by Mountain House August 20, 2021

Van Life Food Essentials: No Fridge? No Problem

These days, van life’s all the rage. It’s hard to deny the appeal: the freedom of the open road, the chance to live less encumbered by material possessions, the option of going off-grid with solar panels and the like and embracing one’s self-sufficiency.

More and more attractive to folks young and old alike, that's for sure. But a big-time stumbling block for many newbie or would-be vandwellers is the whole sustenance deal. For one thing, space is at a premium: Your pantry has to overlap with the rest of your living quarters and compete for storage with other van-life essentials.

For another, depending on your setup, refrigeration is likely to be limited or nonexistent. Maybe you do have an electric or propane mini-fridge, but its energy needs and cramped shelving only allow for so many perishable eats and drinks. Maybe you’re heading into the boonies without hookups, or dealing with weather unfriendly to solar charging. And, of course, many vandwellers have no fridge at all. A cooler’s handy enough, but constantly restocking on ice can be a drag—or, when you’re out exploring the backlands where convenience stores and gas stations are few and far between, downright unfeasible.

It’s all too easy to subsist on roadside junk food, but that’s obviously less than ideal. Snack-aholic or fast-food diets may (sort of) work for a little road trip, but full-time van life’s another story altogether. Good nutrition is vital to keep you healthy and energized for your extended—maybe open-ended—on-the-go adventure.

The nice thing is, it’s not all that difficult to eat healthy, flavorful—heck, even exciting—van life food without a fridge. In this article, we’ll focus on some of the best food for van life, mainly focused on those long-lasting, non-perishable staples for campervan cupboards that can provide a firm, healthy foundation as your nomadic nosh!

And before you dive in, be sure to check out our Mountain House breakdown of van-life essentials!

Top 8 Food Groups for Van Life

Keying into the following general categories of eats (which, as you’ll see, overlap some) will help you maintain a reasonably well-rounded menu out there on the road.

Grains 

Extremely long-lasting and nutrition-packed, grains, cereals, and pseudo-grains make an obvious staple food for van life. Oats, barley, millet, rice, couscous, quinoa, pastas—these can serve as the hearty, healthy backbone of innumerable meals. The availability of instant and precooked grains ups the easy factor and makes for quick cooking times.

Fruits

Whether you’re adding to oatmeal or desserts, or dealing with a hardcore munchie craving, fruits are another one of your best friends during campervan crusades. Certain kinds of fresh fruit with peels or sturdy skins are well suited to van life, including bananas, apples, and citrus, all of which can last awhile. Then there’s dried fruit, providing a non-perishable standalone snack or versatile ingredient in cooked meals. You can purchase dried fruit or make your own with a dehydrator. Canned fruits such as peaches are yet another shelf-stable option.

Vegetables

Veggies are a must when it comes to van life food ideas, supplying essential vitamins and nutrients to keep the body up and running at its full potential. Root vegetables such as carrots, onions, and potatoes have a long shelf life. Instant mashed potatoes are a crowd-pleaser. Kale, cabbage, broccoli, and other brassicas kept reasonably cool can last several days, providing a wonderful source of fresh greens. Celery’s another awesome veggie snack (or ingredient) that holds up well outside the fridge. Beans, lentils, chickpeas, and other legumes, meanwhile, form another other rock-solid base alongside grains when it comes to satisfying, healthy, no-fuss van-life meals.

Protein & Dairy

Nuts, seeds, and hard cheeses (with their decent shelf life) serve as excellent sources of protein. So do those aforementioned legumes (and legume products, such as hummus), plus canned or vacuum-sealed tuna, salmon, and chicken. Powdered milk and eggs, jerky and cured meats, and peanut butter and other nut butters contribute protein as well. Speaking of powdered milk, it’s a super-easy, just-add-water source of dairy with endless uses. Powdered eggs are another option. So are, actually, fresh eggs, particularly those purchased directly from farmers via farmers markets or farmstands. Generally speaking—and there are exceptions—these last longer unrefrigerated than mass-market eggs from the grocery store.

Starch

You don’t have to be hurting for starch in your van cupboards, needless to say. Everything from pastas, instant rice, and instant mashed potatoes to bananas and carrots supply it. On the bread and breadlike front, tortillas provide excellent wraps and “edible utensils” alike that also boast a long shelf life. While a lot of conventional preservative-packed breads last long enough to use for sandwiches and the like, try tracking down some Danish-/Scandinavian-style rye for a truly nutritious, delicious loaf that holds up for weeks.

Freeze Dried

Just about anything we’ve covered thus far can be freeze-dried, a process which greatly reduces bulk and greatly increases shelf-stability while preserving nutrients and flavors. Freeze-dried meals, side dishes, and ingredients such as we offer here at Mountain House make for utterly awesome van-life food ideas. Learn more about freeze-drying.

Herbs, Spices, Seasoning, & Condiments

Taking up very little room and lasting months or more, herbs, spices, seasonings, and condiments give you a welcome arsenal for gussying up otherwise bland or boring dishes, keeping things interesting in the vanlifer’s culinary department. From that tried-and-true tag team of salt and pepper to chili flakes, dehydrated onions and shallots, garlic powder, and packaged dried-herb mixes, a campervan spice cabinet is definitely the way to go. And the fact that many a vandweller also definitely stockpiles those easy-to-come-by, highly durable, highly stowable packets of ketchup, mayo, mustard, dressing, and other condiments isn't exactly insider knowledge.

Snacks

From carrot and celery sticks to dried fruit and jerky, lots of what we’ve already covered qualifies as (mostly healthier-than-average) snack food. Other van-life-friendly snack ideas include classic backpacker fare such as granola bars, trail mix, and hard chocolate kept out of the sun as much as possible.

Things to Consider

Here are some basic things to keep in mind when selecting food for van living.

Shelf Life

Foods that’ll last at least a few days to a week are best for your van-dwelling pantry. Canned, vacuum-sealed, and freeze-dried items are examples, as are uncooked or instant grains and pastas. But when it comes to van life, how to store food—including shelf-stable items—is an important consideration. For one thing, repackaging oats, rice, noodles, and the like in airtight containers provides both better space efficiency and protection against moisture, rodents, and insects. And keep in mind that long-lasting raw nuts and seeds, while offering a pretty decent shelf life, will become rancid after awhile.

Personal Health/Dietary Needs

All vandwellers have their own unique nutritional requirements and culinary preferences, and many of course must abide by specialized dietary restrictions (gluten-free, vegan, etc.) and food allergies. It goes without saying these needs will influence what kinds of foods to have on hand.

Flavor

Don’t focus exclusively on nutrition, portability, and shelf life when organizing your van-life pantry. You definitely want to consider flavor as well, given the potential for getting utterly bored or uninspired with your nomad’s diet. Choose foods you love to eat and make sure you’re well stocked in the spices-and-seasoning department.

Variety

Eating the same things every day gets old. Experiment with new and exotic (to you) grains, explore how shelf-stable standbys such as canned tuna or dehydrated tomatoes or honey can be added to unexpected dishes, try some everything-but-the-kitchen-sink scrambles and stir-frys, and challenge your creativity and maybe your comfort zone when groceries, international food stores, and farmers markets present themselves.

Try some fun food hacks to kick up your meals a notch, like the one below. Whether you purchase Mountain House products or not, you can always add different seasons, condiments, or toppings to keep your palate guessing.

Breakfast skillet food hacks

Van Life Food: The Sky’s (Virtually) the Limit

As you get deeper into van life, your micro-kitchen, campstove cookery will only improve, and you’ll find yourself with an ever-expanding list of go-to meals and nibbles that’ll keep you functioning at your very best (and least "hangry") out on those highways, byways, and backroads.

And, naturally, be sure to consider Mountain House’s vast assortment of freeze-dried, just-add-hot-water goodness for your mobile pantry! Stock up on supplies for your next road trip.

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