Tim & Shannon’s Favorite Camping Gear for Van Life
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We are Tim and Shannon, a couple who love traveling and active recreation like biking, skiing, hiking and kayaking. We have converted a Sprinter van into a tiny home on wheels named RIGBY and we are documenting our adventures as we hit the road living the dream.
After a year and a half of living full-time in our van, we decided it was time to share a list of our favorite gear for our nomadic lifestyle. Some of these are “must-haves” and some are merely items that we enjoy on a daily basis.
We begin with an item that gets used every single day without fail, our NutriBullet blender. We use this for fruit smoothies and protein smoothies, part of what gets us going in the morning since we both quit drinking coffee a couple years ago. A burst of fruit or protein is a great way to start our day now.
This guy runs on AC so if you’re only on a 12 volt electrical system you’ll have to forego this one. And though it runs on 900 watts (7.5 amps), it’s not a huge drain on our batteries because we only run it for about a total of 60 seconds per day.
We’ve owned this particular unit since 2016, long before we started our van life journey and it’s still going strong although we have replaced the cups and blades.
As long as we’re talking food prep, let’s take a look at our cooktop. This is a single burner portable induction cooktop. It stows out of the way in a drawer giving us more counter space when not in use.
Induction is a very efficient technology as it transfers heat energy directly to your pan, rather than heating an element that then transfers heat by conduction. Because of this, it also cooks much faster, boiling water in nearly half the time a propane or regular electric stove would. This efficiency is important when you’re relying on battery power as we are.
Another huge plus is that heat adjustments happen instantly – bring something to a boil and turn it down to simmer – it simmers immediately rather than having to wait for a heating element to cool down.
One possible downside, is that it requires “induction ready” cookware, but this simply means cookware that contains ferrous metal. If a magnet will stick to your pan, then you’re good to go. But if a magnet slides off your pan, an induction cooktop won’t heat it.
One morning we saw some people in a neighboring campsite cooking with one of these and it was love at first sight for me (Tim). Having years of experience as a cook in various restaurants, I’ve become spoiled for professional cooking equipment (once you’ve made pancakes or a grilled sandwich on a restaurant style grill or “flat top”, a fry pan on a stove just pales in comparison). This little unit helps “level” that playing field.
It was less than a week after that first sight that our new 17” Blackstone Griddle arrived and we’ve been using it for many things ever since: Hash browns, Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches, grilled cheese, French dip, pancakes, breakfast burritos, bacon just to name a few. It almost puts me in culinary heaven.
It uses the same propane bottles as a camp stove or you can get the larger propane tanks and use an adapter hose. And it stows out of the way in the back of the van when not in use.
(Are you sensing a foodie trend going on here?) This gem was a birthday gift nearly 20 years ago and if you’re into camping you of course know all about these things. The reason we’re including it on our list is because we almost didn’t bring it along when we hit the road – but then at the last minute, we tossed it in the back of the van. And we’re so glad we did.
Unlike the Nutri-Bullet, our cooktop runs for longer than 60 seconds and can use a fair amount of electricity. If we’re plugged in at a campground or RV park, it’s no problem, but when we go boondocking for days at a time, our battery levels can get really low, especially if it’s been overcast or raining.
Having the Coleman stove is a nice little insurance policy. It’s compact and simple to use and it has bailed us out a number of times when we didn’t have enough power to make dinner.
We love red wine and we’ve tried a few different solutions for travel wine glasses. First up was stainless steel with removable plastic stems. We took those on our first “shakedown” camping trip and they did their job. We never broke them and we could drink wine at our campsites. But they just didn’t feel right. And we couldn’t see the wine through the steel.
Next we tried stemless plastic wine glasses. These were a bit better, we could now see the wine again. But there’s just something about drinking wine in an appropriate glass. (in fact, some wine folks will even tell you that you should hold a wine glass by the stem, not the bowl, to prevent heating the glass with your hand – and well, that’s not possible with the stemless style).
So we finally made the switch to these unbreakable stemmed wine glasses and all is right with the universe again. They’ve been one of our best purchases.
We opted for open-faced overhead cabinets in our build and we found these super lightweight, but durable fabric storage bins. We keep linens and clothing in them and they work great. Again, another of our favorite purchases.
We lived with a mess in our garage (the space in the back of the van under the bed) for the first 6 months of our journey.
Electrical cords, water hose, yoga mats, you name it. Anything that could unroll or unravel would do just that. We did a search for how to organize this stuff and found these velcro straps.
Where have you been all my life? I’m not sure how we got along without these for all the previous years, even when not living in a van. If you look around, they come in lots of different sizes and we highly recommend them.
This is another item that was gifted to us. Right before we set out on the road, we had a get-together and some friends gave us this Luci camp light as a going away present. It has been wonderful – so simple and yet so useful and versatile.
We leave it flattened out on the dashboard with its solar panels up when not in use. So it’s always charging and always ready. Then when we need light outside, we inflate it and we’re good to go. We’ve used it extensively in the southwest, where pack rats are a common problem. Pack rats apparently don’t like light, so we pop our hood and (after the engine has cooled of course) set this on the air cleaner or right on the valve cover and leave it all night. It keeps the engine compartment lit up (but not too bright for other people camping) and it keeps the rats away.
It also has a strap on the top so you can easily hang it from a tree over a picnic table or even inside the van if you want more light in a particular area. And then when you’re done – deflate it and throw it on the dash.
This one we discovered a need for after a few months on the road. And though at the time we thought “need” was a strong word for it – well, read on.
The folding foot stool has turned out to be helpful. Not only does it make it easier to make the big step up into the van, but we also use it as a “coffee” table when sitting outside on our camp chairs. And it folds down to nothing when not in use and stows nearly anywhere.
In fact, we accidentally left it outside and drove away from our very first Harvest Host, leaving it behind. We missed it so much we soon bought another one. So yeah, “need” is actually a good word for it.
When you live in a van, you spend a lot of time outdoors, in fact your van is always outdoors, which means your home is outdoors. And outdoors means bugs.
We left home without one and after being in the Midwest in springtime soon realized how vitally important this simple piece of fabric could be. We bought our first one, “made specifically for high roof Sprinter vans”. It was on sale for a little over $200.00 but it came with no instructions and we could make no sense of how to put it together.
So we instead tried one of these screens for just over $60, and being commitment-phobic, we also ordered some strong magnets to hold it up. And this one works great – just slap a few magnets over it along all the edges, and stick a small amount of Velcro to the van and voila – instant inexpensive bug protection! (See our bugscreen video here.)
We could go on and on sharing ideas and products like this, but then it wouldn’t be a top-10 list anymore so we’ll end it here. Knowing now what we wish we would have known then, it is our hope that this list will inspire you in some way and will help you make the most of your travels.
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