Van Camping is becoming a popular way to travel, but what is it and how can it be done? What type of vehicle can you van camp in? What essentials do you need? How do you cook in the van? What happens when you have to pee? How do you shower? How much does it cost? Is it safe? You’ll find the answers to these questions and more in this fun series, Van Camping 101.
I have a dream.
I dream of one day, traveling around the country full-time in a glamped out van camper stopping at every single roadside attraction in my path.
I also have a husband.
He does not share my dream.
Well, that’s only partially true.
He’s down for the part where we travel around the country.
But he doesn’t want to do it full-time because he doesn’t want to feel homeless (we’ve been there- it’s not a good feeling).
Nor does he share my love of all things unique, quirky and kitschy.
But my friends, after 27 years of marriage, we’ve learned married life is all about compromise. So this past February, we agreed that we would give this van camping thing a trial run.
We aren’t new to van camping. We’ve camped several times in our Dodge Grand Caravan Stow n Go. You can read about some of those experiences here, but this would be the first time we would hit the road in our new, purchased with van camping in mind, Dodge Ram Promaster 2500.
I was so excited! February could not roll around fast enough. Originally we had planned 30 days, but that got whittled down for many reasons.
- Our middle child had returned from a deployment and we hadn’t seen him for six months.
- My husband didn’t want to take so much time off work.
- And our youngest child, our daughter, missed us terribly.
But I’m pretty sure the real reason was that my husband was convinced that we would kill each other on our trip.
I don’t know what he was thinking.
There was only one time in our two-week trip that I contemplated strangling him. But I’ll get to that later.
First things first.
What is van camping?
According to Collins Dictionary, “A camper van is a van which is equipped with beds and cooking equipment so that you can live, cook, and sleep in it.”
Using that definition, van camping is camping in a camper van. But a minivan or full-size van aren’t the only vehicles you can sleep in. You can camp in your Jeep or other SUV, truck, and even give car camping a try.
Camping in a van, or another vehicle, has become a pretty popular mode of travel with the younger generations. Not as common for empty nesters like us, but for my husband and me, it’s a win-win.
We’ve lived in an RV.
We know full well what a pain in the arse it can be to navigate cities and find parking spots when visiting many popular tourist attractions.
We also know how much gas a big motorhome can guzzle. Money that could easily be spent on experiences and not filling the gas tank.
While the space in an RV is nice, we decided years ago that unless we were going to live in it, we didn’t need something that big. And honestly, after traveling in our van for two weeks, I can say it wouldn’t be difficult to transition to full-time travel in a Promaster. For the two of us, it was plenty roomy.
You may enjoy:
Why did we choose a 2017 Dodge Ram Promaster 2500 for Van Camping?
When we purchased the Promaster, we weren’t initially looking for a vehicle to travel in. We were looking to replace my husband’s work truck. He was intrigued by working in the van and I immediately saw the benefit the van could provide for traveling. Since we had intended for my husband to semi-retire in a few years, the purchase seemed to be a win-win.
My husband was more practical than me. He chose the vehicle because it is front-wheel drive, the high roof body style allows you to stand up and walk in it, it gets decent gas mileage and it can easily be converted from work van to camper van.
Look for an entire post just about the van in the near future.
If you’d like to try before you buy I recommend Outdoorsy that does offer van camper rentals.
What modifications have we made to our van?
We haven’t made any permanent modifications to the van. The reason is that until a few months ago, the Promaster doubled as my husband’s work van.
We also decided for the first couple of trips we wanted to “live” in the van and experience it without alterations to see what we truly needed.
After driving from Ohio to Florida and back, we decided we needed very little in the way of permanent changes.
We added insulation to the walls and my husband built a platform for the bed with storage underneath. We didn’t build in anything else but we did make sure we had the perfect van camping mattress.
We covered the walls and ceiling with drop cloths which we secured with industrial strength Velcro rather than cover them with plywood or lumber because we didn’t want to add any unnecessary weight.
This video walks you through our van camper.
We also didn’t build in a kitchen unit since we use our camp kitchen gear and prefer to cook our meals outside of the van. Now, if we were traveling during the winter in a colder climate, we would need to consider other arrangements.
Since we were traveling to Florida during the winter, we didn’t feel a need for an additional heat or air conditioning source other than what the van already offered.
Our van does not have a shower or a toilet, but there are portable toilets readily available for those who prefer to pee in something other than a bucket. Yes. You read that right. I did type bucket but I’ll go into more detail a bit later.
When it comes to minivan camping, we did make curtains for the van. We show you what worked for us in this post —–> Van Camping 101: Easy to Make DIY Privacy Curtains
What is essential for a great van camping experience?
Honestly, it boils down to having a partner that you can travel well with. I may joke about my husband and I wanting to kill each other and there were moments that wouldn’t have been much of a stretch, but he is my person. There is not a single person I would rather travel the country and van camp with.
Besides, if we can survive an RV with three teenagers and a puppy unscathed, we can pretty much survive anything.
Other than your travel companion, a biggie for us is comfort.
I don’t need a 5-star hotel, but I’m not one to sleep on a cot either. The van provides a happy medium for us.
After doing some research, we carefully selected a full-size memory foam mattress that is so comfortable we’ve even used it in the house. You can read about the mattress here. We’ve used it in both the mini-van and in the Promaster.
In the mini-van, the mattress fits longways from the front to the back in the minivan and in the Promaster, the mattress fits side to side. One concern we had was positioning the mattress around the wheel wells. In the Promaster, we remedied this problem by building the bed platform above the wheel wells. The minivan doesn’t have wheel wells and the mattress is squishy enough that it even though it’s a tight fit, it can be squished in place.
More Van Camping Essentials
Our packing list included:
- An Atlas
- Our camp kitchen which includes a camp stove, pots and pans, cooking utensils, fuel, plates, bowls, silverware, cutting board, knives, dishpan, dishwashing clothes, dishwashing liquid, camp tablecloth, camp table (didn’t use it but I’ll continue to pack it because you never know when it will come in handy), spices, a corkscrew, wine glasses
- Cooler- this one is amazing!
- Broom and basic cleaning supplies
- Our hammocks
- Disc golf set
- Screening for the back of the van
- Battery-powered fan
- Portable sound machine
- Power inverter
- Mirror (to fix my hair)
- Laptop stand (so I could work on the road)
- Potty Bucket and toilet seat
- Hygiene wipes for bathing
- Basic tools- I’ll add this for next time.
- Damp Rid to cut down on the condensation you may have in the morning
- Bins for storage
- Room darkening curtains
- Cinch Sacks which we used as toiletry bags for the two of us
There are a couple of things we did not take that I wish we would have had- an inflatable kayak and bikes.
I’d read that bikes would be a pain and that we really wouldn’t use them much for the effort but there were several times that we commented to one another that we wished we had disregarded that advice and packed them up anyway like when we were in the Keys and again on Jekyll Island– both would have been great to explore on a bike.
Not having bikes forced us either to walk more than we wanted to (not necessarily a bad thing) or drive the van every time we wanted to go somewhere after we had set up camp for the night.
This isn’t a huge inconvenience since the van is pretty self-contained but that did mean taking down our bug screen if we had the doors open or packing up our camp chairs. Pretty minimal but once I’m settled, I do like to feel settled.
Moral of the story? Read online advice and opinions, including mine, consider how you like to travel and make determinations on your own.
How long did it take to set up our van?
My husband and I decided early on that we wanted our van to have more of a “glamping” feel than a typical camper van.
It took about a day to clean the van out and remove all of my husband’s tools, a day to cut and secure the insulation, build the platform for the bed, install the drop cloths and install the lights, and another day to load up.
So roughly three days from start to finish but now that we know what we’re doing, we can easily drop that to two days or less if we hustle.
We achieved our goal by using a generous amount of drop cloths, fairy lights, pillows, and blankets. It turned out fantastic!
A trip to Hobby Lobby coupled with a few items from around the house and we had all the decorations we needed to deck out the van.
Oh- and I made the feather light which hung over the bed.
Now, before we get into where we went, I know you have a few more questions.
What do you do if you don’t have a bathroom in the van and you need to GO in the middle of the night?
Let me preface this by saying that my least favorite part of van camping is not having a restroom in the van.
I detest waking up in the middle of the night and forging my way to A) an open Walmart or B) a campground bathhouse. There are other options, but those seemed to be the top places we stay when camping.
My husband and I knew for the long term, we would need a solution. There are portable toilets that you can purchase and while we haven’t ruled them out, we found another option to be better suited for us.
Enter the bucket potty.
I can’t tell you how much having a bucket potty in our van improved our van camping experience.
You can purchase an entire bucket/potty unit like the Luggable Loo or you can piece together your own. Since we already had a bucket, we simply purchased the seat. We used small kitchen size trash bags with a couple of scoops of non-clumping cat litter for the liner.
You can use your bucket for whatever you like but we agreed early on that our bucket is not for #2 unless it would be an extreme dire emergency. Even in an emergency, I managed to avoid it.
We pretty much only used the potty at Walmarts because traipsing into the store to pee at 2 a.m. seems a little sketchy to me.
Disposal of our bags was easy. The kitty litter absorbed all the liquid. We simply tied up the bag and disposed of it with our trash.
I’ve written an entire blog post on additional options for those who van camping setups don’t include a bathroom. You can check that out here. —> Van Camping: What You Want to Know But Were Afraid to Ask
How do you shower?
I thought washing our hair would be a challenge but it turns out it’s not. I bought these no-rinse shampoo caps for my husband and I use dry shampoo coupled with this product to minimize tangles and to condition my long hair.
Styling my hair is pretty easy too. I purchased a power inverter that powers my straightening wand which is what I use to curl and straighten my hair. The vehicle does need to be running to use this inverter but it’s nice to use in the Promaster because there is a plugin for it at the very back of the van.
What about A/C and How do you stay safe from carbon monoxide poisoning when you add Heat?
Depending on where you travel you may experience hot or cold weather that requires some sort of a/c or heat.
We haven’t traveled in extreme heat yet and have found that so far, we’ve been comfortable with my husband’s battery operated fan. Our fan is an 18 V Arctic Cove but you’ll find similar fans on Amazon.
We also have a screen that we made that fits on the back doors when they are open that lets air in. This setup was great in Florida.
However, my husband did purchase a portable air conditioner that we eventually do plan to hook up in the van.
We have briefly traveled in cold weather when we could have used a heater but we weren’t inconvenienced enough to purchase a heater yet. For the time being, we have simply turned on the engine for a bit until we were warm and toasty and then jumped under our pile of blankets and goose down comforter and snuggled.
That may not be an option for everyone and we are weighing our options.
Even though we haven’t made structural modifications to the van, we have added insulation and will add more before we travel next. This keeps the heat in when its cold and keeps the van cooler when it’s hot out. Plus, the added insulation can provide a bit of a sound barrier.
Here are a few options that we’ve considered for heating the van:
- An electric heater
- Propane Heater
- Remote start so we don’t even need to get out of bed to turn the van on to warm up for a bit.
There are several things to consider when heating your van.
- You can only use an electric heater if you have an electric source, i.e. campground electric, an inverter, or internal batteries which we don’t have set up.
- Propane heaters need to be vented and cause moisture.
- Many propane heaters produce too much heat for a van.
- Propane heaters need to have plenty of space around them as a buffer so they don’t catch anything on fire.
- Heaters take up space when not in use and storage is a hot commodity in the van.
We aren’t sold on anything yet, though we are currently researching this Mr. Heater model. It can be hooked up to a large propane tank which will be more cost-effective over the small, camping canisters and it comes with a built-in carbon monoxide detector. Even then, I have this portable carbon monoxide detector just to be safe because I’m one who believes you can’t be too cautious.
Where do you stay when van camping?
We’ve found that it is easier to find places to park for free in some parts of the country rather than others.
We’ve parked at truck stops, Walmart and rest areas- which you need to watch. Different states have different rules when it comes to sleeping overnight at a rest stop. Very few allow it.
Walmart can be a good option, though we found that those close to an interstate are the most welcoming and in really big cities it may be hard to find a Walmart that allows overnight camping. We ran into this issue in Miami.
Common courtesy denotes that you speak with a manager and gain approval before getting comfy but typically, we pull in, make sure there isn’t a “No overnight parking” sign and pull in and park near other RV’s or motorhomes.
We prefer well-lit areas towards the back of the parking lot when in the Promaster. However, when we are minivan camping, we blend in anywhere.
I wouldn’t say Walmart is free. Personally, we ALWAYS end up spending more than if we would simply go to a campground.
Cracker Barrel restaurants are another option. You will need permission from the manager so make sure you ask on this one.
This is not comprehensive. There are other places such as BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and USFS (United States Forest Service) properties that welcome boondocking campers as well.
We like to mix it up with free and paid parking. If we can find an inexpensive campsite at a state park or local campground, we’re likely to go that route because I’m more comfortable with the amenities it provides.
Is Van Camping Safe?
One of the reasons my husband and I enjoy van camping is the security it offers. If we don’t feel safe at a location, we move. It’s as simple as that. With that in mind, we are careful when we select places to sleep at night.
If we don’t feel safe or an area looks sketchy, we move on. We had that happen on our last road trip to Florida. We stopped at a Walmart and within minutes someone had approached the van asking for money. It could have been an isolated case and wouldn’t have happened again but we decided that wasn’t the place for us.
And finally, what you all want to know-
How Much Does Van Camping Cost?
This is a hard question to answer but we can talk about some of the expenses associated with van camping.
Van camping can run the gamut of costing very little to costing a lot more. It all boils down to whether you need to purchase a vehicle, what type of vehicle you buy, insurance on the vehicle, any modifications you will want or need for the van, what type of camping necessities you need to procure, types of attractions you plan to visit, food and gas.
Let’s start with the van.
We started van camping in our minivan which we already owned so I don’t count the cost of that vehicle into our expenses. For minivan camping, we required a mattress ( you can read about our van camping mattress here), covers for the windows, and bins to keep things organized in the back. We used camping gear we already owned including a cooler, camp stove and cooking items, lanterns, bedding, etc. All in all, van camping in the minivan cost under $200 and would have been even less had we opted to skip our cushy, uber comfortable mattress but I’ve mentioned before I’m not one to rough it.
Our Dodge Promaster Ram is a different story.
We purchased our Promaster new so it was just over $30,000. However, when we bought it, it was my husband’s work vehicle and we intended to use it when he was no longer working. We had hoped he could retire early as soon as I made enough to support us. We had no idea that less than two years later, he’d suffer an injury that left him unable to work.
We haven’t made any permanent modifications but our temporary mods for our first camping trip in the Promaster cost about $500. This included purchasing insulation, the wood used to build the bed frame, drop cloths used to cover the ceiling and walls, screening material to keep the bugs out, purchasing a laptop stand for me to work off (I never used it once) and the decor items that I felt necessary to make the van cute and homey.
We used camping gear that we already owned. We stopped at a lot of free and low-cost attractions, and we didn’t really include the cost of food because we would have spent the same to eat at home. Gas was the biggest expense for us but this will vary. We get between 17 and 20 mpg in the Promaster- compare that to our old RV that only got about 8 mpg and you can see the alure.
I have friends who have traveled very slowly who spent about $400 a month for total expenses and others who can spend that a week or more.
You can read about our trip to van camping trip to Florida (COMING SOON) where I share a breakdown of that budget. In the meantime, I did share a few things we learned here —> Top Ten Van Camping Hacks.
Resources for Van Campers
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