Van Life Essentials: Must Have Items for Living a Van
After over three years of living on the road, I’ve got a list of van life essentials that includes things I’ve had for all three years, things I’ve realized I needed along the way, and all the must have items for living in a van!
This guide will cover some van life essentials that make life a lot easier and a lot more fun, ranging from bathroom necessities to ways to pass the time when you don’t have service.
I’m not going to be including things like “you need a mattress” or “you need a water system,” because you probably already know that! This guide is about van life essentials you may not have thought of, and also some things that aren’t really essentials, but that have improved my experience a ton and are fun to have :).
Head’s up: some of these links are affiliate links, so I get a commission if you make a purchase (at no cost to you). But that’s great, because these are all things I have, love, and use, and this helps me keep making free guides for you!
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Van Life Essentials List
I’ll break down this van life essentials list into a few sections – you can click any of these if you want to skip to that list!
- Van life kitchen essentials
- Van life bathroom essentials
- Van life outdoor essentials
- Other miscellaneous van life essentials
Van Life Kitchen Essentials
Let’s start with the kitchen – everyone’s gotta eat, so these are some van life essentials that will make cooking in the van easier.
I think a fridge is an absolute must when you live in a van full time. You could keep it simple with a regular cooler, but if you’re spending a lot of time camping, having to find ice to put in it will get pretty annoying.
You’ll need an electrical system to put a fridge in your van. Some people get regular mini fridges, but these tend to consume a lot of power. I recommend a Dometic fridge instead – you can set the temperature, and they turn on only when needed, saving a ton of battery power. They don’t sell the one I have anymore (the design has been upgraded), but this one is the most similar. I’ve learned to live without a freezer, but Dometic does have options for a fridge + freezer combo too!
A stove is definitely a huge van life essential – cold sandwiches aren’t always going to cut it. I‘m not much of a cook, so I went with a portable camping stove instead of installing one in my van! It works perfectly for me, but if you do cook a lot, you may want to do something a little fancier. I do also know some people who have a permanent stove fixture in their van kitchen, but also have a camping stove to let them cook outside sometimes, so it can be nice to have options.
I currently have a single burner Coleman stove that takes butane, but I actually want to switch to one that uses propane (like a different Coleman stove), because I realized that buying little cans of butane is a lot more expensive than getting one of those big propane tanks and refilling it! Some people also use an induction cooktop in their van build, which uses electricity instead of gas.
Okay, a spice rack probably isn’t that essential, but it’s really cute! A magnetic spice rack is a fun addition to your van life kitchen, and a great way to store your spices. I bought a magnetic knife bar and put it on the underside of my ceiling cabinets (I have a second one on the wall for actual knives). Then I got these cute little glass mason jars. They hold pretty well as long as I drive carefully on bumpy roads, and none of them have broken so far – but if you want to be safe, you can also get some metal ones instead!
I actually would consider a fruit hammock (banana hammock, if you will) a van life essential, because there are a lot of times when I don’t have room in my fridge right after I grocery shop, and I can’t just leave fruit on my counter if I’m driving, so the fruit hammock is super handy! A little tip – when you hang it, make sure that you don’t do it parallel to the wall – because otherwise when it inevitably swings around as you drive, your fruit will hit the wall and your avocados will turn into guacamole… ask me how I know.
Collapsible stuff is the best, and Tupperware is definitely a van life essential! These containers fold down really small, so they’re easy to store in the cabinet or in the fridge.
Van Life Bathroom Essentials
For some people, a composting toilet is a van life essential, so that might be the case for you too! I’m actually not putting it on the list because I think they’re too expensive and take up too much space to be worth it, and I don’t have one in my van build. This always brings up the question about how I go to the bathroom, so here are my van life bathroom essentials!
I was skeptical at first – a reusable pee cloth sounds kinda strange. But, the Kula Cloth is life changing! Okay, maybe not life changing, but definitely super convenient and I love it. It’s easier than bringing toilet paper, creates no waste, and I just wash it in my sink and throw it in with my clothes whenever I do laundry.
To comply with Leave No Trace principles, when I poop outside, I dig a hole to bury it in. For this, you’ll need a shovel. You can get a really small, foldable one that’s easy to store!
I take most of my showers outside – pre pandemic I had a Planet Fitness membership. I was planning to only cancel it temporarily, but then I realized that I really like my outdoor showers and decided to save the $25 a month!
I use a simple solar shower – it’s just a bag that I fill with water and put in the sun to warm up, then hang it from my van and take a shower! You can also get a pressure shower, which allows you to defy gravity and shower without having a place to hang it up.
And if you want to get really fancy, you can even get a portable shower with a water heater. This one plugs into your car to give you hot water!
Van Life Outdoor Essentials
My hammock is honestly one of the best things I’ve ever bought – sometimes I even sleep in it if it’s warm outside! A hammock is definitely a van life essential, and I recommend an ENO DoubleNest Hammock. You can sit in it with two people, but even if it’s just you, the two person hammock is comfier!
There are lots of situations where a headlamp comes in handy – late night peeing, seeing stuff when you didn’t get enough solar and your battery dies, and for hikes. It’s one of those things you don’t buy until you’re in a situation where you really need it and don’t have it, so don’t be like me, and get one now!
I know I said my hammock was the best thing I’ve ever bought, but I think I changed my mind. My inflatable paddle board is the best thing I’ve ever bought. It’s so fun to be able to get out on the water! It does take up quite a bit of space, so you’ll probably need to plan for it in your build, but it’s worth it.
I also recommend getting an electric pump – doing it by hand is quite tiring. This one plugs into your car!
Miscellaneous Van Life Essentials
Now, here are some other van life essentials that don’t really fit into any of the other categories, but I think they’re just as important!
If you have camera gear, or really any electronics/valuables in your van, a Pelican case is my favorite storage solution! Pelican cases are pretty much everything-proof – so they’ll keep your gear safe while you drive on bumpy roads. I store my camera gear in a Pelican v525 case, but there are also smaller, and bigger, options depending on what you need!
I used to be one of those snobs that thought I wouldn’t like using a Kindle because paper books are better, but then I got one as a gift, and honestly, the Kindle is way better. Especially in a van where you don’t have a ton of space for books, having a Kindle is a lifesaver – it’s more portable, it’s small, and now I read more than ever! I can’t recommend it enough.
And I can’t talk about the Kindle without telling you this – you can get free books! I had no idea for a while, but if you have a library card, there’s a good chance that you can download the Libby app on your phone, connect your library card, and borrow books for free to read on your Kindle. Another tip – you need wifi to download the books, so what I do is connect to wifi when I have books to download, then put the Kindle on airplane mode. The library books have a due date, but your Kindle won’t update until it connects to the internet – so you can keep the books after they’ve been returned (this doesn’t prevent other people from borrowing them or anything) until you’re ready to connect to wifi again. I add my favorite books to this list, so check that out for some recommendations!
Getting Internet on the road is important if you have a job, so this is definitely a van life essential! I use Google Fi to get a wifi hotspot that I can connect my computer to for work.
Something I didn’t know before I started living in a van is that mice love vans. The little creatures can get into tiny holes, and they will chew through wires, eat your food, and keep you awake with all their running around. It’s a huge pain. Definitely be prepared to deal with mice – the best way is to prevent them from getting inside in the first place. I’ve started literally placing a lantern outside under my van at night because they won’t go near the light, and this has been a lifesaver for me.
Some other things you can do include getting under your van and using insulation foam to fill any gaps underneath. I also recommend having mouse traps on hand in case they do get in.
A way to get mail
Living in a van doesn’t have to mean giving up online shopping, and being able to get mail on the road is important! I think Anytime Mailbox is the best option for mail, and you can read about how to use it here.
What are your Van Life Essentials?
If you have some more ideas, or things that you consider van life essentials, let me know in a comment below!
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