The Vanlife Gift Guide: 16 Gift Ideas for Van Dwellers + Car Campers
The holidays are around the corner, but what do you buy for a minimalist who lives in the back of a tiny cargo van? Make your present count by getting them something that actually fits their lifestyle. Not sure what that means? Check out this handy vanlife gift guide for some ideas.
The Vanlife Gift Guide
Whether you need something from your under-the-bed storage area for something or you just need to go out at night to pee, hands-free lighting is a godsend for vanlife. There’s no substitute for a good headlamp. As a bonus, you can also take your headlamp with you anytime you hit the trail.
The Petzl Actik Core headlamp featured here is the one I used to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, and I continued using it when I transitioned to vanlife afterward. Although the list price is higher than some competitors, this bad boy is incredibly durable and versatile. I think it’s perfect for vanlife because of its flexible charging options (AAAs or a USB-rechargeable battery) and high light output.
READ NEXT – The Best Backpacking Headlamps of 2021
MSRP: $28.50 (3 gal.)
While some people build showers into their vans, most don’t. Showers take up a lot of space and are water-hungry, so unless you have a water hookup and plan to stay in RV parks often, they don’t make a ton of sense. Also, water heaters are expensive and use a ton of electricity.
Enter the simple, effective, packable solar shower. Just fill the bag with water, lay it on your dashboard or hood to heat up in the sun, hang it from a tree branch, and open up the nozzle for a relaxing, hot outdoor shower no matter where you are! Pro-tip: in summer, these showers can actually heat the water too much. Test the temperature before you use it—you might need to dilute with cool water.
The Advanced Elements Summer Solar Shower featured here is the one I’ve used for the past three years. It’s durable, never leaks, and the three-gallon size is perfect for me. (In contrast, try lifting the five-gallon version over your head to hook it on a tree branch when it’s full of 40 pounds of scalding water. Not fun.)
This incredibly simple pour-over coffee maker takes up hardly any space or weight, yet it makes an amazing cup of coffee every time. It’s popular among campers because it’s so lightweight and doesn’t require electricity or fancy accessories. The taste of the coffee is largely determined by the coarseness of your grind using this method, so for maximum control over your brew, pair this with a Hario Hand Grinder.
Our coffee-lover-in-chief, Joal, uses the Hario V60 and hand grinder to great effect both on and off the trail and says this is one of the top six methods for making trail coffee during a thru-hike. If it’s capable of producing a good brew out in the backcountry, it’s sure to flourish inside a cozy van.
People take their vans to some pretty remote places, and cell service is never a given when you’re on the road. A GPS beacon like the Garmin inReach Mini is a great option for a van dweller (not to mention their worried friends and family back home). It enables two-way texting, tracking, and navigation even if you don’t have cell service. You can even use it to check the local forecast! Most importantly, it has an SOS button that will summon emergency services to your location if you really get in a jam.
Situational awareness and preparedness are paramount, but this Garmin device is an excellent failsafe for when everything goes wrong. It will give you and your loved one peace of mind. Also, because it’s so lightweight, they can even carry it on their person if they’re away from the van for an extended period (e.g. for a backpacking trip).
MSRP: $30 (set of 3)
The ideal way to keep your clothes and linens organized and out of the way in a tight space. You can never have too many packing cubes! They may not be fancy, but they make a practical gift for any vanlife enthusiast that’s sure to be well-received.
Hammocks are incredibly comfortable and fun to use. You can lay down and nap in them, you can sit side-by-side with another person in one, and when you’re ready to put it away, it packs down tiny and takes up little space in the van. Everyone likes a hammock, especially when you live in a cramped space and need a comfy place to hang out outside the van. And all you need is a few handy trees to set it up.
Eagle’s Nest Outfitters (ENO) is one of the top names in camping hammocks, and their DoubleNest design is spacious and sturdy enough for two.
Because not every van dweller has an elaborate plumbing system. Hand pumps are inexpensive, easy to install, and don’t require electricity. They’re perfect for people who prefer a simple, low-tech setup in their van. Besides—small, five-gallon water jugs are so much more manageable than big tanks: they’re easy to clean, and most grocery stores have machines where you can refill for a nominal fee.
This is the brand I use in my van, and I really like it. Just be aware that there are a few carboys it won’t fit, namely American Maid five-gallon jugs.
Want an equally easy, hands-free alternative to the manual hand pump? Go with a marine-style foot pump instead. (Slightly more work to install, as you have to buy flexible tubing, cut to length, and attach it to both ends of the pump yourself.)
Living in a van during the summer months can be unbearable without a little airflow. You’re literally living in a small metal box, after all. Not all vans have hardwired ceiling vent fans, and even if they do, having a small, portable USB-powered fan is really beneficial. That way you can have a cool breeze playing across your face no matter where you are in (or outside of) the van.
USB-rechargeable options are best because they don’t draw much power and can even be charged from the van’s cigarette lighter while you’re driving. Electrical demand is a big concern for virtually everyone who lives in a van. An efficient, battery-powered option makes for a smart and thoughtful vanlife gift.
The Klein Tools gimbal fan featured here can be clipped, hung, or set just about anywhere. It can also rotate 360 degrees on two axes (i.e. it’s super adjustable). While there are TONS of portable USB fan offerings online, Klein Tools is a reputable brand, the gimbal feature is incredible, and it has decent battery life.
This holiday season, give your vanlife loved one the gift of not having sharp knives fly through the air into the cab every time they hit the brakes.
All van dwellers love magnetic knife holders. They keep your metal stuff (not just knives!) organized and secure without taking up space in your cabinets. It’s a great way to declutter a cramped space, and it looks good too! All the cool kids are doing it. (Magnetic spice jars and miscellaneous rare earth magnets are also all the rage these days.)
At one point, I survived off the grid for six straight months with my Jackery as the sole source of electricity. This thing really works—it stores a ton of power, charges devices quickly, and lasts forever. It can accommodate standard three-prong wall plugs, 12-volt cigarette lighter-style chargers, and USBs. You can charge it with AC power at home or plug it into your van’s cigarette lighter to charge off the alternator as you drive. If you pair it with Jackery solar panels, you can charge directly from the sun.
A Jackery is hugely valuable for someone whose in-built van electrical system is limited or nonexistent. Even though I’ve recently built a van with a robust solar-powered electrical system, I still carry my Jackery for emergencies and so I can stay plugged in when I’m working outside the van.
MSRP: $50 (32 oz. bottle)
Hydro Flasks are nice and sturdy, and they’ll keep food and drinks the same temperature for hours on end. This is incredibly valuable in a van, since its occupants are usually subject to the whims of the outside temperature to some degree. If the van in question doesn’t have refrigeration, a vacuum water bottle will be an even bigger hit.
Take it from someone who used to work in outdoor retail: everyone loves these things. A Hydro Flask is a slam-dunk gift for just about anyone, whether they’re into vanlife or not.
- Big Agnes Skyline UL Chair: $110
- Mountain Summit Cooler Chair: $70
- NEMO Stargazer Recliner Luxury Chair: $220
Every van dweller needs a good set of folding camp chairs. No one wants to stay cooped up inside all the time, even in a well-appointed van. Also, you never know when you might need extra seating to entertain guests.
I have two Big Agnes Skyline UL chairs (and a Soul Kitchen camp table) that I love and use constantly. They’re very light, small, and portable, making them a perfect option if you’re unsure how much space your van dweller can devote to camp furniture. These things pack up TINY and are very fast to set up and break down. They’re also quite comfortable.
If you know the person you’re shopping for can afford to devote more space to chairs, consider getting them something full-sized. I’m a huge fan of chairs with built-in side tables and/or camp rocking chairs.
Here’s one for the future van dweller who is still working on their build. Straight cuts make all the difference in a van build. However, most people aren’t going to invest in a table saw just for this one project (especially since downsizing is half the joy of vanlife). A saw guide isn’t the same as a table saw, of course, but it will help you get clean, straight, splinter-free cuts with a basic circular saw. And unlike a table saw, it’s affordable, lightweight, and doesn’t take up much space.
Most vans do not come equipped with ovens. Ovens take up a lot of space, typically require gas hookups, and can heat up the van’s interior in no time flat. That’s why the Omnia Oven is so popular among van dwellers who still crave homemade baked goods and roasted veggies. It may not look like an oven, but this compact stovetop gadget can be used for anything from cakes and pies to breads, biscuits, and casseroles.
Your pies, cakes, casseroles, and loaves will all come out Bundt-shaped, but hey: it’s vanlife. The main thing is that it tastes good, and the Omnia Oven sets you up for success in that department. It doesn’t require a standalone fuel source—again, just place it on top of your stove and let it go to town—and it’s small and packable. You can even get a muffin tin insert to go with it!
Most people in the vanlife community have heard of (and at least kind of want to try) an Omnia Oven, so it’s a perfect gift.
MSRP: $99, or $129 for special prints
Dimensions: 72″ x 52″
This lightly insulated synthetic blanket packs down to the size of a Nalgene, so it won’t take up much space in a crowded van. It’s perfect when you just need a touch of warmth or a splash of color in your decor. Rumpl designed their Original Puffy blanket with clips so you can wear it as a cape and corner loops so you can stake it to the ground for picnics, music festivals, etc. Plus, it’s weather-resistant and made with 100% recycled polyester.
The blankets come in a variety of beautiful designs, but to make this an extra-special vanlife gift, go with a special National Parks print (like the Smoky Mountains version pictured above).
Just as thru-hikers can’t afford the weight penalty of heavy paper volumes, vanlifers can’t afford the space penalty. Fortunately for both groups, these days you can download an entire library’s worth of literature onto your tiny magic rectangle (aka smartphone).
By gifting someone an ebook, you’re ensuring they’ll be able to take it with them wherever they go, and it will be no added burden. You can do the same with audiobooks, music, movies, and TV shows.
Pssst: If you’re in the market for ebooks, The Trek has several ebooks for the aspiring thru-hiker in your life. Just making sure you know.
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