One of the most difficult parts of traveling in a camper van is working with the small space that it provides. It can sometimes be challenging to find room for storage, especially if multiple people are traveling. This can be especially true of food which often requires a lot of space. While refrigerated items are usually not a big deal, dry ingredients often find their way into whichever crevice they’ll fit in.
Some vans have cabinets for this but if not, you will generally end up putting things just wherever they will fit. You may also end up going light on groceries and food just because you don’t have the storage. Going light on food does have a few benefits.
Going to the grocery more often when you are traveling means public restroom time. Many van lifers don’t have a toilet in their van and often use this time to take care of things. However, if you have facilities in your camper van, this is of no benefit to you.
For those who boondock often, it’s great to be able to store food that will last for days or even a week or more. This is what I wanted to achieve with my van. I wanted a dedicated area that was a pantry for storing food items only. I didn’t want to just put food in overhead cabinets or other areas that were designed for clothing or other accessories. The pantry that I settled on allows me to store my food and know where everything is located at any given time.
Although my pantry is rather small, it does allow me to pack enough food into it for 3-4 days with no worries. A pantry can easily be built into a van conversion by using some creative methods. Whether it’s a slim cabinet that goes from floor to ceiling or a space-saving slide-out option, there are plenty of ways to build something useful.
I’ll use mine as an example of how simple it is to build a useful pantry designed for storing food.
Building A Pantry in a Van
To build a pantry in your van, you’ll need to figure out the best location. Ideally, it will go near your kitchen area or dining area. In reality, since a van is so small, it can go anywhere. Since you are usually only an arms reach from most anything in a van, the best location is subjective.
Some people even choose to store food in portable storage totes that can then be stored in other unused areas, such as the garage area. This allows you to keep food out of the way until you need it. It also allows you to easily pick and pull ingredients for cooking both indoors and outdoors.
To build a small pantry in your van, you may consider doing something similar to what I have done in my van. I chose to create a narrow shelving system that is positioned next to my shower and is part of my dinette. This area is out of the way and still allows me to use the dinette seating but gives me additional storage that’s handily accessed from my kitchen area.
When I’m cooking, all I need to do is turn around, open a cabinet door and all of my food items are organized. While not as large as a pantry in a house, the items you do store will be easily accessible and you can easily re-stock this area as needed to make items handier for when you do need them.
The structure of my pantry was built using 1/2 inch plywood. I build it as a standalone cabinet and then installed it in the van once completed. It’s a simple cabinet with two static shelves in it. If you want to improve on what I did, you could choose to make the shelves adjustable.
I finished it off the exact way I did my overhead cabinets. This consisted of installing cabinet facings and shaker-style doors. The look of the cabinet matches the style seen throughout the rest of my van. I split it up into two doors to make for more interest and I didn’t want such a long door that might warp in the changing temperatures.
I also added shelf liners and this allows food to be stored without ever moving around.
The bottom area of my pantry is a little larger and can store bigger items while the top two shelves are smaller but can still hold a good amount of food. I can also store food in my lower cabinet that is built just off the floor. Items in here generally consist of items that might be awkward or bulky such as potatoes, onions, and dog food.
The items that can be a little more neatly stored can be placed on the upper shelves of my cabinet. This is a simple system that has been my solution and has worked well on all of my trips thus far.
Ways To Improve
After using this pantry for a while now, there is room for improvement but overall, I have been happy with it. However, there are a few things I might change if I wanted to improve the setup.
- Use adjustable shelves. If I only add small items in each shelf location, it leaves a lot of space where additional food could be stored if I had the shelves to do it with. This may not seem like a big improvement, but in a small area, every square inch matters. Multiple shelves that could easily be adjusted, removed, or added would be helpful.
- Add bungee netting under shelves and inside the door. This is an upgrade I will be making soon but it has only been on my wishlist for now. Bungee netting installed under shelves would allow for adding small items that may be awkward to store. This might include items such as instant oatmeal packets, sugar packets, ketchup packets, etc.
You can adjust this type of pantry based on your needs. If you don’t need as much food, you can build a smaller or slimmer one. You may be someone who hardly needs any storage because you keep everything in your fridge and freezer if equipped. I do this as well but there is also limited room in those compartments so additional space makes a difference. My wife and I spent 4 days on a trip recently and we had enough groceries for the entire trip contained within my pantry and top-load fridge and freezer combo.
If you have a small fridge or you use a lot of dry ingredients, a pantry like this or a dedicated cabinet comes in very handy.
Perhaps the best tip I have with food storage is to store all food items in the same area. It’s frustrating not having enough of a food storage area that you end up packing food items into areas where clothes are stored. This makes a nightmare out of cooking and just distracts from the overall feel of a home.
Tips For Storing Food in a Camper Van
- Store all food items in the same area. It makes more of a homey feel when you have all food items stored in the same area. This way, you won’t be digging through cabinets and chucking clothes just to find a can of beans.
- Plan for enough storage. Understand how much you normally eat and the max amount of storage that you might need for trips. Obviously, the more people you have or the longer your trip, the more difficult it will be to determine this. It sure is handy to have enough space to neatly organize a food pantry when out on the road. It is especially handy when boondocking and you don’t want to leave camp just to go in town to a store somewhere. You may not even be nearby a store when out in the boonies so plenty of storage will make your trip more pleasant.
- Make sure it’s secure. Food items can be heavy and depending on what you are storing, might end up crashing on the floor and rolling around your van. Be sure you have planned an area that allows for food items to be stored safely. I created bumpers with the cabinet facing so that items can not roll out. As long as I don’t stack items on top of each other, I have never had a problem.
- Use Shelf liners. Using a good shelf liner will help to keep your food secure. I used Gorilla Grip liner in my pantry and my food stays in the same place no matter how wild I drive.
- Purchase the largest fridge and freezer combo that you have space for. You can store a lot of food in a fridge and freezer which makes it easy to know exactly where everything is at. There have been times when nearly everything I took with me was stored here. This allowed me to keep my pantry empty and I was able to store other items in this area.
Having a pantry in a camper van is a great way to keep food items separate from everything else you are storing. While some people just store food wherever it can go, or even in a plastic tote, it is handy to have a dedicated area where you don’t have to dig and look around to find something.
Put some thought into your layout as you are building it and build a pantry in an area that allows for easy access when you are in the area where you will be needing the food the most. Although a camper van is a small space, you still want to maintain a sense of convenience rather than having to move things out of the way or climb up into the bed to get to a cabinet. It makes the process much easier if everything has its place.
While a camper van is small, food storage need not be a problem if planned out accordingly and you utilize and maximize every square inch of your van with a lot of thought.