You have decided on taking the road, you have already created an amazing route and started dreaming about the long lasting memories you will create. How exciting!
The fun starts the moment you come up with the idea, where to go, what to do. However, the logistics can be somewhat overwhelming, specially if this is your first time. But fear not! Planning a fabulous #roadtrip for the family doesn't require a PhD !
I got my van in October 2020 and started living in it two months later, in January 2021. I've spent eight months driving around the USA and I got to learn a few things about #vanlife which I am sharing with you in the list below. Many of these tips I collected before starting my trip, many others I learn them from other campers who kindly passed them on to me. Chose the ones that apply to your situation and let the fun being!
BEFORE THE TRIP
1. Know your options for camping in your route. Whether it is for just a few hours in between locations or multi-day camping, you'll need to park overnight. Here's some good info:
* https://www.recreation.gov/ for campgrounds inside the park. Keep in mind that, during high season and/or in popular parks, campgrounds fill up pretty early.
* https://freecampsites.net/ if you want free camping (no hookups), check out this site (it also includes some paid campgrounds).
* https://harvesthosts.com/ offers a membership plan that unlocks a whole network of private properties such as farms, museums, wineries, etc. The restriction is that your rig is self-contained. Make sure you read the "rules".
* Many retailers and gas stations offer overnight parking for free. Walmart, Home Depot, Bass Shop, Cracker Barrel, Love's etc. when in doubt, just check with the store manager.
* Know the local rules. Each state/county/park has its own rules about overnight parking,
2. Secure care for your pet at home. Check out my article "Pleasures and challenges of traveling with a pet" to understand why this recommendation.
3. Plan your meal strategy. Check out my article on meals for the road.
4. Think multipurpose when packing and be flexible. Bring items that can have more than just one purpose. For example my cups can be used for coffee, water, or wine; my beach tote can also serve as bag for shopping or as my shower bag at the campground. Also, pot lids tend to take too much space, consider using aluminum foil instead. Foil can also be used for grilling veggies or fish and for storing leftovers in the fridge.
5. Pack smart. The greater the distance covered in your trip, the greater the chance of going through different temps. Dress in layers. Avoid thick sweaters that look nice and cozy but offer little protection on the trail and opt for wool over cotton. In the event your feet get wet wool socks will keep you warmer than regular socks, it is worth the investment. I love my jeans but those gotta stay home, I am taking my KÜHL pants instead. Lastly, check out the microfiber towels that are lightweight, super compact, and fast to dry instead of traditional fluffy towels that take serious space.
6. Get walkie-talkies for communication with the family. Reception inside the park is extremely limited. Walkie-talkies will come very handy and kids will have fun, you can even set your own codes. Just try to find a channel with less traffic.
7. Test-run your camper at home. My son and I spent a few nights in the van right on the house driveway and found out three major issues a) the bed was not sufficiently comfortable so I bought a mattress top (2" foam) and that made the difference, b) the xbox was located in a spot that didn't allow ventilation. I installed an "under the desk" shelve and secured the device with a bungee et voila! happy kid, and c) The floor can get really messy with so much in/out and could only get worse in rain or at the beach. I bought bathroom rugs to protect the floor and wash them regularly.
8. Check the vehicle. This must be too obvious but it is so important I had to include in the list. Starting with the engine, the brakes, the tires, the spare, etc. ensure it is properly functioning. Also double check your toolkit and bring extra fuses and screws, with the road vibrations screws come loose. This is also a good time to consider AAA though I was told they do not service camper vans so better double check.
9. Prepare your laptop and backup system. Most of us nowadays rely on the cloud for safe storage and portability however many parks have zero access to the grid and similarly happens while driving between cities. I bought a 1TB memory stick that I can easily connect to my laptop or phone to download my images (you'll need a memory card reader too). Some cameras come with wireless connectivity however that method is too slow, I would only use it when on a rush to download one or two images.
10. Build a contingency/backup plan. In the likely event of bad weather, trail/park closed, etc. have a backup plan that is acceptable. A good rule of thumb is allocating 10% of your resources The last thing you want is frustration and regret to spoil your fabulous trip.
Make your checklist and do not forget to include the following:
First Aid kit. Including any pain or allergy medication and antibiotic ointment in addition to any prescription medication needed.
Sunscreen, bear spray, and bug repellent. I cannot stress enough how important and useful this is.
Headlamps, preferably with a red light option which comes handy when you go out stargazing. White light will blind your eyes and it takes 20+ minutes to adjust to darkness again.
Batteries and chargers (cell, camera, laptop)
Games and entertainment
Reusable water bottles
Fire starters and lighter. DO NOT bring firewood across state lines
Trash bags, flushable toilet paper, laundry pods, and other cleaning supplies including a broom.
Cleaning towels/scrubs - those bugs on the windshield are hard to clean !
DURING THE TRIP
1. Keep your distance and slow down. Your RV/Camper is larger and heavier than your regular car, it takes longer to come to a full stop without making a projectile of everything loose inside the camper. Also turns need to be taken with more care and be aware of high winds.
2. Do not fry food inside the camper. Not only the smell of fried oil stays and takes longer to clean but also there's a higher risk of fire. Just think that fried food is not great for your health. Steamed and grilled are great choices.
3. Chose your snacks wisely and stay hydrated. Driving long hours is very tiring, if you need to munch on something to avoid boredom and stay alert on the road, do not rely on gas stations to provide you with healthy options. Also, it is easy to forget the heat outside when the A/C in the car is on, staying hydrated is the best plan to avoid risk of getting sick, specially over the summer when temps exceed 90F. Frequent pit-stops are actually good to move your body during long drives and release toxins that cause back pain.
4. Stock up on supplies before entering the park. Stores inside the parks are small and rare, and needless to say that anything you buy there will be more expensive and likely not your preferred option. Fuel, snacks, water, batteries, and, if you have a camera, an extra memory card are good items to stock up ahead of time.
5. Check for ticks. Every time, coming back from a hike, regardless of the length, check yourself, your kids, your furry friend before coming into the camper.
6. Know where to dump. Most campgrounds will have a dump station which is available free of charge for registered guess or at a fee ($10 to $20). Sanidumps.com is an excellent resource with information on where to find dump stations, some of them are free! If you cannot access the site, know that usually Love's and Flying'J will have dump stations ($10-$15). I've also seen some rest areas in Oregon and California that offer dump station for free.
7. Propane refills. If your rig is like mine, that the propane tank is inside, know that not all stores can refill. Love's and Flying J are two travel center chains in US that offer propane refills (in addition to showers, laundry services, and overnight parking to rest) Note that fuel at these stations are usually 0.20 - 0.35 cents per gallon more expensive than the average. Tractor Supply Co is a nationwide chain that offers propane refill too and lastly, you can also inquire at most RV campgrounds.
8. Take time to reset and process. This is not about housekeeping, which is indeed a must specially in such small space; trash and dirty laundry take precious real state. This is about processing the information gathered in the last days (maps, photos, facts, names, blog, etc.) A retrospective on what went well and what needs adjustment. I fell into the trap of rushing to the next spot without spending quality time evaluating my approach both to the logistics of the trip as much as to my photography and missed valuable opportunities to correct my mistakes.
9. Hide a spare key. Find a secure place outside the camper and store a spare key. It is very hard and expensive to get assistance in remote places.
AFTER THE TRIP
1. Unload and clean the van. You'll be tempted to leave for later but the sooner you do it, the better. Bad smells build up very quick when there's no ventilation. Strip down to the bones for a deep cleaning. Empty the fridge and freezer and make sure your waste tanks are empty too and do not forget to cover the drains in the sinks.
2. Rest and unwind. You need a vacation to rest from your vacation! Take at least one day to clean the vehicle and rest before resuming daily life.
3. Organize your documents. Maps, images, journal. Make time while the memories are still fresh.
If you found this list useful, tag me in your IG post! I'd love to see where you go and how I can be of help to you and others.
Meanwhile, I reserve the right to edit this article as I continue my own journey. You too, feel free to add tips in the comments, I'd love to learn with you!