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Whether you’re a veteran of living the van life or just starting out, we’re all looking for tips to stretch our van life budget.
Not all vans are created equal and sometimes the lack of certain amenities can give rise to a little ingenuity. Add to that a dash of experience and you too can come up with a list of van life hacks similar to this. If your van/vehicle is lacking a “build” follow these guidelines to simplify your already simple life.
1) Free Overnight Parking
What is boondocking?
Boondocking is the general umbrella term for free overnight parking in parking lots, or camping in the wild without hookups. It is also known as dry camping or independent camping. Basically it is camping the way it used to be!
A Walmart parking lot can become a welcome sight at the end of a long day’s drive. Boondocking at Walmart is permitted, however not all Walmarts allow overnight parking. Always check with customer service to ask permission first.
Casinos are another viable option where you can discreetly get some sleep, and also get free coffee in the morning. Other businesses that offer overnight parking are Cracker Barrel restaurants, Sam’s Club stores, Target stores, Cabela’s stores and Costco stores. Again ask permission before just settling in for the night.
Overnight Parking With Wi-Fi
If like us, you rely on free Wi-Fi, careful planning and selection may be required for your nightly sojourn. Not all truck stops provide free Wi-Fi. We try to find “Flying J” or “Pilot” truck stops, as in our experience they typically fulfill our Wi-Fi needs. Don’t assume all truck stops allow overnight parking, always look for posted signs which may state “No overnight parking”.
This term refers to free camping on public lands at non-designated campsites. Therefore there are no facilities or hook ups. Essentially you drive down a dirt road and choose a spot to camp. It too falls under the umbrella term of boondocking. There are general guidelines to abide by so that these areas remain enjoyable for all.
Neighbourhood Watch Area
It is not always possible to camp under the stars in the great outdoors. Sometimes it is necessary to just find a spot to park for the night. It can be possible to park in a residential area but it is not something we would recommend. As covert as you may think you are being there is always the possibility that residents or the police are monitoring the neighbourhood. Also if nature calls in the middle of the night, there aren’t too many options in a residential area. Try to have a sleep strategy – see 2) below.
2) Essential Apps
There are a couple of apps which we use to navigate our nightly repose. The first is www.ioverlander.com This interactive site allows you to search and add to a plethora of places to stay internationally. This comprehensive list covers the gamut from wilderness camping spots to hotels and everything you could want in between, including laundromats, mechanics, tourist attractions etc… Definitely a good site to keep handy.
A quick search of “overnight parking near me” or indeed “free overnight parking near me”, will undoubtedly come back with www.allstays.com. A similar site in nature to the above, “allstays” is our primary resource for scoping out potential Walmart parking lots. It provides handy reviews from those who have stayed before, citing if overnight parking is allowed or if the individual store’s policy may have changed as of late.
For a list of truck stops and their amenities, we refer to www.findfuelstops.com. Here you can get the price of petrol, not just at the local truck stops but often at local Walmarts too. If you want to give yourself more options you can also select “vicinity truck stops”, broadening your horizons. It also lists rest areas, their amenities and whether they permit overnight parking. This site also utilises “google earth” maps to hone in on your location.
3) Recharge Your Batteries
This tip can help both you and your electronics recharge. If you buy your morning coffee from McDonalds you get free refills. The caveat is you must remain in McDonalds for the refills. Whilst having your coffee, why not recharge any devices that need recharging. If you really do need to charge your devices you may want to scope out if there are available sockets. Not all McDonalds provide sockets/outlets; perhaps they don’t want folk lingering there all day!
Some McDonalds offer all sizes of coffee for a dollar – from their dollar menu. Before ordering see if coffee is part of their dollar menu, you could go large for just a buck. Want to be really frugal? If there are two of you, share the coffee!
Charge your devices whilst you drive with a power inverter. This compact unit can charge multiple items at once simply by plugging it into your cigarette lighter. Just don’t forget to unplug it if you turn your vehicle off or you may be in need of some jumper cables.
Make your own coffee. If you don’t have a stove, invest in one of these instant immersion heaters. Simply plug it into your power inverter and within a few minutes you’ll have boiling water for a cuppa.
4) Have the Best of Both Worlds
House and pet-sitting have become an integral part of our travels. There are many house-sitting websites to choose from, with some being more localised than others. We signed up with TrustedHousesitters which offers hundreds of international house-sitting jobs. It has given us a chance to embark (pardon the pun) on a whole series of new adventures.
What is house-sitting?
If free rent in exchange for house-sitting sounds like an enticing concept, we can personally attest to what a brilliant idea it actually is! It is completely up to you to find and select the perfect house/pet-sit that fits your agenda.
House-sitting is the perfect opportunity to put down for a bit, cook a meal, bathe regularly and have the absolute pleasure of some furry/feathered/scaly company. If you have a travel blog or work remotely you will most likely also have unlimited, stable Wi-Fi whilst house-sitting.
Depending on where you may find yourself located, living in a van in the Winter may not be the the most alluring prospect, especially if your van is not equipped for cold temperatures. Finding a long term house-sit to tide you through the Winter is the perfect solution to this dilemma, if moving somewhere warmer is not quite feasible. Trading van life for house life offers a welcome respite from living in a van.
The current rate to sign up with TrustedHousesitters is $119 for a year of membership. This includes the ability to peruse and apply for hundreds of house/pet-sits all over the world. This annual fee has translated into a savings of thousands of dollars for us.
Interested in signing up with TrustedHousesitters? Sign up now to save 25% on your first year of membership.
5) Ice, Ice Baby
If your van is not equipped with a fridge, there are a couple of options. You can purchase a mini fridge at just about any truck stop/camping shop. They run off of a 12V connection/cigarette lighter and start at around $50 and can run well up into the hundreds of dollars!
Our personal mode of keeping things cold is just a chest cooler and ice. In our experience we have found block ice lasts much longer than a bag of ice. Depending on the weather, we can get up to 3 days out of a block of ice. Typically with a bag of ice we would have to purchase a fresh bag daily. The only problem with block ice is that it is difficult to find.
Keep an empty gallon container with a lid handy, for when your ice melts. Recycle the melted ice and use it for washing dishes. Just make sure you mark the bottle appropriately. Naturally if the ice was used for keeping meat chilled I would not recycle this water, just in case of contamination.
Keep your van cool during the day with a sun shade if you are parked somewhere . At night you may be glad to use this same sun deflector to block the glare of an overhead floodlight. Often used by facilities as a security feature, floodlights can hinder your shut-eye. A sun shade is a must for van life!
7) Bumming About
Two words – baby wipes. You will never regret having a pack of these in your van. Sometimes days, many, many days go by of not bathing. Without needing to point out the obvious, you can attain that temporary, faux, fresh feeling. They’re also handy for wiping your hands. Carry them, you’ll thank us.
8) On a Cleaner Note
As stated above, showers can be few and far between, let’s face it you are living in your van/vehicle. There are a few solutions to this much sought after steep.
If you happen to have a gym membership and you can find a local branch of your particular gym; you should be able to shower and get some exercise. The exercise is a nice bonus here, especially when you spend much of your day sitting in your van, getting from point A to point B.
We have also been informed that it is possible to shower at recreation centres. We have never availed of this ourselves, but we have been told it can be as cheap as a couple of dollars for a shower. Without first hand experience it is difficult for us to provide any input on this, suffice to say there’s no harm in asking if you find yourself in the vicinity of a rec. centre and you are in need of a shower.
Alternatively do as we do and treat yourself to a shower at a truck stop. We have tried various showers and our “go to” is Loves Truck Stops. After going without a shower for about 10 days this will become the highlight of your day and something to look forward to.
Loves charges $12 plus tax for a shower. We always ask to share the shower, which cuts down on costs. This utilitarian soak is not as romantic/sexy as it sounds. Our main reason for choosing Loves is that typically the shower stall is quite big; plenty of space for 2 people to clean up and rid themselves of that greasy, stationary helmet parked on their head.
9) On a Roll
Aside from carrying a basic tool-set, there are a few other essentials to know and to have. Take it from some folk who have first hand experience; check the condition of your spare tyre. Upon wakening up to a flat tyre one morning, we quickly learned our spare was badly cracked and in worse condition than the flat.
It is not necessary to splurge on brand new tyres. You can save some money by buying second-hand tyres, just inspect them beforehand. We have gone with this money saving method both in the States and in Mexico, where llanteras (shops specialising in second-hand tyres) are everywhere.
In order to keep your vehicle rolling, invest in a small portable tyre inflator. At a cost of about $25 on the low end, we have used it many times ourselves and have helped other folk in need, too. A final recommendation would be a set of jumper cables.
10) The Burning Question
So, you’ve found the perfect campsite that’s not a parking lot to a large corporation and you want to build a campfire. If you are on government owned and operated land check with the visitor’s centre before attempting to gather any firewood on the property.
Regarding this final tip I am predominantly referring to our time on the Baja, Mexico, which is a lot more lenient on the matter of gathering downed wood. Rather than buying firewood it was simply a matter of parking on the side of the road and gathering whatever you could, however you could.
Whilst we were beach camping on Bahía Concepción, Baja, Mexico, we paddled out to one of the nearby uninhabited islands each morning, gathered firewood, strapped it down on the kayak and paddled back – van life with a bit of Robinson Crusoe thrown in.
Van Life: Have it Your Way
Although the crux of this piece is focused on the frugal, van life is your personal space and what you do with it. No matter how basic or extravagant your rig/build/van/vehicle, we would love to hear from you with any tips you may have to share and enlighten others in this mobile community.