Easy to drive, fits into a standard parking space, endlessly customizable interiors. There are many reasons to choose a Class B van camper as your home away from home. They boast everything you need to be adventure-ready on a moment’s notice without giving up many of the comforts you sacrifice for tent camping.
The pandemic spurred the growth of the RV market, and an estimated 84% of 18 to 34-year-olds are now looking to buy an RV within the next 5 years, according to the RV Industry Association. A Class B may be the perfect entry-level vehicle for people who are newer to RVing. But before you choose your campervan or commit to building your own, here are some key lessons we learned from our #vanlife road trips.
Lesson 1: Learn Your Van
Whether renting or buying, you need to learn your van before you hit the road. This means knowing what level of “off-grid” you are comfortable with. Things to look out for include:
Does the van have a battery bank that allows for it to run for several days? Will you need shore power available at your campsites? Is a portable generator required?
On our most recent trip, our rental had enough power for a few days. However, it was best to drive destination-to-destination daily to recharge the battery. It worked well as we trekked to the Utah Mighty 5 in a week, which meant daily driving. But if you want to stay in one remote location, opt for a van with better off-grid capacity.
When in doubt, pick up one of Camping World’s portable power banks or generators for extra peace of mind.
Gas Type & Mileage
You also need to know what makes your van run. Does your van run on diesel or regular gas? Most importantly, how many miles per gallon does your van get? When you are traveling to remote parks or wilderness areas, gas stations may be few and far between. Always stop to fill up when in doubt because no one wants to be stranded.
A lesser-known question about the van might be, do you need to pay attention to the gas octane levels? This was a new one for us on our last trip, but it is important for certain vehicle types and in certain locations. Utah has an 85-octane option, but our van needed 87 or above. So, when you are filling up, pay attention to the pump because the cheapest option may not be the best.
Bathroom & Kitchen Set Up
Many pre-built or DIY vans will come with a sink, potable and gray water tanks, and a cooler or refrigerator for your kitchen. This likely means that your cooking setup will be up to you. I personally recommend portable stoves or a JetBoil to make cooking on the road easy.
Vans may include a cassette or composting toilet and an indoor or outdoor shower system. If you’ve never used a cassette toilet, look up how to empty one before hitting the road on your adventure. Trust me, this will save you from panic mid-trip.
Lastly, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with your van’s storage. Do you have drawers that lock when driving? Does your van have space for bikes, skis, bouldering pads, or the adventure gear of choice?
Open every compartment and evaluate how easy it is to access and what might fit best inside. For example, our last rental had a convertible dinette with underseat storage. We ruled out using that storage space because it was too much of a hassle to unmake and remake the bed daily. This may seem small loss of storage, but if you need to bring a lot of gear, you want to ensure every inch of space is usable.
If you need help determining what kind of Class B RV is for you, here are several helpful articles to browse before renting, buying, or building a campervan.
Lesson 2: Plan Your Route
Before you’re ready to hit the road, you need to know where that road will lead. Ask yourself these questions as you plan your trip.
- What do I have to see or do? This will provide the pillars for planning your trip.
- What do I want to see or do? These would be nice-to-haves that can be cut out if time or route don’t allow.
- How long am I willing to drive each day? Do not overestimate how much you are willing to drive in a day. Personal recommendation: keep it to no more than 6 to 8 hours. Take it from someone who fully started sobbing because I couldn’t find a good spot to boondock after driving all day.
Once you have answers to those questions, it’s time to start the fun stuff. Use a tool like Google Maps to plot your major destinations and see the best travel path. From there, you can zoom in, find items on your nice-to-have list, and see if they fit in with the suggested route or if an alternate route works.
For our most recent trip to the Utah Mighty 5, we actually used ChatGPT with the parks, our trip dates, and where we were starting and ending. After a few prompt iterations, it gave us an itinerary with suggested activities, drive times, and where to be at the end of each day.
No matter the tool you use, having a loose plan significantly reduces your stress once you are on the road.
Lesson 3: Reserved Campsites versus Boondocking
There are two options for setting up camp on the road: dedicated campsites or boondocking. Each has its own merits, and we’ve done a mixture of both.
Dedicated campsites mean you, without a doubt, have a place to set up your camp. Campsites often have more amenities, including bathroom and shower facilities, shore power, approved fire rings, potable water, and black water disposal. Remember that not all campsites come with all amenities, so be sure to check if one is particularly important.
The trade-offs for campsites are campground fees and limitations on bookings. Some campsites allow you to book well in advance, and some don’t allow reservations until two weeks prior to your desired date.
If you aren’t as concerned about having a dedicated place to set up camp, you can find a spot on public lands just off the road. There’s a catch. You can’t just boondock anywhere.
Boondocking is allowed on public lands like National Forests, some state parks, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. You cannot boondock in national parks or most cities. An easy tip for boondocking is to find a road labeled Forest Service Road. This guarantees that you are on public land.
Just like with campgrounds, there are trade-offs when boondocking. You’ll have no access to facilities or water when you boondock and must abide by fire restrictions in that area.
Whether you are in a reserved campground or choose to boondock, minimize your impact by using the principles of Leave No Trace, and be sure to camp at least 200 feet from the water.
Find more tips in our full guide to RV boondocking for beginners.
Lesson 4: Check the Weather
There’s so much to enjoy in nature, even with a little rain or snow. But you want to ensure that your van can handle what Mother Nature throws your way. If there’s rain in the forecast and you plan on boondocking, it might be worth checking out campgrounds with maintained and paved areas to park.
If you encounter snow, be sure you are prepared with the right tires or tire chains. Nothing can ruin a trip faster than your van getting stuck in the mud, so always monitor the weather and keep extra gear handy for plan changes.
Lesson 5: Plan Your Activities
Are you a bouldering enthusiast and need your crash pad? Are you looking to take your mountain bike out on the trails? Are you gearing up for a day on the slopes? Planning your activities ahead of time lets you put bulky gear at the top of your packing list, making a difference when bringing your new 10-foot paddleboard.
It’s not just about the gear. Some destinations might include activities that you need to book ahead. Determine if there are any excursions you’d like to do and book ahead of time to reserve your spot. On our first trip, we missed out on cavern tours in two national parks by assuming we could get tickets the day of.
Lesson 6: Make Your Packing List
Packing is the trickiest part of exploring in a Class B van camper. It’s easier than you think to overpack or underpack. Making a list helps you streamline and feel prepared as you hit the road. Here is how we approach packing for our trips:
- What activities are we doing that need specialized gear?
- Will we be bringing our gear or renting it?
- Are there any large items we must tow or strap to the van?
- How comfortable with being dirty are we?
- Will we feel like stopping to do laundry?
- What will the weather be like during our trip?
Food & Kitchen
- Are we planning on cooking on the road?
- Will we be making stops at the grocery store?
- Do we need specialized cooking gear like a camp stove or JetBoil?
- What snacks do we need to keep with us?
- What cups, bowls, and cutlery do we need?
- Do we need kitchen prep like pots, pans, or knives?
- Will we stop at shower facilities if our van doesn’t have a shower?
- Do we need items like camp suds, bath wipes, or dry shampoo?
- Do we need shower shoes and towels?
- Do we have our first aid kit?
- Are we building campfires?
- Do we have camping chairs, hammocks, tables, etc?
- Do we have our chargers, power banks, solar panels, generators, etc?
- Do we have bug and tick repellant?
- Do we have electrical cables and hoses for potable and gray water?
- Do we have camp lighting?
Your packing list will depend on what you want to do and your comfort level. But no matter where you start with your packing list, keeping space in mind is key.
Lesson 7: Less is More & Pack Strategically
On our first van trip, my husband and I overpacked significantly. I was worried about dirty laundry and packed different clothes for each day. We ended up doing laundry on the road anyway.
Use the same principles for packing that you used to plan your route:
- What are my must haves?
- What are my nice-to-haves?
Your available storage will depend on your van’s build. Our first van only had one counter area with baskets for limited storage, but a large cavity beneath the bed. Our most recent had large drawers and cabinets but very limited storage in the back. This impacts how you pack. Spoiler alert: Things are much easier if you have drawers available.
If you don’t have built-in storage in your van, we recommend using various-sized storage bins. Organize according to how you use them – i.e. all of your cooking gear in one bin. If you must pack your clothes in large bins, use packing cubes to keep things organized. Load the van from least used to most used. It’s not fun to crawl into the back of your van whenever you need a new pair of socks.
Lesson 8: Secure Everything
Nothing is worse than taking a turn on a windy mountain road and hearing your entire drawer of clothes fly across the van or hearing your husband’s Apple watch slip off the counter and onto the van’s tile floor with a nice crack. Trust me.
Double, triple, and quadruple-check everything before you even think of shifting out of the park and taking your foot off the brake. It’s easy to forget smaller items like watches, phones, and water bottles on the counter as you pack up and head to your next destination. We recommend having a setup and teardown checklist that you and any other van campers use to ensure everything is stowed before you start driving.
Lesson 9: Give Yourself Peace of Mind
My husband and I aren’t quite ready to purchase a Class B van camper or pursue a build-out of our own, so we choose to rent from Arizona Camper Vans. If you are like us, you’ll want to give yourself extra peace of mind while on the road. We always choose to buy the best insurance package that includes emergency roadside assistance.
If you own your own van, you can still ensure you’re protected with Good Sam coverage plans. They offer options for RV-specific insurance, roadside assistance plans, and even emergency medical travel assistance.
Lesson 10: Leave Wiggle Room in Your Route
Part of the fun of exploring in a van camper is that it’s an easy, self-contained way to travel. You rarely worry about things like towing, height, or vehicle length restrictions. Take advantage of this by leaving room for unexpected adventures along the way. On our first trip, my husband and I saw a sign for Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park on our way to Zion National Park. We looked at each other, said why not, and turned down the road to the park.
When you leave your options open for unplanned stops, you can see and experience things that may never have been on your radar otherwise. That’s what makes taking road trips special and memorable.
Exploring in a van camper is an easy introduction to RVing and camping. You get to take some of the comforts of home while enjoying much of what makes traditional tent camping fun. It’s become an experience that my husband and I look forward to each time, from planning all the way through the trip. And with each adventure, you get a completely different experience and new memories along the way. So pick a destination, book a van rental, and get out on the road, but not before triple-checking that everything is secure!
We hope these van camper lessons for beginners help you overcome any first-timer intimidation you’re feeling. Here are a few more useful van life resources you might enjoy:
- Camping World’s Complete Guide to Sprinter Vans
- Our Favorite Class B RVs for Van Life
- The Complete Guide to Living Van Life and Loving It
What questions do you have about van camping as a beginner? Let us know in the comments below.