While my friends over at Hedgers Abroad have a practical guide to van life essentials, this list is more of the little things you might not expect to want or need but definitely do. At least for me.
Whoo, can you guys believe I partook in some bus life fun for two weeks? Me — peeing out in the woods, cowboy showering, and learning how to chop wood. YUP, ME. As my best friend, Fran, texted me when I told her and Corinne all this, “Sam, I’m SO proud of you for being outdoorsy AF. Never thought I would hear you say that, no offense, haha.”
Anyway, before I joined Ryan and Stephanie in the Bus Onward, Stephanie sent me a mini-packing list of clothes or things I’d want for October in Oregon. Since being on the van, I’ve added to this list, either with things I bought in Walmart, wish I had brought with me, or borrowed from the Hedgers.
If you’re planning on joining friends on their conversion van/bus adventures or are planning on converting a bus it yourself, here are a bunch of little van life essentials you don’t want to forget!
29 Little Van Life Essentials
1. A daypack
You’ll want this to hold your things on the bus that you want repeatedly (like a book, lotion, a sweater, wipes, etc). Most of your belongings will probably we stowed under a seat or above somewhere, so it’d be a pain in the butt to have to get to it more than once a day. They’re also great to bring into to town if you’re planning on doing some work from a cafe, need to bring something to do while waiting for the laundry, or are planning on going on a short hike somewhere.
I have this one from Gonex, and I’m still always surprised by how much weight it can hold!
2. Packing Cubes
I know every blogger and their mother talks about packing cubes, but, guys, the hype is real. These things are amazing! They just keep me ridiculously organized and help fit in clothes a lot better than when I just toss them into a suitcase.
Anyway, this is doubly true for van life, when everything has to stay in its specific place otherwise things feel very cluttered. It’s also just easy to grab the packing cube you need while changing instead of shuffling through a pile of clothes.
I use these ones from Eagle Creek and some free ones I got at TBEX.
3. A good toiletry bag
You’re most likely going to be using public or camp restrooms for brushing your teeth and washing your face, so make sure you have a good, waterproof toiletry bag that you can just grab and go! You also want to doubly make sure it’s waterproof because if anything leaks, you don’t want to find a giant mess.
Mine is so old, I’m not even sure where it’s from, but something like this bag should do the trick.
4. Waterproof shoes
Depending on what you do and how the weather is, you’ll want either waterproof sandals or waterproof hiking shoes. Since I was in a slightly colder climate, and I knew we’d be on some outdoor adventures, I opted for the hiking shoes.
5. Slip-On Shoes
This is one of the things I thought I’d have but wound up buying a different pair. I brought my Birkenstocks with me, but, duh, October is a bit too cold for sandal weather. I grabbed a pair of Moccasins at Target when we had a town they. They doubled as town shoes as well.
Anyway, you want slip-on shoes because hiking shoes or more complicated sandals take more than five seconds to put on, and sometimes you just want to pop outside quickly (especially if you need to pee in the woods and it’s a bit of an emergency!).
6. Shower Shoes
Ughhhh, it’s not like I didn’t swim for 12 years and go camping as a kid! I can’t believe I overlooked these, but I did. Luckily Stephanie and I are close in shoe size, so I could borrow hers, and we could just take turns when we chose to shower.
But, yeah, you don’t know what kind of nastiness is on a public shower floor, so quick drying shower shoes are a must. You really just need cheap flipflops, nothing fancier, but if you do want something that dries a bit quicker, buy flip-flops with holes in the bottom, like these.
7. Some sort of hat
I’m not a big hat person, and, for me, the weather was mostly mild enough that I didn’t need one, but you never know! I had a free fishing style hat just in case, but you could easily do with a baseball cap or a warmer wool hat in colder weather.
Bonus, they help if you can’t find a shower for a few days and your scalp is a little greasy.
8. Comfortable pants
Listen. Yoga pants. Leggings. Workout pants. Sweatpants. Make sure they’re the kind of pants that are still comfortable if you have a food baby. I’m not saying we ate to food baby status every day (hardly), but if you’re trying not to pee or poop multiple times a day, you want pants that won’t put pressure on your stomach when you sit down for long periods of time.
I love Old Navy’s yoga leggings and H&M’s sweat shorts for bed or warm weather. I had workout capris, high-rise jeans, and two different skirts that are fine for normal use, but are downright torturous if you’re in the middle of a two-hour drive and are trying to hold your pee until you get to a rest stop!
9. Dark colored socks
Stephanie kept Onward super clean, but even so, you want something on your feet. Maybe it’s the living in Korea that made us accustomed to this haha. Anyway, because it could get so cold at night, I opted for some sturdy wool socks. I picked a bunch up from REI, but any black pair like these will do fine.
10. A warm coat (especially for rain)
Even if you’re traveling during the summer months, it can get pretty cold at night and that bathroom break is even less fun if you’re freezing. I had this jacket from LL Bean, but I think something even warmer would have been better.
11. Quick dry undergarments
While we were pretty good about stopping once a week to do laundry, in general, you never know when you’ll be able to have a town day, so sometimes you run out of underwear. If you have ones that quick dry, you can just hand wash them quickly and let them dry overnight!
The seamless ones I had from UNIQLO dried the best of my bunch, all the rest did…not.
12. A bathing suit
You never know what adventure you might wind up on, and a swimsuit might be necessary even in colder climates! I mean, we wound up hiking to Bagby Springs like my second day on the bus, and a bathing suit would have definitely come in handy. It also might be helpful if you have to wind up doing a quick cowboy shower.
13. Quality clothing that can withstand multiple wears
Did you know there are brands that specialize in creating clothes that can withstand multiple wears without getting smelly or gross? I have yet to try them, but they’re out there! I could have used a few of the T-shirts at least on this trip just to minimize the need to do laundry as much as I did.
Never Ending Voyage is a couple who travels carry-on only full-time, and they’re always reviewing newer clothing items like this. (They’re also who’s reviews I read before I got my packing cubes and daypack).
14. Feminine Cleansing Wipes
These work on two fronts. One for their obvious use — to bring with you when you squat in the forest and pee (or poo). Just bring a bag to put them in and toss them out the next time you see a trashcan. I couldn’t get comfortable enough to poop outside, but there were a few times we were camping and I had to pee! (I know I’m impressed with myself too). Anyway, these wipes come in handy for those times so your nether regions aren’t disgusting afterward.
They also work if you just need to do a quick wipe down of your armpits, nether regions, and soles if you’re not feeling too clean. I used them for that once when we were in between showering, and it was too cold for me to want to attempt a cowboy shower.
15. Hand Sanitizer
I mean, for obvious reasons! The Bus Onward sink is more of a trickle, and, of course, you always want to preserve water as much as possible. Sometimes hand sanitizer just does the trick in between stops. Also, most drop toilets that you’ll find around parks and hikes don’t have sinks or soap, so it’s handy for then as well.
Honestly, hand sanitizer is just good to have whether you’re on a bus or not! You never know how germy places can be, even in the cleanest of places.
This is for when you have to shower outside. Obviously, a lot of shampoos and conditioners aren’t super eco-friendly, so your best bet is to find ones that work well with nature.
17. Backup contacts/glasses
Could you imagine losing a contact or breaking your glasses and not having a backup pair on the road? Bring more than you think you’ll need!
I didn’t realize how much I’d need a headlamp until we were actually out there camping and whatnot. I mean we mostly ate dinner after dark and if it was nice, we’d want to hang out outside in the dark, and headlamps are a must to be able to see. Also, if you need to run out to pee or run to a toilet at night, you really can’t do it in the dark! Plus holding a flashlight while squatting is just going to end up disastrous.
I borrowed one from the Hedgers, but something like this should do.
19. Portable battery
So, the Bus Onward used solar panels to charge, which means that if you encounter too many cloudy days, it won’t get a chance to charge enough. I know a lot of van life is unwinding and enjoying the road, but a girl’s gotta work! A portable battery even just for your phone will help during those awkward times when you don’t want to overuse the van’s power.
Also, besides me needing to work, you don’t want to have a completely dead phone in an emergency situation.
20. USB/Car Charging Cords
Chances are your van or bus as more USB or car type ports than straight up plugs. Make sure you have both just in case. For extra protection, get one with this nylon wrap to help prevent breakage. Trust me it’s a pain in the butt to try and find a replacement!
21. Noise canceling headphones (or earplugs)
Sometimes overnight camping means camping right by a decently busy road (shh, don’t tell our parents). I sleep like a log, but if you’re a light sleeper, you may want a good pair of earplugs or comfortable, noise-canceling headphones to drown out the sound. Bonus: download some nice ASMR videos if they help you sleep! I have Bluetooth headphones, but they actually hurt my ears after a while. Try comfortable ones like these, which have memory foam cushions.
22. Physical Cash + Coins
If anything, you’re going to want this for the laundromats! Most are coin-only, and even to get coins, you need dollars to breakdowns.
In general, everywhere we went had some sort of card machine, but just in case you need cash or it’s better to use it, it’s good to have a decent amount on hand.
23. Something to do without Internet connection
You know what I bought at Walmart on my first town day? A paperback book and a cross-stitching set! Sometimes you just won’t have internet and data anywhere, and you might be there for 12 hours overnight. I guess I’m not the best at relaxing, so I always like to be doing something.
But, yeah, when want to preserve the battery on your laptop and phone, something that’s totally analog should do the trick. Hey, get some watercolors, a coloring book, or take up journaling while you’re at it! I freaking loved cross-stitching for the first time since I was an early teenager, and now I have a bunch on Etsy saved to gift people, like this llama one! (I really am 26 going on 80).
24. A travel mug and/or water bottle
I mean if you have to hit the road, a glass of water or a mug of coffee just isn’t going to travel well. You want something that can obviously withstand the motion of a moving vehicle! I originally had a Hydroflask with this kind of tip, but I forgot it in Canada, so I used this one from Target.
25. Some sort of camp chair
When you’re on the bus a lot, sometimes you want to just hang out outside, especially if there’s a fire pit for some nighttime smores. I didn’t have one, and the Hedgers only had two, so I actually made do with their seat thing that you use on bleachers. It worked well enough, but if you’re actually on a bus, don’t forget them! They also work well for beach days!
This one is Amazon’s top pick for portability
26. A warm blanket
I mean cozy and warm! It can get super cold at night, especially if you’re going through more mountainous areas. Sometimes you just want a blanket to have on hand that’s not your sleeping bag.
I use one the Hedgers had on their bus, but the Cocoon Coolmax is always recommended.
27. A sleeping bag that can keep you warm below freezing temps
Most likely you’ll want a sleeping bag for bed or something like the quilts from Enlightened. Most vans probably won’t use a heater much or at all, so it’ll be even colder than normal. I borrowed a mummy style that Ryan has had since he was a teenager, and it was super cozy! It was kind of like this one, and I definitely recommend the mummy style for a little extra warmth.
28. Non-perishable snacks you love
Stock up on crackers, Luna bars, cereal, cookies… Anything that doesn’t need to be refrigerated or won’t go bad any time soon — stock up!
29. Any medicine you need
Even if you’re not prone to food allergies, you never know when a bad headache or motion sickness could occur, so having some basic medicine onboard will always come in handy!
Any little thing I’m missing on this van life essentials list? Let me know!