. Sleep is like 80% of the reason to have a van. Tents suck, end of story. Vans are super comfortable. We have even had a 4-inch foam mattress that was super comfortable. We’ve used double Cascade Designs inflatable mattresses that were super comfy (they make a cover that keeps them together nicely). We have an inexpensive cotton double sleeping bag we’ve used for year and we’ll put a down comforter in there, a bed sheet, and a couple extra sleeping bags in case my wife gets cold or for the dog on the floor, or a guest or sleeping outside under the stars, always have a few extra inflatable camping pads in there for laying around on. But now, we have a full-size queen style mattress but one made for RVs so it’s a little thinner. I’m 6’2″ and you have to be able to fully stretch out. Your height essentially determines what you can get away with in terms of mattress size and orientation. And again being a couple is way different than being single. Being single, you can get away with a lot that you can’t when you have a partner, no matter how low maintenance anyone is. Throw in kids and dogs and you start to face the real challenges. We can even fit a Pack and Play sleeper for our daughter in our van now. Big dogs sleep on the floor, little dogs sleep with you.

van life tips gear experts working getty images
Eternity in an Instant/Getty Images

Working from the Road

Peter: We work full-time from the road running our commercial photography business. The biggest challenge for us has been power and internet connection. For power, we use Zamp solar in the form of 2x 100watt panels on our roof and a portable array of 320 watts that we can position on the ground to add more power. This energy is then stored in 3x group 31 AGM batteries in our van. We also have an inverter to allow the use of AC power. We also have a Honda generator that we can use if it’s cloudy for days on end or we are under thick tree cover. Sometimes, we want to visit a remote area and just have to take the trade-off of no cell service and therefore, no internet.

Cally and Tyson: Working from the road is simple as long as you plan your time, practice self-control, and have a good idea of where you’ll be and if you’ll need internet access or not. We generally have an allotment of time set aside out of each day that we know we will devote to work. It can be very hard to sit down and get some work done when you’re in an incredible location and everyone around you is having fun. It’s often easy to justify spending time on work throughout the day because we know that that is what allows us to be on the road, in these incredible places in the first place.

Aaron: Working from the road is really pretty easy. You can use your phone as a hot spot or get an RV-style Wi-Fi booster. You can stop at coffee shops, rec centers, Starbucks, libraries, truck stops — almost everywhere has internet now. We tend to plan our calls and work schedules around when we know we’ll have reliable internet. It’s quite hard to work on the computer while rolling down the road, but we can convert the main area of the van to a mobile office if we want, or just park and go to a Starbucks. And work at campsites, then upload/download when you get to dependable Wi-Fi. We’ll get a cheap hotel every few nights and get caught up that way if we have to. It partially depends on how big and comfortable your rig is; some people are more set up for work than others. But I would say using the cell phone as a hot spot is a pretty good way to at least look like you’re working without having to plan a stop. But also, a lot of van life involves staying with friends and at campgrounds so working is not a problem, if you’re clever and motivated.

Andy: I installed a Wi-Fi booster on my truck. Highly recommend. Definitely helps get a better signal when you’re far out. Other than that, I just tether my laptop to my phone (like I am doing to do this interview). You get pretty good at finding Wi-Fi when you live nomadically.

The Manual’s Van Life Gear Recommendations

Below are a few items, sans the kitchen sink, that just might make life on the road feel a little more like home.

Power

Goal Zero Yeti 1000 and Boulder 100 Solar Panel Briefcase

The Goal Zero Yeti 1000 Portable Power Station and the Boulder 100 Solar Panel Briefcase are the perfect combination to provide sustainable power while on the road. The Power Station can power small electric coolers like the Dometic (see below), laptops, and more. The briefcase design of the solar panel allows for easy packing and storage when not being used.

Uncharted Supply Co. Zeus Portable Jump Starter and USB Charger
van life tips gear experts the zeus  portable jump starter usb charger

This portable jump starter can revive that dead battery when no-one else is around. In addition to its battery boosting abilities, it also doubles as a flashlight and USB charger.

Surecall Fusion2Go 3.0 RV
van life tips gear experts fusion2go 3 0 rv

We live in an age of constant connectivity. Having the ability to extend the range of your cell signal can provide for a mobile work environment.

Shelter

Thule HideAway Awning
van life tips gear experts thule hideaway awning

It’s nice to escape the confines of the vehicle. This Thule awning connects to a rooftop rack and quickly deploys for shelter from the sun and rain while extending the usable area of the vehicle’s interior.

Kitchen

Primus Tupike Stove
van life tips gear experts primus tupike stove

This lightweight and compact two-burner stove is ideal for life on the road, car camping, and tailgating.

GSI Outdoors Glacier Stainless Base Camper
van life tips gear experts gsi stainless base camper

Compact and stackable cookware is ideal for maximizing space.

Traeger Ranger Pellet Grill
van life tips gear experts traeger ranger pellet grill

This may be a splurge item but what better to break the monotony of stove-cooked meals than firing up this pellet grill for a tailgating special meal. Its compact size makes it easily storable.

Dometic Electric Cooler
van life tips gear experts dometic cfx

This line of portable electric coolers and freezers are ideal for keeping food fresh without the perpetual addition of ice. There are a variety of sizes to choose from to accommodate your specific size requirements.

Hydro Flask
best water bottles hydroflask image

The diversity of the products offered by Hydro Flask make them the go-to brand for an assortment of hydration and storage needs.

Bedding

Kelty Tru.Comfort Doublewide 20
van life tips gear experts kelty tru comfort doublewide 20

The benefit of car camping is that weight isn’t truly an issue. You aren’t necessarily relegated to backpacking-style sleeping bags.

Therm-a-Rest Ramble Down Blanket
van life tips gear experts therm a rest ramble down blanket

This down blanket is a great addition to a cool night when extra covers are needed or as a cover-up while sitting in your chair enjoying an evening under the stars.

Bonus: Hest Sleep System. This product is completely new to the market and is the next best thing to the mattress on your bed. This item is so new in fact that we were one of the first to test it out. It will be available to the public in the coming weeks. It’ll be worth the wait.

Furniture

NEMO Stargaze Recliner Chair
van life tips gear experts nemo stargaze recliner chair

Having furniture that is easily stored is advantageous and even more worthwhile when hanging out around camp after a long day on the road.

Storage

Thule Force XT
van life tips gear experts thule force xt xl

A rooftop storage box is a great addition to any rig as it will increase your storage while freeing up some of the interior space. This is a great place to store additional bedding, packs, clothing, and items not needed on a daily basis.

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