the hard to shop fors

The Best Gifts for Van Lifers, According to People Who Live in Vans

Photo: Bionca Smith

Finding the perfect holiday gift can be maddening — is this the color they’d want? Is it something they already have? Is it so last year? — but really, once you have a sense of a person’s taste, it’s not impossible. This season, we’ll be talking to members of various tribes (we’re calling them the Hard-to-Shop-Fors) to find out exactly what to get that serious home cook, skin-care Redditor, or gamer in your life. Think of it as a window into their brain trust — or at least a very helpful starting point.

If you’re buying something for a van lifer, redundancy or excess in gift-giving won’t do: the lifestyle typically involves material minimalism, a point that was made clear to us by the experts we spoke with. For those who live in an 80-to-165-square-foot house on wheels, gas gift cards regularly top wish lists, followed by equally hard-to-wrap credits for oil changes, new tires, and AAA memberships. It took a little prodding to find out what both fits this downsized way of life and can be wrapped, but we ultimately came away with a list of the best tents, to-go cups, and solar panels that experienced van lifers and first-time campers alike will welcome (and need). Don’t miss all of the Strategist’s holiday gift coverage right here, too.

Let’s start with something counterintuitive that your giftee might not own: a good tent. After all, your van lifer didn’t give up her roof just to sleep underneath another one within their vehicle. But for the inevitable camping, Bionca Smith of Off the Grid With a Kid recommends a durable tent. Outside calls this two-person model the best for backpackers, which is a useful metric for choosing something compact enough for someone living on the road.

Smith has been traveling with her homeschooled 9-year-old son in a 1989 Ford Econoline since last year, and on YouTube she offers tips and insights into the mobile life to almost 30,000 subscribers. One of the basics she recommends for newbies is a solar panel, like this option from Renogy, which comes in three different wattages.

Once your giftee’s got power and a second bedroom, you can help them stay hydrated wherever they go. Smith has the Berkey water system on her own wish list, as it was recently recommended to her by a fellow van lifer. Berkey is known for making products that can render pretty much any outdoor water potable, a feature that might be overkill in a home kitchen but is perfect for those spending ample time in nature.

Tessa Ely, who’s been documenting her life in a 1975 WV Bus on Instagram, at The Bus and Us, says that among the best gifts to give or to get are Hydro Flask cups. Stainless steel and stackable, these are easy to clean, come in a variety of colors, keep beverages cold, and won’t break if they fall out of a cabinet while the van is taking on winding mountainous roads.

Van life entails discarding of most earthly possessions; the family pet is not one of them. Meag Poirier of The Wild Drive Life has logged 13,000 miles with her husband, Ben, and their dog, Moose. She recommends a collapsible dog bowl for both hiking trips and on-the-go food and water. “I prefer the silicone collapsible versus the canvas or sewn ones; much easier to clean,” she says.

Or consider this orange bandana. “You can spot them anywhere you camp,” Poirier says. “Moose wears his every day.” This Alcott version also has reflective tape, in case your van dog is kind of nocturnal.

Hygiene, too, must be well-supplied yet heavily downsized. Smith recommends Dr. Bronner’s soap, that multipurpose cult favorite: a gender neutral bodywash and shampoo that can also be used for cleaning clothing, the interior of your van, and, well, everything else.

Something else that might help to freshen up a laundromat-free lifestyle: this Murchison-Hume garment spray that’s like fancy Febreze. Your van lifer would probably never buy it for herself.

Should a shower be put off for a few too many miles, Ely likes Burt’s Bees Baby Dusting Powder as a hygiene staple. It can keep both greasy hair and ripe underarms at bay, and it’s talc-free.

If you want to shop for something more indulgent, Poirier points out that “minimalism is more about prioritization than deprivation; quality over quantity.” Things like pieces of art and good décor can still make for great gifts for this lifestyle. A good candle will help make a small (and possibly smelly) space feel more like home, especially if it comes in mobile-ready, reclosable cases, like this one from one our favorite candle lines, Le Feu de L’Eau.

It’s almost December, so if you’re on the road in the northern hemisphere, you’re likely cold. Ely and her boyfriend and co-traveler love Rumpl blankets, which, like the best of these gifts, are suitable for both the indoors and the outdoors. It doesn’t hurt that this “El Noche” Rumpl is also incredibly photogenic.

And for under the blanket? Something to read, of course. “Travels with Charley is a great travel classic,” Ely says of the John Steinbeck book. New copies abound on Amazon; for a special touch, there’s a vintage copy on Etsy.

On the matter of staying warm, we doubt any van lifer or camper would mind getting some extra (and extra-warm) wool socks. We like this color-blocked print from Darn Tough.

There are also the little mobile citizens to consider, for whom a pile of toys are not particularly practical. For any kids who also live on the road, consider an educational gift to complement their life of constant discovery. “I encourage my son to recycle things and create other things, but we do buy supplies from teacher stores and educational souvenir gift shops,” Smith says. To help children explore the world around them, she recommends this kit that includes binoculars, a magnifying glass, a compass, and a bug collector.

You can also help the little ones get a handle on their budding rock collections with this National Geographic geode discovery kit.

The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best acne treatments, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, natural anxiety remedies, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.

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The Best Gifts for Van Lifers, According to Van Lifers