Van life has been growing in popularity for a while now, and that means that more dogs are being invited for the ride.
What began as a form of glorified homelessness has transitioned into a way to travel the countryside while working less and adventuring more.
Some folks are even opting to use a van as a “cabin” of sorts for weekend adventures rather than for full-time travel and living.
While dogs can be excellent copilots (I have two in my van with me right now), not all four-footers are going to love the roving, ever-changing, adventurous lifestyle offered by van life.
We’re here to help you figure out the best pooch to accompany you in your adventures below, as we share some of best dog breeds for van-life.
Key Takeaways: Best Breeds for Van life
- Dogs can make excellent companions for owners who live in a van. However, while dogs are all individuals, some breeds tend to adapt better to this kind of lifestyle than others.
- Breeds that work well for van life tend to share a few common traits. Specifically, the best four-footed van companions tend to be confident, adaptable, friendly, and small to medium-sized.
- There are also breeds that are not well suited for vanlife. These typically include large, protective breeds, dogs with high-maintenance coats, and those who have long-backed builds.
- Getting ready to hit the road? Make sure to check out our list of 31 tips for embarking on van-life with a dog!
What Characteristics Make a Dog Good for Van Life?
All dogs are individuals and every van lifer has a different lifestyle.
With that said, breeds were created for specific jobs, so some dogs will cope better – or worse – with specific aspects of van life than others will.
One of the most challenging aspects of finding the perfect canine van life partner is that van life is extreme.
On one hand, living in a van means spending long periods of time in a very small space, making it a great fit for a geriatric Chihuahua. On the other hand, many van lifers choose this lifestyle in order to pursue grand outdoor adventures – the perfect recipe for a happy young husky.
But realistically, the young husky may struggle with long driving days or rainy weeks cooped up in an 80-square-foot box and the geriatric Chihuahua will never keep up on your epic mountain climbs.
But broad strokes aside, there are some things you’ll want to think about when picking the perfect pooch for your van-life adventures. A few of the most notable include:
Adaptability and Confidence: The Pillars of a Van Life Dog
Overall, the two most important traits I’d consider for a van life dog are: adaptability and confidence.
Any dog that lives in a van with you is going to be in a new location often, sharing hundreds of adventures with you.
That lifestyle may sound great to some dogs, but it would be an absolute nightmare in the eyes of others.
If your dog is already a nervous type who shuts down in new environments, you can bet they won’t be a fan of the constant transitions and changes that come with van life.
Consider Grooming Needs
It’s amazing how fast hair can build up in a small van. Unfortunately, grooming or washing your dog on the road can be quite difficult!
Doodles, long-haired breeds, and high-shedding Labs and shepherds may drive you nuts in a van due to grooming needs alone.
Instead, look for low-shedding dogs who shed minimally and have easy-to-care for coats, such as the short and wiry coats of many hunting dogs.
Unfriendly Dogs Aren’t Great for Vanlife
For van-life you’ll want to look at breeds who are generally described with words like “easy going,” “adaptable,” “outgoing,” “friendly,” and “family oriented.”
Conversely, you’ll want to avoid breeds that are described as “aloof,” “protective,” “reserved,” “guarded,” or “shy” when seeking a vanlife copilot.
It’s better to stack the deck in your favor by avoiding dog breeds described with these euphemisms.
Managing a dog that is protective of your van (and will be perceived as aggressive towards strangers) is extraordinarily difficult in campsites, Walmart parking lots, and city parks where van lifers tend to end up.
A protective dog is likely to cause more problems than he solves, and your options are extremely limited for keeping others safe from a dog that distrusts them when you live in a van.
While these doggos can work out, van life tends to be extremely chaotic and can easily stress out shy dogs or put protective pups in situations where they feel the need to bite someone they shouldn’t.
Ensure Your New Dog Fits Your Real Life
Beyond the things discussed above, if you’re adopting or purchasing a dog specifically with your cross-country adventure in mind, ensure that your van life dog suits your activity level, outgoingness, training skill, and general lifestyle.
For example, I want a high-energy, athletic, and super-smart dog, but other van lifers may opt for a quiet and small dog that won’t take up much time or energy.
Just be sure that you pick a pooch who’s likely to enjoy the kind of van-roaming lifestyle you want.
Additionally, don’t select a dog as a way to change your own habits.
It may be tempting to get an “aspirational” dog that will force you to take up running and help you get in shape, but that’s rarely a recipe for success. Instead, it’s better to get a dog that suits your current lifestyle than to use a dog as a way to change your habits.
The 11 Best Breeds for Vanlife
With the aforementioned characteristics in mind, we can now move on to some specific breed recommendations for vanlife. Just remember to keep your own needs, desires, and capabilities in mind when trying to pick from the following four-footers.
1. Jack Russell: The Toughest Little Van Life Dog
Jack Russell terriers are, in many ways, truly the best van life dog.
They’re diminutive enough to easily adapt to a small space, but they’re extremely sturdily built.
This means they can hold their own in the wilderness better than most toy breeds and are less likely to hurt themselves with the big jumps in and out of the van every day.
They also come in two coat types: smooth and furnished (wiry). Wiry coats tend to shed less and don’t easily collect burrs, so I’d get a wiry Jack Russell if you can!
They’re athletic, smart, and self-sufficient. They aren’t known for being overly sensitive to strange people or sounds, which makes a big difference in a little van.
Terriers are, however, known for being “bossy” with other dogs, which means that you may need to take care introducing your terrier to other dogs or letting him off-leash at the campsite.
2. Australian Cattle Dog: The Best Do-Everything Van-Life Dog
Australian cattle dogs (also called red heelers or blue heelers) are extremely athletic, tough, tenacious dogs.
They tend to be a bit less sensitive than many other herding dog breeds, which is why they are probably your best choice for van life if you want the intelligence and energy of a herding dog.
Cattle dogs are extremely smart and high-energy, meaning you’ll have to do a lot of work to meet their energy needs while living in a van. The upside of that energy is that you can absolutely count on your cattle dog to be excited to join you on trail runs, mountain bike rides, or long days at the crag.
Like all herding dogs, cattle dogs can easily become reactive to anything that moves. This can be difficult in a van, so be mindful that this will be one of the challenges you face!
3. Husky: The Best Running Buddy for Northern Vanlife
If you’re a dedicated trail runner and don’t migrate to the south in your van every winter, you can’t do better than a husky. Bred for running, running, and running some more, a husky will easily keep up with all of your van life adventures.
Huskies are generally social with other dogs and don’t tend to be super-shy with strangers, which are both great things for crowded campsites.
They can be highly excitable, and they can get destructive and vocal if under stimulated, so you’ll need to be ready to – you guessed it — run a lot with your new van life husky!
It’s also important to note that huskies simply aren’t a dog breed well-suited for hot climates, so reconsider a husky if you hope to chase the sun year-round in your van.
4. Pit Bull: The Best Protector and Desert Van Life Buddy
One of the best things about bully dog breeds is that they tend to be 0-to-60 dogs. Many pit bulls are perfectly content to lounge around in bed all day but also readily explore the world at top speed.
Pit bulls can be extremely affectionate, cuddly, and happy to run or hike with you all day. With their ultra-short coats, pitties are perfectly suited for van lifers who spend much of their time in the desert southwest.
That said, there is one big problem with having a pit bull as your van life dog: breed bans and breed stereotypes.
While it’s certainly true that pit bulls can be aggressive to other dogs, the bigger concern for me would be breed bans on the municipal, parking area, or hotel level.
5. Chihuahua: The Best Lapwarmer for Van-life
When you think of an adventure dog, you probably don’t think of a Chihuahua.
However, plenty of van lifers actually want to spend their time rock climbing, surfing, freelance writing, or doing other less-than-dog-friendly activities.
And if you’re not into van life for the epic trail runs or endlessly long hikes, a Chihuahua might be one of the best ways to have the joy of a dog while also saving LOTS of space in your van.
Because this is a small breed, you’ll want to help your Chihuahua hop on and off the bed and in and out of the van to avoid hurting his little joints.
These little dogs will happily join you on some smaller adventures while also finding that the 80 square feet of your van is plenty of space to stretch, play, and live happily.
6. Whippet: The Best Biking-to-Sleeping Vanlife Dog
Whippets are a great size for van life — they won’t hog your tiny bed but also can easily match you stride-for-stride on hikes and bike rides.
Whippets are also a low-maintenance, fairly lazy breed, meaning they won’t mind the small space as much as other active breeds.
Your whippet will likely demand a nice, soft bed but will otherwise adapt well to van life. They can be a bit reserved with strangers but are not known for overt shyness or reactivity. Just don’t expect your whippet to act like a Lab with strangers, and you’ll be OK!
Whippets do have two downsides for van life: a high prey drive and poor heat retention.
Whippets are extremely fast and are likely to take off after rabbits, squirrels, deer, and other prey animals. They take a LOT of work to prepare for off-leash exercise and may never be fully trustworthy out and about.
Their thin coats and delicate natures may also be an issue if you expect to hit up the ski slopes from your van. You’ll need to invest in a long line and a winter dog coat to help your whippet adapt to van life.
7. Border Collie: The Vanlife Overachiever
I personally have two border collies in my van, so I could write an entire book about the pros and cons for border collie copilots.
On the plus side, border collies are extremely energetic, tend to be great off-leash, and have a variety of coat types to suit your potential van life climates.
They certainly can keep up with you on any potential adventure!
Border collies are also a nice size for van life, averaging about 35 to 50 pounds.
However, border collies are also known for being quite sensitive. They can struggle with a lack of routine and can tend towards shyness. Many are frightened of loud noises and they can easily become highly reactive to moving objects (like people, bikes, and cars).
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend a border collie in your van unless you’re pretty experienced with herding breeds and dog training.
8. Brittany Spaniel: The Low-Shedding All-Around Vanlife Dog
I genuinely don’t know why Brittany spaniels aren’t more popular.
They’ve got easy-to-care-for coats (at least compared to many other hunting dog breeds), they are a great size, and are energetic enough for all of your adventures.
Brittanies are excellent runners and bikers, they serve as a great hiking dog, all while remaining cuddly and sweet inside.
Like border collies, Brittanies are a great size, with most weighing about 30 to 40 pounds. But you will need to be prepared to meet their daily exercise needs.
Brittanies are bird dogs at heart, meaning they’re likely to spend a lot of your time outside hunting for birds. They tend to be responsive and trainable, but you’ll need to work a bit for off-leash reliability.
9. Cocker Spaniel: The Happy-Go-Lucky Vanlife Pup
It’s hard to imagine a more cheerful dog than the cocker spaniel.
These little bird dogs are even smaller than Brittanies and border collies while still being incredible athletes. Look for a working line cocker (a “wocker”) to find a more energetic pup with a lower-maintenance coat.
I can’t imagine dealing with the coat of a show line cocker in a van – it would be a nightmare.
They do tend to be extremely wiggly, which may be difficult in close quarters. I don’t just mean that they’re energetic – they literally just move back and forth a lot! This tendency (called quartering) can be a bit chaotic and might be frustrating in a small space.
Otherwise, their size and optimistic outlook on life make cocker spaniels a good choice for van life.
10. Border Terrier: The Sturdy Smartie for Vanlife
You may not even know what a border terrier is; they’re not a particularly common breed, and they’re generally only well known among those in the dog training world.
But border terriers have a lot to offer as potential van life companions! They’re small and sturdy, like Jack Russells and many other terriers. They also have wiry, easy-to-care-for coats.
Border terriers also tend to be whip-smart dogs and quite athletic, ensuring they can keep up on your adventures while not crowding your van too much.
11. Mutt: The Choose-Your-Own Adventure for Vanlife
It’s impossible to make blanket characterizations of mutts.
One mutt may be shy, 10 pounds, and extremely fluffy while another is a 160-pound, short-haired wrecking ball. But if you’re considering a dog for van life, definitely give mutts a look.
After thinking through what exactly you want from your van life buddy, you can start looking at mutts online or in your local shelter. Look for a mutt that fits your general size, energy level, friendliness, and grooming needs.
Don’t be afraid to ask the shelter a LOT of questions and meet the dog a few times if you can. We have a huge three-part dog adoption guide with an evaluation scorecard you can use to help you find your dream doggie.
Just note that some shelters may reject your application solely because you live in a van, which may make things difficult.
Since mutts encompass all dog varieties, the potential downsides of a mutt are also quite varied. You just don’t know what you’re getting and it’s impossible to say which issues – if any — are most likely.
Do keep an eye on histories of fearfulness, separation anxiety, reactivity, or aggression to avoid dealing with those issues in a van.
The Worst Dog Breeds for Van Life
While most of the dogs discussed above adapt well to van life, there are others at the opposite end of the spectrum, who typically don’t make the best van co-pilots. We’ll share a few of the breeds who are the least-suitable for van life below.
Mastiffs, Presa Canarios, Cane Corsos and Other Protective Breeds
Any large breed that’s been bred for protection and is noted for having guardian traits is a bad fit for a van.
You won’t be able to relax and enjoy van-life if you’re constantly trying to manage your pup’s protective instincts — especially given the constant change van life involves and the perpetual presence of unfamiliar people around your ride.
If you’re worried about security, don’t rely on a large dog unless you are prepared to dedicate hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to training.
Any Large or Giant Breed
You don’t want to share a van with a dog that weighs as much as you do. The slobber and hair alone, not to mention the bed-hogging and food storage, will become an issue.
I love Bernese mountain dogs and Swiss shepherds, but I can’t imagine sharing 80 square feet with a dog that size.
The galley in a van is just a couple feet wide, and you’ll drive yourself nuts trying to slip by a giant breed in the narrow confines of a van.
Further, you likely won’t be able to fit a crash-proof car dog crate for any giant breed in your van, and you won’t have a good spot for a bed either. While their energy levels might suit a van, the logistics are a truly terrible fit.
Small, Long-Backed Breeds like Corgis or Dachshunds
Living in a van requires a lot of jumping – in and out of the vehicle, on and off the bed, and on and off the seats.
This constant jumping is a major risk for all small dogs (I strongly considered removing Chihuahuas from the list because of this concern).
But long-backed dogs are at an especially elevated risk for back injury when forced to make repeated big jumps. These little long-backed dogs would be putting their spines at risk every time they hop into your home on wheels, and that’s just not a good idea.
What Kinds of Things Does Your Dog Need for Van Life?
At its most basic, your dog doesn’t really need anything special for van life. You’ll need the same things you would when caring for any dog, including a leash, a collar, tags, toys, and grooming supplies.
However, I’ve found a few items are super helpful for keeping my dogs and me happy in our van:
- A Ryobi Fan: I use this daily to keep the dogs cool. Paired with window shades, an overhead Maxxair fan, a cooling mat and occasionally a mini swamp cooler, to keep the dogs cool even in the full Mexican sun. I’ve tested the system out myself and even when it’s fiendishly hot outside, the white van remains tolerable.
- A no-spill dog bowl: you don’t want to damage your floors with overturned bowls and spilled water. I put mine on top of a big mat with a lip to further protect my floors.
- A waterproof pet blanket: I throw this fluffy blanket on my bed whenever I’m not in it to trap hair, dirt, sand, and water. This is especially useful if the dogs go swimming or get caught in the rain. The van is simply too small to keep them off the bed when they’re wet, so instead we protect the bed from them!
Frequently Asked Questions About Van Life with Dogs
Still have questions about the best breeds for riding in a van? You’re not alone! It’s a complicated issue, so we’ve put together some of the most common questions people have below!
Is van life OK for dogs?
Yes, with modifications and the right fit between the dog and the lifestyle, van life can be an extremely fulfilling way to share your life with your dog.
My dogs love how much time we spend together, the new sniffs every day, and the endless hiking offered by this lifestyle.
How do you train a dog for van life?
At a minimum, ensure that your dog is comfortable with strangers, tolerates riding in the car, and is happy being left alone in the car.
Your dog will need to deal with constant change, strangers, strange dogs, long car rides, and tight living quarters – entire books have been dedicated to training dogs to tolerate just one of these factors.
What dog breeds can be left alone for 8 hours?
Almost any dog breed can be left alone for 8 hours, depending on their age, training, temperament, physical limitations, and life experiences.
Any dog can also develop separation anxiety or a physical issue that means they need to relieve themselves more often than every 8 hours.
Some breeds, especially northern Asiatic breeds like Shiba Inus, are known for rarely experiencing separation anxiety.
Can big dogs work for van life?
Define big. The largest van-life-loving dogs that I know of are golden retrievers, which often weigh 70 to 90 pounds.
Even with my 45-pound border collies, a van often feels cramped. While technically you may succeed in van life with a giant breed dog, I would strongly recommend spending a few weeks living in a van without a dog (or renting a van with your dog) to really determine if you can handle the extra-tight spaces of a van with a dog that large.
Remember, you won’t always be outside or parked where the dog can be outside. There will be rainy days, cold days, or city days where you and the dog must cohabitate in 80 square feet. Test it out and decide for yourself.
I hope you found this breed guide helpful.
As with all breed-based articles, we’re speaking in generalities, but remember that every dog is an individual. This gets even trickier when considering how different van life can be from one person to the next.
I’m sure that there are people happily living with each of the breeds listed as the “worst” for van life and that some people would never dream of sharing a van with some of our top picks.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on our picks! What breed do you share your van with? What are the pros and cons? Share your firsthand experiences below!