A ladies’ guide to living the van life

Most of the people I know who own camper vans are couples or men. But for the women out there who dream of the freedom and opportunity that van life can afford you, I’m here to tell you: Go for it.

What stops many van-aspirant women from setting out on the road alone is concerns about safety. But it is possible to have vanventures without throwing caution to the wind.

I just took my first solo trip in my 1994 Dodge Ram 250. I drove 1,800 miles round trip, starting near the Mexico-California border and almost reaching Oregon.

While the trip didn’t go off without its hiccups (oh, like when my car key broke in half?), traveling alone as a woman was fun and empowering.

Based on my experience, here are 10 van life how-tos for women driving solo, or really anyone who’s planning their first van trip.

Trust your van: Visit the mechanic before leaving

Sometimes the work your van needs is obvious; other times it’s hidden. Visit the mechanic before every trip. Photo: Pawel Kadysz/Unsplash
Find a mechanic you trust, and take your van in right before you travel, even if you don’t think there’s anything wrong. Tell your mechanic specifically that you’re about to go on a road trip and how far you plan to drive.

I took mine in knowing the brakes needed work, but unbeknownst to me, I had a major problem with the steering column that could have turned into a safety issue.

It wasn’t cheap to fix, but getting everything taken care of gave me priceless peace of mind on the road.

Sleep easy: Build a bed you’re truly happy with


Build out a bed that you truly want to sleep in. Sleep on a road trip is just as if not more important as it is in your non-vacation life.

While it took up the whole width of the van, I chose to use a full-sized platform bed. I built it 16 inches high, so there was still plenty of room for storage underneath, including for two longboards.

I was so comfortable each night that I actually looked forward to going to bed rather than dreading it, and woke up each morning ready for a full day of exploring.

Build in a security alarm: Bring your dog

woman and dog
You won’t feel alone on a solo road trip so long as you bring your best four-pawed friend. Photo: Vladimir Kudinov/Unsplash
Ok, this may not be possible for all. But if you are already seriously considering a dog, and you’re also considering traveling alone, let me tell you that having my dog made all the difference in the world.

And Buddy is by no means a killer; he’s a black lab who wags his tail for everyone. But I knew that if someone came near the van at night, and I didn’t hear it, my dog would, and his bark would make that visitor think twice.

Not only was it great to have a pair of much better ears and nose in the car and on hikes, but having my dog was also essential for fighting off loneliness on days when humans were few and far between.

Camp safe: Stay in official campgrounds

camping coffee
Better safe (and crowded) than sorry. Photo: Twenty/20
Traveling alone means foregoing the temptation to seek out non-official spots to hide the van for the night. But don’t feel like a camping wuss because you’re playing it safe staying in a state campground. You’re just being smart.

I used an app called All Stays to look for state, national and private campgrounds. Each day, I noted all the campgrounds around the area that I’d likely reach that night. I looked for contingency spots in case I didn’t make it as far as I planned, or covered more ground than anticipated.

On a weeknight in the offseason, I was consistently the youngest person by decades at these campgrounds, surrounded by retirees with RVs that were nicer than my studio apartment. But at least I felt safe.

Stay on the grid: Use the [remote] buddy system

cell phone hammock
Before you set off on your own, let someone know where you will be and when you plan to be back. Photo: Twenty/20
Tell someone where you are before you lose service or do any kind of activity that might be dangerous, such as a solo hike or climb.

I surfed on my trip, and even though the spots were populated and the waves weren’t big, I still texted a girlfriend before I paddled out each time and checked in when I got back.

Even if you’re around other people while surfing, hiking, or whatever, those people don’t know you, and they don’t know to look out for you. Best to let someone know where you are and how long you’re planning to be off-grid.

Prevent shortages: Do one restock every day

girl driving van
Make one stop to stock up on supplies for the day, then hit the road. Photo: Twenty/20
This was a habit I did not nail down until about the 3rd day of my trip. Having to make multiple stops for food, gas and other supplies exacerbated any stress that driving already caused.

When you wake up, figure out what you need to replenish, and do that while you’re bright-eyed and bushy tailed. Top off the tank, stock up on snacks, swap out the ice in your cooler.

You don’t want to get caught later in the day searching for a grocery store in a one-horse town, or having to stop every couple of hours when you need to be gaining ground.

Stay fresh: Invest in a portable shower

girl hose
Time to harken back to childhood days, playing with the hose in the backyard. Photo: Twenty/20
I’m not a princess, but camping bathrooms are gross, and I avoid them whenever possible.

But unless you’re getting in the water every day, rinse offs are going to be rare.

A portable shower makes it possible for you to rinse off without having to brave dark, unsecured, never-been-cleaned campground bathrooms. If you buy one new camp accessory for your trip, this would be my pick.

And, if your van looks more like a shoebox on wheels than a spacious Sprinter, you’ll get tired of cramped outfit changes in tight quarters. Even if you’re not surfing, pack a changing cape so you can get dressed at your campground without fear of putting on a show for your neighbors.

Record it all: Keep journal and camera close by

girl camera
Keep your camera at your side at all times so as never to miss the shot. Photo: Guus Baggermans/Unsplash
This was another hack I didn’t figure out for a couple of days, and I found that the first half of my trip I wasn’t taking nearly as many photos as I had intended to.

So I put my two cameras, a journal and a pen on my center console, and I kept them there for the rest of the trip. It was a lot easier to write down the name of a beautiful place I wanted to remember, or to jump out of the van to snap a photo, with all my tools handy.

Oh, and I always kept coffee and a headlamp on the console too. Headlamp for safety, coffee for sanity.

Happy van living! Share your trips with #GTVAdventure

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