Nomad Life

Van Life Essentials: How to Get Rid of Stuff and Simplify Your Life

These days, the secret is out. Sam and I started our dream life and moved into a 22ft Dodge Sprinter. While there is a lot of unknown ahead, we are thrilled and privileged to have secure incomes and work freedom to try out this nomadic lifestyle. However, just getting ourselves into the van was a journey. Considering we had to downsize from a one-bedroom apartment AND a 3 bedroom house, figuring out how to get rid of stuff and decide on van life essentials was very overwhelming. And while it took a lot of mental, physical, and emotional labor, at the end of the day minimizing our belongings to essentials only felt freeing. It takes a complete mindset shift to get this done and exploring the principles of minimalism and a life with less was definitely helpful.

Now, I’ll be honest, we are getting a storage unit for many of our items that are not van life essentials but considered nonnegotiable keepsakes, etc. This way when we decide to settle down somewhere we don’t have to start from scratch. We also plan to store winter clothing items and do a swap once we head West for ski season. All that said, our options were 3 fold when getting rid of our stuff; 1. Van Essential, 2. Storage Unit, 3. Toss. 

Assess your Belongings and Prioritize What to Keep

This first step is not a one-and-done situation. You will continually assess what you have and prioritize again and again. Something that seemed so important to hold onto one week, may not be so important the next. As complete beginners on this journey, we honestly had to guess what van life essentials look like, so we most likely overpacked but perfectionism gets us nowhere. 

Sam and I learned a lot about ourselves during this process. Most relevant, I have very little attachment to my belongings while Sam figured he’d need to keep everything…just in case. In the beginning, I pushed and pushed to throw stuff away and argued about the nonessentials. This only caused grief and a stalemate. Eventually, as the day grew closer Sam became more open to the “toss” option. All that to say, give people time and allow them to go at their own pace when getting rid of stuff, you’ll avoid a lot of conflict this way. 

Tips and Tricks to Identify Van Life Essentials

  1. Set some boundaries and rules (e.g. if I haven’t used it in X amount of months, then it’s not coming with me). 
  2. Another strategy I used was packing something into the toss pile and seeing how I lived without it for a day or two. If I wasn’t missing it and didn’t need it, then it was in the right spot. 
  3. If you’re traveling with a partner, plan to assess your things together. Whose stuff is nicer, more functional, and more durable? We used this frequently with our kitchenware. 
  4. Start early! Do not wait until the last 2 weeks to figure this out. 
  5. Go room by room or shelf by shelf to avoid overwhelm
  6. Do your research and follow van lifers to see what they use and love in their vans. 
  7. Sort things into piles or make lists (e.g. donate, storage unit, van essential) 
  8. If you can, store seasonal items with family or friends. 
  9. Consider sizing and test out how an item fits into the van. 

Sell, Donate, Give, Recycle Unnecessary Items

Now that we have assessed our items, it’s time to toss them. While you most certainly will be throwing things away, let’s do our best to help the planet here and adopt more of a minimalist lifestyle mindset. You can do this by donating, selling, or giving your things to friends and family

Sell

If you’re hoping to make a bit of extra cash, you can sell your items. While it’s definitely not our favorite, Facebook Marketplace is easy for selling pretty much everything. I love FB Marketplace for furniture because buyers pick it up and you avoid a lot of heavy lifting. The only downside is that there are scammers and some items get a lot of messages. Keeping up with communication can be difficult. A quick tip for FB Marketplace is to have buyers take a look at other items you’re selling when they come by. Search for local consignment stores in your area to sell clothing, shoes, and accessories. Check out my list of favorites in Denver. Last but not least, something I really wish we would have done is have an old-school yard sale. This is a great way to get rid of stuff in just a few hours. 

Donate

Donating is great for many reasons including helping those in need while reusing items and avoiding landfills. Get to know your local ethically and environmentally friendly thrift stores, you’ll be making many stops there. Thrift stores are amazing because they can be one-stop for nearly all types of items from furniture to kitchenware, decor, and clothing. However, they don’t accept everything. For items such as gently used mattresses, pillows, towels, cleaning supplies, and beauty/hygiene products look into your local rescue mission or animal shelter. Typically their websites will list items they’re looking for and can accept. If you have larger furniture that you’d like to donate, places like Habitat for Humanity will come to pick it up for you. 

Give

Finally, we asked friends and family in Denver to come by and take whatever non-van life essentials they wanted. This included many furniture items, leftover alcohol, and odd tools like a weed wacker. As a speech therapist, I had lots of toys that needed eliminating, so I gave them to my clients and coworkers as well. It never hurts to send out a message in Slack. 

Recycle

Okay, so technically the three options above are a form of recycling and help to reduce waste. However, I recommend looking into your local recycling management to see what items can be recycled and at what facilities. Denver also has private companies like Ridwell that will pick up materials to recycle from your doorstep. This includes odd things like linens, light bulbs, electronics, and styrofoam. 

Invest in Multifunctional and Space-Saving Items

Now that we know how to get rid of stuff, it’s time for the fun part. Finding those innovative van life essentials. For this step, you’ll definitely want to do your research. It can be helpful to follow van lifers on social media and check out some van life blogs for what you need. Don’t get trapped by sponsored posts and affiliate links unless you really believe in the product as well. This is another time to assess and prioritize. Some items may need to stay in the cart for now until you’re on the road for a few weeks and decide you need them. Another tip here is to actually spend some time in your van before you hit the road. Trust me, you will quickly figure out what items are lacking. Also, I highly recommend browsing the dollar store. I was shocked by the functional storage and organizational items I found.

Favorite functional van life essentials so far:  

  1. iPad Wall Mount, used for streaming at bedtime instead of buying a TV 
  2. Collapsible, hard-sided dog crate
  3. Collapsible/travel dog bowls
  4. Packing cubes 
  5. Foldable bamboo bath mat for outdoor showers
  6. Ex-Officio Undies (quick dry, wash in the sink)

Embrace Minimalism and Let Go of Materialism

I did some research on minimalism and its benefits which is great motivation for maintaining a life with less. From the impact of the environment to the freeing feeling of decluttering, it’s a win-win for the planet and your mental health. One thing that’s been helpful when embracing the principles of a minimalist lifestyle, is focusing our energy and money on experiences. For example, Sam’s birthday was not too long ago. Instead of buying him gifts, I got him tickets to a dinner theater show on our bucket list. 

Finally, give yourself some time to adjust to a life with less. In this consumer-based society, it can be extremely difficult to transition from materialism. Living in a van is already great motivation for avoiding materialistic tendencies. Instead of gift shop mugs, we will buy stickers, and keychains, or just take some unforgettable pictures. For birthday gifts, we will stick to purchasing tickets to an event or experience. Instead of fast fashion, we will invest in more sustainable clothing. 

After this process, I made a promise that I would never own that much stuff ever again. It really opened my eyes to just how much we are constantly wasting and how little we actually need. From expired food to fast fashion and that overflowing medicine cabinet, optimizing your van life essentials really puts things into perspective. Without so much stuff, I feel lighter, freer, and honestly less overwhelmed. Let’s see if we can continue to tackle life with less in this minimalist van lifestyle.

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