I get asked a lot for some insight on how I make this nomadic life of mine work, so here are a few things I’ve picked up living in a van that might help regardless of whether you’re a full or part time gypsy like me…
Plan B’s are important
First things first, vanlife can present you with some unexpected situations, but there are many common eventualities you can prep for in advance. Dead battery, icy roads in winter, scratches, dents and dings…
Personally, I have found my jump starter battery handy, not just for me, but also for helping others with their flat batteries, and I am a big fan of karma points, so boost. In icy months I keep a spare bag of kitty litter, for a little extra traction when needed and duct tape has been an all-time best friend – particularly after I reversed into a tree stump and smashed my bumper, buying time for future me to deal with getting it repaired.
Other things I have on board are headtorches, an assortment of spare batteries, and a toolbox with all the regulars. I also have arrangements for access to an emergency park up place with mains (electricity) hook-ups if needed and leave spare keys to the camper with a friend in case we get locked out.
So, this is particularly important.. especially if you’re a neurodivergent like me and easily scatter-brained – organise your s***!
To figure out how best to set up the van for my little trio before we made the big move (kid, doggo and me), I spent nearly every weekend and break I had in the camper to better understand what our needs were. Once I was confident I knew what would work, I remodelled the whole thing to suit us.
In our home on wheels, we use a lot of bungee cables, little baskets for not only organising smaller items in the cupboards, but also for keeping things from falling over, shoe pouches inside the cupboard doors for more smaller items like hats and gloves and cup hooks for all sorts – towels, fruit basket, cups, lanterns, spoons and more!
Another thing worth mentioning here is to clean up as you go – it feels very claustrophobic pretty fast if you don’t tidy up after yourself. It’s much easier to keep things clean too if everything has its own designated place.
Big tip: put things you use most at the front – front of the cupboard, drawer, closet etc. You can determine what you use most after spending a few weeks in the van quite quickly.
Also, if you haven’t used it in over a month get rid of it! When you’re living in a van you need to be savage when it comes to hoarding… you can’t take it to the grave with you anyway and with the cost of fuel right now, why carry any extra weight?
Don’t pass up opportunity
This applies to life in general, but most certainly to vanlife. If you are driving by an LPG station, top up the gas. If you are parking up at a friend’s house for the night and they have an outdoor tap, fill the water tank. If you’re passing a bin on the roadside, empty the trash. You never know when you’re going to get another chance and in my experience, certainly in the UK, LPG and outdoor taps are not always easy to come by.
Conservation is your (and the planet’s) best friend
Using things sparingly should be a priority for us all in my humble opinion, but you’ll find yourself even more motivated to conserve things like water and gas when you’re the one making the effort to replenish supply.
Some of the ways that I reduce my water usage is by leaving the dishwater from dinner dishes overnight for the morning dishes as well, switching off taps when brushing my teeth, applying shampoo (if you also have a shower on board), rubbing soap on my hands, etc. Other ways I conserve water are straining pasta / veg (any water boiled for food) into the plugged sink to wash dishes with after and boiling water in a frying pan instead of a pot (heats up faster, uses less water).
As for saving on LPG, I tent to buy my meals daily from the bargain bins at supermarkets of what’s just about to go out of date and to keep the fridge cool, instead of using gas, I put ice in the crisper drawer and when it melts, I pour the water into the dog bowl and replenish the supply.
I get asked a lot if I am scared or feel vulnerable living in the van. The quick answer is no, not really. I’ve been far more scared walking down a city street at night then I ever have parked up in a forest.
That said, if you are wanting added assurance, a trick I sometimes use is double locking the van door with a climbing sling and screwgate carabiner (I pass the sling through the door handle and hand raise and secure it with the carabiner). This method can also be used on the front doors of the van as well, depending on your setup/layout. Another thing I’ve seen, but not done personally, is putting the seatbelts through the door handles and buckling them in before bed.
Not gonna lie, having a wolf on board is also a bit of added peace of mind, but she is big and gets in the way, so I would recommend carving out a designated space where you can shut the dog in as needed – some sort of on-board crate. Definitely let them roam free at night when you are asleep though. The big wolf sitting in the driver’s seat is certainly a good deterrent for any would be chancers.
You’re going to want a carbon monoxide detector and fire alarm too…
Natural elements, wind in particular, can also be concerning at times. I would 10/10 recommend not parking near anything that could topple in a gust (trees/power lines) on a windy night. Also, park facing the wind, not sideways to it.
The biggest points here for me personally are to park on an even keel (if you don’t have levellers). Not only can being wonky really mess up your sleep, but also, if you need a shower and you’re on a slant that goes the wrong way, the water will overflow and/or not drain out properly.
If you have smaller biting insects like midges (or no-see-ums as we say in Alaska) your normal insect screens are not going to keep these tiny bastards out. I cut up some cheap ladies tights and duct taped them over the screens to still get fresh air but keep the pests out in the warmer months.
Good hygiene is important
For clean clothes, I use a local laundrette’s drop-off/pick-up service, but I could also easily designate a day of the week to go to the laundrette and wash/dry/fold everything myself. I just decided life is short, so am willing to pay the little bit extra to have it all done for me.
Even though I do have a shower on board, I still like to take advantage of the local leisure centre facilities (already a paying member anyway) as it saves me having to fill up the water tank so often, so joining a gym or similar facility is definitely useful. Also, my friends have some pretty awesome showers too.
As for toileting well, I refuse to use the chemical toilet. It’s rank, it’s bad for the environment and there’s very few places you can responsibly clean it – plus the chemicals are horrifically pricey.
Instead, you can keep what we in Alaska call a ‘honey bucket,’ (I did not grow up with indoor plumbing) which is just a simple bucket for number ones that gets emptied (where appropriate) and cleaned as needed. I realise this is probably gonna upset some people to hear, but yes, you’re gonna need a s*** sometimes. For your chocolate Mr. Whippy’s, you can actually bag it and bin it, just like you would with your dog’s crap. If you’re not comfortable squatting, you can line your (preferably empty and clean) honey bucket with a biodegradable bin bag and go into that.
Another thing you can do, if this is too risqué for you, is just make sure you always park up near toilets (i.e. the leisure centre for example). I tend to do this when Aunt Flo is in town (can I get an amen ladies)?! ...Whatever you do, do not just take an al fresco dump and leave it without making any effort to remove, bury or cover it. If you have done this, you are definitely going to hell.
My cheat sheet
For places to park up for the night, I love the Park4Night app and, here in Scotland, Walkhighlands is pretty rife with some really great advice …not just on places to park, but places to park near some really beautiful scenic routes to walk, hike and bike in Scotland.
Other random observations
If you don’t already have an awning on your vehicle I can 10/10 NOT recommend having one. At least if you are mostly based in a moody climate like we are here in the Highlands. I’ve literally never used mine and the one time I tried to, it was such a faff I decided it was never being used again. If it’s raining here, it often rains sideways (comes with a wind) anyway and if it’s too sunny for you, you can always park in a forest.
Last but not least, drive at night. If you’ve got a big rig like I do, most other road users will generally hate you and be desperate to overtake you, even if it means passing on a blind corner because they simply cannot wait for the next passing spot ½ mile away …which is pretty terrifying. To minimise causing this level of frustration and stress, I tend to drive mostly at night when it’s quieter. Since I am usually just planning on going straight to bed whenever I arrive, I can get pretty clear runs this way – which is a much more relaxed road trip and means I can focus on the scenery and tunes instead.
Hope this helps and happy adventuring y’all! Follow my travels on Instagram here.