Not too long ago, folks who traveled the country living out of a camper van or SUV would have been seen as harmless eccentrics at best and transient vagrants at worst. However, thanks to the magic of social media apps like TikTok and Instagram, many people now see van camping as something to aspire to. This lifestyle is even seen as somewhat glamorous, at least when filtered through the lens of #vanlife influencers.
The reality of living life on the road, either full-time or sporadically, is somehow both more and less glamorous. On the one hand, the reality of living out of a small space with a husband and two dogs, as I often do, comes with some challenges that you might not see on your Instagram feed. On the other hand, as a photographer, I’m able to capture the beauty and sense of peace that can come from a successful van conversion (or in my case, an SUV conversion).
Whether you’re considering a van conversion of your own or just want to outfit your vehicle for a weekend camping conversion, you’ll need the proper camping gear and travel accessories to ensure a successful adventure. And over the years I’ve learned exactly what camping supplies are most useful when living out of your vehicle.
While I’m not a proper #vanlife or #camping influencer, I am a professional photographer who travels the country in a converted Toyota 4Runner.
My journey started in upstate New York then went to the Catskills and a state park outside Richmond, Virginia. From there, I traveled to Top Sail beach in North Carolina, Greenville, South Carolina, Austin, Texas, and somewhere in northern New Mexico. From the Southwest, I traveled north to Aspen, Colorado and Jackson, Wyoming. After traveling through Independence Pass in Colorado, I made my way to Stanley, Idaho to meet up with some van life friends, then headed to my new home in Washington state so my husband could recover from a mountain biking-related shoulder injury.
If this kind of itinerant camping adventure sounds exciting, it was. Of course, if you aim to plot your own van life journey, or even wander around the country without a plan in the world, you’ll need the right tools to enjoy your travels.
Below, I’ll share the 20 most important items I depend on to enjoy my time on the road. Some of the products are from small brands, but you can easily find equivalent van camping accessories from many other brands.
1. Yeti Rambler + Rambler Bottle & Cup Cap
Everyone knows and loves Yeti products but this combo is the creme de la creme. I wanted to create an all-in-one coffee system, so I utilize a percolator on my camp stove and make a large quantity for all-morning enjoyment. The cup cap pours like a thermos and comes with its own insulated mug with which to enjoy your beverage of choice. My favorite feature is that it’s 100% leakproof. So toss the thermos into your ski bag for tea on the lift or keep whiskey chilled while sitting at the campfire.
Full Review: Why The Yeti Rambler Is a Must-Have
2. Good + Well Supply Company National Park Candles
MADE IN THE USA
When things start to stink in your space, I reach for Good + Well candles. Plus, it’s an awesome way to display your favorite national park. Currently, I’m burning a Crater Lake candle and the smell is fantastic.
3. Kurgo Tailgate Dumpster for Dog Poop Bags
Never leave Fido home when you hit the road! That’s pretty much an inviolable rule of van camping. This fantastic little contraption is magnetic, so it sticks right to the back of your truck and manages all your dog poop bags, keeping the stink out of your car or van. Whether you’re traveling across the country or just hitting the local trailhead, you’ll never be that owner who doesn’t clean up after their dog.
4. Sea to Summit X-Pot
I’m always looking for the next multi-use, space-saving item. Say hello to these collapsible cooking pots from Sea to Summit, which have an anodized bottom for cooking over camping stoves and silicone sidewalls that collapse into a flat disc. They offer 1.4-liter (great for backpacking), 2.8-liter and 4-liter sizes so you’ll be able to cook for any size group. In addition, the lid doubles as a strainer! No need to carry an additional colander for draining pasta or cooked veggies.
5. Tooletries Bathroom Organizer
If anything on this list makes it into your van and home bathroom, it’s these organizers. Featuring a silicone grip that adheres obscenely well to any smooth surface, these have held up well to bumping around the backcountry despite being full of shower supplies. I quite enjoy that they designed several storage systems for not only shampoo/conditioner but also razors, soap holders, toothbrush storage and more.
6. Alpaca Mat
Before leaving New York on our adventures, we stopped by a local Alpaca farm (Northwoods Alpaca) where we found these awesome alpaca wool mats. These great little mats keep your bum warm while sitting on cold picnic tables or add an extra layer of warmth and comfort to your camp chair. If you’re looking for a similar Alpaca mat or rug for your own van conversion, you can find similar options on Etsy.
7. The Lodge Cast Iron Griddle
I’m listing this specific cast iron because I find myself reaching for it the most, but I keep multiple cast irons in our Airstream at all times. The griddle is the do-all surface; eggs and bacon in the morning, grilled tuna sandwiches for lunch and then enjoy grilling your favorite protein in the evening. If you haven’t yet fallen down the rabbit hole of cast iron, you’ll be amazed at how easy clean-up is. Added bonus: You can cook directly over a fire with cast iron. Dutch ovens are great for this, too.
8. National Parks Annual Pass
Whether you’re just visiting a few parks while on vacation or traveling full time, you’ll want to experience all that our national parks have to offer. The annual pass will grant you entrance to any of the national parks and recreation sites that require an entrance fee. So far, my favorite parks have been the Grand Teton National Park and Mount Rainier National Park.
9. GCI Roadtrip Rocker Camp Chair
Take your camp chair comfort to the next level with this rocking camp chair. Sitting around the fire has never been more comfortable. No larger or heavier than a typical camping chair, you’ll always have a place to sit. If you can keep your friends out of it, that is.
10. Rumpl Blanket
Oh so cozy! These popular camping blankets are great for an added layer around the fire or for sleeping on those chilly nights. They pack down to the size of a Nalgene water bottle when not in use. Got extra cash for a splurge? Grab the down version for added warmth and less weight. Their huge lineup of National Parks and NFL teams will give you all the customization dreams you can think of!
Read More: Rumpl Is the King of Outdoor Blankets
11. Nomadix Towels
With the catchphrase “the only towel you’ll ever need,” they weren’t wrong. These super absorbent and quick-drying towels boast multiple uses and are huge. In addition, they’re made from post-consumer recycled materials.
12. Pendleton Wool Blanket
Wool is a miracle material! Staying comfortable while sleeping is a necessity when camping. Not only are Pendleton’s blankets super cozy, but they also wick moisture and fight odors. During winter, I utilize two blankets for supreme coziness. During summers and on cool nights, you’ll be plenty warm with just one. If you’re out on a road trip, make an effort to stop by their main location in Pendleton, Oregon, where you can grab unbelievable deals on blankets, clothing and more. And like many of my favorite items on this list, you can represent your favorite national park: My bed is covered in the Yellowstone Blanket and Wyeth Trail Blanket.
13. HiBar Shampoo & Conditioner Bars
Personal hygiene and showering look a bit different on the road than at home. Timeframes and locations are a bit more flexible. With our airstream, I’m lucky to be towing a full wet bath with me. To keep things simple, I’ve been using shampoo and conditioner bars. I’ve found the HiBar brand to give the best results and is safe for color-treated hair. Added bonus: You won’t be contributing to the huge plastic problem! These are sold at REI’s, which makes them easy to find along any route.
14. Bluetti AC50S 500Wh/300W Portable Power Station
This one might look familiar because it deserved its own review. Staying charged is key to making this lifestyle happen. I prefer boondocking to established campgrounds for numerous reasons, but boondocking lacks shore power (the power you hook your trailer/RV/van to). The Bluetti paired with the solar briefcase allows me to keep my laptop, cameras, phone and more perpetually charged. Before the Airstream, it also kept my ICECO fridge running!
Read More: The Best Portable Power Stations for 2022
15. Gaia Premium GPS Subscription
A Gaia premium subscription supplies you with offline maps including detailed forest service roads, satellite imagery and weather maps. If you plan to do any off-roading or remote exploration, Gaia maps will give you peace of mind when your cell service drops off. The map system is also helpful for determining BLM, USFS and other park boundaries.
16. Verizon MiFi
Many full-timers rock weBoost and I would too, but it comes at a premium price. We chose the Verizon MiFi route for cost-effective savings and impressively great connectivity. If you’ve got some cell coverage, the MiFi will get you connected to the internet. We’ve been able to connect several laptops and phones to the signal without issue and even stream Netflix for movie nights.
17. Sekr Campsite App
Figuring out where to boondock camp along the road can be stressful if you’re not familiar with an area. The Sekr Campsite app helps you find campsites — established or dispersed along with helpful information such as nearby dump stations and cell coverage. The app is all about community; users help add to the database and you can connect with other adventurers!
18. BareBones Enamelware
Living on the road should truly feel like home. Barebones dining collection brings plates, bowls, pots and more to your traveling kitchen so you never feel without. Plus you’ll look effortless when friends come over to your site for dinner. Enamelware has long been a favorite of campers because it’s tough and easy to clean. Time to get rid of those plastic bowls that smell like yesterday’s dinner and upgrade to enamelware.
19. Ombraz Armless Sunglasses
Raise a hand for every lost pair of sunglasses you’ve had. Introducing the pair of sunglasses I’ve managed to not lose or destroy in over two years! Ombraz not only boasts polarized lenses but you can also order prescription lenses. The cool thing about these sunglasses is they forgo traditional ear bands in favor of adjustable strings, so you can hang them around your neck when not in use to prevent loss. You’re protected with a lifetime warranty, and a tree is planted for every pair sold.
20. National Geographic Road Atlas
Don’t be an idiot and set out on an adventure without a plan B. While phones and Google Maps are relatively reliable, you’ll more often than not find yourself without service so having a full map is super beneficial in these situations. Added bonus of this specific map is it shows campgrounds and sites worth seeing.
21. Yoho Toyota 4Runner Bed Platform
If you want to try van camping for yourself, then you’ll need a bed. There are cheap solutions such as sleeping mats, air mattresses or camping cots, but I purchased the YOHO bed converter to make a bed platform so that I’d have storage underneath. Because these platforms need to be customized to your vehicle, there aren’t a lot of ready-made options you can buy online, but REI has a great article on building one on your own.