By Luu Phan and Alex Ortiz
Here’s an assortment of essential know-how we’ve gathered over our time living in our van!
1.) Water is Life.
Living in a van will quickly teach you how important access to water truly is. Unlike a traditional home where it can feel like there is an endless supply of water, in van life you will find yourself constantly checking your water level. You will naturally begin to conserve water as much as possible.
Our van holds 12 gallons of fresh water. This is plenty. In fact, you could probably make do with a 5 gallon jug. We use this as drinking water, to cook, wash dishes, and for the occasional vanlife bidet! Because we are typically in the city, we aren’t too concerned with running out of water and can let our fresh water tank get pretty low before making plans to refill. When we plan to be off-grid or traveling, though, we always try to top it off and have extra water on hand!
And for the not so glamorous part of vanlife: dumping your grey water and emptying your toilet. We try our best to not create much grey water use (i.e. don’t wash dishes unless you really really need to) so that we don’t have to dump that often. Usually, this comes up about once a month or so. Two helpful resources to use to find local dump stations near you are Sanidumps.com and RVshare. You can find some free options as well!
We have a 2.5 gallon Dometic cassette toilet and it’s really all we need. For two people, this usually means we have to empty it out every 4-5 days. You can usually do this in a public restroom at a local or regional park. Of course, this is only for number 1. On the rare occasion that we have to go number 2 in the van, we’ll usually find a nearby public restroom (grocery store, gas station, cafe, etc.). If it’s about to go down, just line a bag around your cassette toilet and make it happen. Yeah, we said it lol.
Cooking in a van can be a stressful part of your day if you are not organized. In such a tiny space, everything in your kitchen should matter! Stick to one good pot and one pan, max. To avoid creating a splatter mess when cooking, make sure you get a splatter screen. Also, heavy duty magnetic hooks are great for hanging pots, pans, cups, and kitchen utensils. Focus on quick and easy meals over elaborate recipes. Our vanlife friend Alex Tsuneta at @gooftrooperz authored a book called, “Cooking Tiny: A Vegan Cookbook for Nomadic Souls” where you can find simple yet tasty recipes for your tiny home living! Check it out!
Find level ground! This will make or break your vanlife experience! Even the most comfy bed set up will have you dreading bedtime if your rig is parked on a slant. Finding level ground can be tricky if you are a city dweller as most of the city streets will have your rig dipped to one side. If you are in the city, allow yourself time to find level ground, it will make a big difference to your body! In the case that you are not able to find anything, having some van leveling blocks as a tool to level out your wheels is definitely worth taking along in your van.
Aside from food, filling up your gas tank will be one of your biggest expenses while living in a van. As many of you may have noticed, gas prices are especially high right now, so it’s important to be mindful of how much you actually need to move your rig around. For us, we focus on taking one big trip to the grocery store to re-up vs several small trips. Also, keep up with the daily maintenance of your vehicle. Believe it or not, regular oil changes, switching out your air filter, and making sure your tires are well inflated can make a huge difference in your gas efficiency.
Essential To Have
1.) Take Care of Your Home on Wheels!
- Portable battery jump starter. We have one from Noco that is super compact and efficient. Has saved us on several occasions when our engine battery died out! Also doubles up as a phone charger!
- Tire pressure gauge
- Spare tire & tools
- Tool kit for emergency fixes
- Flashlight/headlamp. There will be times when you may have to look under the hood at night.
- Fire extinguisher. God forbid you need it, but make sure you always have one within reach just in case.
2.) Kitchen/Dining Supplies/and more:
- Food storage:
- Stasher bags (great for storing veggies, leftovers, and snacks!)
- Metal plates, bowls, cups – it’s key to have things that are unbreakable and also stackable to maximize space. We use items that we can use in the van and are durable enough to use when we are camping.
- Disposables can be tempting when living in the van because you will not want to clean constantly, but is it important to aim to use as many reusable items as you can to reduce your waste (and do your part for mother Earth!)
- Cooking supplies:
- We have a rice cooker in our van and it seriously is one of the most used kitchen appliances we have. We use it to make rice, pasta, soups and a bunch of other meals! We would definitely recommend having a rice cooker or instant pot. Just keep in mind it draws a lot of power, so def use it to cook your meal and then unplug right away. We use it during the day only when we are getting enough sun for our solar.
- Metal food containers that double as cookware! We try to limit having to wash dishes so this system works great for us! We are able to cook directly on it and it also stores our food in it.
- Lighting: lanterns, lights for inside or outside (w battery, solar, whatever!)
- Headlamps and/or flashlights. When you are living in your home and driving at night. You always want to be prepared if you have to go under the hood or work on the van at night. Having lights that are not dependent on your car battery or solar will be very important!
- Battery operated twinkle lights inside the van helps to provide lighting in the night without being too bright.
3.) Maximizing Vanlife Living
Over time, we’ve found ways to maximize our space and add versatile gear to make our vanlife experience much more enjoyable without adding more stress.
- Rooftop or hitch cargo box: Months into our vanlife journey we purchased a hitch cargo box and man was it life changing! We were able to add an additional 13 cubic feet of space in the rear of our vehicle and it allowed us to carry so much more and made our lives way easier.
- Awning (helps extend your living space when you’re in an area that doesn’t require you to be stealthy)
- Foldable camp chairs. Yeah, a few of those to pull up and kick back at your local park are a must!
- Foldable table. Our compact Camco folding table works as both a dining room table inside and as a camp table outside. A must have!
- Quick dry towels
Find items that have multiple uses. Sometimes what you need is already right there in front of you. Our cassette toilet doubles up as a stool to sit on. Your cutting board is also your table to put your food while laying in bed. That headlamp can also dim down to be your reading light.
Staying Organized & Staying Clean
- Food storage. Store all of your food in mason jars or other airtight containers! Prevents bugs and ants from getting in them.
- Baskets & bins. Having a specific basket/bin or drawer for everything is a must to keep your tiny space organized.
- Packing cubes. Finding a system that works for clothes storage will be a game changer! We use packing cubes and they make our life much easier. We group our clothes into different categories – undergarments, t-shirts, active wear, etc. This helps when we need to pull something out, we are able to pull out just that packing cube, take what we need, and put the cube back in it’s designated home.
- The best way to save money is to cook as much as you can! Cooking in the van can be stressful, especially if you have a compact rig like ours. You will be tempted to get fast food or take out, and sometimes it makes sense to do so occasionally to not feel overwhelmed. But if you dedicate yourself to cooking quick meals and build a routine out of it, this will be a huge money saver!
- Cleaning supplies. Limit your cleaning supplies to just 1 or 2 products, saving space is crucial for vanlife. Like many vanlifers, our go to cleaning product is Dr. Bronner’s castile soap. It is a little more expensive than other dish soap but so worth it! It is eco-friendly, so you won’t have to worry about adding chemicals into areas when dumping your grey water. We use it for washing dishes, cleaning counters, and even as our body wash/shampoo!
- Variety of towels. We have different reusable towels designated for everything in the van. Our quick dry towels are so compact! We take them with us to the gym to shower and then hang them to dry overnight. They dry really quickly, allowing us to fold and put them away promptly instead of having a thick towel that takes forever to dry. We have baby washcloths that we use in place of disposable baby wipes. For those in between shower days, baby washcloths and a little castile soap can do wonders to keep you feeling fresh and clean! We also have designated towels we use for cooking and cleaning in our tiny kitchen.
Find Luu & Alex on Instagram @la_combi_life!
Photos courtesy of Luu & Alex.