How to move your life into a van
Updated: Mar 6
Whether you are moving into a van out of financial necessity, a financial choice to save money, or for the freedom that living in a van can bring, there are some essential considerations that make long term van life easier and more sustainable.
- The practicalities
- Where to park
- Cooking and food
- To make life easier
WHAT TO PUT IN YOUR VAN
Before embarking on a van purchase, whether already converted or a self-build, spend time imagining your new life; the day to day practicalities and what you will need.
Some questions to ask regarding your van layout and features include;
o Do you want to be able to stand? Understand the difference between a pop-top roof or a high-top roof.
o Do you want a long wheel base or short
o How many people live in your van and how much storage will you/they require?
o Will you keep the bulk head in, or remove it to incorporate the cab into the living space?
o Do you need space for sports kit like climbing, cycling, swimming?
o Do you want a fixed bed or one that you set up every day from seats?
o Will you be wild camping most of the time and need you own energy source?
o What electronic items will you use?
o Will you be van living all year round and will you need a heat source for winter?
o Do you need running water and sink, or just a kitchen bowel and water container with a tap on it?
o Do you have access to showers and toilet facilities when you move into your van or do you want them in your van?
Knowing what you need and want is most important. As space is at a premium you only want things in your van that you will use daily. Van life is very much about living week to week.
It is also worth noting that to register your van as a ‘motor caravan’ with the DVLA you must meet certain requirements. More info on the gov.uk website on registering a DIY caravan.
- Bed of certain dimensions
- Table and chair
- Cupboard or wardrobe
- Water container
- Fixed cooking appliance (if a stove, neds at least 2 hobs)
Finally, keep weight in mind. Most vans will have a weight limit that you cannot exceed. This includes you, your water, your belongings and your fuel. You can get your van weighed at weigh bridges for about £10 in most towns.
TOP TIP – Rent or borrow a campervan and live in it for a week. Note what you use and do not use or found an inconvenience if you did not have it.
WHAT IS MY ADDRESS?
You will need a permeant address. Most van-lifers register their address with friends or family. You can manage nearly everything from banking to insurance online, but all require a permanent fixed address. You can use a PO box for mail, but you will not be able to use this work, insurance, DVLA, voting, school registration, banking etc…
TOP TIP: Register everything for online accounts and get an app to manage it.
If you are building your own van you must get insurance that covers you for being midway through a build. You normally get 12months to complete the build. You may need to keep your insurer and DVLA up to date as you make modifications. You cannot be insured as a motor caravan unless you have met the DVLA requirements and had the vehicle classification changed in your V5 document.
LAUNDRY AND BATHROOMS
Find your local laundrette. Some petrol stations have washing machines (although we have only seen this in Scotland so far) and most campsites have laundry facilities, in particular Camping and Caravanning Club campsites.
Some campervans have inbuilt toilets that you add a dissolving blue liquid to and empty each morning in a designated drainage at campsites. Others have composting toilets or you can make a toilet from a bag, bucket and saw dust! Some van dwellers choose not have a toilet and instead utilise toilets and shower facilities at work or have a local gym membership. In this case it is always good to carry a ‘pee bottle’ in the van for desperate times!
TOP TIP: Do not own too many items of clothing or bedding. This saves how much laundry you have to wash!
TOP TIP: Find your shower facilities at work. If there are none, ask sporty colleagues who would also benefit from shower facilities to help you campaign to get them installed.
WHERE TO PARK?
A FRIEND OR FAMILY MEMBERS DRIVE WAY
Self-explanatory – you can throw an extension cord out the window for electricity and have a spare key for the bathroom.
Some campsites have more facilities than others and some require membership. Know what you need: Do you want a fixed location to make working and commuting easy? Do you want access to indoor space when the weather is bad? Do you need regular laundry access? Do you need Wi-Fi, hook-up, running water, security, etc…? This will help you decide what budget campsite you need and may be based on your circumstances and location. For instance, if you are living in a big city security might be high on your priority list. If you are van living year-round, you may need a campsite that stays open through winter. Most official campsites will require you to leave for at least 1 night every few weeks.
If you just want a fixed location, small working farms often act as a campsite charging a small amount for you to park there.
More and more young people in cities are priced out by rent and the cost of commuting and more are living in their ‘stealth’ vans at work. This is a great option if your work has a canteen, gym and shower facilities. Work late and arrive to work early so no one notices. Some work carparks have round the clock security so you could risk your employer finding out that you are homeless and could risk your employment. The other options are mid-week or odd nights in the work carpark to keep costs low and then go away exploring at weekends. You have the freedom of movement so make the most of it! Plus, spending all your time at work can be a downer.
Britstops are pubs and hotels that allow overnight parking in their carparks for free or in exchange for your custom. To be able to utilise these each year purchase an up to date Britstop book. On arrival enter the pub with your copy and ask if it is okay to stay as they are listed. It is courteous to at least buy a drink.
Wild camping is legal in Scotland and on Dartmoor, although people do wild camp all over the UK. The key is to be respectful, do not stay in the same place too long, arrive late and leave early, leave no trace, try be inconspicuous and be open and honest with the locals. If you explain what you are up to and are friendly most people will not mind.
This also includes parking on the street. Be aware of opportunistic thieves and keep doors locked at night. Block your windows to stop light showing in the evenings so no one knows you are there.
TOP TIP: Arrive late and leave early
MOTORWAY SERVICE STATIONS
This is a pricey (~£15) and not the most pleasant option. I have only included it to make you aware that you can sleep here, but only if you go into the service station and pay. Normally there will be a (small) sign in the car park informing you where you can purchase your overnight ticket. If you cannot find the sign, it is normally in WH Smiths so head there. If you do not pay you will be fined once you have been there longer than 2hours. Personally, we prefer to park in the main car park and not the lorry car park.
If you live in a house you probably own more stuff than which will fit in your van life. You have two options;
1. Get rid of it
2. Store it
A lot of people will pay for storage and then later wish the just got rid of it as realise they did not need it and have paid to store it. This may not be you though. Either find family or friends to store your belongings or pay for storage.
TOP TIP: Have a winter and summer clothes system and store one box of the seasonal items with a friend to swap once a year.
WHAT WILL YOU NEED IN A VAN?
Live by a rule of you only need 1 of everything per person. 1 jumper, 1 pair of jeans, one smart option (if you dress smart for work see next TOP TIP) one set of sports kit, one towel, one set of bedding sheets and bedding, one mug (no cups of glasses), one bowl, one set of cutlery, one sharp knife. You will want luxury items, limit these to what will bring you the most comfort and happiness.
You will also want, tooth brush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo and laudry detergent. A couple of tools, bags for life and duct tape are also great to keep in the van! Laundry pegs and a collapsible clothes horse are very useful items.
There is not much to do in a van in evenings and when it is raining, tablets to watch movies on and books are a good option.
TOP TIP: Do you work in an office or a static location? Keep you work clothes/shoes, towel and shower items and all work-related items at work. Some offices offer staff lockers or a chest of desk drawers with a key. This allows you to travel to work, shower and get dressed there and not in your van.
HOW TO DECLUTTER?
One method is to move all items out of your bedroom and as you use them put them back. Anything you do not put back probably does not need to come to your van. Yes, you may use it a couple of times a year, but only things you need every week come to the van.
REDUCE YOUR CLOTHES.
Get used to wearing the same things every week. Living in a van is cramped and can be damp. Consider clothes for comfort, that dry easily and not require much care.
Move all accounts online to reduce paperwork. Use an e-reader for books, download films and photos onto a tablet.
If you find you have some lovely things you cannot throw away, sell them online (great to help save money for the van!), ask friends to come by and take things they want. Give them away as gifts or to a charity shop. Try a declutter help book like Mari Kondo.
Do not buy new things for van life. After you move into a van you will know if you need something or not and can then buy it. As you get used to vanliving you may find you do not use certain things and can get rid of them. If something can be used for more than one use, even better!
TOP TIP: Request consumable items for birthdays and Christmas or ask for no gifts and if they want to get you something pick a charity people can donate to on your behalf.
COOKING & FOOD
You may or may not have a fridge, a fridge needs a constant energy supply. In a van you will never have space to store much food, so food will need less preserving (as you eat it sooner). In reality the only foods that need to be refrigerated are milk, yoghurt and fresh meat. Can you live without them or find substitutions?
Milk can be purchased nearly everywhere, this means you can buy it every day and use it when you need it. It can also be stored in a pan of cold water under your van for 24 hours without going off. You can also use UHT milk. Meat could be purchased and cooked straight away or buy cured meats like chorizo. The other option is to only have meat if eating out.
Fruit, veg and eggs will last several days in a dark dry place in a well insulated van even in summer. A cupboard with a basket inside is an ideal place.
TOP TIP: Embrace tins. Most food types come tinned so plenty of variety, plus cheap, easy to store and quick to cook. Soup, veg, beans, chilli con carne, rice pudding…
On a hook-up you can use a kettle, slow oven and microwave. If using a gas canister, you can have a full oven or just a stove.
TOP TIP: boiling water in your van will cause a lot of steam which can condense in the van to cause damp. Use quick cooking food items such as noodles and cous cous over rice or pasta. Rice can also be purchased precooked and pasta fresh to prevent creating too much steam.
To make van life a little easier
TOP TIP: Have a specific place for every item. Put it back there straight away to keep the van tidy.
IT CAN SOMETIMES BE THE SMALL THINGS…
…Battery powered reading lights, Fairy lights, Hot water bottles, Cosy PJs, Extra blanket, Lots of hooks everywhere, never sags in the door way and above the bed for makeshift curtains/place to hang wet towels and socks, Magnetic strip to hold cutlery when not driving, Storage boxes for each type of belonging and each person (one for clothes, one for books/maps, one for tins and cooking pots/bowls, one for sports kit, one for dirty laundry or wet kit, Roof vents, opening windows, Bug net over bed, Small mirror fixed to wall, Small baskets fixed to walls for toiletries, spices, phones/reading books near the bed., Floor rug so feet don’t get cold, Flip flops – if going outside for the bathroom in the rain doesn’t matter if they get wet, can keep them outside under the van to stop wet shoes coming inside….
Awnings and tents make van life easier in poor weather. These can be spaces to keep bikes, wet items, running kit, folding chairs and tables. However, they are only really appropriate if staying on a campsite or in a designated space. These are a good option for kids as a place for them to play when weather is bad.
In winter a heater will be a great comfort. If on a hook up then an electric fan or oil heater is a good option. If wild camping some form of diesel heater may be a good idea. A way to keep your van home warm in the winter and cool in the summer is insulation. Insulation is a key and a part not to skimp out on!
You will want a light source, whether wired in off a leisure battery of solar or battery lights.