How to Camp in a Van

By Meg Jernigan

Van camping: A tradition to stamp with your own personal style

How to Camp in a Van

Van camping, whether in a tricked-out conversion van, a refurbished VW camper or a bare-bones family van, is a spontaneous way to get up and go whenever you want. You lose some of the comfort of a fully-equipped RV, but you gain the advantage of having solid, waterproof walls, rather than canvas.

Creating a camper van

Converting a van for camping can be as simple as adding a cooler and an air mattress or as complicated as creating sleeping, cooking and living modules. A folding bench seat that acts as a passenger space on the road and a bed at night is great for kids, but adults should consider building an extension to the bench to stretch out on. Depending on the size of the van, a small folding table can do double duty indoors and out. A rudimentary kitchen with a camp stove, RV refrigerator or cooler and a refillable water jug with a spigot meets most cooking needs. Consider adding solar panels for long-term camping, or put a cargo carrier on top of the van. If you're buying a new van, make sure it has more than one 12-volt outlet, so you can operate a slow cooker and charge your phone at the same time.

Packing

Organization is key to successful van camping. Use stackable plastic totes with tight fitting lids to store outside the van when stopped. Put clothing in one, paper products in another and cooking items in a third. Plastic storage drawers can hold flatware, personal hygiene products or games. Pack dried foods like cereal and rice in containers with tight lids to prevent mice, ants and bears from helping themselves to your supplies.

Less is always more when packing a van for camping. Before going on a long trip, pack up the van and head to a nearby campground for a test run. If you discovered you’ve packed things you didn’t use, leave them home before heading out again.

Considerations

  • Load distribution:  Don’t load all your gear on one side or in the back. Keeping it even means less wear and tear on the vehicle. 
  • The bathroom:

    Giving up the comfort of a bathroom may seem an insurmountable problem. Don’t expect a daily shower unless you’re at a campground; instead, heat water over the campfire for a quick wash between showers. Toileting may be one of the biggest hurdles van campers face. Options range from a bucket lined with trash bags to a folding commode. Expensive composting toilets are the closest you’ll get to your home facilities.
    * Extra space: A number of manufacturers sell add-on tents for vans that pop out in a matter of moments, providing more space for lounging or sleeping. 

This is good

Campers who can leave the van packed and ready to go have the luxury of grabbing some clothes and a cooler full of food and drink and heading out whenever the spirit moves them. Highway rest stops, thousands of acres of public lands, and big box store parking lots make stealth parking, or boondocking, in a self-contained vehicle inexpensive. Keep in mind that some camping on public land is accessible only by foot, and watch out for signs prohibiting overnight parking in others. Long-term van campers who don’t use developed campgrounds can live on as little as it costs for food, water and gas and by using public restrooms, truck stop showers and Wi-Fi hot spots.

But these parts aren’t

The biggest drawback to van camping for many is the lack of space. An average of less than 80 square feet to eat, sleep and play is much too little for some. Exceptional organizational skills help keep the space livable, and creating easy outdoor spaces by stretching a tarp over an impromptu patio with folding chairs can double the square footage. When privacy is a concern, use a windshield sun shade and curtains held up with Velcro strips to keep nosy neighbors from peeking inside. Safety is another potential drawback for van camping, but using common sense goes a long way. Keep your doors locked, don’t camp in sketchy areas and don’t leave the key in the ignition.

About the Author

Meg Jernigan has been writing for more than 30 years. She specializes in travel, cooking and interior decorating. Her offline credits include copy editing full-length books and creating marketing copy for nonprofit organizations. Jernigan attended George Washington University, majoring in speech and drama.