VanLife 101: Everything you need to know before taking your first campervan road trip
By the VanCraft Team | July 16, 2021
So you’re wanting to give vanlife a try…good news is you’ve come to the right place! VanCraft has been outfitting road trippers since 2016. Our co-founders lived the #vanlife before the hashtag hit the mainstream. The result is a wealth of knowledge that ensures you have an authentic experience with campervans designed for any adventure (yes, that means winter camping as well!). That being said, we don’t want you to believe vanlife is all rainbows and butterflies “as seen on IG”. In this blog we will be going over everything you need to know before taking your first campervan road trip.
More specifically we will get into all the nitty gritty details and answer some of the most curious questions our customers have, such as:
WHERE do you camp or park at night?
HOW do you use the bathroom and shower?
Let’s start with the number 1 question
“Where can I find camping, and where is it safe to park for the night?”
HOW TO FIND CAMPING:
One of the benefits of traveling by campervan is that you don’t necessarily HAVE TO make campsite reservations in advance, and you can almost always CAMP FOR FREE. Not only can you camp for free, but we encourage it and like the saying goes: some of the best things in life are free.
Our favorite tool for finding free camping is a user-based app called iOverlander, available on iOS and android. THIS IS A FREE APP.
PRO TRIP: Download the iOverlander app before you lose cell service. Also, download maps.me for offline turn by turn navigation that works with iOverlander. We repeat, download the app and all of the maps for each state you will be visiting BEFORE YOU LOSE CELL SERVICE.
IOverlander has hundreds of 1000s of free camping locations. Make sure to scroll thru the campsite descriptions and read the user reviews to pick a good spot.
While apps are a great resource for finding campsites, we also recommend you look for new places not yet on the map! You don’t NEED to stay at campsite that someone has put on a map, you can find your own free camping, here is how:
First, summon your spirit of adventure. In today’s world with airBNB, 5G, and Instagram it seems that some of the adventurous spirit in the US has been lost. Don’t forget that camping existed before cell phones and your parents had to navigate with paper maps.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and National Forests both allow free dispersed camping. Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere OUTSIDE of a designated campground. For dispersed camping in National Forests many people drive out on Forest Service roads into the woods and find a clearing or a spot. You can identify National Forests by the green color overlay on your map. One of our favorite national forest camp spots is in the hills just above Big Sur. It’s often difficult to get a camp spot in Big Sur because they sell out months in advance, BUT if you drive up the mountain and into the boundary of the National Forest you can camp for FREE!
On BLM land, dispersed camp sites are located along most secondary roads and may not be marked. In laymans terms BLM is public land owned by the government and funded by tax dollars (technically you are already paying to camp on this land via taxes). For a nationwide map of BLM land, check out this map: BLM MAP
NOTE: You cannot camp in National Parks except at established campgrounds, BUT often you can exit the boundary of the National park to find National Forest or BLM land to camp on for free, no reservations required.
You can also urban camp so long as you follow all posted parking signs. For example Downtown Salt Lake City and surrounding neighborhoods allow overnight street parking.
When in doubt we always advise on asking for forgiveness vs asking for permission to camp, BUT that only works if you have a solid moral compass and sound set of ethics. Therefore we require that all of our renters sign a customer code of ethics and follow the 7 Leave No Trace principles.
The Leave No Trace Seven Principles
- Plan ahead and prepare.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
- Dispose of waste properly.
- Leave what you find.
- Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
- Respect wildlife.
- Be considerate of other visitors.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP:
We recommend that you plan as little or as much in advance as you are comfortable with!
Road trips can remind us of how travel was meant to be experienced, through the freedom of the open road. We recommend having an itinerary that allows for detours along the way. Factor in your comfort level with planning vs flexibility. Some people have great trips with no plans, others have great trips by planning the details down to the hour.
Start off by getting stoked on trip planning, take a peek at some of our itineraries, scroll through Instagram travel accounts, and do your research. Develop your trip itinerary in steps: first brainstorm your must see destinations and write them down in logical geographic order. Next, write next to each destination how many days/nights you want to spend at each stop. Don’t forget: One way to ruin an otherwise epic road trip is blasting from one destination to the next without ever taking the time to enjoy the stop.
Now that you have an idea of an overall route, map out how far the driving distance is between each stop and calculate realistically how many of the destinations you will be see depending on your trip length. In general we recommend spending at least 1 day at each destination and keeping the total trip to less than 200 miles of driving per day averaged across the entire trip. Sure some days might be spent entirely behind the wheel, but make up for those long drives by setting up camp and staying put at your next stop.
We like to make sure the necessities are covered in the trip planning phase, such as fuel calculations, food, and water. If you grocery shop in advance and always refuel before you’ve hit ¼ tank, you can be sure to never worry about going hungry or running out of fuel.
Now that’s you’re ready to hit the road you may be unsure of what to bring. The good news is that VanCraft provides everything you need to camp for any adventure. All vans include a fully stocked kitchen with dishes, cookware and cleaning kits, fresh linens and towels, outdoor camp gear, and are prefilled with water and propane. You just need to pit stop at a grocery store for provisions and hit the road.
You can view a full list of included items in each campervan, here.
VANLIFE TIPS & TRICKS:
There can be a steep learning curve to vanlife….it’s our goal to make the lifestyle as turn key as possible, especially when it comes to hygiene. The second most asked question from those interested in giving vanlife a try is: “Where do I go to the bathroom, and how do I take a shower?”
01. WHERE TO USE THE BATHROOM:
Our answer normally goes something like… “well…does a bear $hit in the woods?” Yes, they do, and so will you! All jokes aside, pooping can be a barrier to entry for some people considering campervan life. Unless you have bathrooms nearby, there are two options when you need to go #2:
Option 01: Use the toilet in your van!
Use the cartridge toilet in your campervan. It’s not the most glamorous of bathrooms, BUT if you need to go you will be happy you decided to add a cartridge toilet to your rental. The key to a good poo is privacy. That means everyone has to empty the van and you get the throne all to yourself.
Hint: turn on the roof vent for some white noise and airflow.
Option 02: Dig a hole!
Dig a hole! VanCraft campervans all come with shovels (no, poop does not touch the shovel, it’s for digging the hole). Follow the Leave No Trace guidelines for disposing of human waste:
- Plan ahead: Don’t wait until the last minute. If bathrooms are available, do a preventative poo before you have to dig a hole. Wet wipes are very nice, but you have to pack them back out as well as pack out feminine products. If you are using anything other than toilet paper, bring a trash bag with you to properly dispose of non-biodegradable waste.
- Dig a cathole at least 6in deep (really, you can only dig a hole 6in deep?…we think you can do better). In hard, dry dirt it can be difficult to dig a deep hole, try to find organic soil that is easier to dig and will help decompose the waste…the cat hole must be 200ft from any water source such as a lake or stream.
- Pop a squat, and enjoy the view. Use as little toilet paper as possible, that means fold it!..if you have to crinkle, make sure the cathole is extra deep.
- Only bury human waste and toilet paper, and burry it deep! Do not bury wet wipes or feminine products, those must be packed out (bring a trash bag).
* Toilet Paper in Arid Lands: Placing toilet paper in a trash bag and packing it out is the best way to Leave No Trace in a desert environment. It is not advised to burn toilet paper as it can result in wildfires.
02. HOW TO SHOWER:
A wise vanlifer once said: “Shower whenever and wherever you can! You never know how long it might be until your next opportunity.”
THE GOOD NEWS: All VanCraft campervans have an outdoor hot water shower. VanCraft was born in San Diego where beach and hippie culture thrives. It is not uncommon to see surfers rinsing off in the parking lot before changing out of their wetsuits, we’ve just perfected the art of a “hippie shower”.
If it is too cold outside OR you are in an urban environment where hippie showers are frowned upon, you can always buy a day pass at a YMCA or gym, take a hot yoga class (they always have showers), or try a truck stop shower (they really aren’t bad).
SOME TRICKS & TIPS FOR YOUR FIRST VAN TRIP:
- Don’t camp at Walmart (it’s bright, loud, and generally miserable).
- Park the van on a flat surface before you go to sleep (always sleep with your head higher than your feet). Use rocks to level the van if it’s not flat.
- Spend a morning or afternoon at a coffee shop to get out of the van and meet some locals.
- Keep the van tidy, sweep the floor daily and dispose of trash when you have the chance.
- Bring along wet wipes and dry shampoo.
- Charge your devices at night so they are ready for the next day’s adventure.
- Use the dash vents with the heat on high to blow dry your hair.
- Refuel before you hit ¼ tank AND remember to check the engine oil at every fuel stop.
WHY WE RENT CAMPERVANS, AND WHY SHOULD YOU GIVE VANLIFE A TRY?
Because we believe that travel can make the world a better place! There is a fundamental difference between taking a vacation and traveling. It’s easier now than ever to plan your next trip: Reservations are just a click away, but what you will find missing from your itinerary is a sense of adventure. The solution VanCraft provides is the freedom to forego the itinerary, creating endless possibilities for extraordinary experiences.