A First Timer’s Guide to a Vanlife Road Trip

Thinking about renting a camper van? Take some advice from someone who’s done it.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Breedlove; Image by Grace Han for Thrillist

I hadn’t washed my hair in five days. I did the math while squatting for a morning pee next to Suerta, the rented camper van I had just driven 1,068 miles through the wilds of Arizona. I felt dirty, bloated, exhausted, and utterly fulfilled. On a reunion adventure with my best friend, Erin, I captained a camper van for the first time ever—relying on side mirrors, the slow lane, and small miracles to get us from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, to Sedona and Saguaro, and back again.

If you love road trips and the great outdoors, I highly suggest jumping on the camper van bandwagon. While I wasn’t quite ready to sell all my belongings and actually live in a van, I was jazzed to spend five days exploring the desert in one. Suerta was a trusty companion, though for a first-timer, her husky size took some getting used to. Here’s everything I learned during my first-time foray into vanlife.

Booking your house-on-wheels

Getting into the camper van spirit was easy. I hopped on the site Outdoorsy: basically the Airbnb for camper vans, RVs, and trailers. Using the handy dandy filter tool, I found a slew of camper vans to choose from, each with their own personality. I was drawn to Suerta’s spunky interior; she had me at the purple string lights and mural that adorned the long interior wall. She came equipped with a small stovetop burner, plates and cups, storage, and even a blackout curtain by the front windshield for privacy. As a bonus, her name meant “lucky” and I’d take what I could get. 

Suerta’s owner met us at the airport to give us a rundown of the van’s inner workings, quirks, and even got some solid suggestions of where to go. Just like Airbnb, the amenities and overall experience with Outdoorsy will differ from van to van, but there are plenty of rental outfitters out there. LA-based Texino, for example, rents tricked-out Mercedes vans that come fully equipped with kitchens, camping gear, linens, and more.

Our girl Suerta, looking stunning at the Vermillion Cliffs | Photo courtesy of Lauren Breedlove

Getting the hang of the drive

At first, I was dead set on renting a vintage trailer, like a cute Airstream or scamp. “Just think of the photos!” I told myself. “But you’ve never towed one!” I argued back.

They look cool on Instagram, but unless you’ve driven a ginormous RV before, or mastered a trailer’s weird turning radius, it’s probably wise to steer clear of those vehicles. A small camper van is not only easier to maneuver, it allows you to get off the beaten path, all while rocking some pretty impressive gas mileage. You can cram all your stuff in there, and still park comfortably in most spots. 

Even still, camper vans are topheavy and can be a challenge to drive for first-timers. I’ll admit that I skirted over no less than seven curbs as I gained my van-legs with Suerta’s need for wide turns. The driver’s seat was perched unbelievably high (which was cool) and the rearview mirror was basically useless (not cool). I was pleasantly surprised that Suerta was able to keep up with traffic on the busy highways leading out of Phoenix; she had some pep in her step. That is, unless any elevation change was involved. She did not like going up or coming down any sort of hill. Same girl, same. 

A peek at our supplies and Suerta set-up | Photo courtesy of Lauren Breedlove

Don’t forget water. And deodorant. And something to eat besides hot dogs.

I shut the van’s back end doors with a satisfied “we bought everything we needed and now we’ll be on our way” type of slam. Food and adult beverages filled the fridge and cabinets. If we went off-grid, we’d be all set; Suerta was locked and loaded.

“Oh my god. We forgot the water. And we’re IN THE DESERT” I realized aloud to Erin, my best friend of 26 years and fellow van-venturer. 

Rule #1: Don’t forget water, especially in the desert.

Water also becomes crucial for “bathing” once you have dirt rings on your legs from days of hiking and sweating in the desert heat. (I also committed a camper van sin when I forgot to pack deodorant. Yikes). Suerta didn’t have a true shower, but she did come with a couple of options: The first was a solar water bag that poured sun-warmed water out of a spout when hung from a tree branch or the van door. The second was a big water jug with a pump and shower head that required a bit more dexterity. 

Other packing essentials included a headlamp and camp chairs (or hammocks). Wine with a screw cap is far better than wine with no screw cap and no bottle opener. Also, after eating half my weight in hot dogs and ramen, I highly suggest bringing a variety of meal options.

Rule #2: Don’t eat hotdogs four days in a row...just don’t.

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Toilet or no toilet: The camper van dilemma 

When choosing our camper van, I knew I didn’t want to deal with emptying waste. I purposely picked a van with no toilet, for both the grossness and size factor (toilets take up a lot of otherwise useful space in the van). 

I admit to second-guessing this decision in the pitch black of our first night in Kaibab National Forest, when the thought of mountain lions lurking nearby induced major stage fright. But, that’s what headlamps, flashlights, and friends are for: scanning for man-eating beasts while you pee. 

Pooping posed a different set of tactics. When possible, we utilized gas stations or rest areas en route to our next destination. If nature called and we couldn’t put it on hold, we had to channel our inner savage and employ the “200 feet away from the campsite” rule. If you can’t go in the wild, or if you’re planning to travel for an extended period of time, consider choosing a van with a toilet, or book a campsite with facilities.

We awoke to hot air balloons floating above the red rocks of Sedona. | Photo courtesy of Lauren Breedlove

Creating a campsite you love

We didn’t pay for one single campsite the entire trip. The trick is to take advantage of BLM land (Bureau of Land Management), where you can snag free, dispersed campsites away from the crowds. Get a map of forest lands that detail appropriate campsites. Another solid option is HipCamp, where you can book campsites on private farm or ranch land, hosted by the owner. In some cases, you can even set up at a brewery or winery to enjoy some booze with your views.

And speaking of views, strategize where and how you park your van in order to create the ideal campsite vibe. I sidled Suerta right up to the best vista vantage point, with the big sliding door opening to reveal incredible sunsets. 

Leave plenty of time in the itinerary to just sit back and enjoy being where you are. If you’re the active type, picking a campsite that has hiking, fishing, or kayaking within close proximity will help maximize your time. No matter what, be prepared to roll with the vanlife punches; have a couple of back up plans for other campsites or activities when the unexpected inevitably strikes.

And as always with road trips, an offline map downloaded to your phone is a smart safety net in case you lose cell service. 

Enjoying the ride

Despite the ungraceful dance of sharing a tiny space and never remembering which cushion the pots and pans were stored under, Erin and I eventually got into the swing of things. We sipped coffee out of deliciously tacky cactus mugs in picturesque locations, gawked at dusk and dawn light in the Arizona sky, explored off the beaten path, and toasted to happy hour against the backdrop of the Vermillion Cliffs. Washing dishes was even enjoyable in the van sink while overlooking impossibly beautiful landscape.

In our forest land post outside of Sedona, we marveled so hard at the display of stars above us,  I’m pretty sure I drooled. As if it couldn’t get any better, we awoke to hot air balloons floating above the red rocks in the early morning light.

Rule #3: Wake up for every sunrise possible.

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Lauren Breedlove is a freelance writer, travel photographer, and the girl behind girlwanderlist.com, a list-based travel blog where she keeps it real on the regular. She thrives on random adventures, offbeat destinations, and grilled cheese. Follow all her travel exploits on Instagram, @girlwanderlist.