Camper Van Essentials: 20 Items You Need for Vanlife Survival
Van life is about enjoying the simple things. It’s about unshouldering the burdens of traditional consumer driven existence. While minimalism and van life go hand in hand, it doesn’t necessary mean that you won’t find yourself in the market for some new, specialized items when preparing for van life to make the transition a little bit easier.
The items on this list are those that we consider essential van items. Since we use many of them on a daily basis, these are the imperatives that really let us enjoy all the freedom the road has to offer.
So without further ado, here are our favorite little doo dads that make dirtbagging doable.
The single best thing we purchased for van life was the Teva Ember-series outdoor slippers. These quilted slippers are insulated with synthetic fiber and have been key for keeping comfortable in the van, especially since the floor is the coldest part of it. And with the fully rubber lugged sole, they slide seamlessly between in the van and outside.
Chris got the Teva Ember Moc, a low-top slipper which features a fold down neoprene heel cup to convert your slippers between slides and full foot coverage. I wear the Teva Ember Lace, which are pretty much the same thing but in a mid rise boot version. They don’t slide on and off quite as easily but they’re so warm and have the bonus of performing as a casual winter boot for going out and about. Seriously, we can’t recommend these enough. So comfortable and good looking enough to wear your slippers in public!
We have a 3 pack of these lights installed in our van and we love them so much that we just couldn’t help but recommend a specific brand here (as opposed to a general category like some of these other items).
While there are lots of similar options out there, we love the simplicity and sleek look of Good Earth, as well as the warm hue of the lights. Being so flat, they look like recessed lighting without all the hassle of actually cutting out recesses in the ceiling. Just a simple hole for the cord, a bit of Gorilla Tape.
The on/off is a simple touch sensor you can mount anywhere and by holding the sensor to dim and brighten the lights. At their brightest, they more than illuminate our entire windowless van and at their dimmest, they provide a nice relaxing ambiance.
For instances where we need light outside our van (like out climbing, camping, or even just hanging out outside) we use a standard LUCI inflatable solar light by MPOWERED. It’s light and portable (deflating into a near flat puck). During the day, we just store it panel side up in dash and let it charge. If you’re just breaking into van life by doing it a bit more minimally, these are a great all-around lighting solution.
We used out LUCI as our sole source of light when living out a mini van in Bishop, California for a month. LUCI makes lots of different solar powered options to suit your needs, including super cute solar string lights, color changing lights, and more.
A huge challenge to having a home that’s always in motion is making sure things stay put. Bungee cords are your friend. They’re easy and impermanent, too, so you can easily take them off when you're stationary. We use a handful of actual bungee cords (and have some spares on hand for extra flight roads to secure stuff we normally don’t have to).
In addition to removable bungee cords, we implemented a number of permanently mounted bungee hooks That we can clip and unclip to drawers to keep them in place. The best solution for such instances is to just buy shock cord in bulk and rig your own bungees out of hooks, D-rings, eye screws, and carabiners. That way you can custom cut the length you need and save some money to boot.
The secret to happiness in van life is hydration! Seriously, anyone that knows us knows we love water. It’s pretty much all we drink! No soda, no juice, no kombucha even (Gasp! Are we even dirtbags?!). And when you live in a van, water becomes is a precious resource. Hydroflasks are our go-to water storage solution. In fact, we have six of them in our van, in various sizes and for various purposes. Okay it might be a little excessive, but I make my point.
The single best one we invested in was the Hydroflask Oasis 1-gallon growler that we store our drinking water in, and if we have access to ice, we can keep ice cold water in it for days! If you don’t quite want to spend the money on the Hydroflask or very similar Yeti brands, there are plenty of other insulated options that just might not keep things cold for quite as long.
Accompany your grower with a couple of stainless steel bottles to always have on you and refill water where you can. We use 18oz narrow mouth Hydroflasks for this, and 12oz Hydroflask coffee mugs to snag free coffee where we can!
Hydroflasks are great for keeping things hot and cold, but they are bulky and heavy. No to mention expensive if you're looking for any kind of large volume supply. Dromedary bags are a great alternative way to store extra water. We use an MSR heavy-duty 10L dromedary bag for extra water in the van, as well as a lighter, more packable Sea to Summit 6L water storage bag for on-the-go use, like climbing and backpacking.
Because it’s a little harder to pour precision amounts from, we use through the Hydroflask Oasis, then refill out of the dromedary bag. The best thing about them is they stow away into practically nothing so it never hurts to have a few extra on hand for when you want to go off grid for longer periods of time.
7. Water Filter
For instances when you are off-grid for extended periods of time, it’s so nice to have the ability to filter your own water if you need. Having a water filter can be the different between being able to stay camped next to that beautiful river for another week and having to drive 50 miles to the nearest town. That’s why we consider this one of the core items in our camper van survival kit. Plus, isn’t the self-sufficiency a big draw to the van life movement as a whole?
We honestly can’t recommend the MSR Trailshot pocket-sized water filter enough. It’s a hand squeeze filter that’s so light and compact that we can just as easily use it when we’re out backpacking or climbing (plus the squeezing makes for an excellent finger warm up!). Did we mention it’s inexpensive, at only $45?
Best of all, it can be upgraded with the Trail Base filter kit and transformed into a gravity filter. This is perfect for filtering bulk water at the van. We just use magnetic hooks to hang the bags on the outside of the van and let it work its magic. Under gravity, it filters about 1L of water per minute!
Keep in mind the TrailShot is a micro filter but not a water purifier, meaning it removes protozoa and bacteria, but not viruses. For the most part, this is sufficient and we’ve never gotten sick just using a micro filter. However, if you’re filtering really questionable water (like a pond in the middle of a horse pasture) higher protection might be necessary, but be prepared to pay for the extra protection. Other good filters we’ve used are the Sawyer Mini (small and cheap but slow flow rate), the Sawyer PointOne (just like the former but a bit bigger and faster) and the MSR MiniWorks EX.
Like I said in #5, we pretty much only drink water. Of course that includes leaf water, fermented fruit water, and (most importantly), bean water. Coffee is the lifeblood of the Geovanni van fam: strong, black coffee that puts hair on the chest and ensures our Dometic portable van toilet gets put to good use.
The best way to get strong van coffee in a compact, convenient cup is a French press (well, aside from instant or cowboy coffee but we’re talking quality here, folks). Lots of people like Bodum glass French presses, but keep in mind that glass doesn’t hold heat well. We wanted something that could keep our coffee piping hot while we let the grounds steep for 20 minutes (thus ensuring it is strong as sh*t).
That’s why we got a Womice stainless steel insulated 1L French press. We got this one and it’s been excellent. Durable, nice looking, keeps our coffee warm, and filters without letting the grains in. Amazon has tons of really similar other options to suit your style.
Cookwear specifically designed for camping is lighter, more durable, and much more compact than standard kitchen ware. But getting quality material really matters. Don’t just get the cheapest Walmart brand pot; we made that mistake with a fold-out handled frying pan from Fred Meyer. The “non-stick” coating peeling on the first go and cleaning it became impossible.
Since then, we’ve upgraded almost entirely to MSR cookware, which all features quality materials, nesting designs, and either fold away or removable handles for compact storage. We’re big fans, if you can’t tell (#notsponsored but would love to be).
For a frying pan, we avoided stainless steel and went with MSR’s highest quality non-stick option. Their Ceramic Flex Skillet is so high quality and just as compact as the cheap one we bought. We never have problems with food burning to it and the non-stick coating is holding up well.
For anything that does get a little stuck on (particularly with the stainless steel pots), we use an MSR pot scrubber to safely scrub away any stuck on food the regular dish brush can’t handle.
10. Hand Broom
I’m admittedly a bit of a clean freak. Even living in an apartment, I was a bit obsessive about keeping the kitchen floor crumb-free. And a van floor is absolutely maddening with how dirty it gets so fast. Fortunately, a simple little hand broom is more than enough to keep such a small surface area clean. Two minutes every other day and this little tool turns our van from a literal dirtbag van to a figurative one.
11. Door Mat
To reduce the amount of sweeping you’ll be doing, a welcome mat right at the sliding door can keep a ton of dirt from making its way into the van. Ideally we’ll soon be upgrading this to a dirt catcher mat or waterproof shoe tray for extra protection. But for now, any mat is better than no mat.
Even more important than keeping dirt off your camper van floor, it keeps water off it. Water is death to camper vans. It leads to mold, rust, and more. The less water that gets on your floor, the better!
12. Baby Wipes
Van life stereotypes aren’t true! We do, in fact, take showers, even if they’re with baby wipes.... okay so maybe the stereotypes are partially true. In all seriousness, we do shower less living in a van, and in between trip to Planet Fitness for a full scrub, baby wipes are a great way to keep the grinder, grime, and generally stench at bay.
We really like Burt’s Bee’s natural and chlorine-free, unscented baby-wipes. Another good (and somewhat eco-friendly) option is Caboo’s “tree-free” baby wipes and SimpLeaf flushable baby wipes, which are not only plumbing safe, but people safe as they are hypoallergenic, paraben-free, and alcohol-free.
Disinfecting wipes in general are so helpful for van hygiene. For floors, countertops, and more, we tossed out all the specialties cleaning sprays and use all-in-one disinfecting wipes all the time. We mostly use Clorox’s GreenWorks compostable cleaning wipes, which are totally biodegradable and 99% natural.
By this we mean truly stackable. Not those “stackable” containers that, sure, may stack when placed in a location that never moves. But in a van where everything shakes, rattles, and rolls to a degree that puts the 1950s shame, you need stackable bins that won’t topple under motion. That means bob’s with actual recesses in the lid of one that fits the bottom of another. We use these 5 gallon stackable totes, but there are plenty of other brands, like Craftsman (available at Lowe’s) and Sterilie, make something similar.
14. Cargo Nets
Another fantastic storage solution we didn’t even foresee during the van build stage; we added it as an afterthought shortly after moving in. Cargo nets can be installed pretty much anywhere and add lofted temporary storage to any hanging space. We installed a Bell 45” x 24” car cargo net across the front of storage shelves to add an extra layer of storage. Anyone else have a pile of “not dirty enough for the laundry but too dirty to put away” clothes? Welcome to pretty much all your clothes in van life. These cargo nets are absolutely clutch catch-all’s for this type of stuff. It keeps you van looking neat and tidy while allowing some limbo space.
Even if you aren’t axel deep in winter van life, some form of a heater is so nice on those chilly mornings, no matter how good your insulation is. Electric heaters, while nice and compact, have huge power draws and running one for any extended period of time would zap even our burly battery bank. Instead, we use a Mr. Heater single tank top propane heater, which keeps us warm and, more importantly, our water pipes from freezing on chilly nights.
We used to use a Mr. Heater Little Buddy, which screws directly onto disposable Coleman propane canisters and lights with the push of a button. These are nice because they omit a more subtle heat (which doesn’t heat the space quickly but does keep the ambient temperature warm). However, we found we were just burning through disposable propane cylinders too fast (every few days!). In the interest of a) saving money and b) being more sustainable about our waste, we swapped to the tank top heater. Aside from the Mr. Heater, there are many really similar options out there, but so far Mr. Heater hasn’t steered us wrong.
If you want some real luxury and even more BTUs, Mr. Heater also makes version with two and three burners, as well as a 540 degree full radiant heater that puts out heat on all sides. This has a whopping 45,000 BTU burner so a few minutes and your van will be roasty toasty!
Just remember to properly vent any propane heater to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, an odorless poisonous gas generated by the burning of propane. We turn our vent fan on outtake mode whenever burning propane. We also have a carbon monoxide detector (another must!) in the van.
16. Propane Stove
During our camper van conversion, we debated a LOT about which stove to install. Initially, we were convinced we wanted an induction stove (and even installed a beastly 2000W inverted with that high draw appliance in mind). But as shopping for one in Alaska got complicated (to put it mildly) we started considering propane. First we tried to order a drop in Dometic propane stove specially designed for RVs, but again, Alaska complicated things. We could only order through a distributor and the only distributor in Anchorage ordered us the wrong stove.
Flustered back at square one, we said, “To hell with it!” and went with a good old Coleman Triton 2-burner camp stove that puts out a whopping 22,000 BTUs for fast, efficient cooking. It’s silver exterior looks nice, especially with the recessed install in our counter.
The key to a using a Coleman camper van stove is to get a 1lb. to 20lb. adaptor hose that will allow you to hook your stove’s arm up to a full-sized refillable propane tank. That way you won’t need to use single-use Coleman propane canisters. Aside from being phenomenally wasteful, they’re so expensive! A month’s worth of propane in our big tank costs us about $5 (for refills after the initial tank price); to run our stove off small Coleman canisters for the same amount of time would cost around $30! The length of hose you’ll want will depend on where you want to store your tank. If you’re storing it right below your stove, a shorter hose is sufficient. We have a 12-foot hose run through the ribs of our van to a 20 lbs. tank in the rear storage.
And again, if you’re using propane to cook, make sure you either have a vent fan running or a door open.
A good water system is pretty crucial for van happiness. No one likes the processes of doing dishes to be made even more unpleasant. That was why, when planning out van build, a double-bay sink made my list of non-negotiables. The question was how to power the water through it. An electric pump is the most luxurious, but it requires wiring, takes power, and encourages a less conservative use of water (which, as we talk about in our article about transitioning to van life).
That meant a manual pump and a hand pump was pretty much immediately ruled out. We’ve temporarily lived in vans with hand pump water systems before and it is no wash in the park. It’s simply too hard to wash things one handed.
We hold that the foot pump is the best water pump for a camper van. It allows for hands-free operation and a meticulous control fo amount of water used. Our Whale Water Systems Gusher Galley foot pump in our camper van is excellent. It provides great pressure control, easy pumping, and it was easy to install!
18. Bug Screen
A recent addition to our van (and one we are absolutely kicking ourselves for not having earlier) is a mosquito net for our van’s sliding door. While not many companies actually make camper van bug screen that are actually specifically sized to sliding van doors (and the ones that do charge a pretty penny for them), it’s relatively easy to ghetto rig a standard house sliding door bug screen for your van.
We (on the recommendation of other vanlifers) bought a Magzo 60”x80” Fiberglass Magnetic Screen Door. While the dimensions are obviously going to be off for any van door, you can alter it. Just make sure you get one plenty wide for your door and then just cut the bottom to fit. The Magzo is great because it mounts easily using adhesive backed Velcro strips and features a magnetic center closure that’s a breeze to go in and out.
Okay admittedly, this probably makes our life of essential van life purchases because we started our van life journey in the summer in the land of the midnight sun. Regardless, we’re thankful for them. Even in a windowless cargo van, the front cab windows let in a lot of light and a simple set of 80” blackout curtains blocks out all light form our van except that which filters through the vent. It’s absolutely key for being able to go to bed as early as we want and wake up as late as we want.
Let’s face it: even outside Alaska, sometimes those long summer days are still brutal in the sleep schedule.
Last but not least, our camper van toilet, aka a damn game changer for luxury dirtbagging. Our Dometic 5-gallon portable toilet really draws the line between for us living in a van and van life. While we try to use other toilets as often as possible, having the option to securely use the bathroom in our home should the need arise is invaluable. We talk a lot more about our toilet (including pros and cons) here.
Whatever stage you are of the van build or van life process (whether just shopping for vans or already on the road), we hope this list gives you some insight into the favorite tools of the van life trade.
While the items listed here are what we consider essential for van life, we know that everyone is a little bit different. To those considering van life, reach out if you have any questions. To other van lifers or weekend warriors, what are some of your favorite van items? Maybe we just haven’t had the epiphany to try them yet, but we are all about welcoming something new and life-changing into our van. Drop us a line in the comments or via a message!
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