Vanlifers get the best of both worlds: the comforts and conveniences of an RV with the ease of driving, parking, and finding campsites in a much smaller vehicle. But to get the most out of your van, you need to use every inch of storage space. Read on for essential tips on where to store gear, what to pack it in, and how to keep track of it.
More than any cabinets, bins, bags, or boxes, taking the time to make a detailed list of what belongs in your van makes packing more efficient, allows you to find things easily, discourages overpacking, and helps you keep track of what needs to be restocked along the way. And the best part of making lists is that you really only need to create them once.
It also pays to reflect on how you plan to travel and what you care about most. A van’s small space means you need to prioritize things that enhance your experiences. If kayaks, bikes, or a tricked-out grill are important to you, then you need to prioritize space for them, even if that means other gadgets don’t make the cut. Who you travel with and how you like to travel will also affect your choices. Make decisions about what to bring based on what truly makes you happy on the road.
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Built-In vs. Mobile Storage
In a van, fancier isn’t always better. Built-in and mobile storage both have their advantages. Built-in storage, such as cabinets, closets, and storage benches, are great if most of your trips have similar needs, if you want to prioritize quick setup and takedown, or if you want to be able to cook, eat, and access all of your gear from inside your van. But if your needs change a lot from trip to trip, if you care about spending more time outside, or if you want to be able to set up camp away from where your van is parked, then you might want more mobile storage, like bins, a kitchen chuck box, crates, and bags.
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Containers: Hard, Soft, and Collapsible
Storage containers come in three basic varieties: hard-sided, soft-sided, and collapsible. Hard-sided containers, like trunks, rubber storage tubs, metal or plastic boxes, hard coolers, and crates, have many pluses: They’re durable, stackable, potentially animal-proof or weather-proof, and they can protect delicate contents from damage. They also have one big minus: They don’t change shape. This means they can be hard to pack and need to be sized to fit your space. This can result in wasted space if the containers are smaller than the space available or bigger than their contents.
Consider using soft-sided storage whenever possible, relying on hard storage only for items that truly need protection. Soft storage is lightweight, flexible, easy to store and maneuver, and versatile. Look for heavy-duty, weather-resistant storage bags that open wide and hold their shape.
For smaller items, and for keeping larger containers organized, packing cubes are essential. Fabric or mesh packing cubes come in a wide range of colors and sizes and add tremendous versatility. They can even be color-coded by traveler or category. Reusable zip-top bags, as well as cotton and mesh sacks and pouches, also help store small items. Bring extras for storage needs that come up on the road.
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Collapsible crates, buckets, and baskets are space-efficient and versatile. It’s handy to have an empty collapsible crate or two tucked away, for use if needed. These types of storage containers are great for non-refrigerated food items, including bread and produce, because they’re protective, ventilated, and easy to maneuver. Collapsible buckets can be used for doing dishes, toting water, carrying condiments from the fridge to a picnic table, and other tasks. A collapsible dish drainer is a great space saver. Collapsible buckets double as kids’ toys. And remember your collapsible garbage and recycling bins to pack out your waste.
Holding all your storage gear in place is important for safety. An assortment of durable bungee cords, ratchet straps, zip ties, ropes, and carabiners will allow you to secure gear both inside and outside your van.
Interior and Exterior Storage Locations
Overhead: Many vans come with small storage shelves over the driver’s and passenger’s seats in the cab. This can be used as-is or expanded with a larger shelf. Mesh gear lofts and L-track can be added to the ceiling, allowing you to stash or hang all sorts of gear.
Walls and doors: Walls can hold rigid or soft-sided cabinetry, L-track, and fold-down tables. And any exposed wall or door can hold mesh or fabric pouches that dramatically increase your storage space.
Seats: Hanging seat-back organizers provide tons of storage. There may also be space underneath the seats for bins, bags, large bottles of water, dog bowls, and other items.
Floor: Many van configurations have a “garage” underneath the bed(s) or located in a bench— this space is great but can also be tricky to access and use efficiently. Use hard- or soft-sided storage containers that have sturdy handles, wheels, or easy-to-slide bottoms. Bulky items, like folding camp chairs, also work well in these areas. Store frequently-used items in the most accessible locations.
Counters and shelves: Any elevated surface, including shelves, countertops, and platforms, can also act as storage, often for either a built-in or modular kitchen setup. In these locations, it’s particularly important to make sure that everything you’re storing can be locked down securely before driving so that it won’t slide around or break.
Practically every surface of a van’s exterior can act as storage, including the roof, rear doors, rear and front hitches, sides, underbody, and hood.
Roof: The best way to use a roof for storage is to mount a sturdy roof rack or rails. They can hold solar panels, a cargo box, a fire pit, water, fuel, bikes, kayaks, paddle boards, a pop-up tent, flood lights, bags, bins, or anything else you can tie down. Keep in mind how you’ll access these items, as well as their height and weight, which can affect wind resistance, stability, gas mileage, and your driving route. If you use your roof as storage, make sure you have a stable, durable ladder on the side or rear for easy access.
Rear doors: Rear doors can store a spare tire, cargo box, peg-board-style modular cargo system, ladder, or bike rack. Make sure anything you install on the rear doors doesn’t interfere with your ability to open them. Also make sure the weight of what you install won’t pull the doors out of alignment over time, which will make them difficult to close or require a costly repair.
Rear hitch: A rear hitch can hold a bike rack, cargo box, metal storage tray, or even tow a trailer. Make sure that the hitch is rated to carry the weight you want to put on it, and is the right diameter to receive the item(s) you want to install.
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Sides: The non-door side of a van can be used for a ladder, exterior lights, or even slim recreational gear, like surfboards, paddleboards, or heavy-duty extraction boards. The door side can hold an awning, lighting, and items that you can use while parked, like hanging tables that attach to the top of a sliding door, magnetic cup holders, and even a hammock or baby swing in the door opening.
Underbody: The underside of your van can hold a built-in water tank, a spare tire, or a toolbox. Be aware of how underside storage affects your vehicle’s clearance. And remember to empty exterior water tanks before spending time in freezing temperatures.
Front: Don’t overlook the front of your van. There are some innovative new solar panels that can be installed on a van’s hood, freeing up space on the roof. And the convenience of a front-hitch is seriously underrated—a front-hitch can hold most things a rear-hitch can. With the addition of a drop-hitch to lower the height, it can be used for an easy-access bike rack that keeps bikes out of the way of rear doors.
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