Can you be a minimalist traveller?

Catherine Lawson — 7 March 2017

It takes a certain kind of mindset to be truly happy with less. The world’s first nomadic travellers had it down pat, relishing the freedom of owning and carrying on their backs no more than was absolutely essential for living. Early Australians were masters, too, making do with less and using their meagre incomes and ingenuity to fill their lives and stomachs with what was necessary and little else.

After decades spent accumulating ‘stuff’, it’s no wonder so many of us want to downsize, simplify the way we live and get rid of the massive accumulation of goods we once considered essential. Is this what we are all trying to escape from when we hit the road?

If you’re a compact, lightweight traveller like me, content with the basics and happy to haul no more than is absolutely necessary, small vans are for you. They cost less to buy, require less fuel to tow and are so much easier to park, handle and manoeuvre.

The trade-off is that small caravans and motorhomes offer less storage space and smaller versions of everything you need - a more compact fridge, fewer burners on your stovetop, less kitchen bench space and some may even omit the bathroom. For luxury and legroom big rigs can’t be beaten, but if you want to save money, save your sanity when parking and do something excellent for the planet, small vans are simply the best.


My first Big Lap 20 years ago was the epitome of simplicity. My boyfriend and I flogged an old Commodore around the country for a year, rattling and rolling up the Oodnadatta Track and through the Kimberley with a camping kit that amounted to an Esky, a metho stove, a bucket, a tiny backpacking tent and a couple of sleeping bags. Back then, we considered ice a luxury and developed a taste for drinking our beers straight from the carton (they weren’t even ‘Kimberley cool’).

Surprisingly, my need for creature comforts hasn’t escalated very much over the years, and our aging Jayco pop-top camper trailer is little more than a weatherproof living room with just enough sleeping space for three. A compact kitchen houses the world’s smallest fridge-freezer, and the cosy dining table is a place to eat, play dolls, do schoolwork and, when everyone goes to bed, it becomes a great little writer’s den for me.


Small vans typically don’t have huge power needs thanks to a shortage of whitegoods, but you’ll likely still need to power up lights, fans, a laptop, a phone and more. Having a fridge-freezer and stovetop that can run on gas drastically reduces the pull on your battery bank, but you’ll need to rethink your need for appliances - blenders, coffee machines, sandwich toasters and bread makers - which take up precious space, too.

Aim to create a totally solar-powered rig, which is possible if you install the most energy-efficient whitegoods you can afford, switch to LED lights and insulate your rig against the cold and heat to avoid the use of air-conditioners and heaters. Adding a good roll-out awning is a great start.

Invest in one or more compact, free-standing, fold-out solar panels that you can move around camp to maximise the day’s rays. Mounting panels on your tow vehicle only deprives your van’s batteries of their daily charge while you are off exploring, and mounting them on the van itself means you’ll have to always park in the sun, a killer in the super-hot tropics.

Conserving water is essential for small van travellers, too, because water storage tanks are generally smaller and you’ll want to keep your van’s weight down when towing. Install low-flow taps and, if you’re lucky enough to have a shower on board, use water-saving showerheads. Store extra water jerry cans in your tow vehicle for those lovely far away, water-free camps.


Everything in a small van needs to be multifunctional. My rule of thumb is this: if a piece of equipment can’t perform more than one task, I leave it behind. This includes tools, kitchen gear, clothing and everything else: no waste-of-space, single-use items and nothing too fragile to survive the drive. When it’s time to shop for new gear, buy the best quality you can afford, buy Australian-made and be prepared to pay more for compact, lightweight items that will last.


When it comes time to packing your gear, think long and hard about what is absolutely essential. Make a list of must-have items, assemble the lot on the floor in front of you and scrutinise the value of each and every item before it gets packed into the van. Think light and small, durable and useful.

Choose a lean, functional wardrobe of versatile clothes and shoes for all seasons and don’t forget a wind and waterproof jacket, sun protection, swimwear, hats, sunglasses and comfy shoes for bushwalks. Pack quick-dry towels, pare down your personal grooming items to the barest of essentials (after all, it’s time to relax) and assemble a compact choice of solar torches and lanterns, lightweight, quality camp chairs and first-aid essentials.


My love of multi-use gear makes my smartphone indispensible on the road. I use its GPS for navigation, it’s loaded up with free camping and offline mapping apps that get me where I want to go, it’s my camera, my clock, my lifeline to social media, oh, and I can talk to people on it, too.

Go further by going completely digital: ditch the hard copy and get apps for your phone, movies for your laptop, subscribe to e-mags and download books for your reader. It’s better for the environment and, if you make use of free wi-fi as you travel, you’ll save money on data, too.


I’ve hauled a kayak or canoe on almost every roadtrip I’ve ever taken, but I have to confess that while I love, love, love to paddle, it’s a bit of a white elephant that doesn’t get wet as often as it should. Kayaks and bicycles, golf clubs and boogie boards, fishing gear and fins, they all add weight to your load, hog space and, more often than not, get in the way.

However, what they do in spades is make life fun and motivate us to visit great new locations where we can get active and indulge in our favourite passions. And if you’re travelling with kids, toys get them away from screens and into nature.

The trick with toys is to choose carefully what you take on board and how you are going to pack it so that it doesn’t impact on your setting up routine. There’s simply no way you can carry all the toys for all the activities you might want to try on your next adventure, so pack what you use the most and hire the rest when you hit the beach, the reef or the golf course.

The full feature appeared in Caravan World #560. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!


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David Bristow