How to Live the Van Life (Without Actually Living in a Van)

If you’re like us, you’ve probably spent your fair share of time scrolling through #vanlife posts on Instagram, day-dreaming of breaking away from the 9-to-5 world, and living life on four wheels.

But for most of us, dumping tens of thousands of dollars into a Sprinter van or a fixer-upper VW and turning it into a house on wheels just isn’t in the cards. We’ve got families, houses, and jobs. Plus, we suspect the full-time van life isn’t all that glamorous when you have to do it 365 days a year.

Here’s the thing: you can live the van life for a fraction of the cost with a Roofnest.

A Roofnest is a hard shell roof top tent that you can mount on top of your current ride. It doesn’t matter if you drive a Corolla, a station wagon, or a pick-up truck. With a Roofnest, your car becomes your home away from home, but only when you want it to be.

You can take your Roofnest all over the country and always have a place to stay, whether you park at a campsite, on private or BLM land, at a Walmart, or even on the side of the road (where it’s legal).

Plus, your convenient upgrade to the van life is perfect for getting closer to the action in style, whether you’re a backcountry skier, a mountain biker, a hiker, or even a music festival junkie.

All you have to do is drive to the places you love, find a place to set up camp for the night, and in under 60 seconds, you’ve got a cozy room ready to go right on top of your vehicle.

But what about everything else the van life offers? The most inspiring van lifers can do everything from their rides: Work remote jobs with power and high-speed internet, cook gourmet meals, shower regularly (or at least semi-regularly), and find space for surfboards, rock climbing gear, wetsuits, and more.

So how can you take your Roofnest rig to the next level without moving into a van? It’s all about the accessories.

Read on for tips on how to live the #vanlife to the fullest without actually having to live in a van.

Upgrade Your Power Supply

 

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Whether you need to work remotely, want some light for dark nights, or are hoping to hook up a TV and some video games in your Roofnest, you’re going to need more than a 12V power supply plugged into your cigarette lighter.

There are 3 ways to do this (we’re not counting hauling a gas-powered generator, as that’s neither economical, convenient, or space-efficient).

120V Power Inverter
Cost: $20+
How it Works

  • This is the easiest way to convert your car battery into a source of power for your standard gadgets.
  • You can buy a power inverter with standard wall outlets that plugs into your car’s 12V hookup for as little as $20 on Amazon.
  • Units with higher wattage are more expensive, but allow you to power more devices and some electronics with heating elements, like a coffee maker.
  • If you’re a true DIYer, you can try out this hack to integrate the power inverter seamlessly into your dash. From there, you just need an extension cord to provide power to your Roofnest.
    The main problem with power inverters is that they’re really only useful when your car is running — otherwise you will quickly drain your battery.
  • There’s little risk of draining your battery when you’re driving around, but if you want access to power at all times, you’re going to need another option.

Portable Battery
Cost: $300-500
How it Works

  • For $300 to $500, you can get a high-end portable battery that will charge your phone, your laptop, and let you run a small 12V refrigerator and some lights up in your Roofnest.
  • Even more powerful units can cost up to $3000 and power pretty much anything you can dream up.
  • The nice thing about these kinds of batteries if you can charge them at home or from your car adapter, and you can also purchase compatible low-profile solar panels for as little as $60 to keep them powered on long outings.
  • If you’re keen on saving some dough, we’ve got a guide on how to build one of these portable batteries on your own for under $125. Check it out here »

Solar Panels
Cost: ~$350
How it Works

Connect to the Internet

 

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Now that you’ve got power, you’re ready for the next most important thing — the internet. Whether you want to stream your favorite show or have got work to catch up on from the road, a solid Wi-Fi connection is kind of a must for the van life.

Here are the three easiest ways to get a Wi-Fi internet connection rocking on the road:

Using Your Phone as a Wi-Fi source
Cost: Free with cell phone and service
How it Works:

  • Most smartphones have a mobile hotspot function, which turns your phone into a Wi-Fi router via its cellular signal.
  • You can connect your laptop or other internet-compatible devices to your phone’s local Wi-Fi network and get the data connection you need.
  • The pro of this solution is that it’s free, assuming you have a modern smartphone.
  • One con is that this will drain your phone battery quickly, but if you’ve worked out your power situation already, this shouldn’t be a problem — just keep your phone plugged in.

This solution only works if you have a good cell signal. If you’re doing some serious backcountry camping, that likely won’t be the case. You can always switch to a carrier with better rural networks, like Verizon or T-Mobile.

But even they can’t cover every inch of your favorite national park or far-flung beach. So if you can live with trucking it to town for some signal in exchange for the ease and convenience of this option, then we say go for it.

Plus, you can use it as an excuse to disconnect when you’re out in Mother Nature proper.

Mobile Hotspot
Cost: $100-$600 + plans from $10-$100/month
How it Works:

  • A mobile hotspot does the same thing as using your phone as a hotspot, but since it’s a dedicated device, it’s a good option if you don’t have a phone with this feature.
  • You can also connect a mobile hotspot permanently to your power source, leaving your phone free to roam.
  • The first con is that you need to pay for a separate data plan from your phone, so that’s an additional expense. The other main con is the same as the con of using your phone for Wi-Fi — if you don’t have a good cell signal, then you can’t get access to the internet.
  • However, higher end models will get better reception, plus you can connect an antenna to get a stronger signal.
  • Another benefit of mobile hotspots is that you can buy models with built-in rechargeable batteries, which will allow you to take it with you away from your vehicle and still have a reliable Wi-Fi connection.
  • Check out some of the best mobile hotspots for 2020 here »

Satellite Terminal with Wi-Fi
Cost: $700 down + $135 a month
How it Works:

  • This is the most expensive option, but it’s the one you need if you know you’re going to be traveling far away from any cell signal.
  • A satellite terminal is a portable device that connects to a satellite network to get you the data you need no matter where you are.
  • As long as you aren’t literally in a cave, a device like the Iridium Go! will provide you with a 100-foot radius Wi-Fi connection. All it takes is a patch of open sky, which shouldn’t be hard to find where you’re going.
  • The main con is the cost. The device itself will run you $700, and that’s not including an unlimited data plan, which costs $135 per month.

Stay Clean with a Portable Toilet and Shower

Someone famous once said that hygiene is the root of all morality…after a solid Wi-Fi connection and a place to charge your tablet, that is.

We’re paraphrasing, and honestly we may have made that up entirely, but let’s get real. Unless you want to go number one and number two in the woods every day and pray for rain to wash your hair, you’re going to need some sort of portable bathroom setup.

 

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Luggable Loo
Cost: $20
How it Works:

  • There are many portable toilet options on the market, but the easiest and cheapest is a glorified bucket called the Luggable Loo. Cute, right?
  • The Luggable Loo has a toilet seat with a lid and works with these extra leak-proof bags with built-in deodorizer.
  • If you’re going to be near trash facilities in the near future, you can hold onto these bags and dispose of them then.

Portable Flushing Toilet + Privacy Tent
Cost: ~$130
How it Works:

  • If you really want to live it up and have the room in your vehicle, you can spend a little more money on this portable toilet that actually flushes.
  • Of course, flushing means water, so for this you’ll need to pack extra water tanks and refill them whenever you get the chance.
  • Since it doesn’t have to be potable water, you could label containers specifically as non-drinking water and refill them at creeks, rivers, ponds and lakes.
  • Pair your portable toilet with a $40 fully-collapsible privacy tent to really upgrade your bathroom vibes.

RinseKit Plus Portable Shower + Kinsmen Hardware Shower Stall
Cost: $100+
How it Works:

  • Now for the shower — our favorite option is the RinseKit Plus Portable Shower.
  • Fill up the 2-gallon tank whenever you get the chance and you’ve got a 5 minute long shower ready to rock.
  • For a bit of privacy, the Kinsmen Hardware Shower Stall has got you covered, literally.
  • It’s not exactly a spa, but hey, you can always head home when you’re ready for a proper bath. That’s not an option for true van lifers.

Cook Like a Chef

No matter where your adventures take you, you gotta eat. With a van life setup, you could manage an almost fully-functional kitchen built right into your van. That sounds pretty nice compared to munching cold Clif bars or only eating what you can cook over a campfire every night.

A kitchen sink, counters, and a stovetop probably aren’t an option for your ride, but that doesn’t mean you can’t invest in a few accessories to make gourmet meals on the road.

Electric Stove
Cost: $30+
How it works

  • $30 will get you a small portable unit that will run right off your vehicle’s 12V power plug.
  • This is essentially a box that heats food up to a max of 300 degrees Fahrenheit. (You’re not gonna be whipping up a bouillabaisse in this thing.)
  • For more complicated recipes you need a proper stovetop. While there are tons of great portable electric stovetops on the market, you may have trouble powering them from the setups we discussed above, unless you invest in a very expensive portable battery rig.
  • The best solution for this is probably the simplest, and that is a gas-powered camping stove.
  • You hook up a little propane tank and voila! You’ve got fire to do proper stovetop cooking.

We like the idea of getting both a propane-powered camping stove and an electric travel stove or 12V slow cooker, which when combined will replicate your stovetop and oven at home.

If you do want to cook outside every once in a while, consider this flat packer fire pit from Blue Overland, complete with cooking grate »

On a side note, if you have a drip coffee maker hooked up in your ride (assuming your power situation allows for enough wattage), there’s a huge array of meals you can make in one. Think about it: The burner acts as stove top, the pot acts as a boiler, and the basket works as a steamer.

You can get pretty creative with that. Here are a bunch of ideas for meals you can make in a drip coffee pot »

Prep Your Ride for Winter Sleeping

 

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A big benefit of having a fully-dedicated van to live in is that it’s typically warmer than a tent. That is, unless, you’ve weatherproofed your Roofnest to ward off the elements.

Insulate Your Roofnest
Cost: $350+
How it Works:

Extra Storage

You may be thinking that if you use up the top of your vehicle for mounting your Roofnest, you won’t have space for equipment racks for all of your outdoor gear. Think again.

Falcon Crossbars
Cost: $249.00
How it Works

  • Just because you’ve installed a Roofnest to the top of your vehicle doesn’t mean you have to give up your equipment racks.
  • With our Falcon Crossbars ($249.00), you can create a place to store your bikes, skis, snowboards, surfboards, or car-top storage unit on top of your Roofnest.
  • You can also mount an equipment rack onto the back of your ride for more storage options.

 

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Live the Van Life When You Want To

All the elements we discussed above are removable. With a Roofnest rig, you’re not committing to a huge van — you’re simply upgrading your current vehicle when you want to.

Maybe you decide to hit the road for months at a time, or maybe you stick to being a weekend warrior. Either way, a Roofnest is the key to making it possible, and that’s removable, too.

We like to think of it as the ultimate van life hack. And speaking of hacks, you’re going to need as many as you can get when living out on the open road. Check out our guide to 10 genius camping hacks »