Van Life Essentials: Everything You Need for Your Overlanding Trip

By Nick Hilden
Van in Mt. Tamalpais

You’ve found a suitable van or otherwise conversion-friendly vehicle. You’ve spent a few days or weeks measuring and sawing lumber and assembling a bed platform and the other aspects of your camper conversion. Now it’s time to outfit your rig with all the van life essentials.

The right gear is key if you’re going to enjoy your van life in comfort. Whether camping out in nature or stealthing in the city, you need to be prepared.

I know from personal experience. Having converted a little Honda Element and then driven it all over the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, I’m well aware of the issues that can arise when you realize that you’ve forgotten something essential when you’ve already driven yourself to the middle of nowhere. To avoid this situation and ensure your overland comfort, a solid van life packing list is key.

Outbreaker Backpack 45L

The Best Bag for Van Life

One thing that should be at the heart of your van life packing is a solid bag for your clothes, even if you’ve built clothing storage into your conversion. You’ll need a solid bag for keeping your clothes organized in your vehicle. Sometimes you’ll need a way to carry your stuff into a hotel or the home of a friend you’re visiting. In any case, bring along a travel backpack.

I highly recommend the Tortuga Outbreaker Backpack for a number of reasons:

  • Organizes more stuff into a smaller space. The Outbreaker was specifically designed to maximize the usability of airline carry on requirements, meaning that it’s perfect for carrying a lot when space is at a premium.
  • Weighs less than a suitcase. The Outbreaker weighs much less than most plastic suitcases of a similar size and fits into a van conversion better.
  • Tough and waterproof. Life on the road is unpredictable. You’ll be pulling your bag in and out of your van (sometimes in the rain), and your bag needs to be tough enough to take whatever is thrown at it. The Outbreaker fits the bill thanks to its durable, waterproof exterior.

Van Life Essentials

The details of your van life packing list might change based on your vehicle, intentions, destinations, and the season. Below is a general, all-purpose packing list followed by lists for specific situations and aspects of van life.

Van Life Packing List

  • Flashlight
  • String lights (like these daisy chain lights from Goal Zero)
  • Lantern
  • Emergency candles
  • Lighter and matches
  • Portable power station with solar panels (the Jackery 1500 is a great option)
  • Insect repellent/mosquito netting
  • Tarp (like these versatile options from Tarpestry)
  • Foldable camp chairs (Eureka! makes some great folding chairs)
  • Foldable camp table (this folding table from Nemo gets super tiny)
  • Small or foldable camp shovel
  • Hatchet or ax
  • Backup tent
  • Bungee cords
  • Camp knife
  • Light blanket or poncho
  • Electrical extension cord
  • Laundry bag

Van Life Cooking Gear

  • Camp stove (GSI makes a stove that is as thin as a laptop)
  • 1 cast iron pan
  • 1 pot
  • 2 plates
  • 2 bowls
  • 2 cups or mugs
  • 2 sets of silverware
  • 1 water bottle
  • 1 oversized water container
  • Tongs
  • Spatula
  • Tupperware
  • Cooler or portable fridge
  • Can opener
  • Wine opener
  • Water filter
  • Kitchen knife
  • Cutting board
  • 2 towels
  • Cleaning supplies

Van Life Sleeping Gear

  • Bedding (sheets, comforter, etc.)
  • Pillows
  • Ear plugs
  • Eyeshade
  • Air mattress and pump
  • Cold weather sleeping bag (if traveling in winter)

Van Life Clothing

  • 2 pairs of shorts or skirts
  • 2 pair pants
  • 4 t-shirts
  • 1 swimsuit
  • 1 button-up shirt
  • 5 pairs of Merino wool socks
  • 5 pairs of underwear
  • 1 hoodie
  • 1 rain shell
  • 1 light-to-medium jacket
  • 1 heavy coat (especially if traveling in winter)
  • 1 hat
  • 1 pair of gloves (especially in winter)
  • 1 belt
  • 1 pair of comfortable walking shoes
  • 1 pair of hiking boots
  • 1 pair of sandals or flip-flops
  • 2 pairs of gym clothes
  • 1 pair of gym/running sneakers

Van Life Toiletries

You’ll be replenishing toiletries as you go, but here are the items you’ll want to have on hand at all times:

  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Floss
  • Soap
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Shaving products
  • Essential prescriptions
  • OTC medications like pain relievers, allergy medicine, cold medicine, etc.
  • Fingernail clippers
  • Deodorant
  • Wet-wipes
  • Makeup (if applicable)
  • Toilet paper

Van Life Vehicle Essentials

  • License
  • Registration
  • Insurance card
  • AAA or other roadside assistance card (a must for van life)
  • Basic tool kit
  • Jumper cables or portable jump starter
  • Jack
  • Window scraper
  • Window covers
  • 2 quarts of backup oil

Van Life Electronics

This list will be determined by your specific needs. For example, many van lifers bring their work on the road, which might require special equipment.

  • Power strip
  • Laptop and charger
  • Cell phone and charger
  • 2 battery packs
  • Camera and charger (if applicable)
  • Drone and charger (if applicable)
  • Kindle or e-reader
  • USB-A and USB-C cables
  • Dashcam (optional)

Activity-Specific Van Life Gear

If you’re like me, part of the appeal of van travel is the opportunity to explore the outdoors. Your packing list in this regard will depend on your interests, but here are a few things you might want to include:

  • Bikes, bike rack, and bike gear (locks, helmets, etc.)
  • Inflatable kayak with paddles and pump
  • Fishing pole with tackle
  • Hiking backpack or daypack
  • Climbing gear
  • Surfing gear
  • Photography or videography gear

Must-Visit Van-Life Destinations

The world is, obviously, full of great places to live out your van life dreams, so for our purposes here we’ll focus on North America. Here are a few places that are popular among van-lifers:

  • Moab, Utah
  • The Grand Canyon
  • Northern California
  • The Pacific Northwest
  • Banff/Jasper, Canada
  • Baja California, Mexico
  • Oaxaca, Mexico
  • Chiapas, Mexico
  • Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
  • The Badlands
  • Big Sur, California
  • Vancouver Island, Canada
  • Glacier National Park, Montana

Conclusion

While this is a fairly comprehensive van life packing list, part of the fun of the lifestyle is that you can tailor it to your needs and interests. Your personal packing list will adjust accordingly.

So sit down with our list, and think about what could be added to it based on your personal needs. From there, it’s all about enjoying life on the road.

Bring everything you need without checking a bag.

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