Tiny Living: Van Design Reality

Classic Volkswagen Van, George Hodan

I have spent the past few months researching options and reading reviews from established Van Life bloggers and it has only made designing my van more difficult. It’s simple to say that you want the convenience of a traveling hotel room, ease to stay anywhere you can park, and the fun of taking the family for a comfortable road trip. What becomes more difficult are the things you don’t want to imagine during your picturesque journey—where will I poo, how will I shower, how do I wash my clothes, and what will meal time look like. My research has uncovered the hardcore reality of Van Life.

Where Will I Poo?

There is no pretty solution for this. The majority of Van Life enthusiasts forego a bathroom in their van for the much needed extra space. These professionals choose to go outdoors, take advantage of public restrooms, and keep a waste bucket for emergencies. It is second nature for them to find a nice spot to dig a hole, relieve themselves and then  bury their waste. Of course, you must be able to hike into a remote outdoor section, identify poisonous plants and bury your excrement the proper depth.

restroom sign

For those of us who think that might be too much of a leap, you can research a potty for your van. You can rely on a smaller portable toilet that can be stashed away, but this is essentially the same thing as a waste bucket. It seems nice in theory to have a pleasant place to sit, however, you will have to clean it out frequently (every 24 hours) and the odor will make its way to your nose as you travel.

You can invest a bit more into your van and make a little bathroom space with a toilet that releases into a tank, but that will only get you 2-3 days before you have to clean it out. And yes, the smell often does make its way out at least a little bit. By the way, don’t be fooled that your toilet will be anything like an RV or bus toilet. They have more room and therefore larger tanks. The design is slightly different and you can not expect your van toilet to be comparable.

Basically, the toilet choice becomes a lesser of three evils in your van.

Check out my pros and cons of a bathroom in Tiny Living: Is Van Life For Us?

How Will I Shower?

This is a slightly easier puzzle to solve. You can chose to go days without showering and you can use dry shampoo and deodorant; but eventually you will yearn for the good old fashioned clean feeling.

outdoor shower

If you’re already thinking you can poo in the woods or behind a dense bush; then showering outside is a no-brainer. You can enjoy a nice shower bag hung from a tree. If you require slightly more privacy you can install a water tank or container with pump that allows you to hose off at the back of your van with the protection of your vehicle doors and a creative curtain.

I have seen a small shower design for inside the van that doubles as a small bathroom with a portable toilet. The talented van nomad that designed this decided it wasn’t worth the expense after putting it to use. In general, most reviews written by professional van lifers state that the expense and infrequent use makes installing a shower a waste of space and resources. They add top factors to consider: showers leak no matter how well you design them and the critical space does not get enough use. Not to mention, your van can only hold so much water even if it has a generous water tank installed.

The bottom line is…showering is a luxury in van life. Even if you design a sweet set up, the shower will need to be quick. You can break for a longer shower as you pass by friends and relatives along your route or simply enjoy a nice campground with accommodations for a night.

How Do I Wash My Clothes?

Boy sitting among rocks at boulder field, Hickory Run State Park, PennsylvaniaI have come across no van design that has a washer and dryer. You can be creative and hand wash some garments, but eventually you will want a washer and dryer to do the dirty work. Van Lifers are smart about their possessions. Everything has a purpose. Wearing layers is essential and a smart wardrobe is a must. You can even invest in clothes that repel dirt and stains!

The short answer is pack wisely and plan to stop somewhere at least once a month for a serious clean. Hand washing only goes so far unless you’re planning to stand in a river for an afternoon beating your clothes on a rock.

What Will Meal Time Look Like?

My research makes me think meal time will look a lot like camping. There is very little room for storage and any refrigeration you have will be minimal.

I didn’t find a lot of reviews on exactly what people were eating in their vans and the ease with which they were cooking these items. I did find some reviews on what type of kitchen appliances they found the best. Keep in mind, if you want kitchen appliances then you will have to design your van with a proper electrical plan. (I’ll save that for a future post.) A kitchen in your van can be as simple as a swing out counter that can hold a camping stove or as elaborate as a built-in induction stove.

Personal kitchen of @greenvanlife van life cultureMany Van dwellers have an “outdoor kitchen” that is accessible from the rear of the van once you open the doors. This option can definitely give you more space, but I hesitate to think of preparing meals in inclement weather. I would rather utilize a small indoor area for my designated kitchen. I have seen some terrific designs that incorporate the sink and stove into usable counter space. I have included a picture of one of my favorites personally designed by @greenvanlife found on Instagram.

Don’t forget the sink! If you’re really roughing it you might be driving around with a 5 gallon water container for all of your needs. If you’re fortunate to build in a nice kitchen and some electric and a pump; you can have a sink with running water.


Designing my own van has been an interesting journey. My initial motivation to try this lifestyle is being deeply challenged by the realities of a minimalistic lifestyle. It was certainly easier to get rid of inanimate objects to fit into a tiny home that actually has a toilet, shower and kitchen space built in. There’s a lot to be said for indoor plumbing and I don’t think we appreciate it enough!

Pug Driving a SubaruI’m glad I made the decision to start with the hardest questions. Once I have made firm decisions about my choices I will begin dedicating the space for them in my van design. Next post I will begin laying out the plans. Of course, I need to leave room for the dogs! (Thankfully they already “go” outside.)

Do you have any experience with van plumbing, “going” outside, or shower design? Let me know! I’d love your feedback and ideas.



Published by newyorkfamilyadventures

Momager, New Yorker, Travel Blogger, Actress, Martial Artist, Amateur Photographer, Writer, Conservationist

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