Preparing for van life? Here are the most important things to consider before heading on your first trip, as told by our expert Matt Lynch.
How to prepare for van life in the UK
Ever fancied visiting every national park in the UK? Or how about road-tripping the NC500 in Scotland? When you live in a van, anything is possible – you have your own method of transportation and personal living space rolled into one.
Van life is perfect for those who want regular holidays over the year, or a full-time living arrangement for long-term travellers. Everyone has a different reason for choosing van life and there are really no limitations on what direction you want to take it in.
However, there’s no denying that the shift to van life can be overwhelming. You may be leaving behind a job, friends, family, and a stable living arrangement – this can be daunting!
Our 10 steps below are here to help you prepare for van life well in advance. This will make the beginning of your adventure run much smoother, and give you some idea of what you’re going to be up against before you hit the road.
Select your vehicle
It’s going to be hard to begin your new road trip adventure without a vehicle! At first glance, your options will seem immensely varied. But if you take a step back, there are a few metrics to guide you to the perfect purchase.
First off you should consider whether you want to buy a fully-converted, semi-converted, or non-converted vehicle. There are pros and cons for each – fully-converted vans are more convenient as they’re equipped and ready to go, but they can also be significantly more expensive. Doing your own conversion can be cheaper and allows for full customisation, but this requires DIY skills and some technical know-how to outfit.
Think carefully about your potential uses for the vehicle and your living space preferences. If you are desperate for a shower or toilet, for example, you may need to spend more to get a fully converted camper van. If you’re on a bare-bones budget, you can buy a high-mileage car and rip out the seats or buy a shell of a cargo van and put a mattress in the back.
Purchasing your vehicle is undoubtedly the biggest investment when you prepare for van life. It’s a daunting prospect, but try not to get too hung up over the decision. Whatever you buy, you can make it a home.
Top tip – if you’re buying a second-hand vehicle, go through a comprehensive checklist or get it serviced before you hand over a wad of cash!
Make your modifications
Every van needs modifications – even fully converted vehicles can benefit from some tinkering. To figure out exactly what you want to chance, you might need to drive the vehicle around or live in it for a while.
If you have a semi-converted or non-converted van, you may have a bigger job on your hands. Modifications can include adding insulation, wiring up electrics, building furniture, adding solar panels, and decorating the interior.
It’s your project and you’re free to modify your van however you see fit! Just make sure to stay within the confines of the law; some insurance policies may require you to declare any changes to your vehicle before providing coverage.
Think about your electricity use
Electricity is key to life. – there’s no denying that. It’s so commonplace in our everyday lives that most hardly give it a second thought – there are always charging sockets, lights, fridges, and TVs within easy access.
It’s not so simple when you’re living in a vehicle, and you should give your electricity plans some extra consideration. There will be electricity in a fully converted camper, for example, but this may require an electric hook-up to function. You may even need a generator to store charge over the long term.
It’s important to think about your electricity consumption and general habits before heading off on your first adventure. If you’re going to drive a lot, you might find it easy to charge phones, cameras, and laptops through an adaptor in the cigarette lighter.
However, if you want a fridge, lights, and a heater, you’re going to need a more stable connection. Installing solar panels or deep-cycle batteries can provide you with a longer-term electrical output.
Plan for cooking
Van life and takeaways don’t go hand in hand. If you plan to spend most of your time off-grid, you need to be self-sufficient in buying food and cooking for yourself. So, what are your options?
The most common cooking method for van life is to use a gas stove – old-school camper vans will usually have a big gas tank for you to cook meals on. For a simpler option, you can use smaller gas canisters and a camping stove to cook from a fold-out table on your rear/side doors.
You will also need to consider how to store your food. A fridge requires electricity (see above), and you will need a steady source if you want your produce to be kept cold. At a push, you can use a drinks cooler to extend the life of some food, but that’s a more temporary solution.
Three-way camping fridges are always a good shout as these run using three different power sources, including a gas cartridge for off-grid camping. Storage boxes and tubs are another good investment to help you keep a dry store.
You might also want to think about the herbs, spices, and sauces you like to add to meals. Space is limited in a camper van, so make sure you select your larder carefully. Thinking about what dishes you might like to cook is a good way to get ready for van life. Just keep in mind that space will now be an issue!
A big way to prepare for van life is to make yourself as comfortable as possible. It’s no good moving into a campervan only to feel homesick every day. What comforts can you bring to your van to make it feel like your new home?
To start, a good sleeping setup is crucial. Do you have any special bed sheets, blankets, or pillows? Bring them along! Do you have a favourite mug, a beloved pair of slippers, or a treasured picture of your family? Don’t hesitate to add them all to the van!
These are the finishing touches that can really smooth the transition to van living. After all, these items mean a lot to you, so why shouldn’t they join the adventure?
As with many things in van life, personal hygiene is another facet of living we often take for granted. Showering and keeping clean are easy to do in a stable environment. In a van, less so. You may have to make some sacrifices.
Most vans don’t have a shower, proper running water, or a toilet. Some do, but they are usually the bigger more expensive models. You can shower at campsites, use a solar shower, or at a push – grab a bucket of hot water and some wet wipes. It’s not The Ritz, but it’s better than nothing!
Hooking up a water pump is good for washing dishes and cleaning your hands, but you will need to regularly empty your grey water tank and top up your freshwater tank. Everything takes more thought and maintenance when you live in a van.
Toilets can also be a bit of a problem. Again, if you’re at a campsite there will be a toilet. But if you’re caught short, look out for restrooms at grocery stores, petrol stations, and public toilets in towns and cities. This is probably one of the hardest things to adjust to when living in a van, but you will get there.
Learn new skills
There are a few extra skills you can pick up to help you in your transition to van life. Without a doubt, the biggest key to living in your vehicle is having a basic knowledge of mechanics. Usually, if a vehicle breaks down, it’s taken to the garage and the job gets done – that’s how most see mechanics in the modern day.
When you live in a van, you will have to be much more attentive and hands-on with your vehicle. That might mean you have to do a short mechanics course or take some online lessons before starting van life.
Other life skills that improve van living are cooking and first aid – both are valuable to make your trip safer and more enjoyable. Living in a van is also a good time to learn new hobbies you may have put off previously – have you ever wanted to slackline, skateboard, paint, or draw? Now’s your chance to learn!
Manage work and play
Living in a van was once deemed a ‘hippy’ thing to do. However, with the rise of digital nomads and remote working, this view has changed drastically. It’s now possible to live in a van and work full time – just be aware that if that sounds like something you might like to do, it needs a bit of forethought.
Do you need WiFi in your van? If so, you may need to get a dongle with a specialist data plan or you could hotspot from your phone. Some industries are more suited to remote work than others, so think hard about whether you really can work comfortably on the road.
For others, having a van is solely about having fun. Retirement, sabbaticals, gap years, or other long-term travel plans are all reasons people choose to live in a van. If that’s you, then great! You can prepare for van life by prioritising the leisure activities and other hobbies you want to enjoy when on the road.
Plan your trip
Now we get to the fun part – planning your trip. Where do you want to go? What travel dreams do you want to fulfil? There are many ways to plan a van trip, but the most sure-fire method is to follow your heart. Deep down, you will likely know where you want to visit and what you want to see.
To start planning your route, purchase a map and spend some time pouring over it. Scan the roads, research national parks, and piece together an itinerary of key sites. Reading guidebooks, travel books, and blogs are also fantastic ways to plan your trip.
After you’ve looked at all the top places you want to visit, research nearby campsites or use an app like iOverlander to find off-grid camping locations. Try to work out a basic route to get you from A to B. Ultimately you don’t have to plan the whole trip at once, but it’s good to have a basic structure to work from.
Don’t look back
You can spend a lifetime trying to prepare for van life, but at some stage, you will have to make that leap. It’s important to recognise that you will never be able to prepare for everything – there will always be unexpected twists and turns in the journey but that’s what makes it an adventure.
Learn to fix any issues you come across on the fly and learn to adapt to whatever the trip throws at you. Necessity is the mother of invention, and if you do get stuck when travelling, you’ll figure out a way to fix it. If you don’t make that initial commitment, you’ll never know what could happen.
If you follow these basic steps on preparing for van life, you’ll be well on your way to living the adventure of your dreams.
Your new lifestyle might feel scary or unsettling to begin with, and that’s normal! This alternative style of living takes time to adjust to. Try to take the rough with the smooth and don’t get hung up on the small things.
Life may not be as comfortable as back home, but the freedom you now have will be unparalleled. Van life is an adventure and the best way to enjoy it is simply to embrace it.
FAQ: How to prepare for van life
TLDR? Here’s our quick guide to preparing for van life so you can get on the road quickly.
Think about how quickly you want to get on the road and your DIY skills! A fully-converted van is super convenient but can be expensive, while doing your own conversion will take longer but allows for more personalisation.
Toilets in campervans are completely down to preference. Some find them to be unnecessary, while others can’t live without them! Consider the space available in your van and the additional workload involved in maintaining a bathroom.
We recommend buying an old-fashioned map and pouring over it to plan your first route! On the other end of the scale, apps like iOverlander can be really helpful.
Yes – a dongle with a good data plan will come in handy if you’re planning to work from your van. If you’re just getting started, hot-spotting from your mobile could be a good choice.
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