The Top 10 Camper Van Mistakes Newbies Make
Guest Post by Veronica Cavanaugh
I’ve packed all of the wrong clothes for a trip. I’ve forgotten to refill propane on my way to sleeping 20-degree nights. I’ve fully built out a van interior, only to tear it all out two weeks later.
I’ve even bought the wrong van entirely.
I did all those things – but you don’t have to.
What’s the why of your journey?
Photo by Tommy Lisbin at Unsplash
There’s almost no camper van mistake that, with a bit of diligence and persistence, you can’t recover from. Don’t freak out if you’re in the middle of any of these.
The first step to overcoming any problem or mistake is to accept the reality of where you are, so you can assess the situation accurately. This allows you to make the necessary adjustments prior to moving ahead.
Whenever I’m struggling to get past a difficulty, I try take a minute to focus on why I’m doing this thing in the first place.
Why is this trip important to me? Why did I start this project?
This exercise disrupts those negative, limiting thought loops. And it brings me back to the present, allowing for solutions to appear when things feel insurmountable.
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm” ~Winston Churchill
If you’re lucky enough to be in the planning and preparations stage (aka, the ‘pre-mistake’ phase), read on to find out how you can avoid some of the big issues that could hamper and hamstring a van journey.
Top 10 Camper Van Mistakes
Photo via Pexels
1. Van Life Is Free, Right?
In my opinion, this is the big one. While it’s true that a van can be much less expensive than house or apartment life, it’s a huge mistake to think that you won’t have substantial expenses.
The reality is that it takes careful budgeting, saving and smart spending habits. People usually fall into 2 categories:
“I’m good. I’m loaded.”
If you’ve got stacks of cash and can buy all the latest and greatest gear, that’s great. But don’t assume you can buy your way out of any situation.
For example, if you’re boondocking at the end of a 3-hour logging road drive and run out of cooking fuel, or you didn’t pack proper bedding for very cold nights, your trip will be cut short. At the very least.
Half the fun of van travel is walking the fine line between self-sufficiency and minimalism. This has more to do with clever planning and know-how than income.
My point is: it’s great that money isn’t an issue for you, but don’t let that over-confidence ruin your adventures.
“Cash is short and I could use a lot more.”
Of course many of us don’t have limitless bank accounts. Think of money as just another item on your to-do list. If you’re tight on cash, it’s better to delay your trip until you’re flush enough to enjoy a relaxed journey.
This might mean taking a temporary job, staying at your current job a bit longer or, if you’re self employed, selling more product or services.
Yes, a few more weeks at that job might be a drag right now, but it can make the subsequent weeks or months so much better that it might be worth it.
Again, stay focused on the why of that work (to go on an amazing adventure) and the time will pass more quickly, the work will be more bearable and the rewards greater.
2. Testing, Testing…
Test driving the van you’re thinking of buying is crucial. If the model you’re considering is available to borrow or rent, all the better. Drive a few different vans and you’ll see that that they all handle differently.
The issues of seat comfort and how the van handles feels minor at mile 20, but at mile 800, all of that can change.
Once you’ve got a vehicle, before heading out on a long journey, take a few short trips. One or two nights on a mattress will make it very clear if it’s the right one. The same goes for that kitchen set up, the portable shower, all of it.
Or even better, take a week-long trip. You may find yourself making substantial changes after being on the road that long. Those changes will be much easier to adapt to from a home base.
Photo by Lawton Cook at Unsplash
3. Get Comfy…
Know your minimal needs for physical and mental well-being. Most of us have lived in houses and apartments all of our lives, with plenty of room to acquire lots of stuff. That stuff represents comfort.
Committing to a van for long periods of time means rethinking the meaning of comfort at the deepest personal levels.
Your favorite pillow, board game, a few books, music, a digitized photo album, a small stuffed animal… Packable, personal joys like this can get you over a bout of home sickness and on your way to your next adventure.
4. …But Not Too Comfy
Like it or not, van life will be a deep dive into minimalism.
You don’t need most of what you’re used to having. One spatula. One pair of athletic shoes. One rain jacket. For some of us, these examples alone can mean the elimination of 10, 15 or more items.
You have a new source of comfort: it’s called freedom. Freedom to move, to see the world.
A van jammed full of unnecessary stuff can destroy that freedom.
Photo by Serkan Turk at Unsplash
5. Don’t Forget to Be Social
It’s easy to forget to talk to other humans when we get into all the hullabaloo of planning, driving, cooking and setting up camp. If you’re traveling alone, you may need to force yourself to be around other people.
I make it part of my planning to find Meetup groups in towns I’m visiting. I like to invite campground neighbors for coffee or a meal. I often go to a local pub for a game of pool.
Whatever your thing is that involves a bit of human connection, make sure to include it in your travel plans.
6. Clean Livin’
We’ve all heard the advice to get a gym membership or carry a portable shower if you don’t have a van big enough for a built-in, to do laundry regularly…
But one that will sneak up on you is clutter. 7 things out of place in an apartment is barely noticeable. The same level of mess in a campervan can make cooking a meal or going to bed impossible.
Declutter after changing, sleeping and cooking; put purchases away immediately; and stop at a car wash to vacuum often. Better yet, install sweep-able flooring and clean it daily.
Photo by Oxana at Unsplash
7. Planning = Spontaneity
Great planners get to take advantage of unexpected adventures, while the rest of us watch from the side lines. Or worse, while we deal with adversity that could have been avoided by, you guessed it, a few minutes of planning.
Take time to plan your next move. Possibilities might be a campsite location, the route to get there, your next 9 to 21 meals, your daily, weekly and monthly budgets, seasonal and regional appropriate clothing, medical needs, or next gas up…
Don’t obsess over every eventuality, but do pay attention to the big decisions that can become a wrench in the gears of your journey if ignored.
I find it both relaxing and empowering to plan my day over morning coffee. On Sunday evenings, I consider the wins and losses of the previous week, and do some planning to make the upcoming week awesome.
8. Break Time
Get out of the van for a night or two once or twice a month. If you’ve got friends to crash with on your journey, great. Otherwise a cheap motel can be an oasis of 45-minute showers and full-sized beds.
For any sufficiently long trip, I budget for and schedule motel stays.
9. Some Breaks Aren’t Optional
There’s a very specific group of van travelers that experience occasional break downs. That group is known as everyone.
If you drive that fancy (or funky) rig much at all, you will encounter mechanical adversity. Whether it’s a blown tire, radiator hose, head gasket or 2nd gear, it’s not a question of if, but when.
AAA is great. I’ve had good experiences with break down and towing packages from other insurance companies, too.
Do some research into towing insurance and find one that works for your vehicle, your traveling area and your budget.
Photo by Rachael Gorjestani at Unsplash
10. Stay Healthy
As a kid traveling with my parents, mom would bring cookies, chips, pop, pretty much anything we wanted for snacks. In hindsight, mom’s relaxed rules about camping trip junk food was a big part of the fun.
It took me a few years of traveling as an adult to stop this behavior. I’d go through a bag of cookies and a couple of sugary drinks on the way to any given vacation, and end up too lethargic to do anything upon arrival but sleep.
Now I drink water and, if I snack at all on the road, I opt for a bit of fresh fruit, almonds, cashews, jerky…
On a long drive I shoot for 20 minutes of stretching for every 2 hours of driving. I do drink coffee, but the stretching does just as much to keep me alert on the road.
My regular exercise routines are important to me. They include mountain biking, long brisk walks, weight training and stretching. While it’s not always possible to keep up with the full spectrum of my workout regimen, I do my best to schedule it during travel.
Lastly, Don’t Forget to Pack…
I know this is cliché, but without mistakes, there can be no growth.
So when you find yourself in the middle of a monumental screw up, if at all possible, take a minute to laugh at yourself. At the thing you could have done better and will next time.
Because if there’s one medicine we all must remember to pack, it’s laughter.
Photo by Manuel Meurisse at Unsplash
When she’s not writing guest posts about van life, Veronica Cavanaugh is camping, backpacking, or planning her next outdoor adventure. She also enjoys watching old movies and writing poetry. See more of her work at VanSage.com