Our van life began back in November of 2013 when my now-husband, Nick, and I were on a 15-month journey abroad. How I could have used some of these van life tips then!
We were surfing in Indonesia and realized that we were probably the closest to New Zealand that we would ever be. So, why not pop by for a visit? We bought a converted van in Auckland, toured the North Island and South Island, and hiked our little butts off. Then, we sold our beloved van in Christchurch three months later.
And we opted for that van life again in October of 2016. We were living in Portland, Oregon, we had “real” jobs, and we felt very antsy. So we decided to do what every 35-year-old does when their life has become mundane – we quit our jobs to embark on a road trip around the states in our 1994 Ford Bronco.
Our original plan was to drive to Tennessee and end our trip in December, but we were having so much fun that we extended it until April. We went all the way to the Florida Keys and back to Oregon again!
We put over 20,000 miles on our Ford Bronco, spent over 120 of those nights in a tent sleeping under the stars, and had the opportunity to check out 26 of our National Parks along the way.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Our beloved “Betty the Bronco” broke down several times. We had days when it dumped rain and we had to spend hours just sitting under a tarp. We had nights when we slept in the back of our car in a Walmart parking lot. And nights when we slept in the front seat in the most uncomfortable position because it was too cold to do anything but curl up into the fetal position.
We had several mice enter our car, snack on our treats, and burrow in our towels. I had to get out of the tent to pee in the middle of the night, almost every. single. night.
Thirds time’s a charm! We rented a luxury camper van to bum around Southern Germany for three weeks. This van life actually featured comfy beds (inside!), a diesel-fueled heater for chilly mornings, and a chemical toilet (which was horrifying to dump so it was considered “emergency-only”. I had at least four emergencies every day). While the van got larger, the German streets got narrower and we both began to seriously question the other’s navigation abilities.
The moral of my story is that living out of a small, confined space for an extended period of time with anyone is rough. Add in the stress of driving, parking, and infrequent showers and you could have a recipe for disaster.
Follow these 9 van life tips to avoid a catastrophe during your epic camper van escapades!
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Van Life Tips
1: Opt for a Camper Van
I’m not including this van life tip because I don’t enjoy camping in a tent. Quite the contrary. I actually really love it. But if you are on the move like we were, you will be putting your tent together every night and then breaking it down to pack it up every morning. Throw in an air mattress, sheets, and a comforter and it’s no small ordeal. Then add freezing cold temperatures or extreme exhaustion, and you’ll probably seriously consider sleeping hunched over behind the wheel.
And the rain. It’s impossible to fully appreciate the torture of sleeping in a tent in the rain until you actually do. And then trying to figure out how to pack up your wet tent to get it to dry out while in the car is another torture in itself.
But, if you opt for a proper camper van (or, at least, a converted camper van) where your bed is actually contained within the walls of the vehicle, you’ll be protected from the elements. You’ll save yourself the time and energy of all that packing and unpacking. You’ll be warm and dry and a whole lot happier, I promise. You may think this is out of your budget, but buying an old van and converting it can be done for less than $3,000!
Another great option is a campervan or RV rental for the duration of your trip. We had a great experience doing this in both Germany and Iceland! And if you’re traveling to a foreign country, renting a vehicle instead of buying one means you won’t have to concern yourself with the boring details of registration, insurance, and road taxes.
Van Life Tips in Case you do Choose to Camp in a Tent
- Purchase a really comfortable air mattress that can stand up to all weather conditions. We went through four before we finally found one that could roll with the punches. This is the only air mattress that stood up to our constant abuse!
- Choose regular bedding over sleeping bags. Sheets, blankets, and a proper comforter make the experience of tent camping in the cold much more manageable. Plus there’s no zipper barrier so you can warm your frigid feet on your partner during serious cold cuddle fests.
- Create a routine. We had a system of assigned tasks every day – we would set up the tent together and then as Nick put the stakes in the ground, I would begin blowing up the air mattress. I would put the bedding on the bed while he put the rain fly over the tent. A same-ish thing in reverse in the morning. We both knew our jobs and learned to do them more quickly and efficiently every day.
2: Automobile Reliability is Key
When your car also doubles as your home, it’s pretty imperative that it is in tip-top condition. Because if something goes awry, you’ll be forced to find a local mechanic and hope they can get it fixed in short order. Otherwise, you’ll be stranded for a while. Speaking of stranded, if you find yourself camping in the middle of nowhere and your car won’t start, you’ll be seriously screwed.
Van Life Tips in Case Your Ride is Questionable
- Equip yourself with the means to get unstuck. AAA, a car battery charger, jumper cables, and anything else your car may need in case of an emergency. By the end of our USA trip, we were carrying a self-contained jump starter because I was certain we would get stuck down a lonely dirt road with a dead battery while surrounded by serial killers.
- Have a backup plan. This also probably involves a backup budget. In case you have a really expensive repair or need to spend a few nights in a hotel room. Or if you need to drive your car off a cliff and then buy yourself a plane ticket home.
3: Get Organized
When you are residing in a tiny space (and especially if you are sharing it with another person), a small mess can be a huge annoyance. Knowing where things are when you need them can be pretty clutch – especially if you are REALLY hungry or tired or irritated. Which will probably be an everyday occurrence.
Van Life tips: Organization
- Store things in Tupperware bins. If you don’t have ready-made drawers/cabinets in your camper, opt for clear Tupperware bins as your storage solution. It’s easy to see what’s inside, they are weather-proof, and they will keep the critters out.
- Label label label! With all of those storage bins, you’ll need to keep your gear sorted in a way that is easy to access and is grouped accordingly. Keep separate containers for “dry goods” (meaning dry food products), “bedding”, “clothing”, “pots and pans”, and “backpacking gear”. And organize them so the ones you open the most are easy to get to.
Wondering what you’ll need for a lengthy road trip? Check out our road trip packing list and our list of travel essentials!
A few of our Favorite Van Life Favorites
4: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
You know those Instagram accounts that you follow? The ones featuring photos of a couple sipping coffee while laying on their bed covered in colorful Pendleton blankets with the back door of the van opened to show the epic view they are gazing at? They are always having the best time and just love each other so freaking much. THAT’S NOT REAL #VANLIFE!
When you spend every sleeping and waking hour with the same person, you’re bound to want to murder them by the end of the day. Okay, that might be an exaggeration but regardless, expect to get in your fair share of tiffs. Laugh at ours and then avoid having the same ones while on your adventure.
Van Life Tips for Avoiding Inevitable Arguments
- Compromise on the audio entertainment. I opt for serial murder podcasts, but Nick knows that he’ll have a challenging time getting me out of the car mid-pod so he would usually rather listen to music. Compromise by allowing the person behind the wheel to pick their poison.
- Be understanding of the person driving. Driving a giant vehicle down a narrow road, or an extremely windy road, or just through traffic in a busy city is stressful enough as it is without a backseat driver yapping in your ear. Cut your partner some slack and trust that they will crush the drive.
- AND be understanding of the person navigating. Google Maps is literally a godsend when it comes to road trips, and a downloaded map may save you from getting seriously lost. But Google isn’t always perfect and sometimes figuring out turns and merges can be confusing. As the driver, you’ll be undoubtedly frustrated but just remember that your navigator isn’t getting you all turned around on purpose unless they’re just an asshole.
- Go to sleep and/or wake up when you want. Your partner wants to get up and do a brisk 5-mile sunrise hike? Great! More power to them! You’ll probably just be waking up when they return so if they could boil some water for coffee that would be lovely (BTW, this is the most durable French press ever invented!). It’s okay to have slightly different schedules (unless you’re in a tent and the trailhead is in a different spot, in which case, you’re screwed).
- Cook before you get hangry. Van life often feels like a bit of a race – trying to get ahead of bad weather, making the most of your day when the sun starts to set earlier and earlier, and searching for beautiful landscape views for every sunset. You are constantly on the move. And since there’s not really anything to do other than drink wine and play card games once the sun goes down, you’ve got to pack it all in during daylight hours. So food can be an afterthought. Big mistake. Huge. Your tummy dictates your mood and you’re likely to take your hanger out on your poor partner. Calm down, pull over, and cook your damn dinner.
- Avoid copious amounts of wine and deep relationship convos. Imagine this for a moment – it’s just you and your partner, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Just the two of you. They already know all of your stories, all of your funny jokes, and they know exactly what you did that day. So conversation boredom mixed with a little booze can lead to questions like “what is one thing you would change about me?” or “what do I do that annoys you?” or “do you think my sister is hot?” Avoid! Abort! These conversations do NOT end well. Keep games and movies on hand if you can’t handle casual conversations about the weather when you’re drunk.
5: Keep Certain Private Things Private
To say I have an “overactive bladder” would be fair. Actually, it might be an understatement. Like clockwork, I have to get up to pee in the middle of the night. Every single night. Even if I haven’t even had a drop of liquid hit my tongue for a full 12 hours prior. So yes, the thought of wearing an adult diaper to bed so that I didn’t have to crawl out of my tent or my van at 2 am every morning to pee most certainly crossed my mind. But forcing my husband to endure the smell of urine and then change me like a baby in the morning would mean venturing into VERY unsexy territory.
When you go days without showering, shaving, brushing your hair, or doing laundry, picking up some other nasty habits can be a slippery slope. But if you’re like me, your van life partner is also your real-life partner and you still have to find each other attractive through the filth. If you wouldn’t do it in front of your partner back home, it shouldn’t fly in your van either.
Do NOT, Under any Circumstances Ever…
- Poo in your chemical toilet
- Leave poo-y toilet paper in the van garbage bag
- Clip your toenails in bed
- Fart under the covers and then pull them up over your partner’s head
- Leave your stinky socks laying around your tiny living space
- Ask your partner if you can pop their bacne and/or pluck their mole hair
- Ignore our van life tips
6: Keep the Romance Alive
This tip goes hand-in-hand with Tip #5. It can be far too easy to fall into the comfortable “friend zone” rhythm when you are feeling dirty, stinky, and exhausted. Just remember that you’re both funky, and it’s pretty unlikely your partner will even be able to smell you over their own stank. If you’re really past your prime, just try to have at least one kiss a day that is more passionate than you’d plant on your mother.
7: Expect the Unexpected
When you are out in the middle of nowhere on your epic camper van adventure, there may not be any amenities around for miles and you never know what issues you may encounter in the wild. Always make sure you have a full tank of gas before venturing to remote locations and stock up on food and water, just in case. Be sure to download any maps you’ll need while you still have reception – the backcountry ain’t got time for cell towers!
Don’t Forget to Pack
- A headlamp (we love PETZL headlamps)
- Extra batteries of various shapes and sizes
- A lighter. And matches in case something happens to your lighter.
- A spare tire (we carried a full-size spare)
- A self-contained jump starter in case of a dead battery
- Back-up wine, just in case
8: Take a Time-Out
Do you look like complete losers when you’re at a restaurant or a bar, sitting across from each other, sipping a glass of wine while deeply engrossed in scrolling through Instagram on your phone? Sure. Do you sometimes need some time to yourself while your partner just leaves you the hell alone? Definitely.
Who cares what other people think? Heed our van life tip – ignore your partner and head down the social media rabbit hole for as long as you need until you’re ready to engage in conversation again. Your life is WAY more exciting than your judgy table neighbors anyway.
Or, better yet, sit at different tables and pretend like you don’t even know each other!
9: Just go with the Flow
Are you always going to want to do the things that your partner wants to do? No way. Are you going to be stuck in a van that doubles as your house and thus have no choice but to go wherever they go? Sorry but yeah, so get used to it.
Maybe you don’t want to hike that mountain at the moment but I bet once you get to the top you’ll be glad you did! And driving six hours out of the way to see some rock formation that your partner saw on Instagram and MUST take a photo of it sounds torturous now, but do you really have anything better to do? (No, you don’t…)
Take a chill pill, compromise, and step outside of your comfort zone. Living out of a van can be incredibly frustrating at times, but I guarantee you will create some of your most cherished memories with your favorite partner-in-grime!
We hope you’ve enjoyed our van life tips and that you feel more prepared to hit the road! Comment below if we’ve missed anything important.
Preparing for a road trip in the USA? Check out our favorite resources!
13 thoughts on “9 Essential Tips for Surviving Van Life”
You had me at wine.
Ha ha you and me both…
thx i prepare for do that with my big brother and i find this advice very helpful