The Ultimate packing list: what you need (and don’t need) to live in a van for a year

The Ultimate packing list: what you need (and don’t need) to live in a van for a year

We’ve unloaded our van and turned it back into a normal passenger vehicle. It’s terrible. It seems so strange to drive around in a normal minivan — I imagine it’s similar to how you’d feel if you dyed your bright blue hair back to black for a job interview. You’d walk around thinking, “I used to be a cool dude with bright blue hair! Remember?” That’s kind of how CoCoVan feels right now.

It took us about eight months to get to an ideal setup in our van. We were constantly rearranging, refining, and learning to use things in different ways. The less you pack, the better. It’s not like there aren’t any stores out there — we learned that Walmart is harder to escape than to find.

So what did we find essential for life in a van, and what did we find unnecessary? Here’s a detailed list of the stuff we brought along for the ride and the things that didn’t make the cut (see below for diagrams of our setup).

The Critical Items

Our comfy bed.
Our comfy bed.

Of the few things we had, we were surprised at how little we actually used on a daily basis. These were the things we used everyday and couldn’t have lived comfortably without:

  • The bed: we loved our platform bed with its 4″ Ikea foam mattress. We made it extra comfy with 4 pillows (the ultimate luxury), a throw pillow (about which I was endlessly ridiculed but which I loved), a set of sheets, a wool blanket, and a down comforter. A double mattress fits well in the back of a minivan, as long as the mattress is made of a material, like foam, that can be slightly compressed at the sides.
  • LED Christmas lights. Strung up by our bed, these made for great nighttime lighting.
  • Screens for the sliding door windows. We didn’t use curtains — we decided the tinted windows provided enough privacy. A sun shade for the (non-tinted) windshield helped with privacy.
  • Folding chairs. Our couch on the road.
  • Clothing:
    • Two weeks worth of clothing. Halfway through the trip, we stopped at our storage closet to exchange our winter clothes for summer clothes. If a storage closet trip doesn’t work with your schedule, plan to visit a thrift shop along the way. Paul went into more detail on his clothes packing in a post on Dappered.
    • Layerable items of clothing like t-shirts, cardigans, and button downs will help you handle a range of temperatures with the smallest amount of clothing.
    • Don’t bring anything that doesn’t match everything or that only serves one purpose.
    • With one exception: bring one or two nicer items for weddings, fancy occasions, or for wearing anytime you’re tired of looking like a backpacker.
    • Bring items made of durable fabrics that can stand up to multiple laundromat visits. Don’t bring anything that is dry clean only!
    • Outerwear: pack a rain shell, a fleece jacket, and a down vest – and make sure these items can all be worn together. You’ll need them all on the coldest days. Also pack a scarf, hat, and gloves.
    • Baseball cap or outdoor cap for sun protection.
  • Clothing storage: Paul stored his clothes in a duffel…I stored mine in a clear plastic garbage bag. I liked being able to see my clothes through the bag.
  • Reusable grocery bags and/or extra duffel bag. For bringing clothes into hotels or on plane rides..
  • Laundry bag, laundry soap, dryer sheets. And lots of quarters.
  • Shoes: sneakers, flip-flops, and a nicer pair of shoes or sandals should suffice. I also brought along my tall boots, which were good for looking stylish and for preventing rattlesnake bites to the ankles.
  • 2 backpacks for hiking.
  • Sunglasses. Bring an extra pair of prescription glasses or contacts, if you have them.
  • Linens: 2 towels, 1 hand towel, 2 washcloths, kitchen towels, potholders.
  • Regular toiletries and a waterproof shower bag.
  • Wipes. At a minimum, you need face wipes and what we affectionately call “butt wipes” (“butt wipes” are great for cleaning your hands when you have no running water).
  • Headlamps and flashlights.
  • AA and AAA batteries.
  • Plastic bins: for dishes, food, clothes, electronics, and other small things that need to be contained.
  • Coleman suitcase stove and fuel.
  • A big box of matches. Paul used at least ten matches per Coleman lighting.
  • A plug-in cooler. We didn’t need to spend the extra money on this DC-adaptable cooler, but the square shape was ideal. It has never been plugged in.
  • A small kettle and a coffee funnel.
  • Nesting pans.
  • One set of silverware per person, a paring knife, a corkscrew, cooking utensils. Most useful, multipurpose utensil: metal tongs.
  • 2 large, shallow bowls that could be used as plates or bowls, 2 travel mugs, 2 plastic glasses.
  • 2 metal mixing bowls, pasta strainer, cutting board.
  • 2 to 4 1-gallon water jugs (depending on whether we were in the desert or…not), 2 Nalgene bottles (plus 1 more after finding it outside Moab at our campsite).
  • Tupperware, plastic wrap, aluminum foil.
  • Dish strainer and sponge. Biodegradable, undyed, unscented dish soap is critical for situations when you can’t rinse your dishes. We used a mixing bowl as a wash basin.
  • Paper towels and tissues. We went through possibly 10x more than in our normal daily lives.
  • Box of baking soda. Even better: a box of baking soda per month.
  • Laptops with DC adapters.
  • External hard-drive. For backing up photos on the road.
  • Smartphones and DC adapters/chargers. We’d recommend going with two different service providers. Paul’s on Verizon and I’m on Virgin Mobile (which uses the Sprint network). Paul tended to have the best coverage, but my Sprint came through in weird places where Verizon was totally lacking, like in northern Wisconsin.
  • Cameras and camera gear.
  • iPod and adapter. You’re going to need lots of music and podcasts to get through the driving days.
  • Books and magazines. Lots and lots of reading material was cycled through the van.
  • Maps and a few essential guidebooks.
  • Notebooks and sketchbooks.
  • Pens, pencils, stamps, thank you cards.
  • Plastic bags. Plastic bags have so many uses. You’ll learn them all.

The Nice-to-Have Items

Our summer house.
Our summer house.

There were many things we used infrequently (or never) but were glad we had along:

  • 2 person backpacking tent. Because we made our van bed so comfy, we rarely slept in the tent, but it was great when it was hot outside. It also was nice to set up and hang out in when we were in buggy areas.
  • Air mattresses, down sleeping bags, and camp pillows. Good for sleeping in the tent or on the floor at your brother-in-law’s house.
  • Stadium-style chairs. For sitting on top of picnic tables when camping in areas with an overpopulation of fire ants, when hanging out on slickrock, as lawn seats at spring training games, at outdoor concerts, and in any other situation where a back rest is appreciated.
  • MSR backpacking stove and fuel canisters. It’s good to have a backup stove, and a backpacking stove is small enough that it takes up almost no space. This little stove was really helpful when we were cooking in unusual conditions or when we ran out of Coleman fuel.
  • Backpacking water filter. Great for backpacking and for situations when the water came out of the campground tap an unsettling shade of brown.
  • Axe and wood saw. For firewood preparation and/or self-defense.
  • Picnic blanket.
  • Table cloth. Good to hide the bird poop found on most picnic tables. We picked up the classic Coleman check-patterned cloth, but sadly had to ditch it after it was eaten by overly aggressive squirrels.
  • Commonly used tools, like a hammer, screwdriver, pliers, pocket knife and/or multipurpose tool, etc.
  • GPS. If you don’t have a phone with GPS, a stand-alone GPS is more necessary. A phone with GPS, combined with a good map, will eliminate most of the need for a stand-alone GPS. It is still helpful to bring along a GPS as a backup to your phone, in case the phone’s battery dies.
  • First aid kit and a medicine cabinet bin, including band-aids, antibiotic cream, Moleskin, pain killers, hydrocortisone cream, Afterbite, Pepto, Tums, etc.
  • Bug spray.
  • Rope – climbing rope or any sort of rope that can support a fair amount of weight..
  • Clothesline.
  • Fire starters. Helpful when burning desert wood with no kindling.
  • Fire extinguisher. An auto/marine chemical fire extinguisher can be used for car fires, out of control campfires, and stove/fuel fires.
  • Extension cord. Whenever we stayed at campsites with electricity we’d plug in the cord and stretch it into the van. Yay, charging power!
  • Disc golf discs, frisbee, whatever, it’s good to have some type of small sporting good.
  • Important papers like the car title, our birth certificates, social security cards, passports, and checkbooks. An emergency cash stash. All of this hidden as well as possible.
  • Battery-operated candles and fire-operated tealights.
  • Coleman electric lantern. If you’re inside a tent or a screened room, this is a great thing. If you’re out in the open, get ready for a bug fiesta!
  • Umbrellas.
  • Cards. We played lots of gin rummy.
  • Ice scraper.
  • Sewing kit.
  • Lint brush. For the times you need to look presentable.
  • Bungee cords.

The Unnecessary Items

Despite our best efforts, we still managed to over-pack (and to pack some really silly things). These were all eventually dropped off in our storage closet, donated, or buried deep in the depths of the van:

  • Futon mattress. We started our trip with a thin, old futon mattress but had to soon abandon it for a much comfier IKEA version. The futon hopefully found a stable new home after we left it at a Salvation Army in Tempe, AZ.
  • Memory foam mattress topper. This was essential for life with the futon mattress, but it was too tall to use with the new IKEA mattress. We cut it up, stuffed it into four garbage bags, and shoved those into a dumpster at Joshua Tree National Park, as guiltily as if we were disposing of a dismembered body.
  • A marine battery and battery case. Paul was always intending to rig up a high-tech electrical system…but never did.
  • Hiking boots. We both discovered we liked hiking better in regular old sneakers.
  • All-Clad frying pan: nothing screams yuppie louder than a camper trying to cook with an All-Clad pan on a Coleman stove. We couldn’t do it.
  • 9″ chef knife: just too big to use at camp.
  • Extra towels, washcloths, pillowcases, and sheets. Our primary linens were always washed and dried in the same day, so the extras just took up space.
  • Cloth napkins. Silly me.
  • Tripod.
  • Rain-X window cleaner. We carried this around for a full year without using it.
  • A magnetic chess set. We played once, Paul beat me, we never played again.
  • Anything cutesy, like magnetic letters. These things will not be used.
  • Toilet paper. Oh, the joy of a year without having to buy toilet paper.

The Lusted-After Items

There was just one thing we didn’t have but wanted…a screened room. It was too expensive, too big to fit in our van, and seemed like too much of an extravagance. But boy, would we have loved to set a screened room up over our picnic table on many a buggy evening (and use that electric lantern).


Van Diagrams

Wait…how did all this stuff fit inside a minivan?

Seems like a lot of stuff, doesn’t it? Getting everything to fit inside a minivan took some trial and error. When packing the van up for the first time, we spread our stuff out on the floor inside the house and tried to visualize how it would all fit in the van. Anything we’d use less frequently was stashed in the middle. Anything we’d use on a daily basis needed to be easily accessible and so would need to go in last. We went through this exercise a few times indoors and a few more times when we finally shoved everything into the van. Then we kept refining the setup until we were at a pretty ideal place…eight months after the start of the trip.

Top View-Storage
Top View-Storage
Top View-Bed
Top View-Bed
Side View Bed/Storage
Side View Bed/Storage

Is there anything missing from this list that you couldn’t have lived without? Tell us about it in the comments.