Traveling in and living out of a van can be enjoyable, but if your vehicle lacks organization, your life can quickly descend into chaos. I learned this the hard way: A couple of months ago, my partner and I converted a Honda Element into a camper we hoped would comfortably sleep and house two. But it wasn’t long into our first trip that we found ourselves repeatedly unloading every piece of cargo to find a single item. A simple task like locating a can opener could turn into an hour-long process. It was maddening.
Finally, we spent a full day in the middle of the Canadian Badlands reorganizing everything. The improvement was so dramatic, in fact, that we went from questioning whether or not we could continue our trip to enjoying it to its fullest.
As we learned on that crucial day, there are a few key strategies that can help keep your van life tidy, organized, and low-stress.
Prioritize your packing
When we first packed our van, we did it according to how things fit rather than how often we might need those things. For example, the box with most of our cooking gear ended up buried deep beneath our bed. It fit perfectly, but we had to dig it out every time we wanted to eat. And as it turns out, people need to eat pretty much all the time.
To avoid such a situation, group everything you intend to pack by frequency of use. At the most basic level, you’ll have three piles: everyday items, occasional items, and just-in-case items. Bury the JICs, then pack the stuff you’ll only use once in a while, and make sure everything you’ll need regularly is easily accessible.
Lean into minimalism
When I’m backpacking, I carry only the barest necessities, but when I started packing my camper, all that space spoiled me. Suddenly I’m thousands of miles and several weeks into my trip and my rig is crammed with a bunch of stuff I haven’t used once.
When you have everything laid out for prioritizing, take a hard look at what you really need and what you can leave behind. Those “just-in-case” items I mentioned? You’re likely never going to use any of them. Most of the “occasional” items too. Trim off the excess and you’ll find that living in your van is exponentially less cluttered. Losing the additional weight will help your fuel efficiency too.
Use bunches and bungees
One of the worst mistakes you can make as a van-lifer is to have random items scattered all over your vehicle. Instead, pack everything according to type. For example, I have a kitchen box, an “office” bag, an outdoor-gear-and-sport tote, my day-to-day clothing sack, my weather-specific clothing storage, and so on.
Bungee cords can be a useful tool for keeping like-items together. I have a few pairs of shoes bunched together that way under my bed, and my rooftop cargo box is stuffed with different categories of gear (solar panel cords, bedding, etc.) bungeed in groups. These stretchy cords can also be useful for keeping single items in place rather than bouncing around your ride.
Don’t hoard food
It might seem like a good idea to keep a big supply of food on hand, but there are a couple problems with doing so: caching food takes up space, and it can also result in an endless stream of spills and messes. Bottles break, fruit rolls under a seat and rots, crumbs are ubiquitous, your fridge becomes prohibitively full… you get the picture.
Grocery stores are frequent, so buy food as you go. If you’re heading off the grid for an extended period of time you will actually need to load up on supplies, but don’t overdo it. Keep a small pantry and resupply when you can along the way.
Build in vertical storage
My first conversion had plenty of vertical storage space, but when we redid the rig for two people, we decided to forgo cabinet and shelf space in favor of a wall-to-wall bed. As it turned out, we didn’t need nearly that much room for sleeping and easily could have shaved a foot off the bed’s width to make room for some sort of vertical storage.
While this requires a bit more construction know-how than a mere bed platform, it’s worth going the extra mile for accessible storage that will make your camper feel less like a van and more like a home.