When you’re living in a campervan, you learn pretty quickly that space is valuable.
As a traveller, you probably know this anyway from living out of a suitcase or backpack for any length of time. But it’s completely different when you’re living, and I mean living, in such a small space.
Before Theo and I went over to New Zealand, we already knew that we wanted to buy a campervan so that we could spend our time travelling around the country. We were both on a New Zealand Working Holiday Visa, so we were planning to be there for quite some time.
It didn’t take us too long to find one that fit our budget; we actually bought it from the hostel we stayed at in Auckland, as they also repurposed vehicles for travellers.
Now, you’re probably picturing a motorhome, or maybe something similar to a VW camper. Either of these would have been good, but we couldn’t afford anything like that.
Nope, we bought ourselves a Honda Odyssey. It was once a 7-seater family car but it had been repurposed as a campervan (camper car?), with all 5 of the back seats removed and a wooden bed frame in their place.
This was to be our home for over a year. We named him Ozzy (the Odyssey).
It would have been perfect for a single person; if it had just been me, I would have had loads of space. But add in my 6-foot tall fiancé and all of our stuff, and it made for a pretty cramped living situation.
So, how did we survive? Here are my top tips for living in a campervan.
First things first, let’s talk about stuff. When you’re living in such a tiny space, you need to be selective about what you can keep, but there are some essentials that you will definitely need.
- Jump cables. we had some issues with dear old Ozzy for a while, and our jump leads were a lifesaver almost every other day! Even if your vehicle is in tip top condition, it’s easy to leave the lights or the radio on for too long and accidentally run your battery down. If space and budget allow, you could buy a small jump starter kit with a battery pack, just in case there’s nobody around to help.
- Spare tyre. Of course you should have this in any vehicle you drive, not just a campervan. But when it’s your home, you want to be even more sure.
- Jack and tyre iron. Make sure you know how to use them, too.
- Car oil. Find out which is the right grade for your campervan and make sure you check it regularly.
- Windscreen shade. Not only does this help to stop your van feeling like an oven on hot days, it also provides some privacy too.
- Car phone charger. When you’re camping long term, you could go days or weeks without having the opportunity to charge your devices, so make sure you use the car’s power while driving to keep your phone charged. Just don’t use it when you’re parked up or you might need those jump leads!
- A comfortable mattress. When we first started living in a campervan, we had an awful mattress. It was actually two thin bits of foam that were a few inches thick on the edges and a few centimetres thick in the middle. We used this for far too long, but eventually decided to upgrade to a wonderful, thick mattress. It was still made of foam as this meant that we could cut it to the right shape, but it was so comfortable and made our lives so much better.
- Bedding. A lot of people we met on our travels used sleeping bags in their campervans, but we decided at the start to buy a duvet. I’m so glad we did as it was much more comfortable than a sleeping bag!
- Curtains. When we bought our campervan it had no curtains. The windows were tinted, but not enough to give real privacy. We coped with it for about a week before buying some fabric and making some ourselves.
- Storage boxes. When you’re living in a campervan, you really need to utilise your space as well as you can. Storage boxes are a great way to do this; I kept all of my clothes in a box that fit perfectly in the space under the bed.
- Camping Stove. You can judge which size to get based on how much space you have. As we had hardly any space at all, we bought a little fold up stove which fit inside a small bag. I didn’t think this would last us very long and initially I wanted to get the bigger style which folded up into a small briefcase-style box, but our trusty little stove lasted us the whole year! We ended up selling it with the vehicle and it was still going strong.
- Pots and pans. We survived with one saucepan and one frying pan. As we only had one stove, this was all we needed.
- Camping kettle. I highly, highly recommend getting one of these. We saw so many people attempting to boil water in their saucepan and it takes so long and uses a lot of gas. Using a kettle is much faster and more efficient, plus the water will stay hot in there for quite some time. Just don’t leave it under the car and drive off without it like we did!
- Plates/bowls/cutlery. We had one plate and one bowl each, plus a few sets of cutlery that we kept in a tupperware box.
- Travel mugs. So that you can drink your coffee on the road!
Living in a campervan
Ok, so now that we’ve got the essentials covered, what’s it like living in a campervan? Although ours was smaller than most, we adored our little home!
What I loved
I loved that it was our own little space that we took with us wherever we went; we didn’t have to keep packing up and settling into a different bed like you do when you’re staying in hostels. Once those curtains were closed and we were snuggled up watching something on Netflix, the rest of the world ceased to exist.
Waking up and stepping outside into nature was one of my favourite things about van life. When you’re staying in campsites, you don’t have much choice other than to spend a lot of time outside. I think that when you’re living in a house or staying in accommodation, even if you want to spend time outside, it’s unlikely that you’ll have as much time outdoors as when you’re camping.
We would cook outdoors, eat breakfast, drink coffee and admire the view, wherever we were. There’s something so peaceful about watching the world wake up around you.
I absolutely adored the amount of freedom living in a campervan gave us! When your home is on wheels and you can take it wherever you like, there is no better feeling.
What I didn’t love
This wouldn’t be so much of an issue in bigger vans, but I really missed being able to get dressed standing up! We would always have the awkward struggle of putting on our clothes whilst laying on the bed.
On cold and wet nights, I also didn’t love having to put lots of layers on and go for a hike just to go to the toilet.
Cooking in the rain wasn’t fun, and neither was the game of ‘kill the mosquito’ that we played every night in the van before going to sleep.
And I know that Theo would have loved a bit of extra headroom when he was sitting up in bed!
But, overall, we were happy, and we became very attached to our Ozzy.
Take my advice
Finally, here are some tips that I learned during my year of living in a campervan in New Zealand. Depending on where you are, some of these may not apply, but they should still be useful.
- Head space or storage space? Before you convert a vehicle or buy one that’s already built, think about your preferences when it comes to your bed frame. Ours was set low enough in the car that we could sit up in bed, but we sacrificed a lot of storage space. This meant that we could hang out in the back of the car on wet days. We saw lots of smaller vans like ours with a lot more storage space under the bed, but no space to sit up.
- Converting bed frames. While we’re on the subject, you can have a bed frame that allows you to transform your bed into a sofa. Ours was like this and, when we bought it, the thin mattress that came with it was cut into two pieces so that one became the sofa back and the other the seat. A section of the wooden frame lifted up and slid back onto the other. We only used the sofa for the first week, as we just didn’t need it. When we bought a new mattress, we kept it in one piece.
- Fuel cards. Find out if any of the service stations offer a card that gives you a discount on fuel. We had a couple of these and would often save up to 6 cents per litre!
- Free camping apps. Not everywhere will have these, but if you can get an app that lets you know where you can camp for free legally, make full use of it! (Check out Campermate for Australia and New Zealand).
Final thoughts on living in a campervan
Van life is becoming ever more popular, especially in countries that are set up well to accommodate campers.
Although it can be challenging at times, it is a great way to experience minimalist living and to help you realise that possessions are not all that important. What matters most are the memories you make in life.
Of course, I would often look in envy at our neighbours in their fancy motor homes and converted buses, complete with TV and satellite dish and built-in bathrooms. But really, that’s not my style, and I was happy with my little home on wheels.
And while I’m used to the comforts of living in a house again now, I’ve held onto that minimalist mindset; I don’t need to buy things for the sake of having something new.
So, would I live in a campervan again if it meant I could travel endlessly? In a heartbeat.
Would you ever live in a campervan? Would you go big or small? Let me know in the comments! 🙂
Want more like this? Check out these articles:
- 31+ Road trip essentials you can’t leave without
- How to be a pro at surviving long term travel
- How to travel for free around the world!
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