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!
Beyond materials needed for the physical van build, there is specific gear that will make living in a van substantially easier and more enjoyable.
Living on the road has many challenges in itself so having a few staple items for the everyday tasks can make or break an experience. For functionality, efficiency, and comfortability, we would highly recommend the following items.
When you live and travel in your vehicle full-time, mechanical issues are unavoidable. Like owning any home, vans require maintenance, proper care, and upkeep. Consider carrying an OBD diagnostics computer or some sort of scan gauge. When an engine or warning light appears on your dash, you’ll be very thankful for this tool. Plus, the more knowledge you have about your vehicle, the more prepared you will be for unexpected issues.
“A scan gauge is a must. It will read your vehicle computer and give you the code when your vehicle has a check engine light. This can save you a ton of time and money because you can get a general idea of what the issue is and whether you can fix it yourself or need to bring it to a mechanic.” – Vanessa and Adam
Although bikes are a form of gear that could be categorized as hobby items, don’t undermine them for the additional purposes they may serve while on the road. One of the most common ways that bikes come in handy is when using them as a secondary mode of transportation. When parking is limited in quantity or spaces are unable to fit a van, parking your van further away and riding bikes to your destination is a wonderful alternative. They also provide a great way to explore new areas, whether on bike paths throughout a city or on dirt trails in the backcountry.
“Bikes are one of the most important pieces of gear for us. They allow us to explore and get places without having to move our entire home. We can take our mountain bikes on an epic adventure through rough terrain or cruise the streets of a new town. When parking is tight and we want to work at a café, meet friends or get some fresh air, we just slide them out of our ‘garage’ and we’re off!” – Brittany and Drew
While most of us use our phones as a GPS or have some sort of built-in vehicle GPS system, there will inevitably be times where you will find yourself without cell reception. There is nothing more frustrating than getting lost and having no way to access a map or directions. For this reason, we would highly recommend carrying some sort of general atlas for the country you are traveling in. If you want to go above and beyond, you can even carry a Benchmark Atlas for the states you will be traveling in the most! This is one piece of gear you won’t want to overlook.
One of the most useful apps for the road is the RV Allstays Application. This app has numerous useful functions and will serve as a well-rounded resource for your time on the road. It starts as a map with all available information listed but has a filter function for users to toggle certain filters on, which then shows only the applicable information being sought.
Our favorite filter categorizes campsites based on price, including a “free camping” category. It also lists businesses and specific locations of those businesses that do and do not allow overnight parking, such as Walmart. For taller vehicles, you can search for low clearance tunnels throughout your specific route on the map. Lastly, the app has one of the most extensive directories of RV resource locations, including propane-filling stations, showers, water access, and more. After two years of living on the road full-time, we can honestly say that we use this app nearly every day.
While some van builds have installed heat sources, such as a Webasto heater or an Espar heater that pull from the vehicle’s gas or diesel tank, this is an expensive installment that often isn’t prioritized. For vanlifers who are chasing heat or summer, or are simply doing a necessity-based build, this can be seen as a costly addition and considered a luxury. A very common alternative heat source is a Mr. Heater Portable Buddy propane heater. Fueled by small propane cylinders, it is a much cheaper option, costing less than $100. While it isn’t a heat source we would recommend using daily for an entire winter season, it takes the edge off for particularly cold nights and mornings.
As expected, vanlifers drive much more frequently, as our home is literally on wheels. For the majority of us, our vans serve as our house, but also as our daily driver. This means that any time we run an errand, drive to a new campsite for a good night’s rest, or visit any sort of new location, our van is our mode of transportation. For many reasons, including general safety and navigation, we highly recommend having a reliable place to mount your phone, allowing you to be hands-free on the road. Whether you use a clip-in phone mount or, even easier, a magnetic mount, this is a piece of gear that we guarantee you will use on nearly every single drive.
An extremely fun addition to any van build is a hammock or swing. These can be installed in the sliding door frames of most vans. By installing two d-rings under the original hardware in the top section of your sliding door frame, you’re then able to set your hammock up by hooking carabiners to these d-rings but are also able to easily remove the hammock when it is not in use. A hammock or swing is not only an additional seat in a tiny home, but it also provides an exceptionally relaxing place to read, journal, or simply enjoy the sunset.
“A feature super-unique to our build is the swing we installed in our sliding door opening. This is such a great way to relax, enjoy the view and stretch out our bodies, plus it makes everyone smile!” – Brittany and Drew