Van Camping Hacks: 21 Best Van Life Tricks and Tips for 2020

The best van camping hacks make van life that much easier!

After countless van camping trips, these are the best commonsense tricks and insider tips we’ve gathered to make van life simpler and more enjoyable.

Whether you’re hitting the road for a week-long camping trip, a long-term summer road trip, or full-time van living, these top tips, tricks, and hacks are just for you!

But, remember, the number one van camping hack is to just get out there! You’ll quickly learn what works for you – and what doesn’t. Better yet, you’re sure to pick up some van life secrets of your very own.

Here are the 21 best van camping hacks for van life in 2020.

1.    Select the Right Van for You

Know what makes van camping much easier? Selecting the right van in the first place! A few of the most common types include:

  • Minivan – Small and discrete, a minivan is a good choice for those that prefer a simple van camping setup.
  • Cargo Van – One of the most popular types of vans for custom builds, a cargo van is spacious, stealthy, and very versatile.
  • Fixed-Roof Campervan – Designed straight from the manufacturer as a camping van, these vans have a fixed roof that doesn’t change in height.
  • Pop-Top Campervan – Very similar to a fixed-roof campervan but with one key difference: these vans have a pop-top roof to extend while parked for more interior space and standing room.
  • Class B RV – A more luxurious take on a campervan, these extra-long van-sized RVs usually have a complete kitchenette and very small bathroom onboard.

Of course, if you already own a van, there’s no reason you can’t build that model out to suit your needs. Our beginner’s guide to van camping has more info!

2.    Consider a Simple Build

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the beauty of many camper van builds.

The ones that you tend to see on Instagram, YouTube, and blogs are most often the cream of the crop – they took a lot of time, skill, and effort to create. Not to mention money.

Although browsing van life builds on the Internet is great for inspiration, we recommend setting a realistic budget (and sticking to it), starting with a simple build, and upgrading as you go.

All that you really need to do for a simple build is remove the back seats. This allows you to throw in your sleeping bags and the rest of your camping gear. Kick this up a few notches by building a storage/bed platform with a comfortable mattress.

Overtime, you can add more specialized features like insulation, heating and cooling, a mini fridge, kitchenette, and more.

Of course, if you have the money and the time, there’s no reason not to do your dream van build from the beginning, especially if you plan on full-time van living.

r/vandwellers on Reddit is one of the best hubs of build inspiration and info.

3.    Make Sure You Have all the Right Gear

No matter your van model or the complexity of your build, there’s a few simple pieces of camping equipment that every van camper needs:

  • Sleeping – You have a lot of options here. Keep it simple with a sleeping bag and sleeping pad or opt for a mattress (a 4-inch thick memory foam works perfect) and your favorite blanket, quilt, or comforter.
  • Cooking – Many van lifers build a kitchenette in their van. Don’t want to get so fancy? A camping cook stove works just as well. And don’t forget your cooler or mini fridge!
  • Warmth – Start by insulating your van from the cold (this also helps insulate against the heat in the summer). Next up is a portable space heater. Both propane and electric models are available.

Don’t forget to bring along any van-specific items you need to keep your camper van running for the trip (such as a roadside emergency kit).

4.    Stay Organized

Organization is key when you’re working with a small amount of space, such as camping in a van.

As you become more familiar with van camping, you’ll undoubtedly come up with your own storage hacks. But for beginners, we recommend using soft-sided bags – duffel bags work great – to store supplies inside.

Another storage tip is to keep items you use most near the top of storage bags and bins. For example, I keep my cookware and sleepwear near the top and other supplies underneath.

Most serious van builds take storage into deep consideration. One popular storage hack is to build a platform bed. The mattress goes on top with plenty of storage space underneath.

For more complicated builds, multi-purpose and fold-away items are essential. Pop-up shelving, fold-up tables, and items that double as seating (such as a cooler) are popular ideas.

5.    Start Small and Build Up to Longer Trips

Just because you’re excited doesn’t mean you have to rush into van life. Start small. Take a few quick weekend road trips in your new van. Work up to week-long trips and maybe try a multi-week road trip in the summer. You’ll quickly learn what works and what doesn’t on these shorter van camping trips.

6.    Find Free Campsites

It’s easy to find free camping – if you just know where to look. National Forests, National Grasslands, BLM land, and Water Management Areas across the country offer free dispersed camping. Note that free camping is usually primitive with few, if any, amenities – so be prepared for van boondocking. FreeCampsites.net is an invaluable resource for finding free camping in North America.

7.    Invest in a High-Quality Cooler

A camping cooler is one piece of gear I will never skimp on. Although it can be tempting to pick up a budget model, I all but guarantee you’ll be much happier with a high-quality, rotomolded model with extra-thick insulation. A high-end cooler keeps your food much colder for much longer, especially when you know how to use a cooler correctly. Another option is a portable refrigerator for van camping.  

8.    Cook Simple Meals

Honestly, one of my favorite parts of camping is cooking. With just a few simple tools and a camping stove, you can whip up delicious meals. That said, I prefer to stick to simple one or two pot meals to minimize cleanup. Pasta, tacos, and grilled cheese sandwiches are a few of my favorite hot van life meals. Try to prep your meals at home before your trip to make van cooking even easier.

9.    Make Privacy Screens

Curtains or privacy screens are a must for van camping. You can make these as simple or as luxurious as you like. Old sheets work well for very simple curtains. But, personally, I like something that's a little nicer to look at. It’s easy to make DIY van curtains with the fabric of your choice, picture hanging wire, and a few screws.

10. Try Stealth Camping

Many van lifers turn to stealth camping when traveling through cities or towns. Simply put, stealth camping is parking in a residential, commercial, or industrial area for the night. The goal is to fly under the radar. No one should know you’re inside your van. This is why we recommend that you arrive late, leave early, and don’t exit your vehicle at all.

11. Bring a Tarp or a Canopy

One of the top van camping hacks is to always bring a tarp or canopy with you. Huddling up inside your van gets old when camping in the rain. A tarp/canopy provides some protection from the rain and also shade from the hot sun. I prefer to use a pop-up canopy. Another option is a built-in van awning you can install on the side of your vehicle.  

12. Here’s How to Shower While Van Camping

All but the most luxurious class B camper vans come without a shower. That’s why knowing how to shower while camping is a must, especially for longer trips. When an on-site campground shower isn’t an option, a portable camping shower will help you get the job done. I prefer a solar shower that warms the water up with the heat of the sun!

13. Here’s How to Go to the Bathroom While Van Camping

Just as important (if not much more so) than knowing how to shower while camping is knowing how to go to the bathroom while van camping. Of course, most campgrounds have at least a vault toilet – but most dispersed camping areas do not. A portable toilet is one option. More cost efficient are the bucket method or burying it in a hole. Make sure to follow all rules and regulations for the area you’re camping in – many do not allow you to bury your waste. You must pack it all out.

14. Look for Free or Cheap Showers

It’s possible to find free or very cheap places to shower across the United States! I’ve found that many free campgrounds, especially campsites at city parks in the Midwest, have free hot showers on site. Many pay campgrounds also offer cheap or free hot showers for overnight visitors. Another great van camping hack is to stop at local indoor and outdoor swimming pools. They often only cost a few bucks to use, especially in smaller towns. You don’t even have to swim – just hit the showers and get clean!   

15. Consider a Gym Membership

For long-term van campers, a gym membership is all but essential. The real beauty of a gym membership is that you’re never without a hot shower. Look for a gym with locations all across the U.S. so you can travel and shower with ease. Anytime Fitness and Planet Fitness are two of the best. Both have low monthly rates and tons of locations.

16. Talk to Other Campers

My favorite van camping hack is to be social! The best tricks and tips I’ve learned have come from other van lifers with more experience than me. This is an especially useful way to find the best and most beautiful free campsites wherever you’re traveling!

17. Always Have a Little Cash on Hand

Don’t leave home without a little cash in hand. This is even more important if you are traveling without a set plan (my favorite way to travel in my van!). The cash is handy for things like last minute campground fees (although many do accept checks) and firewood.

18. Minimize, Minimize, Minimize

Keep it simple. As mentioned in the organization tip above, a simple van camping setup is the best van camping setup. Practice minimization to achieve van camping bliss. You definitely don’t need to bring as much clothing or as many gadgets as you might think!

19. Crack Windows at Night

No one likes sleepy in a sweaty box. Crack your windows at night to minimize condensation in the morning. Nighttime airflow helps you sleep better and wake up refreshed. I prefer to open up windows on each side of my van to create cross ventilation, especially on hot summer nights. It’s especially important to prevent condensation while stealth camping as you don’t want anyone to know you’re inside your van!

20. How to Stay Warm

Van camping in the winter can get cold – and fast. We recommend bringing along a portable heater to keep you warm. Although both electric and propane models are available, I’ve found propane heaters to work best for van camping. Of course, it’s important to follow all safety best practices, including keeping windows cracked for ventilation. I never run my heater at night – just before bed and in the morning.

21. Bring a Hammock!

Van life and hammock camping go hand in hand. Kick back in your hammock during the day or sleep in your hammock all night long. Our Mock One is a portable folding hammock with a built-in stand. It’s quick and easy to set up. Plus, it's incredibly comfortable. And you can use it almost anywhere! 

Final Thoughts

Our 21 best van life camping hacks should make your next camper van road trip all the better!

Most of these top tips can be easily applied to car camping or RVing as well. Don’t forget to check out our ultimate road trip checklist for even more tricks, tips, and essential items!