This article covers what we would now class as our van life essentials, for the build and for the journey itself. Feel free to take this list with a pinch of salt; everyone’s trip is different, and what is ‘essential’ is, at the end of the day, subjective. But we hope this can give you a bit of guidance if you are right at the start of your build or thinking about buying a campervan!
Lindsay and George travelled through Western Europe and North Africa in a self-built van. You can follow their adventures on Instagram: @bemorevan.
The unexpected global health crisis of 2020 has made travel challenging in the short term, and many van lifers have found their adventures ground to a halt. But the future is full of possibilities for van life. The advent of remote-working and home-schooling, with greater public recognition and more tools to support them, means that it will be easier than ever to live life on four wheels while exploring. But if you’re stuck on the spot – at least for now – check out our handy guide to armchair travel, filled with inspiration on how to see the world from your home (or your van!).
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We (well, George) had spent months planning the build, thinking about what we’d need and ruling out things we were pretty sure we wouldn’t need.
I thought of our van as a house on wheels. I bought all the things you’d think of when moving into a new place: cutlery, pots and pans, bed sheets, cushions, plants, far too many sets of fairy lights.
Of course, we had anticipated a few extra things we’d need for our ‘year in a van’ experience: a camping kettle for all the tea and coffee we’d be drinking, cups and glasses that wouldn’t smash as we navigated winding mountain roads, and a fan for when summer arrived and we didn’t have the luxury of switching on air-con.
What very quickly struck us once our trip was underway was how much we hadn’t thought of. How many situations arose that we didn’t foresee, and some things, that in hindsight, we couldn’t believe we’d forgotten. We also found ourselves incredibly grateful at times for the things we’d brought or included in our build that we just hadn’t realised would come in quite so useful.
Van life essentials: the build
This is something we see debated a lot among the online van build community. Do you really need a toilet? For us it was a must.
We had planned to be around nature a lot, but we also wanted to visit towns. Having a toilet meant we could take advantage of free aires (parking areas for campers) to stay overnight when visiting towns, without having to fork out on expensive European campsites to take advantage of their facilities.
2. Solar panels
We almost left without having installed a solar system. While it was something we wanted, it was an expense that we weren’t sure we necessarily needed. We decided to go for it after spotting some panels for sale on eBay near where we were building.
Fast-forward three months and we were so relieved we made that decision. We found ourselves stationary for several weeks volunteering at an off-grid community in Portugal, and the solar meant we could live in the van as usual during that time.
Without it, we would have had to move the van for short journeys every day or so – not ideal at all in the remote area where we were staying!
This was something we ran out of time to install. We decided it was too luxurious, and we’d manage just fine without it. After all, we had side and back doors we could open to let a breeze in.
While we did manage, we found ourselves suffering a little in areas where we didn’t feel we could leave the back doors open. The heat from cooking rose to our bed at the back, which became unbearable by March/April! By the time June arrived, we struggled to sleep without flinging open the doors, but when we did we were overridden with mosquitoes.
A skylight would have kept the van well ventilated without us worrying about security, and thanks to the in-built fly mesh, kept us mosquito-free at the same time.
This is another one that we ruled out. These don’t come cheap, and we were confident we wouldn’t really miss one. What we hadn’t thought about was their multi-functionality: shade from the sun, shelter from the rain, and a zone for socialising!
After we met up with CJ of @project.amber, we devised a tarpaulin awning-esque structure to protect us from the extreme and rapidly-changing weather of the Dolomites in Italy. It was rarely effective, and on one occasion was blown free, flinging water everywhere.
If you plan on meeting up with people but your van is too small to fit a group comfortably inside, save yourself the trouble of trying to build your own and just invest in an awning.
5. Waste tanks
We were surprised how many vans we came across that had not fitted waste tanks, and were discreetly emptying grey water directly onto the ground. Our waste tanks meant we didn’t need to worry about running our water somewhere where we shouldn’t, and could regularly empty them at appropriate drains.
Van life essentials: the bits
6. Camping stove
This was a very last-minute addition we threw into the back of the van, just in case we ever wanted to cook outside. We had a gas system installed in the van feeding a hob and oven, which would cover our usual cooking needs.
However, the gauge on the regulator on our gas bottle soon failed, only informing us when our bottle was either completely full or complete empty – helpful! This meant we had to judge how much gas we were using.
On a few occasions the gas ran out on us, and the camping stove meant we could have a meal, and – more importantly– a brew in the morning before heading off to find a refill.
Even if you have a large bottle and don’t foresee yourself running our of gas, I’d strongly recommend bringing one along, as you never know when you might encounter a problem with your system and need to shut off your gas.
7. Good quality camping chairs
On a budget, we looked for ways to save money when we packed up the van. The camping chairs were the last thing would’ve thought of paying more money for. What we didn’t consider was exactly how much time we’d be spending sitting in them!
The warmer the weather and the more van-lifers we met, the more often we were getting them out. After meeting Meisha and Vincent of @gander_overlander and having a go in their super comfortable camping chairs, we wished we’d invested here.
8. Wheel ramps
Anyone who’s done this kind of trip can attest to how difficult it can be to find a level parking spot. While being perfectly level isn’t the most crucial thing for some, for anyone who has a gas fridge in the height of summer, it’s a priority.
We didn’t consider that exploring mountainous landscapes might mean we’d struggle to find flat parking. Wheel ramps are cheap and even after cracking one, they still did the job of levelling the van.
9. Phone deal that allows unlimited roaming
Setting off in October, we knew we would be spending some evenings, or even full days, sat in the van escaping bad weather. Because we were keen to update Instagram, stay in touch with our friends and families and watch the new season of Stranger Things ASAP, we knew we’d need enough data and a contract that wasn’t going to surprise us with a sudden cut-off.
We used a 40GB deal from Vodafone, and were free to use our data as if we were at home for our whole trip (without the need to return to the UK). If you’re planning to be online a lot during your trip, be sure to research the terms of your current contract, and also whether customer loyalty means they can offer you extra.
10. Bicycles (plus pump and spare inner tubes)
Despite having a vehicle we could jump into and go anywhere, sometimes we found such a beautiful spot that we wanted to go elsewhere without having to pack the van up again. Bicycles are probably the cheapest and easiest mode of transport that you can bring along with you.
11. Refillable 20-25l water container
While we had fitted fresh water tanks, we came to rely on refillable water bottles in Morocco when we had to use our tanks at only 50% capacity.
A refillable container meant we could top water up easily and without having to continually buy and refill plastic water bottles, which are unhygienic and a waste of plastic.
Our toolbox(es) were rammed full. George is a plumber/joiner/handyman/you name it, so he was well prepared to fix any problems that arose on the road himself.
Not everyone will feel confident tackling every issue themselves, particularly the mechanical ones, but it’s worth having some bits with you (and a connection to YouTube) so you can do what you can without having to fork out for a professional… potentially while you’re in the middle of nowhere!
We’d recommend bringing:
- Basic hand tools: socket set, spanner set, grips, plyers, side cutters etc., multi-bit screwdriver and lots of multi-bits (which will save you carrying a screwdriver set, aln key and torx set)
- Drill and drill bits
- Wood saw
- A decent jack – not the one that came with your vehicle, as this could be dangerous to use with a fully loaded van
- Can of gas leak detector spray
- Roll mat to lie on when you need to get under the vehicle
- Odd bits like a pry bar, zip ties, duct tape – you never know when they will come in handy!
This list is by no means exhaustive – we brought all this and much more. We’ll be starting blogging soon to talk more about things like this – look out for it by following @bemorevan on Instagram.
13. Bluetooth speaker
Music is essential on any trip. What you will not need, however, is a full-blown surround-sound speaker system built into your van – you just need a Bluetooth speaker. They’re portable, cheaper, and you won’t need anything bigger to fill your van with tunes.
14. Plenty of charging leads
And finally… bring more charging leads for phones, tablets etc. than you ever think you’d need… because they will all get broken and lost. Bring many!
More reading on travel gear
The most important piece of gear for any backpacker is their backpack. See our guide to the best travel backpacks to help you choose the right one.
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