Admittedly, the “gearing up” part was difficult for me. As a true gear junkie who’s collected and tested gear for a decade, it was hard to leave gear behind. Bulky and niche items with a single-use would have to stay home.
Now that we’ve been on the road for 8 months, there are several items that I’m glad we packed or purchased along the way for the van. I wanted to highlight a few items to help others who might be in the same predicament. To be clear, this isn’t a list of everything we packed, just some standouts. So, let’s dive in.
Van Life Adventure Goals
We have two goals for our van life adventure. The first is to reset, slow down, and contemplate what we want to do with our lives. The second is to explore some amazing places.
For us, exploring means hiking, biking, fly fishing, and pack rafting in wild spaces. To do all those activities, and to live day-to-day, we needed gear.
Van Life Gear: Inside the Van
We opted for a larger powered cooler since there were three of us, and we had the space for it. Dometic’s CFX3 DZ75 Portable Cooler has two compartments with wire baskets to stay organized. One side is a fridge; the other can get cold enough to be a freezer if needed. It’s easy to control using the CFX3 app and it’s energy efficient.
If this Dometic model isn’t the perfect fit for your needs, check out our best electric coolers of 2023 buyers guide.
This electric kettle from Bodum made morning coffee and tea so much easier. We also use it to speed up boiling water for dinner and warm water to give our toddler a van bath. No, it’s not energy efficient, but the time savings was worth it.
Front Window Screens
We preferred to use our hose to fill our water tank, but that wasn’t always an option. We used Sea to Summit’s 20L collapsible bucket about half the time, and it was great. It folded down so small (4.5 x 4.5 x 1.75 inches) we could stash it anywhere. As a bonus, we also used it to douse our campfires.
Discreet Water Refills
The 3L collapsible water bottle from HydraPak was more discreet than our bucket if we were filling water at the library, a gym, or a visitor center.
Sometimes, we also screwed on a Katadyn water filter to the top if we thought the water needed it. We also use it on our hikes.
Handy Van Life Items: Inside & Outside
We kept a Leatherman FREE P4 in our “junk drawer” instead of in the “garage” storage area in the back of the van with the other tools, and we ended up using it all the time.
The uses are endless! We used them to secure items in the van so they don’t rattle while driving and used them to fasten things together. We kept a pack in all of our vehicles in case we needed them.
We have lights built into the van and headlamps, yet we used a little lantern a ton. BioLite’s AlpenGlow 250 has many color settings, and you can dim it. We used the warm light, half-light, and candle flicker settings the most.
If the BioLite AlpenGlow isn’t quite right for you, check out our best camping lanterns of 2023 buyers guide.
Adventure & Camping Gear: Outside of the Van
Peak Design’s Everyday Backpack is very well thought out, and the design allowed me to use it for coffee shop workdays, hiking, and photo sessions. The dividers were particularly helpful, making things like a lens or a diaper easier to find in the pack. Plus, it’s the perfect size to be your under-the-seat “personal item” on airplanes.
The Zero Highback camp chairs from Helinox have a higher back than most making them a lot comfier since you can lean your head back and relax. These were perfect beach chairs since they were easy to set up and they don’t take up much space in the van.
To find the perfect camp chair for you and your use, check out our best camping chairs of 2023 buyers guide.
Kids’ Van Life Gear
For more of the best child carrier backpacks, check out our best baby carriers for hiking in 2023 buyers guide.
We were traveling with our 2-year-old daughter, who was in diapers. We used these sacks to hold smelly diapers on hikes and in the van until we found a trashcan.
Van Life Apps & Technology
My wife and I used several apps to find places to camp/park, fill up water, find hiking trails, save money on gas, and work remotely from the road. Here are the ones we used daily or weekly.
Gas Apps & Money Savings on the Road
Gas App #1
Gas Buddy shows gas prices in a certain area which gas station employees and other users update. We used Gas Buddy to see if it was best to fill up at a particular station in a town or even wait for the next town. You can also enter your destination to see gas prices on the way.
There can be a lot of variability for stations in the same town. One time in California we were able to save $1.30 per gallon by driving 5 minutes down the road!
Similarly, we’ve saved a bunch of money by looking at the prices in the towns we’re headed to. A recent example had us saving $1.20 per gallon by fueling up in Arizona versus filling up 20 miles later in California. Gas Buddy does offer a “card” to boost savings, though we haven’t used it. We’ve saved at least $400 in gas using Gas Buddy so far.
Gas App #2
Upside is an app that offers cash back on gas purchases. It partners with select stations (as well as restaurants and grocery stores) to offer discounts to entice users to shop there. We always checked Gas Buddy first then we checked if there were any better deals in Upside. The two companies are partnered, but I found Gas Buddy more helpful.
If we found a deal, we “claimed” the offer and had 4 hours to make the purchase, which was tracked via credit card or uploading a receipt. For a great deal, I went a little out of the way to save money. Unfortunately, sometimes it was only 1-3 cents, which was less enticing. In total, we’ve earned about $100 in cash back so far.
Gas Credit Card(s)
I am one of those crazy “credit card points” people. As a result, I’m always getting between 4-10% back on gas on top of the savings from Gas Buddy and Upside. We got the U.S. Bank Altitude Connect Visa card before our trip as our gas card. It offers 4% back all the time.
We’ve also taken advantage of promos on our other cards, e.g. in Q4 of 2022, the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa offered 10% off gas purchases up to $1,500. That meant $150 back just for using a different card to buy the gas we were already planning to buy.
There are a ton of credit card options that offer rewards for gas purchases. If you really want to jump in, do some research to see what makes sense for your trip, your life, and your credit score.
Camping, Parking, Adventure, and Van Life Apps
Van Life Apps
We used iOverlander, FreeRoam, and Harvest Hosts to find free and cheap places to park/camp. iOverlander was our favorite since we could see other users’ comments about a particular place. This helped us know if camping was still allowed there, how the cell reception was, if it was flat, if we needed a 4WD to get there, road noise, safety concerns, etc. It also lists water fill-up spots, showers, and paid campgrounds. Plus, it’s free.
Create Your Own Maps in Google Maps
With some extra effort, you can create a map of your own to visualize everything you want to do in an area. We liked to make these ahead of time and list all the hikes we wanted to do, camping spots, places to eat, etc. It made planning the route easier for me when we could see all the points together on the map.
AllTrails Pro App
We used AllTrails to find trails to hike while we traveled. Even better, other users comment on their hikes to share trail conditions, wildlife sightings, and parking tips. Knowing the trail was muddy yesterday and a bear was spotted the day before was very helpful.
I’ve found that Trailforks is the best option for finding the best mountain biking trails in a new area.
Van Life Technology & Other Items We Loved
Car Phone Mount
Hands-free driving is the way to go (and also the law) so we chose a mount that’s also a wireless charger. Wireless charging is a game changer in the van.
Peak Design’s wireless car phone charger with the Everyday phone case was the perfect pairing. The charger is magnetic, so when it was time to go, I just grabbed my phone and pulled it to release. It’s a simple thing that made a huge difference.
Cell Signal Booster
My wife and I were both working from the road and used our phones as hotspots. Our WeBoost cell-signal booster added a little extra speed when we were in areas with one to two bars of cell service.
GPS & Off-Grid Communication
We used a Garmin inReach Mini for texting family when we were in the backcountry or off the grid. It was simple to use and the peace of mind went a long way. We could also use it to contact search and rescue in an emergency.
The Pale Blue Earth batteries recharge with a micro-USB cable instead of a bulky charger, making them easier to use and allowing us to pack less when traveling.
We needed to charge our iPhones and USB-A/USB-C items. We ordered these three-in-one charging cords, and they keep our cord situation simple. The cords are retractable, so they never get tangled. At $12 for a pair, it’s a no-brainer.
Apparel & Footwear
“How did you decide what clothes to bring for van life?” I got this main question when I told people about our van life adventure. As a gear junkie, I had a lot of options, but I narrowed it down to durable items that could be worn more than once and used in various situations. Below are a few standout items.
Quality Base Layers
New this year, the Arc’teryx Rho Hybrid Base Layer top and bottom have merino wool in “high-funk” areas like the armpits and groin to help keep them smelling fresh. The rest is made of a fast-wicking polyester called Phasic AR II. Both layers have kept me warm and dry on hikes, rides, and while sleeping in colder climates. In my recent stink test, the top didn’t smell yet after three hikes and 5 nights of consecutive sleep.
After a few months of testing GOREWEAR’s TrailKPR hybrid jacket, it still performed well and looked great. It’s made for mountain biking in colder weather, but it was perfect for hikes and other activities. GORE added extra panels to reinforce the shoulders, chest, lower back, and upper arms and protect against wind, mud, light rain, and abrasion from backpacks or hip packs.
I don’t like putting on sunscreen, so I often reached for a breathable sun hoodie instead. Free Fly has a variety of fabric weights, and I’ve been wearing the lightweight hoodie for a few years now. It’s the softest and most comfy sun hoodie I’ve found yet.
For more sun shirt options, check out our best sun protection shirts buyers guide.
Active Insulation Jackets
I’ve fallen in love with this type of jacket over the past decade. It’s made to breathe well during activity but kept me warm when I stopped. I own several, and I brought Patagonia’s Nano-Air for higher exertion activities and the Proton LT from Arc’teryx when I need more warmth and durability.
If you bring good pants you don’t need to pack as many of them. I have two favorites here: Western Rise Evolution pants and prAna’s Brion Slim pants. Both are great for travel, hiking, climbing, etc. I packed two of each, plus some jeans, and I didn’t need anything else.
Jeans are comfy and don’t give off the “yeah, I hike a lot” vibes like some other pants. I’ve owned a few pairs from DUER and brought its latest Stay Dry Denim Jeans on the trip because they are versatile. A gusseted crotch helped with mobility, the LYCRA spandex helped stretch, and a DWR coating kept light precipitation off.
You know that feeling when you got, and fell in love with, your first down jacket? It’s the same with pants! I recently got some Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer puffy pants, and let me tell you, this luxury item was worth the splurge. I’ve been using them while hanging in the van at night and stargazing in Sedona, Ariz., lately — that extra warmth was wonderful.
Surprisingly Useful Footwear
I’m not usually a slipper guy, so I made the same mistake with slippers as rain boots. My wife had them, and I didn’t. Well, now, I wear Glerups every day. It was nice to have a designated van shoe that was comfy and easy to slide on.
Short Rain Boots
I initially didn’t bring these, but my wife did, and I immediately became envious. They slipped on quickly, worked in almost any weather, and were easy to clean. Whether it’s a rainy or snowy day, in the desert or running into the gas station, I will wear these.
Unique Van Life Items We Love
These items were surprises. We didn’t expect to like them or use them as often as we did. Finding a few gems is always fun, especially when they aren’t too expensive.
Van Organizers & Storage
We used these to maximize storage space in otherwise unusable places in the van. They come in various shapes and sizes, and we installed five of them to keep us organized.
This nifty bag is meant to stash smelly shoes outside your vehicle when car camping. It has magnets to attach to the side of your car. We actually used it inside the van since we have some exposed metal, and it held some extra clothes in a space that would otherwise go unused.
We used it to stash our wallets, keys, park passes, quarters, and other items we wanted to keep handy. It’s a simple item but I’m stoked we had it, and we used it every day.
There are a bunch of options online for these organizers. We used them for all of our clothes, and the ones with dividers were particularly great for socks, underwear, T-shirts, and kids’ clothes.
Magnets & Velcro
We got creative with both of these, so keep them in mind for your travels. We used Velcro to secure our soap holder on the counter and to keep our fan remote from disappearing. We used these magnetic pencil holders to hold glasses and hair clips.
Wellness on the Road
Mini Back Massager
My neck holds a lot of tension, and we didn’t have room in the van for our chiropractor. I used this while I drove/rode when I had aches in my neck and shoulders. It’s compact and got the job done.
I prefer a roll-on option from cbdMD in the van so I don’t get my hands dirty. It saves a little bit of water and it’s easier. If I had a nagging pain, I put it on before bed to fall asleep faster.
There are plenty of uses for essential oils, from making the van smell better to stress relief and more. My main standout was DiGize from Young Living. If I had an upset stomach, I rolled this on my stomach, and I felt a lot better in minutes.
We had time for more activities in the van, which also led to sore muscles. Taking protein after any activity helped reduce soreness and speeded up recovery. I have a spot in the back of the van dedicated to Gnarly supplements. I was particularly stoked about the whey protein, BCAAs, and the pre-workout.
More Great Travel Items
This is an odd item, but hear me out. We don’t have a bathroom in the van so we each had a Nalgene water bottle for when we needed to pee at night. Pee cloths are especially great for van life ladies (though guys can use them as well). Use it in place of toilet paper, fold it in half, and snap it closed. That folding and snapping kept everything sanitary. The fabric is infused with silver to help cut down on odor, and we haven’t noticed any funk at all. Yes, we wash it regularly.
There’s something great about holding a book and reading about a new place. It was great for doing research when we were out of cell range. Yeah, we used blogs to find places to go and things to do, but we also used Lonely Planet books a ton.
Wrapping It Up
There you have it! A list of some of the gear we used each week to keep us organized, happy, and safe as we traveled in our van. If you’re considering van life or even an extended road trip, some of these will come in handy for you. And, once you hit the road, I’m sure you’ll find some other items to fall in love with.