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After spending a big chunk of our 2 years in Australia living in a car and our campervan, I’ve learnt a couple of things: one, the clothes ‘sniff test’ is something that just happens, no matter how gross it is; and two, there are something things that really make living in a van a whole lot easier. After a whole lot of time spent being brutally honest with myself, I feel like I’ve sorted out some van life essentials to have on a campervan packing list.
Whether you’re converting a van or buying one that’s good to go, packing it is still tricky. Essentially, your van is your home and you’re going to need all the essentials but without the space use and of course, without spending a whole lot of money. Because who wants to spend money on stuff when you can spend it on doing awesome stuff like sailing the Whitsundays or diving the Great Barrier Reef Right? Good news is, all of these items are under $20 (most of them are well under $20) so you can get your van kitted out for less.
This campervan essential list has been put together by myself and my good friends and old housemates from when I was living in Brisbane, Harry and Lisa. These guys also did a DIY van conversion and are now living in their Toyota Hiace full time. You can check them out on Instagram under Ausadvantures for heaps of outdoorsy inspiration!
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20 Budget essentials for your campervan packing list
1. Hand sanitiser
Great for cleaning your hands before meals and preparing food or after lighting a fire and collecting shells along the beach. After soap and water this is probably the best substitute and you’d be surprised at the uncleanly state of some public bathrooms and how many of them don’t have soap, but that’s all part of vanlife isn’t it.
2. Mini wood hiking stove
Although we are yet to use it while actually hiking we love this thing whenever fires were permitted at campsites. It’s 5 simple pieces of metal that are super easy to click together and pack down flat once you’re finished. Pair it with a small hiking pot, a handful of 10cm twigs and a few dried leaves or bits of paper to start it and you’ve got yourself a perfect little fire. No need to carry big firewood logs that take up valuable space in your van and it will also help you save on gas boiling water for tea or coffee, cooking pasta, boiled eggs you name it. It’s a great item to have on your campervan packing list to up your cooking game!
3. Packet clips
In the absence of numerous food storage containers, these clips are the next best thing. No body wants to clean up 1000 grains of rice from their van floor or have the other half a packet of their favourite chips go stale overnight. A buck fifty later and you won’t have to, even though we have 30 we still seem to use nearly all of them at some points. Great for keeping the bag of spinach leaves fresh in the fridge, closing packets of taco seasoning or even as a hair tie in desperate times, you will get plenty of use out of them.
4. Ebooks/ library membership
Having limited space in the van and being on a budget meant we didn’t want to buy and carry around books. We joined our local council library before leaving for our trip, it didn’t cost us a cent and we now have access to two different eBook apps and all the ebooks they offer. You can use it on any iPad, tablet, Kindle Firefly or even your phone, it is free to place holds on any popular or new release items and there are also some audiobooks available if that’s more your style. Personally, travelling with a Kindle has been such a safe-saver and I’ve found myself reading a lot more!
5. Citronella coil burner
Not only does it look pretty, but this little beauty will also help you fight the nasties at nighttime. There’s nothing worse than trying to sit outside in your camp chair and enjoy the stars and being eaten alive by a million mosquitoes. While there are many ways to fight mosquitoes we find this little thing super easy, even when it’s windy and it sure beats covering yourself head to toe in sticky repellents. Most burners will even come with a free pack of coils but when those run out they are super cheap to replace.
6. Collapsible buckets
Another campervan essential for us. It’s perfect for wet gear after a swim, washing the van, washing your clothes or even washing your hair when paired with our 12v shower pump. They fold down super flat and hardly take up any space, so you can easily stow it away. While buckets are the most popular, there are also a great range of other collapsible items available, such as takeaway boxes, cups, bowls, kettles and even kitchen sinks. Alternatively, you can get soft buckets that fold up into a small pouch so take up virtually no space at all.
One of those set and forget sort of things, while it’s not going to completely dehumidify your whole van on a cold winters night it will help absorb some of the excess moisture in the air. In turn, this will hopefully help fight mould and other nasty things growing on your walls. They don’t take up much space and depending on the brand can last up to 3-6 months. You’d be surprised how much moisture can build up in such a short period of time.
8. Wet Wipes
Practically a vanlifers best friend when there are no showers nearby and you’re feeling pretty grotty. We found these great especially in the outback, with a real lack of shower facilities around and even just to wipe the sunscreen off your face and red dust off your ankles before going to bed. They’re also great for cleaning up sticky messes, removing makeup, dusting things and a great substitute for when you run out of loo paper, just be sure to not flush/throw them in composting bush toilets. Living in a van can get messy quickly so having these to hand helps a lot.
9. First aid kit
One of those things you never know when you might need, which as it turns out is pretty often. While the store-bought ones come with a great range of items, it’s always good to personalise it for what you need and use. Bandaids for cuts and grazes, antiseptic cream for mosquito bites, aspirin for headaches and/or hangovers, tweezers for splinters and eyebrows, scissors for everything under the sun, there really are so many scenarios when this little kit might come in handy so it’s a great idea to keep one in the van.
Also known as boredom busters, games are a great way to pass time and have fun doing it. We keep a small box of some of our favourites stashed away for rainy days when the wifi is weak or for sharing a fun night with new friends. While traditional board games typically come in big bulky boxes and take up a fair amount of space there are plenty that doesn’t and also plenty of mini versions now available at various department stores. Some of our favourites are Uno, Yahtzee and Pass the Pigs but we have also recently been introduced to Sequence and Bananagrams which are definitely worth checking out as well.
11. A basic set of tools
This is something you won’t appreciate having until you really need it. A compact set of screwdrivers and ratchets can come in so handy for fixing up anything inside the van and also if you have mechanical issues. Even if you’re not mechanically minded (like us), simply having some useful tools will make it easier if a kind stranger offers to help you. As well tools, I also recommend picking up spare belts, filters and radiator hoses for your vehicle just in case something does happen you at least have the correct parts to hand. Hopefully you’ll never need it but don’t skip this item on your campervan packing list.
12. Spotify/podcast app
Some days we would spend over 8 hours driving along roads in the middle of nowhere, and with no radio signal there was no way we would have survived without having something to listen to. I’m a huge fan of Podcasts and with thousands available about pretty much everything, you’ll definitely be able to find something for you. What’s ever better is they’re completely free to download and listen to without signal. For music we signed up to Spotify Premium which allows you to download music so again, you don’t need any signal to listen to them.
13. Jump leads
Another thing you won’t need until you really do! Getting a flat battery is so easy to accidentally do – it’s as simple as leaving a light on but it’s an easy fix if you have a set of jump leads and a kind person with a car to connect the batteries up. Don’t forget to return the favour and help jump-start someone else too!
14. Windscreen sunshade
These are essential for keeping your van cool on hot days and also helping keep it warm when it’s cold. There were plenty of times we would leave the van, forget to put it on and come back to a greenhouse of a van so having one of these on your campervan packing list is essential. Just make sure you have it to hand so you don’t forget to use it. They’re also great for keeping light out at night and you can get loads of colourful ones if you want something more fun.
15. Solar shower
With free camping (take a look at my WikiCamps review to learn how to find free campsites all over Australia) usually comes a lack of showers and a whole lot of dust. Having a solar shower helped us out so much and saved us tonnes of money by not having to pay for showers or stay in caravan parks to use the facilities. All you need to do is fill it with water, leave it to warm up in the sun and hang it somewhere to then use the shower nozzle. We met people who didn’t know about them and they wish they had one, so it’s definitely a van life essential.
16. Head torch
These are a huge van life essential! When we were camping in our Honda CR-V we only had handheld torches but having a head torch in our van was far easier. From washing up in the dark to going for a late-night loo trip, having a head torch to hand is a must. The ones below are all USB rechargeable ones so you won’t need to have a supply of batteries for them.
17. Mosquito nets
Yes, as unflattering as these are, there was no way I would have functioned without these in some parts of Australia. When we were in Uluru the flies were pretty bad and having them flying all over our faces was really unpleasant. And don’t worry, you will definitely not be the only ones using them! These ones roll up really small and can be worn over a hat to keep the net (and sun) off your face.
18. Cigarette lighter USB charger
Nearly all the technology we had on us was USB charging so having a cigarette lighter charger was so so handy. We were able to charge our phones, cameras and torches all at the same time as we were driving along so everything was ready to use as soon as we needed it. This is powered of the 12v cigarette lighter in your van- just make sure your cigarette lighter works when you buy it!
19. Stove lighter
If you have a gas stove that doesn’t have a built-in lighter then you’re going to want one of these. I’ve seen lots of people using just a small lighter or matches to light their stoves and quite frankly, I don’t think it’s a good idea to have your hands that close to flames. These save you from needed to get as close making it safer. They’re also great for lighting campfires, and nothing beats a good fire under the stars.
20. Bottle opener
Does this really need explaining? Just don’t forget it!
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