Van Life Essentials for Life on the Road - Mountain House Blog
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Van Life Essentials for Life on the Road

by Michelle Craig

It can be daunting to think about all of the things you may or may not need if you’re considering a full-time nomadic van life. It’s easy to get caught up in how everyone else has set up their rigs, overthinking every little step of your own path to freedom. While my biggest advice for getting on the road is to just take that leap and let everything work itself out as you go, there are definitely some items that I consider “van life essentials” that will make your life on the road easier and more comfortable.

A red van with the door open and a teen sitting in the doorway gazing into the distance.
photo by Michelle Craig

Power

There are a million different ways to power up on the road. What you should choose depends on your budget, specific energy needs, and size of your rig. Because we’re in a smaller van (a 1995 GMC Rally STX named Jerry Lee), we use the Goal Zero Yeti. It comes in different sizes and can be powered either by solar energy or by drawing from the van battery/alternator. It’s not the cheapest option but it’s reliable, compact, easy to use, and fits perfectly in our tiny space.

The console of a GoalZero unit with a couple of boxed board games next to it.
photo by Michelle Craig

Fan/Cooling System

Because my son and I travel pretty extensively, we experience a wide range of weather. On warmer days/nights we love our DeWalt 20v Jobsite Fan. A lot of van-lifers prefer to permanently install RV vents/fans, but we’ve found that the DeWalt works perfectly for us, without having to invest in a major construction project, or incur possible leaks. The DeWalt fan is quiet and powerful, and it runs off of the DeWalt 20v rechargeable batteries. (Batteries and charger sold separately.)

A black and yellow DeWalt fan against a colorful blanket inside a van.
photo by Michelle Craig

Warmth

This one won’t make the hipster #vanlife Instagram post*, but I will swear by sleeping bag onesies until the day I die, and then I hope I’m buried in mine! On extra cold nights onesies are what really keep us warm (like in Colorado when we got 45″ of snow in three days and it got down to a mere 4 degrees!). Yes, we both look like we fell out of A Christmas Story in our wearable sleeping bags, but that’s part of the fun! Selk’bag makes some really fun Star Wars onesies, even for adults! For extra warmth, never underestimate the power of hot water in a tightly-lidded Nalgene bottle tucked into your sleeping bag (or onesie!). Rumor has it Sierra Madre Research is coming out with a “Hot Pocket” rechargeable/heated stuff sack that opens up and can be used as a heating pad in your sleeping bag. I’m hyped to check this gadget out. It might be a complete game-changer for us!

*editor’s note: yes it will!

Someone wearing a Chewbacca Star Wars onesie while walking through the woods.
photo by Michelle Craig

The Mr. Heater Portable Buddy Heater is hands-down our favorite way to stay warm on those extra, extra crisp nights in the van. With two settings (high/low), tip-over safety shut off and an oxygen depletion sensor, this heater is great for keeping you cozy and safe. It runs off of a one gallon propane tank that you can get at most grocery, camp, or hardware stores, or you can purchase an attachment that allows you to connect it to a larger tank. I will note that we never sleep with the heater on!

Cooler/Refrigeration

While there are some really amazing travel fridge options available, we wanted to stick with something more affordable upfront. After testing out several coolers we decided the Yeti Tundra 45 is what works best for us. Regardless of your cooler choice, the secret to not blasting through ice is to purchase blocks of ice instead of bagged cubes. The blocks take much longer to melt down and you won’t open your cooler to a funk when you forgot to pick up more ice. This cooler comes with one coated wire basket that rests above the ice. Do yourself a solid and purchase a second basket, as they are incredibly useful for keeping produce out of the melting swamp below!

Stove/Cooking

You don’t want to spend every day of your life in a van eating like you are on a perpetual roadtrip! We keep two options with us at all times for meal-making: The Camp Chef Everest and a MSR Pocket Rocket. The Camp Chef Everest is a powerful 2-burner propane stove that is great for fixing bigger meals, like a pancake & egg breakfast, or a veggie filled dinner. If we just want to boil some water for a cup of hot tea or to make a quick Mountain House meal on the go, the MSR Pocket Rocket is our go-to. It tucks away nicely into our MSR Two-Pot set. Don’t forget to supply yourself with at least one cast iron skillet (we have two!)! Easy to use and easy to clean, we couldn’t imagine cooking without them.

A teen in a Mountain House beanie eating from a pouch of Granola with Blueberries.
photo by Michelle Craig

Additional Seating

When the weather is nice and we take the party outside, having comfortable seating options is a MUST. We always have two options on hand: our trusty ENO hammock and two REI Flexlite Macro Chairs. Both of these options pack up super small and they are both incredibly comfortable. I don’t have one of those tiny and round bottoms that could fit comfortably in a teacup, and I fully endorse the ample room in these collapsible chairs.

A teen rests in the back of a van with his dog, while reading a book.
photo by Michelle Craig

Rooftop Storage

Want to live in a van with a teenager and a 65lb dog without going crazy? Rooftop storage is the only answer. We have a Yakima RocketBox and, after borrowing another from a friend, we fully intend to get a second one this summer. As a full-time traveling, photographing, homeschooling, adventuring family we absolutely HAVE to have plenty of storage for our gear. This also allows us to have everything we need to comfortably experience four seasons of weather, without relying on a brick and mortar storage unit.


A red van with a black roof rack cruises through a grove of sequoias.
photo by Michelle Craig

Lighting

Long winter nights mean we need reliable, long-lasting lighting solutions. After trying nearly every brand on the market, we have fallen in love with everything BioLite. The BaseLantern XL is what I have found to be the “one light to rule them all.” This 500 lumen multi-directional bluetooth lantern is also a handy little power hub for charging devices! The SolarHome 620 is an entire compact system that includes hanging lights with switches (one is even motion sensor!), a 20 Wh control panel with another light and a radio, and a 6W solar panel.

A BioLite control panel and light.
photo by Michelle Craig

Bluetooth Speaker

We’ve gone through a series of bluetooth speakers and the Bose Soundlink Micro Bluetooth Speaker is our favorite of the lot. It’s the most compact and durable speaker with the best sound. Also, you can purchase two or more and link them together from your phone so that you have high-quality surround sound!

A small Bose speaker sits in a window against the backside of vinyl window decals.
photo by Michelle Craig

pStyle

Ok. This one is a little different from the rest and is only applicable to those of us who weren’t born with the necessary part to pee standing up. I seriously must add this one to the list because it has been an absolute lifesaver. It’s a very simple plastic tool so that I can pee standing up when needed. I can go anywhere in the woods where my boys are able to pee, and it also makes public restrooms a more sanitary option.

A tan dog with perky ears and an open smile sits in the back of a van with a fuzzy dog toy draped over its head.
photo by Michelle Craig

A Sense of Humor

Let’s face it, van life is not all pretty sunsets and perfect bikini bods in Insta-worthy locations. Van-lifers get dirty and tired, vans break down, plans run awry and sh*t happens. Sometimes you have to park in less than ideal locations because you’re tired of driving or you can’t get a good cell signal anywhere else. A sense of humor is the most useful tool you can pack in your van when hitting the road for a good stretch of your life. Being able to laugh it off when the 8th thing breaks in a two week span, or when you spill the stinky cheese water from a tub of fresh mozzarella all over the place … that is something money can’t buy.

About the author/photographer

Michelle Craig is a full-time van-living photographer and roamschooling single mama. She, her son, and their dog can be found adventuring around the country in their big red van, Jerry Lee. You can follow their adventures on Instagram at @theroamschoolfamily and see more of Michelle’s photography at www.michellecraigphotography.com .

A photo of the author in a white ball cap and sunglasses and her tall teenage son with a mountainous backdrop behind them.
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