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Over the course of five months living in a van (our van Elvis), we learnt what gear was essential gear for van life, and what wasn’t, pretty quickly. We refined our camping accessories over the months and now we’ve got it pretty much down to a T for both the summer months and for living in a van in winter. Our must-have items for vanlife aren’t too fancy but this van life gear will make your van camping experience that much better.
Mostly you learn how even when you think you’ve sold everything you own, you’ve still got a lot of crap you really, really, don’t need (and won’t miss when it’s in a top box on the roof for five months).
There were a few things Thom bought that I thought we probably wouldn’t need. The cheapskate in me figured we’d be just fine without it. I’m glad he realised we’d need things like a solar panel even when I thought we’d be fine charging things up in cafes for 5 months. Trust me, it would’ve been such a hassle and a waste of time.
If you’re thinking of packing it all up and van dwelling while living on the road then here are some camping gadgets and camper van accessories that I’d say make a pretty substantial van life essentials list.
Power & charging while living in a van
When you’re working on your camper van conversion there are a few things you’re going to need to consider. One of those is how you’re going to charge all those electric things we’re so attached too.
If you’re just using it as a travel van then you may be okay with just a cigarette charger. But, if you’re planning to live and work in a van or will be living in a camper full time, then you’ll want something a bit more substantial.
Here are a few van gadgets that kept us charged up and which I would suggest adding to your van life must haves list!.
It was stolen from our van in Vancouver after we’d moved into our apartment and I miss it on our trips in Elvis.
I’m not sure what we would have done without it; it’s definitely a piece of essential gear when you’re living in a camper.
While there are other methods of converting your solar power into electricity that you can actually use, the Goal Zero makes the process super easy and does it all for you.
It saves you having to buy about three pieces of kit as you only need this & a solar panel.
Ours was relatively small and has two USB ports, and a couple of ‘normal’ plug sockets which meant we could keep laptops, phones, cameras and anything else charged up while we lived in our van. It also powered our Fantastic Fan!
If you’re hoping to have a fridge or TV in your van then you’ll probably want one of the more powerful Goal Zeros.
You can’t see it unless you go looking for it – that’s how slim it is!
This helps keep our van light too.
The panel connects to our Goal Zero and kept us powered throughout our journey (and now on our weekend trips too!).
Van dwelling solar power was the best power for us. It meant we didn’t have to book a space at a campsite with electric hookup as we’d be getting power throughout the day as we drove around or had Elvis parked up.
For us one solar panel was enough, but if you have a fridge or a TV you might want to invest in two.
Whilst we did most of our charging through our Goal Zero, sometimes we needed a little extra juice in our phones while we were driving.
Our Goal Zero was in the back of the van so we used the 12v slot upfront to keep our phones powered up.
When you’re living out of a van temperature control becomes a big deal. You don’t want to be too hot in the summer and you definitely don’t want to be too cold in the winter.
Living in a van full time is made so much easier with these vanlife accessories.
Meet anybody living the van life and you’ll probably find that they’ve got a fantastic fan installed in their camper van. It’s one of the best van life accessories and definitely one of the must have items for vanlife. They help keep you cool in the summer, and suck out the moisture while you’re cooking too.
The Fantastic vans are regularly considered to be the best fan for van life since they do everything you need them too. These fans come in different models and prices. Some have rain sensors so close when they detect rain, others can suck air in and push it out and some just push it out.
We bought the cheaper model (the one that just sucks the air out) which is good for keeping the van ventilated when cooking. Thom then did some DIY and added a switch and a couple of wires that means our fan now goes both ways – something we were VERY thankful for on humid nights in Florida and New Orleans.
You’re not really supposed to use these inside as it can release harmful gas into your van, but most vanlifers use a Mr Buddy Heater come the winter season. It’s a life-changer and one of my top winter van essentials.
We’d put ours on just as we got into bed to warm the van up a little and then again in the mornings. It helped to take the chill out. Always turn it off before you fall asleep and make sure you buy that CO alarm to stay safe!
This also ended up being the best way to unfreeze my frozen ski boots during our skiing trip to Revelstoke!
At the start of our trip we were in a super freezing cold Toronto (minus 20 degrees!). We definitely needed a hot water bottle at times. If you’re going to be staying anywhere remotely cold then I suggest you buy or take, a hot water bottle with you too. You won’t regret it and it’s not exactly the bulkiest of van gear either!
Vanlife kitchen essentials
You’re not going to want to eat our all the time while you live in a van so make sure you’ve got these kitchen accessories for your van.
Another of my must haves for van life is a stove of some sort. Depending on how fancy you’re going with the interior of your van, this might be built into a kitchen countertop, or free-standing like ours.
We picked up a fairly cheap camping stove in Canadian Tire (about $70), like this one. It wasn’t the cheapest (the cheapest felt like it’d fall apart!), but it wasn’t the most expensive either.
One of the best ways to save money when travelling is to cook your own food. Plus, I like cooking so a camping stove was essential.
We bought one with two burners to make things a little easier and of course you’ll need some gas to make it work! Again, stock up on gas as it’s rubbish when you run out (we had to eat half-cooked potatoes once when we were in the middle of nowhere with no gas!). Just make sure the gas you buy fits with your stove first!
A lot of camping stoves don’t come with a built-in ignition. We bought an ignitor to get our stove going and it’s a good idea to have one about anyway as the ignitor tends to be the first thing to break on camping stoves!
If you’re a coffee lover but don’t have room for a coffee machine in your van then consider getting a cafetière/French press.
I didn’t use mine that much (I preferred to seek out coffee shops while on our road trip) but there were certain days I was super glad we had this in a cupboard!
If you’re the only coffee drinker these Bodum cafetiere cups are awesome and great for when you’re on the go too!
Saucepan & frying pan
We didn’t really have room, or need, for a fridge while we were travelling.
Sure, it probably would’ve been easier to have a fridge but when we really needed to keep something cool we just bought some ice and stocked up cool box.
We bought a small cool box about half-way through our trip across America and still use it on weekend camping trips.
Hand pump & sink
Having a sink inside the van is so much better than doing all your washing up outside. When it’s cold and rainy outside you’re not going to want to stand out there to brush your teeth or wash the dishes up.
We put in a small sink with a hand pump and it works great.
It was pretty easy to plumb into our big plastic water container. We just bought some plastic tubing from Home Depot.
You’ll probably find you need a whole array of water bottles. We had some for everyday use while we were out hiking and exploring and some for keeping in the van that supplied our sink.
We have two big 10 litre bottles. One is for waste water and the other connects to our sink for washing up (they were previously full of drinking water and bought from Walmart). These collapsible ones look a bit more long lasting and are handy since they fold down super small when not in use.
There will be times (probably many times) when you aren’t going to be near a shower. You may be covered in dust from a hike, or just feeling a bit grimy. When you can’t get to a shower baby wipes are the next best thing!
You’ll want to stock up on these as you’ll get through them quicker than you think!
Van life essentials for safety
It’s better to be safe than sorry. These van accessories will help keep you safe should something bad happen, and for the little accidents that are bound to happen.
As above, it’s always better to be safe. In fact, I think it’s law to have one of these in your RV/Campervan when staying at an official campsite in Canada. It doesn’t have to be big but having one could save your life!
Sleeping essentials for vanlife
With all that adventuring you’ll want to get a good night’s sleep. Here are some items that’ll help you do just that!
Foam mattresses are not only super comfortable but, unlike spring mattresses, they can be chopped up so that you can make your own sofa bed for your van.
We bought our foam mattress for the van from Ikea and then cut it ourselves. However, you could find a cheaper alternative by just buying foam and getting it cut to the sizes you need.
This is the mattress we bought, but you can usually find a store which will cut foam to whatever sizes you desire. I imagine that’s cheaper too!
If you already own a good sleeping bag then that’ll do fine but if not then take a look at the one below.
They’re cozy, lightweight, durable, waterproof, and resistant to smell and stains – perfect for van life!
Other vanlife gear
These camping gadgets are well worth buying. They’re the sort of thing you might forget about but it’ll help!
At least it’s quicker than tidying a whole house!
This one only applies if you’re living the vanlife in the USA. The America is beautiful National Parks Pass was one of our most cost-effective buys.
It cost just $80 for the year and got us both free entry into all the National Parks, National Monuments and other sights too. We save SO much money by buying this!
We tended to use our headlamps a lot while living in our van. We have it on us anyway for hiking reasons and it’s super useful in the van. I’d use it as a reading lamp while Thom was still sleeping in the mornings and he’d use it at night when I was already asleep.
It also includes a power bank which you can then use to charge your phone.
You can string the lights up with the little ties, and they’re magnetic too.
One of the van life gadgets you might not think of, but which we found extremely useful! We were constantly misplacing our keys while living in the van so attaching a Tile to them saved us a lot of time (and arguing) looking for them. Tiles are also super useful when you’re not living in a van
Buy a phone holder that attaches to your dashboard or windscreen so that you’re not illegally (and dangerously) trying to use your phone and drive.
I prefer ones that stick directly to your dashboard, or attach to the vents as the suction cups tend to fall off the window when you need them most!
Depending on how old your van is you might not have a USB slot where you can plug in your phone to play music. Elvis is from 2008 and the only way we could play our Spotify playlists was to buy an FM transmitter.
An Alarm clock
It might be your phone, or maybe it’s something a little bit fancier but you’ll want something to wake you up.
Firstly, if you’re stealth camping somewhere you’ll want to wake up early to avoid being spotted and asked to move.
Secondly, don’t waste your day sleeping. There’s so much to get out and see!
It’s a great storage option to have and for that reason it’s one of my vanlife must haves.
When you’re chilling in your van it’s nice to have a little speaker to play some music or make that movie night all the better. It’s not exactly one of the must have van accessories, but it is nice to have.
A topographic map
Since we’ve been living in Vancouver we’ve loved finding new trails to explore (or just finding out where we are) thanks to our Backroads map.
They’re Canada specific and of course, there are other options. Just make sure you’ve got one!
Luckily our Elvis is pretty reliable but we still have a basic tool kit. I’d highly recommend getting one for your van too, I see it as one of the essentials for van life as you never know when you’re going to have to apply a quick fix here and. there.
This includes things such as spanners, screwdrivers, spare screws a hammer and some tape to patch up anything until we can get extra tools. They’re pretty must essentials for living in a van, especially one you’ve built yourself. Oh and make sure you have everything you need to change a tyre.
Anything else you’d add to this van life shopping list?