How to Make Van Life More Comfortable [9 Van Living Tips]

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED July 2, 2021

van living tips
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Van life is considered to be one of the most liberating experiences that someone can have. On the surface, the lifestyle is all about freedom and going wherever you want whenever you want. The appeal of getting so much control over the way that you live is something that’s appealing to a great number of people for a lot of reasons.

Van lifers are seen as free from the regular grind of everyday life like repetitive office work and the same old everyday routine. The cherry on top is naturally the ability to go to any place that you feel like and experience different cultures and see breathtaking sites on a daily basis.

However, just like every other lifestyle out there, there are a few downsides as well.

The Negatives

Being a van dweller essentially means that you’re going to need to be a full-time camper. This sounds like the ideal living conditions for many people who are used to spending a lot of time in the great outdoors, but it’s not quite the same thing.

Van living will involve giving up a lot of the everyday amenities that really make life a bit easier. You won’t have access to running water, you’ll need to conserve your power usage, and it’ll be a bit of a struggle to get a wifi signal for any freelance work that you might be doing.

We should mention that we wholeheartedly believe that living on the road is a great lifestyle choice for adventurous spirits and that the pros highly outweigh the cons. However, we can’t pretend that there aren’t problems with the lifestyle and that you’re going to have a smooth ride from beginning to end.

Additionally, all of our van life tips will be aimed at people who are already somewhat familiar with the lifestyle, so we’re just going to assume that you know the essentials. Although, If that’s not the case and you want to brush up on the subject, then you can check out our other article, Beginner’s Guide to Van Life, which’s a bit more beginner-friendly.

Van Living Tips

van life more comfortable infographic

There are plenty of different aspects of van life that are inconvenient, and that could use a bit of improvement. Since we can’t cover all of them in one article, we’ll do our best to go over what we consider to be the nine most important things that you can improve on to make yourself a bit more comfortable.

The items are listed in no particular order, and we believe that all of them are small changes that can cause large improvements in your day-to-day van life. You’re free to disagree with any one of our suggestions, but we believe that they’re all useful in their own way.

1. Van Build

Picking out the right van is going to really affect your overall van life experience, so it’s very important that you take a bit of time and really figure out what you want. 

The first thing that you should know is that there isn’t such a thing as the “best van.” Different vans are going to offer different options, and all of them can be pretty useful. That being said, our personal choice is the Promaster sprinter van.

We chose this particular model because of its large size that allows for a much easier campervan conversion. This means that turning it into an actual comfortable living space will be much easier than some of the smaller alternatives.

As we said, there is no perfect choice, so full-time van lifers are free to go for any model that they feel would suit them the best. However, we’d still recommend going for a new van or at least for something without too much mileage under the hood.

Your van is your home and your transportation, so it needs to be reliable. As such, you’re going to need to make sure that it’s in peak running condition before you hit the road, and the more road that it’s seen, the more likely it is that it has a few kinks that might cause you problems.

2. Finding Camping Spots

Van living isn’t illegal, but using certain parking spots as free camping zones definitely is. Luckily, these sorts of spots are pretty easy to avoid, and you’ll still be able to do a bit of stealth camping in urban areas if you’re careful and don’t behave in a way that you’d draw attention to yourself.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, stealth camping is simply spending the night in a parking lot of a parking spot in a city. This isn’t against the law, but you’ll need to be sure that the location you choose is an overnight parking spot and that you don’t do anything that might draw the attention of the police.

As long as you don’t start having cookouts on the road in the middle of the night or start doing your laundry on the sidewalk, you should be just fine. Certain states are going to have restrictions, but simply sleeping in your van isn’t disruptive to public decency, so there really shouldn’t be any issues.

For a bit more detail on van life parking, you can check out our article, but if you just want the cliff-note version, then here’s nearly everything that you need to know:

  • Most national parks provide free campsites that can be easily found on the map that’s provided on the bureau of land management site;
  • Truck stops are a great place to sleep for the night, and they provide access to a bathroom and even shower facilities;
  • Almost every Walmart location has a parking lot that will allow you to spend the night, as long as you’re quiet and ask a management member ahead of time.

3. Planning Your Route

The most appealing part of van life is the freedom to travel the world and go wherever you want to. But travel also comes with a lot of headaches if you’re unprepared. Throwing caution to the wind and simply setting off without any sort of plan may seem like a great idea, but it’s likely going to end up in disaster.

Regardless if you’re in Oregon or New Zealand, you’re going to need to plan out your route and know that day’s destination ahead of time. This will allow you to scout out the potential camping locations ahead of time and limit any potential unpleasant surprises that can come from being unprepared.

Driving at random is a good way to get lost and be forced to stay the night in the middle of a field that’s far removed from any sort of store, wifi, or even human activity nearby. Not having a map open is also going to lead you into plenty of dead ends and one-way streets in a lot of cities where you’ll just spend hours driving in circles.

Luckily, as long as you don’t treat this like a road trip and take things seriously by planning ahead, you’ll reduce the chances of any of those possibilities coming true. You might also really like to invest in a good GPS, but a decent smartphone will do just as well, depending on the coverage in the country you’re in.

4. Washing Your Clothes

Van living and washing machines don’t really mix all that well. Not only do you not have a steady water supply and a power source to run them, but you don’t even have a tenth of the necessary space that’s required to fit a standard-sized washing machine anywhere in your van.

This leaves you with two options—the laundromat or an off-grid washing machine.

Laundromats are the easier solution of the two since you can just pop your clothes in a machine and be done in less than half an hour most of the time. However, not every city has a laundromat, and it’s likely that you’ll go for a few weeks without seeing one.

Since you can’t really go that long without clean clothes, you’re going to need a plan B, and the most reliable backup in situations like this is an off-grid washing machine. There are plenty of different types of off-grid washing machines, but our personal favorites would have to be either The Wonderwash or the EasyGo Hand Powered Clothes Washing Wand.

The Wonderwash is a compact hand-crank type washer that you only need to fill with soap water and clothes and turn the handle to operate. The EasyGo Wand is going to require you to fill up a tub in order to use it, but this makes it much more compact, on top of being cheaper.

You can find a lot more information on washing your clothes off-grid, but either of them can really help you get your washing done in no time flat, all the while allowing you to save money on electricity and water bills.

5. Shower

You can’t really fit a bathroom into your van, so you’re going to need to improvise when it comes to using the toilet and the shower. The toilet situation is pretty easy to solve since there are plenty of good compostable toilets that you can find and use, but the shower situation is a bit trickier.

One of your options is to get yourself a PlanetFitness membership and simply use their facilities anytime you need to take a shower. This is pretty feasible since this particular gym chain has a location in nearly every city in the US, and you can easily locate them by either going to the site or any fitness Facebook groups.

The other option that you’ve got available to you is to make yourself a DIY shower. This is much simpler than it sounds since all you need is a privacy tent and a propane water heater. All you really need to do is fill the water heater, set the showerhead on top of the privacy tent, and voila: instant outdoor hot water shower.

Keep in mind that both of these methods have their downsides. There is the small possibility that there won’t be a gym in the location that you’re currently staying in, and you won’t exactly be able to break out a privacy tent in the middle of the city.

This means that the outdoor shower is going to be a great idea for when you’re in the woods or in a remote campsite, while the gym membership is going to allow you to get a shower any time you stay the night in a city.

6. Cooking

Depending on your budget, you might treat restaurants as the occasional treat or an everyday occurrence. But regardless of how often you eat out, you’re not going to be able to skip on home-cooked meals entirely, which means that a little cooking station is a must.

Most off-grid cooking stations are incredibly portable and minimalist, which will allow you to be able to store it away in some storage bins that you might have handy until you need to use it. They can be used inside of the van, as well as outside, though you’re going to want to cook in the open as often as you can in order to keep your van from smelling whatever the dish of the day is.

When it comes to the model that you should be looking for, we’d recommend either going for the Gas ONE GS-1000 or the Coleman Gas Camping Stove. The clear difference between the two is their overall size and the number of burners that they have.

The propane-powered Coleman can provide you with two stovetops, an electric ignition, and a BTU of 22,000, whereas the Gas ONE can only reach up to 7,650. As a result, this particular stove can be used for any sort of cooking as well as preparing your morning coffee daily or just about anything else that you might need from a cooking surface. 

On the other hand, the Gas ONE is much more suited to everyday use than dishes that require a lot of heat, but it makes up for it with its portability. The Coleman requires a lot more time to set up, takes up a lot more space, and is much less conservative regarding propane usage.

Both of these items are useful in their own way, but which one you choose will depend on what sort of meals you prefer to cook.

7. Washing the Dishes

After you’re finished with the meal that you prepared, you’re going to need to take care of the dishes. You can easily fill a tub with soapy water and simply take care of that outside of the van, but that would actually take up more space than actually installing a sink.

If you put in a sink with a hand pump water faucet, you’ll be able to do the dishes in the privacy of your own van and store them in the sink until you decide to get to them. Granted, the setup is a bit troublesome, but the benefits are more than worth the effort.

All you really need is any sort of small countertop that’ll fit in your van, a small sink that can fit inside of it, a hand pump faucet, and two water containers, one for the clean water and one for the greywater. All of these items can be found on Amazon, and the whole process is actually pretty simple, and you can find a lot more details; check out our guide on how to install a hand pump sink and drain.

8. A Comfy Bed

There are plenty of things that you can live without while you’re on the road. If you’re a digital nomad, but you don’t have the internet, all you have to do is go to coffee shops with your laptop. If you’re sick of not having a roof over your head, you can rent out an Airbnb for a month or more. However, the one thing that you cannot live without is a decent bed in your van, even if you do rent out living spaces for extended periods of time.

Van dwellings aren’t exactly known for their roomy interior, so one of the first modifications that people make is cutting down on the bed space and just fitting in a simple cot or an inflatable mattress. But, of course, when you spend a lot of time in your van, you’re really going to want to have a comfortable place to sit, not to mention some decent lumbar support for sleep.

A week on the road sleeping on a sub-par bed can seem like a year, and at best, this sort of discomfort can lead to minor back problems, while at worst, it could lead to serious pain from accumulated stress. This is why we’d recommend not skimping on the mattress and dedicating a large part of your van to your sleeping space.

We won’t give our recommendations on this particular item because different people prefer different types of mattresses. Our point is, regardless of whether you choose a harder or a softer type, make sure you pick out something that you’d be comfortable sleeping on for months at a time; otherwise, you’ll regret it.

9. Heating

Dealing with heat isn’t all that difficult. As long as you keep a window open while you’re driving and your door open while you’re static, you should be able to deal with everything apart from a serious heatwave. In the event of such a heatwave, you can simply turn on your built-in AC or maybe install a few car fans around the cabin.

The bigger problem is dealing with the cold. A lot of states can get pretty cold during the night, so you’re going to need to rely on something a bit more powerful than your van heater to keep you warm. Luckily, you don’t really need anything too powerful to be able to make the inside of a van pretty toasty.

You’ll be able to choose pretty much any heater you like, but we’d recommend going for the Mr. Heater F232000 MH9BX. This portable propane heater can generate between 4,000 and 9,000 BTU; it’s capable of heating rooms that are up to 225 square feet, takes up very little storage space, and even has an auto shut-off function if tipped over.

We’d say that that’s a pretty impressive list of functions for a modest price tag of $111. This is a great little device that can keep you warm and uses so little power that you can practically charge it by using solar panels on a rainy day. 

Conclusion

A couple kissing in front of a van

It might not have escaped your attention that the topics we covered didn’t exactly go in-depth on some of the more crucial financial aspects of the lifestyle like insurance and living expenses. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you might want to go to another article that we have that covers van life costs a bit more thoroughly.

As for the more comfort-related van living tips, we believe that we covered the most crucial points that can allow you to create a real home out of any old van.

Vera Lawrence
Vera is a part-time van lifer after spending nearly four years in her 1990 Ford E350 (named Fred). She currently lives in Utah and takes extended weekend trips into the desert with her two dogs. She is an ice cream fanatic and avid runner.

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