How do you get into hiking?
Campervan travel allows for the constant opportunity to explore the vast wilderness and vanlife hiking is one the best ways to take advantage of the great outdoors.
While you can see some of it from behind the windows of your van, or on a brief stroll around the camping area, we recommend taking the next step by becoming a hiker.
Hiking is the perfect sport for vanlife — minimal gear is required, and it’s an excellent counter to the long hours of sitting behind the wheel.
As avid climbers, my husband and I try to hike at least once or twice a week.
While it’s easy to lace up your tennis shoes for a stroll in a public park, you’ll find that there there are some supplies you’ll need if you’re venturing into unfamiliar or more wild environments.
Vanlife Hiking Footwear
Generally speaking, sturdy shoes with ankle support and thick rubber lugged soles with good traction are a safe bet.
There are great hiking shoes and boots on the market to fit every foot and style of hiking and environment.
You’ll have to assess the terrain before you go: while you may get away with tennis shoes on a groomed trail in a national park, longer hikes with a dynamic terrain could necessitate proper hiking shoes or boots.
Breaking in hiking footwear
The number one mistake new hikers make is not breaking in footwear.
Take the time to find great fitting shoes or boots and then wear them every day for normal activity like grocery shopping, short walks…
As your hikers warm up, they’ll begin to shape to your feet and wear in. Your feet will adjust to them and then you’ll be ready to go for some short hikes.
Then you can start putting on some real miles, if you wish.
Packs for vanlife hiking and backpacking
You’ll want a comfortable day-pack with padded shoulder straps.
If you plan to carry more than about 10 pounds, you’ll want a pack with a waist strap to take some of the weight off your shoulders.
When choosing a pack, it helps to consult a knowledgeable salesperson from an outdoors store in order to find one that fits. Your back will thank you.
I have three packs of different sizes in the van at all times. One small one of about 10 liters for short day hikes, a mid sized 20 liter pack for longer day hikes and a 50 liter for overnight backpacking trips.
I recommend getting 15 to 20 liter pack with a simple waist belt to start. This can be used on a long day around town, to carry some groceries from the store, for a bike ride and of course for day hikes.
A reusable water bottle is a must-have for any hike in any terrain. Be sure to carry at least one to two liters of water per person, per day. More in very dry, hot climates.
A pack with a pocket for a hydration bladder is a very convenient option.
Sunscreen and a small first aid kit are also essential. Your first aid kit should be appropriate to the distance and difficulty of your hike.
I suggest reading up on basic wilderness first aid at least. You should also consider taking a class.
Whether you’re hiking alone, with your partner or with kids, it’s best to know some first aid basics, at the very least.
The best clothes for vanlife hiking
The best options for hiking clothes are polyester, merino wool, and natural/synthetic blends, all of which are lightweight and quick-drying.
A cotton t-shirt is fine for a short day hike. Cotton absorbs moisture and dries slowly, so it’s a bad choice for any serious hike.
It’s best to layer your clothing: a t-shirt or sleeveless shirt, long-sleeved shirt, and lightweight coat are best.
This will allow you to add and remove layers as weather changes and as you get heated up from a climb.
A light rain jacket is a great addition to your pack. Beyond keeping your upper body dry in an unexpected down poor, a good rain coat can be used with layers to keep you warm, or double as a wind breaker.
And if you’re traveling in colder climates, you’ll need a full set of cold weather gear including a coat rated for lower temps, wool socks, gloves, a hat…
For short hikes, at the very least, pack some nuts, granola bars, some fruit… This way you’ll have some sustenance if you get stuck some where or decide to take a longer detour.
Of course you can go all in with lots of wonderful backpacking gear for cooking.
But most of your hiking meals can be prepared in the van and carried in Tupperware.
I carry a small emergency food supply with bullion, granola bars and some peanut butter; high calorie foods to sustain me for a few hours if I get stuck somewhere.
Hiking area dangers and safety concerns
One of the best things about vanlife is the ever-changing landscape.
But that also means changing flora and fauna, so it’s a good idea to check in with a local visitor’s center to learn about any predators or poisonous plants to watch out before heading out on your hike.
My husband and I once had a close call when hiking in Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park. We stopped by the river at dusk to dip our toes in after a long hike, and left our shoes a short distance away from the water.
When we walked barefoot back to our shoes, my husband nearly stepped on a scorpion.
After his near-miss, we glanced around and realized the ground was literally crawling with scorpions.
Had we known that was a risk in the area, we would’ve thought twice about wandering around barefoot in the waning light.
Knowing the local dangers will allow you to prepare. For example I wear a bell in areas where bears are known to frequent.
If you’re planning an overnight trip, be sure to pack some cooking gear, sleeping bag, a ground pad, and a tent.
For those of us living in a van, it’s a good idea to find lightweight gear that can pack away in a cupboard or under the bed when not in use.
For cooking options, small propane-fed stoves are easy to find at most outdoor stores, as are lightweight pots, pans, bowls and utensils.
Not only do they pack away in all the nooks and crannies of your van, they also make your backpacking trip more enjoyable with less weight to carry.
Tell someone where and when you’re hiking
Whenever you head out for a hike, it’s a good idea to tell someone where you’re going, and for how long.
This can be done in a number of different ways, whether it’s filling out a register at the trail head, or texting/calling a family member or close friend to let them know your plans.
For longer hikes in more wild areas, stop in at the local ranger station, let them know your plans, your parking spot and vehicle license plate.
This will allow them to take action if your car isn’t moved for longer than your planned trip.
Hike within your abilities
It’s best to be realistic about your physical limits, and choose an appropriate hike.
Many hiking areas have plenty of options for newbies and hiking veterans alike.
If you’re just starting out your vanlife and hiking lifestyle, start with small hikes.
With regularity, you’ll improve your fitness quickly and soon be hiking for longer distances and with steeper objectives.
Info and groups for vanlife hiking
There’s plenty of literature out there for hiking newbies, and many detailed books about specific areas.
National, state, and regional parks typically have great online resources for planning visits, including lists of hikes and available camping/overnight parking areas.
Also available online are hiking groups on Facebook and Meetup, often area-specific.
Another great resource is Hiking Project, an app that allows you to search trails by area and read reviews and details from other hikers.
Resources for hiking gear and classes
Lastly, outdoor stores are good options for local knowledge. Pop into the closest REI or other gear shop to learn about hiking areas, recommended trails, and area-specific tips.