Over the course of five months living in a van (our van Elvis), we narrowed down the items we consider to be van life essentials pretty quickly. This essential gear for van life helped us live comfortable without overpacking our van. We refined our camping and best vanlife 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 and I now truly think a Goal Zero or Jackery are essentials for van life
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. Consider this your vanlife shop!
My ultimate list of essentials for van life
While everyone has their own opinion on what makes the list of essentials for vanlife, these are the things that personally, I wouldn’t want to be without. These van living essentials made living in a van for 5 months much easier and more comfortable. I’ve broken down these van life essentials into categories including power and charging, kitchen (including food and water) and a few safety items.
How to power your gear when living in a van
If you’re living in a camper van for an extended period of time, then working out a solution to charge your gear is important. In fact, it’s one of the van conversion must haves. You can go down the route of relying on power outlets at campsites, you can run off your van’s battery or, you can do what we did, and go solar.
We used solar power in our van for many reasons. The main reason was that it meant we didn’t have to rely on staying in campsites whenever we needed power. With solar, we were constantly generating power without even thinking about it.
While you can set up your own solar power system and fiddle about with all the wires and converters, we opted to buy a GoalZero. The Goal Zero. is a battery back that deals with converting the solar power into electricity you can use all in one box. It’s great!
Goal Zero Yeti or a Jackery
This was one of the most expensive van life essentials we purchased but also one of the ones we got the most use out of. I’d say that together with the solar panel (below) this is one of the best van life products to get.
It was stolen from our van in Vancouver after we’d moved into our apartment and we went a year or so without one, but we recently bought a Jackery that does the same thing (& is cheaper).
I’m not sure what we would have done without this to power our van; 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.
With a Goal Zero or a Jackery, you’ll need a solar panel to give it power. Solar panels are a fantastic investment, once you’ve got it set up you don’t need anything else! We bought one super slimline solar panel that sits on our roof.
You can’t see it unless you go looking for it – that’s how slim it is!
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. We saved so much money by not having to pay for campsites and that alone makes it a must have for van life in my books.
For us, one solar panel was enough, but if you have a fridge or a TV you might want to invest in two.
Our Goal Zero was in the back of the van so we used the 12v slot upfront to keep our phones powered up.
Camper van ventilation
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. Plus, when you’re cooking you should be getting some ventilation going so that the steam leaves the van and stops mould or damp.
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 Fan-tastic Fans 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 which make them 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 during 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!
For a more permanent solution that is safer to use for longer periods of time, you can opt for a diesel heater system. As given away by the name, a diesel heater runs on diesel. You need to have an exhaust set up for this so that the fumes go outside of your van. This means it involves a little bit more set up, but if you’re planning on spending a lot of time in cold places it’s probably going to be worth it to install some van life heaters.
At the start of our trip, we were in a super freezing cold Toronto (-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. Especially if you don’t plan on installing a heater, or buying a Mr Buddy. You won’t regret it and it’s not exactly the bulkiest of van gear either!
Van life 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. Below are my must have van life items for your new mini kitchen.
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 went free-standing rather than built-in as this way we could cook outside when we wanted to which was nice.
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. We use it all the time (including when we get power cuts), so it’s a must have for van camping equipment.
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.
Equally important on the list of van life must have items is gas! Our camp stove has two burners and to power it we need some gas, of course! 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.
If you’ve gone for a built in stove top you likely be using a much bigger gas container that can be refilled at gas stations or some large super stores.
Something you might not think of as important vanlife equipment is an ignitor. 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 I’m sure you’ll appreciate this is one of the things you need for van life. Some type of instrument for making coffee is going to be on most lists of vanlife essentials – it sure was for me.
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 cafetière cups are awesome and great for when you’re on the go too!
An essential item for any kitchen in a van or not! A chopping board is a must have for van life. These wooden ones are my fave as I feel like they’re a bit easier to clean than plastic ones and they look nicer 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. When it comes to vanlife food storage we kept dried goods in a wooden container that acted as a “shelf” in our kitchen and minimised the number of items we bought that would benefit from refrigeration. That meant we didn’t really cook meet ever and we’d buy UHT non-dairy milk as they lasted longer without cooling.
About half-way through our trip across America, we bought a small cool box still use it on weekend camping trips.
I’ve linked to one similar to what we had, but Yetis are the ultimate in cool boxes if you want to treat yourself and your van!
…Or a fridge
If you’re going all out and want to make sure you’ve always got a cold beer available then you can also install a fridge. I know many people count a fridge as a van life essential and the more popular ones out there are made by Dometic. These fridges are pretty fancy vanlife gadgets that’ll up your game.
Our friends recently converted a van and installed a Dometic fridge. It keeps the beers SO cold, if we redid our van it’s something we’d probably invest in.
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.
How to store water when living the van life
A life essential, and definitely a van life essential, is figuring out how you’re going to store water. Unless you’re going to have a huge 20-litre storage solution, you’ll probably find you need a couple of different sizes 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 and contained our grey water (the wastewater).
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.
Essentials for van life & staying clean
We didn’t have a shower in our campervan. I’ve seen Sprinter vans that have showers built-in and if you’ve opted for an RV then you’ll probably have one in there. But honestly, showers aren’t essential. Here’s how we stayed clean without a shower, and how to find showers when living in a van. Besides that, here are the van life essentials for keeping clean!
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!
When you do shower you’re going to want a towel. Microfiber towels are great for travelling and van life. They dry quickly and they pack up small too. They’re one of my must haves for vanlife and camping & backpacking too and are a bit of a bargain van essential.
Van life outdoor shower
If you couldn’t possibly imagine a life without a shower then you can install an outdoor shower for your van. While it’s possible to rig some of these up to your diesel heating system, the majority of the time it’ll be a cold shower. I’d suggest hooking this up somewhere towards the back of your van so you can shower post-surf or bike with the back doors giving you a little bit of privacy.
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 making it one of the most important van must haves. 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. Our van life bed is honestly more comfortable than our actual bed.
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 van life essentials
These camping gadgets are well worth buying. They’re the sort of thing you might forget about but it’ll help!
Ooo we’re getting on to the fancy best vanlife gadgets now! Ha! But seriously, you’ll get dust, hair, food and all sorts of dirt on the floor of your van. Buy a cheap dustpan and brush to keep things looking tidy. At least it’s quicker than tidying a whole house!
This one only applies if you’re living the van life in the US. 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! These cheap van essentials help out anyone who’s often misplacing keys like we constantly seem to do. 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.
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 list of van life must haves?