Insurance: protecting what’s in your van

Last Sunday, we drove back to our campsite ― and found it empty. After two years of traveling full time by van, someone finally jacked our stuff.

The good news is we hadn’t left behind anything valuable. Our two-burner camp stove, two camping chairs, hatchet and two bundles of firewood were taken. Altogether worth about $100. Frustrating since we’re not made of money, but manageable and easily replaced. We let the campground host/staff know, just in case they turned up. The next day, we bought a replacement stove and chairs.

One week later: As I’m walking to the showers, the guy three sites away hands me a bundle in black trash bags. “I’m sorry. I’m not a thief,” he says. “We thought you weren’t coming back and when you did I didn’t know what to do. We’re leaving today, so here.”

Inside the bag was our stove and one chair. (I guess the hatchet and second chair were worth keeping?) I didn’t press it and walked away.



Our stove and one chair, returned to us


What This Has To Do With Insurance

The whole situation got us thinking: It was something easily replaceable this time, but what if someone breaks into our car and steals something of value next time?

(Don’t judge. We are human and it’s natural to be paranoid for a little while afterwards.)

The point of insurance is to protect against risk. While we believe van living is no more or less risky than regular living ― those items could have been stolen from a back patio ― we realized that most insurance is set up for house-dwellers, not van-dwellers. Van-dwellers often have all of their personal property in their vehicle at all times, which can include valuables like laptops and hard drives, cell phones, tablets, cameras, expensive sporting equipment, GPS devices or jewelry.

So I did some research. I read blog posts and consulted other van-dwellers on Reddit. I got on the phone with insurance representatives and straight up said, “We live in a vehicle full time and want to insure our personal property; what products do you have available?” Here’s a quick review of what we learned.

Auto Insurance Covers Your Van, Not Your Stuff

  • In case you don’t already know, auto insurance policies cover things like medical expenses and damage to your or other vehicles in an accident. It depends on how much coverage you purchase.
  • It doesn’t cover your personal belongings inside the vehicle. If you were to turn your van upside down and shake it, everything that falls out are personal belongings.

Renter’s or Homeowner’s Insurance Can Help…Maybe

  • House-dwellers have coverage for their personal belongings via renter’s or condo/homeowner’s insurance.
  • Here’s the great thing about renter’s and homeowner’s insurance policies: They cover your personal property no matter where it is in the world. If someone breaks into your car and steals your laptop, you file a claim with your auto insurance (assuming your policy covers that) for the car damage and a claim with your renter’s/homeowner’s insurance for the laptop.
  • But there’s a catch: If you live in your van full time, you don’t have an apartment/condo/home to insure!
  • If you try to get insurance at a relative’s home where you don’t really live and your insurance finds out, they could deny your claim. Not only will you be out the cost of your belongings, but you’ll have made insurance premium payments for nothing. (More on this from other van-dwellers on Reddit.)
  • If you are genuinely a part-time van-dweller and maintain a residence somewhere else, that’s a different story depending on the insurer. They might be willing to insure you if there is a place where you spend the majority of your time.
  • In our case, we learned that the homeowner’s insurance we pay for our condo (that we rent out) covers a limited amount of our personal property that isn’t physically present at the unit. But, the deductible is so high that it would only help if we lost absolutely everything.

You Can Insure Individual Items, But It May Not Make Financial Sense

  • One Redditor referred me to another van-dweller who wanted to insure his electronics. You can watch the video to learn more about the companies he found and the cost.
  • Here’s my take: Unless you have really expensive equipment and carry it all with you, it’s not worth the monthly premiums and deductible.

Travel and RV Insurance Cover Personal Belongings, But Come With Extras

  • When we were backpacking in Latin America, we had a travel insurance policy through World Nomads that included personal property coverage. Their customer service was easy to deal with and they cover you so long as you’re 100 miles from home.
    • The potential downside is that you’re paying for other insurance, like for medical expenses, evacuation and cancelled flights as part of a package deal. If you’re van-dwelling in your country of residence, that’s coverage you might not need.
  • RV insurance is almost like auto insurance and home insurance combined. Some insurers offer “full-timer” policies for people who live in their RVs, which covers the actual RV, personal possessions, liability at your campsites and more.
    • We don’t know how much these policies cost because a converted minivan wouldn’t qualify as an RV. If you have a van that was manufactured to function as an RV, then it may be worth looking into.

Or, Be Smart and Learn to Live With Risk 

In the end, we weren’t able to find a perfect solution for insuring our personal belongings. But even if we had, it wouldn’t change two things:

  • You shouldn’t keep irreplaceable, high-value items in your van full time. Bring your laptop or camera with you ― or hide it well out of sight if you don’t. Keep irreplaceable items with trusted friends or family or in secure storage. Be smart about where you park.
  • Even with insurance, there is always risk. Something could happen that isn’t covered by insurance. If you weren’t comfortable with a walk on the wild side, you wouldn’t be van-dwelling. And, in the end, it’s just stuff.

After we got our stove and one chair back, we were a bit miffed because we wouldn’t be able to return the new stove we bought. The next day, we met a lovely woman who had just completed her first week of solo truck-dwelling. We spent a good chunk of the morning talking about the ins and outs of full-time travel and self-employment: the excitement, the frustrations, what we’re all learning.

She didn’t have a stove yet, so we gave her ours. See? Sometimes things work themselves out on their own.

Let us know if you know of other insurance options in the comments.

  16 comments for “Insurance: protecting what’s in your van

  1. Charles
    2016-11-16 at 2:34 pm

    Why not put your estimated monthly insurance payments into a savings account. Then, if you lose something or get something stolen, you have some money in your savings account to defray the loss. And, the good news is, if you don’t have any loses, you still have all your premiums.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2016-11-16 at 3:03 pm

      Good idea!

  2. Tina
    2016-11-16 at 5:05 pm

    Hi there!

    Great to have a blog post from you, I was worried at first someone broke in to your van. That was so odd the guy took your stuff and then didn’t return it right away once you returned and kept some of it.

    Very good post and glad that you inquired and asked these questions before something major happened. Most people don’t really know what they are covered for until something happens. Having worked in the Insurance Industry like you found out your Auto Policy does not really cover much personal property and there are very low limits. The best bet like you said is for Home Owner’s or Renter’s Insurance but with living in a vehicle verses an RV that does make things more difficult. If I do happen to have a Renters policy I would just say that I was traveling in my vehicle and NOT that I live in it. Sometimes it is best to not be too open so there is coverage 🙂

    I’m still planning on just going with a van and will likely not have any insurance for my stuff. I will protect it the best I can like taking my valuables with me or maybe have somehow hidden or locked up inside the van. But bottom line is if someone wants my stuff they will find a way.

    Take care,


    • Tamara & Chris
      2016-11-16 at 5:11 pm

      Really good points, Tina!

      • Tina
        2016-11-16 at 6:05 pm

        Just noticed the changes to your blog home page, very nice! 🙂

        • Tamara & Chris
          2016-11-16 at 7:10 pm

          You’re sweet for noticing. Thanks so much 🙂

  3. 2016-12-17 at 8:40 pm

    Hi Chris and Tamara, Mrs. Grumby and I enjoy your blog and have been inspired to add “living in a van” (down by the river-ha!) to our plans. I’m not trying to plug our blog by posting here but don’t see a way to contact you otherwise. Anyway, our latest post About Us mentions and links to your blog. Take a look if you are so inclined. Thanks, and we look forward to following your adventures.
    Thanks, Ron and Jen

    • Tamara & Chris
      2016-12-18 at 10:35 am

      Grumbys! Thank you for your comment and for mentioning us on your blog — it’s so great to hear that van living is on your list of possibilities. (And the PCT! We hiked the Oregon section this year and loved it.) Let us know if there is anything that would be helpful from us on your journey and best of luck!! Tamara & Chris

  4. Alan Swanson
    2017-01-09 at 7:25 am

    What about insuring the vehicle as a camper/rv? I ran into trouble with this, could only get comprensive insurance which wouldn’t cover all the work I’ve put into it should it get totaled or stolen. The van itself isn’t worth much but the labor and materials I put into it would be very expensive to replace. Has anybody found a solution to this?

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-01-09 at 7:29 am

      Hey Alan: We haven’t seen a solution for this — I’d read some other guy’s blog at one point and he said he was able to get RV insurance but I think it depends on your build, type of vehicle and the company. If anyone has any ideas, please chime in! – Tamara

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-01-09 at 7:31 am

      PS: Try the vandweller subreddit

  5. Kieran
    2017-04-18 at 1:54 pm

    I’ve been considering heading off and living in a van for a few months now but I’m worried what if somebody breaks in and steals the van itself? The thought of coming back from a surf session in your wetsuit and everything, all your possessions, just…gone. In my situation that wouldn’t just mean the usual clothes, money and documents but also expensive guitars, recording equipment etc. So I’m not sure if i agree with your point about living in a van being less risky than a house, you cant just hop in and steal the house! 😉 Would be interesting to know how you secure your van when your away for a couple hours or more, heavy duty locks?

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-04-18 at 2:20 pm

      Hi Kieran: If you are driving somewhere and have to leave an expensive guitar in your car, what do you do now?

      That’s pretty much your answer. Yes, someone could steal your van. They could also steal your car with your guitar in it tomorrow! Or could break into your house and steal everything inside it tomorrow. The question is whether protecting those things is more important to you than van travel.

      We always do our best to keep what few valuables we have out of sight, which helps. And we try to park in visible, highly trafficked areas. But other than that, not much else to do. Good luck!

  6. Chere F
    2018-02-04 at 4:41 pm

    Looooved this entry!
    We, too, drive away from our campsite leaving just a “few items” to make it look lived in.
    1) one time we left our two camp chairs; returned to find them gone.
    Let the maintenance man know of the theft and he looked sheepish as he told us he thought we’d left them behind and had gone for good.
    He brought them back (after getting them out of the dumpster!)

    2) We left only a picnic table cloth on our picnic table. This seemed to work. Until it didn’t.
    We came back to an empty table.
    So we put together a sign and put it into a ziplock bag and taped it to the table.
    Yes! This is reserved!
    It only LOOKS empty because
    someone took our tablecloth 🙁
    Reserved thru SUN NITE”

    We, too, had our tablecloth crumpled up and back on our table a FEW DAYS LATER!

    Like yours, it makes for a great vanlife story!

  7. jaime
    2018-02-10 at 2:54 pm

    What auto insurance do you use? Do they know that your van is converted? We just ran into a problem with USAA where they won’t let us keep our auto insurance now that we are living full-time in the van, because they require us to have a permanent residence where we live at least 6 months of the year. And of course we can’t get RV insurance because the van isn’t an RV.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2018-02-10 at 5:14 pm

      Hey Jaime: We used GEICO when we were van traveling. But they didn’t know we were living in our van full time. We used a family member’s address as our permanent address since PO boxes weren’t allowed (but you could use a friend’s address too). It’s really a shame that it works that way — there just isn’t a good option for van dwellers. There are so many things that require a permanent, physical address where it doesn’t actually matter (bank accounts, etc.). Good luck to you.

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