Two years on the road and we’ve learned a thing or two about van life essentials. While this isn’t everything we take on the road with us, these are the items that we always keep in the van and double check we have packed before we set out on a new adventure.
When you’re traveling and living in a van, space is limited. You can’t always just bring items “just in case.” On the other hand you don’t want to leave home without the van life essentials. Through lots of packing and repacking, downsizing and downsizing again, we’ve found a few things that are absolutely essential if you want to make your van a safe, comfortable home.
Most of these items on this list are practical, but there are a few fun items too that we think round out the van life experience.
While these are the items we recommend, don’t be afraid to figure out what works best for you. Our needs might be different than yours so make a list, try out a few different items, and pack the van to fit your lifestyle.
Alright, let’s start walking through what we consider to be van life essentials.
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Electric related van life essentials
Both of our vans have had pretty legit electrical systems. It’s where we’ve invested the most money because we depend so heavily on electricity to keep our businesses afloat while on the road traveling. We never want to be stressed about whether or not our batteries are going to have enough power to charge a laptop or phone. While we found ourselves in a pinch a couple of times in our first van, it was definitely user error (oops. Lesson learned.).
Because our van is pretty dependable and has plenty of electrical outlets so we don’t really have a need for a whole lot. There are a few electronic related items we like to use in our van though which we’ll include here on our list of van life essentials.
An extension cord is always a good idea to keep on hand. Mostly we use it when we’re working outside and need to charge our laptops while hanging out in a hammock.
Buy extension cord here from $10.50
12v to 110v AC car plug adapter
We always travel with a car plug adapter that can charge our laptops. Even when we’re renting a car on vacation we bring it. It’s cheap and guarantees you’ll always have power to work while driving.
Buy car plug adapter here from $18.99
A phone mount was an absolute must in our first van since we use Google Maps daily. However, our new van is equipped with Apple CarPlay. This mount has served us well for years though.
Buy phone mount here from $24.95
Safety and maintenance van life essentials
In our first van we homemade our window covers. Actually, let me be honest here: my (Sara’s) mom made our window coverings and she did a great job. However, the fabric, Reflectix, and magnets that went into making them still cost a couple hundred dollars. Yikes. Not to mention the time that went into making them. On top of that, I didn’t properly account for the fact that not all of our windows had a magnetic rim around them so half of our blinds never worked properly. This time around we decided to save ourselves a headache by purchasing these top notch curtains by Strawfoot for our van. They’ve already arrived at our house and they look AWESOME. Definitely well worth the money. Curtains not only aid in climate control, but they also keep people from seeing inside your van when you are in it and when you’re away.
Buy our Sprinter van window curtains here
First aid kit
We always keep a first aid kit above the passenger side visor. Having bandaids, etc. close at hand just in case is always a good idea. Make sure you always keep it in the same place so you know where to find it if you need it.
Buy our first aid kit here from $11.39
You don’t need a fire extinguisher until you need a fire extinguisher. We always keep one next to the kitchen just in case. Thankfully we’ve never had to use it though. This one comes with a little wall mount which works great.
Buy our fire extinguisher here from $19.97
Every van needs a smoke detector. This one has served us well and works great. I know for a fact it works well because I’ve set it off a time or two with my cooking. (oops.)
Buy our smoke detector here from $39.99
Both our Espar D2 heater and our propane stove/oven (in our first van) use explosive gases. While technically our smoke detector also detects CO, we chose to order a separate CO detector. CO is heavier than smoke and must be mounted near the floor. Smoke detectors on the other hand are supposed to be mounted near the ceiling. Because our Sprinter van is so small, we decided to go with separate alarms.
Buy our CO detector here from $42.87
Flashlight or headlamp
Tire pressure gauge
Checking tire pressure regularly is a simple way to avoid a major accident. We frequently find ourselves switching between hot and cold climates as well as driving down rocky roads. Because of this we regularly check our tire pressure to make sure we’re not over or under inflated.
Buy our tire pressure gauge here from $9.88
Always always always carry a spare! We haven’t needed our yet (thank goodness) but we always have it mounted under the van just in case. When we upgraded to KO2 all terrain tires we purchased a 5th tire for the spare.
Buy our tires here from $246.99 each
Both of our Sprinter vans came with a jack, but in case yours did not, this one looks like it would do the trick, and for a good price.
Buy jack here from $35.85
This is something we didn’t have in our first van but we’ll be adding in our new van. A safe is an easy addition and a great way to keep valuables extra secure. Items such as my engagement ring, hard drives, and passports will go in this safe. We’re still working on figuring out a way to bolt it to the van so that nobody could take it with them if they were to break in.
Buy a safe for your van here starting at $91.99
Some sort of alarm or security system
If you’ve been around a while you know we love our SimpliSafe security system. It’s an absolute van life essential for us! While we primarily use it to monitor our dog while we’re away, it also works as a security system. Our first van was a very stripped down model of the Sprinter van and didn’t come with a built in alarm. A few of the items we had in our SimpliSafe system are the temperature sensor, camera, and motion detector.
Buy a SimpliSafe system here
If you have a newer diesel van, you likely have to regularly refill the DEF (diesel exhaust fluid). This happens every 6,000-10,000 miles and while it’s pretty easy to come by at most gas stations, we’ve been in places where it is hard to find. When you need it, you need it fast. Once the light to check DEF goes off in your van you don’t have long until you have to stop and fill it up. Because we know we’ll always need more, we like to keep an extra carton of it in the back of our van.
Buy DEF here from $26.30
Van life kitchen essentials
We learned a few lessons in our first van: you don’t need near as much in a kitchen as you think you do! When we first hit the road I had 3 pots, 3 pans, a baking sheet, and enough bowls to have friends join us for dinner in the van (which we never once did lol). After a broken glass mixing bowls, a few chipped dishes, and several unused pots and pans we modified our kitchen setup.
Our new van will be even more minimalist since we had to give up our oven (downsizing to the 144” Sprinter van meant making sacrifices). It’ll be missed but we’ll get by just fine! Depending on how much you cook in the van vs. eating out will probably determine how much off this list you actually need. This was our list for full-time van life where we (on average) cooked in the van 2-3 times a day.
Cute, unbreakable plates
In our first van we wanted it to feel as much like home as possible. We ended up bringing regular, heavy, very breakable dishes in the van. (Huge mistake) Every dish is chipped and a couple even shattered into a thousand pieces. This time around we’re going with something unbreakable. Currently we’re debating between these and these. The first option is a complete set (including utensils!) and has a very camp-y look about them. The second is a bit more homey looking but also a bit more expensive.
If you go with option #1 for dinner wear above, you don’t have to worry about purchasing utensils since that set comes with a set of 4. There’s nothing special about the utensils we use for van life. Whatever you have or find at the store will work fine! We keep four of everything and that’s always been plenty for the two of us.
Van life means filling up water tanks whenever you can find water. While 99% of the time we’re filling up at campgrounds and market potable water stations, we always keep our water filters clean and up to date to give us the option to fill up at more questionable sources if need be.
Buy our water filtration system here from $144.39
When we first hit the road we were using an Aeropress. We loved the coffee it made but we didn’t love how we could only make one cup at a time. We ended up switching to this electrical coffee pot with an insulated kettle. It’s nothing fancy, but it gets the job done and is pretty energy efficient. While it does pull a lot of power while running, it switches off as soon as it’s done brewing and the coffee stays warm for hours. Depending on your space and electrical set up one option might be better than the other. In our opinion you can’t go wrong with either.
We always keep two types of coffee cups/mugs in our van. The first is our favorite Miir Insulated Camp Mug. This one feels like a normal mug but with a lid and insulation to keep it warm for a long time. The second one we use is the Miir 12oz Insulated Travel Tumbler. Keep in mind that the lid on the camping mug does not snap shut but on the insulated tumbler it does.
I picked this Hydroflask wine tumbler on clearance a while ago and love it. So much so I use it at home when real glasses are available.
Buy the wine tumbler here from $29.95
Cast iron pan
When space is limited, we recommend going with items that can do it all. This cast iron pan can be used to cook over a campfire or on a regular propane stove in the van. We’ve loved our cast iron pan for years and recommend it wholeheartedly.
Buy the cast iron pan here from $24.95
We eat a lot of soups in the van. They’re easy to make and can be a great way to get some veggies into our diets. They also freeze really well so we usually try to keep an extra soup in the freezer. Having a big pot that can hold soups is a must for us on the road!
Buy this pot here from $36.99
Stackable kitchen cabinet and shelf organizers
It took us one week of living in the van to realize we could better utilize or space and keep everything more organized if we had shelf dividers. These are the ones we found and purchased on Amazon and they’ve worked great so far!
Buy our shelf organizers here from $14.97
These cutting mats work great for van life. They don’t take up much space in the cabinets and they’re super easy to clean.
Buy our cutting mats here from $10.99
Collapsible mixing bowls/food storage
Save space in the van by using collapsible mixing bowls/food storage. This is something we didn’t have in our first van and we 1) wasted a lot of space, and 2) shattered a glass mixing bowl all over the floor.
Buy collapsible mixing bowls set here from $24.98
We loved having a collapsible strainer. Easy storage and easy to use when making pasta, washing veggies, and more.
Buy our collapsible strainer here from $10.99
We like this knife set because each knife has its own little case. These aren’t the ones we used in our first van, but we’re planning on purchasing these for our new van. Last time we just brought our knives from home (nothing fancy, straight from TJ Maxx), but this time we’d like some a little safer that have cases.
Buy knife set here from $19.99
Various cooking utensils
These aren’t the exact ones we have, but the idea is the same. Basic, lightweight and everything you need for cooking in a van.
Buy the cooking utensils set here from $16.49
These silicone pot holders/jar openers are perfect for setting hot pots on at the picnic table. They come in a set of 4 but really 2 is plenty in a van.
Buy silicone pot holders here from $11.99
Drying rack for dishes
Having a rack to let dishes dry on is a van life essential. This one rolls away and stores easily when not being used. The only downside to this one is that dishes can’t be left drying while driving.
Buy drying rack for dishes here from $17.98
Cleaning & Organizing Van Life Essentials
I know some people live van life for the adventure only and if the van gets dirty, that’s totally fine. When we hit the road our van was our full time home and a dirty place was not acceptable. I’m not a clean freak, but I do like to keep a tidy place that’s enjoyable to hangout in. Cleaning a van is a pretty quick process as long as you stay on top of your weekly chores. These are van life essentials for cleaning and organizing a van.
All purpose cleaning spray
Windows, cabinets, dash, etc.— everything in the van gets cleaned down with this spray on the regular. It’s the perfect cleaner for keeping the van smelling fresh and sparkly.
Buy all purpose cleaning spray here from $3.88
Biodegradable dish soap
Because we like having the option to dump our gray water (not our black water) on the ground when safe, we always use a biodegradable dish soap. This one has been our go to because you can find it easily on Amazon and at Target.
Buy dish soap here from $11.85
We found our collapsible laundry hamper at IKEA but this one is very similar. Having a designated hamper keeps dirty clothes out of the way and easy to take inside the laundromat on chore day.
Buy it here from $16.99
Pro tip: laundry pods are the safer option in a van. Trust me, liquid detergent will get everywhere! We’re not married to any certain laundry detergent, but this one by Tide has served us well before.
Buy it here from $19.97
While I love the smell of clean laundry, dryer balls are more environmentally friendly and cheaper over time. However, if you have a dog he might mistake them for toys if left laying around in the van (oops.).
Buy it here from $11.99
Vacuum and/or hand broom
So far we’ve only ever had a hand broom in the van. I’ll admit, getting down on my hands and knees to sweep the floors can get a little old. But, carrying around a full size broom seems excessive for such a small area. When we hit the road in our new van we’re planning to splurge and get this super small handheld vacuum by Shark. If you’re like us and are usually working on a budget, a handheld broom like this will get the job done just fine!
Microfiber cleaning cloths
It’s amazing how often you need towels in a van. From wiping up the water our dog tracks in to spills in the kitchen, these cloths come in handy all the time.
Buy our microfiber cleaning cloths here from $16.03
We originally used the O.G. packing cubes (Rubbermaid boxes) to organize our clothes cabinets. Packing cubes are definitely the more space saving friendly option, so we plan to switch to these packing cubes in our new van.
Buy packing cubes here from $26.43
Water hose (1 for fresh water and 1 for black water)
We always keep 2 water hoses in our van. One hose is designated for filling the freshwater tank, and the other is for emptying the grey water tank and cleaning the toilet at the dump station. The water hoses are stored in separate Rubbermaid boxes and labeled very clearly. We find that a 25ft expandable water hose is the best option for the job. We recommend getting different colors: black for black/grey water and completely different color for fresh water.
Buy our expandable water hose here from $26.86
If you have a composting toilet in your van you can just skip past this item. For those of us who use porta potti cassette toilets, these little tablets are a must. Not to be gross, but these tablets help to break down all that goes into the toilet so when you’re dumping at the dump station, the cleaning process is easier. It also helps to keep smells at bay. Okay, I know that’s gross, moving on now….
Buy RV toilet tablets here from $19.99
It’s 2020 and everyone has become sanitation pros by now. Likely you’re already carrying Lysol wipes everywhere you go. But, if not, don’t forget to bring them in the van. We use these pretty often to clean the toilet, counters, door handles, and more.
Buy Lysol wipes here or at your local Walmart or Target
Bathroom van life essentials
Microfiber camping towels
Quick drying towels are van life essentials. These microfiber camping towels dry quick and pack small.
Buy our microfiber towels here from $19.99
Gym bag for showering
Pro tip: use a gym bag that can also double as a day pack for short hikes. Even though we have a shower in our van, we also shower at gyms regularly. Having a designated bag for gym trips is one of our van life essentials. The exact bags we use are no longer available, but this one by REI is inexpensive and seems to be a great option.
Buy a gym bag here from $54.99
Shower shoes don’t have to be fancy. Just a lightweight, quick drying, easily packable pare of flip-flops will do the trick. Just don’t forget your shower shoes!
Because we regularly safely dump our gray water on the ground, having biodegradable shampoos and soaps is a must. I’m sort of picky about shampoos which is why I found this article on The Dyrt so helpful when researching safe shampoos to use while camping. I’ve since tried a few but this one by SheaMoisture does a good job of cleaning my hair without over drying or leaving a weird soapy residue. It also has a snap top vs. a pump top which is perfect for taking to and from the gym for showers. You can also easily find it at most Targets which is incredibly helpful when an Amazon Locker isn’t too close by.
Buy it here from $6.53
Van life essentials for rest, relaxation, and fun
America the Beautiful Pass
If you’re like us and plan to visit national parks via van life, you absolutely have to purchase the America the Beautiful Pass. This is an annual membership card that will get you into all national parks for a whole year. Some of the national parks can be pretty pricey, so this pass pays for itself if you visit at least three parks a year. You don’t have to wait in line at a national park visitor center to purchase it either. Follow this link to REI.com and order it before you hit the road!
Buy the America the Beautiful pass here from $79.99
We love keeping Bananagrams in the van as a fun activity to do around the campfire at night. It doesn’t take up much room in the van either.
Buy Banana grams here from $13.99
Playing cards are the perfect van life game, too. They take up very little space and there are so many different game options. We recommend this waterproof deck of cards.
Buy waterproof playing cards here from $8.99
We picked up these chairs in Florida back in early 2019. We chose these specific chairs because they 1) pack small, and 2) work on the beach. They’re comfortable enough to enjoy sitting around a campfire thanks to their high backs and headrests.
But our camping chairs here from $199.95
Waterproof Portable Bluetooth Speaker
We like to have a little bit of music around the campfire. This little speaker does the trick. It’s durable and doesn’t take up much room in the van.
Buy our bluetooth speaker here from $39.99
Clothes and personal gear van life essentials
This section is a little more subjective since what you’ll need in your van will depend on 1) where you’ll be traveling and, 2) when/how long you’ll be traveling. For example, in our first van we were full time van life for a year and a half. During that time we saw everything from snow to desserts in the summer. While we typically aimed to follow more moderate weather, there’s no way to guarantee you’ll always have fair temperatures and sunny days. We always carry a variety of clothes and shoes to keep us comfortable no matter the climate.
While we’d always recommend traveling prepared, if you’re only planning to hit the road for 2 weeks at a time, you can get away with a whole lot less. Take from this list what you find helpful and useful though and really give thought to what you need on the road and what you don’t need. Ultimately van life will mean getting by with as little as possible, but with the right clothes that doesn’t have to be too hard!
- Nano puff jacket
- Pullover sweatshirt
- Allbirds shoes
- (2) Warm socks (good for hiking)
- (4) Everyday socks
- (1) Jeans
- (3) Short sleeve exercise shirts
- (2) Long sleeve exercise shirts
- (3) Short sleeve T-shirts
- (2) Yoga pants
- (3) Running shorts
- Hats (option 1 | option 2)
- (1) Dress
- Hiking boots
I’m sure there are items that I’ve forgotten here. There’s a lot that goes into van life and you can pack a surprising amount into a little van.
Do you have a recommendation for another van life essential that should be added to this list? Be sure to drop it in the comments below!
See y’all out there! 🙂