Guide to Going
Full-Time on the Road
Living in a van seems like every climber’s dream—purge all of your useless junk, fill your van with as much gear as it can hold, and hit the road smiling. Instead of being the odd-ball at the climbers’ camp, sleeping in a tent, you can be living an Instagram dream come true (so you think). It seems simple, right? But are you sure you’re really prepared for life on the road?

Social media has a penchant for portraying a false reality of van life. But trust me when I say: it’s not all designer hats and cute air-plants overlooking idyllic coast lines.
Are you ready for the uncomfortable aspects of living in a tiny space, constantly on the move? Have you thought about your impact on the land as a nomad and how to minimize ecological damage? Or where you’re going to shower and go to the bathroom? How about the basics: like how to just get started?... Yes, it can seem a little overwhelming at first, but here are a few things I’ve learned over the five years and counting of life on the road to help make your initiation into van life a little easier.

How do I go full time on the road?

  • Choose your rig based on location, gas mileage & investment.
  • Maximize your interior.
  • Get down to business with waste.
  • Navigate daily life in the van: cooking, ventilation, emergency equipment, and temperature management.
  • Stay safe and aware of surroundings.
Choose your Rig
Your Rig
The first choice you need to make is what kind of wheels you’ll call your humble abode. Besides the fancy Sprinters you see all over Colorado, there are many other options to choose from, from Ram Promasters to mini vans or even the good ol’ fashioned Subaru. Each vehicle has it’s pros and cons, but you can start to filter your search through these considerations:
Will you need four-wheel drive or high clearance for back roads? Maybe you want to keep a low profile around neighborhoods in the city, in which case, you might go with something that doesn’t attract unwanted attention. In my experience, living in a Hyundai Tiburon was tiny but meant I could park in a neighborhood without any cause for suspicion.
Smaller vans like the Promaster City and Transit Connects get better gas mileage but you lose out on living space. A Tacoma with a hardshell can get to any off-the-beaten-path trailhead, but you pay for that access with much higher fuel costs.
A pre-built rig seems appealing, but unless you're savvy at fixing cars, it might be worth spending a little extra on something mechanically reliable, meaning a newer car or one from someone you know. The last thing you want is your car, and home, in the shop for a few days, leaving you without anywhere to sleep. Sprinters are a hot commodity nowadays, but when it comes to basic maintenance and upkeep, they may put holes in your pockets. If you’re looking for a lower price point, you might consider a more affordable brand like Dodge or Ford.
Interior shot of truck with organization, drawers and storage called out
The Interior
Everyone has different ideas when it comes to what goes inside—which can be hard to solve when you’re working with a small space. Your job is to figure out how to maximize your space to fit your wants and needs. Minimalism feels great but it’s still nice to have a few things that provide some comfort.

Many people, for example, insist on installing a shower because they think it’s a necessity. Sure, staying clean is important for our health and wellbeing, especially when we’re recreating outside and sweating all day; but I see it a bit differently... It’s a huge waste of space and requires a ton of water. Plus refilling your 40-gallon tank to power the shower is a huge pain when your options are limited. My advice? Think outside the box. You don’t have to replicate the same amenities of traditional housing into your mobile one. A wet washcloth works just as well, and if you’re worried about the cold, electric kettles use little power and provide warm water in a jiff. Universal gyms are another great option. You can find one in almost every city and memberships are pretty affordable. I also have a solar shower I use but only as a last resort because it requires more preparation if you want warm water. I leave mine out in the sun all day while I climb but make sure to come back before dark so the water is still warm.

Full-time living means adequate storage is necessary. Maybe you enjoy cooking and need cooking space or a place for your spices. Maybe you’re an avid mountain biker and need to fit a bike under the bed. My partner and I have a lot of shoes, so we added a hanging shoe rack on the back two doors of our Promaster. Many kitchen counters have unuseable foot boards, so we knocked ours out and installed drawers for more storage.

The bed platform in my Honda Element provided adequate storage space underneath but retrieving stuff from the middle was always a pain. The fix? Long, clear storage bins for easy access.
There are many options on the market from composting toilets to flushable camp ones. I use a bucket with a toilet seat that I bought from Walmart for $25 that does the job. I line it with single-use grocery bags and sprinkle cat litter at the bottom of each bag to mask the smell. If you tie each one off and dispose of the bags when you take the trash out, there is no perceptible smell. You can empty your trash in big dumpsters. That way, you’re not throwing poo bags directly in small public trash cans, because no one wants to smell that.

It’s important to separate your solids and liquids (meaning pee and poop) to keep the mess to a minimum. You think those bags you poo in are reliable and can hold liquid pretty well, but there always seems to be a leak somewhere. What I think is a game changer for car living is a pee jug, and everyone has their favorite type. I recommend using a big clear jug so you can see how full it is and to avoid overflow. Sure, you can see the pee through the jug, but it’s better than going pee one night, not realizing your jug is full, and spilling all over the floor. The best pee jug I’ve found is the Arizona Ice Tea or Mucho Mango jug—it’s clear and comes with a hefty handle so you wont drop it. To account for the small hole, I use a pee funnel, or SheWee, which allows me to stand and not worry about aiming. Other less ideal options for females are squatting over a wide mouth pretzel jug or nalgene.

Another thing to consider is your gray water, or waste water, that comes from your sink, if you have one. The best option is to collect gray water in a jug. The bigger the jug the less you’ll have to empty it, but the longer dirty water sits, the more it smells, so keep that in mind. I use a 5-gallon jug and haven’t had any issues regarding overflow or smell. I recommend finding a clear or light-colored jug so you can see the liquid level, but I have a dark blue jug and shine a light to check liquid level, which works fine as well.
waste pee jug
A tacoma truck in the landscape
You can empty gray water in sewer drains. Sometimes you can dump at an RV park for free as well. If it’s an emergency with no other option, I pour mine in the woods away from any water source. If you use soap, make sure it’s biodegradable, especially if you’re emptying the jug in the woods periodically. We need to be aware of our impact on the environment and do our part to leave as little trace as possible. When I lived in my car and didn’t have a sink, I’d use dirt and sand as a scrub for my dishes which worked great as well. Some vans directly pour the gray water through the floor onto the ground, but if you stay in one spot for an extended period of time, it pools, starts to smell, and soaks into ecosystems that can’t sustain the debris. (Not to mention: it’s a good way to get van life banned from areas because of the overuse impact.)
Daily life
A smaller rig means cooking outside which sounds fine until it rains or it’s too cold. Have a backup plan so you’re not forced to eat out. Maybe that means always cooking extra or having quick meal options as backup.
When cooking inside with propane or using a gas-powered space heater, remember to have adequate ventilation, whether it's a ceiling fan or just an open window or door, because carbon monoxide poisoning is no joke. People tend to skimp on ventilation in cooler temps but this is when accidents can happen.
inside the van, ventilation vans going
fire extinguisher
I honestly didn’t own a fire extinguisher until my most recent build because I didn’t think it was necessary; however, more and more people are experiencing fires in their rigs, whether it’s a small or catastrophic, due to propane/gas leak or a fault in their electrical system. Make sure to keep it somewhere easily accessible, just like your car jack or first aid kit because lesser used accessories tend to get pushed into the dark corners of our vehicles and forgotten, until the rare moment we need it arises and we frantically rip our interior apart. A battery-powered carbon monoxide detector would be useful as well but make sure to periodically check the batteries.
The middle of the day in the summer is brutal, so find shade for your car otherwise make a sun shade with a tarp if you have solar. In dry climates, a little swamp cooler (evaporative cooler) can do wonders at night or during the day if you plan on working from the van.

If you’re building out a van, adequate insulation is important. There are different insulation levels of rigid foam and spray foam on the market. Wool or denim are alternatives if you’re worried about the chemical properties of foam. The natural light and views windows provide is nice, but they will let out all that heat you’re trying to keep in on cold nights or the opposite on summer days. If you can’t live without your windows, make sure to use reflectix or rigid foam to insulate when needed. I covered my foam in fabric to match my interior so it wasn’t such an eyesore. Heated blankets work great too, if you have sufficient power. If you’re worried about draining your battery, turn it off before you fall asleep.
Another option is a gas or diesel heater that taps right into your fuel tank. They are expensive, (like, thousands of dollars) but if you’re a cold-weather enthusiast, this might be the better route. Installing the heater yourself will save you money, and if you follow the directions, it’s not as scary as it seems. We installed our diesel heater ourselves and other than installing it backwards (whoops), it was easy enough to do and worth the money we saved.
No one wants to think about break-ins, but it’s a reality of van-life, so it’s essential to be aware of your surroundings. If you’re traveling solo, don’t make it apparent that you’re alone. Try not to get out of your car when you park (which is why pee jugs come in handy) and always let someone know where you are. Blackout reflectix to cover your windows at night can help decrease attention, but if you don’t cover your windows, make sure to hide valuables in less obvious places like under the mattress or in the depths of your storage.

Many car insurance companies won't cover a van build, so alternatively, you can individually insure your valuables through renters insurance. But keep in mind, if you only have renters insurance, the money you put into the build itself will not be covered if you get into an accident. A few companies I’ve contacted would only cover my build-out if I could register my vehicle as an RV, which was not possible due to legal requirements of the company. I’ve also heard of a couple companies that will cover built-out cargo vans as long as you don’t state that you live out of it full-time and are registered at a home address.
subaru illustration over mountain landscape
van illustration by desert background with moon in background
Living on the road has its ups and downs but overall can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Once you overcome the challenges of removing many of life’s comforts, the ability to roam feels freeing. Each day can bring something new and you’ll meet the most interesting people with the most amazing stories.

No matter how hard it gets, let's not forget that the choice to live on the road is a privilege. We are not homeless nor forced to live a life we do not choose for ourselves, so the comparison is non-existent. Don’t call yourself homeless because the reality is: you have a home. You also have shelter, food, and a community. Always be cognizant of that and of others who are in need. Help others when you can, and if you spend long periods of time in one area, think about how you can give back to the community, climbing related or not.