Written by Katie Larsen, in collaboration with Vanessa and Adam Hickey, Mary Ashley Krogh, Owen Chikazawa, and Brittany and Drew Neumann. Sponsored by 76®. Don’t forget to check out their First 30 Day series, all about diving into vanlife and life on the road!
When vans are admired for their builds, layouts, materials, etc. exterior accessories are often looked at last.
These are the accessories that not only deck out your vehicle to look like a crazy cool adventure rig, but that also serve a purpose in helping your vehicle’s performance, providing additional storage, and housing the larger gear that allows us to pursue our passion hobbies on the road. While they are wonderful additions, consider doing these upgrades last, after you’ve taken care of major necessities in your van build.
A very common question we receive is, “4×4 or not?! I can’t decide!” Our best advice is this: if you have the extra $10-15k to spend on a 4-wheel drive vehicle, then wonderful. That will probably come in handy at some point in your adventures. However, most of us are trying to do vanlife on a budget, or at least within a reasonable price range.
Our recommendation? Buy yourself a solid set of all-terrain tires that will make a difference in various weather. We prefer the BF Goodrich K02 All Terrains, as they will essentially help your van function like a 4×4. While we wouldn’t recommend driving your van out onto sand or into deep mud often, we know you will rarely ever look down a dirt road and think, “I cannot make that.” Make the investment. We can almost guarantee that you won’t regret it. Bonus: consider a lift kit for even higher clearance!
“The overall exterior look of our rig was really important to us. We wanted it to be really cohesive looking, yet 100% functional. The first of our exterior accessories was a new set of black wheels. The black wheels set a precedence for all the rest of our accessories to follow.” – MAK and Owen
If you are a person that is going to actually do the extra effort to make something happen, consider investing in a road shower. They are extremely helpful when you are three weeks deep in your own dirt and desperate for a shower, but remember, you have to refill your tank every time you want to shower. Balance out if this is worth it or if you’d prefer a gym membership or to pay for each individual shower.
Another piece of consideration with this accessory is that you will want to install it based on whether you are a solo traveler or travel with a partner. Installing the road shower on the roof of your van can make filling the tank with water and pressuring the tank for use quite challenging. If this is the case, you may want to consider a solar bag shower or similar options that are much easier to manage.
If you plan to camp in hot climates, cook or eat outside, or work remotely at camp outside of your van, an awning may be worth the investment. At first thought, it may seem like a luxury but if you opt-out, you may find yourself grateful for a friend or neighbor’s awning protecting you from the intense heat or pouring rain. The internal climate of a van can get uncomfortable quickly due to heat, rain during a muggy day, or sheer crowdedness. Having an awning you can set up nearly doubles the living space of some vans, especially when paired with a camping setup of a table and chairs.
“We installed a black Fiamma Awning. Awnings have always been a crucial part of all of our builds because they have the ability to extend our livable space outside, even on the hottest of days. We work full-time from the road, so I love having an awning because it allows me to work outside under full shade!” – MAK and Owen
A Rear Backup Camera
While many newer vehicles will come with a backup camera already installed, it is no secret that these are a game-changer when maneuvering larger vehicles. It is a small item that is often overlooked. Plus, we would all like to think that we know our vehicles well enough to perfect driving and parking them. However, mistakes do happen. We are all human and one great way to help avoid an accident is a simple rear backup camera.
“We installed an aftermarket camera that clips onto our existing rearview mirror with a replacement third brake light unit that houses the camera. It has made every aspect of backing up remarkably easier.” – Brittany and Drew
Something to consider for smaller vans or for vans that house more than one person is additional exterior storage. Whether a roof box or a rear storage box, many people find it useful to have extra storage for outdoor gear or to hold off-season clothing. Another common use of these boxes is to hold firewood, axes, and other camping-related items that may dirty the interior of your vehicle.
“The roof of our rig is home to our Yakima crossbars and Sup Dawg rocking surfboard rack which carries our collection of three surfboards. We travel so we can do the things that we like to do, and that happens to be surfing! You never know when you’re going to find waves, so you always have to be prepared!” – MAK and Owen
One of the most fun exterior accessories is a roof deck, particularly because it can be enjoyed in solitude or with a community. Whether you purchase a professionally built one or decide to go the DIY route, a solid deck provides an extra area for cooking, yoga, dance parties, enjoying sunsets, and more. It also helps motivate you to get outside, which is a large majority of the reason we are all pursuing vanlife!
“A benefit of having the 170″ WB Sprinter is that it provides us with the additional space needed to build our 5×7′ rooftop deck, which we made using recycled Trek boards, and can access via the ladder on our rear door. So far, this platform has allowed us to enjoy sunsets and meals with an elevated perspective on life.” – Brittany and Drew
While cleaning your solar panels is not a required, regular task, it is still something to think about. Especially when you’re in snowy weather, you’ve been adventuring down dusty dirt roads, or if you park under a heavily pollinated tree, you’ll want to make sure you clean off your panels so you can pull as much solar energy as possible! While a ladder is just beautiful and looks nice on the side of the van, it still does serve a purpose. An added bonus of fun is that you can hook a hammock up to a tree from your ladder, which is wonderful in campsites that have only dispersed trees!
Consider No Exterior Accessories
Many vanlifers purposefully do not deck their vans out with exterior accessories. While we would all love to be exploring the outdoors in beautiful areas, that just isn’t the reality 100% of the time. Stealth camping (camping in public, streets, etc.) is something to consider. Will you be doing it? How much of it will you be doing? Do you want to draw attention to your van?
“One of our strategies for stealth camping is to draw as little attention as possible by not adding any accessories, other than a subtle black ladder, to the exterior of our van. This allows us to fit in a bit better, while also making our vehicle less appealing to outsiders whenever we leave it unattended for any given period of time.” – Brittany and Drew