Are there any "must have" item?

Hey guys!
I am new to van living and is looking to convert my own van. I stayed in the past in RV but i know that it is not really the same as vanlife.
I wanted to hear your opinions, are there any speacial items you think are a must in a van (excluding the big ones which are bed area, insulation and etc.)? are there any items you thought could be really helpful but could not find on the market?
I would love to hear any thought and suggestions!:slight_smile:

Greetings & Welcome!

Boy, that’s a tough one, because I’d consider almost everything I have as essential.

Let’s start with bad choices… Cargo vans, added insulation, roof vents, 12v compressor fridges, propane, lithium or lifepro4 batteries, solar, house style air conditioning, built ins, and pretty much anything complicated or expensive. Gutting or stripping a vehicle to start from scratch is also an extremely bad choice. If you’re going to spend much time in places below freezing, plumbing isn’t a good idea either. The promoters & influencers promote all this crap because it makes them money. Make no mistake, they are friends with your money, not you.

For essentials, let’s start with windows, the more the better, and preferably ones that open. Safety comes in the form of a 360° view all around you. With opening windows, a ~$20.00 fan will be more effective than 2x $200+ roof vents.

I believe having your own bathroom is essential, my toilet & shower cost less than a couple months of gym membership, and is a million times more convenient than using someone else’s.

Climate control. Proper heating, cooling, & ventilation will keep both you and your rig happy & healthy. Ventilation will keep condensation, mold, & mildew away. Heating & cooling is a little trickier, but once you understand everything, it becomes simple & easy. Your rig needs constant ventilation, 24/7, occupied or not. Said ventilation will totally defeat any added insulation, because insulation requires a sealed enclosure to work properly. This means that you need enough heating & cooling power to keep you comfortable even without insulation, and with constant ventilation. Vehicles are very different than houses.

Heating and cooking can be as cheap as $5 worth of parts from the dollar store, and 5 minutes of your time to put it together. Of course there are practically unlimited more expensive choices available too. The best choice for anything that uses fuel, is a non volatile, non pressurized, liquid fuel such as kerosene, diesel, or cooking oil. After many years of using kerosene & diesel, I have now switched to cooking oil. It’s a little more expensive, but a gallon will last me over a month, and it’s available at almost any grocery store anywhere, and it’s as eco friendly as it gets. One of those $5 heater/cookers can also save your butt as a backup plan.

Contrary to much of the malarkey you read online, cooling can be cheap and easy as well. Often, shade and a fan will be all you’ll need, but if you need more, 12v swamp coolers are the only viable alternative. They can be bought or built, are very energy efficient, and are much more effective than traditional air conditioning if used correctly. Using them correctly is the key, and I can expand on that if anyone is interested.

Power is always nice to have, but when making your choices, you should always keep in mind that conserving power usage is much easier than creating that power. A battery only stores power, it doesn’t create it, so we need reliable ways to charge our battery(s). The top 3 ways are an isolator, a generator, or shore power. Contrary to much of what you read online, solar is not a good choice for most people. I’ve done the math in the past, and looking at all the fancy solar power systems people like to brag about, my under $200 power system is far more capable than theirs, and compared to mine, it would take them something like 50 years just to break even. I don’t need bragging rights, give me functionality and reliability.

Nothing will give you more bang for your bucks than good old fashioned deep cycle batteries. For many years now, I have been buying mine slightly used from wrecking yards for under $20. They’ll last me for 5-7 years each. I have 2, 100ah deep cycle batteries, one for a house battery, and the other for my starting battery. Each battery will supply me with a weeks worth of power, so I can go a full 2 weeks before my batteries will need to be recharged. Charging deep cycle batteries daily (as with solar), will kill them prematurely. Most deep cycle batteries regardless of their chemistry or claims are only good for 300-500 charging cycles. Would you rather your batteries would last for 300 days, or 300 weeks?

Fully functioning kitchens are an essential for many people, and if done right can require zero electrical power. Okay, microwaves require power, so do many other kitchen appliances, but people have lived for thousands of years without needing electricity. Our kitchens don’t need it. A 3-way fridge/freezer can be run on fuel and they’re much better and live longer than 12v compressor fridges. I picked up mine at a wrecking yard for under $50. Ice chests are even a better choice than 12v fridges.

If we eliminate all the highly promoted power hog or expensive garbage, including inverters, we can be very energy efficient, without compromising our comfort, convenience, or reliability. My biggest power usage is my laptop, but that provides my income and much of my entertainment. My overall goal is to be able to live relatively comfortably even without any power. When I relied on solar, I spent a lot of time with dead batteries and no power. That taught me the importance of being prepared when you’re without power.

Unlike with unreliable solar, with a generator and a battery charger, you can always charge your starting battery or house battery(s). Nothing comes close to beating a generator when you need to be self reliant and need power.

Since we’re talking camper vans, space is at a premium, and in nice weather it’s nice to be able to cook outdoors. For this reason and others, my stove & sinks, and previously my ice chest, were portable, so I could cook inside or outside without duplication. That also affords me an empty counter top/work space.

I think comfortable seating for everybody is extremely important. I both live and work inside my van, and a comfortable seat and workspace is essential. Regardless, there will always be days that do to weather, or other factors, you’ll be wanting to hang out all day inside. Being comfortable is priceless.

I like modular & portable, but secured. I move my interior in, rather than building it in.


“Everything should be made as simple as possible." ~ Einstein


Dear @Van_Dweller !

wow thanks for all your insights!! These are great tips and thoughts to start on.


I’m glad I stumbled onto this while I’m about half way through my build.
It confirmed a lot of my intuitiveness around the design and functionality vs some of my friends who went all in with the gear and build out. Thank you for sharing.


Greetings & Welcome @Christopher!

I’m a real fan of the 3-way fridges/freezers, they basically convert heat into refrigeration. No moving parts like compressors to break down, or fancy electronics to die.

Longevity & reliability are high on my priority list, and the 3-ways pass the test.


“Everything should be made as simple as possible." ~ Einstein

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I was looking at 3-way fridges/freezers.
Can you recommend any one brand vs the other?

I’m using a Bluetti AC50 for power - decided against fixed/solar/batteries. This way I can take it anywhere. I’ve seen some videos running fridge/freezer on this thing all day just fine.



I don’t really have a brand preference, I just knew I wanted a dorm style one with a freezer, and when I accidentally stumbled on one in a wrecking yard while searching for parts for a friend, I picked it up for myself.

It’s ancient, it says it’s a Coleman, but the parts say Electrolux…

Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered hearing that if this type of fridge didn’t work after sitting unused, to turn it upside down for a day, and that would fix it. So I did that prior to trying to fire it up, and it fired up perfectly.

Turned down low enough, it will turn the whole fridge into a freezer…


“Everything should be made as simple as possible." ~ Einstein


I would like to know more about using a swamp cooler. I plan to get a used passenger van extended. Never lived in a place where swamp coolers were popular but I know they use them in AZ. They don’t sound like a lot of fun to me. ::


The only downside to swamp coolers is that they need to be refilled with water regularly. Mine holds about 5 gallons, so I only need to refill it about once a week.

There are many different types of swamp coolers, the two we will focus on are the humidifying, and the dehumidifying types. When most people envision a swamp cooler, it is the humidifying type, which can be advantageous in dry climates because it adds a little moisture to the air. While this type works great in dry climates, it is less than the most efficient in more humid areas. These are the direct type of swamp cooler where outside air drawn in, through a wet pad, then blown out into the room.

If used correctly, the direct type will work in humid areas too, but not as efficiently as an indirect type. This type is slightly more complicated and includes a small radiator such as a heater core or transmission/oil cooler which will act as a heat exchanger, just like in a typical air conditioner, but we’ll be using water as the coolant instead of eco unfriendly gases. In these we separate the indoor & outdoor air. The outside air is directed through the wet pad, but then back outside. This will cool the water in the reservoir. Then we pump the cold water through the heat exchanger. Now we recirculate the inside air through the heat exchanger cooling it. As condensation is collected on the chilled heat exchanger, it will drip back down into the reservoir dehumidifying the air. It will also work in dry climates, just not as efficiently.

Both types require a low power water pump, like a 12v fountain pump. The direct type only requires a single fan, but the indirect type requires two.

For the direct type to work properly, you should have a way for the air to escape on the opposite end of the vehicle. It is much more efficient than a typical air conditioner because it replaces the indoor air with cooler air, rather than trying to actually cool it. The people who claim they don’t work, don’t have the proper venting on the opposite end, so then you wind up with a very humid interior, which isn’t a problem with proper venting.

My indirect type doesn’t have a thermostat, and even on low, it will freeze me out, so I open some windows to let some extra heat in.

I’ve been using these successfully for many years.

Last summer I had a new toy, a DIY thermoelectric heater/cooler with a thermostat. It is liquid candle powered, and requires no other power at all. It did well over the summer in hot & humid South Miami. So far, it has been working well for heat in Northern Minnesota this winter too, but the really cold weather hasn’t gotten here yet… I’m sure this one uses some sort of an antifreeze solution, in a closed loop, so it never requires a water refill. I did not build this, so I can’t give you a lot of info on it, but I love it so far.


“Everything should be made as simple as possible." ~ Einstein

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