Travel tips

Van life essentials: 14 things you will need on the road

Before we set off on our van life adventure last October, we thought that we’d thought of everything. If only we knew then what we know now.

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 between October 2017 and August 2018. You can follow their adventures on Instagram: @bemorevan.

On our van life adventure in the Moroccan desert
On our van life adventure in the Moroccan desert

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.

After conversion: a peek inside our van's interior
After conversion: a peek inside our van’s interior

Van life essentials: the build

1.  Toilet

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.

Van life essentials: including a toilet in the build gave us much more freedom on the road
Van life essentials: including a toilet in the build gave us much more freedom on the road

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!

Our solar panels meant that we could live in the van as normal when we were off-grid in Portugal
Our solar panels meant that we could live in the van as normal when we were off-grid in Portugal

3.  Skylight

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.

4.  Awning

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.

We devised a tarpaulin structure to protect us from the weather, but wished we'd invested in an awning
We devised a tarpaulin structure to protect us from the weather, but wished we’d invested 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.

A camping stove enabled us to make meals and have a brew when the gas ran out
A camping stove enabled us to make meals and have a brew when the gas ran out

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.

A phone deal with unlimited roaming was essential for getting our fix of Stranger Things!
A phone deal with unlimited roaming was essential for getting our fix of Stranger Things!

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.

Bicycles are a great way to get around if you want to be stationed in one place for a while
Bicycles are a great way to get around if you want to be stationed in one place for a while

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.

12.  Toolbox

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

Check out our article on travel life hacks for some cheap gadgets that will make your backpacking adventures much easier.

Planning a trip to a cold and/or mountainous destination? Our Patagonia packing list will give you some insights on what you should bring.

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Before you set off on a van life adventure, this compilation of van life essentials explains everything you will need before you go. Before you set off on a van life adventure, this compilation of van life essentials explains everything you will need before you go. Before you set off on a van life adventure, this compilation of van life essentials explains everything you will need before you go.

 

5 comments

  1. So many great tips here. It is so good to hear from people that have already tried this and know what is really necessary. I will be sharing this article with some friends. Thanks for the great advice.

  2. This type of travel is way too adventurous for me (or maybe I’m just spoiled:). It is fun to read, though, to hear all of the planning that goes into such a trek. I love the pictures. And I would like too follow just for fun. I’m amazed.

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