10 Products for Vanlife We Can’t Live Without (and 5 We Didn’t Need)

  • AOU
  • October 26, 2022

Now that we’ve been on the road for ~4 months, we have a much better idea of what we really need and don’t need. We looked extensively at listicles like this before embarking on our journey, and have found some of those items helpful, while others didn’t really apply to what our life on the road ended up becoming. Ultimately, we learned that there is no one size fits all purchase list for what is needed in vanlife. It will be very specific to each situation, and dependent on factors like your rig, location, time of year, and personal preference. It will require some trial and error to find the right fit for you. Hopefully, an account of what worked for us might help guide you, whether you are just starting out or are a seasoned nomad.

In no particular order, these are the items we actually use, no affiliate links. Links are provided only for quick reference. You can find most of these items at local outdoor stores if you have one nearby (but we have to be honest and confess - we did rely on Amazon/Walmart when looking for affordable prices).


1. Packing Cubes
packing cubes

Vanlife can get a little messy at times, especially when you have a smaller van like ours. Organization is key in order to function without wanting to pull your hair out, and to have enough room to fit the essentials. One of the most important items that keeps our van from deteriorating into complete chaos is our packing cubes. Early on, when we were still paring down our wardrobes, we purchased some packing cubes online and it was a game changer. Not only did it help us to figure out what we had room to keep, it has kept all our clothes neatly contained now that we’re on the road. It’s convenient to have all our clothes separated by cube, so we can spend more time adventuring, and less time finding a place for things.

2. Castile Soap
Dr. Bronners

We knew that castile soap was a multi-use legend, but once we got on the road, we really came to appreciate just how versatile it is. It’s biodegradable, comes in many different scents, and can be used for just about any cleaning need you may have. Need to wash dishes? It’s got you covered. Bodywash? Check. It can even clean your clothes, although we haven’t tested this one yet. We don’t know where we’d be without our soap!

3. Lumbar Support Pillows
lumbar pillows

Given the amount of time we spend sitting during road trips, we knew we wanted to prioritize our comfort and overall mobility. Sitting for such long periods of time can be disastrous for your lower back, so we purchased some affordable lumbar support pillows. Although you’re always going to be a bit sore and tight when living in a small space, the pillows have likely prevented some untimely low-back issues. Stretching has become an essential part of our routine, as well, but on days when we simply can’t fit in a good stretch, the pillows have kept us going.

4. Stanley French Press &Manual Burr Grinder
french press

If you’re a daily coffee drinker like we are, then having a good system is absolutely necessary for vanlife. We used whole beans as apartment dwellers, so we already had a good hand grinder to prepare the beans. Stanley makes an affordable and good quality french press that can also be used as a pot. This setup is also great for making cold brew, which we frequently work into our meal prep routine the day before to assist us on early-morning hike wakeups. .

5. Low-Watt Electric Kettle

We had initially just bought a standard electric kettle, not thinking about the wattage, or how that would go. I know, rookie mistake! We quickly found that our solar electric system did not take kindly to the kettle we had, and we were stuck without a quick way to boil water for a while. We recently found a low-watt kettle (600 watts) that has been a life-saver when we want to make a quick cup of tea or bowl of ramen without having to use up all our solar charge! It also has a retractable power cable, which is super convenient when storing it.

6. Bluetooth speaker

We found out early on that the speakers in our van weren’t the greatest when we wanted to listen to the radio. Also, being that it’s an older van, we couldn’t just connect our phones with bluetooth if we wanted to play something. Our portable bluetooth speaker has been essential for listening to podcasts and playlists on long drives. We’ve also found it handy when we’re camping and want to enhance our Netflix experience, as the speaker has better audio than our laptops.

7. Rooftop Cargo Bag
cargo bag

This handy storage solution has allowed us to keep the inside of our van stocked with the essentials that we need to access on a regular basis, and keep things up on the roof rack that we may not need as often (such as our tent, backpacking gear, etc.) If we didn’t have that space, I honestly don’t know where we’d put everything! The soft cargo bags are more affordable than the hard ones, have more space, and allow for some wiggle room if you need to stuff a little extra in there. Ours has held up over 10,000 miles, without any sunbake or leaks from rain. We stuff a few moisture absorbers from the dollar store in the bag to keep any damp gear from making everything smell musty.

8. Sawyer Bug Sprays

Skip the traditional, more toxic insect repellants. The products from Sawyer are the only ones we’ve used that actually repel bugs without using harsh chemicals, and we spent quite a lot of time in the deep woods this summer (the proof had to be scrubbed off the windshield constantly!) The two main ingredients we look for are picaridin and permethrin. It’s important to note the distinctions:

  • White (Picaridin) = Safe for skin
  • Yellow (Permethrin) = Gear only

We like the picaridin lotion more than the spray (gets more complete coverage). Keep in mind that no repellant is going to keep away 100% of bugs, but it will greatly reduce your chance of getting bit - which means you won’t spend the night irritating your partner scratching all your bites!

9. 2 Person Sleeping Bag
sleeping bag

If you are traveling with a partner this is a great option for staying warm in a tent or the van. Ours stays out pretty much all the time once the temps start to drop. Even in the summer, nights can get cold in the mountains and desert.

10. Pee Jugs
pee jugs

If you’re on the fence, just get them. Your bladder will thank you. We seriously couldn’t live without these. Chan ordered us a pair of medical grade ones that have held up for the past 4 months. She uses a pee funnel with hers. We do try to rinse them with bleach about once a month because they can start to smell pretty ripe after a while. Bonus: get one with a glow in the dark cap so you can easily find it in the middle of the night!

Skip em

1. Outdoor Camp Kitchen

We purchased an outdoor camp kitchen which gave us space to put our camping stove, a little side table for prep, and a bin to wash dishes in. When we used it, it was certainly handy and gave us a lot more room for outdoor cooking. However, we just found it wasn’t practical for our needs. It took up a lot of room on the roof rack, was a little time consuming to set up and take down, and often unnecessary when we were at a campsite with a picnic table. We think that this is certainly a great product, and we may have more use for it when set up for longer periods of time, but we tend to move around so often that we don’t end up setting it up.

2. Extra Cookware, Dishes, & Utensils

Before we moved out of our apartment, we were used to having tons of cabinet space for extra plates, bowls, utensils, etc. We knew we would have to cut back a lot, but we also projected that we would probably need multiple sets of bowls and cups, so that we wouldn’t have to do dishes every time we ate. We very quickly found out that the extras were unnecessary, and that it was much easier to just wash the dish each time than to let the dishes sit in the sink.

3. Collapsible Colander

Although it’s very handy when we do use it, we just find that we don’t end up using the colander all that much. Luckily, it doesn’t take up a whole lot of room, but we have probably only used it a handful of times so far. We don’t tend to boil pasta, and although we do use canned beans a fair amount, we can easily drain them without the colander. Rinsing your beans will help reduce van farts, so proceed with caution. Depending on your cooking habits, you may want to get one anyway, but for us it hasn’t been essential.

4. Throw Pillow

A throw pillow certainly adds a nice, homey touch to the van, and is nice for taking pictures, but most of the time it just ends up being in the way. Many days, we spend so much time outdoors and really only end up being inside if we’re cooking or going to sleep, so we don’t end up making the bed up that often. Even when we do, it quickly becomes impractical to keep the pillow laying on the bed, as it will likely get knocked to the floor when driving anyway. Although we do like a good throw pillow, it may not be the most practical item for such a small space.

5. Camping Bread Toaster

When thinking about what we might miss when moving into a van, we somehow thought toast would be a big one. We found a camping “toaster” that you can put on your camp stove, can hold up to four pieces of bread, and folds down pretty flat. At the time of purchase, it seemed like we found a great hack - now we’d be able to make toast every morning! We quickly found that it just sits at the bottom of our bin, and we hardly even think about toast. Even when we do, we’ve found we can just crisp it in a pan anyway.

Vanlife is still relatively new for us, so we’re constantly learning what works for us, and what doesn’t. Of course, this list is very specific to our needs and the space that we’re working with, so it may be very different from yours. We’d love to hear what you think and what you’ve found necessary/unnecessary on your travels! Reach out to us on instagram, we’d love to hear from you!

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