Vannin’ on a budget… How we’ve made vanlife work without solar power

One of the decisions that we had to make early on in our build was whether or not we wanted to invest in solar power for our van. Before we left, our focus was more geared towards saving up as much gas money as possible, and doing our best to take care of as many credit card payments as we could. At the end of the day, we needed to compromise on certain things such as our power system in order to make sure we could travel where (and as much as) we wanted to.

I’ve compiled a list and a few options if you’re in the same boat (or van!) and want some alternatives to paying for an entire solar power system. Here are a few of the biggest obstacles we’ve had to work around:

1. Keeping food without a fridge

This is probably the most important piece of the puzzle – if your goal is to save money, you have to have food on hand to cook rather than eating out for every meal (check out this post on cooking in a van) – you’ll also be way more healthy! The simple answer here is: use a cooler. There are a ton of options when it comes to which to choose so I’ll break it down by cost.

Our first cooler was a Coleman that we purchased for about $30. You really do get what you pay for, and we ended up needing to purchase ice almost every day. We have since upgraded, and now the cooler we have is a 52-quart Ozark Trail cooler; we spent about $120 purchasing it, and I would say it’s done us well so far. Driving across the country in the blazing sun in 100 degree heat, without AC, our ice melted FAST. Now that we’re in cooler weather though (40’s-50’s at night, 70-80 during the day), we can keep ice for 4-7 days without needing more.

**Helpful hint: we have found that it makes a HUGE difference to place your ice into ziploc bags rather than letting it melt inside the cooler – this makes the cooler so much easier to empty and organize, and greatly reduces soggy food situations. You can also reuse the ziplocs so you don’t waste 🙂

Ozark Pros: relatively cheap, keeps ice for several days, sturdy but easy to maneuver inside the van

Cons: how long ice is kept is easily impacted by the outside temperature, frequent-ish purchase of ice depending on your location

From our research, the best (but more expensive) option is a Yeti cooler. These run from $300-500 depending on what size you get, but will keep ice for more than a week, which is a huge deal if you’re taking long camping trips and won’t have access to somewhere you can purchase more.

Yeti pros: keeps ice longest out of most cooler options, sturdy material

Cons: highest price point as far as coolers go

Finally, our favorite pick is an Acopower battery-powered cooler, which costs between $450 and $600, again depending on size. This is on our wish list big time for a few reasons. First of all, you don’t have to worry about buying ice frequently (or at all), which also means you can avoid emptying water from your cooler, as well as dealing with soggy food if you don’t seal something correctly. The cooler battery can be charged via a wall outlet, a solar panel, or the cigarette lighter in your van. Charging via dashboard outlet takes approximately 4-5 hours, and the battery will last 10-12 hours. This cooler also has a freezer as well, which allows for ice cream, so definitely a win 🙂 The downside, however, is that if you choose to charge the battery with a solar panel, that’s an additional purchase.

Acopower pros: no need to purchase ice, freezer included, rechargeable battery

Cons: higher price point, plus the additional need to purchase a solar panel if you don’t have access to an outlet or are not driving and can’t charge using your car battery

2. Lights at nighttime

If you don’t know too much about electricity (like us), chances are you’re not interested in figuring out how to wire your van for lighting. Thankfully there are several ways around this. In our setup, we have a combination of a few different battery powered options, which have worked great for us so far, and were super easy to install. First, we purchased battery powered puck lights that turn on when you press them and are powered by AAA’s. They come with adhesive pads, so you can stick them anywhere – we have six; one above the sink, one on the ceiling of the cab, two across from one another as you enter the van, one under the bed in our storage space, and one under the shelf above our bed as a reading light. Several of the reviews on Amazon state that the batteries die quickly in these particular lights, but we haven’t found this to be the case – in six months on the road, we’ve changed the batteries once.

Another recent addition for us was these Milwaukee Flood Lights, which I highly recommend! They have a magnet on one end, as well as along the back of the light so you can attach them either parallel or perpendicular to the side of your van. Between our van and the high top inside, we have a portion of exposed metal, so this is absolutely perfect for our set up! These lights are amazing outdoor lights as well because they can attach directly to the side of the van while you’re parked. The only downside of these particular lights is that if you use rechargeable batteries, they don’t last very long, so you’ll likely need to recharge the batteries daily (you can also use regular AA’s and they work fine).

Another simple solution I’ve seen in several builds is string lights, which not only illuminate the space, but also create a fun atmosphere. You can purchase these battery powered as well, and easily attach them to the ceiling of your van.

3. Charging our devices

This was something that was a pretty big consideration for us, specifically thinking about how we would charge our laptop. For our phones, it was pretty simple – we purchased a USB port that could plug into the cigarette lighter in our dashboard, but a laptop requires more power, and a 12v outlet to plug into. We ended up choosing a 400w Ever Start Plus, which is a power inverter that also plugs into the dashboard, and has two 12v outlets and two USB ports. Larger options are available, but you need to wire them directly to the battery for them to operate and we felt that 400w was enough for our needs. Plus, it cost about $30 so it made sense to do it this way with our budget.

The biggest obstacle with this option is that the engine needs to be running in order for it to work at full capacity. The Ever Start can operate while the van is off, but not indefinitely because it will drain the battery and you might need a jump-start in the middle of the woods (guess how we know?)!

Ever Start pros: inexpensive, can fully charge phones and laptop while driving, phones can be charged while engine is off

Cons: pulls power from car battery when engine is off, larger wattage options need to be wired directly to car battery

If you need power while your engine is off, I recommend thinking about getting a power bank such as a Goal Zero, which can be charged via solar panel or while you drive. This 400w option runs about $400, so the price point is significantly higher. There are larger options available, but if cost is a factor for you it’s best to have a power bank you can charge while you drive rather than purchasing the additional solar panel, and the 400w makes the most sense without a panel in our opinion. The great thing about this brand is that it’s as simple as it gets as far as solar power – if you do choose to upgrade to solar, you can simply plug a solar panel into the power bank to charge it, no electrical knowledge required.

Goal Zero pros: power while your engine is off, can charge via cigarette lighter

Cons: more expensive than an inverter, vehicle must be on to charge unless you want to purchase a solar panel

Deciding whether or not to invest in solar power is an on-going discussion for us, but so far we’ve found that it’s not necessary in order to hit the road, and there are a ton of options aside from attaching solar panels to the roof of the van. By choosing other cost-effective options, we’ve been able to travel a lot more with the money we’ve saved, so for us the compromise has been totally worth it! As always, everything we’ve mentioned here is a product of our own research and experience, and won’t necessarily be the best options for everyone, so please ask questions and explore your options, because there are plenty! Thank you for reading! 🙂

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