Want to live the van life and wonder what to buy for/pack into your campervan? Here are all the essentials you need...

Van Life Essentials: The minimalist’s packing list for your campervan travels

Sandra ROSENAUFirst Published: Last Updated: Limit Your Footprint, New Zealand, Take the right gear

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When Paul and I bought our campervan, all we owned fitted into our carry-on backpacks. The essentials you need when living in a van full-time were not among our possessions (anymore). And as our campervan came devoid of any inventory (to speak of), we had to buy things (again). But what do you buy for/pack into your campervan, knowing that space is limited? If you are asking yourself this question, today’s article might be for you.

With space being in such short supply, you’d want to travel only with what you need. Everyone is different: For some, our list is way more than they would consider essential. Others won’t take to the road without adding (at least) a few more items. Dial it up or down based on your own needs.

Want to get a campervan (first) and wonder what to look out for? Head on over to our post on the key fixtures and fittings your campervan should have.

Vehicle Maintenance

Paul and I were not hobby mechanics, so we did not carry all the tools that someone might carry who does a lot of the repairs themselves. Thanks to our Automobile Association membership, roadside assist is only a call away should our van break down. They would tow us to a mechanic of our choice (and we let the experts do the rest). Therefore, the only tools we carried were:

Multi-Tool

A multi-tool comes in handy when you have to fix anything inside the van (for example tighten screws that may have come loose over time). Make sure your multi-tool is made from high-carbon 420 stainless steel so that it doesn’t rust, corrode or bend out of shape. All blades should lock into place, both while not being used and in extracted mode. We used and recommend the Leatherman Wave Plus.

Jack

Preference is to have and use the original equipment manufacturer jack, that is the jack that came with the vehicle. If you get a new bottle jack or scissor jack, make sure it is rated for the weight of your vehicle and suitable for lifting (not just stabilising). You may also want a couple of solid wooden blocks on board.

Wheel Brace/Lug Wrench

Again, preference is to have the original equipment manufacturer wheel brace. If you do get a new lug wrench, ensure the diameter matches the nuts on your wheels.

Spare Fuses

If you need to replace a broken Standard Blade Fuse, always check why it blew first. And beware of the older ceramic fuses as they can oxidize. That said, a bit of rust can easily be removed by lightly sandpapering them. Always store your spare fuses in an airtight container or zipper bag.

WD40

WD40 is great for getting rid of squeaky sliding doors (and other things around the vehicle that need lubrication from time to time).

Utilities

Bedding

If you want to sleep in your van, you will need some sort of bedding. The motto here is: whatever you are comfortable with. We travelled with a mattress protector, a fitted sheet, two pillows (and pillowcases) and a duvet (and duvet cover) for most of the year (plus a woollen and an electric blanket during winter).

For the Ford Transit Campervan in 2018, our actual mattress was the standard cushion swabs used in the seating section. For our overland adventures in 2022, we plan to purchase the Froli Sleep System together with a memory foam, medium-density mattress.

Level

Camp spots (even at paid campsites) are not always level, and the bigger your vehicle the more tricky it is to find a fully flat (and level) spot. Whenever we arrived at a campsite, we would pull our smartphone out: the free Motorhome Level App helps us to park up as level (as possible). Alternatively, you could use a small level tool.

Fresh Water Hose

You will need a fresh water hose that is BPA and lead-free/suitable for potable water (even just a short piece to connect your jerry can with the sink). As for its length, consider your storage space and the potential distance between tank and tap. The diameter of your hose will depend on the diameter of the inlet into your fresh water tank, so measure that first!

Fresh Water Treatment

We started with Pour n’ Go Water Tank Treatment, but found the canister was taking up way too much space. We swapped to water purifying tablets and had no issues. Each tablet treats 20 litres (so we would use 4 tablets for each refill of our 85-litre freshwater tank), but they also come in a 5-litre version if you own a smaller tank.

Grey Water Hose

Our greywater hose came with our vehicle. Make sure you get one that fits the diameter of your grey water tank outlet. Again, as for its length, consider storage space and the potential distance between tank and tap (ours was 3 meters long, and we found it to be sufficient).

Grey Water Treatment

We used BioMagic Concentrate, just to break down any organic material that made its way into the tank, however, there are other grey water chemicals out there that eliminate odours in your holding tank and are environmentally safe, non-formaldehyde formulas.

Black Water Treatment

We started with Biomagic for both our grey and black water, but while it’s fine for grey water, it does bugger all for black water: our van smelled of sewerage when we drove around. Not pleasant!

So, we moved onto Thetford Aqua-KEM Original… No sewerage smell whatsoever (quite a clean and pleasant smell actually, at least for the first few days). And Paul didn’t feel like puking when he emptied the cassette.

Side note: If we had it our way (again), we’d have a composting toilet, as we’d prefer not having to use chemicals at all. 

Disposable Gloves

You could go without gloves but you’d want to make sure you scrub your hands thoroughly after handling your grey water and toilet waste. Dump stations can be revolting. We are against single-use items, with these being the exception for hygiene reasons. However, we did use and recommend biodegradable disposable gloves.

Toilet Paper

Your toilet paper needs to dissolve easily, otherwise, you’ll find you have problems very quickly. RV stores sell really expensive toilet paper specifically made for RV toilets. There is no need to spend that much: 2-ply, 100% recycled toilet paper dissolves quickly too. Make sure you test your paper before you start using it in your campervan toilet: Place a sheet in a jar with room temperature water and stir. If it doesn’t start dissolving with a few stirs, don’t use it.

Air Freshener

We use a lavender essential oil diluted in water (with a teaspoon of salt) and dispensed via a spray bottle. It doesn’t smell like toilet air freshener and can thus be used in the main cabin too.

AC Power Adapter

In New Zealand or Australia, you will need a power cord with a Residual Current Device if you want to be able to connect to mains power anywhere outside a caravan park (for example, you’re parked up in a friend’s driveway). Make sure you get a waterproof one (some are for indoor use only).

Wi-Fi Modem and Antenna

If you are a digital nomad (like us), good Internet service is crucial. The Huawei B315 Modem from Wireless Nation works well in New Zealand. For our overseas travels, we use the TP-Link M7200 mobile wireless router. If you are heading into more rural and mountainous terrain where the Wi-Fi signal may be weaker, you may want to consider getting a puck antenna. We found this did help boost the signal from the cellular tower plus it gave us a stronger signal to our smartphones when we stepped out of the vehicle.

Meal Preparation and Dining

Gas Lighter

Unless your stovetop is electric (or comes with a reliable igniter), you might want to get a gas lighter (rather than matches). Look for an electric arc lighter or a refillable butane lighter.

Water Filtration

Some people are fine to just drink straight from their (treated) freshwater tank. When we bought our campervan, our fresh water tank had some algae growth, and our kitchen taps would spit out the occasional green bit. To filter out any remaining weird stuff, we initially thought to install an in-sink water filtration system but costs were prohibitive. Our water filter jug did the job just fine.

Water Kettle

If you have a gas stove we recommend to go with a hot water kettle for gas stoves, rather than buying or bringing an electric kettle. An electric kettle (like anything that heats with electricity) uses up a lot of your battery capacity (and you’d need an inverter and AC power outlet to operate it).

Pots and Pans

We didn’t want our pots and pans take up valuable cupboard space when stored away, so we spent a bit more money and got a cookware set for RVs. The pots and pan stack into each other and have removable handles… perfect for small spaces.

Crockery

If you only have a few items of crockery that are used all the time you want to make sure they last. Look for plates, bowls, mugs and tumblers made from bamboo, tempered glass or enamel.

Cutlery

Only get as many knives/forks/spoons as you have people travelling in your van (unless you have the storage). If you have visitors on the road they’re often other van dwellers. So, they can bring their own if they come over for dinner.

Salad/Mixing Bowl

Consider your storage space and the number of servings you need. We found one medium-sized bowl was sufficient for the two of us.

Cutting Knives

We had a small paring knife and a Chefs knife and found these two sufficient.

Vegetable Peeler

For some, the paring knife might be enough, but we wouldn’t go without a good vegetable peeler.

Chopping Board/Mat

Some people prefer to have a separate board/mat just for poultry. We used our cutting board for everything and didn’t have any issues.

Wooden Spoon/s

Ours came in a set of three, but we found two (or even just one) was enough.

Serving Spoon, Spatula and Potato Masher

Think about what you like to cook and only buy the utensils for those meals. Our pots/pan were coated. To make sure they stay that way, we went for a non-scraping serving spoon, spatula and potato masher.

Tongs

Instead of buying a pasta spoon, we bought tongs which were also great for turning over sausages, serving salads, etc. Make sure your tongs are non-scraping if your cookware is coated and measure your space (only 9-inch tongs fitted into our drawer).

Cheese and Vegetable Grater

You do need those every now and then, at least if you love salads and pasta as much as we do. We went for the smallest grater we could find.

Scissors

Scissors are a must in any household, no matter how small your vehicle.

Can opener

You can live without a can opener if you don’t use cans at all.

Bottle opener/Corkscrew

Nothing beats enjoying a beautiful sunset from your campervan with a bottle of cool beer/cider or a glass of wine. A bottle opener/corkscrew is, therefore, a must (for us).

Cleaning

Cleaning Cloth/Sponge

We had two micro-fiber ones (that we washed and reused).

(Collapsible) Bucket/Tub

We use our inbuilt sink, but some people like to do their dishes outdoors, so we mention it here for completeness. When we needed a bucket of water we just filled our rubbish bin with water (minus the rubbish, of course) and used that.

Washing Up Liquid, Multi-Purpose Cleaner and Hand Wash

Look for those that are safe to use with grey water/septic tanks. They are not only better for the environment but for your skin too.

Kitchen Towel Roll Holder

Our kitchen towel roll holder sat super handy above the sink. It doubled as a rubber band holder.

Tea/Hand Towels

Two or three are sufficient (if you wash them once a week).

(Tea/Hand) Towel Holder

You can never have enough drying space in a van. We had two wall-mounted ones on the outside of our wet room door / opposite our kitchen sink.

Rubbish Bin

Clothes Line and Pegs

We only had four pegs (for our two (tea/hand) towel holders). Our clothesline was pegless (great to use inside the van and outdoors).

Dustpan and Brush

Vacuum

We had one initially but found it wasn’t strong enough. We dropped it off at a charity store, and from then on, used coin-operated vacuums at petrol stations whenever the van needed a good clean.

Whether you are packing for a 2-week vacation or year-long trip, this minimalist carry-on packing list for men prepares you for any weather.

Storage and Organisation

Storage is key in a campervan. But even the biggest storage space is pretty useless if you don’t maximize its use. So here are some helpful items that allow you to store everything away nicely: out of sight out of mind.

Hose Coiling Bags

These are great to store your fresh and grey water hoses away and avoid contamination. Make sure you mark which bag is for which hose if you get two of these.

Storage Box/es

Measure your space/s before you get any storage boxes and look for square boxes to maximize the use of space. Consider storage solutions for food, cleaning products/utilities, clothing (if you don’t have shelves), and dirty washing and recycling. Great are wooden crates (if you have space) or sturdy cardboard boxes (available at most supermarkets in New Zealand at check-out).

Magazine File/s

Placed into a cupboard with the opening facing you, these are great space savers to stack food wraps, bin liners etc on top of each other. If they are wide enough you could even use them to stack jars or cans.

Storage for Leftovers

We just reused empty jars (from honey, jam, peanut butter or pasta sauce etc) as our fridge was tiny.

Rubber Bands

The basic rubber band. You don’t realise you need them until you don’t have them.

Protection

LPG/Carbon Dioxide Detector

We didn’t have an LPG/Carbon Dioxide detector as it’s not mandatory in New Zealand (yet), and our LPG bottle was in an airtight compartment separate to the main cabin (which is a requirement in New Zealand). That said, if you were to purchase a multi-gas alarm, ensure it meets these requirements:

  • Provides reliable sensitivity to dangerous gas (LPG detection: 2100 parts per million for 10 seconds, Carbon monoxide detection: 400ppm for 4-15min, 150ppm for 10-50min, 70ppm for 60-240 min)
  • System of warnings and alarms needs to be easy to understand
  • Uses an AGM house battery as the primary power source

Fire Extinguisher/Blanket

We travelled with a fire blanket only for space reasons, but you might want to consider getting a fire extinguisher if your rig is newer/larger. After all, keeping a fire extinguisher in your campervan can stop a small fire from becoming unmanageable.

If you are planning to purchase a fire extinguisher for your campervan, consider these features:

  • Rated for Class B and Class C fires. The most common cause of campervan fires involves gas or electrical causes. This does make selecting the right extinguisher more difficult so you may need to compromise a little.
  • Able to be strapped down, but easily accessible.

First Aid Kit

We used the same first aid kit in our campervan that we usually travel with overseas. It’s super-compact, and we just add/swap out items as needed.

Wonder how to pack a carry-on with enough clothes for all seasons? It’s actually not that hard, even for us women. Here is my packing list.

Personal Safe

If you use expensive equipment like cameras or laptop computers to earn a living on the road, you might want to consider installing a personal safe. A small personal safe bolted securely to your campervan can help protect your valuable laptop computer, camera, jewellry, important documents and other items against theft or fire. Measure your valuable items first to make sure they all fit into the safe (and through the smaller door opening). What to consider when purchasing a personal safe for your campervan:

  • Easy to secure using screw holes through the base or back wall of the safe
  • Easy to operate – using a key and preferable a numeric touch pad system
  • Fire resistent – based on their rated duration, which will usually be an hour or so for personal safes
  • Reliable

Steering Wheel Lock

While we had a personal safe in our campervan, someone could still drive off with our valuables. While they are not totally break-safe, steering wheel locks make it a real hassle for thieves to steal your campervan. What you need to consider when purchasing a steering wheel lock for your campervan:

  • Visability – ensure it is brightly coloured and can be easily seen when locked in place
  • Simple to use – after all you want to be encouraged to use it every time
  • Sturdy in design
  • Solid steel hooks
  • Available with two keys that can’t be recut – if you need more, you would need to contact the supplier
  • Guarantee payable against your comprehensive insurance deductible/excess if vehicle is stolen

Thermal Insulation Kit

We considered getting a thermal insulation kit for our campervan but found our thick curtains actually kept us quite warm in winter, and the condensation inside wasn’t too bad. A thermal blind would double the insulation value of the windows, reducing the heating costs by preventing warm air from escaping outside and preventing the cold air from entering inside.

Do you live on the road full-time? Is there any item you would recommend that we’ve forgotten to mention? Please leave a comment below.

Feature photo courtesy of Tyler Lillico on Unsplash

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Van Life Essentials: The complete packing list for your campervan travels
Van Life Essentials: The complete packing list for your campervan travels
Van Life Essentials: The complete packing list for your campervan travels
Van Life Essentials: The minimalist\'s packing list for your campervan travelsVan Life Essentials: The minimalist\'s packing list for your campervan travelsVan Life Essentials: The minimalist\'s packing list for your campervan travels