Top 10 Van travel mistakes, and how to avoid them

Spontaneity requires careful planning

Vansage Top 10 Van Travel Mistakes
“Home sweet home” courtesy of Seth Mazow
If you’re reading this, chances are you love adventure. But the truth is that most of us aren’t crazy about unexpected surprises that lead to discomfort, illness or accidents, and no one likes failure.

While it’s fun to imagine that great adventures appear out of thin air, the fact is that some of us are better than others at the planning phase of travel.

Those natural planners can make the rest of us feel inadequate; scrambling to catch up, or watching from the sidelines of the adventure.

So the top 10 Van travel mistakes listed in this article are meant as a general guide to start thinking like an experienced, well prepared van traveler.

“Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity” ~Seneca

The good news is that anyone can learn to prepare well. It might take you or I a bit longer to get the skill set down, but we can be as ready and able as any campervanner.

With this article, It’s my hope that you can become an expert planner and that your expertise will lead to many thrilling (in a good way) van life adventures.

So here they are, from not too bad to the absolute worst, let’s get into the nitty gritty of the realities and struggles of van life and how to avoid them.

10. Too much alone time

When hitting the road solo, isolation is a common problem that can really suck the joy out of van life. It’s easy to get focused on seeing the sites, making good time on the road, dealing with gear and other logistics… This can lead to forgetting how important simple human interaction is.

One remedy is to make a positive effort to go out and make friends. If you’re at a camp site, say hi to your neighbors, invite them to dinner or for a card game, maybe even have a campsite party.

Also, take the time to get out of the van and visit the places you travel to. Talk to the people there.
If you make the effort you will meet a lot of people.

Unfortunately because you’re travelling in a van relationships can be transient. That’s okay, and some of those people will become great social media friends or people you can call when you just need a friend to talk with.

Even if traveling with a partner, many couples, when stuck together for long periods of time, can lose track of why they got together in the first place. This isn’t a relationship blog and I’m not going to play counselor, but I will say that gratitude can resolve much of this issue.

“Gratitude is the most exquisite form of courtesy.” ~Jacques Maritain

9. Temperature: Just right

Being constantly too hot or too cold can be very stressful for many people. Research the usual temperatures at the places you’re planning on visiting and make sure you’ve the right clothes.

If your van can take it, and you can afford it, get air conditioning installed. If it’s going to be hot at least take a strong fan with you.

Reflectix on windows can lower van temperatures by as much as 20 degrees F. And remember your pets need to be kept cool too.

If you’re planning on going somewhere colder, research the best heating system for your van and insulate the van to keep the warmth in and to save on heating costs.

Invest in the best bedding types for the climate you’ll be traveling in. A too-hot sleeping bag or not enough blankets get old fast and you’ll find yourself trying to find remedies on the road where it’s inconvenient and often more expensive.

8. Personal Hygiene

image for best camping shower setup article

Unless your van has a full plumbing system with heated water, or you’re staying at camp sites with full facilities, showering can be a real challenge.

If you visit more remote destinations, showers will be impossible to find, so you might need to find the best portable shower system for your van.

You can visit places like community centers, or join a health club with branches in the area you’re visiting, or visit friends in the area.

Life can be pretty unpleasant if everyone, kids and pets included, aren’t able to stay clean. And when we’re out having fun and seeing new places, we tend to forget how a good shower can boost energy and contentment.

As for laundry, given the limited space of van travel, your wardrobe will be minimal, so it’s crucial to have a plan for keeping clothes clean. A reasonable amount of hand washing is fine but it’s also good to know where the laundromats or friends with washing machines are located along your journey.

7. Cold food, safe food

Quality refrigeration is not only a great investment in terms of gear, it boosts the quality of life on the road, whether short or long term.

Your little portable kitchen set up will be far more manageable and your cooking experiences will be far more rewarding with a good fridge.Dometic CFX-40US vansage

And the cost in money, time and worry associated with constantly needing to keep an ice chest full are far greater than you may be fully conscious of.

You’ll be much more free for spontaneous adventure if you’re not  worrying if your meat or cheese are cold enough.

6. It’s go time!

Searching for a public toilet at restaurants, trucks stops and gas stations gets tedious and driving around trying to find one is time consuming.
If you’re at a camp site it’s slightly easier, but you’ll still be stumbling around in the dark if you need to go at night.

A portable toilet makes life much easier. There are some great, affordable options using different technology, sizes and with a range of prices.

5. Where to now?

Vansage top 10 van travel mistakes
“Compass Study courtesy of Calsidyrose

Before you leave home, or while you’re set up at a comfortable base camp for a few days, take some time to carefully plan the next leg of your journey.

You really don’t want to be arriving in an area as it’s getting dark, trying to find a campsite, safe parking space or hotel. Equally, you don’t want to waste hours in each new area deciding what to do the next day. Do that before you leave when you’re not frazzled with time constraints.

Plan where you expect to camp so you can build in flexibility for some adventure, and then plan a fallback position in case that doesn’t work out.

Over time this skill will develop and will take less effort and you’ll start to look like that naturally spontaneous traveler.

4. You probably don’t need that

It’s tempting to try to recreate house or apartment life in a tiny van, but over packing only increases the cramped feeling of life in a van.

It’s counter intuitive at first, but less is more in terms of adventure and especially with regard to spontaneity.

Please take a minute to read our article on how to make sure you only take the things you absolutely need for your trip while still having enough.

3. Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3

You need to test the van and the gear you’re planning on using by going on a few short overnight trips. If you haven’t got your van yet, borrow, or rent one and try it out.

You’ll want to test the mattresses, bedding, showers, toilets, cooking facilities and the space you use and how you use it.

See how long it takes you to get somewhere, and make sure you include the time in your planning – it can take longer than in a car.

Make sure you test drive your van to find one that suits you and your needs. Sellers should be happy for you to try out the van, if they’re not, find another seller or rental service.

2. 40 winks

Top 10 Van Travel Mistakes Vansage Puppy's Dream
Image courtesy of Smerikal

Just because you’re out on the road, doesn’t mean you don’t need high quality sleep. In fact if you’re doing a lot of driving, good rest is quite important.

Not knowing where you’re going to sleep tonight can be very stressful. This is another case of careful advanced planning, and having some resources in your arsenal for when things don’t go as planned.

Again, as you travel more you’ll get better at finding alternative sleeping spots, stealth camping, knowing the rules for sleeping at rest stops and longer stays by state and province, how to find good public and private campgrounds…

Getting back to our first suggestion (#10 on alone time), building an address book of camper buddies who will let you park at their home for a day or two when in their state can be very valuable in a pinch. Just don’t overstay your welcome, always bring and nice gift, spring for dinner… In other words, be a gracious and generous guest.

You can research Facebook groups and forums to find the best spots in towns you visit. There are many very helpful and knowledgeable people in the van community.

Mattress and bedding quality are obviously tantamount to getting quality sleep. Yet a good mattress in a campervan can be a challenge. This is another reason to do a some test runs in your new rig. Put in the effort to find and install that comfy mattress before you’ve committed to a long trip.

1. It makes the world (and the wheels) go ’round

Here it is, the number one mistake made by people starting out with van travel. Of course I could just say “Make sure you’ve got plenty of money” and call it good. But we all know this is a very complicated issue that warrants many pages of content.

I’ll just touch on a few main points and plan to write more on the topic in the future. 

Like a Sunday in TJ…

Van travel can be cheap, but it’s not free. If you’ve got a great income that allows you to travel with no financial concerns, that’s great. For many of us, van travel is a way to see the world on a shoestring budget.

It’s easy to get focused on all the money you’re going to save over the price of hotels or even rent, and forget about the very real costs of van life.

Budget: It’s crucial to work out a budget for van travel. It takes some practice to know the real cost of campervan travel, but it will become apparent over time. Suffice it to say that the more you can set aside for emergencies, the more you can relax and enjoy the adventure.

It’s also important to budget for inevitable adventure opportunities. That amusement park that appears on the horizon, a jar of organic honey at the street fair, dinner out with some new campsite buddies…

Old Van Top 10 Van travel mistakes Vansage
“Another Old Van” image courtesy of John Lloyd

The right van: While it’s true that in most places you can find an old van for a few hundred bucks, it’s usually not a good idea. The real costs will present themselves when you’re out on the road, broken down and needing some expensive repair.

But not everyone can afford a shiny new campervan. The good news is that you can get a used van for a reasonable price.

Do your research to find a make and model that you like and has a good reputation with mechanics, and then get to work finding one that fits your budget. This can take time and effort but the payoff will be worth it in peace of mind out on the road.

Durable, appropriate gear: There are places to scrimp and places to be certain of quality. I make sure my van is running like a Swiss watch, that my heating system is top notch, that my fridge and cooking gear is solid… If these are not up to par, I delay the trip until they are.

Insurance: AAA or other towing insurance, liability (whether state mandated or not), comprehensive in case I get broken into or crashed into… It’s a necessary evil that’s not worth scrimping on.

Health insurance is a touchy subject right now (in the States, that is) and I won’t get into who can and cannot access it or why or the politics or other silliness we all deal with around this topic. If you’ve got good health insurance, you’re very fortunate. If not, do your best to find a way to get it.

Fuel: The cost of fuel can sneak up and surprise you. Plan for 20% more fuel costs than your mapped route suggests. Never let your tank drop below 1/4 full because you might decide to change your route to go see the worlds biggest thimble or whatever.

Repairs: New or used, It’s not a question of if, but when your van breaks down. I like to keep the cost of a new transmission (about $2k) in reserve at all times. If I blow a tire, I pay for it out of my repair reserve and then replace that asap.

Cellular phone service: I prepay for unlimited talk, text and data because I want 24/7 internet access. You can get cheaper plans, of course, but make certain you’re able to make calls at all times.

Take a break: Set enough cash aside to stay in a decent hotel once or twice per month. The hot bath, room service and full size bed are great morale boosters that will reset your attitude for more van life.

It’s okay to delay

If you need to work a few more weeks or months at a job that you’re not crazy about, it’s worth it to have these essential things budgeted out.

We all want to get on the road asap, but a few more weeks of labor and planning beats even one night broken down in a Wal-Mart parking lot hoping for a financial miracle. Trust me on this one.

What would you add to the top 10 Van travel mistakes?

What’s been your biggest van travel mistake? How did you overcome it? What do you suggest other do to avoid it? Please leave a comment below.

Thanks for reading.

4 Responses

  1. Agness of eTramping
    | Reply

    Wow! Such an awesome post. I must admit that I do some of these mistakes. Thanks for the practical tips which I will definitely bear in mind!

  2. AnneMarie George
    | Reply

    Just did 2 months and only mistake I made was letting fuel get to the point I was worrying. Twice got lost in the mountains and once on a dirt road. Always made it, but in unfamiliar territory, never go below half. Lots of places out west, no gas 75-100 miles.

  3. Judy Weigl
    | Reply

    These were great tips. It’s also a mistake to always assume the weather will be fine. I don’t know if this would have been a mistake, but … I was going to take a short, overnight trip to get used to some of the things in my van I haven’t used yet. I was there, but decided to come home because the winds were getting high, a storm was going to come through the area, and it was supposed to rain all night. I know that I might be caught out in a storm at some point, but not this time. Mistake to come home, or mistake to have stayed?

    • NJP
      | Reply

      Hey Judy. Thanks for the great question!
      I think you did the right thing. Trust your instincts, your gut.
      Here’s another way to look at it; if you’d been out on the road and got caught in a storm, you’d relocate to the safest spot you can find. In this case, it was home.
      Live to test your gear another day.

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