16 Awesome Downsizing Tips Shared By Van Lifers

One of the hardest parts of switching from living in a home or an apartment to a van is downsizing your possessions. It requires a…

A man and a woman standing with their black dog near the entry door to a camper van.

One of the hardest parts of switching from living in a home or an apartment to a van is downsizing your possessions. It requires a lot of time, effort, and tough decisions about what’s worth keeping (or storing elsewhere) versus discarding, selling, or donating. 

This process can be even more difficult when you love what you own (for me, that was my clothes) or feel a sentimental attachment towards your possessions. These 16 tips for downsizing can help you navigate the process so you can get on the road faster!

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1. Determine how much space you have

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Before you start sorting, you must understand how much space you have to work within your van for items like clothes, kitchenware, and outdoor gear. “Analyze the storage space you have in your van so you have a better idea of what will actually fit inside,” Kaelan (@kaelan.young) suggests. 

2. Set aside items you’ll need in the van

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I carefully examined my possessions before sorting them. I thought about the items I would need in the van (safety gear, kitchenware, etc.)—the bare minimum necessities. I put these items in a box. This helped me see my needs vs. wants. I realized I didn’t need much to live on the road.

3. Decide which hobbies you’ll pursue in the van

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You may have a ton of gear for your hobbies. Whether you enjoy scrapbooking or paddle boarding, this gear can take up lots of precious space; therefore, it’s important to think realistically about which hobbies you’ll pursue on the road. 

Adventurers Oliver and Sarah (@theplaneandlight) offer this advice to fellow outdoors enthusiasts: “Decide what hobbies and outdoor adventures you’re going to do first. We managed to fit in hiking, backpacking, and trail running in one box, and another box has climbing and mountaineering gear.” 

Whitney (@back2naturevan) says that before living in a van, she had a huge amount of crafting supplies that she decided to let go of: “I would keep all kinds of little knick-knacks that ‘one day I would make a craft out of.’ Offloading a lot of that was a bit of a relief as I had moved twice with it all.” 

Remember, if you didn’t use something before you lived in a van, chances are you won’t use it once you’re in the van.

4. Devote a box to items you’ll bring if there’s room

Image Credit: Tom Zittergruen @nomadxtom and Kaylin Zittergruen @katekeepswild

Once you know what you need, you can take stock of the rest of your items. Which items do you want to take in the van if you have enough room? Be careful not to be too generous with this box. These items should be things you truly love but could live without. They will likely end up in storage if they don’t fit.

5. Start downsizing slowly with easy items

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Set a timer for just one hour a day devoted to sorting through your items. Start with the stuff that is easy to let go of (anything that is broken, uncomfortable, and unused). A good place to start might be a junk drawer in your kitchen, the cabinet under the bathroom sink, or the coat closet. 

The items in these places will likely have no emotional attachment to them, which will help you get into the groove of downsizing and make it easier to tackle the more sentimental items later.

6. Move on to big items you can’t keep

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To make things more manageable, divide your possessions into categories and focus on one at a time. Start with big furniture items (TV stand, TV, nightstand, coffee table), then focus on slightly smaller furniture items (lamps, home decor, plants). Furniture tends to be easy to let go of because it won’t fit in your van, and you can see visual progress immediately. 

Em Monsalud (@emgonewild) says she started downsizing a year before moving into her van: “I just listed a few things per week. I got rid of furniture like dressers that forced me to downsize clothes.”

7. Sort the items you’d like to store

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These items should be special, irreplaceable, or sentimental things you cherish but don’t make sense to bring on the road. For example, when I lived in Germany for a summer in college, I collected souvenirs like a glass stein that I wanted to keep. I boxed up these items to store at my mother-in-law’s home and plan to take them once we purchase a home someday. 

Another option is to pay for a storage unit, which is what Sam and Whitney (@back2naturevan) did: “I kept furniture and some heirlooms from my grandparents in along with some records and other things we thought might be more of a hassle to rebuy when we might have a place to stay.”

8. Take photos of sentimental items

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Instead of storing tubs at someone’s house or paying for a storage unit, you can free yourself from emotional and physical clutter. One idea is to take photos of sentimental items so you can always remember them. 

Chris DiCroce, the author of a book and course titled Downsizing For a Tiny Life, says, “Memories don’t disappear with your items.” If you have photo albums that you rarely look through, Chris suggests purchasing an automated photo frame that you can display in your van so you can see the photos and enjoy looking through the memories.

9. Donate or sell the things you don’t need

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Moving into a van is the perfect time to start fresh and sell, donate, or discard items that are broken, worn down, not used, or no longer your style. Depending on the condition, you can donate items to needy families or set financial goals from what you sell. 

Cal (@calcing) recommends having “a huge clothing swap/tag sale with your neighbors or friends.” 

Similarly, Sam and Whitney (@back2naturevan) had a garage sale and “put those proceeds into our van build. We also gave things away to friends and family, which is awesome, because you feel good about it and you can see it being used!”

10. Turn downsizing into a game

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If you’re dreading the concept of downsizing, reframe your mindset by turning it into a game or challenge. The Minimalists invented the 30-Day Minimalism Game, which starts on the first day of a month. For each day, that’s how many things you get rid of (i.e., on the 14th, you must get rid of 14 things). 

By the end of the month, you’ll have gotten rid of almost 500 items!

11. Follow the 90-Day Rule

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As Oliver and Sarah (@theplaneandlight) describe it, the 90-Day Rule is simple – “If you haven’t used an item for 90 days, you probably won’t need it!” We only regularly use about 20% of what we own. 

Ed and Tiff (@eddyandtiffadventures) agree: “You don’t need most of the knick-knacks/extras in your house (decor, cooking appliances/utensils, extra bedding, etc).” If you have trouble remembering what you use vs. what you don’t, another idea is to write it down. 

Natalie Minas (@natminas) recommends, “As you are getting ready to downsize either into a van or otherwise, it helps to journal everything that you use on a daily basis. If it’s not something you regularly use, it can go!” 

12. Try the hanger trick for clothes

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If you’re like me and have numerous clothes to sort through before you hit the road, I recommend trying the hanger trick: every time you wear something in your closet, flip the hanger in the opposite direction. Em Monsalud (@emgonewild) explains, “Anything that wasn’t flipped by the time I moved out of my apartment meant I didn’t wear it, so to Goodwill it went!” 

Depending on how many clothes you have, Ricki (@rickiontheroad) says you may need to “go through your closet more than once” so it’s less overwhelming. 

Brianna Walston (@briwalston) also admits she “had a clothes hoarding problem” and followed this rule: “If you haven’t worn it in the last 45 days – it can go!” 

13. Consider keeping the things you love vs. trends

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When you sort through your belongings and decide what to keep vs. let go of, it’s important to consider what you truly love vs. what you may own because it’s trendy. As Ed and Tiff (@eddyandtiffadventures) say, “You don’t need trendy clothes or shoes. Stick with the basics and necessities.” 

Chris DiCroce (Downsizing For a Tiny Life) also encourages people to remember that the stuff you own has nothing to do with your self-worth. 

Natalie Minas (@natminas) says she held onto more than she needed to: “I find with clothing, it is a beautiful thing when you realize the items that truly bring you joy as you will find yourself wearing them all the time. I stored a few things at my parents’ house thinking ‘I’d need or want it when I get back.’ Now I don’t even think about those items, and I want to downsize even further!”

14. Continue to reevaluate as you go

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Downsizing shouldn’t end once you move into your van. Once you’re living on the road, you’ll get a sense of what you’re using vs. what is collecting dust. 

Anna and Stephan (@uprootandadventure) say they take stock of what they’re wearing every three months because it “helps [us] weed out and develop a solid, reliable wardrobe.” This doesn’t mean you can’t ever purchase new things or replace the items you have. 

Whitney (@back2naturevan) says: “I also realized that you could still update your wardrobe. I love thrifting, so of course, when the seasons start changing, I will purge a few items and update with some new-to-me items.”

15. Consider alternative ways to remember your trips

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Once you start living in your van, you may be tempted to purchase souvenirs for every place you visit. T-shirts, magnets, and other items from gift shops accumulate quickly. If you want a more creative way to remember your trips, consider taking photos or purchasing artwork that you can hang in your van. 

Laci Ward (@lacieedanielleee) has another idea: “Get a tattoo to commemorate your trips instead of trinkets. My whole leg is my ‘scrapbook leg’!”

16. Embrace the mindset of less is more

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Although it may be painful to let go of your possessions at first, it gets easier as you go. There is beauty in owning less and living a more simplistic lifestyle. 

Sam (@back2naturevan) said it best: “I promise once you live with less, you’ll feel better and better about it and realize how little you actually need! Free yourself!”

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