Embarking on van life for the first time, or getting ready for your next adventure in a new world? This collection of van life essentials will help you prepare. After our own experience, it covers everything we wouldn’t leave behind, from the initial build to the vital van life accessories. Everyone’s trip is different, and what is ‘essential’ is, at the end of the day, subjective – so feel free to take it with a pinch of salt. 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.
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In this article:
A quick intro: learning from van life mistakes
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!View solar panels for vans on Amazon
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.View skylights on Amazon
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.View awnings on Amazon
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.View waste tanks on Amazon
Van life accessories
6. Good quality camping chairs (and foldaway table)
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.View camping chairs on Amazon
7. 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.View wheel ramps on Amazon
8. 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.
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.
This one is another tip I picked up from a fellow van-lifer! Especially if you like to stay rooted in one spot for a while, condensation build-up can be an issue. When it’s cold outside, condensation in the van make make things damp and a bit miserable.
One way to get around this is to grab a portable dehumidifier. Well worth considering for van trips in colder climes.View dehumidifiers on Amazon
11. 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.View camping stoves on Amazon
12. Camp shower
One of the tricky realities of van life is you never know when you’ll be able to rely on a shower. Depending on the locations where you’re parking up overnight, facilities can be hit, miss or completely non-existent.
Bring along a portable camp shower and you’ll always have a backup for times of need. UST solar showers are a good cheap option.View camp showers on Amazon
13. Kitchen accessories
There are all sorts of gadgets you can bring into your van kitchen to make life easier on the road. When you’re new to van life, you’ll probably have several moments when you’ll remember, ah, I wish I’d brought one of those! Especially in the first few weeks.
I could write an entirely separate packing list on van life accessories for the kitchen. Aside from the all the basic essentials – pots, pans, cutlery, plates, bowls, cooking utensils and the ilk – these are a few items that may get you out of a tight spot:
- Cups and mugs
- Corkscrew / bottle opener
- Tin opener
- Spice rack
- Portable coffee maker
- Thermos flask
- Chopping boards
- Paper towels
14. 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.
Van life essentials: safety and emergencies
This section is particularly important, because you can never undervalue your safety on the road. If you equip yourself with anything on this list, make sure it’s the next few items.
15. Fire alarm and extinguisher
Van life 101: you need to be prepared for emergencies. We haven’t had any fires on the road, touch wood… but we’ve always been ready for the worst. This means having a fire alarm to alert you of any impending disaster, and a fire extinguisher to deal with it if the unthinkable happens.
A lightweight fire extinguisher for your van doesn’t cost much, and could save your life. You’ll probably never need it, but it’s not a chance worth taking.View fire extinguishers on Amazon
16. Carbon monoxide detector
This might be the most important piece of safety gear in the van. In case you didn’t know, carbon monoxide is a lethal, odourless gas that is generated when fuels do not burn fully. So, as you will most likely have a gas cooker, a carbon monoxide detector is an absolute essential.View fire extinguishers on Amazon
17. First aid kit
Little explanation needed on why you need a first aid kit handy when you are living or travelling long-term on the road. In our experience, van life often takes you off grid, and you won’t always be near help when you need it.
Also check out Alex’s long-term travel packing list, which includes a load of stuff that’s relevant to van life.
18. Country-specific road safety accessories
Depending on where you are travelling in your van, you may find there are some country-specific requirements on safety accessories to carry when driving. For example, when we were in France, we had to pack stuff like a self breathalyser, hi-vis vest and red warning triangle.
So, be sure to check up the requirements for the destinations in your itinerary. And you may want to bring items like the above-mentioned ones even if it’s not mandatory!
19. Van life insurance
Not a physical item as such, but insurance really is an essential for van life to make sure you’re covered in case of health emergencies and suchlike. SafetyWing is specially geared towards people who are travelling long-term, whether that’s van life or digital nomads. It works on a subscription basis, so you pay monthly, and it’s focused around medical cover.
Check out Alex’s review of SafetyWing insurance for the finer details.
Van life accessories: electronics
Some van lifers prefer to go completely unplugged, and that’s totally cool. But if you’re anything like us, you’ll want some screen time, even if it’s just for an occasional Netflix fix.
The best laptops for van life are compact and lightweight with good battery life. This collection of laptops for working remotely fits the bill perfectly.
I happen to be a photography enthusiast, so a camera is an essential for me without question.
If you just want to take some snaps to document your travels without getting too serious about it, then your mobile phone camera will probably do the trick. But if you want to take it a bit more seriously, you could consider getting a DSLR camera.
It’s said that most photographers end up being a ‘Canon person’ or a ‘Nikon person’. Whichever side of the divide you all into, these are some decent entry-level cameras to capture your van life:
Also bring plenty of spare memory cards. One little tip I always give is to keep them separate from your camera bag in case it gets robbed.
22. 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.View bluetooh speakers on Amazon
23. Plenty of charging leads
And finally in this section… 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! You can thank me later.
Van life essentials: leisure
Finally, here are a couple of ideas to keep you entertained and explore beyond the van!
24. 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.
25. Games / playing cards
Van life is filled with many idle evenings in the open air. So, some entertainment to pass the time is a must. A regular deck of playing cards should be one of the first things on your list. Also consider a pack of Uno cards, which brings endless possibilities!
You could expand and bring some other card and board games, but it depends on how many people you’re travelling with and how much space you have. The Backpacker card game is a fun one, and appropriately travel-themed.
More reading on travel gear
Are you travelling somewhere you plan to spend a lot of time outdoors and hiking? Check our our packing lists for Patagonia and the Inca Trail for some inspiration on what to bring, as well as our recommendations on hiking boots for travel.
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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