Ol’ Champ, my beloved 2005 Chevy Astro camper van, has taken me through desolate deserts, breathtaking mountain ranges, chaotic city streets, and everywhere in between. I’ve spent months living under its humble steel roof with all I could ever need and nothing more. I know a thing or two about what’s essential when it comes to full-time van life.
That’s why I’ve compiled an extensive list of safety and security items, tech gadgets, kitchen essentials, and other must-haves that can assist you in living your very best van life. These are the items that I’d never dream of leaving behind.
I’ve also included a complete van life packing list, thoughts on my experience living full-time in a van, and some of the internet’s best resources for van dwellers worldwide.
Van life takes passion and preparation, so prepare for your adventure on four wheels with the proper gear and a wide-open mind.
Are you not living the van life quite yet? Check out my road trip essentials + packing list post.
Alarm System & Autostart: Viper 5906V
My Viper alarm system shrieks like a banshee if Ol’ Champ is disturbed, allowing me to start my van remotely. My handy Viper smartphone app will alert me if and when the alarm on my van is triggered, and I can spring into action.
Tracking Device: AirTags
A stolen vehicle is rare but also a van lifer’s worst nightmare. By hiding Apple AirTags in my van (and with other valuable belongings), I can track its whereabouts as long as there’s an iPhone within a close distance.
Sattelite Messaging Device: Garmin inReach Mini 2
Whether I’m cruising around in my van, going on a day hike, or thru-hiking a trail, I always bring my inReach along. It’s a potentially life-saving satellite device that can send messages and SOS alerts when my phone doesn’t have service.
Electronic Safe: Amazon Basics
Small enough to tuck away into a corner of your van, this safe box will keep your valuables locked down while you’re out and about. Bolt it to the wall of your van, set an electronic passcode, and go live your life.
Car Emergency Kit: First Secure
Breakdowns are bound to happen for van lifers, so prepare yourself with an emergency kit. This handy setup includes jumper cables, tow straps, tire repair materials, an air compressor, a seatbelt cutter, and more.
Fire Extinguisher: First Alert
Though you’ll hopefully never use it, having a fire extinguisher in your van could be a life-saving (and van-saving) decision. On the off-chance that your van does catch fire, be ready with a compact, affordable, and reliable solution.
Carbon Monoxide Detector: Kidde
Like a fire extinguisher, this carbon monoxide detector could be a life-saving accessory for van life. Powered by two AA batteries, this device will constantly beep at 85 decibels if deadly carbon monoxide is present.
Solar Kit: Renogy 200W
Whether you’re a weekend warrior or living in your van full time, a solar setup will boost your rig’s livability. Solar allows you to power your gadgets whether or not the van is running, which is a must-have for off-grid living.
High-Capacity Power Bank: ECO FLOW River Pro
I attach my solar panels to this high-capacity power bank, which keeps all my precious electronics running. And if there isn’t much sun to charge my solar panels, I can plug it into a wall for fast charging or into my rig’s 12-volt port.
Electric 12-Volt Cooler: ICECO JP40
Behold, my absolute favorite piece of van life technology: the ICECO JP40 12-volt electric cooler. I stash it full of perishable food and refreshing beverages, and my ECO FLO power bank + Renogy solar panel combo keeps it running 24/7.
Portable Power Bank: Anker 335
I stash a high-capacity portable power bank as a backup in case my larger power bank craps out or runs out of energy. With this, I can charge my iPhone or Garmin inReach Mini satellite device in an emergency.
USB Touch Light: RTSU Stick Anywhere
This little USB-chargeable light is handy when I want light but don’t want to draw power off my external battery. It charges fully in an hour and a half and can go weeks before it needs another charge. It’s dimmable too, which helps set the mood.
USB-Rechargeable Clip-On Fan: Koonie
If a Fan-Tastic Fan isn’t in the cards, or you don’t have external power in your van, worry not. This compact and portable fan has a built-in battery that charges via USB and lasts between 6 and 24 hours on a charge, depending on the speed.
Waterproof Bluetooth Speaker: JBL Go 3
The JBL Go 3 is one of my favorite gadgets, and I’d have a hard time van lifing without it. It’s waterproof, ultra-compact, puts out great audio for its size, and can take quite the beating. It’s also my minimalist travel speaker.
Wireless Charging Car Mount: Anker MagGo
I love this car mount because I don’t need to worry about twisting knobs or adjusting dials to grab my phone. My iPhone 13 Pro connects to it magnetically, and the charger passes on some power (slowly but surely).
Hand Vacuum: eufy by Anker
When you’re spending your life in a van, dust and dirt accumulate at an astronomical pace. That’s why a compact USB-rechargeable hand vacuum like the eufy is an absolute must-have for van lifers who need to keep tidy.
12-Volt Air Compressor: Fortem
Whether you’re off-roading and need to control the air pressure in your tires or simply topping off a tire with a slow leak, you can do it all with a 12-volt air compressor. With this, you’ll never pay for air at a gas station again.
12V Chargeable Jump Starter: Hulkman
This incredible little accessory might be the most versatile van life tech gadget on the list. Not only can this power bank jump your dead car battery, but it also fast charges devices, works as a flashlight, and has a built-in compass.
Butane Camping Stove: Coleman
My lightweight camping stove (a discontinued Kovea model similar to this) is the first of three stoves in my cooking system. I use it with my cast-iron skillet to cook all my non-liquid-related meals. It’s affordable, lightweight, and reliable.
Isobutane Camping Stove: MSR WindBurner Group
I bought the MSR WindBurner stove system when I was hired to guide a 10-day trek of the ‘O’ Circuit in Patagonia. I loved it so much that I now use it for van life to cook ramen, soups, curries, and other liquid-based meals.
Compact Water Boiler: MSR WindBurner
The third and final piece of my cooking setup, the MSR WindBurner rapid water boiler, is a powerhouse. It connects with the same lightweight stove as the MSR mentioned above, and I use it to brew coffee and tea and to boil water for backpacking meals.
Portable Cooler Bag: YETI Hopper Flip
While many van lifers dream of purchasing a 12-volt refrigerator/freezer, the YETI Hopper Flip cooler bag is a more lightweight, portable, and versatile option. With enough ice, it keeps contents cold for days and is mobile enough for day trips.
Insulated Thermos: Hydroflask
The Hydroflask’s double-wall insulation keeps hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold for crazy-long amounts of time. It works wonders during long stretches of driving and extended trips into the outside world.
Cast Iron Pot: Utopia Kitchen
My sturdy cast iron pot is a pretty burly tool. It cooks food evenly on my camping stove and is rugged enough to prepare dinner over a campfire. It’s built for the constant abuses of van life and should be my workhorse for years to come.
Cutting Board: Utopia Kitchen
I’ve made the mistake of van living without a surface to prepare food, and cooking meals became damn near impossible. I won’t make that mistake again, however, as a large and sturdy cutting board is now a staple of my rig.
Tableware Set: Stansport 24-Piece
This tableware set may not be the prettiest, but that’s not the point. Made of enamel-coated steel, this compact, lightweight, and durable set can endure the harsh rigors of life on the go, day in and day out.
Folding Table: Mountain Summit Gear
What good are all of your van life essentials if you don’t have a surface to use them? I own two of these lightweight aluminum tables for cooking, eating meals, working on my laptop, and keeping other odds and ends off the ground.
Ventilation System: Fan-Tastic Vent
My Fan-Tastic Fan does wonders for keeping fresh air circulating throughout my van and regulating the temperature inside. With its handy remote, you can change fan speeds, reverse direction, and turn the fan on and off.
Do-it-All Tool Set: DEKOPRO 196-Piece
Trying van life without a reliable tool set would be silly. Whether a broken bed frame needs to be fixed or you’ve got to get under the hood for more serious repairs, a proper set of tools will give you the freedom to fix it all.
Portable Toilet: SEA FLO
While a portable toilet isn’t the sexiest van life essential, it’s undoubtedly one of my most necessary. When nature calls, I’m always prepared to answer this portable, lightweight, and affordable SEA FLO 2.6-gallon camping toilet.
Propane Heater: Mr. Heater
Van life has taken me to some chilly destinations. Luckily, I have the propane-powered Mr. Heater to warm up my space instantly. Life-Saving Tip: Always use proper ventilation, a carbon monoxide detector, and never sleep with your heater on.
Gravity-Fed Water Filter: Big Berkey
The Big Berkey filter can purify even the gnarliest of water you throw at it. Whether taking on water from a pond, gas station sink, or babbling brook, the Berkey’s gravity-fed carbon filters will safely remove harmful contaminants.
Camping Chairs: Helinox Chair Zero
Whether relaxing in the mountains or enjoying the sunset over a beach, standing around while doing so isn’t always ideal. I carry two of these ultralight Helinox Chair Zero camping chairs to rest my aching bones at the end of a long day.
Portable Laundry System: Scrubba Wash Bag
Gone are the days of visiting seedy, overpriced laundromats in the middle of nowhere. Just fill the Scrubba Wash Bag with water, drop in your clothes and some soap, scrub the bag with your hands, rinse, and hang them to dry. It’s that easy.
First-Aid Kit: Survivorware
While nobody ever expects or believes they’ll get injured on the road, it’s best to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Pack a lightweight and portable first aid kit to stay on top of any injuries as you go.
Wet Wipes: Amazon Elements
My rustic style of van life (no running water) can get a bit grimy at times, so I’m always sure to have a large pack of wet wipes at the ready. A quick freshen-up with a few of these handy wipes can do wonders for morale when showers aren’t an option.
Camp Shower: Nemo Helio
When wet wipes aren’t enough, I turn to my Nemo Helio camp shower for a more thorough cleanse. I fill its tank with water, inflate it with its foot pump, and use the nozzle for a delightful high-pressure shower.
Earplugs: Howard Leight By Honeywell
I would sleep terribly in my van without earplugs, and that’s not an option. These super comfortable Howard Leights block out the external noise surrounding my van during the night hours so I can fall asleep (and stay asleep) effortlessly.
Inflatable 2-Person Raft: Intex Explorer K2
No, this inflatable raft is not essential for van life, but it will open up a whole new world of possibilities. With it, you can float lakes, creeks, and lazy rivers at a moment’s notice — an entirely new dimension of freedom.
Frisbee: Innova Big Kahuna
I can’t tell you how many times my Big Kahuna has brightened up an uneventful afternoon on the road. Getting out of the van to toss this frisbee around is therapeutic and a great excuse to stretch out my restless legs.
Hammock: ENO DoubleNest
Few things in life are more relaxing than swaying in a hammock as a lazy breeze rolls by. The ENO DoubleNest is my go-to van life relaxation vessel because it’s sturdy, dreamy, and comfortably fits two people. It’s also great for quick overnight backpacking trips.
Portable Espresso Maker: WACACO Nanospresso
When the fatigue of van life hits, I turn to my Nanospresso for an instant shot of caffeine. Though it’s a bit of a luxury, it’s all I need to create restaurant-quality espresso with coffee pods, hot water, and my own two hands.
Waterproof Playing Cards: Kovot
My girlfriend, Keri, and I are addicted to playing gin rummy when we’re van living and often play for hours in one sitting. A set of thick, durable, waterproof cards allow us to shuffle and deal for as long as we’d like, even if we spill a drink or two.
Cornhole Toss Game Set: GoSports PVC
Cornhole is my all-time favorite camping game, and thus essential for my van life entertainment needs. This particular set is lightweight, portable, and packs down into a convenient carrying case.
Rooftop Cargo: Yakima Skybox
I have two of these sturdy Yakimas atop my Chevy Astro, and they triple the meager storage space I have within my van. I store my raft, stove, tools, table, fishing poles, skis, and more within these lockable, durable beasts.
Hanging Mesh Pockets: Kimbora
These mesh pockets are meant for hanging on the back of a closet door but work wonderfully when installed inside a van. They create easy-to-reach access to all of van life’s smaller gadgets, tools, and odds and ends.
Travel-Sized Laundry Bag: Kikkerland
When wine stains or man musk force my clothes out of duty, they are relegated to my laundry bag until further notice. This bag is featherlight, stylish, and has a detailed world map to gaze at as I dream of my next destination.
Packing Cubes: Travelwise
Organization is vital for van dwellers, and utilizing packing cubes will ensure that all clothing has an accessible home. These Travelwise bags are durable, breathable, washable, and have convenient carrying handles.
Any van lifer will tell you that living on the road requires moving a lot of stuff into a tiny space. Feel free to use my extensive packing checklist as you get ready for your next big vanventure.
To save money, I lived in Ol’ Champ full-time for my last three months in Denver before I quit my job and began to travel the world. My reasoning: By doing so, I would be pocketing about an extra $1000 a month.
Moving out of my apartment and into my van forced me to thin out my possessions and keep only what was necessary. The fewer belongings I had weighing me down, the happier I began to feel. All the extra money I was saving was expanding my sense of freedom and lifting an invisible weight off my shoulders.
My life instantly became more mobile. If I wanted to go on a hike, I’d park at the trailhead the night before. On nights I wanted to drink beer with friends, I didn’t have to worry about paying for a taxi home. When I knew I’d be craving empanadas first thing in the morning, I’d park a block away from the restaurant and go to sleep.
Having my home and everything I needed with me created a sneaky sense of freedom — no more rent checks or landlords. Roommates were a thing of the past. Packing for trips? No need. My cost of living after moving into a van full-time had plummeted. This was a lifestyle I could get used to, and I’ve embraced it ever since.
Van life, what a concept.
I’ve since moved to China with my girlfriend, so I don’t live in Ol’ Champ full-time anymore, but when I’m back home in the US, I never hesitate to fire up the engine and hit the road with a complete sense of freedom.
Is living in a van full-time something that interests you? Try it out. All you need is a minimalist mindset, a sense of adventure, and an itch to move about the world with no strings attached.
Van life has become an unstoppable global movement, and more and more people are opting for full-time van living every day. Social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube have played a huge part in its quick-spreading popularity. Here are a few of the most inspiring, entertaining, and helpful van life YouTube and Instagram accounts on the web today.
Van Life Instagram Accounts
slownsteadylivin – Matt and Steph are traveling Europe in their 1996 Iveco van and share stunning photography of their open-ended honeymoon.
sweetvanlife – Ben and his lovely blue camper van, Poppy, always seem to be exploring warm, calm, and relaxing locations in France.
vandogtraveller – Mike Hudson wants to inspire the world to “1. Quit Job 2. Build Camper Van 3. Travel” through his excellent photography and helpful tips.
advanturing – Nick and Micah explore the Americas while living full time in their beast of a 4×4 AWD Sportsmobile Sprinter Van.
basillynch – Basil is a wave-chasing photographer who travels around in his beefy 2000 Ford-F250 camper truck as he prepares to travel the Pan-American highway.
Van Life YouTube Channels
Let’s Be Us – Cris, Sara, and their dog, Kramer, travel full-time and work on the road from their gorgeous self-converted Sprinter van.
Kombi Life – Ben, Leah, and their dog, Alaska, travel the world in their 1973 Volkswagen Kombi Adventurewagen, seeking out inspiring stories of alternative living.
FLORB – While this channel explores the ins and outs of van life, it doesn’t stop there. FLORB focuses on all types of alternative living spaces.
Ronny Dahl – Based in Australia, Ronny Dahl romps around his home country in his rig and releases off-roading, four-wheeling, adventuring, and camping videos every week.
We’re the Russos – Joe and Kait live full-time in their camper van and share their best tips, advice, stories, and adventures with the world.
Need a little extra van life motivation? Here are a few more of my favorite resources:
reddit.com/r/vandwellers – A colorful, humorous, helpful, and honest subreddit discussing the ups, downs, and everything in between in the van life community.
The Vanual – A top-to-bottom guide analyzing van life compatibility, picking out a vehicle, gathering materials, and constructing a custom build on a rig of your own.
VanDweller Community Forums – An extensive online forum for van and RV dwellers. Browse through years of old posts for helpful tips, building advice, stories, reviews, and more.
Though I’m no longer living in my van full-time, my thousands of miles spent cruising the open roads with Ol’ Champ have taught me immensely. Life on four wheels is liberating and free, and possessions take on a whole new meaning when your living space is 24 square feet and can be moved at the drop of a hat.
And though van life is rooted deeply in minimalism, the things you choose to bring along are essential for the journey ahead. The depth and quality of your setup can make or break your time on the road. You don’t need a lot of gear; you just need the right gear.
People worldwide are beginning to realize that we’re just a bunch of nomads at heart. Being bound down by walls and cement goes against the thirst for exploration that’s in our blood.
So, whether you’re living in a van full-time yourself or simply pursuing the possibility, I challenge you to delve a little bit deeper into the movement. Life gets a little more interesting when your future is decided with the turn of a key and a foot on the gas pedal.
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Last Updated on September 5, 2023