Camper Van Must Haves – What are They and How to Choose Them

When I began thinking about converting a van into a ‘tiny-home-on-wheels’ the term “must haves” popped up quite a bit through my research.

It felt like an elusive term used to get people to buy more products they don’t need for a lifestyle that was supposed to leave all that extra stuff behind. 

After doing some more research and purchasing my van, I very quickly learnt that the term “must haves” was not some scheme to get me to buy useless gadgets. Instead, it was a term to help me pair down and learn what was really needed. If you’re currently building a van or are thinking about it, chances are you’ve come across this term a lot. This is a guide to help you evaluate what you need, why you need it and how to make it work in your build.

Self building a van bed

So what are “Must Haves”?

Must Haves, put simply, are touchstones to help you decide what is important to you while living in a van. Some people like to take the term and throw a bunch of products underneath in order to share helpful, but excessive products that might come in handy while on the road. My definition, is a little different, however. 

They are a short list of needs, whether they are items or design functions to help decide what is important when converting your van. 

They are a guideline. Pinpoints. Ideas. All of which will shape the way that your van is built and how you go about building it. 

My Personal List

When I was building my van I had a long list of things that I wanted and a minimal budget to make it happen.

Multiple lights. Hot water. A shower. A top of the line composting toilet. A bookshelf. The list went on forever. I probably had 20-30 things on that list that I told myself I needed. Truth be told, I didn’t need them all. Instead, I wanted them. 

Would it have been nice to have hot water on demand, that rarely ran out and let me shower for 20 minutes? Yes, it would have been. But, if I really needed that, I wouldn’t want to live in a van to start with.

In the end, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote a list of 5-10 items or design ideas that I just couldn’t picture myself living without.

Some of these were simple; I needed a toilet, no questions asked. Being a woman on the road, it just wasn’t practical to consider otherwise. Props to all the women out there who are happy to go out in the pitch black of night to pee but truly, it wasn’t a sustainable option I could ask of myself. 

Full Sized Fixed Bed which was my most important must have

I needed a big bed. Something I could come home to after a long hike and crawl into without having to rearrange bench seats or cushions. More importantly, it had to be comfortable.

This item on my list lead to me purchasing a Tempurpedic mattress. Without a doubt, it was the most expensive item in my build and took me way over my initial budget. But, 3 years later it is still my favourite and most comfortable part of the build. 

Some items on my list were a little more tricky to make happen. I knew I wanted an oven, badly. I love to cook, and to me, a kitchen is what makes a house a home. 3 years ago when I was building out my van, ovens were a fairly new thing to see in DIY conversions.

Many people told me it was a terrible idea and that I would probably end up starting a fire. Although completely untrue, it did scare me for a while. After looking around for an RV-safe oven, I finally found a second-hand oven/stove combo for $100. After a little bit of retro-fitting and some youtube videos, I had my oven! It was by no means easy, but totally worth it! 

Choosing what is important

The first step is to sit down and really think about your van. 

How do you plan to use it?

Do you plan to live in it part-time and still have a home base? If so, you probably won’t need some of the things that a full-timer would. 

Do you plan to work full-time from your van? You might need a dedicated desk area to make that happen. 

Are you going to be spending lots of time in cities or are you more of an outback type of person? That will change the storage space you need inside.

These are a few questions amongst many that you can ask yourself to help narrow down what you will need. It is important, to be honest with yourself here.

For example, when I was thinking about how I was going to use my van, I made it a priority to have a garage space for a bike. Truth be told, I am not a biker. Mountain biking? Nope. Road biking? Heck no. A casual ride down a city street once every 6 months? Ahh, that’s more like it.

Why I needed a bike still puzzles me. Maybe I thought it would come in handy to get around when parked up. Maybe I just thought it was what you did as a VanLifer. Truth be told, that space underneath my raised bed is more of a nuisance than anything. And, for the hassle it took to make it happen, I would rather rent a bike every time I need one.

Learn from my mistake. Be honest with yourself. Be realistic about the person you are. Not who you could be. 

Now that you’ve got a good idea of how you will use your van, it’s time to pair down and decide what exactly you need to make VanLife work for you. 

This is where you take some time to really think about items or design constructs that need to happen in your build. Period. End of story. 

I suggest this list be no longer than 10 items. When designing and building in such a small space, fitting anymore than 10 must have items can prove tricky, you end up smooshing everything together to try and make it work.

Instead, really think about what you need and how you will use it. Every single build is different, as well as every single person’s priorities. This is where you get to sit down and decide what will make your van, yours. Only you know what you truly need. 

Prioritize what you want. 

Now that you have a list of 5-10 items, look it over once more. Do you really need that shelf that holds the gaming system that you will realistically use 5 times a year? Probably not! Do a quick edit of the list. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

Once your list is finalized put a number beside each item in order of how important they are to you and your build. For example, in my case, having a fixed bed was my 1st priority, a toilet was 2nd, everything else fell into place after those two. 

 Now that you have a list, it’s easy to see where you will start. As you are creating some rough designs for your build, you now have a guideline of where to start since each must have is numbered in terms of importance. From there, you can put the items on your list into your build and base the rest of the conversion around them. 
Fully completed van once all of the must haves had been added

The Importance of Having Build Priorities.

It seems overwhelming at first; choosing, designing and building the van of your dreams. However, with some strategy behind your conversion, you can very quickly turn it into exactly what you’ve envisioned.

Having must haves as a guide to help you get there is a really important aspect that is sometimes overlooked. Or, sometimes, tinted by the lens of consumerism. In reality, they help you know what’s next. They help you set realistic expectations. And, most of all, they remind you of what the vanlife is really all about. 

Now, get out there and build the most functional van of your dreams! 

If you were looking for gear suggestions instead, check out our other article here

You can read about more things to consider when converting your van here

How to Build a Camper E-Book


Please note that all comments will be checked by our team before being approved.