Like many elite athletes, John Croom—a cyclist who has won three national track championships—is serious about his rest. Late last year, Croom hatched a plan to buy a camper van and use it as his home base while traveling around the country to race. He figured, if anything, he’d get better sleep if he could literally roll to the starting line in the morning.
And Croom is not alone. Due to the novel Coronavirus, US camper van sales are up 90% over the previous year as Americans seek a safe way to travel and enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic. Rentals are surging as well, particularly among Millennials and Gen Xers, who seek to experience #vanlife first-hand and capture the Instagram pics to document it.
Croom quickly noticed that sleeping in a van isn’t quite like sleeping in a house. “It’s definitely a bit of weird thing,” he says. According to Croom, the thin metal walls and the lack of central air can make getting to sleep and staying asleep tricky.
In many ways, getting great rest in your van comes down to outfitting it with a high-quality mattress and bedding. However, there are a few lessons that even good gear can’t fix, and new road warriors tend to learn these lessons the hard way. To help you skip that step, we rounded up the advice of two long-time van lifers and a sleep medicine doctor who gave us insider tips on how to sleep like a baby on your first night in this new world of road living.
6 Ways to Get a Great Night’s Sleep in an RV or Camper Van Bed
1. Pick a spot where you’ll feel safe. This is one lesson Croom learned the hard way. Sometimes he’d just fail to plan and end up in a Walmart parking lot. Other times, he had a plan, but then found that the campground wasn’t as it appeared online. In both cases, he said he slept “with one eye open,” which isn’t conducive to good sleep. “Anytime we have anxieties when we go to sleep, it does tend to create a lighter sleep,” says Dr. Chris Winter, author of "The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It.” While technically you may nod off, you won’t get proper rest. “That anxiety can create a situation where you're spending time in lighter sleep, and it's deep sleep that restores us,” Dr. Winter explains.
If you feel any anxiety about the place you’ve parked for the night, move, suggests Croom. Jessica Tran, who lived in her van for six months pre-pandemic, says she further enhanced her feelings of security by putting up black-out curtains and ensuring she could reach the lock and unlock button for her doors from her bed.
2. Keep it on the level. Both Croom and Tran said there’s one mistake every new van owner makes—and that you only make it once: Parking your van on a spot that is slightly off keel. “It feels really awkward if your head is slightly lower than your feet,” says Tran. Or, if you spend the whole night fighting gravity, trying not to roll out of bed.
Before you park, get out and look at the site, says Croom. That’s the best way to see if it’s truly level. Then, get in your bed and make sure gravity isn't working against you. Once you unpack the rest of your stuff, it’s a big pain to secure it all so you can move your van.
3. Keep your camper van bed consistent. The best way to fall asleep quickly is to have a sleep space that feels familiar, says Dr. Winter. Here’s where a van beats a hotel every single time. Take advantage of being able to personalize your camper van bed by buying the same mattress, bedding, and pillows you have at home. Being able to slip into familiar sheets will help you to feel comfortable.
4. Customize your space. When Tran was trying out van life, she started by borrowing a vehicle from a friend. But her friend was much, much taller. The bed took over the back half of the van, which seemed silly, given that Tran was only using a fraction of it. When she purchased her own setup, she opted for a smaller bed and more living space.
The cool thing about mobile living's popularity is that van companies are offering more options than ever. For example, VanDOit, a van conversion and rental company in Blue Springs, Missouri, offers two main design packages that are infinitely customizable. Whether you want a queen mattress or a twin, you can find a van setup that will accommodate your needs.
Looking for design inspiration? Check out these amazing camper van beds.
5. Combat light and noise. In a campground, you don’t have a lot of control over what your neighbors are doing—and van walls are thin. Dr. Winter usually recommends using a white noise app over ear plugs, just because some people worry about not hearing an alarm with ear plugs. (And worry interferes with our sleep.) Blackout curtains can help block out light, but have a sleep mask handy, too, just in case some rogue light sneaks in through a window.
6. Maintain your cool. Temperature matters more than you think when you’re trying to fall asleep, says Dr. Winter. In general, it’s much easier to sleep when it’s a little on the cold side than when you’re too hot. Many vans don’t have air conditioning that runs independently of the engine. That means you’ll need to try and cool your van down as much as you can before bedtime. Croom will sometimes run the AC for 20 minutes before bed to really get things cool, and he also has a fan that runs even when the van’s engine is off. That’s a worthy investment. So are moisture-wicking sheets, like Sheex’s Breathe Max set, which will help keep your bed from getting swampy.
Pillows that employ something called “phase-change material,” like this Luxury Cooling Bundle by PureCare, will always feel cool to the touch, so you won’t have to flip it every hour to get relief from the heat. Dr. Winter’s favorite trick is to buy an extra set of pillowcases and keep them in the freezer. If you do find yourself overheating, get up and swap your current pillowcase for an ice-cold one.
Finally, Croom relies on heat shield curtains in his van windows to keep the sun out. He says that if he gets the van cool while driving and puts the heat shield curtains up the moment he parks, the air-conditioned chill lingers for hours.
Good planning can go a long way toward helping you avoid an uncomfortable sleeping situation. But if you do run into trouble, don’t stress. Just put your keys in the ignition and head to flatter (or cooler!) ground. Exploring new destinations, even unexpectedly, is part of the beauty of van life.