What It’s Like To Travel In A Camper Van For the First Time

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We heard all about the rage of campervanning and decided to see what all the fuss was so we took take a short road trip from San Diego to Northern California to visit Santa Cruz and San Jose to surf Steamer Lane and to hike Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and Joseph D Grant County Park.

Traveling in a camper van was like camping with a few exceptions: It was liberating and quiet. We didn’t need to check in or out of a hotel room and we got to poop in a very tiny bathroom that also had a shower which happened to be right next to the kitchen. All in all, it was pretty great.

Here’s more of our experience traveling and living in a camper van for 5 days and 4 nights for the first time. Here’s what we learned and may be helpful for your first-time campervanning.

How Much It Cost To Rent The Camper Van

We rented a 2021 Winnebago Solis camper van from Outdoorsy for $175 a night for 4 nights plus insurance and roadside assistance for a total of $1,218.

This vehicle was professionally built out to include:

  • 2 queen-size beds (sleep up to 4)
  • Sink
  • Stove (and everything you need to cook
  • Ventilation
  • Heater
  • Shower (w/ hot water)
  • Toilet
  • Blankets
  • Linens
  • Pillows
  • First aid-kit
  • Towels

We took our trip in late March of 2022, when gas was at $6.00 a gallon, so that hurt a bit. We also save money by not eating out quite and cooking in the van.

It was more about the adventurous than it would have been staying at a Motel 6 (we were traveling on a tight budget).

Safety & Traveling In A Camper Van

A lot of people we talk to ask us, “Is It Safe To Travel In A Camper Van?” We felt safe and comfortable driving and sleeping in the camper van and didn’t experience any issues.

Here are a few tips to help you stay safe when traveling in a camper van:

  • Don’t park or sleep in sketchy neighborhoods. It should go without saying.
    • Also, have a plan in the event you need to move the van in the middle of the night. Keep your shoes, glasses, keys and whatever else you need nearby in case you need to drive off in a hurry.
  • Give yourself plenty of room making turns when you drive. We drove a 19’ van which is about 5 feet longer than our daily driver. We cornered too close a few times making a right-hand turn and bumped the curb with our rear right tire. Make wider turns.
  • Stay on grid the first time you rent a camper van. We didn’t go off grid, so we were in no real danger if we were to get a flat or ran out of gas or water. We also bought roadside assistance when we rented our camper van from Outdoorsy.
  • Get to your destination early. We avoided traffic and were able to get to our destinations quickly and find parking without a problem.
  • Avoid steep roads and sharp turns. If you can go around a mountain or tricky road to get to your destination you should consider it.  

Can You Poop In A Camper Van?

The toilet and shower inside the camper van.

You sure can and we did. We wanted a toilet in our van. It was one of the perks for us especially given that our biology runs like a clock first thing in the morning.

There are a few things to keep in mind if you are going to poop in your camper van.

  • It’s small. The toilet, the room, all of it. It’s tiny. You will be cramped.  The bigger your body is the more you will be cramped in that little bathroom.
  • Ask your traveling partners to go outside or go for a walk. It’s a thin door and there isn’t much ventilation.
  • To use toilet paper or not to use toilet paper, that is the question. We did and we dropped it in the toilet which is reportedly a big no-no. But here’s the thing, we made sure there was a lot of water in the toilet bowl cassette (what houses your poop) so that there wouldn’t be any clogging when we went to empty the cassette. We also emptied the cassette twice in 4 days to try to stay ahead of any poop-related problems.

You are going to need to empty the cassette before returning the camper van. Take note of how to do this and wear rubber gloves when working with the cassette. You will also need to identify a dump station to dispose of your poop. RVDumpStations.info is great site and  FreeRoam is a great app to help you find such a place.

This guy will tell you how to empty your camper van toilet cassette.

How We Showered In The Camper Van

The camper van we rented had two shower options: one shower was inside the van and one shower was out the back of van on the outside. We opted to use the shower in the back of the van after we surfed at Steamer Lane.

We turned the hot water on, waited 15 minutes and had a decently warm shower. Now, consider that we are surfers and showering outside in wetsuits, boardshort, bikinis or boardshort liners is pretty normal for us. You still need to get used to using shampoo and soap when you shower outside in a parking lot, which we did.

The van included a shower curtain so you can have some privacy when you shower in the back of the van. Honestly, we forgot about it and just showered in our boardshort liners. If we had the choice to do it again, we would consider the shower curtain.

We also hiked twice on our trip but didn’t shower each time. Instead, we used the shower in the van to clean off our feet before going to bed. If we felt dirtier than we did, we would have opted for using the inside shower.  

Sleeping In The Camper Van

We slept in the bed in the back of the camper van.

Sleeping in a camper van overnight is referred to as boondocking which basically means you are sleeping at a campsite, a parking lot or off the side of the road somewhere. We used FreeRoam to find the best place for us to sleep. Sometimes it was on the street.

Our camper van had a bed in the back and a pop-up bed on the roof. We opted for the bed in the back of the van. We were hoping to find place to sleep on the beach in Santa Cruz, but it just didn’t work out this time around.

How We Ate In The Camper Van

The kitchen, which is next to the best and across from the toilet and shower.

The van included a fridge and some cooking equipment, so we brought a bunch of stuff from Costco which included:

  • Eggs
  • Protein shakes
  • An assortment of fruit including berries, apples, and bananas
  • Avocados
  • Cheese
  • Quick rice/quinoa
  • A bunch of dry goods
  • Drinking water
The fridge full of food!

We only cooked once in the van, but we could have done so more than once. Cooking in the van was pretty easy as was cleaning up. Just be sure you don’t keep your bedding too close to the sink or you may end up with water all over your sheets like we did.

Other Items We Brought On Our Trip

A bunch of gear.

Other than the above food, we also brought:

  • Paper towels for, well, everything
  • Toilet paper which we kept in a Ziplock bag just in case it rolled around on the van floor
  • Soap for dishes and for our hands
  • A chef’s knife for cooking
  • Garbage bags for keep our garbage and recycle in check
  • Rubber gloves for doing dishes and another pair for cleaning the toilet cassette
  • Pillows and sheets. The van had some, but we wanted our own
  • Surfboard and wetsuit
  • Hiking shoes

The One Helpful App We Used

We checked out a few apps before venturing off, but only used FreeRoam. We used it to identify places we could sleep overnight and where we could dump our toilet cartridge.

We highly recommend it.

Helpful Hints For First-Timer Camper Van Renters

  • Bring your own sheets. It’s a nice comfort to have.
  • Pick up the van as early as you can and return it as late as you can to maximize your fun
  • Bake in time to clean out the van including the toilet cassette, the toilet and the shower
  • Know where you are sleeping each night
  • Know where you are going to empty the toilet cassette
  • Take your time and enjoy the sites

Is Traveling In A Camper Van Worth It?

A rest stop somewhere north of Santa Barbara.

Being on your own schedule, the freedom of the open road that clears your head, and pooping in van! Yes, we would do it again.

We really enjoyed renting the camper van and taking an extended weekend up to Northern California from San Diego for a late winter surf and hiking trip. We hope you can do the same.