Site Overlay

Essential Items for Beginner Vanlife / Car Life – What to bring

So you want to go on a trip and spend some nights in your car? You are thinking of an extended road trip for the first time and aren’t quite sure what to bring?

Not to worry! We put this list together just for you. After 7 years of travel, doing the best to approximate vanlife with only the Subaru Outback, here are some minimalist essentials to keep you comfortable out there.

This list focuses on those “boring” items to pack that you never think you are going to miss until you are out there.


Inverter – A very convenient way to charge both a laptop and phones at the same time is through an inverter that plugs into the cigarette lighter. These are fairly inexpensive at around $30. The one we like to use is carried in store at Walmart. You can also find many varieties on Amazon for even less. We have had experience with the Walmart one going out occasionally, so recommend going with at least that caliber. But if you are on a very tight budget, go for the $10-12 ones you can find online.

Yeti Roadie Cooler – The Roadie 20 is the perfect size for car travel! You may have to really squeeze the food in. Take fruits and vegetables out of the packaging and put in baggies with all the air squeezed out to make enough food for a couple days fit, but it will hold ice very well. Since we eat the Paleo diet mainly, having all our meals with us and ready to be prepared on the road is very important. If you have any kind of diet you want to stick by, an excellent cooler really is a necessity.

Bug screens – a great Amazon only item. This is a sensational value at only $12! If you are sleeping in the car in the summer it is going to get hot. We’ve found the ideal temperature for sleeping in the car to be about 53 degrees. If it is close to 70 at night or higher, you will SWELTER in a car with the windows rolled up. And at those temps you will almost always have mosquitoes coinciding. Running the A/C is annoying and expensive. These cheap screens fit right over the window and work perfectly to solve this problem. They are stretchable nylon and fit most cars.

Pocket Juice – This handy portable and rechargeable device allows you to charge your phone without the car being on. It holds 4 full charges in between needing to be plugged in to charge itself. This is great if you want to watch Netflix or surf social media while winding down at a campsite or rest area. Your phone’s battery can drain faster than you’d think, especially if it is cold inside the car. We’ve gone to bed with 80% or more and woke up to a dead phone if the temps were around 30. Pro tip: sleep with your phone under your pillow to keep it warm.

Foam bed (or thick inflatable camping sleeping pads) – nothing has made it easier to travel in a Subaru and feel at home than our makeshift bed made out of a foam mattress topper cut to size. We have traveled for nearly 2 years on this bed and it’s great to even pull out at friend’s houses if they don’t have guest bed, It fits in our tent too, so no need to bring sleeping pads!

After we cut the foam with an electric knife to fit the general size and shape of the back of the car, we wrapped it in an Allerease protector. These will not even allow dust mites in, and keep the foam from being infiltrated by any odor that gets into the car, protect from dust and stains, and really just make the foam bed last forever. Our newest project is going to be to double the thickness of the bed by cutting another one and adding it on top, all contained within the protector. With this approach, you can get up to 6 inches of foam and still have it be malleable enough to fold over and allow the back seat to be put back up during the day. We have found this is a great approach if you don’t want the car to be permanently built-out.

A potential downside of not having the bed on a wooden platform as seen in most builds (and reflected in our build as of early 2020) is that there can be a slight slant to the backseat of a SUV. Subaru build out blog post and videos coming soon!

A few other must haves:

Black out screen for windows – a standard sun shade will do for the windshield. If you end up at rest areas, you will need to block out the light in all the windows in order to sleep well. Use Reflectix cut to the size of your windows. We wrapped ours in a black fabric, as that silver can really not be stealth. Many people in the vanlife community swear by this material as a way to insulate against the cold and protect against the heat. Reflectix rolls are expensive, so if you want to go the cheapest route, just get some sun shades made of the similar reflectix material (the silver bubbly material) and cut and tape these together to fit the side windows.

If you are heading out on a budget car trip for one of the first times, you will end up at a rest area or parking lot at least once. Campsites are notoriously unavailable or unreachable due to terrain if you are planning on hitting first come first serve free and low cost sites. You will definitely want to block out the lights in parking areas overnight.

Bathroom Squeegee – for wiping windows in the morning. I know this is a little gross, but most nights your breath will cause condensation on all the windows. Quickly take care of it with this. We keep it handy under the driver’s seat at all times.

Lap board – If there are two of you, the passenger can get some laptop work done on long drives. Also great for eating in the car.

Utensils – we like to have a set of regular utensils that we can wash and sanitize with wet ones, rather than relying on plastic ones. Lightweight camping sporks are also good and easy to clean. Can be found at REI or Natural Grocers for like $3.

Sunscreen and mosquito spray – don’t get caught buying this one on the road. One of the most overpriced items if you wait until you absolutely need it.

Baggies – so vital when using a small cooler. We unpack all our perishable fruits and vegetables, as well as packaged meat into baggies we can squeeze into a bag to be airtight. Rotisserie chickens can be picked off the bone and baggied up to last for a couple of days too. We will use baggies to section off types of toiletries as well–and just so many other things. Gallon size work best in our travels. Make sure not to go cheap here or you will end up with the unfortunate “cooler water” incident. Hefty sliders are a good choice. Don’t be fooled by imitation slider bags. Target brand, Safeway brand, both have hit us with cooler water inside bagged food in the past.

BPA free water bottles + gallon jugs – It gets hot in a car. Don’t pollute your body by using basic 24-pack waters or cheap plastic gallon jugs. Invest in some BPA free gallons to refill at water machines, or at the very least buy some BPA free small waters. Safeway 24-pack waters are now BPA free. And high end waters like Essentia are as well.

Laundry pods – don’t bring liquid detergent–just don’t. So many car mats met their end after this exploded at the top of the pass and we didn’t realize for hours–or days. We use All Free and Clear pods (or Target brand) and they are great, never messy. Unbag them and put just a few in a Hefty baggie.

A laundry bag – you’ll want to keep dirty clothes separated from what is still clean.

Blanket – in the winter we bring a nice comforter, and in the summer a light blanket. Shoulder seasons–sometimes both if we are traveling through a diverse set of climates. Early on we used sleeping bags. Once we realized we wanted the road to be home, we could never bring a sleeping bag and treat it like we just going on a camping trip. Real quilts and blankets make it feel homey, and are just a no-brainer for us now despite their bulk.

Actual pillows – more bulk that might seem unnecessary at first glance. after a few days on a blow up camp pillow, you’ll probably come to the same conclusion that these are worth the space.

Wet ones – great for cleaning everything from camp dishes to hands before you prep food to sanitizing your hands when you get in and out of the car–you might be surprised how many sticky things you come in contact with in public. Things will also spill in the car inevitably. Wet Ones are one of the most used items.

Scissors – you will need these so much. Cannot stress this enough.

Tape – can be like gold.

Our extras –

These are expenses you may not want if you are just starting out with long-term car travel. We were able to get them lumped in with the Subaru’s financing, so they didn’t cost anything out of pocket.

Thule “pod”The rooftop pod goes on top of the car and fits over the racks of most SUVs and holds everything you don’t want to see all the time on your trip – tent, dirty clothes, backpacks, hiking gear…and the piano. That’s what we put up there.

Bike rack – no trip is really complete without the bikes! But they can be a pain. Getting in and out of the back hatch easily can be so valuable on a trip. We use a bike rack that inserts into the tow hitch and folds down so that the hatch will open easily. You can buy them for as few as 2 bikes or as many as 5.

Stay tuned for our complete pack list! Summer and winter version!

Affiliate links may be present within these posts and if clicked, this blog may receive a commission based on your purchases at no additional cost to you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *