Camper van living
March 22, 2018 12:05 PM   Subscribe

What do we need to know about living out of a rented camper van for a couple of weeks this summer? What do we need to make sure we bring with us or buy? Tips or tricks for making it as easy and comfortable as possible?

We're renting a van and driving through Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. We've done a fair amount of car camping, but not for an extended trip like this, and not in a rented camper van. It comes with a propane stove and small 12V fridge. We have lots of car camping equipment, but will be flying in to SLC to pick up the van, so can't take everything with us. We can rent some things from the REI in SLC. What should we rent rather than bring or buy - bear canisters, for example?

General itinerary is SLC -> Tetons -> Yellowstone -> Bitterroot Valley, MT -> Glacier -> SLC. Will be asking other questions about the route next!
posted by gingerbeer to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite is a good resource for living in a camper. Some of the stuff is a little dated, but a lot of it is still good. And they have a lot of links.
posted by patheral at 12:14 PM on March 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Suggestions will vary greatly based on whether you are looking to camp at designated paid campsites (if so, book as early as possible) or if you are "boondocking" - ie camping on BLM land with no facilities for water, bathrooms, electric. Can you clarify?
posted by HeyAllie at 12:15 PM on March 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Those sleeping blindfolds or whatever you call them if you like it dark. The window curtains aren’t super great. Possibly a jet boil stove. A cooler because the fridge is small.
posted by kerf at 12:35 PM on March 22, 2018

Response by poster: Camping in designated camp sites. Actually staying in a house with friends in the Bitterroots so will be able to do some laundry there, but otherwise a mix of campgrounds in national parks, mostly.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:36 PM on March 22, 2018

Best answer: Then I wouldn't bother with bear cannisters. Most national park camping grounds include bear-proof locker containers where you can store all your food items and your cooler. Park rangers will actually do rounds to make sure you do this.
posted by HeyAllie at 12:53 PM on March 22, 2018

Toilet paper. Seriously, toilet paper.

Bath towels, the full sized ones so you can dry off after the shower.

If you are using canned goods, a can opener. Ditto a bottle opener.

Phone/electronics charger *especially* if you are using it to navigate. Speaking of, don't count on having 24/7 internet/wifi.

Comfortable bedding!!!!!

Warm clothes.

A flashlight or two

And, uh, if your camper lacks a bathroom, a bottle to pee in at 3am.

If you are using dish soap that doesn't go in a official wastewater disposal place, make sure it's biodegradable.

Toilet paper. Sunscreen. Toilet paper!

Have fun
posted by Jacen at 1:41 PM on March 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cleaning:
1) Everything needs a place
2) Bring a little hand broom / dustpan thing
3) Clean at a set, regular time

Bring headlamps and a big Maglite that never leaves its main spot (e.g., right next to the driver's seat).

Little things make a big difference. E.g., friend I traveled with brought a candle, and it was such a nice transition to "after dinner time." Think about what your own little transitions like that could be.

Another little thing that has an outsized impact are stinky shoes. If you might suffer from that given long days of hiking, consider a welcome mat or mesh climbers' bag so that your shoes can be outside when you're not driving and not impacting your indoor air quality. :) Or bring baby powder.

Also, baby wipes are totally worth bringing.

I wrote a lot of thoughts on long-term car camping that would possibly also apply here. This is also a good thread.
posted by salvia at 1:46 PM on March 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Modular living so you can say "OK time to get the bedding out" and it's all in one tub. Same with kitchen stuff. Same with whatever else. So maybe bring some collapsible crates? Or just get them at the SLC Home Depot. Think about sleeping at night. Do you have screened in areas that you can open at night if it's hot? If not, bring/get screens and magnets to adhere them to windows. And/or privacy screens. Because you want air but you also don't want bugs. Always keep one clean outfit somewhere, separate from everything else in case you spill a canteen on your knapsack. I found it useful to have a voltage converter thing to plug into the cigarette lighter so I could charge a laptop and not just my phone. Double plug phone charger. Internet is at the libraries, obviously :) Travel mugs that aren't breakable. A coffee plan. Lots of little plastic supermarket bags for car trash/recycling. You need basically nothing for clothes. A few changes of things. You can rinse stuff out and hang it to dry in a car window. RAINGEAR. I think if it were me I'd mostly think about the added expense of checking a fully loaded luggage bag with camping stuff (stuffed sleeping bags etc) vs renting from REI. Think about some stuff that can just be cheap and then disposed/donated when you are done (pillows, for example I always want a real pillow).

That sounds fun, remember you're going to be on the grid so you can get nearly everything on the road.
posted by jessamyn at 1:51 PM on March 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

a paper map (for when/if your GPS doesn't work or you don't have service).
posted by devonia at 1:54 PM on March 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I traveled for months and through several climates in a minivan with the back seats removed. Your van is well kitted-out, nice.
Cooking - 12 volt immersion coil heats water for coffee pretty fast, but they stay hot. I burned a hole in my toolbag, a fairly affordable lesson.
Headlamp - one for everybody. Get some LED battery string lights - pretty, useful as interior lighting You can easily read with a bunched up set and a headlamp.
Fresh air - I have yet to see a screen for a car that was sensible - use a big piece of screen held in place with magnets.
Potty - I have a litter bucket that's square. Foam pipe insulation on the sides for comfort. Pee into a designated wide mouth water bottle. Poop at camp toilets. Toilet paper, containers of wipes, and general cleanup stuff was stored in the bucket. With the lid on, not a terrible seat.
Electricity - Keeping my phone and laptop charged was a headache. A small solar charger is a great idea. I used an inverter for the laptop.
Windshield sun reflector. Keeping the van cool is nicer.
1st aid kit
Tools - at least a multitool. I have a crappy knockoff multitool that lives in my vehicle.
Matches, lighter, newspaper to start fires.
Here's my packing list.

Have a fantastic trip.
posted by theora55 at 2:36 PM on March 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hey, this is totally my wheelhouse. You have a lot of good advice here, so I'm going to try to list a small amount of my most indispensable gear and kit. This is all stuff that ended up being used over and over again.

Headlamp, either USB rechargeable or 2x or 3x AAA. Good entry brands: Black Diamond, Innova, Fenix. Look for something with adjustable/ramped brightness on both white and red light modes. Maximum brightness should be in the 150-200 ANSI lumen range for white, 50-100 lumens for red, minimum brightness in "moonlight" mode for white should be 5-15 lumens.

Penlight or other small pocket or keychain light that always stays in your pocket or keys.

Area task light or larger/brighter flashlight. I don't recommend Maglight unless you want to whack someone with it. Thrunite, Convoy, O-light, Fenix and Thorlight all make great 18650 LED lights in the 20-30 dollar range, and many have USB recharging options. For a task light/lantern, I like cheap little USB task lights plugged into a battery bank. You can get task lights like this for like a dollar or three online, and you can plug in a few of them into one bank and do stuff like use extension cables or USB hubs to distribute the power.

Also seconding the USB string or strip lights. These can replace an area or task light and provide great ambience out in the middle of nowhere for use inside the van or a tent. Get some RGB ones that can also do white for extra fun.

A good headlamp basically replaces all of this, though, and you can save area lighting for general mood or ambience or difficult tasks.

Collapsible 5 gal water cube, or jerry cans. Have at least 2 for road/car camping, and filtering. 3 is usually an ideal number for van living, even if you don't keep all 3 filled, and the collapsible ones take up much less space if needed.

Emergency water filter/treatment - take two: Tablets and sawyer mini + plus boiling. I strongly recommend the gravity feed kit and plumbing for car/van camping.

Work gloves and disposable gloves - like $5 stretchy nitrile coated mechanic's gloves or work gloves. This turns handling dirty, sooty things like firewood into much less of a hassle and keeps off the sap and splinters. Work gloves like this are also just fantastic for hiking and going rock-crawling.

Use good nitrile or latex gloves for extra messy tasks, including cooking, but also stuff like engine work, handling/adding oil, fueling. Saves water for drinking instead of hand washing. My bike toolkit *always* has disposable gloves tucked away somewhere in case I need to handle my chain or change a flat. Getting mechanical grease out of your hands is basically impossible without a modern sink and a lot of soap and water, and you end up living with the grime for days or until whenever your next really hot shower is.

Baby wipes - unscented. Bicycle tourists and desert rats alike swear by these. Keep a pack in the icebox or cooler for an extra refreshing face wash. Also, face-specific wipes are definitely a thing and worth it.

Good multitool. I use a SOG w/ power assist, which is so bulletproof could pretty much chew up a Leatherman, but use something that works for you and isn't a $5 walmart special.

A decent bush knife or camp hatchet. Something that can split wood and brush as well as be used as a hammer. (To split wood with a bush knife, you start it like a hatchet, then maul it with another log. This will break/shatter cheap bush knives, though. Gerber makes some good affordable ones.)

Firestarting implements and accessories. You don't have to nerd out with a fire rod and steel, but having a dozen-odd lighters scattered around the van is good. Cheap tip: Grab a bag of tea lights or votive candles. You can use them as plain old tea lights, or break them into quarters or use whole to use as firestarting fuel. Way cheaper than buying bespoke fatwoods. If you're having extra difficulty with a wet fire, light a candle and dribble hot wax all over your kindling and tinder.

Rubbing alcohol, 99%. Bonus points if it's potable ethanol AKA everclear. It's a fuel, a solvent, a disinfectant, a fire starter and a potable medicinal beverage. But even the non-potable stuff is very useful.

Utility scissors or paramedic's shears.

Favorite tapes: Gorilla glue tape, 3M silk nanopore medical tape, electrical tape and 3M VHB doublesided foam tape. If you can't fix it or improve it with one of these it's broken or doesn't need improving. The VHB foam tape is used least of all, but is really handy to have a small roll or about a dozen 1" precut squares. The silk nanopore tape is a pretty surprising repair tool that can patch ripped tents, or the spine of a notebook, map or paperback.

Favorite threads/string/cord: 70+ pound monofilament, dental floss, decent paracord. You can stitch things with the monofil and dental floss.

Basic sewing kit, plus a strong carpet or canvas needle.

Bungie cords and/or bungie cargo nets everywhere. (BTW, if you end up with a tent or some kind of other shelter involving a rain or shade fly, and it ends up becoming a regular system - use bungie cords for your tie down lines or at the ends of the existing ones. You can knot the bungie cords to the right length and set them, and then it makes deploying a tent/structure super fast, and much more wind-resistant.)

USB battery banks with fast non-USB AC charging options. (See: Anker.)

Binder clips and small rare earth magnets. Both of these things are great for putting up ad hoc rain flies or sun shades, making curtains, hanging up a towel to dry, hanging anything you want on a hook. You can also use pairs of magnets as ad-hoc buttons and closures for rain ponchos, blankets. The most useful size tends to be in the 5mm square range, stronger than an average fridge magnet and, say, strong enough to hang a large wet towel with one, but not so big they're a pinch hazard, and squares and bars seem to work best.

You can also combine binder clips and strong magnets in a lot of ways. Put one magnet inside a binder clip and one outside, and you now have a binder clip that sticks to metal and can be used to hang things easier.

First aid kit: Assortment of basic bandages, pads, tape and disinfectants. Alcohol pads, Purell bottle or single serve packs, iodine or betadine single-use pads. Extra personal meds, OTC stuff like advil/aspirin. 3m nanopore silk tape. Spare glasses or contact lenses.

Ziplock bags are indispensable, especially in the gallon size. Use for storage, for food, for stinky trash, even for packing out human waste. Get the heavy duty kind with double zippers.

I'm also seconding the modular storage thing. Everything has a place and a spot in a smaller zipped pouch or bag. Those smaller bags are stored logically in larger bags or totes. Clear or mesh bags aid finding things, as does labeling or color coding.

Something a lot of car campers don't consider beyond a couple of folding chairs is furniture. A folding table is great. So are shade/shelter popups for a kitchen or living room.

Something I've seen van/car campers do is keep a half a sheet or so of plywood stashed, say, beneath the bed or somewhere out of the way, or even as the floor. This can be used on top of stacked totes or sawhorse legs as a table, or as a dry/firm floor under a popup, or even a flat to set up a tent on if the ground is too rocky.

Also consider hammocks. Small backpacker's hammocks don't take up much room, but they can provide a great outdoor couch or bed. They can also be packed on day hikes for a comfy seat that's much lighter than a folding chair. And if you only have one tree, you can try tying a hammock between van and tree.

And for car/van camping you're probably going to want some power management stuff, like a decent 30A outdoor extension cord for campground and house-side hookups, and a power strip or two.

Also, do get an inverter as well as direct 12V/cig adapter to USB power sources. For your road trip you would probably do well to splurge on a beefy 1000 watt inverter, not some flimsy little 100 watt one. (Your van may have a built in inverter.)

Solar: I still don't have good things to say about mobile solar. It's honestly easier and takes less time to just go find a Starbuck's or McDonald's. When I've used portable/folding consumer solar panels it could take all day to charge about 2,500 mah of battery, or about one phone charge, and you had to fuss over and tend to the panel to keep it tracking the sun like you were tending a fire.

If you were going to get a larger roll up or fold up panel that could be deployed over the roof of the van, now you're talking about some power, but if you're talking about a square foot or two of expensive "backpacker" solar, it'll barely trickle charge the van's battery. Which can be a useful thing and they make battery chargers just for that kind of thing, but you're not going to be running a laptop and a couple of ipads and two phones or something off of most of the folding panels available out there. (Anker, Goal Zero.)

But good van grade solar panels are still in the 500-1000 dollar range, and Goal Zero's prices are ridiculous for the tiny little panels they offer, which never hit the wattage specs they list outside of the best extreme conditions.

For the money you're better off getting a few of the really monster 40,000 mah banks from Anker that use a fast 18vdc laptop style charger instead of trickle-charging over 5v USB. You can charge these from a running vehicle and inverter, or quick charge them at powered campgrounds or host's houses. They'll charge a lot faster at coffee house layovers, too.

1 of these larger banks would keep most smartphones or an ipad or something online for about a week and have some juice left over for a USB task light or rechargeable flashlight. 2-3 of them would be plenty for most tech-friendly couples for a week or even two of careful but not totally frugal use. If you were just turning on a phone a couple of times a day and using some efficient LED/USB rechargeable lights they'd last a month or more, including natural discharge.

The struggle to keep all one's gear charged is real, though. Even when I was bike touring I carried an extension cord, a splitter block and a handful of good USB 2 amp and up chargers so I could charge all the things at the same time and leave the outlet with my phone, lights, laptop and battery banks all charged and topped off.

Have fun, stay hydrated!
posted by loquacious at 7:02 PM on March 22, 2018 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Hi! As a current - 5 months and counting! - camper dweller, I have Thoughts on this. The flying in part makes it difficult, since I’m not at all sure what you can and cannot put in checked baggage these days. However, if it’s possible, I think packing up a large Rubbermaid bin full of kitchen stuff and checking it through or shipping it to yourself - via the rental company maybe? - is going to make your trip so much better. You don’t want to have to buy and scrap an entire kitchen and I didn’t see anything in that listing indicating that they supplied anything. I have: a cast iron frying pan, 2 saucepans (one small I mostly use for boiling water and one large enough for pasta or making soup from scratch) and a grill pan from Ikea that I mostly use as a toaster. I tried a camp toaster - round thing with wires sticking up - and while it works fine, the grill pan is more versatile. I also have a French press - if you can find and afford a thermal camping French press buy it you will never look back. Even a glass one will work though. I have 2 colanders, a small one for cofffee grounds and a large one for pasta and then the regular utensils, spatulas (I have 2: I tried having just one and got another) and wooden spoons and so on. A corkscrew. A can opener. Tongs (vital.) A cutting board. A good knife. I also recommend a grill rack - you can use a toaster oven shelf or an oven rack, works fine - and it makes cooking over an open fire so much simpler, couple of rocks to hold it up and you’re good to go. Then plates and bowls and cups and one sturdy, large, water bottle per person. I really enjoy kicking back in the wilderness with a nice glass of wine in a real glass and eating off real dishes, I pack them up wrapped in wash clothes. You can buy wash clothes by the dozen at mall wart, they’re super cheap and have a thousand uses. Sturdy dishes and solid Mexican glassware hold up fine wrapped in wash clothes and snugged into yet another plastic bin.

I would be wary of that fridge. Mine is 3 way - it works on 12 volt, propane or AC if I’m hooked up to power. 12 volt is by far the worst and extended periods of that are when things go bad. Also, I would think it would suck the battery dry pretty fast. But if they have the battery issue solved and they probably do, it’s fine for staples, eggs and cheese and so on, ketchup. I just wouldn’t leave meat or seafood in it for long. Or buy some dry ice and keep that in there too.

Get - or rent? I have no idea what they rent - a battery powered fan, like a large one, box fan sized. There’s not much air circulation in vans and moving it around at night is vital. I have one that runs on D batteries or plugs in, I got it at KMart of all places and it’s just been a godsend.

Things to buy in SLC: A bucket for washing dishes and so on, although you could just use another bin. An indoor / outdoor thermometer is handy. Do not forget a grill lighter and a box of back up kitchen matches for the propane stove! Tin foil. Tupperware for leftovers. Plastic zip lock baggies. Hippie dish soap so if it ends up in the ground you don’t feel as guilty. Gallons of water. I find that it’s easier to go with gallon containers, you can move them around more easily than the bigger ones. I try to always have at least 5. Duct tape or clear household tape for various repairs. Salt and pepper and hot sauce.

I have a standing or hanging battery lantern thing that’s super handy - On inspection I see it is an Energizer LED nightlight - and the batteries last literally for years. You can read by it easily and bring it indoors or out. Much easier than an old school Coleman lantern. A couple of small pocket flashlights and that thing and you’re all set.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:36 AM on March 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Seconding the recommendation to book sites early, especially if you're doing national parks in the summer, ESPECIALLY surrounding holidays. If going to a first-come-first-served campground, get there early in the day.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:46 AM on March 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding what MGL says about 12v RV/van fridges and dry ice, and I meant to mention this. They're ok for keeping some cheese from sweating but that's about it. Don't center your meal plans around the fridge.

Also recommending booking early for official sites. When I was working at the local state park it was kind of intense how many people would just show up and get turned away during peak season. I don't know what the National Park rules are like, but in WA State Parks they only let you book a year in advance after a certain date on a first come, first served basis. And they'd have site booked a whole year in advance, and that waiting list would go out for several years if it was allowed.

Also keep in mind alternate sites. The areas you're traveling through are going to have a ton of BLM and National Forest Service lands, where dispersed camping is a thing and it's usually free.

And that van is ideally suited for doing that kind of semi-luxury dispersed camping. You guys could set camp in all kinds of unique spots that aren't just a parking spot and a picnic table somewhere in a park.

I'm not sure what the current state of the art is for finding BLM/NFS areas, but I start with google maps and cross reference it with USGS topos ("quads"). There's also the NFS site, and I bet BLM has stuff up now, too. If you're interested I can do some homework on this later, I'm out the door in a moment.
posted by loquacious at 11:43 AM on March 23, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for the detailed responses. We're generally set for standard car camping, with lights and lanterns and coffee press and so on. The van comes with kitchen and eating equipment, as well as a table and chairs and awning, so we don't need to acquire those. We've got reservations where we need them. I'm mostly interested in hearing about things that may be specific to living out of a camper van that we wouldn't think of from our years of car camping.

The warnings about the fridge are helpful, as well as the advice on a fan.

mygothlaundry - what do you use the indoor/outdoor thermometer for?
posted by gingerbeer at 1:05 PM on March 24, 2018

I'm not sure what the current state of the art is for finding BLM/NFS areas

The Allstays "Camp & RV" app is very useful. too.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:55 PM on March 24, 2018

I'm mostly interested in hearing about things that may be specific to living out of a camper van that we wouldn't think of from our years of car camping.

Here's one most people don't think about for van camping - a ladder. This is something most van dwellers have stashed somewhere in the van or RV. Especially if you have any roof storage going on, or any kind of an awning or pop-up or pop-out on the van.

Sometimes you need to get to the top of the van and even if it has one built into the back, it can be a huge pain without a decent stepladder or small extension ladder.

It's also something that's crazy useful for camping that car campers can't fit in their car easily. Want to string a clothesline from a branch you can't reach? You've got a ladder. Want to put some lights up in some trees or from the top of the van? You've got a ladder. Want to get a better view or picture? Heck, you've got a ladder! Going mountaineering across a crevasse riddled glacier? Ok, ok, maybe not... but they do use ladders for that.

I usually see the ladder stowed someplace flat like under/behind a bed or couch, or even strapped to or behind an existing ladder on the back door, and it's usually like a 3-4 or even 5 rung a-frame step ladder, something compact but just tall enough to reach the roof overhead with.

As for the indoor/outdoor thermometer, it's useful just like a thermostat in a house. You get acclimated to heat or cold and sometimes you actually need to know if it's freezing or 130 scorching degrees in the van.

This is not just useful for comfort or safety, but also managing energy and infrastructure stuff like food storage, fridge use or whether or not to put some more fuel on the fire or hydrate more than you feel like you need to hydrate.
posted by loquacious at 2:56 PM on March 26, 2018

Response by poster: Apologies if I'm not being clear about the constraints here. We'll be renting this camper van for two weeks from a company that rents them for exactly this purpose. We're solid on general car camping stuff and camping in general. We're not going to be living out of it permanently, or even all summer, so aren't looking to purchase a ladder or have plywood custom cut for us.
posted by gingerbeer at 11:39 PM on March 26, 2018

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