You don’t have to quit your job or sell all your worldly possessions to experience the #vanlife. Heck, you don’t even have to buy or refurbish a van yourself. You can actually rent the #vanlife, which for the purpose of avoiding cultural appropriation we’ll call “taking a van-cation.” But know, dear reader — this type of travel doesn’t follow the same rules as just any vacation. More than a mere road trip and different from camping or even car camping, a van-cation is about embracing the unbridled freedom that comes with navigating your four-wheeled hotel room. Yes, it’s a cozy place to sleep, but it’s also a portal to stunning scenery, endless adventure and a clearer headspace. So, basically, therapy on wheels. Here’s how to get there.
1. Don’t look at all those #vanlifers on Instagram.
You know the ones we’re talking about. She’s in a bikini doing sun salutations on the roof of a retro VW; he’s shirtless playing a guitar. Or perhaps you just see tanned legs sticking out the van’s back door, which opens onto a mouthwatering mountain vista. Okay, you can peak on Insta, but for location inspiration only, not couple comparison. Those photos are staged and sometimes sponsored, but those destinations are real — the soaring canyons, deserted stretches of beach, revelatory red rocks, sparkling night skies — and all begging to be visited. Rule number one to the ultimate van-cation is to close Instagram.
2. Get to know your van and choose your adventure.
You scoped out your van online and found “the one.” Maybe it’s a wood-paneled palace tricked out with a cushy bed, solar panels, onboard sink and shower, and all the cookware you could need (like Boho Camper Vans out of Phoenix). Or maybe it’s a vintage VW camper bus in ocean blue outfitted with a sink, propane stove, and USB hookups for cruising the California coast in retro style (like Vintage Surfari Wagons out of Costa Mesa). Whichever you choose, be sure to get the full 411 when you pick it up, like where the water pump switch is, how the Coleman stove works, where the kitchen gear is stashed, and how to fill the water tank. Yes, it’s tempting just to hop in and drive off with “Life is a Highway” blasting out the windows, but a few minutes’ tutorial could avoid future frustration, particularly when you need toilet paper, like, now.
Good news: Deciding where to go will be the toughest part of your whole trip. Bad news: The options are seemingly endless. Are the Joshua Trees calling your name? Or the sandstone buttes of Monument Valley? Or maybe it’s the rust-colored rocks of Sedona? Or the waterfalls of Yellowstone? Narrow it down by picking a national park you’ve always wanted to visit or a mountain you’ve always wanted to climb, maybe a stream you’ve always wanted to fish. In short, you want a remote picturesque playground not too far off the beaten paths. These are vans, not 4x4s, after all. And you want your trip to be about more than driving and sleeping, so it’s best to have a specific goal in mind and use the van to help you reach and accomplish it.
3. Park (and pack) smart.
Yes, #homeiswhereyouparkit, but where should you park it? With apps like Recreation.gov or Hipcamp, you can always book a legit campsite or get off the grid with a dispersed campsite. These no-reservation-required spots usually come without toilets and garbage bins, but they’re free from crowds and free of charge. Dispersed campsites are fair game in national forests unless noted otherwise, and public lands, such as those operated by the Bureau of Land Management. Just be sure to practice “leave no trace” principles.
You’re probably wondering what to pack. Essentials like sunscreen, insect repellent, matches or lighter, first-aid kit, and biodegradable soap are no-brainers. A stainless steel water bottle and thermos will also come in handy — ditto for a Dutch oven or cast-iron frying pan for cooking over fire. Stuff your duffle with extra layers and warm socks, clothes, and shoes to match your activities and terrain. You’ll also want a backpack for hikes, a headlamp or solar lantern for dark nights, and don’t forget drinking water, at least one gallon per person per day.
4. But don’t deny yourself (or settle for subpar coffee).
Granted, a van-cation is a more back-to-nature, back-to-basics trip than, say, an all-inclusive trip to Cabo, but getting remote doesn’t have to mean roughing it. In other words, just because you bring along your iPad doesn’t mean you won’t reach spiritual enlightenment. Same goes for bringing along your favorite memory foam pillow or fancy travel-sized toiletries or a warm wool blanket. The same rule applies to food because saving you from eating all your meals in restaurants is part of how the van earns its keep. Stock your cooler with the essentials — salt, pepper, cooking oil — but there’s no shame in bringing Champagne or portable coffee pour-overs or Ghirardelli chocolates for s’mores. Simple splurges are made all the sweeter when they have less to compete with.
5. Make outdoor dining an event.
You don’t want to get to your remote van-cation oasis and say, “So, what’s for dinner?” Draft a list of meals in advance and get the ingredients you need to make them happen. Bacon and eggs, French toast, and instant oatmeal with berries all cook up fast for the AM. For lunch, think grab-and-go since you’ll probably be on the move: PB&J, apples and nut butter squeeze packs, trail mix, and bananas. Dinner is the main, and sometimes only, evening event, so make it a feast. Grill up seasoned veggies and steaks (pack meat frozen in the cooler for staying power), bring along aluminum foil for salmon and asparagus, and go gourmet grilled cheese by tucking in tomatoes and avocado between sliced sourdough and Monterey Jack. Of course, there’s always the classic campfire chili and cornbread. Stuff like this is easy to cook — and clean up after — in a tight kitchen setup.
Having the food plan in hand and the ingredients within reach means you can really enjoy dinner. Granted, you’ll be lingering over a campfire, which isn’t quite the same as lingering over a five-course restaurant meal, but van-cation food can feel just as elevated. For starters, rental vans often come with a food prep area — including a 48-inch pull-out bamboo countertop, in Boho’s case — plus a propane stove, pots, pans, and utensils, so you’re set up. Make sure to relish in the making and eating. That means slow cooking over an open flame or stovetop and breathing in the smell of food as it mingles with the surrounding scents. It also means savoring the view from your outdoor kitchen, which isn’t too tough, especially when it’s the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
6. Bring alternate (and alternative) maps.
There’s nothing like an outward journey such as a van-cation to trigger an inward journey, and maps can help guide the path. Yes, that means actual paper maps, like road and trail maps for when GPS fails and you’re out of cell service. But there are other navigation tools, like tarot decks and animal spirit cards, which pack fun and a sense of inner exploration.
“Be in the moment” is a dictate easier said than done in real life, but on a van-cation, it’s par for the course. Chalk it up to more time in nature, spent sipping stovetop coffee at sunrise or hot chocolate at sunset, or being with the ones you love. Of course, escaping the monotony of routine and the confines of your comfort zone also brings on the mindfulness. You’ll know you’ve achieved it when you feel fully alive doing absolutely nothing. Funny how a new perspective really does give you a new perspective.
Last but not least, wear a cool hat. It should go without saying, but just in case. You never know when the selfie temptation might overcome you.