The Beginner’s Guide To Living in a Van: Taking The Party On The Road

Lindsay Hayden |
volkswagen, vw camper, camper van, vanlife
A Classic VW packed and cruising the open road. Photo courtesy of Hasta Alaska/Volkswagen.

Living full-time in a van is the ultimate expression of freedom. Ski bums have utilized this way of life for decades. Die-hard skiers figured out that they could continuously chase the snow if they were always mobile. Thus creating the endless winter… But how do you turn this ski bum lifestyle into your reality?

Below I will provide you with a beginner’s guide to unleashing yourself on the open road. Whether you’re cruising the pavement in a classic 1970’s Vdub or your mom’s old minivan, these tricks will get you to wherever you want, whenever you want so that you can take your party on the road!

Turning your van into a home:

First off, give your party-on-wheels a name. Van Buren, Van Diesel, The Rolling Stoner, and The Swag Wagon are all acceptable options. After you name your new home, it’s time to think logistics. Your main areas of focus when transforming your van into a live-able space should be comfort, functionality, and minimalism. While you want to make your van as homey as possible, it’s important to consider that the more you pack into it the less fuel efficient you’ll be.

Put the homey touches into your van.
A home on wheels. Photo courtesy of Volkswagen.

Here’s a list of some of the van life essentials you will need:

  • A mattress pad, memory foam mattress topper, and a down mummy sleeping bag- All the comfort without all the weight of an actual mattress.
  • A shower curtain rod and curtains with a height less than 30 inches- Use this set up to separate the main cabin from your sleeping quarters for an extra privacy bonus.
  • A storage system- A few plastic milk crates will get the job done.
  • Cooking supplies- A propane stove, fuel, lighter, pot, pan, utensils, dish soap, etc.
  • And obviously a rooftop ski rack- For your most precious cargo.

How to overnight-it on a budget:

So where do you park your van when you’re ready to turn in for the night? There are many different options to suit whatever level of van camping you’re comfortable with. If you can get down with the hobo lifestyle then Walmart parking lots, highway rest stops, trailheads, and the homes of friends/family are perfect for you. These options are the cheapest parking spots, usually ranging from Free-$5 per night. If you want to give yourself a little break from roughing it then try hitting up state or national parks, private campgrounds, or Airbnb’s. While these options are more pricey, coming in at $20-$40+ per night, they are worth it during those cold winter nights when your van turns into an ice box.

A VW van covered in the good stuff.
A VW storm chaser in all its glory. Photo courtesy of Ounni Krishnan Pillai/Volkswagen.

When you start to smell your own B.O., it’s probably time to find a place to shower:

Inevitably you will need to use a public shower. Flashback to your college days of shower shoes and naked strangers. YIKES! Cheap flips-flops and a microfiber towel are your best friends in a public showering situation. For easy and quick transportation of your toiletries try to fit all of the essentials in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. Now, as for locating your shower there are a few options to choose from. If you’re parking at campgrounds you’ll most likely have access to showers, and even if you’re not staying there some places will let you buy a shower on the cheap. You can also cop a quality shower by purchasing a day pass to a local recreation center. But keep in mind that some public showers, especially in towns that are known for their outdoor tourism, will require that you pay to access their water. Just make sure to have quarters on hand and expect time limits when showering at these locations. If you really can’t find a shower and you’re smelling particularly ripe that day, baby wipes will often do the trick for a quick cleaning.

How to NOT hate your travel buddy:

While some people use their van travels as a personal odyssey of sorts, others need a little companionship on the open road. The close quarters and virtually zero privacy that accompanies living in a van with another person can potentially cause some issues to arise; however, have no fear! The keys to moving past these obstacles are communication, a sense of humor, and an admiration for your travel buddy. As long as you and your partner respect each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and travel goals you’ll be a match made in van life heaven!  

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One thought on “The Beginner’s Guide To Living in a Van: Taking The Party On The Road

  1. The two biggest issues for car-camp road trips are showering (mentioned above) and eating/cooking.

    A good option for a shower these days is truck stops like Love’s or Pilot locations. In the 70’s it was possible to slip into employee housing to use the shower posing as an employee or a visiting friend. I doubt that security is so lax anymore.

    Cooking & eating are easy if you have a kitchen, but if you are sleeping in a regular car and need to cook outside it becomes a bit harder–good weather for skiing (snow) makes for a rough dining experience. I recall relying on a hibachi to cook chicken in single digit weather. We were low on charcoal so one side of the chicken would be cooking and the other side was borderline freezing.

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