Have you been curious about van camping?
Van camping can be a great alternative tent camping that provides more freedom for road tripping on a budget.
I asked Tonya Prater from Travel Inspired Living to share tips and hacks for making the most out of your van camper experience.
I met Tonya during a winter media trip during a Sandusky, Ohio many years ago and we have been friends ever since. She is great at figuring out creative ways to travel on a budget.
What inspired you to start van camping?
My husband and I love to camp but we don’t normally stay in place for several days at a time when traveling so tent camping can be a lot to set up and tear down for an overnight stay.
We wanted something that would allow us the ability to camp but be more self-contained without the expense of an RV. When I started to hear about van camping, it piqued my interest.
It didn’t take much to convince my husband. He was hooked by the thought of sleeping in a Walmart parking lot for free.
We’ve yet to stay at Walmart for free. We always end up spending money when we stay there.
What do you like about van camping?
If you ask my husband he’d say he just likes staying somewhere for free.
I like the freedom and comfort it provides. I can’t imagine traveling any other way right now. My husband had a pretty serious accident last year and it’s hard for him to travel comfortably for long distances.
The van allows him to take a break anywhere and stretch out and get comfortable. That can be a store parking lot, rest stop, etc.
We have more freedom to travel because van camping has been pretty affordable for us.
What’s been the most challenging part of van camping?
Our van is not permanently modified so we don’t have restrooms though we are considering some different options.
How long did it take you to convert your vehicle?
Again, we only make temporary modifications. I would say it takes about two days.
One to tear it down and remove all of my husband’s tools and one to build the bed frame and storage bins and decorate.
The decorating is my favorite part and where I spend most of my effort.
How did you select the vehicle for van camping?
We wanted something my husband could work out of that would still allow us to convert it easily.
It also had to be Dodge since my husband pretty much won’t consider anything else.
Is there anything that you wish you would have done differently in hindsight?
Not with the selection of the van.
How many people can travel in your vehicle?
We only have seating and seatbelts for two.
What was your process for deciding the vehicle and features that were important to you for the conversion?
As far as deciding the vehicle we wanted one that was front-wheel drive, one that we could stand up in, and something that got pretty good gas mileage.
We got all of that with our Promaster.
What are your essentials on the road?
We have to be comfortable on the road so I would say our mattress is the number one thing I would not do without. We have a full-size 8-inch memory foam mattress that is so comfortable we’ve even used it at home.
I also travel with a power inverter & large mirror which is how I curl or straighten my hair when we’re not at a campground.
Large wipes are essential if you’re camping at Walmart and don’t have access to a shower.
Basic camping gear since our van is not modified. We use our cooler, camp stove, etc.
Do you plan ahead or are you more spontaneous in your van camping adventures?
I’m a planner by heart. My husband hates planning anything.
We compromise by planning our time frame and final destination.
As long as we know where we are going, I can plan loosely, which makes me happy and we can stop at anything that looks interesting which makes him happy.
What do you stop for along the way during a road trip?
Pretty much anything that interests us.
I always want to stop at roadside attractions. My husband enjoys touring historic homes and properties.
We have to break up drive time with some easy hikes at state and national parks so we don’t get crabby with each other.
What do you like to park when you van camp?
My husband loves sleeping at Walmarts. I would rather always sleep at a campground.
Where do you try to avoid parking?
I try to avoid Walmarts.
We have found that not all Walmarts are created equal. We had a really hard time finding any that would allow overnight parking in Florida. It was a struggle.
What do you wish you would have known before you started van camping?
How much fun it would be.
Do you have any favorite van camping hacks?
Probably my favorite is to pack individual cinch bags for each of us that contain our own toiletries so we can each go to the bathhouse at the campground at the same time and not have to wait on soap or shampoo.
What are your go-to meals while van camping?
Pancakes are my go-to for breakfast. The mix stores easily, you don’t need anything but water and it’s easy to mix up.
If I want to get fancy, I’ll grill some peaches or bananas or something to go with them but pancakes are always a staple.
Since I like things to be pretty, I love to make an easy charcuterie or cheese board that we can munch off while sitting at our campsite.
Do you have any meal planning hacks to save space and plan ahead?
Not at this point. So far we’ve only stayed out for two weeks at a time so for two weeks we eat lunch meat sandwiches and dine out and it doesn’t get old.
Since we don’t have a frig, we typically shop frequently anyway. Every three days or so we stop at the grocery store (typically Walmart, especially if we’ve spent the night there) and grab some fresh fruit and veggies, lunch meat, etc.
I do like to make meals with chicken breast and when we’re camping I always buy Perdue chicken that is individually wrapped and trimmed. It makes it so much easier to deal with.
What is a luxury that you bring that isn’t very practical?
On our first major camping trip in our Promaster, I would say it was probably my clothes. I’m an over-packer and it’s hard for me to decide ahead of time what I want to wear.
I took so many clothes and shoes on that two-week trip!
This time I really pared down and limited myself to one 18 x 18-inch basket for all my clothing. Just because we have space doesn’t mean I need to fill it.
I went through my wardrobe and tried to think more in terms of what we would be doing, where we would be going, what the temperature was likely to be and from there I kind of put together a capsule wardrobe with pieces that could easily be mixed and matched into a new outfit.
I ended up with several pairs of leggings, cute sweatshirts, a pair of jeans, etc.
What are some things that someone should consider before converting a vehicle to a van camper?
Well, since we’ve not permanently converted ours yet, I’d suggest that they make their van comfortable and then go out and sleep in it a few times before making any permanent modifications.
My husband and I are learning what we’ll want in ours when we do the conversion as well as what we’ll need to have.
Personally, I really like it the way it is now. I like having the option of changing it up every time we travel.
I would also caution people to be realistic with their budget. Converting a vehicle into a camper van can really get expensive depending on how extensive you get.
Know what your limits are and plan accordingly.
Also, I’ve seen some absolutely beautiful camper vans that are all decked out but you’ll want to keep in mind that the more weight you add to the van, the more you’ll pay in gas when you’re on the road and the harder it will be on the vehicle.
That’s another reason why right now we’ve decided to keep modifications to a minimum and not add extra weight.
What are your tips for van camping on a budget?
Work with what you have.
If you don’t have a big van, camp in your minivan, or truck, or even a car.
My husband and I did that and loved it before making the jump to the Promaster.
Plan trips close to home. Here in Ohio, we have some amazing state parks, many that we’ve not ever visited so it’s nice to be able to get away, see something new but not pay too much for fuel.
Pack your cooler and forget about eating out.
Plan activities that are free or don’t cost a lot of money.
My husband and I like to hike, beach comb, birdwatch, geocache, play disc golf- those are all free so when we do want to splurge on an attraction we don’t feel guilty because we still stick to our budget.
Sleep overnight at Walmarts or other places where you can do so legally.
Can you/ would you recommend van camping in extreme hot or cold weather?
At this point, since our van is not permanently modified, I would say no though it would be easier to camp in colder weather vs extreme heat.
The warmest it’s ever been while camping in the Promaster was 85 degrees in Florida. Since we spend most of our time outdoors during the day it wasn’t a big deal until nighttime.
We opened our back door and put up our screening and we were comfortable with a battery-operated fan but we were at a campground, we never could have done that at Walmart.
We’ve also camped when temps were below 30 which can get pretty chilly.
I make sure we have plenty of blankets and we travel with two comforters so once we’re under the covers we’re not too bad. We also turn the van on every so often if needed.
There are heaters that you can get but we’ve not tried those yet.
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