The Ultimate Van Camping Beginner's Guide

#Vanlife is all the rage these days.

First coined by photographer Foster Huntington in 2011, this catchy hashtag caught on quickly and has since been used by well over two million people.

Although van camping is recently somewhat trendy, with brand-new tricked-out rigs or stylish retro rides found at campgrounds across the country, the concept of camping in a van has been around for a long time. And, while it's certainly an enjoyable way to take a road trip or spend a night at a campground, it's certainly not as easy as all those picture-perfect Instagram posts make it out to be.

Whether you plan to rent a van for a family camping trip, buy a campervan for summer road trips, or "build out" a van to live in full-time, our ultimate guide is for you.

 

Which Van is Best?

Van camping with a dog

There are so many great camping vans available. Instead of breaking them down by make and model, we're going to break them down by category.

Remember, the best camper van for you depends on your personal needs and preferences. Full-time van living requires a much different rig than occasional family camping trips. The same goes for those that plan to explore rugged, backcountry areas with bumpy dirt access roads versus those that plan to stick solely to paved campgrounds and main roads.

Take a few moments to assess your needs before diving into our round up of the best van campers.

Minivan

Although a minivan is perhaps the least popular option for camping, these pint-sized people movers are surprisingly effective, especially if you already own one.

There are two main ways to utilize a minivan for camping. First is to simply remove all the seats except for the driver and passenger seats. This creates a relatively spacious area for sleeping. You can simply lay down sleeping bags or build a simple platform bed.

The second primary way to outfit a camping minivan is to do a full minivan build. Just like you would with a larger model, this consists of gutting the inside and rebuilding a comfortable living/sleeping space from the ground up. Even though space is at a premium, many minivan builds include a comfortable mattress, ample storage, and a small cook area.

The key benefits of a minivan for camping are the relatively affordable cost and their fuel efficiency. In fact, this is one of the most economical van camping options. The downsides, however, are obvious: there's much less space inside a minivan than most other types of campervans.

Cargo Van

A cargo van is one step up from a minivan in terms of size. Better yet, you can find these vehicles for a huge range of prices, from brand-new to well-used for under $1,000 (if you are willing to put in repair work).

Like a minivan, you can go with a barebones no-frills approach and simply use sleeping bags on the floor of your new cargo hauler. Or, you can do a complete custom build by converting your cargo van into a campervan with luxuries like a comfortable mattress and a small kitchenette.

A huge range of cargo van models are available. Some are not much larger than a minivan while others are absolutely huge. Most aren't tall enough for the average person to stand upright, although some high-top models do boast standing room.

Fixed-Roof Campervan

Unlike a minivan or a cargo van, a campervan is specifically outfitted for van camping. In fact, many are considered class B RVs.

Almost all campervans have a living area, sleeping area, and kitchenette. Sometimes a convertible couch/bed is used to combine the living and sleeping areas into one. Although uncommon in fixed-roof models, some campervans also include a small makeshift bathroom.

As the name implies, a fixed-roof campervan has a solid roof, typically at a normal vehicle height. Relatively few modifications, especially on the exterior, help keep the price low.

High-Top Campervan

The high-top equivalent of a fixed-roof campervan, these spacious campervans are becoming increasingly popular thanks to the ability to stand upright inside.

Not only does this extra height add more livable space, but it makes everyday tasks much easier. The standing room is hugely beneficial for tasks such as cooking meals in the kitchenette. A huge variety of models are available. Some include a small bathroom.

Many mainstream vehicle manufacturers now make their own high-top campervans. You can also find a high-top cargo van and convert it yourself (or have it converted by a private contractor).

Pop-Top Campervan

As the name implies, these campervans have a pop-top roof. Typically, the roof is at a normal height while driving but can be raised once parked for the night.

Not only does a pop-top roof give you more room to stand up, but some models also include an additional sleeping space in the pop-top area. Volkswagen vans are an example of models that come stock with this feature.

It's also possible to add a pop-top conversion to pretty much any type of van. Adding a rooftop tent to a fixed-roof campervan is yet another option for increasing livable space.

The Interior of Your Van

Red interior of van on the beach

Just as there are dozens of types of camper vans available, there are a whole lot of different ways to build out and outfit the interior of your new ride.

"Build out" is vanlife lingo for a DIY conversion. Although this option is very popular among those that demand a customized ride that's still affordable, some vans come adventure-ready straight out of the factory with everything you need for your next camping trip. Another option is to hire a custom van builder to design your dream setup just for you. Or, keep things cheap and simple with a minimalist interior design.

Here are a few of the most popular interior plans for camping.

Class B RV

A class B RV comes straight out of the factory with a fully outfitted interior. On the outside, these miniature RVs look much like any normal van, but on the inside you're greeted with a luxurious interior, most often including a living space, sleeping area, kitchenette, and ample storage space. A bathroom is sometimes included. Although class B RVs can be expensive, this is a good option for those that prefer a pre-built camping space with plenty of amenities.

Adventure-Ready Custom

Another option to outfit the interior of your campervan is to bring it to a shop that specializes in van conversions. Or, you can often find pre-customized vans for sale from these conversion companies. Although this is another expensive option, it means that you don't have to do any of the work yourself but can still receive the exact campervan of your dreams.

 

DIY Van Build-Out

Building out your van, by yourself, DIY style, is very popular. Not only does this help you save money, but it enables you to create the exact interior layout you want. A huge number of DIY campervan build resources are available to read online. Read as many of these as possible to get a feel for what others are doing. Your options range from a very simple build to an incredibly complex and luxurious build.

Minimalist DIY Build

Although it's easy to think the only option is to go all out, especially from the prevalence of decked-out campervans on Instagram, it's often best to keep it simple. A basic platform bed with tri-folding mattress plus your standard camping equipment is all that you really need to hit the road. A full build-out is often ideal for full-time van living but is far from necessary for casual camping road trips.

Essential Gear You Need

VW Camper van pulling a teardrop trailer

Preparing for a campervan road trip or camping trip includes packing the right gear. Because space is limited inside of a van, especially when compared to an RV, it's important to only bring the most essential gear.

Here's some of the most important vanlife essentials to pack before your next trip.

Cooler or Fridge

You have the choice between a standard camping cooler and a 12v mini refrigerator when it comes to keeping food cold. Of course, many class B campervans come with a built-in fridge. A cooler is cheaper, lighter, and doesn't require any power, but a mini fridge keeps food colder for longer and has better temperature control. Personally, I recommend starting with a cooler for camping and investing in a fridge later on. Full-time vandwellers, on the other hand, might like to invest in a fridge right off the bat.

Portable Heater

A portable RV heater is a must for cold weather camping. Both electric and propane heaters are available. Remember to always follow all propane heater safety best practices, including providing ventilation. Of course, there are many alternatives to heating a van in winter, including wearing extra layers and wrapping up in heavy blankets.

Portable Power

A portable power device makes van camping that much more enjoyable. Options range from a full-blown solar panel system installed on top of your roof to portable solar panels to a portable power station like the Yeti 400 Lithium Power Station. Some van campers device to do without an extra power source altogether.

Camping Stove

If your van doesn't have a built-in stove, then it's a great idea to bring your own. The best camping stoves run on propane or butane fuel. Two-burner models work well, although some vandwellers prefer to minimize packed size with a lightweight backpacking stove, like the Jetboil MiniMo Cooking System.

Portable Shower & Toilet

Learning how to go to the bathroom while camping is an important part of van camping. The easiest method is to just use the bathroom facilities at the campground you're staying at. But this isn't always possible. When there's no bathroom nearby, your options range from installing a camp toilet, bringing along a portable compostable toilet, or simply using the bucket method.

Lighting

Lighting is another essential piece of van camping gear. LED puck lights are a popular option among vandwellers as are string lights to add ambiance. Of course, a standard camping lantern, headlamp, flashlight, or handheld spotlight does the job as well.

Other Camping Equipment

Pretty much any other camping equipment you use while tent or RV camping works in a van. Personally, I like to bring along a camping hammock, such as the Mock ONE, a portable folding hammock with a built-in stand, for daytime relaxation.

Where to Camp in a Van

Woman in a van camping in the mountains

The best place to park overnight in your van depends on the specifics of your trip.

Do you prefer a campground that has utilities hookups? Or do you like remote and often free campgrounds with plenty of privacy better? Do you just need somewhere to rest for the night on a road trip or do you plan to set up camp for several days or even weeks at a time?

Here are some of the best places to sleep in your campervan, no matter your style of travel.

Campgrounds & RV Parks

One of the best places to park your van overnight is at a campground or an RV park. Not only is this type of overnighting completely legal, but it often brings with it access to amenities. Campgrounds and RV parks can be found all over the country at a wide range of different prices.

RV Parks

Although an RV park is the most expensive place to stay, dishing out a little extra money often gets you access to bathrooms with flush toilets and hot showers, laundry facilities, and other amenities. Many RV parks offer RV hookups to vandwellers, including water and electricity as well as the ability to dump your grey water and black water tanks if you have an onboard bathroom. Wi-Fi access is also common at most RV parks around the country.

Established Campgrounds

These are campgrounds with basic amenities. Although some do offer RV hookups, you're more likely to find bathrooms with flush toilets (although sometimes only vault toilets are available) and running water. Some do offer hot showers. Look for established campsites at national parks, national forests, and state parks. These campgrounds offer a good middle ground between an RV park and rustic camping.

Primitive Campgrounds

Primitive campgrounds are the most rustic established campgrounds. Often, no amenities are available at all, although some do have vault toilets. The trade offs are much lower prices and a greater sense of privacy. National forests often have primitive campsites for as low as $10 a night.

Free & Dispersed Camping Areas

My personal favorite place to go van camping, dispersed camping areas are the most primitive of all. You'll be hard-pressed to find a primitive campsites with vault toilets, although some do have picnic tables. These areas are often located in very remote, absolutely beautiful natural areas, so they are perfect for those those that like to explore the backcountry. Best of all, many dispersed camping areas are absolutely free! Look at BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Land and National Forests for the best free campsites.

Walmart Parking Lot

A store parking lot offers a good place to rest your head for a night. Walmart is perhaps the best known chain that allows overnight parking, although it's not allowed at all Walmarts. Other stores that let weary travelers sleep overnight in their parking lots include Cabelas and Cracker Barrel. A similar overnight option is to park at a rest stop, truck stop, or casino. Sleeping legally in a store parking lot is almost always free.

Cost of Camping in a Van

The cost of van camping and van life varies widely from person to person. Naturally, you'll spend much less on short weekend camping trips near home than a months long summer road trip around the country. Living in a van has a whole set of costs of its own.

But to give you a basic idea of the actual cost of camping in a van, we've broken down a few of the typical expenses.

Cost of the Van

The first cost associated with this style of camping is the van itself. Expect to spend anywhere from around $2,000 (although cheaper deals can be found) all the way up to $50,000 or more. This all depends on the make, model, and style of van you select. Of course, used rigs are much cheaper than driving one of the showroom floors.

Building & Outfitting

The next cost is outfitting the interior and exterior of your van. As mentioned above, you have several options from the barebones to the fully kitted out. Expect to spend anywhere from around $100 for a simple platform bed to well over $10,000 for a fully customized interior.

Fuel, Maintenance, Insurance

Don't forget to factor in the cost of fuel, regular maintenance, and car insurance. Of course, these costs will go up the most you travel. These expenses are especially important for full-time vandwellers.

Gear & Equipment

If you already have your own camping equipment, you're already more than halfway there. Stock up on any additional equipment and add the total cost to your overall expenses.

Food & Campground Fees

Don't forget to factor in the cost of groceries, sundries, and eating out into your budget. Campground fees should also be taken into consideration. Once again, the exact cost varies greatly depending on how often you'll travel.

Extras

Full-time vandwellers have a host of additional expenses to worry about. Because they often leave home behind, these on-the-road nomads must factor in all of their normal living expenses, such as their phone bill, health insurance, and more.

Full-Time Van Living

Van camping under the stars

As mentioned above, there's a huge difference between van camping and full-time van living. Yet, with the rise in popularity of vanlife has come a surge of people giving up stable homes for full-time life on four wheels. Of course, this comes with its own set of unique challenges that must be addressed.

Here's the basic rundown on full-time van living.

Why Live in a Van

Everyone has a different reason for living in their van. For many, it's the freedom. The freedom to travel anywhere they please at anytime. For others, it's to save money, to pay off dead, or to eliminate unnecessary expenses. You might just find that it's the ideal way for you to travel and see the country.

How to Make Money

There are dozens of different ways to make money on the road. Working as a digital nomad has become popular in recent years. This consists of picking up freelance, telecommuting, and remote work in a variety of industries, including content writing, blogging, graphic design, programming, and more. Another option is to work as a camp host for a season. Still, others keep their normal traditional jobs even while living full-time in a van.

Where to Park Long-Term

The same campgrounds, parking lots, and dispersed areas are great for long-term stays. Many free dispersed campsites, such as those in national forests, allow camping for up to two weeks. For even longer legal stays, look for Long-Term Visitor Areas. Most of these are located on BLM Land in the American Southwest. Many full-timers choose to move their van campervan every few nights instead of parking in once place. Yet another option is to go stealth camping in residential, commercial, and industrial areas.

Van Camping FAQ

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about van life.

Q: What is the best van camping mattress?

A: Pretty much any mattress that fits in your van does the job. Personally, I prefer a tri-folding foam mattress. The best have removable covers (for easy washing) plus a no-slip bottom. These come in all the regular mattress sizes and several different thicknesses (look for a mattress around 6" thick for the best comfort).

Q: How to cool a camping van?

A: The best way to keep a camping van cool is to stay outside of it during the peak heat of the days. If you do need to be inside in the heat, we recommend parking in the shade and cracking the windows. Better yet, open the windows and doors completely. A camping van vent or portable vent also helps.

Q: How to build out a van for camping?

A: The best way to build out a van depends on the model, your style of camping, and your preferences. You can do anything from a very simple build to a luxurious custom build complete with a kitchenette. Gnomad Home has an excellent resource for how to build your van.

Q: Can you rent a camper van?

A: Both Outdoorsy and RV Share are companies that make it easy to find a camper van rental in your local area. You can also look for private rentals on sites like Craigslist. Beyond The Tent has a great guide for everything you need to know about rv rentals.

Q: What is the best van for camping?

A: This question is impossible to answer because the answer is different for everyone. The best van for camping depends on your personal needs and preferences.

Q: Can you live in a van legally?

A: Living in a van is completely legal as long as you do things properly. Most important is to only park in legal parking areas. Many cities and towns don't allow overnight parking, especially if you're sleeping inside your vehicle, to deter homeless. You can work around this by only camping in designated campgrounds or dispersed areas, although many vandwellers prefer stealth camping.

Q: What is stealth van camping?

A: Stealth camping is sleeping in your van (or another vehicle) without drawing attention to the fact inside. This is much different from camping where you'll likely set up camp and spend time outside your vehicle. For stealth van camping, you'll want to do your best to pretend the vehicle is empty. Minimize noise and light inside. Don't step outside. Just go from the driver's seat to the back area. Arrive after dark and leave before first light.

Q: Is stealth camping illegal?

A: Sleeping in a vehicle overnight in residential and commercial areas is often illegal. This makes stealth camping in these areas illegal. This is the reason why those that decide to sleep in these areas are so stealthy about it. That said, many Walmarts, Cabelas, Cracker Barrels, truck stops, and casinos allow overnight parking in their parking lots, so stealth camping certainly isn't illegal 100% of the time.

Q: Where to go in a camper van?

A: Go anywhere you'd like! The best part about camping in a van is that you can go pretty much anywhere the road leads you. Many first-timers like to check out nearby national parks, national forests, and state parks with campgrounds.

Q: How much does a camper van cost?

A: This all depends on the van you buy and how much money you put into renovations. You'll likely spend anywhere from as low as $2,000 on a barebones shoestring budget all the way up to $100,000 or more on a luxurious class B RV.

What Do You Think?

What are your thoughts on van life?

Naturally, you're here reading our ultimate guide because you have at least a passing interest in van camping.

I'm curious to know - do you already have a campervan of your own? How often do you camp in it? Where is your favorite place for van camping? Have you ever though of making the switch to living in a van or full-time RV living?

Let us know in the comments below!