Tips for Van Life with a Dog: Advice from 15,000 miles on the road



This blog post is sponsored by REI. Check out all of REI’s van life dog gear here. As always all words and opinions are my own.

If you follow me on Instagram, you know our dog, Charlie (who even has own Instagram account —@charlietheadventuredog). He’s a border collie/mini-Australian shepherd mix who is crazy smart, a little neurotic (thanks to his breed ), and has an unbelievable amount of energy. He has also spent the last six months road tripping over 15,000 miles with us in our Sprinter Van and has been from southern California all the way to upstate New York.

I get a lot of emails asking me about van life with a dog…like, what do you do when you have to leave your dog in the car? Or how do we find places to go that are dog-friendly?

Van life dogs have the BEST life. They spend a majority of their time running outside, meeting tons of other dogs and getting the occasional scrap of food that falls from your camp stove. That said, there are definitely some considerations to make to ensure your dog is as happy as you are.

In this blog post, I round up my best advice and tips for van life with a dog.

1. Choose dispersed camping over established campgrounds

Most established campgrounds require your dog to be on a leash of 6 feet or less. The solution? Avoid established campgrounds. We prefer to camp at undeveloped campsites, taking advantage of our vast public lands, where Charlie can roam free and we save a buck to boot. If you aren’t sure how to find these types of campsites, a majority of National Forest and BLM land is free game, unless otherwise indicated. There are also a bunch of useful apps that I use to find free camping – like, iOverlander, and Campendium. Check out our guide to finding FREE dispersed campsites for a full list of my favorite tools.

Wondering what van life with a dog is like? Here is my best advice for taking care of your pup & finding dog-friendly activities while living on the road.

See my favorite tools for finding dog-friendly vanlife campsites.

2. Put a light on their collar to keep track of them at night

If you let your dog roam around your campsite at night, a good way to keep track of them is by putting a light on their collar. We like the Nite Ize Moonlit LED light that clips on with a carabiner or the Nite Ize LED Safety Necklace. It makes it easy for us to spot Charlie when he’s sniffing around in the bushes while we are in the van or around a campfire.Nite Ize caribeaner - clip this on your dog's collar to keep track of them at night when you are camping

3. Have an extendable leash

While we love free campsites, sometimes we stay in established campgrounds. Maybe we can’t find any dispersed camping or other times we need showers and to do laundry. These types of campgrounds with services tend to be much stricter on leash rules than other types of campgrounds. Do yourself a favor and have a long leash or dog tether system in your van so you don’t have to worry about being scolded by a grumpy campground host.

Ruffwear dog tether system - great for campgrounds that require your dog to be on a leash

4. Carry their vaccination records in the van

You might be surprised to find out that some campgrounds require vaccination records from anyone bringing in a dog in. While that’s never happened to me out West, it happened at more than one campground in New York, where dispersed, free camping tends to be more limited. So keep a copy handy on your phone or somewhere in the van so you have them just in case. It’s also good in case you run into any medical issues with your dog and need to see a veterinarian while you are traveling.

Wondering what van life with a dog is like? Here is my best advice for taking care of your pup & finding dog-friendly activities while living on the road.

Get expert dog first aid tips written by a veterinarian

5. Give your dog somewhere comfortable to lay

You want your dog to be comfortable on those long drives. If they spend their time on the floor, it’s nice to give them something cushioned to lay on. Either find a dog bed that’s easy to clean, a yoga mat, or you can even use a foam Thermarest sleeping pad that you can fold in half–or they even make Thermarest seat pads if you have a small dog. These foam pads are also handy because they can serve as a dog bed on colder backpacking trips when you might want to give your pup some insulation from the ground.


6. And if your bed is your dog’s bed…choose the right bedding

If your dog sleeps in the bed with you, you’ll want to pick your bedding carefully. White sheets and light colors, in general, are a huge no-no, unless you plan on spending a lot of time in the laundromat. Furthermore, you want a comforter that is going to be easy to clean and stain resistant, since your dog will constantly be dirty from all of your adventures.

We’ve been using Rumpl’s 2-person Original Puffy blanket in our van and are completely sold.  Rumpl blankets are made from a synthetic sleeping-bag type material, which means dog hair and dirt doesn’t stick to it. All you have to do to clean it is shake it out, and it’s even machine washable when needed. It’s surprisingly warm, and the 2-person original puffy is large enough to span across the back of a Sprinter Van.

Wondering what van life with a dog is like? Here is my best advice for taking care of your pup & finding dog-friendly activities while living on the road.

7. Choose a dog food that is available everywhere

Charlie goes through one big bag of dog food about every month. That means we have to restock our dog food supply pretty frequently on the road.  It’s hard on dog’s tummies to switch up their dog food all the time, so you want to make sure that your dog’s food is readily available at major food or pet stores, so you can easily find it when you head into a town. Fortunately, stores like Petco and Petsmart carry some pretty good dog food brands these days, and they are everywhere. If your dog is on something special that you can’t get at a bigger pet store, go to the dog food brand’s website and see if they have a way to search for retailers in your current location.

Wondering what van life with a dog is like? Here is my best advice for taking care of your pup & finding dog-friendly activities while living on the road.

8. Keep them on a regular eating schedule

Vanlife can be hard on a dog’s eating schedule. Our dog Charlie doesn’t like to eat while the van is moving, so it’s important for us to give him time to eat in the morning before we start driving…otherwise, his whole schedule gets messed up for the day. Every dog is different, but pay attention to their eating habits and try to stick to a routine so they don’t go hungry or end up eating dinner at midnight and making you get up to let them go to the bathroom.

We also like to leave a water bowl out for him 24/7. We’ve found that the Ruffwear collapsible dog bowls are great for driving and the water doesn’t spill, even on the roughest of roads.

Ruffwear collapsible dog bowls are great for hiking and camping

9. Be smart about leaving your dog in the van

I’ll start with the caveat that Charlie is a medical service dog for Ryan’s type 1 diabetes, so it’s rare that we leave him in the car…but for the sake of sharing tips for van life with a dog that apply to most dogs, this is an important point.

Some vans have rooftop AC. Ours does not, but we do have two very powerful roof fans. If we crank those on high and open the windows, we actually get quite a strong cross-breeze in our van. We also have insulated curtains which help keep it cooler in here, even on hot days. We generally feel comfortable leaving our dog in the van for short periods of time with the fans running, especially in the evenings if we are going to see some live music, for example.

That said, we are still very careful about when we leave him in here and always evaluate. We also avoid traveling to the hottest places in the summer with our dog in the van. No way would you catch us in Arizona or Southern Utah from June through mid-September.

I’m not sure how to say it other than, use your common sense. Dogs can die in cars, and they can in vans too, and you don’t want to lose your best friend to carelessness.

So what do you do when you can’t bring your dog somewhere? 

For example, you want to grab a bite to eat? Find a restaurant with a dog-friendly patio! Eating outside is better anyways, most of the time. Grab take-out and find an awesome place to set up a picnic for both you AND your dog to enjoy!

Before you head out to find some epic spot you heard about, check dog regulations first. The last thing you want is to drive far out of your way to find out the place you want to be isn’t that dog-friendly, like the Enchantments in Washington or much of the Wasatch in Salt Lake City. This also goes for visiting National Parks, some of which are on the dog-friendlier side. A little upfront research can save a headache later on. Make sure to check out our guide to the Most Dog-Friendly National Parks.

Road tripping with your dog? Here are the most dog-friendly National Parks, along with info on trails and campgrounds where pets are permitted.

Doggy daycare or dog boarding is also an option. A couple of years ago, Ryan and I backpacked to Havasupai, which is not a good place to bring your dog because of the tribal dogs running around and the ladders to Mooney Falls.  We found an awesome doggie-boarding place in Flagstaff with great reviews and Charlie went on a little doggie vacation while we checked out the waterfalls of Havasu Falls. It worked out really well.

Overall, van life with a dog requires you to consider your dog as you plan your itinerary and day to day activities.

10. Take driving breaks on long days

A restless dog is a mischievous dog. We put 15,000 miles on my van this summer, which means Charlie spent a lot of long days on the road. Even if we are in a hurry to get to our destination, we make it a priority to get Charlie the necessary exercise. Rest areas are great, as they usually have big fields or pet areas. You can also use to find dog-parks in your current location. Keeping something like the Nite Ize Collapsible ball thrower, a frisbee or some other toy that gets them running outside the van, because even those small bursts of periodic exercise will help keep your dog mellow during the big driving stretches in the van.

Glow in the dark dog ball thrower for camping

Are you currently doing van life with a dog? What other advice do you have for van life with a dog? Share your comments below!

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