Van camping is all the rage these days.
And for good reason. A camper van is cheaper and far easier to park than an RV but, in many ways, just as comfortable. Plus, you don’t have to set up and tear down your sleeping quarters each night like with tent camping.
But van camping can be intimidating for complete beginners. With all the stunning social media posts, gorgeous camper van conversions, and the #vanlife hashtag, van camping as a beginner can feel out of reach – not to mention downright expensive.
Luckily, with just a little bit of know-how vanlife is completely accessible and attainable for almost anyone, even those on a tight budget.
Whether you already have a van or are looking to buy one, whether you want to go van camping on the weekends or make the move to full-time van dwelling, our van camping beginner’s guide will point you in the right direction.
Best Van for Van Camping
The best van for van camping is the only you already own!
Pretty much any type of van will do the trick for short weekend camping trips or even weeklong road trips. In fact, you can camp in the back of pretty much any vehicle if you get creative, such as a Toyota Tacoma or a Subaru Outback.
What we’re trying to say is you don’t need to buy a new van to enjoy everything that vehicle camping has to offer. Your current vehicle will likely get the job done.
If you are in the market for a new vehicle, however, then some vans are certainly better than others, especially if you plan on full-time vandwelling.
Cargo vans are an excellent choice. We like these because of their spacious interiors, unassuming exteriors (great for stealth camping), and their overall reliability. The Ford Transit, Mercedes Sprinter, and Ram Promaster are all excellent selections.
Although a cargo van is your best option for a DIY build (you can also pay for a professional van conversion), a camper van is likely a better choice for those that want a van pre-built for camping.
Many camper vans are considered class B RVs. They usually come with a living area, sleeping area, small kitchenette, and small bathroom. Your options include fixed roof camper vans (high-top models are available) and pop-top camper vans (think Volkswagen camper vans).
Build Your Campervan Conversion
You have several different options for building out the interior of your camping van.
First, buy a campervan or class B RV outfitted with everything you need for camping straight from the factory. This is the most akin to buying an RV. It’s definitely the easiest and most convenient option but it can be very expensive.
Another option is to pay for a custom van conversion. You pay a company to customize the interior of your van exactly to your preferred specifications for camping. Although this also costs a pretty penny, the high degree of customization is worth it for many van campers.
One of the most popular ways to build a campervan conversion is with a DIY build. A DIY van build is undoubtedly the most time-consuming option. But it can save you a lot of money and ensures your van interior is exactly how you want it.
The best thing about a DIY build is that you control the price.
Van camping on a budget? Then keep it simple with a minimalist interior. You can even just throw a mattress in the back, pack the rest of your camping gear, and hit the road.
Have more money to spend? Then don’t pull any punches and opt for a luxurious DIY camper van conversion with no holds barred. Insulation, solar panels, and a kitchenette are all components of the most comfortable vanlife builds.
The right way to convert your van for camping really depends on your own needs, preferences, and budget. It also depends on why you’re converting your van. Living out of a van for financial necessity or to save money necessitates a vastly different van conversion than vandwelling for pleasure or simply van camping on weekends.
Where to Camp, Sleep, and Park Overnight in Your Van
One of my favorite things about van life is that you can park and sleep almost anywhere.
Of course, camping at developed campgrounds or in dispersed campsites offers the most traditional camping experience. You can even camp in an RV park if you prefer camping with water and electric hookups.
Personally, I prefer primitive campsites. I like to look for free camping on BLM land and in National Forests. Just remember that this type of camping, often called boondocking, has few if any amenities. You’ll need to pack out all trash, go to the bathroom in the woods responsibly, and follow the rest of the Leave No Trace principles.
But it’s not always possible to find a campsite for the night, especially on a van road trip. When this is the case, you have a few options.
First up is to find a parking lot to legally park in overnight. Many (although far from all) Walmart’s allow you to park overnight for free. Other stores like Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s, and Cracker Barrels also sometimes allow free overnight parking for vans and RVs.
Yet another option is stealth camping. This is when you stay overnight in your van in an area where it’s not exactly allowed, such as a residential, commercial, or industrial area. The key is to remain inconspicuous. Arrive late at night and leave early. Don’t spend any time outside your van. Just pull up, go to sleep, and leave in the morning.
Simply put, you don’t want anyone to know that you’re inside your van. You want them to think it’s just another empty vehicle parked on the street.
How to Cook While Van Camping
Cooking in your campervan boils down to your kitchen setup.
Many campervan conversions and DIY builds incorporate a small kitchen or kitchenette with counterspace, a small stove, an electric cooler, and a tiny sink. This makes preparing meals almost as easy as at home, just in a smaller space.
If you have a simpler van build without a kitchenette, then cooking will take the form of camp cooking. We recommend using a camping stove (or a backpacking stove) as the main component of your van camping kitchen. Bring along a cooler to keep ingredients cold.
Of course, you can always cook campfire meals, even if you have an efficient kitchenette installed inside your van.
How to Go to the Bathroom in Your Van
Just like with cooking, going to the bathroom in your van depends largely on your van build or conversion.
If you have a small bathroom with a flush toilet or even a portable camping toilet, then you’re all set to go to the bathroom without even leaving your van.
No onboard toilet? Then my preferred method is to camp at a campground with toilets, whether they’re flush or vault style.
But what about when you’re dispersed camping or boondocking. For this type of dry camping in a van, I usually try to take care of any number twos on my way to the campsite. Other options are to bury your waste or pack it out.
Honestly, it can be better to go number two in public restrooms or even outside rather than in your camper van unless in emergencies. Of course, this depends on the model of van toilet you install, but emptying your campervan toilet can be a chore let alone dealing with the potential smell inside your rig.
How to Shower in Your Van
One of the age-old van camping questions I hear is “how do I shower in my van?”
For short trips, say over the weekend, you probably don’t even need to shower. You likely won’t get dirty or smelly enough to warrant showering before heading home.
For longer trips, however, showering in your camper van is key. Of course, some class B campervans come with built-in showers. Other van conversions also come with built-in showers, either in the interior or attached to the back doors for an outdoor shower.
Personally, I’ve found that a portable solar shower for camping works just as well as a built-in van shower. In fact, because of the limited interior space, a portable solar shower often works even better.
Just hang it from the back of your van or a tree branch and shower with plenty of room. The only catch is the potential lack of privacy (a shower privacy curtain or a camping shower tent solves this).
For full-time van living, a popular way to stay clean is by maintaining a membership at a 24/7 gym with locker rooms and showers. Just head on in and shower – you don’t even necessarily have to work out first!
If you plan to live in your van in one place, any gym membership works. But if you’re planning on moving from place to place while vandwelling, a nationwide chain is your best bet.
What About a Camper Van Rental?
If you’re brand new to van life, we recommend testing it out first.
A campervan rental is a great way to get a feel for van camping to see if it’s for you. A lot of different companies offer van rentals, as well as local dealers, but Outdoorsy is one of our favorite peer-to-peer RV rental services around.
Not only is renting a camper van an affordable way of seeing what van life is all about, but it’s also easy and convenient. If you’re new to camping in general and don’t have much camping gear, know that a van rental comes with all the gear you’ll need for your trip.
Another great thing about renting a camping van before buying a van of your own is that it helps you figure out which type of van is best for you.
You might find that you prefer something a little bigger or a little smaller. You can test out different features and layouts. Maybe you’ll decide that you prefer a small RV instead of a van after all.
What About Full-Time Vandwelling?
Thinking about making the jump to full-time van living?
Whether you’re headed out for a year of traveling in your van or you’re forced to move into it out of necessity, vandwelling is certainly a different beast than simply van camping.
Perhaps the most important tip to keep in mind for full-time van life is budgeting. Van living can be very cheap – but it can also be extremely expensive if you’re not careful.
Create a realistic budget before you start living in your van. Factor in not only expenses like gas, groceries/eating out, and campground costs, but also van maintenance, vehicle insurance, and normal expenses like health insurance and a phone bill.
One of the biggest factors in your budget is how much you plan to travel. If you plan to stay in a single place or move only every few weeks, then your travel costs will be much lower than if you move to a new campsite each night.
Furthermore, dispersed camping and boondocking are almost always free and will save you loads of money from staying in a paid developed campground every night.
Although there are a huge amount of considerations before pulling the trigger on vandwelling, budget is one of the first you need to figure out.
For more advice on van life, and especially living in a van full time, r/vandwellers on Reddit is an invaluable resource to connect with other vandwellers like yourself.
Van camping is a great way to get outdoors and explore the country.
Whether you stay close to home or embark on a cross-country road trip, a camper van provides safety, security, comfort, and convenience for all your adventuring needs.
Please don’t hesitate to ask us any additional questions in the comments below!
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Since 2015, Jake has been the technical heart behind our in-depth content. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, he’s the one you’ll find crafting extensive gear reviews and detailed camping guides. With a decade of outdoor writing under his belt, Jake brings the beauty of the Sawtooth Mountains and his beloved Cascade and Olympic ranges right to your screen.