I’ve learned a few things about van organization in the last 3+ years (and the last 3+ months). I wish I’d known the following things before I started life as a van dweller. If you’ve not yet started a life of van dwelling, you may want to contemplate these things before you begin. If you’re already van dwelling, well, it’s never to late to learn something new, right?
This photo shows how I use binder clips to attach things to decorative wood strips.
#1 If you have an old-school conversion van, look for anything decorative you can rip out to free up a little more room. In my van, the first thing to go was the last captains chair in the back. I can’t believe it took me over a year to rip out the pieces of wood housing cup holders and ashtrays (which I couldn’t see, much less use, because of the tubs and drawers pushed up against them). By ripping out those useless, stained pieces of wood, I gained six to eight inches, which is immense to a van dweller. BUT before you start ripping things out, try to imagine how you could use the decorative touches that are there. I use binder clips to hang things from flat strips of wood that maybe looked nice in 1992 when the van was new.
#2 If you live alone in a van, you may not need a double bed. If you have a bench seat in the back, the bed it folds down into will likely not be very comfortable unless you top it with several inches of memory foam or something similar. You might be better off pulling out the bed that came in the van and putting in something smaller, unless you’re holding out hope of getting laid. You’ll have to decide if you want more bed space or more space for stuff. (Of course, you could also store things on the double bed–I’ve definitely gone that route.)
#3 Your bed does not have to be built strong as a bunker. Sure, you want your bed to be sturdy, but My Rock Guy proved to be brilliant when he built my bed with no attached parts. When it comes time to vacuum back there, I can remove and replace all the parts quickly, without help. I can also move the bed easily if I want to try a new floor plan.
#4 Underbed storage is really helpful. I suggest putting your bed as far off the floor as possible while still being able to sit up without hitting your head. Store things you use less often under the bed.
This photo shows both my underbed storage and the dishpan full of books wedged under there. Yes, that’s a paper cutter to the left of the dishpan full of books. Doesn’t everyone travel with a paper cutter under the bed?
#5 Containers typically need covers. Baskets may be super cute, but without a cover, the stuff inside is likely to end up on the floor. (My one exception was a plastic dishpan full of books wedged under my bed. I’ve since bought a tub with a lid to put those books in, not because the books were ending up all over the floor, but because I needed the tub to lift my sloping bed.)
#6 I resisted for two years, but I find drawers really are easier to live with than using 18 gallon tubs for storage. Having to move the top tub to get to the bottom tub was a perpetual pain in my ass. Finding a place to set the top tub was often nearly impossible in my already overcrowded van. Locating an item that had settled to the bottom of an 18 gallon tub was usually an exercise in frustration. Yes, plastic drawers are stupidly expensive, but I think they make my life easier.
This is my camp stove, set up in the van on a plastic tub for cooking. Usually my laptop backpack is on top of this tub, but the backpack is easy enough to move when it’s time to cook. When I’m cooking indoors, I always make sure a window is open. I’m also careful to keep flammables away from flame.
#7 You will probably want a flat surface in the van for cooking. Even if you usually cook outside, there will likely come a time when it’s rainy or too cold or the wind is blowing at gale force or you just can’t bring yourself to put on pants and you want (or need) to cook inside (even if “cooking” is simply heating water for instant Ramen). At such times, life is much easier if there is a flat surface on which you can set up your camp stove.
This photo shows bags, jewelry, and my sun hat hanging from shower curtain hooks that I have wedged in between the wall of the van and decorative wood.
#8 Wall space can be utilized by hanging as much as possible. (This is another good tip from My Rock Guy. He says when he lived in vans, he stored his clothes in duffel bags, which he hung.) If my shower curtain hook method doesn’t work for you, you can figure out something else that will.
#9 Many people who live in small spaces have a rule that every item they own must have two purposes. This rule has never really worked for me. I can quickly name ten important things in my van that only have one use (sunhat, ice chest, stove, propane bottles, heater, Luci light, screwdriver, pee bucket, cast iron skillet, sandals…you get the idea…) I understand the reasoning behind this rule: you don’t want to haul around a bunch of stuff you don’t need. But I don’t think the “two use” rule is actually very helpful.
#10 You are probably not going to get your van arranged in the most efficient and aesthetically pleasing way on the first try. Trial and error will probably be involved. Maybe you’ll decide I’m all wrong and drawers don’t work nearly as well as tubs. Maybe you’ll decide the wheels on your ice chest take up too much space. (I took the wheels off my ice chest last month, after living with them in the way for over a year. I thought it would be a hassle, so I didn’t even try for the longest time. Taking them off turned out to be really easy.) Maybe you’ll decide you only need two pairs of pants and two t-shirts, so you only need one medium drawer instead of three large one. I suggest you give yourself permission to make mistakes, change your mind, and try new things.
Bonus! #11 It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. You’ll probably save money if you shop at thrift stores and garage sales before you buy brand new things. If you’re in a town with a Habitat for Humanity Restore, look there for household items that might work in your van. Have patience. If you can, give things a chance to show up cheap or free before you rush out and buy new stuff at full price.
I took all the photos in this post.