Contributor Laura Hughes shares her best tips for camping out of your van.
Words and Photos by Laura Hughes
In the past couple of years, a new adventure craze has feverishly taken over the internet. We aren’t talking about an epic trail or secret slot canyon this time; we are talking about the prized treasure and unique experience of van camping. The concept of “car camping” itself isn’t exactly new to those of us that prefer to wake up in the wild with a slight crick in our necks. Vehicles have been practical in our efforts to quench the thirst for camping adventures, and we continue to be impressed by the creativity and enthusiasm from those that breathe life into this “van life” movement.
In the last decade or so, there has been an increase in these van camping enthusiasts, and they are creatively reinventing the wheel through their social media accounts and personal blog sites. Even though there will always be something magical and grounding about sleeping directly on the cool earth, we have to admit that the idea of combining our camping vessel and mode of transportation into one is highly intriguing.
Aside from just spending a few nights under the stars in these uber pimped out vans, a lot of people are also choosing to make their van a permanent residence while bouncing down the backroads of the country. Among some of the most popular models used to execute a glimpse of van life are Sprinters, VW Buses and Ford van varieties. Whether you’ve chosen to take a walk on the wild side and live full time in a van, or you’re simply investing in a weekend getaway vessel, you might be wondering what challenges lay ahead. We’ve lined out some great tips for your upcoming camp excursions, van life style. Set your eyes on the horizon and put it in drive- we’re going van camping!
Give your shoes a good home…outside of the van.
To all of the newbies out there in the world of van camping, something you will want to practice from the very beginning of your trip to the very end is finding a good spot to keep shoes where they will not be tracking in dirt and debris. As you’re cruising through forests, deserts, streams and everything in between, your shoes will inevitably be picking up pieces of every place you travel. And within just a few minutes you can easily bring a little too much of the outdoors into the interior of your van. Think of the van like your tent- it’s always a good idea to remove the shoes before getting in once you’ve found your campsite. The last thing you want is an irritating buildup of sand that you can’t figure out how to clean up, or even worse- the dreaded sandy sleeping bag.
If you’re simply not comfortable leaving your shoes outside of the van or the forecast is looking unfavorable, then designate a spot inside close to one of the doors and place them in a small tray or box if possible. This will help contain those gritty little particles and prevent them from entering into unwanted spaces. Also, many vans have a good sized ledge by the largest door for stepping into the vehicle. You can keep a small brush here to quickly brush out anything you’ve accidentally tracked in.
The flatter, the better.
The best part about the beginning of your camping trip is the hunt for a great campsite. During this venture for epic views and a private slumber, you may end up pulling up to several sites that are a little more on the bumpy side or situated on a slant. Although you may have fallen in love with a specific area that is guaranteed to give you a front row seat to that breathtaking sunset you’ve been craving, if you can’t find a fairly flat spot to park your van, you might want to keep hunting.
A common mistake that many of us have made is sacrificing the angle of the van for a spot we simply couldn’t leave behind; but that downhill slant that you could barely feel during the day will suddenly turn into a massive head rush or a case of tingling feet at 2am. Take the time to find the flattest spot available and you’ll save yourself a headache, literally.
Don’t forget the essentials.
Even though camping in a van might be more glamorous than traditional camping, it’s easy to forget that you’re still setting yourself up in an outdoor setting. You’ve been temporarily stripped of the luxury of simply going to the store or kitchen for an item you need. It is important to keep in mind what meals you are planning on preparing, as well as what necessities you will need for basic camp tasks such as building the fire and properly disposing of waste. Some of the most common items that get forgotten when adventuring on wheels are a small shovel, a hatchet or axe for wood prep, trash bags and the oh so precious can opener. Nothing can put a damper on the execution of camp cooking more than fumbling around with various sharp tools in place of a can opener. We’ve all been there. It’s not a good time. Save yourself from a dinner prep meltdown and designate a separate camping essentials kit specifically for van use.
It’s all about order.
If you’re lucky enough to have a well designed space for storage in your van, maximize its functionality by organizing it to its full potential. Using baskets, crates or boxes will allow you to easily organize your items in a way that makes sense to you. For example, you can put all cooking supplies in one container and non-perishable food items in another. It’s also very useful to keep in mind what items you use together regularly. Keeping your coffee in the same container as your favorite tin mug and camp stove makes a quick and easy set up on those early mornings. And if you have different layers of storage, pay attention to what items you are pulling out first once you reach your campsite and put those at the front of the party. From can koozies to fire starters, make sure these items are easily accessible. Any item that you rarely need to grab can collect a little bit of dust in the back of your storage lines.
One of the best parts about camping in a van is the ability to have access to electricity. Many seasoned van campers have some pretty impressive solar panel setups that run on a loop system with the battery of the vehicle. Although solar panels are an excellent renewable energy source, if you’re not the most advanced electrician on the block this might be a bit intimidating for your setup. Luckily, many brave souls have wandered down this path and documented it step by step on the internet. If you’ve got the ability to invest in a full solar panel setup then by all means, get after it! But also keep in mind that there are many other alternatives for your van that are a little more affordable and just as efficient.
Many companies, such as Goal Zero, are continuing to introduce portable power stations that are sure to satisfy almost every electrical need you might have along the way. There are also several brands out there that have gone the extra mile and added on air compressors and jumper cables, as well as several charging ports for phones and other small accessories. If you have the tendency to crank the radio in the desert for hours and forget to periodically crank your vehicle, this is a great option to combat a dead battery in the middle of nowhere.
Along with the ability to charge your phones and continue to keep a fresh battery for documenting your rad adventures, having a little bit of electricity in the van will give you the creative freedom to incorporate some ambiance into the small space. Small white lights with flexible copper wire use very little energy, are extremely easy to wrap around objects and give off just the right amount of glow for evening activities.
Overall, the world of van camping presents just enough additional comfort to your camping experience while still capitalizing on the overall experience of adventuring in the great outdoors. Keeping these tips in mind before you take off on your next red dirt back road or high mountain pass adventure will guarantee a successful and fulfilling van camping experience.