How to use the challenges of backpacking to prepare for van life

Backpacking shares many, if not more, of the same challenges as vanlife. Because of this, you can use backpacking to prepare for vanlife.
van by the river with jeremy fishing

In my previous post I talked about some challenges of vanlife. Backpacking shares many of the same challenges. Because of this, you can use backpacking to prepare for vanlife, or at least see if it might suit you. In addition, if you can handle long-distance backpacking, vanlife will seem much easier. 

Backpacking is simple, not easy

Getting water isn’t always easy. Like vanlife, when backpacking you can only carry a finite amount of water. However, unlike vanlife, potable water is hard to find on the trail. Most water sources are natural springs, streams or lakes. When living in a van, your water might end up coming from a natural source as well. Whether backpacking or vanlifing, it is best to treat your water before consumption.

Living out of a bag requires giving up even more comforts and amenities than vanlife. Because of this, backpacking better prepares you for vanlife. For instance, cooking is more challenging. Most backpackers carry a small stove, one pot and spork to cook and eat with. Because of this, they learn how to prepare simple yet satisfying one-pot meals. This skill is also useful in vanlife. Additionally, backpacking offers no way of keeping perishables cold. That is, unless it’s cold outside. Learning how to live without refrigeration can come in handy when living in a van.

Fancy one-pot backpacking meal with pasta and tuna, cooking one-pot meals is one way backpacking can prepare you for vanlife
One-pot awesomeness of pasta, a sauce packet and tuna!

If you can handle long-distance backpacking, you can handle vanlife

Thru hiking the Appalachian Trail primed me for vanlife. Living in a van is luxurious compared to living out of a backpack for six months. On the trail, I wore the same thing every day. Living in Mark, I have more than one outfit, but not many. Because of thru hiking, I’m okay with that. I’m also okay with not doing laundry often and washing my clothes any way I can.

My thru hike also prepared me for setting up and taking down camp almost every day. Most vanlifers set up their van and campsite a certain way when they park. For example, they might deploy their awning, set up camp chairs and pull out certain items to have at the ready. Later, when it’s time to leave, you must put everything away and stow for the road. And you repeat this process almost every time you stop, like with backpacking.

I spent six months living outside for my thru hike. As a result, I walked in the rain, snow, sun, ice storms and fierce winds. Likewise, I also slept in all the same conditions. In a way, backpacking more than prepared me for vanlife. Because with Mark, I have a dedicated shelter from most adverse weather. The heat and humidity are inescapable, whether on the trail or in a van. However, my time on the trail showed me I can acclimatize to the heat and humidity. I may not be comfortable, but I won’t be miserable either. 

Backpacking tent in the woods with tarp hanging above it
A tent certainly provides shelter…
Interior view of the Mark
…but Mark is much nicer!

Both offer adventure and community

Backpacking is slow going, but you still have a new home almost every night. Also, always having everything you need means you can change plans at any given moment. Similarly, vanlife affords the same opportunities. This allows for more adventure and more flexibility.

Before I started backpacking, my faith in humanity faded to near nothingness. But the Appalachian Trail restored my faith. I met generous people on the trail who gave while expecting nothing in return. Likewise, fellow hikers showed genuine care for each other and their environment. The trail gave me a sense of community I longed for since separating from the Navy. The vanlife community provides this same support and sense of belonging as well.

Backpacking gear is useful for vanlife

Not only can backpacking help prepare you for the challenges of vanlife, the gear itself can be useful. For instance, most backpacking gear is compact and lightweight. More so than the car camping or “normal” life alternatives. This can save space and weight in your van. I’m not saying you should go out and buy backpacking gear for your van. But some items are worth considering. And who knows, with all the time you spend outside with vanlife, you might decide to take up backpacking.

In Mark we use our two-person backpacking quilt in cold weather. Why spend money on a bulky comforter when we have a 30-degree down quilt? We have a water purification filter that we use for backpacking and the van. Additionally, our backpacking stove is backup for our propane stove.

Our backpacking tent also allows us more flexibility. Before the pandemic hit, my sister and I planned a trip to Montana. Since I wanted to take the van, Jeremy agreed to set up the tent and live there while I was gone. We also plan to use the tent as a sort of spare room should we have guests.

10 liter water bladder with a Sawyer water filter, learning how to filter water is one way backpacking can prepare you for vanlife
Our backpacking water filter. We bought a 10L water bladder specifically for filtering water in the van.

Backpacking can prepare you for vanlife

As you can see, backpacking and vanlife have many similarities. They are both simple, but not easy. They both offer mobility. Backpacking gear can double as van gear. And most of all, they both offer community. In general, I find vanlife is more accommodating than backpacking. Because of this, I find backpacking is a fantastic way to prepare for vanlife. I also happen to think it’s a fantastic hobby!

Not interested in backpacking? Come back next week! I’ll cover two other options for finding out if vanlife is right for you.

Are you a backpacker considering vanlife? A vanlifer thinking of taking up backpacking? Let us know in the comments!

Need more help getting started with van life? Check out our How to Start Van Life guide!

*This post contains affiliate links. Only items we have personally used or extensively researched are linked. We do not link to items we don’t recommend. If you buy something using the links, the price is not marked up, we only get a small commission fee. You get the gear, and we get a little spending money. Win-win! Worried about your personal data? Check out our privacy policy.

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I served 11 years in the Navy, and in 2014 I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. These experiences helped prepare me for vanlife. My husband and I now live in our self-converted van, Mark.

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About Us

We left “normal” life behind and now live in our self-converted van, Mark. Our time in the military and backpacking adventures made vanlife an easy choice. The leap into vanlife and a self-conversion can be exciting yet daunting. We want to share our experiences and provide resources to give you vanlife your way, and the highway.

jeremy and christina at sunset

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