A Year In Our Camper Van: Lessons Learned After 43 States Traveled

We’ve certainly had some lessons learned in our camper van this year. It’s been exactly a full year since we set out from Austin for our first loop around the U.S.   We managed to make it to 43 states and Eastern Canada in 2017 and along the way we’ve been through quite a bit with our home on wheels.  

In the first post about our Ford Transit Connect camper conversion, I explained how we completed our van build. This post continues with reflection about some of the most vital lessons learned on the road thus far.   We’ve been making some constant upgrades to our camping gear and have figured out some other ways to make our travels a little smoother.

Prepare for All Types of Weather

This past year, we have braved hail storms, crazy winds, snowstorms, lightning storms, brush fires, and a lot of weather that we just didn’t expect.

Looking at almanacs can be a great way to get an “idea” of what the weather might do, but Mother Nature always surprises.  A few months ago, I started using the NOAA radar app and it’s proven to be very accurate at showing real-time weather patterns; this handy app has completely dictated our driving routes in some cases. It’s also great to check before bed in case rain is likely to come overnight and we need to keep the windows up.   

Having said that, there are just some climates that are impossible to predict. For instance, we recently got caught up in a sudden snowstorm in the Colorado Rockies and, luckily, ended up driving behind a plow truck through the mountains on route 70.   I don’t know how we would have made it though otherwise and we’ve picked up some snow chains to keep inside just in case.

Sunrise in Acadia National Park, ME (alt-nomad)

Adapt to the Current Temperature

This applies to the clothing we wear as well as the furnishings in the van.  We started out with just a blanket but now have a three-part setup for sleeping: a comforter cover we use alone when its roughly 75-degrees and warmer (basically a sheet), a down comforter to put inside when it gets below 50-degrees, and a sleeping bag stored in our cargo box for when it dips into the 40s. We’ve also got some travel hand warmers and spare winter clothes in our cargo box that we’ll dive into when it gets below 35-degrees or so.

Part of the disadvantage of our light setup is we really can’t handle summer heat (>80 degrees F) too well.  So besides our two little fans inside we are at the mercy of the heat.  We made it through a few hot summer nights last year but now simply try to avoid the summer heat by choosing a travel route accordingly.  

Have a Bug Management Plan

There are bugs everywhere and they seem to have a special knack for notifying all their friends when they happen upon our van.   We use some magnetic window screens on the hotter summer nights and they do a great job of keeping bugs out while letting air in.

We also carry a couple cans of bug spray, added some citronella candles for our campsite, and are sure to dress appropriately when hiking to be aware of ticks, mosquitos, spiders, etc.  We also give our van a thorough cleaning every month or so which keeps the inside tidy. Apart from bugs, there are also raccoons and bears wandering around in a lot of places, which means that keeping plenty of small trash bags on-hand and emptying our trash regularly is absolutely vital.

Downsize, Downsize, Downsize

Downsizing your actual RV or van can go a long way in making travel easier– it was also one of the main reasons why we chose such a small setup.  But in order to do that and make the move from apartment to the van, we also needed to get rid of unnecessary possessions. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time and narrow down what I own to a very small list.  Even though I haven’t gotten rid of all the non-essential I have gotten a lot closer.   

Basically, if we don’t use something after a few months it’s got to go. There’s just no room in the van.  So paring down as much as possible before hitting the road has been a huge help for us. At the end of the day, you can always pick something up if you really need it.  

Camping in Marathon Key, FL (alt-nomad)

Keep Things Organized

There are a ton of great ideas out there for organizing a camper van and we tried to implement as many little tricks as we could to our small, livable space.  We’re constantly tweaking where we keep things so they are most accessible at the right time. Knowing where they make moving from place to place easier as you don’t waste a ton of time looking for a screwdriver, the extra bottles of water, etc.  

Be Mindful of Parking

Parking is much tougher for larger RVs and sprinters, which is why we ultimately selected the Ford Transit Connect. It can fit in any standard parking space which is great for flexibility, small size aside, we do run into issues in larger cities as our cargo box puts us well above 8-feet, meaning most parking structures are off-limits. That combined with the fact that parking fees can be a little steep in some areas for parking, working, and exploring for the day, we always try to look ahead at the parking situation ahead of time. Sometimes this leads to us making use of Lyft or local public transportation, instead of the van. 

Plan Ahead

We’ve gotten pretty quick at researching our driving routes, booking accommodations, and planning our hikes and sightseeing along the way.  What we usually do is pick the major stops for the next 3-6 months.  In terms of destinations, we will generally stay for 1-3 weeks each.  Then, we book those accommodations for the weeks and campgrounds on the weekends when camping.

After that, we fill in our weeks by checking out events in the towns we are in and plan day trips to the local parks in the area for hiking and sightseeing.   This flexible schedule allowed us to keep up a full workload while making sure we have plenty of exploration time mapped out.


Its been an interesting ride this first year and we are both super excited about our second loop around North America.   Let us know if you have any questions, and we’ll see you in the next post!

CategoriesNomad Life
  1. zmcdowell says:

    This is great! I have a few questions about your van (I just bought the same van myself!). You mention magnetic window screens – where did you get them? Also, what did you end up doing for window shades? I can’t seem to find a set of full shades anywhere. Finally, I dig your folding bed design, but I can’t really envision how it folds into a “couch” – do you have any photos of it set up like that?

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