One of the reasons camping is universally popular is because there are so many ways to do it: pitch a tent in the backcountry, drive a decked-out RV to a national park, spent the weekend in a pop-up—or give van camping a try.
Van camping has been around for a long time but it’s become especially appealing thanks to social media, remote jobs, and new technology. If you want to learn how to go van camping the smart way, here’s our complete guide.
What is Van Camping?
Van camping is as straightforward as it sounds: it’s camping…in a van. Yet not just any van. Most people who go van camping buy or build out a van that’s especially designed for camping or life on the road. It guarantees you’ll always have a mobile and weatherproof home away from home no matter where your adventures take you. (And these days, there are a lot of people living in camper vans full-time.)
Choose Your Van
There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules when it comes to which vehicle to use for a camper van—a lot of it is a matter of personal preference. But here are the most common van makes and models:
The Sprinter is possibly the most popular van that’s used for camper van conversions. Its tall roof and various lengths provide plenty of living and sleeping space—not to mention head room. Many camper van conversion companies specialize in Sprinters and because they’ve been sold in the U.S. since 2001, it’s not hard to track down a used model if you want to go the DIY route.
The Ford Transit is a worthy competitor for the Sprinter and tends to be less expensive. Unlike the Sprinter, it’s available in three roof heights and three lengths. Since it’s only been on the market since 2014, it can be a bit harder to find used options but it’s still very popular as a camper van.
The Promaster is larger than both the Sprinter and Transit, with a wheelbase that’s wide enough to fit a standard mattress in back. It’s also less expensive than the Sprinter and Transit and is easier to fix when you’re on the road.
Other Van Options
If you choose one of the three most popular models for your camper van, you’re going to find plenty of inspiration and how-tos in the van camping community. That said, these three aren’t your only camper van options. You can also convert a cargo van, minivan—or even a bus!—into a camping-ready vehicle.
Plan Your Camper Van Conversion
The fastest way to start van camping is to rent one or buy one that’s all ready to go. But many van campers choose to spend time designing and building a vehicle that suits their needs. Here are three options:
- Hire a camper van conversion company. There are a number of reputable companies that specialize in camper van conversions. (Some of them will even help you get the van itself or include the cost in the conversion.) Here are our top picks for camper van conversion companies.
- Purchase a camper van conversion kit. You can consider this the “partial DIY” route. Depending on your van’s make and model, there are suppliers who sell kits to help you build out your vehicle for camping.
- DIY. With YouTube and Pinterest at your fingertips, you can also do your own camper van conversion. Keep in mind that for a project like this, it helps to have construction, electrical, and plumbing knowledge (or a friend with those skills who can help with the build).
Choose Your Amenities
As you shop for camper vans or design your own, there are many amenities and features to consider.
At the very least, your camper van should have a comfortable place to sleep. This can be as simple as a foam pad with a sleeping bag on top, or a custom-built bed.
It’s common for camper vans to have a small food prep area indoors with a 1- to 2- burner stove and either a cooler or a 12-volt mini fridge. But some campers still prefer to cook outdoors. Vans can be designed to have collapsible shelves outside on the sides or back where campers can set up a camp stove or backpacking stove.
The easiest way to use and dispose of water is to use the drinking water that’s available at campgrounds. But that’s not always practical or possible. Many camper van designs include their own water and wastewater system similar to the type you’ll find in RVs.
When you’re living and sleeping in the same space that you’re storing all your gear, things can get messy fast. Make sure your camper van has plenty of storage and that these areas can be secured while the vehicle is in motion.
Many campgrounds offer sites with electricity, but for the times you’ll be camping off the grid (or just traveling on the road for a while), you’ll want to make sure you have your own power source such as solar panels or a portable power station.
Lighting options range from custom lights built into the van itself to inexpensive LED puck lights and string lights.
Use the campground’s restroom facilities, install a portable toilet, or use this DIY outdoor toilet.
As with any type of camping, make sure to have a plan (and space) for proper waste disposal. This includes packing trash bags but also having a place to keep them when they’re full and knowing where you can legally dump them.
Where to Camp
There are a lot of options when it comes to van camping. Choose your own adventure!
- National parks: This is probably the first destination that comes to many road-trippers’ minds and for good reason. National parks have amazing scenery, reliable amenities, and usually have RV-friendly (and van-friendly) campgrounds. Learn more about U.S. national parks here!
- State parks: Since each U.S. state has its own park system, there’s probably a few state parks near you. Like national parks, state parks usually have recreational opportunities like hiking, boating, and fishing, and they also often have campgrounds. Depending on which park you choose, you may want to make reservations far in advance. Popular state parks (and national parks) tend to fill up fast.
- RV campgrounds: There are many, many privately owned campgrounds across the U.S. that specifically cater to RVs. These can be a great camping option for camper vans because they usually have water and electrical hook-ups at their sites.
- Primitive camping: Backcountry camping, dispersed camping, and boondocking are all forms of primitive camping. Primitive camping means you camp in an area that has little or no amenities so you have to be self-sufficient when it comes to needs like electricity, water, and restroom facilities. National parks, national forests, and state forests often have designated areas where primitive camping with vehicles is allowed. (Check the local rules and regulations before you go.) It’s also possible to do this type of camping at rest stops and in the parking lots of certain businesses. (Again, always check local rules and regulations before setting up for the night.)
Curious about van camping or #vanlife and want to learn more? Check out the following resources:
- The Vanlife Companion
by Lonely Planet
- The Camper Van Cookbook
by Martin Dorey and Sarah Rande
- Tiny Home Tours
Get full tours of unconventional homes on this YouTube channel, including some incredible camper van builds. Great for inspiration.
- Alternative Adventures
Formerly Vanlife TV, this YouTube channel includes travel videos and practical tips and how-tos.