First Van Life Trip
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Van Life for Beginners: Where to Take Your First Trip

For beginners, building a custom camper van is often rife with challenges and more than a few headaches along the way, depending on your level of experience with building things. Building a van often consumes more time than most new van life enthusiasts originally planned. Trust me, it happened to me more than once during my build. In any case, it's a long journey toward building a functional camper van. Once you're done, it might be tempting to immediately jump in it and head off for a long road trip.

While that is an option, you might want to hold off a little bit—if only because there may be a few more kinks to work out in your design that you might not have anticipated. Today, we'll examine some of the things you should consider before you pack up and head out for your first trip in your new van build.

Pick an Established Campground

First Van Life Trip

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We know that many people choose a van build because they want to save money on their road trips by camping in dispersed camping areas. However, for your first trip, we highly recommend picking an established campground with full electrical hookups. There are several reasons for doing this, but the main one is so you have somewhere to fully test your electrical systems. Everyone builds a different system, and odds are you've already tested your batteries, inverters, lights, etc. at home in the driveway. However, for a real test of your off-grid gear, it's nice to have that shore power backup for your first trip—just in case something goes wrong.

Using an established campground also gives you a place to plug in a drill or other tools in case you just need to make some small adjustments to your electrical system or other parts of your van. Odds are you will discover at least one small issue the first time you take the van on the road, and it's nice to have the modern amenities of an established campground in case something doesn't work the way you hoped.

For instance, if you have a shower or bathroom built into a larger Sprinter van conversion, and a major issue pops up on your first trip, it's nice to know you won't have to sacrifice showers for the rest of the trip until you can get home and get the issue figured out.

However, the biggest reason to do a dry run to an established campground is simply because it is safe and stress-free. It's not a good idea to combine the stresses of finding a stealth camping spot with your first night sleeping in your van. We're all human and bound to make mistakes. It's better to make them in established campground where you're not going to get kicked out in the middle of the night because you picked the wrong spot to park. Staying in a campground allows you to experience what sleeping in your vehicle will be like without worrying about whether you picked a safe spot to park. You can worry about that later once you have everything set up in the van in the way you like.

Pick a Familiar Area Within 200 Miles of Home

First Van Life Trip

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If you're already an experienced camper, I highly recommend picking an area you're already familiar with inside of a 200-mile radius from home. Again, almost every van life enthusiast finds flaws in their design during the first trip. It's better to find them closer to home, where it's easy to return and do adjustments than during a monthlong cross-country trip. I highly recommend going to your favorite state park or national forest. That's simply because you'll already know what to expect, and the facilities will already be familiar to you. So will the nearby stores, businesses, and restaurants.

Many newer van life enthusiasts convert older, used vans that already have a considerable amount of wear and tear. I highly recommend keeping your first trip within 100 miles if your van has more than 100,000 miles on it already. If you're going to have engine problems with an older vehicle, it's better to happen on a dry run closer to home rather than 500 to 1,000 miles down the road in an unfamiliar state where the tow job costs you an arm and a leg.

Keep the First Trip Short

First Van Life Trip

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It's tempting to use up a week's vacation time on your first van life trip. However, I'd argue it's better to keep things short and sweet for the first trip. I'd recommend no longer than a weekend, perhaps leaving on Friday night after work and returning Sunday afternoon. The main reason for doing this is simply because you don't have to eat any vacation time, and because you don't need to wait. We know you're probably already itching to try out your new build, so why wait for a later date? Doing a short weekend trip allows that.

We also recommend the shorter trip for the same reasons we've hammered on above. The first trip is the time to troubleshoot any problems that may arise with the build, and it's easier to go back and fix them if you're only gone a few days. You'll also get a feeling for your van's storage since a short trip doesn't require nearly as much packing as a week or more.

That means if you feel you don't have any room for all of your stuff on a two-day trip, you might need to re-imagine the storage spaces you've built into your van. In many ways, it's almost preferable to get your van build to 60% or 70% completion and then do the first trip. A shorter trip will help you identify any storage issues and come up with solutions to fix them once you return home. Trust us, this is a trick many veteran van lifers use when starting a new build.

Unless you're planning to live the full-time van life and have no other choice, your first trip in your van should probably be short, sweet, and closer to home so you can work out any issues with your rig or design. Taking the time to do one or two of these short trips will pay off when it's time for that first longer road trip. By that point, you'll be a pro ready for the challenges that life on the road throws at you.

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Instagram. For original videos, check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels