In May of 2021, I moved into a Sprinter van and haven’t looked back.
I share my tiny mobile home with two high-energy border collies and a cat.
It’s not always easy, but so far I have loved traveling the world in a van with my dogs.
Whether you’re considering taking the plunge into #vanlife or are already nomadic but considering adding a pet to your home, I hope the lessons I’ve learned in the past few years can help you out.
Below, I’ll share some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned while embracing this popular new lifestyle!
Tips for Living in a Van with a Dog: Key Takeaways
- Find creative ways to contain your canine. Utilizing long leashes and teaching your dog to pause at doorways will be key in giving your dog freedom of movement while keeping him safe.
- Some of the most common van-life dog challenges relate to space, the messes dogs can create, and temperature issues. Other obstacles include things like providing your dog with enough enrichment and exercise and keeping your pooch safe.
- Load up with various climate-control devices. From cozy blankets and dog winter coats to overhead fans and reflective window cling, you’ll need to find creative solutions to help your dog maintain warm to stay cool, depending on the weather.
Common Challenges of Living in a Van with a Dog: Is Vanlife with Dogs Hard?
Van-lifing with dogs presents some specific challenges, and most of my tips revolve around addressing them.
A few of the most common challenges pet owners face include:
- Space: There’s no way around it, vans are TINY. Even if you’ve got the world’s smallest Chihuahua, you can’t avoid having your pup underfoot. This can be frustrating or even dangerous.
- Safety while Driving and Parking: When you live in a vehicle, crash safety and keeping your dogs safe on road are huge considerations. Vans also don’t come with vehicle barrier fences, so it’s challenging to ensure your dog stays close and safe wherever you park (whether that’s a Wal-Mart parking lot or the most remote forest road you can find).
- Temperature Control: Even with amazing Havelock wool insulation and covered windows, vans often experience big temperature swings. Keeping your pup comfy and safe is important.
- Mess: When you’re sharing such a small space with dogs, hair and mud are ALWAYS a problem.
- Exercise and Enrichment: So far, I’ve found that van life is great for my dogs physically and mentally, but that’s partially because I build my entire life around their wellbeing. Be prepared to do the same if you take the van life plunge with dogs.
- Other People: One of my biggest fears is someone breaking my window to “rescue” my dogs from their home. If you’ve taken care to make your dogs ultra-safe, you’ll want to ensure that people peering in your windows (and peer they will, people love staring at vans) know your dogs are safe.
All in all, my dogs and I love vanlife. I haven’t found it much harder to keep them happy and safe in a van compared to my apartments.
31 Tips for Van Life with Dogs
I’ll break down the tips and products that help my dogs and me enjoy vanlife below based on which of the problems listed above they help solve.
A few products or tips are listed twice because they address multiple concerns. I’ll skip over the basics that any dog owner already has, such as toys, brushes, and food bowls; we’ll focus primarily on vanlife-specific tips.
If you prefer video format, you can check out my video below on some of my favorite must-have items for van life with dogs!
There’s no way around it: Space is always at a premium when living #vanlife. So, try to incorporate a few of these tips to help make the most of the limited space available with your doggos.
Van-Life Tip #1: Train your dogs to hang out where you want them to.
One of the most helpful things I’ve taught my dogs is to “station” on my bed or in the front seats while I’m cooking or cleaning. I give them a simple “up” cue to get them in position, then reward them for staying in place.
You can teach this the same way you’d teach a dog mat training or to go lie down on a bed.
Van-Life Tip #2: Set up your van thoughtfully.
Since vans are so tiny, consider your dogs during your construction to help use the space better.
For example, I have a storage ottoman that doubles as a step stool, which helps the dogs get in and out of the bed easily.
But it isn’t just important to think about the things to add to your van; you also want to think about the things to leave out.
For example, I avoided building anything in front of my sliding door. This helps keep things from feeling too cramped and makes it easy for me and the doggos to hop in and out.
Also, while I love the convenience of having a sink and counter in front of the sliding door, that design creates a super-narrow galley that is hard to navigate with dogs.
So, just be sure to think carefully about how you layout your van and give special thought about how the dogs will use the space.
Van-Life Tip #3: Use microchips and ID tags to prevent your dogs from becoming lost.
All dogs should be microchipped, and a collar with dog ID tags will help ensure that if your dog does get loose, you have a chance of being reunited.
I do not use any of the Bluetooth pet locators because most won’t work if the dogs wander far, the device requires WiFi, or you need an additional expensive cell service add-on plan for them to work.
My cell service isn’t consistent enough to bother paying for such a service, but you may have a different situation.
Keeping Your Dogs Safe With Van Life
Safety should always be front of mind for pet parents, and this is doubly true for those who live on the open road. Try to work these tips and tricks into your vanlife plan to keep your canines safe.
Van-Life Tip #4: Train your dogs to wait until given permission to leave the van.
It’s important that your dogs understand that they can’t dash out the door whenever you open it. I’ve taught my dogs to automatically pause at the door and wait for me to release them.
You’ll also want to ensure your dogs are comfortable with most other adventure dog skills, including recall, an emergency stop, and automatically disengaging from wildlife.
Van-Life Tip #5: Use a Variocage or some other crash safety device.
I’d prefer to have two crates or a double crate, as they’re much safer for dogs, but I simply don’t have space for both due to my battery and wheel placement in the “garage” area under my bed.
Van-Life Tip #6: Buy and use a long line with locking carabiners.
I personally use locking carabiners rated for rock climbing to ensure they don’t bend or break if the dogs lunge at a thrown frisbee or a passing “friend.”
I usually have the dogs clipped to the grab bar in my sliding door, but I can also hitch them to the loops on either bumper of my vehicle or even a tree.
This helps me keep the dogs contained and safe even if I don’t have my eyes on them.
Of course, leashing your dogs doesn’t protect them from bears, strangers, other dogs, and other potential dangers.
So, it’s important to avoid leaving them fully unattended outside the van.
Van-Life Tip #7: Be prepared to protect your pups.
Knowing how to break up a dog fight is always smart, but it’s even important with van life.
You simply never know when an off-leash, aggressive dog could barge into camp. While this hasn’t happened to us yet, I always keep a dog-repellent spray on hand to ward off aggressive dogs and breaking up fights.
Van-Life Tip #8: Use collar lights and bells to keep track of your pets.
Lights and bells are a great way to keep track of your dogs in camp or on hikes!
If you have multiple dogs, I’d suggest choosing a different color light for each dog so you can tell which dog you’re looking at in the dark.
Van-Life Tip #9: Always keep a basic dog first-aid kit on hand.
Accidents are always a possibility and you never know when your doggo may become hurt.
With that in mind, you’ll always want to be ready to handle minor injuries and health issues while riding with Rover.
So, be sure to pick up a good dog first-aid kit.
You can assemble your own, though it’s often easier to just purchase a pre-made canine first-aid kit.
That said, I tend to make my own.
It includes some basic supplies like pain meds, Gabapentin (a prescription anti anxiety drug), gauze, vet wrap, hydrogen peroxide (to induce vomiting), antibiotic ointment, and tweezers.
This collection of tools and supplies ensures that I can easily address most minor hound healthcare hiccups on my own.
Van-Life Tip #10: Keep your dog’s veterinary records close.
Every time we show up at a new vet (which is a couple times a year), I need to provide them with records.
This is kind of a pain, so I have a Google Drive as well as printed records of all of my dog’s vaccinations and injuries.
This is a huge headache-saver if we need to provide a new vet with that information. I’ve also heard that some hotels or campgrounds require records, but I’ve never encountered that.
Temperature Control Challenges for Van Life with Dogs
It’s rarely very difficult to keep your dogs comfortable when living in a home or apartment, but vanlife introduces some serious canine climate concerns you’ll have to keep in mind. But the following tips and tricks should get you pointed in the right direction.
Van-Life Tip #11: Fit your dogs with a warm winter coat when it’s cold.
Cold is a real concern in vans.
While I have a diesel heater, I didn’t use it much over winter 2021 due to the extremely high diesel costs.
I sought warmer weather when I could, but I also work as a cross-country ski instructor.
And this means there were days that I simply had to put jackets on the dogs and head out to teach a long day of skiing in Breckenridge.
Overall, my dogs seemed comfortable enough and did really well in the cold.
Personally, I love Hurtta jackets for my dogs.
Of course, your dog’s breed (or combination thereof) are also a factor here.
If you have a greyhound, you’ll need to fit him in a coat or sweater — even in surprisingly mild temperatures.
But if your copilot is a husky or malamute, he may not need a coat at all.
Van-Life Tip #12: Install and use van window covers.
Reflective window covers (like these ones) can do wonders to keep your van cooler in the sun. I opted for a set that covers my windshield and both side doors.
You can generally either order a vehicle-specific set or make your own.
Van-Life Tip #13: Consider adding insulated curtains.
When I was preparing for the winter, my friend Betsie and I made a custom curtain to hang between the “cabin” and the “galley” (the driving area and the living area, respectively). This was especially helpful in the winter, when the heat loss through the windows is at its worst.
Most vanlifers will have curtains for privacy anyway, but the custom insulated curtains helped a lot with heat retention!
Van-Life Tip #14: Use portable fans to provide airflow.
Moving air helps your dog rid his body of excess heat, so consider picking up and using a portable fan in the name of canine comfort.
I use my Ryobi One+ Fan almost daily to help with air circulation.
While there are other great battery-powered or mobile fans, I use a lot of the Ryobi One+ tools and therefore only have to bother storing a few batteries and a single charger for many tools.
This is super important when space is limited!
Best of all, you can easily charge this battery using an inverter attached to your solar panels.
Just note that a fan isn’t a magic bullet for dealing with high temperatures.
It’ll almost always help your dog remain cooler, but it may not be enough to keep your canine cool enough when the mercury really climbs.
Van-Life Tip #15: Consider adding an overhead fan for even more airflow awesomeness.
I cannot imagine living in a van without an overhead fan.
My van has a MaxxAir Fan, which works well. It even has a remote, so I can turn it on or off from bed! This is great if I get cold in the middle of the night and want to turn it off.
Paired with a vent or window, the overhead fan can create a nice cross-breeze when set to “out.” The “out” setting is also great for pushing buoyant hot air out, while the “in” setting makes for a nice breeze if you’re right underneath the fan.
Van-Life Tip #16: Pick up a cooling bed for your canine.
Cooling dog beds and mats are the perfect way to give your pup the chance to chill out!
A nice cool surface can help keep your pup comfy while he rests, as well as reduce his overall body temperature.
I have the Green Pet Shop Cooling Mat, which I either put in Niffler’s crate or on the bed, depending on where the dogs will spend much of their time. They seem to prefer using it when it’s on the bed, perhaps because it’s softer.
Van-Life Tip #17: Consider installing a mini swamp cooler to beat the heat.
If your solar power system is strong enough, a mini swamp cooler can help a LOT in dry heat.
I use the Ontel Arctic Air Pure Chill 2.0, and it does an amazing job of keeping my dogs cooler. I’ve been using it every day here in Mexico and often find one dog or the other lying directly in front of it.
It doesn’t work off of a battery, so I have to turn on my inverter and leave it running.
Dealing with Messes During Van Life with Dogs
As every dog owner already knows, dogs can create quite a mess. And if you think dealing with a mess in your home is challenging, wait until you try to keep the small space in your van clean!
Don’t worry — there are plenty of ways to cut down on the mutt messes. Check out a few of our favorite tips:
Van-Life Tip #18 Avoid splishes and splashes with a no-spill dog bowl.
It’s amazing how often dogs may spill their water bowls — even when they’re living in a traditional home!
But let me tell you, spills are even more common for those embracing #vanlife.
Whether it’s washboard roads on the way to go rock climbing, a sudden stop in rush hour traffic, or a speed bump in Guatemala, van life creates a lot of situations for dog bowls to spill.
What’s worse is that it’s typically harder to clean up spills in a van than it would be the kitchen in your house or apartment.
So, one of the first things I bought for my van was a no-spill dog bowl.
Different no-spill bowls work in different ways, but many (like the Petmate model previously mentioned) feature a “guard” around the rim of the bowl, through which your dog must stick his muzzle to access the water.
Many also have wide bases to help prevent tipping.
But no matter which style or design concept sounds best for your situation, do yourself a favor and protect your floors with a no-spill bowl.
Van-Life Tip #19: Rely on a reusable lint roller to pick up loose hair.
I picked this reusable lint roller up on a whim before I bought the van, and it’s one of my favorite things now!
I hate the paper use of traditional lint rollers, and this works better than most anyway. Because Niffler sheds so much and we’re in such a small space, I end up lint-rolling my rug every day and my comforter every week.
Van-Life Tip #20: Make cleanup easy by using a hand pump sprayer.
No matter how hard we try, our dogs get messy. When you don’t have a hose or bathroom to deal with mud (or worse, poo), a pump-up hand sprayer can do the trick.
I’ve used mine to deal with mud and even cow poo several times. It’s best paired with a brush and shampoo.
As a bonus, I’ve also used the hand sprayer to clean the van, clean my shoes, or even take a shower in a pinch.
Van-Life Tip #21: Grab a portable vacuum.
Dogs seemingly create an unending torrent of messes, and when you’re living in a van, it can be even more challenging to keep them to a minimum.
So, consider picking up a little portable vacuum cleaner to handle messes.
These tools can be lifesavers for those living in a small van with a floof-producing four-footer.
There are tons of little handheld vacuums on the market, but I use the Ryobi One+ and love it.
This little vacuum is a powerhouse!
It’s compact enough for easy storage but has handled endless dog hair, sand, spilled rice, and kitty litter perfectly.
I don’t know how I survived my first year of vanlife without it.
Best of all, it works off the same battery and charger as the fan listed above!
Van-Life Tip #22: Pick up a waterproof dog blanket.
When I first saw this waterproof dog blanket advertised on Instagram, I thought it looked pretty silly. But my mom got me one for Christmas, and I’m sold!
I toss this blanket over my bed and it helps collect dirt, hair, drool, and drips from wet dogs to protect my bed. It’s far easier to remove the waterproof blanket and shake it out than it would be to find a laundromat whenever my dirty dogs got on the bed.
I opted not to get a dog bed for my guys, so mi cama es su cama. They’re always in my bed!
Vanlife Tip #23: Buy and use some removable car seat covers.
Both of my dogs love sitting up front and looking out the window while we’re at camp. And when it’s hot at night, Niffler likes to sleep on the driver’s seat.
Until I got some removable dog car seat covers, this meant constant dog hair on the chairs! I made custom covers so that they matched my rug and curtain, but you can purchase vehicle-specific options online.
Van-Life Tip #24: Grab a dog paw washer or two.
Dog paw washers are handy little contraptions that will scrub your dog’s paws for you.
While it’s no good if their belly is a mess or if the mud goes past their elbows or so, they’re nice in a pinch. If you’re super tight on space, just go for the sprayer and skip this.
Van-Life Tip #25: Always carry a microfiber glove towel.
It’s helpful to have a way to dry your pup off and get some excess dirt or sand out of their coat before inviting them into the van.
I’ve found that a microfiber glove towel does the trick perfectly!
These little things are space-efficient while still helping enough when you must clean up your canine a bit. I also keep a dog towel or two around for bigger messes.
Providing Exercise and Enrichment During Van Life With Dogs
While puzzle toys, long-lasting chews, and licki mats can help on long indoor days, they’re not going to cure cabin fever for most dogs. So, try some of the following strategies to keep your dogs well-exercised and stimulated.
Van-Life Tip #26: Focus on the entire point of van life: going amazing places with your dogs!
Even a slow sniffy walk in a new park will go a long way to helping your dog feel fulfilled.
Van-Life Tip #27: Plan your stops around your dog’s needs.
In other words, try to stick to activities and locations in which your dogs can participate or at least hang out with you.
I keep my dogs in mind when scheduling activities and choosing campsites so I avoid locations and activities (like whitewater rafting or visiting most National Parks) where their options are very limited.
Van-Life Tip #28: Wear ’em out when need be.
When I know I’ll have to work all day, I ensure that I make plenty of time to exercise my dogs before I go to work and communicate with bosses that I’ll need to let them out at lunch.
Van-Life Tip #29: Use dog sitters or doggie daycares when you have to leave your dog alone.
Sometimes, you just need to rely on some pet-care professionals to keep your pups safe and happy when you must do dog-free activities.
Dealing with Other People when Living in a Van with Dogs
Even if you’re only traveling with a four-footed copilot, you’ll encounter other people while living out of a van. We’d recommend employing the following tips to facilitate harmonious relationships with others.
Van-Life Tip #30: Hang window covers and curtains.
The same window covers and curtains mentioned above will help keep people from staring into your van and getting worried about your dogs. This can also reduce your dog’s stress — most dogs don’t like having people peer into their windows.
Van-Life Tip #31: Consider printing up custom magnets.
I used StickerMule to make a custom magnet that reads:
Don’t mind us! This van is climate-controlled and runs off solar, so the dogs stay comfortable and safe in all weather. They DO get stressed out by people peeking in their windows, so please give them space. If you are concerned, please call [number].”
Before getting the sticker, someone called animal control because they were worried that the dogs were abandoned. I haven’t had any issues in the year since I got the magnet.
Can Any Dog Handle Van Life?
There is one final consideration before taking the leap into vanlife with your dog: your dog.
Some dogs simply are not well-suited to vanlife, and it may be unfair to ask them to adapt. People are also much more likely to call the cops on you if your dogs are barking or appear distressed. This is a huge consideration!
Dogs that bark at people or strange noises in particular will be stressed out and might lead to the police knocking on your door.
While it’s not impossible, I’d think twice about vanlife with a dog if my dog had any of the following traits:
- Car sickness. If your dog gets sick or panicky whenever he rides in the car, it’s unlikely that vanlife is a good fit for him. You can consider medication and training, but it may not be enough to help your dog truly enjoy the journey with you.
- Fear of strangers, dislike of dogs, leash reactivity, and/or aggression issues: When you change locations often, you simply can’t avoid being around strange people and strange dogs all the time. No matter what you see on social media, a lot of vanlife is parking in urban parking lots – or worse, hanging out at mechanic’s shops. My dogs frequently have to deal with hanging out at tire shops, waiting on oil changes, navigating packed city streets, or staying in hotels while I grab a shower or wait on van repairs. If those situations would be tough for your dogs, you should probably trying some reactive dog training strategies before committing to vanlife.
- A high anxiety level or strong desire for routine: Some dogs just don’t do well with change. If your dog doesn’t like exploring the world and can’t handle a lot of changes all the time, vanlife is going to be more stressful than fun.
- Sound phobias: Vanlife comes with a lot of weird noses… cars backfiring, gunshots, people and animals passing by late at night, and even the occasional visit from the cops or landowners, asking you to move at 2:00 AM. If your dog is stressed out by strange noises or can’t settle in some amount of hubbub, he may struggle a lot with vanlife. Again, this is true even if you plan on mostly staying out in the boonies.
- Major physical limitations: Climbing in and out of a van and its elevated bed every day is hard on dogs. My dog Barley just had TPLO surgery and I had long conversations with his vet to ensure that we could stay in the van during recovery. Injured or elderly dogs, especially if they dislike being carried or helped, may struggle in a van.
If you are looking for a future dog to join you on your van life adventure but haven’t purchased or adopted a dog yet, make sure to also check out our guide to the best dog breeds for van life! It’ll give you a better idea of what to look for in the ideal van life buddy.
I’m lucky that both of my dogs adapted well to vanlife right away. Niffler was only 6 months old when we moved into the van full-time, while Barley has lived out of hotels and AirBnbs for years previously.
Both of my dogs are active, adventurous, optimistic, and stable. While a dog who’s a bit shy or less confident about the world still may love vanlife, think hard about whether or not he’s ready for it.
Just because you love something doesn’t mean your dog will.
Van life with dogs can be incredibly rewarding, but does require some accommodation to make it all work. If you’re interested in learning more about van life with dogs, feel free to pose specific questions in the comments below or follow my YouTube account Collies Without Borders.