Editor’s note: Call destinations before you visit to make sure they’re open. Follow all COVID-19 guidelines, get vaccinated before you travel and remember to bring your face covering.
Unpredictable is the name of the game in the campervan world — apparently, it means getting used to having no cell service. I mean, I’m a Millennial — I don’t do anything without my phone. But digitally disconnecting is half the excitement — it’s ultimately what kept me coming back over the years, after I took my first campervan trip, admittedly a bit ill-timed, during Portland’s 2016 “snowpocalypse.” What was supposed to be an easy weekend getaway to the Coast in my friend’s old minivan turned into an unintentional overnight camping situation on Highway 26.
I wish I could say that was the only time I found myself stuck, but it took a few more experiences (such as locking myself out of my van in a remote corner of Oahu) for me to finally get the hang of traveling in a campervan. Hard lesson learned: It’s essential to plan ahead.
I’m not the only one who’s put in some miles in these glamping pods on wheels. The number of Millennials and Gen-Z travelers taking campervan trips has increased dramatically over the past few years. The trend doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon, especially with new van designs that include dedicated workspaces to accommodate travelers who want to take their work-from-home on the road. It’s been an especially great way to have fun during COVID-19, when we’re increasingly taking virtual meetings and often prefer traveling in our own safe bubbles.
Just try taking 17 different Zoom calls from a tent.
That said, van-life travel isn’t always as simple as hopping in the vehicle and driving into the sunset. Especially for first-timers, planning a stress-free campervan trip can be intimidating. I didn’t grow up in a family that had easy access to recreational outdoor spaces, so I couldn’t turn to anyone who had experience with campervans. That’s part of the reason I’m so passionate about sharing tips that I’ve learned from my own experience — to make the outdoors that much more welcoming and inviting to new adventurists. Here are my top tips for planning your first Oregon campervan experience.
Where to Rent a Campervan in Oregon
Chances are, if you are getting ready for your first campervan trip, you may not already have a vehicle. If you do, then your biggest concern is already taken care of. But if you don’t, Oregon has a great selection of local van rentals that can fit any need.
- ROAMERICA, based in Hood River, is an all-inclusive campervan rental with a full kitchen, free roadside assistance and enough gear (chairs, blankets, pillows, headlamps, etc.) included for four people. They also have 4×4 vans for more rugged adventures.
- GoCamp, based in Portland, is a woman-owned business that values quality over quantity when it comes to their fleet of campervans. They provide discounts for any long-term rentals as well. Each van is individually owned and 100% unique, with fun names like Portvandia and Vincent Van Go.
- RoadTrip Oregon, based in Portland, has the largest variety of vans to rent from, as well as a service to inspect outside campervans so that you have peace of mind before any big trip.
- Escape Campervans, with its Portland one of its 12 depot locations across the United States, distinguishes their vans with colorful exterior artwork. Unique add-ons include items like bug nets, solar showers and puffy winter blankets.
- WanderVans, with Portland one of its four locations across the U.S., include fun extras like a portable campfire and second-row hammock. Small, medium or large vans are available so you’ll be well-equipped for any size group.
If you happen to already own a van that you want to outfit with all the nice fixings of a campervan, Overland Van Project is a Portland-based company that performs fully custom and semi-custom campervan conversions, as well as selling professional DIY kits and gear if you want to tackle your van conversion yourself.
Do Your Homework
When you’re looking at which campervan to rent, make sure your selection has the amenities you want, to make your trip enjoyable. Do you want a stovetop to cook your meals indoors? Do you want a refrigerator? It’s the little things that can make or break your trip.
Surprisingly, driving a campervan doesn’t feel too different from driving a large truck or moving van. You just need to be aware of your vehicle’s size and dimensions, especially when parking at a campsite.
One thing I wish I had known before renting a campervan for the first time is that most rentals do not offer unlimited mileage, especially for short weekend trips. Be sure to check what your rental’s mileage allotment is before planning your trip destinations.
Another thing to take note of is the seat height and adjustments; driver’s seats in older camper vehicles may not adjust vertically. If you are on the smaller side or have an abnormally short torso like me, a driving pillow will come in handy. AUX cables (for older vans) and phone mounts will also make your drive more enjoyable. Tow straps are also handy to have in case you find yourself without roadside assistance. I’ve been rescued more times by helpful Oregonians driving by in 4x4s than I want to admit to my car insurance provider.
Staying Safe on the Road
When I took my first campervan trip, my main concern was finding a parking spot along my journey’s route. If you haven’t booked a stay at an established site, you can use apps like FreeRoam and iOverlander to find campgrounds, parking lots, and even boondocking stations that are safe and legal to stay at overnight. You can book a reservation at an Oregon State Parks campground up to six months in advance; or check with the land manager for your camping destination, whether it’s the Bureau of Land Management, Mt. Hood National Forest or another agency. Book as early as possible, as spots fill up quickly.
Download to your phone an offline Google Map of your trip, in case you lose signal, and carry a physical map as well. It’s best to avoid driving at night, be aware of exit routes and stay vigilant while parked. More tips for QBIPOC travelers include researching the area for reported hate crimes, avoiding empty gas stations and supporting Oregon’s Black-owned businesses as part of your itinerary.
In Oregon it’s much easier to take a campervan trip spring through fall, without the worry of wintry road conditions. However, it’s always a good idea to check ahead for road and weather conditions, and read up on winter safety tips if you’re expecting snow or heavy rain. Also, here’s what to know about Oregon’s wildfire-impacted areas.
Pack for Success
For the most comfortable experience, don’t overpack. In an already tight space, every object you bring should have a purpose, especially if you’re traveling with more than one person or with pets. Most campervans have a storage space big enough for at least one or two small carry-on-size suitcases. If you’ll be traveling for a few weeks, having a retractable clothing line is useful for washing clothes so you don’t have to pack as much.
You’ll also want to bring a variety of balanced snacks, both to properly nourish your body as well as keep your taste buds interested. Eating the same bag of stale chips gets lackluster after the third day or so.
I recommend stocking up on some of Oregon’s best artisan snacks before you head out. Nora’s Kitchen granola, Nomad Mix and Tracy’s Small-Batch Granola are perfect fuel for hiking and easy to munch on while driving. Pack your mini fridge with Drink Mamey’s smoothies and juices for an extra boost of nutrients on the road. And of course, start your morning on the right wheel by brewing a cup of coffee with beans from Stumptown Coffee, Deadstock Coffee or Reforma Roasters. For tea drinkers, Portland has you covered with amazing blends at Smith Teamaker, Aesthete Tea, and Mamancy Tea & Chocolate. Also, don’t forget 1927 S’mores, the icing on any outdoor adventure trip.
Make It Homey
Once you have the necessities down, you can accessorize to make your space feel more homey, especially if you are driving a rental. Pendleton wool blankets and throws are an Oregon staple, offering both fashion and function. Cozy up with some books by Oregon authors to really set the mood for the trip. Bring something small but functional from home, like your favorite headphones or a sketchbook.
Set up a strip of AstroTurf or place a shoe bin outside of your van when you park to keep from tracking in outside dirt and grime. You can also keep bugs and flies at bay by having a spray bottle of equal parts water, Pine-Sol and vinegar. Oregon-based Victoria’s Lavender offers natural bug-repellent candles, sticks and sprays that are easy to store in your camper vehicle.
That said, be intentional with everything you bring in, because space is limited. Believe me, giant plush succulent pillows will be a lot less cute if you don’t even have room to stretch out your legs.
In a campervan, you can fall asleep watching the pink and purple sunsets of the snowcapped Wallowa Mountains, or wake up to waves crashing against the volcanic rocks of the Coast — all without having to rough it in a tent and sleeping bag.
Social media has become a way to share all of your newfound road-tripping knowledge in a safe and encouraging environment. Whether you decide to take your life on the road for the long term or just for a fun weekend out, the campervan community has an incredible amount of diverse van-life accounts to follow on social media that include travelers of all ages, ethnicities, sexualities, genders and family dynamics who will be able to reflect and relate to your story.