We've officially been full-time van lifers for more than a year! When we began our van conversion, we weren't sure exactly what we would need for full-time van living, but we had a pretty good idea. There were several things that we waited an unnecessary amount of time to purchase, and the small investment made a world of difference! Here are eight essentials to include in your van build!
As parents of a toddler, we really needed this one. When we began our build, our daughter was two and freshly potty trained. Having a toilet easily accessible was a must!
Also, I always have to use the restroom immediately after waking up. If we are in the forest, I have no shame. But squatting in a city is not cool and also pretty illegal. I didn't want to have to search for a place to use the restroom every single morning.
It's wonderful to have the convenience of a restroom whenever we need it.
For now, we use Thetford Porta Potti Curve. You can get them for just over $100. It has a battery powered flush and red/green indicators for fresh and waste water tank levels.
We were trying to stay within our budget, so we didn't go with our first choice: Nature's Head Composting Toilet. Supposedly, you can poop in this one and it doesn't smell. We currently don't use ours for #2, so that would be nice.
We empty our current toilet once a week. The Nature's Head toilet holds 60-80 solid uses, so basically, two people could go six weeks without emptying it. Right now, the bathroom chore is my LEAST favorite part of the week, so longer intervals between visiting dumping stations would be amazing.
2. Solar Power
From the very beginning, solar was something we weren't going to do without. Naturally, it's one of the biggest commodities to living. We wanted to be able to go off the grid without needing to plug into power.
We decided to go with a Goal Zero setup, and we are super happy with it.
We have two 100 watt solar panels that mount to our Aluminess roof rack and a 1000 watt portable power station.
Personally, I love when the weather outside is in the 60's during the day and 50's at night. The temperature in the van is perfect.
Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way-even when we try to follow the cooler weather. We also travel full-time with our dog, Beirut, so keeping the van's temperature safe for him is super important.
Building this into the van was the absolute scariest part for me and Mars was the one doing it.
We waited until our roof rack arrived before putting in the fan because we wanted to make sure the dimensions were right and would match the location of the fan space in the roof rack.
Imagine finishing your build and then cutting a huge hole in your roof. There was little room for error, if any. Luckily, Mars is incredible and the fan was put in very well.
We purchased a MAXXFAN Deluxe and we power it through our house battery. It's a complete RV ventilation system with a vent, fan and rain shield. It has a 10-speed intake and exhaust as well as a thermostat.
In our original van layout, we planned to put in a shower. However, after doing a bunch of research, we found that many van lifers didn't use their showers as much as they wanted for the amount of work it took to build it.
We actually went the first four months of living in the van without a shower. We became pretty creative with personal hygiene. We borrowed friends' showers as we passed through places where we knew people, we bathed Everly in our sink, we became like our great migrant ancestors and bathed in lakes and rivers.
This worked out ok, but the activation energy it took to find a place to bathe was a little ridiculous at times.
We finally took the big leap and purchased a solar shower ...FOR LESS THAN $10.
Why did we wait so long? I have no freaking clue. At least we have crazy memories of bathing in rivers.
I would recommend buying a solar shower right off the bat. It's a super cheap option. The black side of the bag allows the water to heat from the sun. It can actually get pretty hot, so test the water with your hand before pouring it on yourself.
We hang the bag from the side or back of the van and get five gallons of heated luxury.
Another amazing option we use almost daily is GYMS! We have a gym membership that is less than $45/month for both of us. Really, this has been my favorite shower hack!
This is another wonderful invention that we waited MUCH too long to purchase.
When we began, we solely used our Biolite system to cook food, which really is an awesome set up. The coolest part is that Biolite converts heat energy into power to charge your phone, lights, etc.
The biggest con to this setup was the amount of burn bans we encountered last summer in the pacific northwest. One spark could light the next biggest forest fire. So as much as we loved our little cookstove, we couldn't risk starting a fire.
People often ask what we ate during this time. Well, neither of us eat much meat, so doing without wasn't a huge problem for us. We had A LOT of raw veggies, fruits, salads and sandwiches.
We recently got a cooktop for around $50, which includes the cost of our cast iron skillet, and I'm in HEAVEN! The little stove even heats up the van a little bit on chilly mornings! Having the cooktop really opens up what we can create for meals in the van, and it's been amazing!
6. Running Water
Our water pump is powered through our house battery as well. We have a seven gallon fresh water tank as well as a seven gallon grey water tank beneath the sink.
We want to put a larger storage tank beneath the van at some point so we can free up space beneath the sink for extra storage.
I use the sink several times a day, and we have a pretty good system right now for filling/dumping our water once a week. I've become super aware of the amount of water we use. We try to conserve as much as possible. I use a bowl to catch excess water when I'm doing the dishes, and I try to do them once a day in the evenings rather than every time we dirty a plate.
For your build, I would highly recommend putting in running water. It beats carrying buckets from the river. Take it from me.
Get a fridge that takes a SMALL amount of power.
We didn't do this...and it's a pain in the butt.
We're actually buying a Dometic fridge within the next couple of weeks. We maxed out our budget when the time came to buy a fridge, so we ended up with an Igloo cooler for around $100 that we switch back and forth between our house battery and our Goal Zero power station.
The Igloo pulls quite a bit of power, but it has worked decently for the past year.
Now, the charger won't stay plugged in at it randomly pops out when we don't realize it. So, that's no good. It's time to bite the bullet and buy a decent fridge.
Don't be like us. Buy a nice fridge for yourself sooner rather than later.
Originally, we were going to get a mini fridge that stayed in the van. Now, after having a portable cooler for a year, we would much rather go with something that can come in and out of the van.
8. Roof Rack
Last, but certainly not least, get a roof rack. We went with an Aluminess rack because they are lightweight and fully customizable. Plus, it looks pretty badass.
I've mentioned this several times in previous posts, but it's my favorite part of the van.
We use it to attach our solar panels so we can constantly pull in power, even when we are on the move. We store our Thule, which keeps extra clothes, shoes and outdoor gear. We also have a paddleboard holder on the side. The one thing we want to add is a bicycle rack, which Aluminess also offers.
The incredible storage ability is the reason we recommend getting a roof rack, but the rack has also provided a wonderful getaway with a great view!
When we were in Moab, we put a massage mat on top of the rack after putting Everly to sleep. We cuddled up there looking at the Milky Way and watching for shooting stars and the possible UFO. It's one of my favorite memories since we began this life in the van.
These are the eight things I've found the most valuable in our van build, not including a bed, clothes, toothbrush, soap, you know, other regular things we enjoy having in our lives.
If you have any more questions about our build, we would love to connect! Shoot us an email here:
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