Inside: 10 free or very low-cost van life hacks to help you sleep better, make day-to-day life easier, and help you find the most enjoyable path to travel.
It’s the little things that have the power to make life easier. That’s as true for life on the road as it is anywhere. I’ve just finished a 32 state road trip in my converted Promaster van, and along the way, I picked up a few van life hacks I want to share with you. Read further to learn more about these little tips I discovered – they made nomadic life in a small space much more manageable.
1. Trouble sleeping? Try an eye mask
Insomnia is not fun, and life on the road can make it much more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. You may be more anxious or hyper-alert to activity outside your van. You may be worried about getting “the knock.” There may be ambient (and annoying) lights inside or outside your van. For whatever reason, sleep may elude you. But I found something that actually helps you fall asleep and stay asleep, at least most of the time.
Eye masks work. They do. Science shows that you fall asleep faster and have better quality sleep when you wear a mask. They also help you sleep in a novel environment. If you want to take a quick nap at a rest area or during the day, they’re a huge help.
I was a little bit skeptical when I first started using an eye mask. I don’t like things touching my eyelids so I was very hesitant to even try a mask. But I was wrong. Modern eye masks have molded foam eye coverings so nothing touches your eye at all. They look sort of like a padded bra, only eye masks are more comfortable. So I tried a mask and instantly slept better even on hot nights. Now it’s one of my top van life hacks. I always sleep with one.
2. Quarters – you’ll need quarters
In this cashless economy, it’s common not to have much change at hand. But once you head out on the road, trust me, you’ll eventually need a stash of quarters.
Keep at least $5.00-10.00 worth of quarters handy.
When you want a spacious hot shower, state parks are a perfect place to land. But, surprise! – not all state park showers are free. Most require quarters and may or may not have a change machine nearby (on my recent trip it was mostly not). You can try asking the camp host, but they may not be available or, if they are, they may not have quarters. And it’s pretty disappointing to dream all day long about the shower you’re going to have and then be thwarted by a lack of quarters.
Other things you’ll want to do also require quarters: car wash vacuums, laundry machines – and you would THINK a laundry would have a change machine, but I came across some in state parks that did not, and the washers and dryers only took quarters.
3. The easiest way to make coffee
I don’t want you to roll your eyes and say “eeeewwww!” before you try this hack. Seriously.
Morning does not start until I’ve had a cup of coffee – or two. Ever. But I’ve found making coffee in my van is a pain to clean up. And, because I’m a lazy camper, I’m always looking for easier ways to get things done.
My van is solar powered so I heat water with my electric kettle and love it. Water is coffee-ready almost instantly. I started out van life using a French press. Sure, it made great coffee, but when it came time to clean up, the coffee grounds managed to get into every nook and cranny in my van. I felt like I was wasting water and paper towels. Plus I got gunky grounds all over my hands. Yuck. This is not what a lazy camper needs.
So I switched to a pour-over system. I can fit a cone and filter over my wide mouth Yeti thermos (it comes in purple so I had to have it) and my coffee tasted great and stayed nice and hot. But this is a slow way to make coffee and the system is also prone to mess. I still found coffee grounds everywhere. Very annoying.
So I tried out something I thought I’d never use – instant coffee. It feels like a contradiction and almost shameful to be a coffee snob and at the same time, talk about instant coffee’s virtues. But bear with me…
While grocery shopping in Portland, Oregon I saw some decent-sized tins of Starbucks instant coffee. It came in three different brew intensities which intrigued me. These were a LOT cheaper per cup than the Via packs they’ve sold for a long time. As I was getting frustrated with my morning coffee cleanup I decided to try out the instant version.
Well, surprise! I couldn’t tell the difference between this instant coffee and a good French press or pour-over. Maybe my tastebuds are aging, but Starbucks instant made a delicious brew. Now, in record time, I make up my instant coffee in my Yeti thermos and have hot coffee all morning – and I get more time to enjoy the scenery. Clean up is a breeze; I just rinse out the thermos and I’m done. It’s the laziest, fastest darn way to make coffee – I am never going back to messy grounds.
I couldn’t find the Starbucks instant coffee tins in any other store along my route, but it is available online . A cup of this coffee costs between 21 and 40 cents (for some reason, the lighter the roast the more expensive), and a three-pack of tins last me a couple of months (I drink about 2 cups every morning and sometimes another in the afternoon). So not only is this instant coffee tasty, it’s economical.
4. Another lazy cooking van life hack
I’ve written a dedicated post to this little gadget, but it is, hands down, my favorite way of cooking on the road. Keeping with my lazy camper theme, I used my Hot Logic Mini to cook about 80% of my dinners on my recent trip. I even have two in my van kitchen to simultaneously cook both a main course and a side dish. You can read a lot more about the Hot Logic Mini here, where I also share several recipes.
Sometimes I cook to a recipe, but, because I’m a lazy camper, I’m just as likely to throw some meat and a little jarred sauce into my Hot Logic Mini, cook it for a couple of hours (while driving to a new campsite or while out hiking), add some precooked rice or pasta – and voila! Dinner made this way is delicious, plus the only clean-up is the glass dish I cooked in and a fork (who needs a plate?).
This little van life hack is especially versatile because it comes in both a 110v version and a 12v lighter-adapted version. Hot Logics come in a range of colors to match your van decor – guess what color I have???
5. Follow the weather
We all want to find the best weather. But there are so many apps out there – how do you know which one to use? The US weather forecasts largely come from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). NOAA, in turn, is the home of our National Weather Service.
But you can’t find the National Weather Service/NOAA phone app at the app store. If you search NOAA on the Apple App store, for example, you get Clime: NOAA Weather Radar. This is NOT the National Weather Service, it just uses data the app gets from NOAA. I thought this was an official NOAA app and tried using it because it seemed very comprehensive. However, its loading speed is sooooo slow the weather’s changed before it opens. And, if cell service is weak (that never happens, right?), then forget it.
A lot of the other apps are also slow, clunky and so full of ads you can’t find the weather.
And when you are on the road you want to see the broad picture – both geographically and out in time – and you want to see it efficiently.
The very best place, in my opinion, for the most helpful and comprehensive regional US weather forecasts is to go directly to the source. I go to weather.gov when I’m planning my next move (note – it’s dot gov, not dot com, which will take you to the highly commercial Weather channel).
Unfortunately, you won’t find the National Weather Service’s app at the app store. If you search National Weather Service, you get all the wannabees that use NOAA data but aren’t really NOAA. NOAA/The National Weather Service DOES have a mobile-friendly site though. Get it this way:
- go to mobile.weather.gov on your iPhone or Android device
- On an iPhone click the send button and scroll down down down until you see “Add to homescreen”
- On an Androd device click the menu button and chose “Add to homescreen”
The icon on your phone should look like this:
I usually go to the “full site” option because it shows a US map with all the advisories you need to know about. On a county-by-county basis, you can easily see where there are flash flood warnings, wind advisories (and if you are driving a van, RV, or pulling a trailer you KNOW wind advisories are important), fire weather, and more.
I like to check out the nightly lows for the places I’m heading because hot nights are not my friend. I’ve learned that if the nightly low doesn’t drop to about 70 by midnight, I’m in for a night of interrupted sleep.
This leads me to my next Van Life Hack…
6. Staying cool
I wish I had a magic answer to the heat. With no AC (and most vans don’t have AC when parked) a hot night can become a miserable night. And this can become even worse if you’re parked in a place where you can’t keep your doors open, or if it’s raining and you have to shut doors and windows.
Sure, I have roof fans and they help, but I’ve learned that sleep will elude me if the night’s low temperature doesn’t dip below 70 by midnight.
The best solution is to follow the weather – stay in your comfort zone.
But sometimes, you can’t avoid the heat. On those nights, I know I’ll have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep. But I have found a few things that helped.
First, I use that eye mask I talk about up above. They work.
Second, I keep some damp clothes in my refrigerator. When the heat gets to me, I take a cold cloth, dab it on my neck, under my arms, and across my back and belly. I’ll leave it for a while across the back of my neck. This will cool off your core body temperature and you’ll be more comfortable for a bit.
Last, when all else fails, I just get up and head outside to watch the stars. If there is a breeze that helps cool me down, especially if I’m still damp from the wet clothes.
Most of all I’ve changed my mindset to not worry if I sleep straight through the night. Some scientists believe that interrupted sleep is normal. They believe adults sleeping straight through for a full 7-8 hours is a relatively new development and related to the invention of artificial light. I’m not a sleep expert, but this makes sense to me. In any event, it sure feels better to believe waking up for an extended period during the night is “normal.” Apparently, people of old would go to sleep with the sunset, sleep for a few hours, awaken for a couple of hours, and then experience a second sleep. So that’s what I often do.
Of course, I do wake up miserably hot sometimes, First I’ll do all the things recommended above, but if they don’t work, I don’t worry – I just sit outside and catch whatever breeze there is (or get wet and cool in the rain), read a book, and wait until it cools off some. Usually by 2 am it’s a good temperature to sleep, even if it’s been a 100-degree day outside.
But some nights on my last trip, no matter what I did, it was just unbearably hot and humid, and because of my location, I couldn’t keep my doors open. Even with the fans running, it was just awful. All night. After several sweltering nights in the south, I decided that if the forecasted nighttime temperature didn’t dip below 80 by midnight, I’d opt for a hotel. Van travel is not an endurance test, IMO. I keep some flexibility in my budget for those nights. For example, on this last trip, I spent several days in Charleston, South Carolina. In July. In a hotel. And I was very happy about that decision (and took lots of long showers).
On my next trip, I’m going to try out something new (to me) – a cooling mat – the ones made for dogs. These gel-filled mats work by pressure and recharge automatically in about 30 minutes when the pressure is removed. So, no water, no mess, no electricity, and they’re under $70.00 (the pet version).
When you lay on one, they start cooling (not icy cold, but cool), and they’re supposed to work for 2-4 hours. Dog owners rave about them, and now there’s one marketed to people (but the dog version is cheaper and uses the same technology). I’m a retired veterinarian so using a dog mat sounds good to me. I plan on orienting it crossways, so I can roll over onto a “fresh” section when one side stops working. I’ll let you know how it works. I don’t expect it to feel like an AC set at 68, but I expect it will help.
If any of my readers have experienced sleeping on a gel-cooling mat, let us know how you like it in the comments.
7. Dealing with garbage
This is just a little hack, but it makes van life easier. I read stories from many women concerned about how to dump their trash. This is a legit concern as it’s hard to find big trash receptacles unless you are staying in a state or national park. I sure don’t want to spend my time looking for an open dumpster in some alley.
Just use small bags. I use grocery bags if I have them, but I actually prefer opaque black bags like these:
I hate using plastic, but in a van, camping, it helps to keep wet and smelly waste contained. These bags work for a day or two and they are a perfect size to tie off and dispose of at a gas station trash receptacle. Gas station trash bins often have somewhat narrow openings to keep people from disposing of large bags. But these bags fit into any I’ve come across. As I get gas several times a week it’s easy to keep on top of the trash this way.
If I’m Boondocking out on federal land I may be in one spot for a longer period of time. I’ll then stash these bags in a larger bag; double bagging keeps odors at bay, and vermin are less likely to get in. Then I have to find a dumpster or dump my trash bag by bag as I stop places – like a trash fairy.
8. You can never have too many carabiners
I use carabiners for everything. I hang my (small) garbage bags on one by the door. My fruit hangs from a carabiner over my kitchen (and doesn’t get bruised when I drive). Emergency alarms hang from carabiners by my bed, or on carabiners attached to my pack when I’m hiking. Keys hang on a carabiner on a designated hook so I never misplace them. I even have a carabiner to hang my carabiners on! I use all sizes – these are the handiest gadgets and not just for climbing. Get some. Get a lot.
You can check out my van layout and how I attach and use carabiners here.
9. Pace yourself
I try to limit my daily driving to 3 hours max. On days I had six or more hours of driving, I tried to stay put for the next day or two. When you’re going solo in new territory, you use more emotional energy. Because everything is unfamiliar, you have to do your own navigating and driving, and you may be dealing with wind or fears (as in some terrifying bridges and mountain passes), you will likely feel more tired than when you are driving in areas you know well.
Don’t be surprised if you’re more exhausted than you think at the end of a driving day. It’s normal.
Before I retired and got my van, road trips could often be driving endurance trips. Yes, 10-12, even 16 hour days were standard as I hustled my family to our vacation destinations. But I’m learning slow travel is more fun. Get off the interstate, take the roads less traveled, tune into a groovy playlist (check out my Spotify road trip playlists), or listen to a book, and enjoy the scenery.
Unfortunately, Google maps or other map apps were not always helpful when I wanted off the interstate (which was most of the time). Phone GPS apps typically tried to redirect me to the fastest route, not the route I wanted to take. Sometimes to thwart Google maps I had to put in several small towns along the slow route – then it worked. But I always enjoyed driving more when I was off the interstate.
In addition. I was very happy I brought paper atlases so I could look at alternate routes and get a larger view of my route. I like Rand McNally for most of my exploring, but if you’re spending a lot of time in one state (for me it’s California, my home state) then I recommend getting a state-specific DeLorme Atlas as they show every single dirt road on BLM and other Federal Lands. In short, get an atlas – map apps don’t always work well in remote areas, and if you don’t have a signal you can get pretty frustrated, pretty fast. But you can always read a map.
And when you are sitting outside, cooling off in the middle of the night, avoiding screen light, you can browse and atlas and dream about the places you have yet to see.
Slowing down will give you time to…
10. Talk to people along the way
I’m an introvert and often put on sunglasses and ear pods to repel random interactions with people. But I’m learning to start conversations with people, and I’ve yet to regret it.
For example, one day I was standing in line at a most delicious crab shack along the California coast. It was a long line, but totally worth it, not only for the best-ever crab sandwich I experienced but because I struck up a random conversation with the lady in front of me.
We were talking road trips and she often drove through Wyoming, a state I was heading to. She suggested some sites to stop at and, in particular, encouraged me to visit Medicine Wheel National Monument. It was the first I heard of Medicine Wheel, but I was intrigued, and I did stop there – and WOWSERS! – it was one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen.
As I became more and more comfortable asking people their opinions, the rewards came: finding the best hikes, best places to eat, and best sites to explore. No app can beat word-of-mouth recommendations from local people.
I even kept an ear tuned to accents and if I heard a southern drawl, for example, I’d explain I was heading to the south and asked for recommendations. This led me to several amazing fried chicken spots – as part of my southern tour was to find the best fried chicken. But that’s for a future post. Make sure to subscribe to my newsletter so you don’t miss my pick.
Bonus van life hack
Toll roads. What a pain. It’s one thing to drive on familiar toll roads and have an automatic meter mounted to your window. Then it’s just expensive. But if you’re driving across the US you’re bound to come across toll roads that have an automated system for locals and a very confusing, how the heck do I pay system for out-of-towners. I ended up with a $25.00 late fee for a bridge toll on my last trip – not happy.
Well, check out Toll Guru for everything you need to know about where US toll roads are and how to pay a toll once you’ve driven on the road. Oh — and some toll roads still have actual toll booths, so keep those quarters handy.
These are just a few of the van kife hacks I found helpful – things I didn’t think about or plan for when I headed out. If you’ve been on the road for a while you may have some tips to share too. Please leave a comment below and share your best tips.
If you found some of these tips helpful (I hope you did), please consider sharing them with your traveling friends.