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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 similar to this. If your van/vehicle is lacking a “build” follow these guidelines to simplify your already simple life.

1) Save Money, Park Here

Boondocking is the general umbrella term for free overnight parking in parking lots, or camping without hookups. A Walmart parking lot can become a welcome sight at the end of a long day’s drive. However not all Walmarts allow overnight parking, so always check with customer service to ask permission first. No-one wants a knock on the window in the middle of the night!

sign for love's truck stop at dusk.
Loves Truck Stop, Nashville, Tennessee. A Great Place to Park Overnight.

Truck stops are another great place to put down for the night. 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.

front of TA truck stop at night.

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 similar site in nature to the above, www.allstays.com 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) I Wear My Sunglasses at Night

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!

hood and windshield or windscreen of burgundy VW van with orange kayak on top.

4) Have the Best of Both Worlds

House and pet-sitting have become an integral part of our travels. We signed up with TrustedHousesitters before we took to the road and in just 4 months we have completed 7 house-sits. It has given us a chance to embark (pardon the pun) on a whole series of new adventures.

woman with 2 dogs on leash hiking in desert,
Hiking in Red Rock Canyon with Kona and Rocky, Las Vegas, Nevada
a husky dog sleeping in a car.
Kona After a Hike

You can have the best of both worlds by becoming a house-sitter. House-sits are available all over the world. It 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 – all the comforts of home without the ultimate commitment of buying or renting. House/pet-sitting facilitates all kinds of travellers, not just van lifers.

lakeland terrier with a yellow toy.
My name is Basil, Basil Brush. You can call me Mr. B. Alpine, Utah.
lakeland terrier with a mohawk in front of a coffee table.
Is My Mohawk Straight?

It is completely up to you to find and select the perfect house/pet-sit that fits your agenda. On top of all of this you get to cuddle, play and hang out with sweet wee furries and make new friends with their people. It really is a win-win situation.

fluffy black cat sitting on back of a grey sofa.
Kilulu, Albuquerque, New Mexico
tiger stripped cat sitting on a blanket.
Handsome Eddy, or Spaghetti Eddy, Albuquerque, New Mexico

The current rate to sign up with TrustedHousesitters is $119 for a year of membership. This includes the ability to peruse and apply for thousands of house/pet-sits all over the world. Open the doors to supplement your travels by becoming a house/pet-sitter by following this link
TrustedHousesitters. This is an affiliate link that is beneficial to us if you sign up, we receive a small commission when you sign up through our website.

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.

man with cap draining contents of red cooler into a plastic bottle

6) 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. There is no going out to your vehicle to work on something and popping back in when you need a refill.

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!

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!

laptop computer with a coffee pot and mug on a wooden table.

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 needing the jumper cables that get a mention later!

a blue power inverter with 2 outlets.

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.

a yellow and white package of moist baby wipes.

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.

interior of a private shower stall at love's truck stop.
Private Shower Stall, Loves Truck Stop. Plenty of Room for 2 in Need of a Clean.

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.

boy changing a front tire on a burgundy vehicle.
The Local 10 year-old Llantero

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 portable air pump, or tire inflator.
Portable Tyre Inflator
man kneeling next to front tire adding air.
Tyre Inflator Hooked Up

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.

a pile of firewood on the floor of a burgundy VM eurovan.

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.

a palapa, orange kayak and campfire on the beach at dusk.
Beach Camping, Playa Coyote, Baja Sur, Mexico

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.


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8 Comments

  1. What a wonderful article!!! I thoroughly enjoyed learning all the tips!!

  2. Kerry Abbott

    Fiona,
    It’s always good to hear from you, and find out what you and Jerry are up to. A lot of your suggestions are great knowledge for people not even living life on the road, in a van.

    I hope both of you are doing well. Spring is starting, except for maybe NW Pennsylvania. We still keep getting snow.

    Where do you head next? I hope someday to run into you again.
    All our best,
    Kerry and Sean

    • Kerry and Sean,

      You both know the thrill of the road as well as we do. Where will your next road-trip take you and Sean?
      We are currently housesitting 2 dogs and 3 cats in New Mexico. As you know, we love it here in this state and will look for any excuse to linger here as long as we can. After New Mexico we head back to the Baja in old Mexico!
      Keep warm and let us know when and where your next journey is. We just may bump into each other again!
      By the way, thanks for keeping in touch. It means so much to us.
      Your Drifters,
      Fiona and Jerry

  3. Awesome tips Fiona! Thanks for sharing – baby wipes CHECK!

    • Lizzy,

      The baby wipes are CRUCIAL! Buy those suckers in bulk!
      We have been following along as yous get ready for your own road-trip! Good luck with your build; the anticipation as you plan and get ready is crazy.
      Good luck when you finally hit the road, where we will be following along on your journey. Stay baby-fresh as well!
      Your Drifters,
      Fiona and Jerry

  4. Johanna Conlan

    You guys are so road savvy! If we ever get the opportunity to drive cross country I will be hitting you up for tips.

    • Johanna,

      We are still learning as we continue to drift around in our van. I do not think we quite planned to be in the van as long as we have, but it has been amazing! You can always hit us up for more tips anytime you want! Thanks so much for following along with us on this journey! It is always good to hear from you!
      Your Drifters,
      Fiona and Jerry

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