Planning a van life trip and looking for advice on what to pack?
My husband and I lived in our campervan full time for almost 2 years as we traveled across Central and South America. During that time we learned how to live a minimalist lifestyle bringing all the essentials we need for comfort and great adventures in our van (while leaving behind things that you may think you need but actually don’t).
Whether you’re heading on a weekend trip or a long-term adventure, this list will help you get ready for road trips in your van and make sure you don’t leave anything important at home.
Van Life Essentials Packing List:
- Paperwork & Basics
- For Emergencies
- Kitchen Essentials
- Hanging Out
Paperwork & Basics
Before you head out on a van life road trip, make sure you have these items taken care of and stored somewhere safely in the van.
License & Registration
To drive, you’ll need an active license and car registration in your name. Most countries require registration to be under your name especially at border crossings. For example, if your car is under your parent’s name and you plan to travel to Mexico, make sure to switch the registration over to your name before you go or you won’t be allowed to enter.
If you plan to cross any international borders, you will also need your passport. We built a secret drawer in our van to store important items like our passports, cash, and an extra key in case we lost it. We also made physical copies of all the documents AND uploaded a copy on a cloud online – which came in handy when my wallet was stolen in Colombia.
Some countries require special insurance when traveling abroad. For example, countries like Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina require you to purchase THEIR country insurance when crossing the border. Without it, you might face hefty fines or get in trouble with the local police.
Read More Here: Driving The Pan-American Highway? Here’s All You Need To Know!
When traveling in a van, emergencies can (and usually do) happen. During our 2-year long road trip, we crushed our van’s catalytic converter, got stuck in the mud a few times, and almost lost our solar panels to crazy Patagonia winds. Be prepared for van life emergencies by bringing along these items!
Roadside Emergency Kit
We always keep an emergency roadside toolkit in our van which comes in handy when our van has issues far away from cities and we can’t reach roadside assistance to tow us back. This has happened to us a couple of times and in each case having an emergency toolkit has been a lifesaver.
When driving across sandy areas we like to deflate our tires for better traction and a smoother ride. After we’re done off-roading we use an air compressor to hi-way pressure the tires back up.
We’ve had a couple of tire inflators over the year and they always burn out. The Slime 40026 tire inflator is heavy duty so it won’t burn out and it connects directly to the battery so it has more power than the typical hard plugged ones that tend to blow out fuses.
Tire Patch Kit
During our Central & South America road trip by some luck, we never got a flat tire. But having a tire patch kit is important because getting a flat tire can happen anytime.
Fires inside a campervan can happen. Our friend’s stove caught on fire but thankfully they were able to put out the fire before it did any real damage. I can’t imagine how stressful that situation must have been so we keep a fire extinguisher in our campervan kitchen in case this happens to us.
First Aid Kit
Having a first aid kit is helpful for small emergencies like bruises, scrapes, and aches. We have an emergency kit that has bandages, basic medicine, and antibiotic ointments.
We spend a lot of time stealth camping in our van so having a headlamp is essential to check out noises when it’s dark outside or for going to the restroom at night.
Before leaving for a road trip I always make sure that my portable battery is fully charged. I bring one with me when we go on a longer hike, walk around the city, or just forget to charge my phone. It’s great to have one as a backup!
For us, the kitchen is one of the most important aspects of van life. We love to cook and we couldn’t travel in our van for an extended time without having a fully functioning kitchen.
Having a built-in campervan kitchen has helped us save money on the road, eat healthy, and meet other overlanders by sharing meals with them at campsites. Here are all of the kitchen essentials that we bring along!
We have two large 7-gallon containers that we use for water storage in our campervan. These containers come with a spigot which makes it easy to use them for drinking water. We also connected one of the containers directly to our kitchen sink for cleaning dishes, washing our hands, or taking a solar shower.
We got square containers because they take up the least amount of space and fit easily at the back of our van. Two large water containers usually last us a few days to a week.
These containers come with handles that help us lift them out of the van for refills. They also have a screw-on top that fits a waterline perfectly preventing spills. Often we’ll use this opening to refill the kitchen container using a water hose.
Coleman Propane Tanks
One Coleman propane tank usually lasts about a week so we keep extra cylinders in our Pelican case along with a large 11 lb Flame King propane tank for refills.
Don’t forget to bring a lighter to fire up your stove for cooking. We usually keep a few lighters in case they run out.
A foldable cutting board is great for cooking and cleaning in small spaces. Whenever you’re done, you can fold the cutting board in the middle to discard the leftovers easily in the trash bin.
We have one large kitchen knife that can do the job of many. We got one that’s ultra-sharp and can be used to cut a variety of things from veggies to meat and bread.
Pans & Pots
For cooking, we bring along one medium-sized pan, one small pot, and a cast-iron skillet. For pots and pans, I recommend using ones with detachable handles so it’s easier to store them in the kitchen cabinets.
Plates & Bowls
For plates stick with ones that are light and easy to clean. Plastic or melamine plates are great because they’re durable and won’t break if you drop them.
For eating, we have a couple of sporks that double up as a spoon and a fork saving space and the need to bring extra utensils. Plastic sporks are great because they’re light and don’t make any sound when driving.
Our magnetic spice rack is one of my favorite parts of our campervan kitchen. Instead of keeping spices hidden away in drawers, we installed a permanent spice rack next to our fridge. It adds a bit of style to our build and is also very convenient for cooking since the spices are always within an arm’s reach.
Having a cup of coffee is the one thing that I look forward to the most in the mornings. I just love it when the fresh coffee scent fills up the entire van.
One of the easiest ways to make coffee in a campervan is by using the AeroPress coffee maker. Many van lifers use this coffee machine because it can fit into small storage spaces and it won’t break if you accidentally drop it. We also have a small Porlex coffee grinder for an exceptionally aromatic cup of coffee.
Hydro Flask is a great multi-use travel mug for van life. You can use it for drinking a variety of beverages from coffee to tea, water, and wine. It keeps the hot drinks super hot and the cold drinks cold for a very long time. It’s the best-insulated cup that I’ve used so far.
Reusable Water Bottle
Before we left for our Pan-American road trip I got a reusable Brita water bottle with a built-in filter. When you fill-up on the water in public places, it might not always taste the best. I love this reusable bottle because it improves the taste of the water by filtering out chlorine.
Other Kitchen Essentials:
- Can Opener. Cans can be stored for a long time so they’re great for van life meals. But canned goods rarely come with a lever to open them so having a can opener is essential.
- Bottle Opener. A bottle opener comes in handy when we feel like enjoying a relaxing glass of wine or beer at the end of the day.
- Dish Soap. I like to get biodegradable dish soaps since water from the kitchen sink ends up on the ground outside.
- Cleaning Sponge. Go with a high-quality sponge that will last you a while.
- Cooking Oil. I get the smallest extra virgin olive oil bottle sold at the store so it can fit into our kitchen drawers.
- Kitchen Towels. I always bring a few kitchen towels that I use for drying our dishes and cleaning up after cooking.
- Paper Towels. Paper towels are great for cleaning up unexpected messes.
- Cleaner. I love Dr. Bronner’s all-purpose cleaner that can be used to wash floors, wipe off countertops, clean the inside of the van, or even do laundry.
- Small Trash Can & Trash Bags. We keep our trash can stored in a kitchen cabinet to keep the smell contained.
- Brush And Dust Pan. A small brush is essential to keep the van clean. I usually sweep our van once after breakfast and once at night.
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“Where do you shower and go to the bathroom?” is by far the most frequently asked question that we get about van life. To answer that question, here is everything that we bring for showering and staying clean in a van!
Solar Shower Bag
For showering, we have a solar shower bag. It’s very easy to use and doesn’t require any special setup.
You just need to fill up the solar shower bag with water and leave it in the sun for about an hour or until the water warms up. Then find a tall branch or a hook to hang it on and you’re all set to shower outdoors!
Curtain Or Privacy Tent
If you plan to shower outside you may want to get a curtain or a pop-up tent for privacy. We use a grey shower curtain that we attach to the back of our van whenever we’re taking a solar shower.
For showering, I like to use Dr. Bronner’s soap. I have been a fan of this soap brand for a long time because it leaves your body feeling so fresh and tingly after a shower.
Dr. Bronner’s soap is all-natural and made of biodegradable ingredients which is better for outdoor showers than using regular soap. Dr. Bronner’s soaps can also be used for many different tasks from showering to washing your hair, doing dishes, and cleaning the van.
When showering I like to wear a pair of sandals to keep my feet from getting dirty on the ground or stepping on something sharp.
The REI Co-Cop Multi Towel Lite is great for van life because this towel is light and dries quickly. It’s also very compact and folds small – perfect for limited storage spaces.
We also installed small hooks on the inside of our van to hang wet towels.
Shampoo & Conditioner
When living in a van you might not get the chance to wash your hair very often. Even a small bottle of shampoo can go a long way!
This shampoo and conditioner set is eco-friendly and comes with a pump which makes it easier to apply it especially when showering outdoors.
If you have to skip a few shower days and start getting that greasy feeling in your hair, dry shampoo is a great alternative to washing your hair. Dry shampoo instantly makes your hair feel refreshed, removes oils, bad scents, and gives it more volume.
Other Toiletries To Pack:
We don’t have a built-in toilet in our campervan so when we go on trips, we rely on public restrooms. In our experience, there’s always a gas station, coffee shop, grocery store, Walmart, rest stop, trailhead, or a campsite within a short drive that allows us to use their restroom.
Here’s what we do bring along for our bathroom needs!
When it comes to van life, having a set of wipes is essential. If we can’t find a good spot to shower, or we’re too tired from a long day of driving to take a solar shower, our nightly routine includes using wipes before heading to bed. They’re also great for that extra fresh feeling after going #2.
Toilet Paper & Seat Covers
Storage space in our van is pretty limited but one item that you never want to run out of is toilet paper.
You never know if a public restroom will be stock with toilet paper and seat covers so it’s always a good idea to bring some with you.
I didn’t know that these feminine products existed until I started traveling full time and I found out that just about every female traveling in a van has one. I immediately ordered a pee funnel and it’s been a lifesaver. It lets you pee standing up (like a guy) so you can go to the restroom outdoors more discreetly.
If you plan to spend a lot of time camping in the wilderness where public restrooms are not as easily accessible, we recommend bringing a trowel for going outdoors. We also use one on our backpacking trips and make sure to follow “Leave No Trace” principles by packing out all the toilet paper.
For our bedroom set up, we have a built-in bed in our campervan that we use for sleeping. I love having a built-in bed because at the end of the day we can just change into our pajamas and crawl under the blankets without doing any setup.
We have a full-size bed so we got a full-size comforter and a duvet cover. Although it’s a bit of a pain to put on the duvet cover each time, it’s much easier to wash a cover than the entire blanket.
We also keep a few extra decorative blankets that we use for colder weather especially in the mountains where temperatures can drop to freezing overnight.
I like to use multiple pillows for sleeping. Pillows are also great for getting comfortable in the passenger seat on extra-long drives.
Stuff gets dirty in the van pretty quickly (especially if you have a dog). Before each trip, I make sure to wash everything especially the sheets & pillowcases.
We installed small curtains on our van’s windows to give us more privacy especially for sleeping. For the front windshield, we got an extra-large windshield cover that we can easily pop in at the end of the day.
Often there is a lot of downtime when traveling in a campervan. Sometimes we take a short break from driving, other times we stay put to hang out with other van lifers or catch up with work. Here are some items to make that stationery time more comfortable!
To keep bugs out of our van we got a magnetic screen for the main door. Whenever we stop at a campsite and plan to keep the door open to circulate air, we always put up the mosquito net.
To keep the screen up we attached Velcro strips all along the door. The more coverage you can create, the fewer bugs will get in.
The magnetic screen protects you only when you’re inside the van. Bug spray is the best protection from insect bites for adventures on the go!
Sunscreen is a must for spending time outside, especially if you plan to do a lot of hiking or hang out at the beach.
Foldable chairs are great for eating, working, or enjoying a campfire. We have a couple of foldable chairs that we can easily put together when we’re stopped at a campsite or store at the back of our van when we’re done.
We also have a small table that we can prop up for eating meals. This table has foldable legs that are easy to set up and is made of aluminum material that doesn’t rust.
Twinkle lights are great for adding a cute ambiance, especially at night. We have one set of twinkle lights installed below the ceiling slats and another set that runs on batteries which we often hang outside.
Reading a book is one of my favorite pass times when living in a van. You may not always have WiFi available so I recommend downloading a few Kindle books ahead of time for entertainment.
Read Next: 17 Van Life Hacks To Make Life Easier
As a full-time travel blogger, I’m always carrying around a lot of camera gear and electronics. Keeping all of my electronics charged in a van can be a bit of a challenge but over the years we have perfected the system.
Laptop And Laptop Charger
We have a secret pocket in our van where we keep our laptops hidden away. I also got a universal car charger to charge my laptop directly from the van. This charger is compatible with most computers (except MacBooks).
If you don’t want to buy all new car chargers, you can get an inverter to use the existing wall chargers that you already have.
We have the BESTEK inverter that I use to power up electronics like my hair straightener that I can’t plug directly in the van outlet.
In van life, we rely on our phones to find campsites, grocery stores, gas stations, places to fill up on water, do laundry, and other daily chores. I’m notorious for always losing my charging cables which is not ideal when my phone starts running low on battery and we’re in the middle of driving to our next campsite.
Keep an extra phone cable in your storage in case it stops working.
Travel blogging is my main source of income so on every trip I take thousands of photos. I use the Sony a7II mirrorless camera which comes with a full-frame sensor to create large high-quality images. But for the casual photographer, this camera can be a bit of an overkill.
If you’re just starting out with photography, the Sony a6000 camera is my suggested go-to option because it can produce great images at a fraction of the price. I love the Sony a6000 camera and still often use it for traveling abroad because it’s very small (drawing less attention to you), super light, and easy to use.
Memory Cards And Hard Drives
Before heading on a trip, I make sure to clear out my camera’s memory cards and back up any new photos in a separate hard drive. There is no worse feeling than accidentally dropping your hard drive and losing all of your images at once (which has happened to me).
To avoid this, I back up all of my photos and switched to using the more durable SanDisk Extreme Portable External SSD that is built to withstand rugged conditions and drops up to 6 feet.
A tripod comes in handy to improve image quality and reduce blurriness, especially for night shots and waterfall images.
Carrying around a large tripod can be challenging especially where space is a limiting factor. For van life trips I love using Joby GorillaPod that’s very small and lightweight. It’s easy to pack in a backpack and carry with me everywhere.
Jackery Explorer 1000
Keeping all of our electronics running can often drain our van’s battery. We even had to add extra solar panels just to keep up with it all.
For times when we’re stationary at a campsite, we use the Jackery Explorer 1000 to charge our electronics. The Jackery Explorer 1000 is a portable power station that’s perfectly built for outdoor adventures: a large battery, a variety of AC and DC power ports, and a solar generator all in a compact and lightweight package that’s easy to take along on any trip.
What we pack for clothing highly depends on weather conditions, and what type of activities we plan on doing. We spend a lot of time hiking outdoors so most of our clothing items revolve around comfort and durability.
Pick pieces that can be easily adaptable and layered depending on the weather. If you’re planning to spend time in Mexico, you may want to leave your winter gear at home. But if you’re planning to drive down to Patagonia, cold-weather clothing is a must.
Pack only the things that you absolutely need to have and stay away from bringing outfits that you won’t wear every day (like fancy dresses and heels).
For shoes, you want to pack a couple of different pairs. I recommend bringing:
- A comfortable pair of sneakers for driving
- Shoes for walking around cities
- A pair of day hiking boots
- A pair of over-the-ankle boots for backpacking trips in the mountains
Having a good pair of socks is so important especially during those long driving days when your feet spend a lot of time inside the shoes. I love the merino wool socks which are very comfortable, durable, and made of breathable material that doesn’t make your feet feel sweaty.
Leggings are my go-to pants for traveling in a van. They are so comfortable and can be layered with nicer shirts and sweaters for exploring cities or also worn for outdoor activities like camping and hiking. I usually stick to simple colors that don’t get easily dirty and go with many different looks.
For shirts, I pack a mix of simple t-shirts, tank tops, and some longer thermal shirts that I wear at night. Flannels are my favorite shirts to bring for looking cute in photos while also staying comfortable.
If your travel destinations include heading to colder places, make sure to bring along a warmer jacket especially for the evenings. A rainjacket can shield you from unexpected rainstorms and keep you warm during windier and colder conditions.
The one clothing item that you never want to run out of is underwear. Always keep extra underwear in your van because you never know when the next laundry day will be.
During our time in Central America, we pretty much lived in our bathing suits (which also meant less dirty laundry to do – a nice added bonus!).
Whether you plan to use a solar shower outdoors, go for swims in rivers, beaches or hang out at hot springs, pack a few bathing suits!
Pssst! Here are our favorite hot springs – from all around the world!
I have a couple of cute travel hats that I pack for our trips in the van. They’re so fun for photos plus serve as a great backup when showers are not readily available and my hair starts to look like a hot mess.
My favorite hat is the TenTree Festival that’s perfect for outdoors and hiking trips.
For quick day adventures, I have a small backpack from REI that I use to store my car keys, wallet, water, some snacks, camera gear, and other necessities.
Having a pair of sunglasses is so essential especially for driving. I like to wear polarized sunglasses that eliminate the sun glare which helps with driving when facing direct sunlight.
Going on a road trip with your dog (or a cat – oh yes, we traveled with our cat for almost 2 years) can be a great experience, or a frustrating one, depending on if you go prepared. Here are some things to bring along to make your journey with your pet smoother and more enjoyable.
If your pet gets anxious during trips or likes to move around a lot, consider getting a travel crate. While you may want your dog or cat to sit on your lap while driving, they can unexpectedly crawl under your feet or fall off the chair. A hard-sided crate is the safest option for car rides and long trips with your pet.
When packing for a road trip there are always a million things to keep in mind. Don’t forget to bring your pet’s favorite food that they’re used to. Always bring extra food because you never know if you’ll be able to find more on the road.
I love to use a collapsible dog bowl for hiking and road trips. These bowls are light and compress super small – easy to throw in a purse, a backpack, or store in the van.
Unless you plan to share your bed with your pet (which a lot of people do in their campervans), you may want to bring along a separate bed for them to sleep on at night. If it’s their first time traveling in a van, I recommend bringing a bed that they’re used to and smells familiar to make them feel more comfortable.
Nobody likes to see (or step) into another dog’s poop outdoors. Be prepared by bringing along extra doggie bags so you don’t run out.
Toys And Bones
I always pack a lot of toys and bones to keep my pup busy during car rides or when hanging out. Some treats that keep my dog occupied for a long time are meaty bones, bully sticks, and a kong classic toy filled with peanut butter.
We hope this post has helped you prepare for an adventure of a lifetime in your campervan! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask us in the comment section below!
Before you head out on a trip, we also recommend that you download the iOverlander app that can help you find campsites, rest stops, gas stations, water fill stations, grocery stores, laundry places – really anything you need for van life. This app was a lifesaver during our PanAmerican road trip and also a great way to meet other van lifers.
Another great tool is the PanAmerican Travelers Association Facebook group. We often browse this group to find answers to specific questions or see travel updates for Overlanding.
Looking for more van life inspiration? Check out some of our other popular posts below:
- Van Life Tips: How To Shower Outdoors
- 20 Helpful Tips For Stealth Camping In A Van
- 10 Things You Should Know Before Living In A Van
- 15 Traveling Tips For Van Life Couples
- 17 Van Life Hacks To Make Life Easier On The Road
Interested in how I capture amazing photos on my trips? Here is the camera gear that I use to create my photos:
- Main camera: Sony a7II Camera With 28-70 mm Standard Lens
- Polarizer Filter for the standard lens (helps eliminate reflection and enhance color especially on super bright days): Amazon Basics 55 mm
- Wide Lens (great for nature shots): Sony 16-35 mm F4
- Polarizer Filter for the wide lens: Amazon Basics 72 mm
- Small Tripod (to stabilize photos and eliminate blur): JOBY Gorrilapod
- Memory Cards: SanDisk 32 GB
- Batteries: Sony Camera Charger Set
- Camera Bag: Lowepro weather-resistant bag
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