Travel Ideas

I Tried Living in a Camping Van for a Week—Here’s What It Was Like

Photo: Micah Casella / Well+Good Creative
Stuck in my apartment during the early days of the pandemic, I passed the time by watching van lifers on YouTube. I watched them convert vans into tiny homes and drive them from place to place. Some used their vehicles to explore their home country while others shipped theirs overseas for international road trips. These vans are so much more than transportation—they're also kitchens, bathrooms, dining rooms, living rooms, offices….

I fell in love with the idea of having a tiny home on wheels that you could take any and everywhere. The ability to just pick up and go seemed like a dream. You don't need to pack suitcases, board a plane, or check in and out of hotels. Just stock your van with food, organize your clothes and toiletries into drawers, and head out while bringing along all the comforts of home. It's next-level glamping.

Personally, I love getting into nature, but I'm not into camping. I have no desire to sleep in a tent on the ground and pee in a shared outhouse. So camping in a van is the best (and only!) option for me. One day, I hope to have one of my own. But in the meantime, I've been dying to try it out. So when I found Cabana, a company that allows you to rent luxury camper vans, I jumped at the chance to test its services.

The logistics of van life

Pictured: A Cabana sprinter van/Micah Casella

From RVs to Airstreams, there are lots of camper van options, but converted sprinter vans have become trendy over the last few years because they're compact. You don't have to worry about parking a 40-foot RV—instead, you can get a van that's a little over 20-feet long (a few feet longer than a large pick-up truck) and move it around with ease.

I rented a tricked-out sprinter van outfitted with a sink, stovetop, refrigerator, shower, toilet, bed, and closet. There are also solar panels on the roof, providing you with ample electricity to charge devices, and heat and cool the van. With pickup available in Los Angeles and Seattle, Cabana vans are perfect for up to two people to explore the west coast.

Booking/picking up your van and starting the trip

Booking and planning a van trip through Cabana is incredibly simple. You can opt to just choose your dates, lock in a van, and do the planning yourself; you can book one of Cabana's pre-planned trips that include the cost of a van and a full itinerary; or take a quiz so Cabana's concierge team can see what you're interested in and then plan a (complimentary) custom trip.

Starting your trip is similar to using a carshare service like Zipcar. Once you book, you'll get the address of the pickup location. When it's time for your trip, head to the lot and use the Cabana app to unlock your van and start your journey. Inside you'll find the keys, and instructions on how to do everything from turning on the AC to setting up the kitchen.

Driving the van

Living in New York City, I don't drive often. So the idea of spending seven days driving around California in a big van freaked me out a little. But once I got behind the wheel, I realized it wasn't that difficult. It definitely feels different than driving a car, but you get used to it pretty quickly. It has big side mirrors and a backup camera so you can see your surrounding very well. It also comes equipped with a cell phone holder on the dashboard so you can see your GPS with ease.

Sleeping

Cabana vans feature a comfy, queen-size bed that stays stationary in the back of the space, so you don't need to worry about setting up your bed at night. My favorite part of sleeping in van like this is that with the bed in the back, you have a perfect view out of the back windows. On our first night, my boyfriend and I got to our first campsite after dark, so we didn't really know where we were or what the scenery was like. Waking up and taking the covers off the windows in the middle of the desert outside of Palm Springs was breathtaking. I loved being able to just stay in bed and take in our surroundings.

Cooking and eating

While the inside of the van is home to a sink, refrigerator, and hot water kettle, cooking is handled outside. Head to the back of the van, open the doors, and you'll find a kitchen that pulls out from under the bed equipped with a sink, a two-burner propane stove, counter space to prep, as well as cookware, and compostable dishware and utensils.

Having the kitchen pull out of the back is an amazing space saver so there's more room inside the van. However, it can be a bit inconvenient, especially if the weather is chilly. Inside the van, the passenger seat swivels around to face the center, a bench pulls out of the side of a cabinet, and there's a pole that allows you to set up a tabletop, creating the perfect dining space for two. But, if you're staying at a campground, there will likely be picnic tables set up where you can enjoy your meal outside.

Using the bathroom

The bathroom is teeny tiny and houses a showerhead and a toilet. Using the toilet is simple—you just go and flush like you would any other toilet. The same goes for the shower, except the space is much smaller than your standard shower. Plus, there's no separation between the toilet and the shower so once you suds up and get clean the toilet will be very wet. But, with the help of the exhaust fan, it dries relatively quickly.

The toilet empties into a black water tank under the van while sink and shower water empties into a gray water tank. On shorter trips, you don't need to worry about emptying these. You can get three to five days worth of use out of the toilet before the tank fills depending on how much you use it. And there is a digital monitoring screen in the van that allows you to keep an eye on how full the tank is getting.

Because I had a van for seven days, I did end up having to empty the tanks on day five. This is something you do at a campground, and you'll see signs showing you where and how to do it. The experience was humbling, to say the least, but not nearly as gross or difficult as I thought it would be. I basically had to pull a hose from a storage tube under the van, attach one end to the van and the other to a special pipe in the ground at the campsite. Then I opened a valve to drain the black tank (the tank with everything you flushed down the toilet) and then the gray tank (the tank with the water drained from the sink and shower). The instruction book has great directions and a pair of gloves so I could stay clean during the process. But, it was tricky. I accidentally created a massive line of vans because I couldn't figure it out and an angel of a human who was driving the van behind me came to help me.

Storage

Because the van is small, packing light is a must. But, you can still bring a decent amount of stuff—my boyfriend and I each brought a carry-on-size suitcase and a backpack. The van features two pull-out shelves to store luggage and a closet complete with a rod and hangers. There are also two drawers under the bed, and we used one to house pantry goods and another to house our toiletries and other items we wanted within easy reach like a candle and a bluetooth speaker.

While you're driving, your items need to be stowed away so they're not flying all around the back of the van. Each door and drawer features a special handle that clicks into place so they don't open while the vehicle is in motion. As long as these are all properly closed before you pull off, your items will remain safe and secure.

What the trip was like

Pictured: Jumbo Rocks Campground, Joshua Tree National Park/Micah Casella

Spending a week traveling around California in a van was truly a dream come true. I started my trip in Los Angeles, and the lot was a short walk to a Trader Joe's and a Target so my boyfriend and I were able to stock up on food and other essentials like tissues and sunblock before we hit the road. Hot tip: Bring a string of Christmas lights with you to make the van feel homier.

Then we headed to our first stop: Palm Desert. We parked at the Lovelight Tentsite & Car Camping site and had such an amazing time. The campsite has a super cool and eclectic vibe. Getting to know the host Mikey, his three adorable dogs, and his tortoise was so much fun. The campsite was about 30 minutes from Palm Springs, so we drove there to shop and go to dinner before heading for two nights in Joshua Tree National Park where we stayed at the Jumbo Rocks Campground.

This is easily the coolest place I've ever been. The rocks were indeed jumbo, and I felt like I was on Mars. We went on hikes, went into town to go thrifting, and took so. many. pictures. While we were in the park, we had zero cell service, forcing us to be super present and just enjoy our surroundings. It was glorious.

For the last three days, we stayed in Dana Point, a beach town in Orange County. For the first night, we literally parked on the side of the road outside of our friend's apartment, and spent the other nights right on the water at Doheny State Beach. We backed into our parking spot so we could just open the back doors and hop into the sand. I loved getting to lie in a cozy bed while watching the waves crash on the shore. It was truly the most surreal and magical experience.

Would I do it again?

Staying in a Cabana van only strengthened my desire to have my own van. I got to experience all of these new, gorgeous places from my own little slice of home. I loved that I didn't have to go back and forth from a hotel—I was living right in the thick of nature. Of course, you get this with any camping experience, but, like I said, I'm not a camper. Van camping is the only kind of camping I have ever considered, and it was a fabulous experience. After a long drive, I knew that bed was just four feet away. And I always had access to food and a toilet that was all mine. No matter where we were, we had our own little space to return to and that felt extremely grounding.

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