Must-Have Gear For Van Life Explorers

If you are looking for that dream life, you might want to take some advice from Walt Disney: “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” It might be time for you to stop scrolling social media and just get out there. In this piece, we are going to look at the simplicity that van life could bring.

We know you see all of those high-end vans rolling through the National Parks, taking selfies with their gourmet kitchens, and movie screens on the side of their sprinter van, but that doesn’t need to be you. You can start with the car you have and some very basic items.

Every nomadic life begins with a vision and yours won’t be any different. The trouble is many nomads wait until the perfect scenario is thrust upon them. Well, quit waiting and get started!

Van Life Essentials—Bare Essentials

Remember, living in a van isn’t just about breathtaking landscapes and starlit nights; it’s also about mastering the art of compact, minimalist living. And trust me, getting your van life gear right can make all the differences between feeling like you’re part of an adventure or being trapped in a claustrophobic nightmare.

1. Choose Your Vehicle

In total transparency, van life doesn’t even need to be done in a van. Choose an old ambulance, school bus, Chevy Tahoe, or even a Toyota Prius. The idea is to have a reliable vehicle that can take you where you need to go and provide the van life adventure you are looking for.

The most common vehicle for the van life experience is clearly the sprinter van trio: the Mercedes Sprinter van, the Ram ProMaster, and the Ford Transit. But don’t let finding one of these stop you from taking your first step towards taking off on your van life adventures.

2. Comfortable Sleeping Arrangement

Ultimately, having a safe, secure place to sleep is one of the utmost important aspects of becoming a van lifer. Whether you simply put the back seats down in your Prius, have a roof top tent, or a plush fixed bed inside your van, having a place to sleep is what makes life on the road manageable. Be sure not to underestimate the ability to get consistent, quality sleep. This is a game-changer for longevity and is one of the most important aspects of living in a van or other vehicles.

3. A Place to Cook and Eat

On the road, I’ve met people galore in different styles of vehicles doing their thing across North America. Something I’ve seen is that what people call “kitchen essentials” varies greatly depending on who you meet. For the purpose of this portion of the conversation, we are going to keep it as simplistic as possible.

The Instant Pot truly does everything you need for cooking. You can sauté, boil water, cook meat, hard-boil eggs, pressure cook your soups and stews, and much more. If you are trying to figure out the most bang for your buck, this one item could be your lone cooking option. If you had an Instant Pot with a couple of spatulas, a supply of fresh water, a stack of paper plates or bowls, and plastic utensils, you could really make life work on the road.

You’ll obviously need a place for power supply and a place to store food. For your power bank, look into something by EcoFlow, Jackery, or Bluetti. Consider a high end cooler or even a 12-volt refrigerator to preserve your food.

Lastly, you might notice yourself eating more raw fruits, vegetables, and nuts. This is great for your health, easier for travel, and an overall more simplistic way to exist in the van life world.

4. Bathroom Solutions

Your bathroom situation is always the most complicated scenario. Having a portable toilet rolling shotgun isn’t exactly enjoyable. With that being said, consider all of the options out on the market. You can choose to get a membership at Planet Fitness for your showering needs, or strategically use a camp shower, use rest areas and public restrooms, and just carry a cassette or composting toilet for the emergency situations.

On the real, it doesn’t take long for you to train your body when to use the restroom. After only a few days, you can reset your body to understand its opportunities, and you will be amazed at how rare using that composting toilet will be.

Here is a really cheap toilet option to get you started.

5. Climate Control

AC and heat might not be absolute essentials, but having a plan for the extremes is pretty important. I have found the best part about van life is chasing the great weather. But for my wife and I, warm days and chilly nights are what we long for, and occasionally those nights can get downright cold.

One of the best ways to handle this—if you don’t want to invest in a heater—is to bust out a backpacking sleeping bag. You can get these rated for well-below freezing. In regards to hot weather, you would be amazed at what a couple strategically placed fans could do. Sirocco Fans are extremely popular in the van life arena because of their efficiency and longevity.

These Van Life Essential Items Can Get You Started

I hope the previously listed items can help you get on the road sooner. However, most of you who get started will quickly desire a more permanent solution that expresses your own personality. Below we will look at some more items that typically would make their way onto a van life essentials list.

Upgrade Your Van Life Gear

To really enjoy van life for an extended period of time, there are plenty of other things to consider and are borderline essential. While we work through this list, we will not be exhaustive, but do our best to make a second tier of full time van life essentials.

Other Essential Cooking Equipment

You’ll need some essential cooking equipment to whip up delicious meals on the road. The freedom of vanlife doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your love for good food. Your kitchen may have very little space, but with a bit of creativity, it can be just as effective.

A kitchen counter top with a stove and kitchen faucet within a van. The van door is open displaying an exterior background scene of snow covered mountains.
Photo credit: goandlivefree

In a van kitchen, portable stoves are indispensable—propane or induction. They’re compact, easy to use and they’ll turn any spot into your personal kitchen and can be taken outside to cook under the stars. It’s not just about heating canned beans; think scrambled eggs in the morning or pasta al dente at nightfall. Remember though, always ensure good ventilation when cooking inside your van. If you want a next level experience, you can check out a cooktop and oven combination.

A water tank and a complimentary pump are two kitchen essentials. Having a way to store fresh water can be as easy as gallon jugs, but storing it tucked away is a better option. In the Project Van life Academy, they explain how this works, where to put it, and how to connect everything. You’ll definitely want to have a large reservoir if you are traveling for extended periods of time.

Next up: compact utensils. Choose multi-use tools like sporks, compact kitchen cooking utensils, nesting pots and pans, collapsible measuring cups, and simple organizational tools that can save you space. And don’t forget a sharp knife—you never know when you’ll stumble upon fresh produce at a roadside market.

Living on the road isn’t just about getting from one place to another; it’s about experiencing life in an entirely new way—right down to how you prepare your meals and even what you choose to eat. Now that we’ve stirred your culinary imagination, let’s move onto making sure you have more comfortable sleeping arrangements for those starlit nights after satisfying dinners.

Comfortable Sleeping Arrangements

Ironically, it’s your sleeping arrangements that can make or break your on-the-road adventure. Ensuring a good night’s sleep is paramount to enjoying the freedom and spontaneity of van life. To get that rest, you need to consider both sleeping bag types and mattress options.

From lightweight summer bags to three-season or winter variants, each sleeping bag type offers distinct advantages depending on climate conditions. In all reality, though, a good mattress makes vandwellers’ lives much better.

When it comes to mattress options, memory foam tends to be popular amongst van lifers due its compactness and comfort levels. Investing in a quality mattress ensures support for your back after long hours on the road. However, if you don’t have much room, you can always create a space that converts back and forth throughout the day. Here is a quality bed option that offers RV-sized beds and is incredibly comfortable—in fact I’ve bought two from them.

Remember, achieving comfortable sleep in your van isn’t merely about luxury—it’s vital for maintaining energy levels and embracing the liberty of exploration. Now that we’ve covered getting some shut-eye comfortably amidst nature’s lullaby, let’s shine light onto utilizing solar power systems for an even more sustainable journey ahead.

The back of a van conversion with a well made bed next to a table with two drinking cups and a plant.
Photo credit: contourcampers

Solar Power Systems

Finding a way to harness the power of the sun on top of your sprinter van is a borderline must-have. This creates a constant power supply because your van functions like a portable power bank and offers true off-grid living in a van.

To accomplish this van dwelling experience, you’ll need to dedicate precious space inside your van, but other van lifers will tell you how important it is to give up a small space for your portable power station. A solar power system is a vital part of van life gear, and it’s worth investing in quality equipment.

Here are four essential elements you’ll need:

  1. Solar Panels: Attaching solar panels to your roof is almost a van life essential. These will give you a consistent power supply and can be supplemented with others. For supplemental power, opt for portable panels for their efficiency and flexibility. You can adjust them to face the sun directly, maximizing energy absorption.
  2. Charge Controller: This device manages the flow of electricity and protects your batteries from overcharging.
  3. Deep Cycle Batteries: These store energy harvested by panels and function as your power bank. After the sun is absorbed by your solar panels, your charge controller directs it into your portable power station until you need to use that energy. If you’re planning a van conversion, and you’re hoping to be one of the long-term van lifers, you’ll want to invest in good batteries. Consider these SOK lithium batteries.
  4. Inverter/Charger: An inverter takes the portable power bank supply and converts it back into usable power for traditional outlets. This is what you would use to plug things into an outlet like a blender, toaster, induction cooktop, coffee pot, computer, etc. Your battery bank holds power in direct current (DC), and your appliances need alternating current (AC). The charger aspect allows you to charge from an outlet at a campground, a friend’s house, or anywhere else you might be able to mooch some power.

Solar energy not only provides freedom from traditional electric sources, but also contributes to a sustainable nomad lifestyle. Yet another aspect van lifers need to be prepared for on the road lies ahead—managing bathroom facilities.

Van Life Bathroom Solutions

We already mentioned above that you can train your body in a short amount of time to create a schedule—and that can make a huge difference. We talked about gym memberships, portable toilets, and more. But there is still more to consider when looking into van living for extended periods of time.

While Planet Fitness seems like it is everywhere, there are still vast spaces across North America without them. When you find yourself in those places, what are you going to do? Portable showers are a godsend for those living the van life. They’re lightweight, easy to store, and easy to set up wherever you find an idyllic spot. Just fill it up with water (heated if available), hang it from a tree or your van’s door, and you have yourself a refreshing shower in nature’s backdrop.

Another option is to create a solar shower system fixed to the top of your van—that is what I did. Get some black pipe, glue it together, have a couple different ends to connect a hose to, and there you go! You can shower anywhere you want, just open up those back doors, put a shower curtain between the two, and you have a shower room.

If we were to make a list of top van life essentials, composting toilets would be on that list. A composting toilet is a much better option than a cassette toilet and more eco-friendly too. This makes life on the road manageable and environmentally-friendly. These toilets transform waste into compost using natural processes, saving water and avoiding nasty smells often associated with chemical toilets. They require little maintenance and can be easily tucked away when not in use.

Remember that living off-grid doesn’t mean letting go of basic comforts; it just needs clever adaptation. So embrace these solutions and enjoy a clean existence amidst your adventures.

Now let’s shift gears toward ensuring all these essentials—along with your other belongings—have their own tidy place in your mobile home.

Storage and Organization for Van life

Creating a clutter-free and efficient living space within the confines of your van can seem like quite a challenge. But with careful planning and clever strategies, you’ll be surprised at how neatly everything falls into place. Embrace minimalist living; it’s not just about simplicity, but also about freedom. With fewer belongings to worry about, you’re free to focus on what truly matters—exploring the world around you.

Invest in multi-purpose furniture and collapsible storage units for easy stowing. Utilize every inch of available space; think about cubic feet not just square feet either. Use all the different levels when searching for storage space. Everything needs to have multiple uses in your van.

Space-saving hacks are pivotal in van life. Magnetic strips for knives or spice jars will keep your kitchen area tidy while maximizing vertical space. A hanging shoe organizer makes an excellent catch-all storage solution for small items like toiletries or kitchen utensils.

With these methods, you’ll find that everything has its place—no panic-rummaging through piles of stuff when looking for all your must-haves! Vanlife doesn’t mean cramming your life into a tiny space; it’s about carefully selecting what enhances your journey.

Same van conversion as previous photo, displaying beneath the bed now being used as a storage and organizational space.
Photo credit: contourcampers

Work On The Road

There is no doubt that earning an income on the road is an essential part of van life. While living the van life, it is 100% possible to save money. But there are still plenty of expenses you’ll have to consider. Think about all of the gas station refuels, trips to take care of your dirty laundry bag, your increased van maintenance, and much more.

For all of your van life technology needs, you have a couple of different legitimate options. If you want high-speed capacity, great connection anywhere you go, and to work remotely, then Starlink is definitely the way to go. If you choose to go this route, you’ll want to be sure your power station and power bank can handle it.

If you don’t feel the need to stream movies or work remotely, think about simply upgrading your phone plan. While Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile dominate the commercials, there are alternative options that are more affordable like Visible and Mint Mobile.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some safety considerations?

The type of cooking, heating, and other sources of energy you choose will determine the type of safety gear you might need. If you are using any type of fuel, you will want a carbon monoxide detector. A carbon monoxide alarm addresses the odorless gas that could be left behind from burning off fuels. Needless to say, a carbon monoxide detector is essential if you use fuel for cooking or heating your van. Also, you might consider a fire extinguisher.

If you are taking your hiking boots, or are wanting to do some outdoor adventure, be sure to take a basic first aid kit.

In addition to that, be sure to have a roadside emergency kit. Even if you don’t plan on off-roading, you might find yourself searching for a good spot. And a lot of the best boondocking spots require a little off-roading. Be prepared with that roadside emergency kit, traction mats, and a portable air compressor for those flat tires.

How do I maintain a regular fitness routine while living in a van?

Incorporate portable workout equipment into your van life routine. Utilize outdoor exercise opportunities by taking a pair of hiking boots, trail shoes, a bicycle, or even by doing yoga in the park. You’re free to design a fitness regimen that fits your nomadic lifestyle.

What are some random things I might forget about?

Here, I will list off some random things people tend to overlook on their van life essential list.

  • Trash bags—I forgot these on my first trip
  • Dish strainer for washing dishes
  • Compact camping chairs and a folding table
  • Toilet paper

How can I get help with all of my van life essentials?

The best way to be on top of all the important aspects of van life is to get someone to partner with you on your adventure. Even though going out to Banff National Park, exploring Big Sur, or making your way to Baja California is the dream, there is an entire process that needs to happen before that.

With the Van Life Academy, you will learn everything you need to know about van life. From how to get all the van life essentials, to an exhaustive van life packing list, and many other must-have items.


Keep in mind that your essential van life packing list will change over time. But the reality is that you don’t need to wait until everything is perfect. In this article, we have given you the bare essentials, items that are highly recommended, and most importantly… a link to the best way to complete your van life dream with the Van Life Academy. Now, the only question left is, “Where will you go first?”

Kyle Arnold

Published in December


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