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After living in our van for almost two years we have begun to look at the top must-have items for vanlife. We’ve learned a lot in these two years from the items we will NEVER use and the few things that we do not want to live without. Although when living on the road you can honestly always make due and there’s always a store around the corner here is a list of the top vanlife essentials we do not believe you should start vanlife without!
1. Propane Cooktop
Chances are if you are choosing to live vanlife full-time then you probably don’t want to eat out every single day. Which means you will need to have a way to cook your food. Ideally, you would have a built-in cooktop so you do not have to pull it out and connect it to propane every single time you are ready to cook. That, however, is not always the case which is why we highly recommend the Coleman Gas Portable Cooktop. It’s easy to use and folds right up for storage. To learn more about the available cooktop options check out Top Stove Options for Vanlife.
2. Window Covers
When you stay in your van whether part-time or full-time you will still want it to feel safe from prying eyes. This is why window covers are one of the first things I would invest in and are a TOP of the Vanlife Essentials list. Not only do they keep your windows covered and allow for privacy but they keep your van cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. You have many options for window covers; we opted for DIY window covers with reflectix and rare earth magnets fastened on with grey duct tape or you can purchase them pre-made!
3. MaxxAir Fan
A world without a fan inside my campervan is not one I want to live in. When you live inside your van chances are you will be in different kinds of climates all year long. Sunshine, rain, snow, really there’s no escaping the cold or hot wherever you are. This is why you will need to install a fan into the roof of your van. The MaxxAir fan is by far the best option for the job. The main benefit of the MaxxAir fan is that it has a cover that allows you to open it in the rain without risking getting water inside. I have met many vanlifers and the Maxxair is by far a favorite and doesn’t get many complaints. Trust me, spend the extra money and get a MaxxAir fan.
Looking to upgrade your fan? Before you do that read this guide on how to fix a leaking fan.
4. 12V Refrigerator
Now that you have a way to cook delicious food in your van you will need a way to store and keep your food fresh. There are many options for food storage including a cooler, mini-fridge aka “dorm fridge” and a 12-volt refrigerator. We started with a mini-fridge and soon realized it was using an excessive amount of battery power, therefore on cloudy days or short days we had to limit our energy use to keep our food safe. After a year and a half on the road, we had an issue with our mini-fridge and opted to get a 12-volt replacement. We went with a chest style 54-quart Costway refrigerator because it fits between our front seats and holds enough food for a week plus.
5. Water Filter
As a vanlifer on a budget, we don’t love purchasing water every 5 days. So when possible we fill up at parks, friends’ houses or wherever we can get free water (legally). Since we are often getting water at a park that usually means the quality isn’t the best which is why we LOVE our water filter. No matter where we get our water we know that it is going to taste fresh and delicious. This does mean you will need an electronic water pump but again this was something we were not willing to budget on. Another option if you do not want to use an electric pump is the Berky– a charcoal filter-based water container. The Berky is quite large and does take up a bit of space on the countertops.
6. Mr. Buddy Heater
Truthfully it took 1.5 cold winters to finally convince Shawn to let us get a Mr. Buddy Heater. If I’m being 100% honest I went and bought one the moment I had to travel alone for a month. The Mr. Buddy heater is a small portable heater priced under a $100 (depending on the model) which allows you to warm up your van with propane without having to install a complete system inside your van which can run up to $1000.
Even on the west coast vanlife can get chilly and having a heater to bust out the chill in the mornings is well worth the space it takes up and the money spent.
7. Camping Chairs
Vanlife usually goes hand in hand with being outdoors. If not all the time then at least some of the time you will be at the beach, in the forest or at a park inside the city. This is why camping chairs are super important to invest in. They allow you the freedom to set up anywhere you may land without having to sit on the ground. We personally love our Tommy Bahama chairs and think they are perfect for the beach, the park or even the campfire. The only downside is they are super low to the ground so someone who is taller may not feel comfortable using them.
8. Portable Bluetooth Speaker
What is a road-trip without a good playlist? The problem is with most vans they are older or utility vans which means the sound system they come with is very basic and probably will not connect to your Bluetooth phone. Upgrading to a better sound system doesn’t always mean replacing the factory speakers and stereo which gets pricey. This is why a portable Bluetooth speaker is a must-have vanlife essential. It’s also a great option for using outdoors wherever vanlife may take you.
We personally have the Anker Bluetooth speaker which only runs about $30 BUT ideally, we will be able to upgrade it in the future. Although it is a great speaker it can be more difficult to hear when we are driving on a rough highway in our sprinter van. When we upgrade we will likely get the JBL Flip which runs around $100.
9. Yeti Cups
If you have a Sprinter Van or are getting one then you likely already have this complaint; NOTHING fits in the front dash cup holders. It’s a small but annoying feature of the sprinter vans. If you are like us you have a reusable cup that you use all day every day. It wasn’t until Katie from So We Bought a VAn introduced us to the Yeti Cups that we found a cup that could keep our water cold all day AND fit in those particular cup holders!
We have been using our yeti 16oz tumblers for a few months now and still have zero complaints. We use the regular coffee lid with a copper straw and it keeps everything nice and chilled!
10. Aeropress or French Press
If you are a coffee lover then we already know you’ve been thinking through how you are planning to make your morning cup of joe. A traditional coffee maker isn’t really in the cards unless you are in an RV and have shore power or if you have a really nice solar set up. The amount of power that it would pull and the space a coffee maker takes is not vanlife friendly. So a top item on your vanlife essentials list should be an Aeropress or French Press. We have both items and typically we use our french press since there are two of us and we tend to have two cups of coffee in the morning.
Pro-tip: Get one that has more of a tight seal so you can store your coffee in the french press longer without it getting bitter.
One of the reasons we wanted to sell all of our belongings and live in a van was so that we could spend more quality time with each other. We were tired of spending our evenings staring at the television and missing out on life. So for those nights when you don’t want to or simply can’t watch TV because you have zero cell signal having games handy will keep you close with your partner or give you something to do with new friends that you meet along the way.
12. Microfiber Towel
If you plan on showering then you are going to need a towel. A regular cotton towel will not only take up a ton of room but will take forever to dry and likely mildew. This is why a microfiber towel is a must-have for vanlife. They roll up to the size of a small T-shirt and dry within thirty minutes to an hour. A pro tip is to get the extra-large towel. The puritan in me likes to be able to cover my entire butt while walking around the locker room.
13. Solar or Fairy Lights
When we built our van, we thought we were thinking through all of our lighting. That there would be plenty of light no matter where we were in the van. Unfortunately, that isn’t always true and often we find ourselves not wanting to use the solar power for the lights or we just don’t want the bright lights on. This is where solar lights come in. One of our favorite options for lighting is fairy lights that are battery-powered. We purchased rechargeable batteries and keep the fairy lights on at night when we are relaxing. One of our favorite gifts we’ve received was a solar light cube. We toss it on the dash during the day so it can charge from the sun and use it at night when we need something between the bright lights in our ceiling and battery-powered fairy lights.
So I almost didn’t put our Vitamix on our list as a vanlife essential. Because it isn’t essential but it is pretty damn handy. It’s great for making smoothies, hummus, soup, or any other cream-based item you may desire and the wattage works for a 2000 watt inverter (check your solar and the specific Vitamix you want before purchase.)
There are many vanlife essentials that make living in a van a smooth experience there are our top 12. Do you have any vanlife essentials that we didn’t list? Let us know in the comments!