Everything You Need to Know for Your First Campervan Trip

Campervan roadtrip guide

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Thanks to the rise of campervans, camping has never been more accessible. These easy-to-drive cars make it easy to see the world on the roads and go almost anywhere in the United States and Canada.

But before you jump in and start your grand road tour, it’s important to remember the basics and understand the rules that come with campervan camping. Here are the quick basics everyone needs to remember when starting out in a campervan for the first time.

What Is a Campervan?

Known in other parts of the world as a “caravan,” "Class B,” or simply a “camper,” campervans are self-contained recreational vehicles built on the frame of a truck or van. Campervans are traditionally smaller than traditional RV vans, which makes them accessible for nearly anyone to drive.

One of the benefits of a campervan is how easy they are to get around. Because they are built on the body of production-model vehicles, anyone who has driven a large truck or minivan can learn to get around in a campervan easily! Plus, campervans often come with a lower cost compared to a traditional RV, with many of the same features.

On the downside, campervans come with much less space than a traditional RV. While a larger motorhome or recreational vehicle can fit an entire family, campervans are best fitted for much smaller groups—two or three people, at the most.

Is a Campervan Different From a Conversion Van or Traditional RV?

Although they share much of the same terminology, there is a very distinct difference between a campervan and conversion vans or even a traditional RV. The most obvious between them is size: While traditional RVs can be the size of a schoolbus, campervans are usually much smaller in size. The smallest campervans are the size of a production car, while the largest are around the size of a large truck. This distinct size difference means you can jump in and start right away with a campervan, while a traditional RV may take a lot more time to learn and get adjusted to.

Campervans are also much more different than “conversion vans,” although the two terms may be used interchangeably. While campervans usually come with dedicated cooking and sleeping spaces, conversion vans are often full-size vans with more storage space and even nicer seats, but aren’t necessarily intended for camping.

In short: if you’re ready to start camping, but aren’t interested in staying at a hotel every night or the time and money to learn how to drive a full-size RV, then the “vanlife” may be perfect for you.

The Benefits of a Campervan

Arguably, the biggest benefit of a campervan is its mobility. Often at the same size as a full-size van or truck, campervans can go anywhere you can imagine. All you need is a roadmap and a campground to get started!

Campervans come with many of the most common features found in RVs as well. A well-built campervan will feature a small kitchen area to prepare hot meals and power outlets to plug-in medical devices and charge cell phones. In addition, campervans have insulated sleeping area, so you can rest in a bed every night without exposure to the elements.

Campgrounds are often very accommodating to campervans, as they don’t take up much room and don’t need as many hook-ups to get up and running. The best campervans include plugs for “shore power,” or an external power source at the campsite. This allows you to use the kitchenette and power outlets without running down dedicated batteries.

Do I Need a Special Driver’s License for a Campervan?

In most parts of the United States, you will not need a particular driver’s license to operate a campervan. Because campervans are roughly the same size as the cars you already drive today, operating one on the street will be very similar to driving your car to work. However, before you go on your first road trip, you will want to get acquainted with your campervan. Campervans may come with back-up cameras, but not the center rear-view mirror. Be sure to go on a few test drives to understand its visibility and how it handles on the road.

Although you may not need a special driver’s license to take your campervan on the road, what you take with you might require additional paperwork. Because some campervans include propane or butane gas to power the kitchenette, you may be required to display placards to inform first responders and other drivers of what you are carrying. Be sure to check the local regulations where you are going.

What Do I Need to Pack in a Campervan?

Now that you’re sold on joining the “Vanlife” and are ready to head out on the open road, the first step is to put together a packing list. As with all travel, your packing list will change based on where you are going and how long you plan on being gone. For the basics, your campervan packing list should always include:

  • Food and beverages for the length of your trip
  • Potable water for dishwashing and other cleaning
  • Weather-appropriate clothes for the length of your trip
  • Clean linens and pillows for the bed
  • Kitchenette fuel (propane or butane, if necessary)
  • Cleaning products (wipes, soaps, and anything you can use to conveniently
  • Cash for tolls and any other unplanned expenses
  • Connection cables for campsites

Once you have your packing list together, you will also need to set a budget for your entire trip. This may vary based on how far you are going and campground costs. Your budget should account for:

  • Gasoline costs for your campervan
  • Campervan campground costs per day
  • Extra budget for food or entertainment while camping

While most charges can be paid for using a credit or debit card, it’s also important to carry a small amount of cash with you to ensure everything can get paid. If you don’t make a budget part of your campervan packing list, you might end up paying way more for your trip than you thought.

Where Can I Park My Campervan Overnight?

You’ve got the campervan, you have a destination in mind, and now you want to know where you can park your campervan overnight. Because these are registered vehicles operating on public roads, they are subject to all rules and regulations.

The easiest places to park your campervan overnight is at a campground. Many campgrounds have dedicated spaces for campervans and other recreational vehicles. If space is available, you can book just one night or your entire stay. Just be sure to check ahead if there is a space for you—otherwise, you might be caught on the road without a place to stay.

If your trip includes a visit to a national forest, then you are in luck. Because national forests are federal property, camping is usually free! If you can safely pull your car off the road, you can park your campervan for the night. Just be sure to follow local regulations: For example, some parks don’t allow open flames due to fire risks.

But as mentioned above, there are a lot of places where you may not be allowed to park your campervan overnight. You cannot park on streets where overnight parking is prohibited, or anywhere campervans or other live-in vehicles may be prohibited by local or state ordinances. This can include (but is not limited to) alongside significant highways, alongside coastlines or in dense parking lots.

If you are in a complete pinch for parking overnight, there are some emergency options available to you. Most Wal-Marts allow camping vehicles (including campervans) to park overnight, giving you a safe place to spend one night as you plan for the next leg of your adventure. Some amusement parks also have dedicated small RV and campervan space as well.

Tips and Tricks for Your Campervan Experience

If you’ve never taken a trip in a campervan before, you are in for a one-of-a-kind experience. But before you go, here’s some tips and tricks you can apply to your grand adventure.

  • Less is more: Although campervans offer a fair amount of living space, it is also very limited after you pack all your items in. Packing light allows you to enjoy still the creature comforts allowed from the campervan, without worrying about where and how to store everything when it comes time to move to the next campground (or go home).
  • Reservations save time and money: While it may be tempting to hit the open road to go wherever the wind takes you, it can also be a costly proposition if campground space is limited. By calling ahead and making reservations at campgrounds, you can ensure space is available – and at a rate in your budget. Some websites even allow you to book campground space online.
  • Leave the land better than you found it: No matter your camping style, it’s essential to make sure you are a good steward of the land. This includes picking up all trash, securing trash and other items before you leave or turn in for the night, and avoid feeding wildlife (on purpose or inadvertently). Not only is this good behavior, but it’s also the law. If you litter or start an open fire on federal lands (or where it’s against local rules), you could be fined.

Overall, campervan camping is one of the easiest ways to see the country. With a better understanding of campervan travel, you will have no trouble getting on your way and making memories that last a lifetime.