Living out of a van and travelling wherever your heart takes you is a pretty enticing idea, especially for those of us who have been cooped up at home for the majority of the pandemic. You’ve probably seen the Pinterest pictures and YouTube videos of people waking up to gorgeous views or making coffee next to a field, and thought about trying it out yourself.
After experiencing the #vanlife on a road trip down the Great Ocean Road with my partner – which was everything I thought it would be and more – here’s a comprehensive list of things I’ve learned about having a home on wheels. If you’re thinking of doing something similar, bookmark this and read on.
04Once you begin your search for the ideal campervan to rent, the number of options can be overwhelming. There are so many types out there with various specifications. Here are some of the factors to take into consideration:
- Number of people travelling. The smallest van size usually has two berths, but this can go up to six if you have a large family. From personal experience, if you’re travelling with such a large group it’s better to split it up into two campervans, because the communal area in a van is tiny. Also, a van’s maximum travelling speed isn’t a lot (ours capped out at 110km/h for a 2+1 berth), and the bigger the van is, the slower it will be.
- Height of the travellers. Some vans don’t have enough standing room for tall people so they have to be in a constantly hunched position (#tallpeopleproblems). I can’t speak for all vans, but the one we got was based on a Mercedes Sprinter chassis, so there was enough room for my 1.8m-tall husband to stand fully upright.
- Whether you need a self-contained vehicle, or just a place with enough room to sleep. Having an integrated bathroom and toilet (often a two-in-one little cubicle) is really convenient when you’re on the road, but if you’re okay with using public facilities this isn’t so much of a factor.
- The size of the freshwater and grey water tanks, if applicable. You want something that’s large enough to accommodate the number of travellers showering and using the bathroom – most vans have a capacity of 60-80l for these tanks, but we upgraded to one that had 100l tanks as we weren’t sure how often we’d be stopping for refills and empties.
- Through access. This refers to whether you’re able to get from the driver’s seat to the living area of the van without having to actually get out of the van. It’s not just for convenience; it’s for safety too, in case you’re in a situation where you need to break camp and drive out of the area quickly. You don’t want to be trapped.
This sounds like something every seasoned traveller should know, but going for a campervan holiday is slightly different. As the compartments are usually small (though plentiful), you’ll need to use a backpack or something soft and compactable, rather than a hard suitcase.
It’s also a good idea to pack your clothes in packing cells (or large resealable plastic bags) so you can take them down from overhead compartments quickly without having an avalanche of them fall on your head.
Small items get easily lost in a van, so if you’re bringing along skincare and makeup items, put them into a packing cell as well so they’re not rattling around.
Tip: Bring along a GorillaPod, or phone tripod with flexible legs, for taking photos of yourselves. This also doubles as a phone holder for the driver when they need to navigate with Google Maps.
Most van rentals come fully equipped with tableware, cutlery, and kitchen equipment, along with the gas stove, refrigerator and sink. Ours even had a microwave, TV, toaster, and oddly enough, mixing bowls (though I’m not sure why because we weren’t about to bake a cake in a van). The only appliance we actually used was the kettle.
They should also provide fresh towels and bedlinen, though if you’re unsure about hygiene then you can bring along your own towel or a sleeping bag liner. They don’t provide toiletries, though, and you may have to purchase extra toilet chemicals from them if you have a bathroom and your trip is more than three days.
Another thing you’ll want to check is how much space you can utilise outside the van. Do you have a pull-out table, or a picnic table and chairs you can use? Is there an awning you can attach to turn the outside into a sheltered al fresco area?
This is a list of things we found were extremely useful for living in a van:
- S-hooks. At least 4-8 of these, because you’ll need to utilise every square inch of vertical space in a van. We used them for hanging up towels, toiletries bags, even a plastic bag designated as a rubbish bin.
- A clothesline. If possible, get one with clips already attached. This was great for when we wanted to hang up towels or clothes to dry. You can get one from Daiso.
- Clothes pegs. You’ll need about 4-6 small ones. These are useful for not just hanging up clothes, but also securing packets of anything you don’t want spilling or leaking when the van is moving.
- A portable nightlight. In general, vans don’t have many lighting options, so a small nightlight gives you the option to read at night while your partner is asleep, and helps you navigate without having to switch on the blazing lights. You can also opt for a short string of battery-operated fairy lights if you want something more Instagrammable. Avoid candles if possible as they’re a fire hazard.
- A high-capacity power bank for your phone and other USB-powered items. Electrical outlets in a van are limited, to say the least.
- Aluminum foil. If you’re cooking on a barbecue grill, this helps to catch grease. You can also fold it into little plates or bowls if you don’t feel like doing the dishes. Whatever you do, don’t skimp on the quality. Go for a good trustworthy brand, because you don’t want it to rip suddenly while eating your barbecued patty and having grease drip everywhere (true story).
- A box of tissue paper. Self-explanatory.
- Small ziplock bags. These are great for packing leftover food in, stashing small items, or even catching flies (which we did, twice).
- A small bottle of white vinegar. You’ll need to save water while doing dishes in a van, so apart from dish soap, white vinegar helps to cut right through the grease. You can also use a small bottle of vodka or hot water from the kettle, though we’d say vinegar is handier because it can also be used for laundry and as a condiment. Air the van afterwards, though.
- A small bar of soap or paper soap. This is for washing your hands – we found paper soap to be very useful as it’s light and portable. Keep an extra with you at all times, as not all public restrooms have soap.
- Baby wipes. Useful for cleaning both yourselves and the van’s surfaces when needed.
- USB fan. Air circulation isn’t great for most vans even if you crack open a window, so we’d suggest having a small USB-powered fan to cool you at night.
- Some form of insect repellent. This can be burning citronella oil or some form of mosquito coil. However, having insects get into the van is inevitable since you’re practically living outdoors, after all. If your van rental company offers mesh fly screens, take them.
- Flip flops. You’ll need something that’s easy to slip in and out of, and that will take you to public restrooms.
- Thermal water bottle. You won’t have the luxury of a plugged-in kettle all day, so a thermal bottle comes in handy if you need hot water for making a drink.
Apart from the useful items in the previous point, we also made sure we had the following for safety:
- Personal alarm. The kind that makes an ear-splitting noise if triggered. We kept one near our sleeping area in case we needed to scare off potential intruders.
- A deterrent light. This isn’t necessary, but we also purchased a small red blinking light that mimicked the light of an in-vehicle camera. This was left on our dashboard at night, again to warn off potential intruders.
- A small headlamp. This was in case we needed to do tasks outside the van after dark, like connecting power and water. Public lighting in some campgrounds is often too dim or completely absent.
- Fire extinguisher. Most vans will provide one; just make sure you know where it is and how to use it.
- First aid kit. You can bring your own or ask if the van will come with one.
Another safety tip is to always leave your seats swivelled to the front and ready to go in case you need to leap into the driver’s seat quickly. Also never leave your side door open and unattended for more than a couple of minutes at a time if you’re outside the van.
Finally, always let your family know where you are at all times, and avoid posting your vehicle number or current location on social media.
Here’s where it gets tricky, because different countries and states have different rules for parking a campervan. In Australia, you have to spend the night at designated camping sites so you can’t just park in a random field. Use Google Maps, Wikicamps or CamperMate to work out where you want to be by nightfall.
There are two general kinds of camping sites:
- Free camping. These are free sites, often with gorgeous views. Downsides: there’s no security, power, or facilities. Best for self-contained vehicles.
- Paid campgrounds. These range between $20 – $60 a night depending on whether you choose a powered or unpowered site. Most of these sites enable you to refill your fresh water, empty grey water and biowaste, and plug your vehicle in for power. They often have facilities such as WiFi, hot showers, laundry, and sometimes even pools and game rooms. It’s also much safer. The downsides: they don’t always have nice views, and you need to reserve a slot in advance or get into the site before the office closes.
Our advice is to alternate between free camping and paid campgrounds if possible. Read reviews on Wikicamps, CamperMate or TripAdvisor in advance.
Tip: When finding a spot, choose one that’s on as level ground as possible, so that the water in your bathroom won’t pool on one side and slosh out when you’re driving. If you have the option of parking in an open space or against trees, go for the open spot for safety (the trees can provide cover for people or animals that you don’t want near your van). In general, park facing out in an unobstructed position that lets you drive away quickly if necessary.
Set up some house rules – this is going to be your home for a while, after all.
Are you going to keep your shoes on in the van?
While this option is more convenient (especially when you’re getting in and out quite often), it means a lot more dirt and grass is getting inside. If you prefer a shoes-off rule, have an entry rug ready near the front to wipe your feet on.
What are your preferences with regard to opening up the van doors?
While some might prefer to open the doors to enjoy the fresh air, others might want to avoid being exposed to insects, especially at dusk. Lay down some rules on what time the doors should be closed and the curtains drawn.
What’s your morning routine?
Both you and your partner need to be aware of each other’s preferences, especially in such an enclosed space, so you don’t get in each other’s way.
How much privacy do you need?
It’s next to impossible to get dressed in the tiny box of a bathroom without sustaining bruises, so it’s likely you’ll need to step out into the van itself to dry off and dress. If you’re not comfortable, work out a routine with your partner so they’ll know to keep the doors and curtains closed and step away when you need privacy.
Who’s taking care of what?
One of you may choose to take care of the interior, doing chores like making up the bed and cleaning the floor, while the other can take care of the van’s needs like emptying the grey water and refilling the fresh water tanks. We’d advise watching a few videos on van life on YouTube to figure out the tasks needed.
What can you do or not do in the toilet?
If you have an integrated toilet, you may choose to use it freely or only as necessary when public facilities aren’t available.
When it comes to van life, it’s all hands on deck. Making and breaking camp each day takes at least half an hour each time, since you need to pack/unpack everything that can fall over when driving. Consequently, the tasks need to be split up to save time, and everyone needs to help out. Some tasks, like connecting the water hose, should ideally be done before it gets dark.
Since there’s so little space, every single thing you do affects your partner – even waking up and making a cup of coffee. Work out a time to get up in the mornings and break camp, and a time to find a place to park in the evenings. Since there’s nothing much to do in the evenings after it gets dark, we fell into the habit of going to bed at about 10 and getting up at about 7 quite naturally, even though we’re both night owls.
Tip: Timing matters. If you’re doing this in Australia and choosing to park in paid campgrounds, call ahead to reserve your slot or get into the site before 6pm, because that’s when most offices close. If you arrive after hours, call the emergency hotline and you’ll usually be able to get a site and pay in the morning when the office reopens.
For even the closest of couples or friends, the proximity of van life can be taxing on the relationship and your mental health. Work out an arrangement where each of you can retreat into a corner of the van for some alone time if necessary, whether that’s the driver’s seat area or outside or the back of the van.
It’s pretty normal to have some friction in such a tight space, as long as you can both communicate when you’re feeling overwhelmed or tired. If you’re going on a long road trip of a week or more, we’d suggest making a stopover at a proper accommodation at least once to give yourselves a chance to regroup.
Finally – and this is something we wish we knew before setting off – don’t get too caught up or focused on your destination. Leave plenty of empty space in your itinerary. Van life isn’t about getting from Point A to B, or checking off as many places to see as possible.
It’s about stopping when you see a beautiful view, throwing open the doors, and enjoying a cup of coffee sitting on your bed. It’s about taking a midday nap next to a field or the seaside whenever you feel like it. It’s about the luxury of taking an hour or two to pause in some remote part of the world and just watch the clouds go by.
And that’s the freedom of van life.
Text: Melody Bay/Home & Decor