Your coworker keeps talking about how his niece bought a van and took a year off to roam the country. Or maybe you’ve simply seen the #VanLife hashtag pop up in your Instagram feed. Despite appearances, it’s not just millennials who ditch more conventional sleeping arrangements in favor of homes on wheels; families and retirees take to life on the road, too.
You can travel this way even if you don’t own a class D recreational vehicle or a full-size conversion van. The freedom to move to and fro with no set schedule and the chance to save hundreds on everything from hotels to restaurant bills—not to mention to forego sleeping on the ground in a tent—is available to just about anyone with a vehicle and a full tank of gas.
“Having the freedom to pack up and go in the blink of an eye was something that was very important to us,” says Emily Mandagie, co-author of TheMandagies.com, a blog where she and her husband Berty share their outdoor adventures. The duo recently completed a three-week driving tour of Utah’s National Parks, spending most nights bedded down in their Mazda CX-5. “We loved being on the open road to our next destination without having to pack up a campsite,” she says.
To travel like this, all it takes is a little creative outfitting, some preparation, and the willingness to pack light. Here are a few tips for enjoying that #VanLife—without a van.
Living, sleeping, eating, and traveling in your car can get very messy very quickly. To avoid losing your mind, you need to keep things organized.
Mandagie suggests using clear tubs for accessible storage. “This way, when it's time for bed, you can easily move bins around for a quick transition from driving to sleeping,” she says. Then organize items by use. For example, place clothing in one bin, food and cookware in another, and camping and sleeping gear in a third.
To help keep pests at bay, store dirty clothes in separate bags or bins, and keep meal prep items in an airtight container. Always keep a trash bag or small can within reach to dispose of waste.
Of course, not everything has to go in a plastic box. Use the space under your seat or in the glove box to store useful items, like phone chargers and backup batteries, that you’ll want to have on hand. Mandagie also recommends bringing extra cash and storing it in a safe place, for small-town produce stands, cash-only businesses, and other incidentals you may encounter on the road.
Putting everything in its place will not only help you find everything when you need it. It will also prevent your car from turning into an indiscernible mess of clothing, food, and gear that you’ll have to sort through every night.
When you’re spending nights in a car, the first hurdle to overcome is finding where to sleep. Instead of booking hotel rooms or Airbnb accommodations for each night of the trip, catching z’s in your car offers the opportunity to save on one of the costliest fees involved in road travel: accommodation. Plus, it lets you experience the outdoors more spontaneously.
So where does a traveler find a place to park? When you’re in an RV or large van, your only option may be a campground. This is a good choice for anyone who prefers unlimited electricity, water, and amenities like showers and laundry. But it’s not the only place to leave a smaller car overnight.
If you don’t mind roughing it a little, so-called dispersed camping is a great alternative. Also known as freedom camping or boondocking, this method involves parking for free overnight. The location can be anywhere from a Wal-Mart parking lot to a clearing in the woods a mile down a dirt path.
Apps and websites for finding sites like these abound. One useful resource is Freecampsites.net. Another is the Bureau of Land Management site, BLM.gov, because most BLM areas let you camp for free for up to 14 days.
Some big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Camping World also allow travelers to park overnight in their lots. However, this does not always hold true, so ask first to ensure you won’t wake up to a parking ticket.
Wherever you park for the night, make sure to leave no trace. You should take all your waste with you when you go, or at least leave it in designated trash receptacles.
Living and traveling in a car, as opposed to a full van, also gives you slightly less space to stretch out at night. Where a van often has room for a full platform bed or futon setup, complete with under-bed storage, smaller vehicles simply don’t have the headroom. Even if you can’t fit a queen-size mattress in the back, there’s plenty you can do to improve your vehicle’s sleeping conditions.
It starts with the setup. Mandagie says vehicles with back seats that fold forward and lay flat are a veritable must. When you put the seats down, there still might not be enough space to stretch out. Fortunately, you can create extra inches by pushing the front seats forward and stacking appropriately-sized storage bins in the floor space between where the front seats end and the back seats begin. This will offer as much as a foot of extra headroom.
To make this layout more comfortable, pack sleeping bags or blankets, sleep pads or inflatable mattresses, and pillows. Also useful are sleep masks to block out light, earplugs to drown out any background noise, and towels or window reflectors to serve as makeshift curtains. And don’t forget to crack a window or two!
Cook your own meals
Many converted vans and small motor homes have built-in sinks and hot plates to make dinner prep a breeze. But cooking a meal in a smaller vehicle is nearly as simple. It just requires that you bring along the necessary tools.
Mandagie suggests starting with a backpacking or camping stove (she loves her Jetboil) and compact or stackable cookware and utensils. As for the kitchen sink, pack all your cooking gear in a clear storage bin that can double as a vessel for doing dishes and washing up.
It also helps to plan your meals in advance. Opt for simple one-pot meals that are quick and easy to prepare, such as instant rice or pasta dishes. That way, you conserve fuel and keep clean-up to a minimum.
Mandagie recommends options like pancake mix and egg scrambles for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly tortillas and fresh fruit for lunch, and Cup o’ Noodles and freeze-dried meals for dinner.
When you’re done eating, use natural and biodegradable soap or plain water to clean up. Although you have environmentally-friendly suds, you still should avoid dumping any waste into rivers or streams.
Just because you don’t have a full-size van parked in your driveway doesn’t mean you can’t experience #VanLife. Even for those with more compact vehicles, life (or a couple of days) on the road is within reach.