10 essentials for van life

Looking for the ultimate camper van starter kit? Here are all the essentials you should have before heading out on the road, as told by our writer and full-time van-lifer, Matt Lynch.

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Ford Transit Overland - Van Life

Living in a van is often considered a dream come true – you have a portable home capable of transporting you to all your adventures. The cost of living is low, the freedom is endless, and life is simple. Van life has long been on the rise in North America, but this trend is now making its way to the UK and throughout Europe.

Getting a vehicle and preparing for van life can take a little time – you may want to convert your own campervan or maybe just prefer to buy a fully furnished one. In either case, you’re going to want to fill it with items that are special to you – your very own van life essentials.

But what exactly is an “essential” item when you’re living in a van? After all, you’ve drastically scaled-down your possessions and are choosing to live a more minimalist lifestyle. Many of the items you would have once thought to be essential have long since been sold, handed on, or discarded.

Here are 10 things you should definitely have in your van to cover all eventualities. Some of these are more practical than others, but they’re all important in their own right!

Editor’s notes

Our author Matt has been travelling full-time in his van, Chilli, since October 2021 – so he’s had plenty of time to figure out ALL the essentials for van life!

Portable speaker

What’s life without music? When you’re driving around, it’s easy to listen to your road trip tunes and podcasts through your van’s speakers. But when you stop to camp for the night, your sound system is no longer an option.

Having a portable speaker opens up endless possibilities for van lifers. You can listen to a podcast when you’re making dinner, sit outside playing music with friends, or link your speaker up to your laptop for a movie night – the list goes on! 

Investing in a portable speaker is so important. Try to select a product that’s durable and has a relatively long charge – you can also get waterproof or dustproof speakers which will cope better with the rough and tumble world of van living.

W-King Portable Bluetooth Speaker

Our pickW-King Wireless Speaker

This robust speaker from W-King is made to stand the rough and tumble of van life. Connect it to your smartphone or laptop and enjoy up to 24 hours of playtime from this water-resistant Bluetooth speaker – it even has a removable strap to make it easy to carry around.

  • Protective outer shell
  • Water-resistant and dust-proof
  • Designed for outdoor use
  • Bluetooth connectivity up to 7 meters
  • Battery life varies
  • Dimension: 25.4 x 9.4 x 9.5cm
  • Net weight: 1.5kg
  • Range: Up to 7 meters

Carbon monoxide alarm

You should apply the same levels of safety and security to your van as you would your own house.

Van living is very confined, meaning you’re likely to have a gas stove, heater, and other fume-producing machines close by and in operation. If anything goes wrong with your appliances, you could be at serious risk of carbon monoxide exposure – a scentless, invisible gas. 

This is very dangerous as carbon monoxide is difficult to detect and can cause suffocation. However, if you have an alarm, this will beep to warn you if the levels get too high in your van. It’s unlikely to happen, but having the alarm could save your life.

Kidde Carbon Monoxide Alarm

Our pickKidde Digital Display Carbon Monoxide Alarm

The Adventure Pending team has been using this particular carbon monoxide alarm since mid-2022. We’ve luckily never run into any problems, but it’s a great failsafe to have nearby. The Kidde alarm is easy to set up and can be tested at any time with the touch of a button. It also packs into a sturdy box for easy transportation.

  • Compact and lightweight
  • 10-year sensor lifespan
  • Easy to test
  • Digital display
  • Can accidentally ring whilst setting up!
  • Dimensions: 127 mm x 73 mm x 39 mm
  • Weight: 170g
  • Display of CO levels from 30ppm
  • Detector alarms from 50ppm

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Fire extinguisher

A fire extinguisher or fire blanket works on the same principle as a carbon monoxide alarm – it’s an extra safety item and one of the essentials for van life. If you’re cooking inside your van, as most do, you’re at a higher risk of causing a fire.

Gas stoves are the most common way of cooking in a van, which means you will be using an open flame in an enclosed space. It’s not ideal, but that’s the reality of van living!

If you have a fire extinguisher or fire blanket close to hand, you can rapidly prevent fire from spreading. This quick response may well extinguish the flames and be enough to save your van. Again, it’s not something any of us want to consider a possibility – but having the gear to deal with fire is essential.

Stay Safe 5 in 1 Fire Extinguisher

Our pickStay Safe 5-in-1 Fire Extinguisher

This 5-in-1 fire extinguisher from LifeSafe tackles five types of fires with ease. We love that it’s small and lightweight so it will fit into your van easily – keep it at arm’s length to cover any emergencies. 

  • Tackles five types of fire – electrical, fuel, cooking oil, textile, and paper/card.
  • Compact and lightweight
  • Quick to deploy
  • Non-toxic
  • Recommend purchasing more than one in case of larger fires.
  • Dimensions: 19.9 x 5.6 x 5.4 cm
  • Weight: 200g

Table and chairs

You might already have a table with benches built into your van. This is great news for cold evenings or rainy days, but what if you want to sit outside? That’s where a set of portable table and chairs comes in.

If you live in your van 24/7, you might get sick of being cramped inside – being in nature is one of the best things about van life and it’s worth making the most of. 

Owning a camping chair will allow you to sit outside and read, drink coffee, chat, or relax in the sun. A table gives you the option to eat, work, and play games outdoors too. It’s recommended to buy a portable set that is easy to store and fold back into your van.

Quechua Folding Camping Table and Stools

Our pickQuecha Folding Camping Table and Stools

This sturdy camping set from Decathlon has long been a favourite of the Adventure Pending team – it’s budget friendly and will comfortably sit four to six people. There’s also the option to adjust the height of the table to suit your day-to-day needs.

  • Sits four to six people
  • Lightweight
  • Adjustable table height
  • Budget-friendly
  • No back support on stools
  • Product Dimensions: 120 x 60cm
  • Weight: 8.7kg
  • Folded Size: 60 x 60 x 10.5 cm
  • Height: 70cm

Comfy footwear

There are certain things about van life that simply take time to get used to. One of these is the indoor/outdoor aspect. In a van, you will never live fully indoors like in a house – nor will you live completely outdoors like using a small tent.

There are a million reasons why you might want to head in and out of your van throughout the day, and a comfy pair of lounge shoes will provide a convenient solution to the problem. 

We recommend purchasing a pair of camping slippers – they’re perfect for keeping your feet warm on those cold winter days and they’re much more comfortable than shoes!

Rab Cirrus Hut Slippers

Our pickRab Cirrus Camping Slippers

A good pair of camping slippers are a great option for indoor-outdoor living. We love these from Rab as they’re insulated for warmth and easy to clean, while the elasticated tops make for a snug and comfortable fit.

  • Elasticated for easy wear
  • Stretch inserts
  • Synthetic insulation
  • Tough 600D nylon edge
  • Lack of colour options online
  • Size options: S to XL
  • Weight: 172g per pair

Portable battery

Most campervans will have an electric hook-up – this is ideal for people who want to stay at a campsite and plug their van in whenever they need electricity. However, personal van conversions and total off-grid living are now becoming more conventional. 

A portable battery is a quick and easy way to source electricity on the go. You can purchase a deep-cycle battery and link it up to your alternator, but this requires a lot of wiring and a bit of electrical know-how.

Instead, a simple but elegant solution is to buy a portable battery such as the models sold by Jackery. They are easy to set up and can connect to multiple electrical sources. They can charge phones, laptops, fans, lights, and even portable fridges

Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 500

Our pickJackery Portable Power Station Explorer 500

The Jackery Station Explorer 500 is a large purchase that will last you a lifetime. This 500 watts portable power station is easy to store in your van and will charge most appliances. To recharge the Jackery, either plug it into your cigarette lighter or wall socket. There’s even the option to purchase a solar panel to sustainably restore your power.

  • Provides stable power to a wide range of devices
  • Easy to store
  • Option to power via solar
  • Temperature and short-circuit protection
  • Expensive but a one-off purchase
  • Wattage: 500
  • Voltage: 230
  • Dimensions: 30.1L x 19.3W x 23.4H cm

Books

You’re likely to have a lot more downtime when living in a van. The hectic hustle and bustle of modern life will seem like a distant memory, and you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy hobbies that embrace the slower pace of life.

Bringing books or an e-reader on your van life adventures is essential. Relaxing with a coffee and a book on a sunny morning or snuggling in your sleeping bag to read late on a chilly night are both wonderful experiences available to van lifers.

These books can also have more practical uses. For example, having books on wildlife or foraging is fantastic for improving your nature knowledge. Books on van mechanics, survival, bushcraft, or first aid may all come in handy over the course of your adventures.

Van Life Reading

Our pickAudible Subscription

We highly recommend an Audible subscription to get your book collection started. Not only does this solve the problem of storing your favourites, but you can also listen whilst on the road! Sign up for a 30-day free trial to see if it’s a good fit for you. 

  • 30-day free trial
  • Access to thousands of reads
  • Saves on van storage
  • Eco-friendly
  • Electronic
  • Subscription service

Games

Almost every van lifer you meet will have a selection of games stashed away somewhere. Backgammon, cards, puzzles, and chess are very popular, but you can really choose anything you want. Some people get inventive with their van and add dart boards or basketball hoops to the back of their vehicle!

If you’re staying at a campsite or meeting up with other van lifers, playing games can be a great bonding experience. TV and electronics take up so much time in modern life. However, as these options aren’t as convenient when you live in a van, classic card and board games take over. 

Bananagrams

Our pickBananagrams

The Adventure Pending team loves a good game of Bananagrams! It’s best played in a group, but you can just as easily keep yourself entertained playing solo. This modern take on Scrabble allows for fast gameplay and packs away small so you can store it easily.

  • 1-8 players
  • 15-minute playing time
  • 6 editions available
  • Easy to play
  • Lots of small pieces
  • Ages 7+

Toolbox

Most of the items on our van life essentials list have been related to leisure or safety, but you will also need a couple of maintenance items to keep your van functioning at its full potential.

For the cold winter months, purchase a de-icer and an ice scraper. Buy another few sprays for cleaning the upholstery inside of the van. You should also ensure you have a spare tyre and a flat-tyre repair kit; this will include a wheel jack and a lug wrench.

Next, you want to have a toolbox filled with miscellaneous items. Remember, it’s possible to go on forever with mechanical gear but try to focus on the essentials. It may seem daunting to fix your vehicle at first, but it’s a great skill to get comfortable with. 

 Your toolbox should contain work gloves, a hammer, wrenches, spanners of various sizes, safety goggles, a screwdriver with different fittings, a tape measure, and pliers. Make sure you also have spare fluid bottles: engine oil, washer fluid, brake fluid, transmission fluid, and coolant. A jerry can with extra gasoline is also a good idea for long, back-road adventures.

Stanley Essentials Toolbox

Our pickStanley DIY Toolbox

Get off to a good start on your van life adventure with a Stanley toolbox. This sturdy toolbox will be large enough to fit all the basics, without taking up too much room in your van. Keep it somewhere that’s easy to reach so you can perform quick fixes at any time.

  • Option to purchase with tools
  • Organiser top
  • Compact to fit in your van
  • Made from sturdy plastic
  • You will need to fill it!
  • Dimensions: ‎7.87 x 7.68 x 16.14 cm
  • Weight: 887g

Phone apps

Times have changed and the days of road trips with large A5 paper maps are over. Now, almost everything you need to make your life convenient is on your smartphone. This is especially true with van life. Most van travellers buy a window mount for their smartphone to have it up front, by the driver.

You can then use applications like Maps.me to download offline maps to help with navigation. Apple Maps and Google Maps are also good to use, but they don’t have quite the same offline features.

Your phone is another huge source of entertainment. Using apps like Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon Music provides you with the perfect tunes for your road trip. You can also get stuck into pre-downloaded podcasts or radio shows on your van adventures.

Apple App Store

Our pickiOverlander

A top essential for van lifers is iOverlander – this nifty app is made for van lifers and overland travellers. It’s filled with recommendations from other users on campsites, fuel stations, water refill spots, wild camping areas, and even dangerous/unrecommended areas. 

  • Find recommendations from other campers
  • Free to use
  • Available on desktop + mobile
  • Free version can be a little difficult to use
  • User-updated

Our final van life tips

There you have the 10 essentials for van life. It’s important to remember that you can add and update your van equipment as you travel – there’s no rush to buy everything immediately. In fact, it may take a little time to settle into van life and identify the essentials you want for your style of travel.

Your list of essentials will also depend on the type of life you want. If you’re an off-road or backcountry fanatic, then you’ll need some specialised essentials. For example, tow straps, a winch, recovery boards, and a portable air compressor will all be non-debatable.

If you like winter adventures, you’re going to need a shovel, tyre chains, a heater, and extra blankets in your van. Adrenaline junkies may want to follow the seasons by skiing, rock climbing, or chasing waves around the world, and you can hardly live that life without having your skis or surfboard with you!

Ultimately, this is the joy of living in a van. It’s the endless opportunity to pursue a course of life that is right for you. If you start by investing in these essentials for van life, you’ll be well on your way to making the most of your travels. Good luck – there’s a big world out there waiting to be explored!

FAQ: Essentials for van life

Just getting started with van life, or wanting to kit out your home on wheels a little better? Find our most-asked questions on van life essentials here. Alternatively, send us a message on Instagram – we would love to hear from you!

A carbon monoxide alarm and fire extinguisher are always good safety basics to keep in your van. You will also need a first aid kit to cover all eventualities!

We love Maps.Me and iOverlander, but Google and Apple maps are also simple and free choices.

Go for the old-fashioned favourites – books and games! We recommend an Audible subscription so you’ve got something to read no matter where you are in the world, and Bananagrams is a great space-saving game for playing with between 1 and 8 people.

Still not managed to solve your issue? Don’t be afraid to reach out and send us a message on one of our socials – we’re always happy to help!

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