When you hear the term “vanlife,” what typically comes to mind is a young, attractive couple doing yoga in front of a spotless Sprinter van perfectly customized inside to look like a log cabin. At sunset. On a beach. Believe it or not, you don’t necessarily need to be an Instagram star with an expensive hipster-chic van to travel the country in a vehicle and live your best life. You can do it in a 20 year-old beat-up minivan with a small budget and fewer log cabin splinters.
I’ve done it on and off for years and have some suggestions for those who are interested in hitting the road for an extended period of time to see the country, be somewhat comfortable, and not break the bank doing it.
Recently, photographer Tod Seelie and writer Anna Merlan documented a blazing hot trip through the Southwest in Seelie’s heroic 19-year-old minivan Goldie. Now you can do the same: Below are Seelie’s helpful, hard-won tips to help make vanlife on a budget work for you.
- Always carry a basic set of tools and a good flashlight and headlamp for minor road repairs. Try to learn some basic maintenance (changing a flat or a headlight bulb) before you hit the road.
- Having a 12 volt inverter will increase the number of things you can run on the car battery, like a laptop.
- Always have spare 12volt accessory plug fuses before you need them. If you’re using an inverter, there’s a good chance you’ll need them eventually.
- There are a wide variety of LED solar lanterns available now. Keep one on your dash and you’ll never need to run the interior lights at night.
- Keep a paper road atlas just in case the GPS fails.
- One of the goals of car camping is to find nice campsites, official or otherwise, and when you do you’re going to want a folding table and chairs to cook and eat on. A nice campsite is a lot more pleasant when you’re actually able to sit outside and enjoy it.
- A major drawback to camping in a minivan is the lack of headroom. I recommend getting one of those little three-legged folding stools. They tend to be just the right height to be able to sit up in the van and make sandwiches on the cooler and then can fold up and tuck under your mattress to disappear when not in use.
- If you’re camping in your car, tinted back windows are your friend.
- I found mesh mosquito “socks” that slip over the top of the front doors to keep insects out while your windows are down at night to let cooler night air in.
- This trick was a lifesaver on a summer trip through the southwest: a DC fan with a compatible 12 volt power plug that I picked up a 12v battery for (usually used for security systems) and a 12v socket with alligator clamps to connect to the batteries contacts. This way you can run the fan with the car off while you sleep and not drain the starter battery, and then charge the battery with the inverter while you’re driving the next day. (You’ll need the additional charger.)
- If you’re going to be on the road for an extended amount of time and want to try and stay in shape, consider getting a Planet Fitness membership. Not just for the ability to exercise after too many days in the driver’s seat, but also for the showers. Planet Fitness has some of the best coverage of locations across the U.S.
- Keep a small padlock in the car for lockers in gyms and pools.
- One extra recommendation is a solar/crank emergency radio with weather band. It can be nice to eat dinner with music or explore the local flavor via talk radio even when you’re out of cell range. It’s also useful to check on the local weather when it starts to look ominous so you aren’t the only person sitting clueless while your van is rocking from the wind in an empty Walmart parking lot during a nearby tornado (true story).
- For the easiest cup of coffee first thing in the morning, go for Starbucks instant coffee and those little liquid creamer buckets, if you’re into that sort of thing. Alternately, get liquid coffee concentrate (Trader Joe’s is very good) if you’ve got the cooler space.
- Pack and use reusable travel mugs, utensils, straws, etc. Some truck stops give you a discount if you bring your own mug. Besides, this planet is being buried under plastic waste, so you might as well start to adapt to the inevitable non-disposable future.
- Get a good decent-sized cooler with a drain spout, then measure the bottom width and length to try to find some sort of elevated “rack” to keep your food out of the inevitable melted ice pool. Nothing ruins your groceries like sitting in water all day. I’ve had good luck with turning two silverware trays upside down, but keep in mind you don’t want anything that will rust. There is also a technique of packing dry ice into the bottom of the cooler and then covering it with regular ice that lasts a long time.
- When you’re just sitting in a car all day you’re not burning many calories so it’s smart to eat healthier than normal so as to not feel crappy. The healthiest and most easily located meal across America? Bagged salads. If you’re camping in a Walmart parking lot anyway, then you’ve already found them.
- If for some reason you can’t find bagged salads and the only option around is a gas station or truck stop, I recommend what I used to call “band tour breakfast:” a V8 and a banana.
- I don’t recommend fast food for many reasons, but I do make an exception for the most plentiful chain in the U.S.: Subway. The trick is to only get the veggie sub or the egg sandwich for some protein (still get it piled with vegetables), it’s another of the hard-to-find fresh vegetable solutions when you don’t want to cook or can’t find a grocery store. You can’t be doing burger-n-fries every night when you have barely moved from the driver’s seat all day.
- One road snack I make is a lettuce taco: large romaine lettuce leaves as the shell, plus hummus, plus cheese, plus diced tomatoes.
- For food to snack on when I’m driving I opt for mini cucumbers (kind of like a candy bar) and baby carrots.
- Another thing you don’t want to do when not moving much is drink a lot of sugary drinks. My go-to option is flavored seltzer, or sometimes I’ll make tea when I’ve maxed out my coffee intake for the day.
- I use a denatured alcohol stove to cook meals. It’s simple, the fuel is easy to find, and the flame isn’t bright, which good for stealth cooking. It also burns hot and clean and it’s very affordable.
- Couscous is incredibly fast and easy to cook over a camp stove! I usually do that with a packet of ready-made Indian food and a healthy dose of arugula for dinner.
- A quick way to upgrade otherwise boring instant oatmeal for breakfast is with a handful of cranberry and nuts trail mix thrown in. Top with fresh fruit.
- This one was a game-changer for me. I had been using a standard sponge and dish soap to clean my dishes every night, which requires a fair bit of water and creates wastewater, both of which are not ideal. A friend recommended using Trader Joe’s all-purpose cleaner instead. It’s made cleanup immensely easier.
- IKEA’s cheapest mattress is a piece of foam with a cover that happens to be the exact right width for a minivan. It’s also pliable enough to get folded over the back of the bed frame with the back hatch closed so as to easily shorten it when not being used fully extended.
- Always have good earplugs so you can comfortably sleep when the parking spot has you resting a bit too close to a row of rumbling trucks. (I prefer the Macks molded silicone kind; they don’t expand so your ears won’t get sore from the pressure.)
- Those windshield reflector panels (often depicting a tropical beach scene) are not only useful for keeping the car cooler, but they also double as a privacy shield at night.
- There are a lot of different ways to block out your back windows when your sleeping (I’ve just stuffed extra pillows in them on occasion, for lack of better options), but if you want to go pro you can custom cut some panels of garage door insulation to pop in. They also will help keep the car cooler when the sun comes up.
- Whenever you can, you should try to park in what will be shaded when the sun rises when you stop for the night. There are free sun locator apps, mainly targeted at photographers, that you can use to predict the sunrise through your camera’s live view.
- I’ve slept in my van in below-freezing temperatures by using a mix of different bedding layers: sleeping bag, wool blankets, down comforter. Pretty much any vehicle is going to become the same temperature inside as out over the course of a night, so plan accordingly.
- Another trick for cold weather sleeping is to fully cover your head and face with just a small open space around your nose and mouth. It greatly decreases the amount of heat lost and helps your pile of blankets make the cut when it’s snowing outside.
- To find cheap fuel, try the app Gas Buddy to search in your area or down the road for the best prices. If you’re going to be crossing a state line, check the prices on either side to see if one state’s taxes cause a notable difference in prices. Also keep in mind the app is crowd-sourced, so in some areas it may not have any reported prices.
- There are a decent number of free legal places to park overnight: Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Sam’s Club and Dicks Sporting Goods parking lots, rest stops (my preference) and BLM land (primarily in the West). They each have their advantages: Walmarts are usually easy to find and near major highways, while BLM land is often out of your way, sometimes considerably, but is usually quiet, serene and beautiful. If you know what your priorities are for the night, you can usually plan ahead pretty well.
Other resources that can come in handy for low-budget traveling are the plethora of road trip and vanlife apps, like Roadtrippers, AllStays and BLM land maps. Also, this cannot be overstated: don’t be a bad traveler. In essence, Leave No Trace and Don’t Be A Dick.
When you are passing through areas, camping in off-beat places, or just parking overnight at a rest stop, you are a representative of everyone else doing the same. In the same vein as “this is why we can’t have nice things” it can be ruined in the general public opinion by people who are disrespectful or damaging to the communities they are in and the resources they rely on. So when you are there on a fun vanlife trip with your friends, it’s always important to remember that some people living in vehicles aren’t there by choice, and your behavior can impact those with no other options.
To sum it up: not everything is for just you.
If we all adopt this approach not only will everyone have a better time, but we might also not kill everything we love with disrespectful overtourism.
Traveling the country is an exciting, and historically American, activity. Depending on your necessary comfort level it can be very affordable and accessible, opening up the diverse expanse of this country to explore without needing a small fortune in doodads and a luxury vehicle to house them in.
Instead, invest in your own resourcefulness and creative problem-solving and you’ll find it’s a more interesting and satisfying trip in the end.