The essentials to a comfortable life in a Van. Insider tips to help you cover the bare necessities to get started and have peace of mind while living from a van.
Life in a van is one of those things where reality is far different from the fantasy...
Maybe your brand new to this and wondering is it realistic to live to live in a van? Rest assured, the answer is a definite Yes! Living in a van can be realistic but it does depend on if you can you can stomach the Downsides of Van Life and whether or not you can embrace a minimalist lifestyle with grace.
Okay, enough lecturing! Your interested in this lifestyle. My job is to help you avoid as many speed-bumps along the road as possible (pun intended).
First things First...
Who is Van Life For?
Forget social media for a second. What type of Van dweller do you picture yourself as? (1)
The reason I ask is because this is not written by someone doing the typical van life hashtag thing we all love to follow on social media.
In other words, I'm a full-time worker in the city who goes out his way to maintain a very professional appearance.
I do not drive a Sprinter Van and it is not my style to be in a 1980s camper van parked on the beach.
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@kikyustudio
"Home is where you park it" -Pinterest
Social media & drawing attention to myself is very low on my list of reasons for doing this.
Instead, I go out of my way to be VERY discreet and "stealthy" with my life camper van.
The whole goal is to blend in with other people and not draw ANY attention to my van.
Do you like this "stealthy" style of van dwelling or does it line up to what your trying to accomplish?
Then keep reading for the bare necessities you need to start this life on a budget...
Jumping into Vanlife with both feet - List of 8 essential things you need
#1 - Van Essentials for Sleeping and Overnight Parking (Part 1)
Where can I sleep if I live in a van? Well, the short answer is you can sleep pretty much anywhere! However, there are several variables to consider before you decide to just pull into the first Walmart, resident neighborhood, or hotel parking lot you see. Check out this Ultimate Guide on Overnight Campervan Parking to get the full picture.
For now, let's start with a story...
When I first purchased by van, I confidently thought that it resembled your typical "soccer mom" style of van.
Social media led me to believe I could just park the van anywhere along the road and "blend in" with the city.
Without much preparation, this theory was put to the test one night.
After driving 5 hours from SoCal to Las Vegas, I was exhausted and finally found a less than ideal place to park my van (it was a sketchy spot).
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@gcoppa
Las Vegas was totally unfamiliar to me. I had no idea what areas of the city were safe vs which areas I should stay away from.
This reality became very clear to me after I parked and clumsily made my way to the uneven back floor of my van.
The reality of sleeping in a van started to sink in as I tried to get comfortable on the awkward floor.
My Spidey-Senses began to go on high-alert as I pictured myself as an American soldier trying to catch a few ZzZ's in the jungles of Vietnam!
Was I exaggerating? Maybe, but I am glad I listened my instincts and got my van out of there just to be safe!
One of the lessons I learned that night:
Take the time to do some basic research before deciding to just park down the first street or town you see.
With that said, I highly recommend you make the effort to practice sleeping in your camper over a weekend.
Start in a city your very familiar with...
For example, in my hometown I know which areas are safe and which areas are known to be sketchy.
I have a list of well over 20 safe places I can comfortably park my van for the night.
Chances are you have similar knowledge about your hometown right?
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@davidmartinjr
Before sleeping in your Van ask yourself:
What areas would I feel absolutely safe walking around at 3AM?
Are there any apartment complexes that have another van or Two parked along the road?
Do I have any friends with open spaces near their homes/condos?
Any decent neighborhoods that have strips of sidewalk not in front of people's houses?
Get creative with this...
After a few days/weeks you will develop "an eye" for good places you can discreetly park your van.
Rules for stealth overnight camping in a van:
-Park your van AFTER 11pm and be OUT by 6am.
-Have at least 10 really good spots you use in rotation.
-NEVER park in front of people's houses.
-Read all of the signs on the road in question (preferably during the day).
-Once you park its LIGHTS OUT.
-Don't leave your van or do anything to draw attention from other people.
-Always be listening to your gut. (Daily meditation helps develop this skill).
"Living in a van down by the river is a life goal" - GoHobo
#1 - Van Essentials for Sleeping and Overnight Parking (Part 2)
Okay, so you have scoped out at least 10 spots that you would be comfortable sleeping in your van for the night.
Now what do you plan to sleep on?
Is the floor of your van flat? (Mine is not)
Do you have carpet in your van?
The carpet in my van caused me significant allergies.
This made my life hard after a single night of trying to sleep directly on it.
The point is that your sleeping arrangement might not be as simple as throwing a sleeping bag and pillow in the back of your van.
At least it wasn't for me...
Yes, you can pull this off for a night but I highly doubt your going to like it, much less get a good nights sleep.
After trying a variety of homemade beds for the van, I ended up purchasing a single size foam mat from Amazon for $100.
I absolutely love my foam mat because its very comfy and folds up very easily.
Here is an non-affiliated Amazon link to the exact mat I have:
This is what I recommend for people who are not mechanically inclined or want to go thru the hassle of building their own custom bed.
Whatever bed you decide to use...
Please make sure you do your research on your bedding material. Read the reviews.
~Avoid any material that might release a chemical odor into your Van!
Seriously, you safety and long existence comes first.
You don't want any toxic chemicals (like vinyl) stinking up your van!
Before I found the above mat, I was using a military cot.
It was actually very comfortable, but I found it hard to relax being so up high and visible to people from the road.
Being low to the ground provides me an extra layer of privacy and sense of being in a hidden "nest".
#2 : Find a Way to cover your windows.
Social media doesn't always portray how much work is involved when it comes to covering your windows for privacy.
I quickly found out that privacy is actually a really big deal on the road.
If your like me, the last thing you want is people looking into your space while your trying to relax or get your things situated for the day.
Tinted windows are a God send!
This is why I recommend one of the very first things to do is figure out how your going to cover your windows and make them look at stealthy as possible.
Again, if your like me the goal should be to blend in with the rest of civilization as much as possible.
Here are 2 ways you can black out your windows:
Option 1 : Do it yourself window shades.
If your on a budget, you can make your own window shades at a price around $120.
This method will take you considerable time and energy because it requires research, building, and shopping around at different stores to get the needed materials.
However, I did make a pretty decent set of window shades and believe me..
I am NOT an Engineer.
Below is the exact Youtube video I used to make my own blackout shades:
DIY window shades are great for those of us getting started or doing this part time.
However, my experience with window shades is that they become annoying and cumbersome after a few solid months of living in the van.
Why? Because I had to park every single night and immediately install the shades before blowing my cover.
Social media rarely portrays the stress of having to immediately jump to the back of your rig to install window shades every time you want to rest.
And... every morning you have to take the shades down and store them somewhere in your limited space (which looks ghetto and takes up precious room).
The constant use of the shades caused them to develop "wear and tear" and sometimes made it look obvious that I was chilling in the van.
Again, this DIY method is great if your a weekend warrior, or your just not sure how long you plan to live on the road.
Now, do you plan of living from your van longer than 3-6 months?
Then I believe your much better off with option 2...
Option 2 : Get your Windows tinted.
Yes, this will require a chunk of money to do it right (I payed around $450).
However, it will free up A LOT of extra time and energy so you can focus on more important things.
Tinting my windows "limo style" added a whole new level of comfort, peace, and ease!
(Not to mention the extra space from not having to store the shades).
Unless you want to spend the next several weeks of your life learning how to properly tint windows, don't try to do this yourself!
It is truly a skill that takes mastery.
You don't want your windows looking like this do you?
Just pay a professional to do it for you.
They tint windows for a living and will make your rig look absolutely legit!
Look up your state laws for tinting and get each window tinted as dark as legally possible for your region.
"Who needs a plane ticket when you have a van" - Twitter
#3 - Get a Gym membership.
Having a gym membership is essential because it provides a CONSISTANT place for you to take a shower.
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@vicfurtuna
Me after 5 days in the van without having a shower.
A nice shower will "reset" your mind and make the daily inconveniences much more tolerable for you.
Also, I work full time in a pretty social environment.
Bathing only 1 or 2 times per week is simply not an option for me.
My gym membership allows me access to any one of their locations within the state of California.
Pretty cool huh?
However, please don't just post up and make it obvious that your using the gym JUST to take a shower!
Try to do some cardiovascular exercise for 15-45 minutes before hitting the shower.
(It's a good idea to keep your cardio/blood flow strong while immersed in this lifestyle).
Van life will make it easy to keep a consistent gym routine
(something most people will never master in life).
#5 - Get yourself a Mail box.
If your like me, you have been living in rented rooms your entire adult life.
I have had my share of roommates.
Most of them have been very good people... SOME of them have been...
"less than ideal"
Hey wats up bro?
Combine this with the fact that I have always been very nomadic by nature.
The result is that my address has changed every 1-3 years for a majority of my life.
"I haven't been everywhere but it's on my list" - Susan Sontag
Changing addresses and dealing with your mail arriving to past residences can be quite inconvenient.
Living from a van makes this issue more apparent for obvious reasons.
You don't want to impose or rely on the kindness of your friends for their mailing address.
This is why I recommend you go to your local UPS Store and purchase yourself a SMALL mailbox.
With a small mailbox you can still order bigger packages from Amazon, Ebay, etc.
UPS stores provide you with an actual street address and not a Post Office BOX like the USPS.
I pay about $75 every 3 months.
The rates are cheaper if you pay every 6 months or a year.
#6 - Get a Storage Unit.
Van Life won't be fun or productive if there is too much clutter or non-essential items.
Even though I consider myself a "minimalist" I am not at the point in life where I can happily live out of a duffel bag.
(Nor do I ever plan to be)
You probably have valuable or sentimental items you have owned your whole life.
You know... things like important documents, clothing, framed pictures, etc.
Don't keep these things with you.
These types of items can pose safety concerns and add unnecessary clutter.
This is why I purchased a small storage unit for $70 per month.
The measurements of my unit are a tiny 5ft by 5ft.
If your willing to play a little Tetris you will be surprised how much stuff you can actually fit in a little storage unit.
photo by: https://unsplash.com/@helloimnik
Some storage yards are a little rough.
Do your research and have a look at their social media and online reviews before committing to any contracts.
#6 - Get on a ROUTINE (Part 1)
Yes I know, the idea of routine and discipline sounds like bootcamp or a lifestyle for old people.
BUT have you ever noticed how really successful people tend to have routines and systems in place for their everyday life?
This observation alone is actually a MAJOR reason why I decided to do this in the first place.
Why? Because all the comforts of a regular home made it very easy for me blow things off, waste time on social media, sleep in the living room, etc.
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@timothymeinberg
What a Tomcat!
Living from a Van will put you into a position where its in your best interest to do certain things at certain times of the day - and NOT to deviate.
This kind of militant structure has caused me to live a much more productive lifestyle .
For example, my daily routine revolves around waking up very early for a morning workout and shower.
I have to wake up early to avoid blowing out my favorite sleeping spots.
This means I must be settled in my van and ready to go to bed by 1AM at the latest.
Also, not having a primary residence really narrows down where you can spend your time.
I love going to any of the libraries here in SoCal because they are often quiet and wonderful places where I can easily focus on my work.
Coffeeshops are great too, but they tend to be very loud places that can make it a challenge to focus.
In short, my days boil down to this formula:
Gym, Shower, Library, Work, Sleep, Repeat.
Discipline, and Routine are the keys to living productively from a Van.
"Motivation gets you going, but Discipline keeps you growing" - John C. Maxwell
Get on a routine (part 2)
As far as personal belongings and clothing goes...
It will get frustrating if your constantly misplacing items and having to shuffle through your things.
Think of it this way...
Living in your van is similar to living on a submarine.
It requires a similar kind of militant organization (at least in my experience).
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@alex_andrews
Everything in my van has its own designated spot when not in use.
Random Tips that will help you stay organized:
-Hang no more than 4 button up shirts on the back of your passenger side seat.
-Buy 1 Gym bag (keep your toiletry bag and set of flip-flops inside)
-Use basic cardboard boxes for a few pairs of pants, shirts, boxers, and the like.
(Try rolling up your clothes instead of folding them)
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@umbra_media
(Bungee cords come in handy to keep your boxes in place).
-Get 1 box that is used for dirty clothes (kept in a plastic bag) and laundry detergent.
-1 box for extra toiletries, vitamins, nail-clippers, shavers or anything of that nature.
-1 box for canned goods (especially veggies, beans, and canned chicken)
-1 glass gallon jug for water.
-1 Nalgene water bottle (kept in the front for easy access).
-1 smaller plastic container for bananas, bread, tuna packs, trail mix, or whatever items you like.
-1 pack of plastic silverware wedged in between passenger seat and center console.
-1 large Ziplock bag of granola bars & almond butter biscuits (great for pre-workout snacks).
-2 towels. (1 for the gym and 1 for drying your van after your weekly van wash).
TIP: After you leave the gym every morning, pack your clean underwear, socks, and pants in your gym bag so they're ready to go after tomorrow mornings shower.
TIP: After your morning shower, hang your wet towel on the back of your front seat so its nice and dry for tomorrow.
TIP: Wear dark sleeping clothes. Fold them every morning. Get into the routine of changing into your sleeping clothes every night BEFORE you park for the night.
TIP: Keep your workout shorts neatly folded on your front passenger seat for easy access every morning right before you hit the gym.
TIP: Invest $10 in Ziplock bags. This is essential Van Life gear for staying organized and not loosing little things like chapstick, ear buds, gum, chargers, etc.
TIP: Keep small garbage bags in the door so you can keep your work clothes, shoes, or other items looking neat and separated from the clean interior of your space.
TIP: Invest in a cheap book bag that you can keep in between the front and passenger seats.
(I use book bags to keep my meditation books, can opener, and other miscellaneous items in).
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@rrajputphotography
I promise that these tips will save you a lot of trial and error!
"With organization comes empowerment" - Lynda Peterson
#7 - Build an Van Life Emergency Fund
Some of you are in a hurry to start this journey for economic reasons.
I would bet you also have a strong desire to travel after following the hashtag Van Life movement on social media.
This following suggestion will probably annoy you a little bit but hear me out...
I have another story that will save you frustration and headaches later on.
Look, when I first purchased my Van life camper, it ran great!
No scary lights or strange sounds from the engine.
I had the Van parked on the side of the house and drove it occasionally because I was paying rent at that time and utilized another smaller vehicle for my daily commute.
The time came when I decided to jump into living from my van with both feet.
Like I said, prior to me making this decision the van was running great!
The engine was strong and immediately roared to life each time I turned the key.
Can you guess what happened after just 3 days of being immersed in this?
You guessed it... After just 3 days of being on my own, I had the dreaded yellow engine light pop up on me!
It was late at night and I was climbing up a steep hill.
As you can imagine, I was discouraged and angry that this was happening so soon in my Van Life adventure.
I did not remember social media mentioning this side of it.
Photo by: https://unsplash.com/@jeremybishop
Its not always like this...
Why couldn't this stupid light come on when I was still renting a room in a comfy house?
Now what was I going to do?
Well, its a good thing I started living in my van while still in my hometown because I have good friends and know a handful of HONEST mechanics!
When I took the van in for a diagnostic reading, it showed a significant exhaust leak.
My mechanic friend told me that it was a really bad idea to keep driving it until the issue was fixed.
Well, under normal circumstances a van repair is not such a big deal.
You can simply chill at home and take an Uber to work for a few weeks right?
Well, as you know, my home was now my conversion van.
What do you do when your home is locked away and undergoing maintenance?
Trust me, THIS is a situation you must to be prepared for!
Chances are it will happen to you at some point if your living this lifestyle full-time or for an extended period.
Its a great thing I was in my own turf because my friend let me stay in his home for almost 2 weeks while my van got the needed repairs...
My mechanic had to order a special part because this repair was not something that they dealt with on a regular basis.
What a pain in the you know what!
Now, imagine if I was not just "down the road" from my social circle of friends.
What if I was 250 miles away from my hometown where I didn't know any mechanics or close friends?
Or... what if I was on the other side of the country?
How would that scenario go down?
I would have needed enough cash saved up to not only get the repairs done but also stay in a hotel for close to 2 weeks!
That is a significant chunk of money for most of us.
This is why I recommend everybody should have at the very least $4,000 in an Vanlife Emergency Fund set aside.
$4,000 is really cutting it close but at least it would probably cover an emergency repair away from home.
(like a blown transmission and a few nights in a hotel for example).
Please don't rely on credit cards! They will turn your life into one of slavery.
Ask me how I know...
Now back to the story, I was very lucky to have this close friend who let me stay in his home.
I made it a point to stock his fridge full of food and drink.
(which also required money from my emergency fund).
Again, this is another reason why I highly suggest you start Vanlife in your hometown!
Forget the allure of social media and be practical!
Get used to the lifestyle while you build up your emergency fund to an amount that could cover you in emergencies like a blown exhaust, hotels, food, etc.
"Do not save what is left after spending, but spend what is left after saving - Warren Buffet
And there you have it!
If you follow these suggestions you will be off to an amazing start to Vanlife.
Next up: Is it cheaper to Live in a Van? Generally YES, depending on several other factors like how you spend your money for meal preparation, free camping vs. paid camping options, how much you drive, etc. I wrote a very detailed article that goes into every expense you can expect when starting out https://www.regalnomad.com/post/the-cost-of-van-life-is-it-cheaper-living-in-a-van