H2O: The Importance—and Logistics—of Keeping Water on Hand in Your Van

When we read about—or see photos—of people living the #vanlife, what do we think about? We think about the freedom, the experience, and the thrill of living on the road. 


But there’s an important component of #vanlife which we probably don’t think about: that component is water. Even though we often take water’s presence for granted in our day-to-day lives, it’s something that requires some pre-planning and pre-travel thought.  


In this post, we’ll cover the importance (and logistics) of keeping water on hand in your van. 

Carrying drinking water is essential while camping, especially when you’re adventuring beyond your van.
Carrying drinking water is essential while camping, especially when you’re adventuring beyond your van.

Water: To Drink

The most obvious use for water that you’ll have while car camping is (drum roll please): to drink it. Since this is a little more complicated than it seems, let’s break it down. We’ll walk through a few reminders, and then we’ll talk about some water sanitization hacks. 


The first thing to always remember is that you’ll need to consume higher amounts of water at higher altitudes. Remember to plan ahead for increased water intake if you’ll be camping at altitude. 


The second thing to consider is that if you’ll be exercising while you’re traveling—that includes walking, hiking, running, skiing, mountain biking, climbing (you get the picture)—you’ll need to account for this when planning your water supply. 


While you’ll definitely need (and consume) more water if you’re traveling to a hot, dry place (like a desert) or traveling during the summer months, it’s important to remember that water is just as important in the winter as it is in the summer. Even if you’ll “only” be skiing from your van, you’ll still need to account properly for the amount of water you’ll drink during your exercise. 


Alright. Let’s talk logistics. 


If you’ll be storing your water in a large reserve--I’m talking 20 liters--you should definitely add some silver ions. Katadyn is a recognized brand which offers reliable option for silver ions; their products help to make sure that that massive reserve you’ve got stays clean. (Think about it--20 liters of water sits around for a while before you use all of it. The idea with these tablets is to keep your reserve in a healthy state.)


Another great option is to get yourself a portable water filter. One Green Planet has a great breakdown of the best on-the-go filters--my personal favorite from here is the LifeStraw Flex. 


Katadyn sells a “softflask + filter” combo, too. (The Katadyn softflask is especially great for ultrarunners--or for any other athlete hitting the trails.) These on-the-go filters are especially ideal if you’ll be heading away from your van/campsite for a day of trail running/mountain biking/skiing/climbing. 


Remember that even if you’re only “planning” to head out into the backcountry for a few hours, it’s always better to over-prepare than to under-prepare. (I’ve learned the hard way from too many “short runs” that turned into “extra-long runs” that you should always bring more water than you think you’ll need.) That’s where these on-the-go water filters really come in handy. 


On that note, I’ll leave you with one final hack: if all else fails, keep it simple. If you leave a clear, glass bottle in the sun for 4-6 hours, the sun itself will sanitize the water. Thanks, Mother Nature. 


Water: To Cook

The next aspect of water usage that you’ll need to include in your water planning is: water for cooking. 


It might sound like an obvious thing to consider, but it’s happened to me where I’ve been camping and carried enough water to drink, but forgotten to carry extra to boil water for cooking. Honestly, it’s best just to keep it simple. Food is fuel, right? Below are a few tricks to optimize your camp cooking experience. 


If you’re planning to cook—especially something like pasta, rice, instant meals, or soup—you’ll want to plan ahead to have enough water on hand for your dinner. A good rule of thumb is to bring between 1.5 to 2.0 liters per person (per day.) 



Alright. We’ve gone over some hacks for drinking water; now, let’s chat about a couple of water-saving cooking tricks. 


“Thermos cooking” is a great way to save gas when cooking while camping. The quick summary: just heat up the water, pour it into your thermos, and wait. Presto! Dinner’s ready. Check out the official guide to “thermos cooking” here. 


If you dig a device that delivers flameless food (you heard me: no cooking required), check out Barocook. This revolutionary system cooks your food to a nice, warm temperature without requiring gas or a fire. 


One final thought: the other cooking-related use for water that you might want to account for: coffee and tea. If you’re a coffee addict (like me) don’t forget to bring a little extra H2O for your morning cuppa. Even if you’re not into coffee, a warm tea before sleeping is also a good way to warm up if camping in the cold. 


Remember to account for water you’ll use while cooking when bringing your H2O on the road.
Remember to account for water you’ll use while cooking when bringing your H2O on the road.

Water: To Clean

“Umm, I’m camping. I don’t care about being clean.” Is this you? 


Think again, young Vanlife-er. Even if you’re really roughing it, you’ll still need water to clean three main things: your body, your teeth, and your dishes. 


Let’s start with “body” since it’s (theoretically) the least crucial of the three. Even if you don’t plan to shower while living the #vanlife, you’ll probably still want a little extra water on hand to take a “bird bath,” i.e. splashing a little water onto face, armpits, feet, etc. before you sleep. 


Alright, let’s talk “teeth.” It doesn’t matter how tough you are; even superheroes and crazy athletes need to keep their chompers clean. Don’t go to bed with dirty teeth. You only get one set in your lifetime, eh? Bring enough water to brush those bad boys before you start and end each adventure-filled day. 


The final thing that you’ll need to clean while camping is your dishes. While it’s possible to argue that this isn’t crucial, we’re going to break down the situations in which it is. 


Besides maintaining general order—which becomes surprisingly, incredibly important when car camping, especially if you’re car camping for multiple months at a time—dishwashing helps to keep your eating tools sanitary. The last thing that you want during an adventure is a stomach bug, and cleaning your cutlery is a great way to keep away bacteria. 


The final—and most important—reason to keep water on hand for dish washing is safety. If you’ll be camping in bear country (i.e. the USA) you should absolutely never go to sleep with dirty dishes inside (or near) your van. This is a sure-fire way to attract bears to your campsite, which is something you truly want to avoid. (We’ll talk more about bear safety while car camping in a later blog post.)


Water for washing--dishes, hands, etc.--is also something to keep in mind when water planning.
Water for washing--dishes, hands, etc.--is also something to keep in mind when water planning.

Create a Storage Space

The best way to make sure that you’ve always got enough water on hand is, firstly, to plan ahead; but beyond that, you should also create a designated “water space” in your van. 


In the Camp It Simple system, there's a special nook for water in the back of the van. Essentially, it’s designed so that you can slide your water reserve onto the top shelf, and draw from it as necessary for drinking, cooking, or cleaning. This makes it much easier to pack my water for a trip; plus, I don’t have to worry about it rolling around the back of the car. 


In addition to the back-of-van water shelf, I also store two “reserve” jugs in the compartment behind the passenger seat. 


In addition to helping you stay organized, creating a “water space” also ensures that you won’t forget to pack water. Having a pre-planned space for your H2O gives it the importance it deserves, right alongside all of your other adventure gear. 


Create a water storage space in your van.
Create a water storage space in your van.

If You Get Into a Pickle…

Here’s to hoping that you never end up in a water emergency; but in case you do, here are a few quick tips to finding and creating safe drinking water. 


  • Boil your water to sanitize it. When in doubt, boil it out. While this won’t remove dirt or other particular impurities from your water, this age-old trick will indeed eliminate bacteria, viruses and parasites from water--just remember to boil it for at least five minutes. . 
  • If you have to drink from a natural water source—and have no other options—take your water from the most quickly-moving part of the stream or river. The most quickly-moving water is more likely to be “naturally filtered” than from a slower-moving part.
  • Never take or drink water from a stagnant water source (like a puddle.) 
  • General rule: the higher up you are, the cleaner the water. The less distance that water travels from its source, the less likely it is to have been contaminated by animal feces, etc. 
  • Carry emergency water-purifying tablets to clean water. These can be found at nearly every outdoor store; the most popular brand is Aquatabs. They shouldn’t run you more than €5 or €10, and are well-worth keeping on hand. 


Make sure to hit the water before heading out for a day on the trails.
Make sure to hit the water before heading out for a day on the trails.


Even though we might not give it too much thought, water is a super-duper important part of #vanlife…and when it comes to water, the best preparation is over-preparation. If you’ve got room in your van for all of your outdoor and athletic gear, you’ve got to make room for water. 


The best way to get started: plan ahead, and create a dedicated “water space” in your home on wheels. Check out the Camp It Simple’s water system solution for inspiration—and then share a photo with us of your own water setup!  #campitsimple


About the Author: Kirsten is an adventure sports photographer and has been a CAMP IT SIMPLE user from day one. Her work can be found in a wide range of publications, including Outside Magazine, Runner’s World, and the New York Times’ sports section. She loves a good run and Michigan beer. You can check out more of her work on Instagram or her website


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