I’ve taken several trips before as a standard backpacker: Rocking the double shell tortoise look with my two backpacks and living out of hostels… but I’ve never packed to live out of my car in another country. Nor have I bought (or even rented) a campervan before. Here is my list of essential vanlife items… keep in mind that the traditional New Zealand backpacker campervan is a gutted soccer mom van – It is not a mobile home, aka a tiny house on wheels. Pictures of my van and standard items that should be included in a NZ van purchase at the bottom of the post.
The basics (Items that will probably be included with campervan purchase):
Unless you plan to build your own campervan from scratch (which is cost effective.. but requires a bit of skill and access to tools), you will most likely choose to buy a renovated van. My van’s set up is super unusual, but in most cases you will be shopping for vans where the seats have been removed and replaced with a sleeping platform in the middle and kitchen shelving at the back. In addition, your renovated van will include the following basic items. If these items aren’t included, or you are kitting out your own van, the cheapest place to buy them will be the Warehouse. For quality goods, go to Briscoes for home furnishings & kitchen items and Kathmandu for outdoor gear. You should be able to pick up all of the below for under $200. I ended up replacing everything in my van anyways (except the chairs) since it was all poor condition and pretty gross.
- Camping chairs – Vans are small. Vans are not meant to be lived in. Cabin fever will feel like a luxurious alternative when living inside a van. So you will choose to sit outside, marveling in how beautiful NZ is instead. Rain, Sun, Hot, Cold makes no difference. Camping chairs will become your home.
This is what vanlife is all about.
- Fold out table – Same deal as above. I once traveled with a guy who cooked his stuff on the ground. Trust me. Buy a $10 table.
- Pots/pans/utensils – With a few basics you should be able to cook any meal you want. Invest in a frying pan, a large pot, and maybe a colander and you should be able to cook to your hearts content.
Drunken Mussel Pasta
- gas stove – Unless you like all your food room temperature, a gas stove will turn ensure you can cook proper gourmet meals. Or heat up a can of soup. Super portable, easy to use and cheap to run. A 4 pack butane canister set can be picked up from the Warehouse for $6. Each can lasts me 4-7 days depending on the weather and what meals I am preparing.
Gas Stoves also double as a toaster!
- Sleeping bag/tent for multi-day treks and/or guests. – A tent and sleeping bag are well worth the room in a van. Given that New Zealand is known for its “tramps”, the famous 7 all averaging around 3 days, you will be grateful to have these on hand. Plus, should you tire of your traveling companion, kick them out and they can sleep out under the stars. If you are serious about overnight treks, bring your own sleeping bag from home or plan to purchase one. Those included in the van purchases are frequently of inferior quality – i.e. heavy, poor insulation, and terrible compression sack.
- Warm blankets/duvet – I foolishly believed New Zealand was a warm country. I was wrong. So wrong. Nights cool off quickly, especially in the South Island and after a long day of hiking, you will appreciate the extra warmth. I picked up these fluffy blankets for $5each from the warehouse, and also bought a winter graded duvet from Briscoes for $40.
- Wine Glasses – Okay. Maybe not an essential. But i used my $1 glasses every night. New Zealand has a ton of great wine and nothing says classy when pulling up to your new campsite then popping open your bottle of wine and toasting to another great day.
The niceties (not mandatory, but i promise it will make the van feel more like home!)
- Lantern – Same as when you are camping, you definitely want an alternative light source than your phone’s flashlight or your car lights at night. For a quick peruse around my van I’ll use the van’s overhead light, but when you are sitting outside/inside for hours on end, best not to drain your battery. I have the “MPowered Luci Original – Inflatable Solar Light” And I love it. This little guy (4.4 oz) is perfect for back country camping and vanlife, as it is lightweight and collapsible. So far I’ve never run out of battery… the website claims a full 12 hours of light when fully charged (7 hours in direct sunlight). To ensure maximum sunlight, I leave it on my dashboard during the day. Plus, the company sponsors several good causes! Alternatively, pick up a cheap battery powered light from the Warehouse.
- Packing Cubes – I consider myself a clean person… but not an organized person. This definitely detrimental when one pair of jeans plus a scarf makes the inside of my van look completely cluttered. I have two sets of packing cubes and I never travel without them. My favorite of the two sets is Shacke Pak(4 for$23 usd) – but I think any brand will do .
- Cooler / Chilly Bin– I’ve never been particularly stressed about finding food while traveling… something always seems to appear in time. But now that I so much more room for stuff outside of my backpack, this is probably my favorite addition. I always carry around cheese, milk, hummus/pesto, and butter. The combination of these ingredients with the dried food means I can easily whip up a satisfying meal outside of the backpacker standard meal of rice/beans. I also tend to carry a few refrigerated meals (either homemade or store-bought soups, ravioli , etc) . I have “icey-tek” since that’s what the previous owner of my van liked. The seal on this pretty solid, I can put in frozen bottles or ice and it will keep my food cool for 3-4 days.
- Bungee cords and carabiners – The latter has long been one of my favorite items when traveling- but the between the two I can now either tie down or attach anything inside my van. I have a couple of bungees running across the top of my car to hang stuff on (using the carabiners)and then also use it to secure my camping chairs and grey water tank. Other vans also uses their bungees for hanging curtains, wet laundry, and towels.
- Car charger & Inverter – If you traveling in an older car (which is probably all you can afford if you are living vanlife), you will definitely need a car charger and/or inverter to charge your devices while traveling. Right now I just have a car charger (tranesca 24W usb car charger) – With its duel USB ports, I can easily rotate in charging my phone, ipad, kindle and battery bank. But depending on your needs it might be worth investing on an inverter as well, so you can charge your laptop, camera, etc.
- Battery bank – In an effort to save money and spend the night in some stunning and remote places, I tend to bed down for the night in campsites that usually have nothing more than a dry toilet (or porta potty). Ie. Since I don’t have an inverter, I don’t have the luxury of recharging my devices overnight. I have the “Jackery Bolt 6000 Portable Charger”, which I store in my purse and can easily charge my recharge my phone, kindle, or ipad without extra cords and can also charge the device while driving. Super helpful.
- I also have an extra phone battery with the LG G4. For those whose phones cant easily switch out batteries, consider a phone case with a built in battery.
- Kindle – I am old school book lover, who loves the feel and smell of a book. There is something so satisfying about turning the pages with the weight of the book in my hands. But… a kindle has turned out to be a life saver on this trip. Long battery life and no need for additional light means I can read late into the night… and it’s easy to keep in my purse if I need some downtime while traveling during the day.
- Fun lights – Yeah, okay. These are not essential. But it helps my van feels more festive and cozy. I bought these guys for *$8 NZD each at the Warehouse and I love them. They definitely don’t work as well as my legit solar light above, but I get 2-3 hours of them before they begin to dim.
- Travel Towel – Not specific to car travel, but remains super important. When your towel is constantly on the move and the only hanging space is the fabric seat, you want something that dries quickly and wont smell. I’ve traveled the most with ECODept microfiber journey towel (until I left it in a bathroom and had to replace it with an expensive one from the local hiking store).
- Hot Water bottle – You quickly discover when sleeping in a powered off van, vehicles are not the most insulated shelter. They are closer to tents than houses. I traveled in the shoulder season, but I can’t imagine what is must be like sleeping in your van during the winter, especially on the south island. At the time of writing (mid November), it was still dipping to low 30s over night near Queenstown. Unless you have a partner who loves cuddling, pick up a cheap water bottle at the Warehouse to keep you warm at night.
Here is a pic I used when selling my van that shows everything that came included with the purchase!