The Van Life Playbook
Hey fellow travelers! If you’ve found yourself here then I’m going to assume you’ve either done #VanLife or you’re interested in learning more, perhaps in taking on the life-changing and wondrous challenge that is #VanLife. Welcome! If you haven’t already, I would definitely recommend checking out some of my previous Van Life posts. I kept a daily journal throughout our three month travels which gave a detailed, behind the scenes look at the ins and outs of traveling the country in a Van.
Since returning from our trip about a month ago, I’ve had the chance to sit down and reflect on #VanLife. I knew I wanted to share more tangible tips and tricks (check out my blog post “So You Want to Do #VanLife”) as well as resources for those of you who may be interested in embarking on this once in a lifetime adventure. We started off as admirers of Van Lifers and while we did a fair bit of research beforehand (mainly via YouTube and Instagram), it’s darn near impossible to prepare yourself for such a trek.
Nevertheless, I’ve tried my best to capture a variety of resources that I think will make your Van Life adventure that much smoother. Please keep in mind that this is by no means a comprehensive list of all the Van Life resources (that would be impossible to share). This blog is however chock full of resources and items that we found personally beneficial throughout our travels. Those items that you may not see or hear about in your other research. Good luck!
Van Life Resources:
Boondockers Welcome - This is actually a Harvest Hosts company and thus very similar to Harvest Hosts which you’ll see recommended below. This app features private property available for camping anywhere between 1-3 days. Please note, you still must be a self-contained RV.
Bring Fido - A must-have for travelers who are planning on bringing their four legged friend. Bring Fido showcases dog friendly accommodations, dining and activities in cities across the country.
Gas Buddy - This app reveals up-to-date gas prices on a map of the US. Thanks to Gas Buddy we saved anywhere from $.50 to $1.50 just by looking at the app and comparing nearby prices before filling up. If you’re planning on traveling for a while, gas (especially Diesel gas) can quickly add up. Do yourself a favor and download the Gas Buddy App.
The Dyrt App - Similar to Campendium (you’ll read about this one later too), The Dyrt is an awesome all-around resource for campers. Something to note, if you sign up for their “pro” membership you have access to their map and locations offline which can be crucial. We ran into a few situations during our trip where we didn’t have service and needed to find somewhere to stay ASAP so that feature certainly came in handy.
Trucker Path App - Truckers post overnight stays inclusive of their rating for that particular destination. It also includes general safety of highways and subsequent truck stops.
Reddit - There’s an awesome ”Boondocking” group we stumbled upon which helped in locating places to sleep and work.
Campendium - An amazing resource for campers! You definitely don’t have to pay the $20 membership fee to get all the benefits of Campendium. From free campsites to cell reception info, this site has it all.
Cracker Barrel/Walmart/Flying J - While there are quite a few places across the country that offer campers a free place to park overnight, these were our top three favorite during our trip and the ones we could depend on the most. Plus it’s nice having access to food, groceries and gas when you wake up first thing in the morning!
Free Campsites - While not as “modern” as Campendium or Harvest Hosts, Free Campsites is a great starting point when looking for nearby free places to camp. Keep in mind that most of the destinations are posted and reviewed by other campers so they may not always be up to date or accurate. Always check the date of the last posting to confirm.
Harvest Hosts - Without a doubt one of our favorite investments during Van Life. Keep in mind this is limited to self-contained RVers but Harvest Hosts is a membership program that grants you camping access at local wineries, breweries, farms and more across the country for just $99. What’s the catch you may be asking? Well, each Harvest Hosts is completely free however you can only stay for 24 hours and you have to support whatever that local business is during your stay. For example, if you stay at a winery you can enjoy a couple glasses or a tasting to fulfill your commitment. I mean pull my leg why don’t you? Can’t recommend Harvest Hosts enough!
Truck Stops - While I wouldn’t recommend staying there for more than a night, truck stops can be a light at the end of the tunnel after a long day’s drive. Most of them also have bathrooms which is a bonus. While they can be quite loud, at least you feel a bit more safe than pulling over out in the middle of nowhere.
Walmart Website - This website displays which Walmarts allow overnight parking and which do not. Make sure you check the date of the latest review from a fellow camper to get a feel for the last time someone stayed there. As a reminder, while Walmart is one of those places that offers a safe space for campers to post up overnight, not all states allow it so sometimes it’s simply out of their hands. Don’t be afraid to ask inside although most of the time you can tell the second you pull into a Walmart parking lot.
All terrain tires - These are helpful (and necessary!) since some free camping spots are off the beaten path.
Audible - Don’t get me wrong, I will always be a book reader, and by book reader I mean hold it in my hands kind of book reader but my team at work bought a six month Audible membership for me as a gift and I have to say it was an enjoyable addition to Van Life. It was kind of nice being able to sit back and listen to a book rather than staring at the pages or reading it out loud as I traditionally do. One thing we did learn the hard way, I think fiction books translate a bit better than non-fiction books via Audible.
Body wipes - There are many days when showering simply isn’t an option. Lucky for you (and your travel partner) there are body wipes to keep you feeling (and smelling) somewhat fresh.
Booklight - If you’re like me and love to read in the car (and can without getting sick!) then a book light is an important purchase. Because most of our driving took place in the early morning hours or late evening, I didn’t always have natural light to read by. My booklight kept me reading when it was dark outside without distracting Adam while he was driving.
Broom/brush for indoor cleaning - The previous owner of our Van left his handheld broom behind which was a godsend for us especially with Coco on board who sheds quite a bit. No matter if you have your furry friend with you or not, be sure to have a small portable broom to keep the inside of your Van looking and feeling clean.
Bug Screen - While we encountered particularly torrential winds during our trip which left our magnetized screens virtually useless, this is something we’ll definitely be looking to implement more permanently in our Van moving forward. Leaving the doors open is a necessity during Van Life however that means you also sign up for dealing with bugs. The netting that we got was great because we magnetized a bunch of pieces together which allowed us to create doors in a sense however they weren’t super durable when it came to inclement weather.
Candles/diffusers/etc. to keep your home on wheels smelling clean - If you travel during the summer or warmer months like we did, the air flow, or lack thereof can make for some pretty stale smells. Be sure to bring your favorite candles, diffusers, Fabreeze with you and keep your home smelling fresh.
Cast iron skillet (depending on the kind of stove you have) - Make sure it’s legit! The stovetop that we have in our Van only recognizes cast iron or stainless steel I believe. In other words, if it’s not either of those, it won’t even turn on. Yeah, we learned that one the hard way. 3 skillets later we finally found our genuine cast iron skillet.
Citronella Candle - It’s funny how seemingly “prepared” we were for bugs and yet neither of us avoided being individually attacked by numerous bugs throughout our journey. A Citronella Candle was nice not only for the bug protection of course but also because it provided a little extra light at nighttime. It can get very dark out in the wilderness.
Coconut Coir - This was IMPOSSIBLE for us to find. We honestly didn’t find it until the end of the trip, hence the reason we didn’t use our toilet on board for #2. That being said, if you have a composting toilet on your van, this is an absolute necessity. It goes in the base of your toilet and essentially grinds up/composts all your…Waste.
Compact cookware - Emphasis on the compact. Remember, you likely do not have a lot of space in your Van so you have to be smart with the items you buy. Especially when it comes to cookware. There’s no five different sized pots and pans on board here.
Debugging windshield wiper fluid - While it seems silly, make sure you try cleaning off bugs every time you stop for gas. It can get really bad on long drives making it extremely difficult to see, especially at nighttime.
Digital tire pressure gage - You are driving a very large and very heavy vehicle, make sure you keep your tire pressure in check at all times.
Extra seat cushioning for the car - Long hours in the car can make for an extremely sore bottom. Do yourself and your passenger(s) a favor, invest in some extra padding for your behinds.
Folding table to work from and to enjoy outdoor dining - This was probably one of our best purchases as it was multi-purpose. During the day myself and Adam set up the table in the Van to work from and at night or on weekends we posted it up outside as our dinner table.
Outdoor Chairs - I think our outdoor chairs were one of the first things we purchased and subsequently one of the first things we used on our trip. These particular chairs we got from Walmart were super reasonable ($50), an oversized fit but also came equipped with a handy tray with a cup holder and everything. Definitely a step up from your traditional camping chair.
Piggy Bank/Coin Jar - Have you forgotten about laundry?! Not every laundromat is “modern” and equipped with a credit card machine or ATM. In fact, most of them aren’t. And don’t forget those pesky toll roads. Have a place on board to collect your coins and miscellaneous change.
Portable Mi-Fi - We purchased two portable Mi-Fi units with unlimited plus plans from Verizon before embarking on Van Life. If you have more than one person who will be “logging on” I would recommend you do the same. After 30mbps of data usage they slow down so having the option to shut one off for a while and switch over to the second one was particularly helpful.
Rainy day entertainment - Should it rain on your trip, you could be relegated to your Van for hours on end. Don’t forget to bring books, cards, games, etc. to keep yourselves entertained.
Reusable Food Storage Bags - I randomly picked these up from Target when I first started looking for things for Van Life but they ended up being a worthwhile purchase. Most Sprinter Vans come equipped with a dorm sized refrigerator which means you have limited space not only to store food but to store leftovers (should you have them). These Tupperware bags were a significantly better fit for the Van’s fridge and of course they’re not firm like Tupperware which made them easier to squeeze into small spaces in the fridge.
Touch Activated Night Lights - After a few nights in the Van we quickly learned that our lighting system was not conducive to reading, writing, hanging out in bed for a bit before going to sleep. Essentially the main switch for the overall Van lighting was by the kitchen which once you climbed up into bed meant it was very much out of the way and impossible to reach. As a result we picked up a few of these touch activated nightlights to place near the bed which allowed us to turn off the overhead lighting and rely on these nightlights for reading, writing and wind-down lighting.
Utensil Set + Tray - I can’t find the exact link but we picked up a pre-packaged utensil set and tray at Walmart before our trip and it was a game changer. Instead of thinking of all the little utensil items one needs in a kitchen, they were all included in this pre-packaged set.
WeatherTech Sunshades - This may seem like a silly one but it’s an absolute necessity for the shopping list. Personally, I’ve never had sunshades in my regular car and thus didn’t think they were that crucial for the Sprinter but boy was I wrong. Not only did they help on particularly hot days but they provided great privacy as well.
White vinegar for composting toilet - If you have a composting toilet on board, white vinegar in a spray bottle acts as a deodorizer and a very important one at that. If you catch my drift…
Wireless car charger + dashboard mount - A must-have for any long-distance road trip. It keeps your phone in your line of sight to make following directions a cinch while also charging your phone at the same time. The only thing I would caution you against is leaving it on the dash too long on hot days. Your phone will heat up quite quickly.
Yoga Mats/workout bands/weights for “at home” workouts - Keep it minimal so as not to take up too much space but bring equipment for those days you want to get an outdoor workout in.
I’m sure after publishing this post I’ll think of at least a dozen more things to add to the list but for now, this is The #VanLife Playbook. Should you find yourself interested in embarking on this once in a lifetime journey, please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions. While I’m by no means an expert, I have experienced Van Life and I’m confident that I’d be able to to share some tips with you that you may not have thought about just yet. Understandably so! As easy as it is to research Van Life, sometimes you just have to get out there and experience it for yourself. Happy Trails!