When you think of van camping, what comes to mind? Some imagine an elaborately designed and professionally souped-up RV, while others will conjure images of a beat up Volkswagen with a mattress in back. Similarly, you might be thinking about taking week-long family vacations in the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, or you might be heading out indefinitely with a road map and dreams of South America.
The beauty of van camping is that it can be all of these things, and much more. The only things required are a van and an adventurous heart. Even the term “van” is liberal for some of the camping contraptions you’ll see out there. However, whatever your vehicle looks like and wherever it may take you, there are a few things most van camping enthusiasts would do well to know. From kitchen tricks to parking tips, here are 10 of the most useful pointers you should read before you embark.
1: Get behind the wheel of a van camper before you buy.
Although it may seem like a no-brainer to take a test drive in your new vehicle, experienced van campers will tell you that you’ll want to do more than take a spin around the block. While it can be a bit pricey, renting a camper van to try out on an overnight trip is a good way to decide what are the “must-haves” for your van and what you could do without. It’s likely you’ll be spending a good chunk of money on your final purchase, so you’ll want to know what you’re getting into. Here are some places to rent camper vans in the USA:
- California Campers in San Francisco, CA
- WV Surfari in Southern California
- Oahu Camping Vans in Hawaii
- Escape Campervans in New York, Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles
- Pacific NorthWesty in Washington state
2: Take advantage of your van’s cigarette lighter.
No, I’m not suggesting you pick up a chain smoking habit for your cross-country travels. These days, your cigarette lighter can do a lot more than light a butt. In fact, you can replicate many of the comforts of home right in your campervan when you plug in to the lighter 12 volt appliances.
Everything from coffeemakers and vacuum cleaners to personal stoves and rechargeable flashlights now come ready to use in your off-grid vehicle. RVshop.com features many accessories for an abundance of uses so you can get an idea of what’s out there. If you have a favorite brand in mind, you might try just checking their website to see if they have any 12 volt appliances available.
Speaking of accessories, many van campers agree one kitchen item that is the most useful: a pressure cooker. Why, you might ask? After a long day on the road or out exploring your new surroundings, you’d be surprised how happy you’ll be to have dinner ready in a jiffy. While electronic pressure cookers are available, and are useful for camping in designated campgrounds, many van campers (especially those who often dry camp) prefer to use “old fashioned” stovetop pressure cookers.
4: Don’t skimp on the van’s A/C
If you’re treating your van camping adventure as a way to “rough it” on the road or greatly minimize your lifestyle, you might not be thinking about the efficiency of your van’s air conditioning unit. However, many long-term van campers think you should be! Of course, this depends partially on where you’ll be using your campervan, but in most parts of the Americas, you’ll want A/C for at least part of the year. Living in cramped quarters, the heat can be overbearing. For long periods on the road, air conditioning is a luxury you shouldn’t renounce.
5: Put all your food in sealed containers.
Pests are the last nuisance you’ll want to deal with on your camping adventure. Mice and bugs are even more unpleasant when they’re getting into your food! You can prevent pests (at least from getting into your food) by keeping ALL your edibles in tightly sealed containers. This will also help you stay organized in the limited space of your van. If you need some good air tight containers to store your food, check out the Popit Little Big Box Kitchen Storage set. They’re pretty cheap and you can fit a lot of food in them. If you’re looking for a bigger container (maybe to put your Popits in) take a look at the Frabill Aqua-Life Cooler. It’s big, inexpensive, and you can lock it.
6: For amenities, park your van at a private campsite.
Even the most rough and tough van camping extraordinaire sometimes enjoys the amenities of a campsite. Keep in mind that most national and some state parks won’t have the same features as many private campsites—actually, many of them will be quite primitive. Private campsites are more likely to provide shower facilities, RV dump stations (for vehicles with toilet facilities), and unlimited electricity.
7: A basic automotive toolkit is handy.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a handy(wo)man, it’s a good idea to have a basic automotive toolkit in your van that is compatible with your vehicle. If your van breaks down on the road, you’ll be glad you have this available so that you can repair minor malfunctions OR have the tools necessary when you happen to flag down an amateur mechanic. A repair guide or manual for your vehicle’s make and model won’t hurt either, and most are available to download online.
Many boondock van camping enthusiasts will need an additional power source to power their appliances. Rather than using power hook-ups or a generator, those who prefer to stay independent, eco-friendly, and off the grid will prefer a solar power set up.
Once your solar power system is installed, you’ll be able to run your any appliances that can run off your vehicle’s batteries using the solar panel(s). While installing a solar power system can be expensive, long-term dry campers likely break even on the cost by the money you’ll save from avoiding RV park or campground costs and fuel.
9: Take it slow driving a van on the road.
One of the mistakes first-time van campers make is moving from one place to the next at lightning pace. The beauty of van camping is that it allows you to slow down the speedy pace of modern life—take advantage of this!
Rather than moving every 2 to 3 days, try spending a week or longer at each stop.While this clearly doesn’t apply to weekend camping trips, short-term campers can still get cultivate a similar mind set. You’re most likely using your van to live life a little differently, so even though your living quarters are mobile, leave behind the “go, go, go” mentality.
10: Make friends along the way.
Last, but certainly not least, take the time to make friends on the road. This serves multiples purposes. First of all, you’ll likely want some time apart from your travel companions—making friends at campgrounds or RV parking lots gives you the opportunity to see people other than the ones you’re squashed into a van with for hours on end. Plus, it’s always fun to exchange travel stories and tips.
Moreover, it can be quite convenient to make friends in high places; i.e. the ones with totally luxurious vehicles, complete with all the amenities. While you may not have a refrigerator in your van, a friendly fellow traveler may just offer you a cold beer from his fridge when you need it most.