A Guide to Van Accessories: Roof Racks, Ladders, Awnings, and Storage Boxes

Got shade? Here we cover awnings, roof racks, and other accessories that make your van even more functional.

Sprinter van parked in front of lake in Arizona at sunset

Once all the necessary aspects of your van build are planned, it’s time to start thinking about van accessories that will make van life more comfortable. In this blog post, we cover add-ons and exterior van accessories you might consider, including:

  • Van roof racks and ladders
  • Safety add-ons like backup cameras and an in-dash GPS
  • Air compressors
  • Van awnings
  • Swivel seats
  • Bike Carriers
  • Storage boxes

Moonshade Special Offer

The Moonshade is a portable, lightweight awning that attaches to the outside of your van (or any vehicle). It stows away when you are driving and helps your van be more discreet if you stealth camp on occasion. This is the awning I used on my second Sprinter, and right now they are offering the BFT community 10% off when you use the code BEARFOOTTHEORY at checkout.

Van Roof Racks

A van roof rack needs to be planned out before you install anything else on the roof, like solar panels and a fan. It will need to work around your solar panels and fans or be custom-built to do so, so as you’re planning your solar installation you should be simultaneously planning the rack to accommodate the panels.

Van Roof Rack Pros

  • Allows for extra gear storage
  • Extra space to sit and enjoy views
  • Easy to attach solar panels to a roof rack

Van Roof Rack Cons

  • Less stealth
  • More wind noise
  • Less aerodynamic, causing lower gas mileage
A white Sprinter with a black roof rack and side ladder parked on the sand next to a lake at sunset
The ladder and roof rack on my first Sprinter van were made by Aluminess

Your van might come with a roof rack, but if it didn’t there are many aftermarket companies that make high-quality racks and ladders. Here are some companies to check out:

I also recommend consulting your local metal fabricator to inquire about custom fabricated locally made racks. If a conversion company is converting your van, talk to them about roof rack options.

A man climbing a ladder on the back of a Sprinter van to access his roof rack and solar panels
Outside Van built the roof rack on my second Sprinter Van to be as low-profile as possible.

Save this post!

Enter your email & I'll send this post to your inbox! You'll also receive my weekly newsletter full of helpful advice for planning your adventures.

Save Post

Van Ladder

Even if you decide a roof rack is not necessary for your van, you may want to install a ladder so it’s easy to access your roof to check on and clean your solar panels.

For my third Sprinter build, I had Owl Vans Ladder + Tire Carrier added to the back of my van which also allows me easier access to my spare tire.

The Owl Vans Sprinter spare tire rack is combined with a ladder that provides roof access. This means you don’t have to choose between a ladder or a spare tire on your back door. It’s made of bendable aluminum alloy which is stronger and more lightweight than other van ladders on the market.

For other ladder options, check out the list of companies above.

A woman stands on a ladder on the back of her Sprinter van
I love having both a ladder and spare on the back of my van

Van Backup Camera

Another van accessory you might want to consider is a backup camera. Consider this an essential item if your van is long, if you don’t have rear windows, and/or if you are a solo traveler that doesn’t have another set of eyes to help you park. Having a backup camera makes driving so much easier, especially for tight parking spots, city streets, and backing out of tight camping spots.

Van backup cameras are pretty inexpensive aftermarket, and can also be installed by your dealer or conversion company.

Air Compressor

If you do a lot of off-roading, an air compressor is a valuable resource to have in your van. When driving through sand, letting air out of the tires provides more surface area to navigate otherwise tricky sections, ditto for driving on dirt roads, but then you need to refill once you are back on pavement. Having a portable compressor on board allows you to do this and makes it more feasible to comfortably tackle this type of terrain.

Air compressors can also come in handy for topping off bike tires, vehicle recovery, and you can even buy an attachment to blow up inflatable paddle boards. When we were off-grid in southern Utah, our friend had a serious flat tire on her van. We were able to use our compressor to blow up her tire enough so she could drive to our campsite where she put on her spare.

Viair air compressor

In-Dash GPS

Another one of the handy van accessories you might consider is an in-dash GPS. At first, I didn’t think this was necessary, but now I love having it.

In my second van, I replaced the entire factory stereo with an after-market one that has built-in GPS and Apple car play. The navigation features work when we’re out of phone service, although we still like to carry paper maps as well. It’s also much easier to navigate or change the music without having to look at your phone.

The new Sprinters have a better dash system than the older ones, so if this is your van of choice maybe you’ll find one that comes with a nice screen. If it doesn’t, there are tons of aftermarket products available, but make sure it will fit your van’s make, model, and year.

A woman driving her Sprinter van with an in-dash GPS
I loved having an in-dash GPS in my second van

Van Awnings

Awnings are one of the most popular van accessories and can be an awesome addition to your van. They create extra floor space, like an outdoor patio, and provide shade on a sunny day. However, most of them are not made to withstand high winds and heavy storms so you need to be careful about having it set up in these conditions or it could get damaged.

Most awnings attach either above your sliding door or to the roof of the van. Installation is a little more involved if you don’t have a roof rack, but it’s still doable. The preferred awning styles for most vans are lightweight and easy to set up. They come in different lengths, so you can choose how big of an outdoor patio you’d like. Some even have wall attachments to screen in your added living space.

A couple sits outside of their Sprinter van under their Fiamma F45 shade awning with 2 e-bikes parked next to them
Manual awning on my first Sprinter van

Awnings can be electric, manually operated via a crank handle, or set up with a pole and tie-down system.

Electric awnings can be opened and closed with the push of a button. While most awnings can be added after the fact, if you want an electric awning that is wired to your battery system, you’ll want to install this during your conversion. The advantage of an electric awning is many of them have wind sensors, and they will automatically close if the wind gets too strong. Manual awnings don’t have this feature, so you don’t want to leave it open if there is any chance of a storm blowing through. Electric awnings are more expensive and can be prone to motor burnout, so they are typically found as premium options on RVs.

Awnings can be expensive – some of them cost more than $2000 (even more if you’re looking to go electric), but you can find used, refurbished, or discounted ones if you’re not in a hurry.

Many companies make awnings, but keep in mind your roof height when choosing an awning – an awning that works for a jeep or E-series Ford van might not work on a high roof Sprinter, for example. Here are a few companies to check out for van awnings:

Is an awning worth the cost?

It really depends on how often you use it and how often you set up and settle into camp. On my first van, we used it occasionally when camping with friends, but most of the time, we get to camp later in the day and leave in the morning to go do something. After two summers in that van, we decided that we didn’t use it enough to justify the cost of an awning on my second van. Also, (not that my van is super discrete either way but) awnings are a dead giveaway that your van is a camper if you plan to stealth camp frequently.

You can always add an awning later down the road unless you want an electric one, so this isn’t as urgent of a decision as some of the others are in your conversion process.

Budget-Friendly Van Awning Option

Since I decided to skip on a fancy awning on my second Sprinter, I was looking for an alternative to still have shade during those hot, sunny days. The MoonShade seemed to solve all of the problems I had with other awnings, so I got my hands on one and tested it out on a couple of camping trips. I was pleased to find out that the MoonShade is easy to set up, takes up very little room in my van, and makes for a very comfortable, shady van patio at a fraction of the price of other options out there.

I love the Moonshade for a few reasons:

  • It takes less than 5 minutes to connect to your vehicle and set up using a set of magnets
  • It stows away in a compact storage bag and packs down to the size of a folding camp chair, so it doesn’t take up much room in your van
  • It works on any vehicle. This is especially handy if you have another car you take camping sometimes and want to be able to use the same awning on multiple vehicles.
  • It also keeps the van more lo-profile since the awning is only visible on the outside when it’s set up. When it’s packed away, your van will look less like a camper in case you ever need to go stealth.
  • It’s a fraction of the price of other van awnings (save 10% with the code BEARFOOTTHEORY)
A Sprinter van from the back with a Moonshade awning set up overlooking the Oregon coast
using my Moonshade awning on the coast of Oregon

Van Swivel Seats

Another item to consider including in your van build are swivel seats. These are a great way to maximize the living space in your tiny home. Swivel seat adapters go between the seat and base. They swivel the captain’s chairs around from forward-facing to backward-facing. Suddenly, your cockpit used for driving becomes an expanded living space with two more chairs in your living room, office, or dining room.

I highly recommend van swivel seats especially if you’d like to be able to host people in your van. If you have a shorter van, you can use the swivel seats in lieu of dining seating to save space – just pop in a table between the two seats.

The interior of a campervan with two swiveled front seats and a Lagun table setup
Photo: VanLife Outfitters

Most people hang a curtain behind the two front seats for privacy, but if you swivel you won’t be able to use the privacy curtain at the same time. With that in mind, you’ll want a curtain or window covering that covers the windshield and two front windows. We prefer the ease of a hanging curtain, so I’m happy we don’t solely rely on our swivel seats as our main seating area in this van, but we do use them if we’re going to be parked somewhere for a few days with friends – like at a festival.

One thing to note is that adding a swivel seat adapter to your van does increase the height of the driver and passenger seats, which affects the driver more than the passenger. There are several different companies that sell swivel seat adaptors and each of them varies in height, so it’s a good idea to look into this before deciding which one is best for you and your van.

Many vans, including the Sprinter, have a swivel seat option from the factory. However, if you choose to add swivel seats as after-market, be sure to verify the exact make and model of your van so they’ll fit.

a woman holding a blue tumbler stands in the doorway smiling while looking outside of her camper van
Keep in mind how your swivel seats might affect your privacy curtain options

Bike Carriers

If you plan to carry bikes with you during your travels, figuring out a place to store them is not easy. Storing bikes inside the van is safer and protects your bikes from the elements, but bikes are bulky and take up precious inside storage space. Plus, storing bikes inside usually means taking one or both wheels off, making it more time-consuming to get out and set up your bike for a ride.

Alternatively, you can look at bike racks and outside carriers for storage. Ryan and I have e-mountain bikes that we sometimes travel with, so in our third Sprinter we had Owl Vans B2 Carrier installed, which is a modular carrier that you can mount several things to – including bikes.

With a total weight capacity of 150 pounds, this is one of the only racks of the market that can handle the weight of e-bikes while still allowing you to freely open and close your back doors.

Owl Vans Tire + Ladder combo with B2 Bike Carrier and Medium Expedition Box mounted on the back of a grey Sprinter Van
Owl Vans B2 Biker Carrier (right) paired with a storage box | Photo: Outside Van

Storage Boxes

Storage Box Pros

  • Extra storage space
  • Easier organization

Storage Box Cons

  • Less stealth
  • Extends the total length of your van, making parking a little tougher
  • Can be a pricey upgrade

If you are looking to add additional storage to your van, outside cargo boxes or cargo carriers are a great option. In my new Sprinter build, I had an Owl Vans storage box installed to one of my rear doors – it’s great for storing items like my water fill-up hose, recovery gear, and other items that need to be close by, but don’t need to be kept inside the van.

Owl Vans Medium Expedition Box van accessories mounted on the back of a Sprinter van. The back doors of the van are open.
Owl Vans Medium Expedition Box on the back of my Sprinter

The Medium Expedition box can hold up to 60 pounds of gear and has TIG welded seams, allowing the box to be both ultra-rugged and lightweight. The box comes with a lock and key so you can secure whatever is inside the box without having to buy an extra lock. It attaches to 2 different modular carriers sold by Owl Vans – mine attaches to the B2 bike carrier.

You can also look at rooftop cargo carriers for additional storage, but just keep in mind your accessibility of those stored items will be limited and you’ll need other van accessories like a ladder.

Owl Vans Medium Expedition Box van accessories mounted on the back of a Sprinter van. The box is open and there is gear stored inside.
Having an exterior storage box for gear like hoses & tools is convenient

Resources

Instagram accounts featured in video:

Are you installing any van accessories in your build? Share your questions, tips, and experiences down in the comments, and make sure to sign up for our van life newsletter here.

Learn about common van accessories such as roof racks, awnings, storage boxes, and other add-ons that make your van more functional.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

6 Comments

  1. I would love to know what you use for your outside string lighting that you attached to your moonshade. I’m looking to get some good ones.

  2. I have just bought Shade Pro RV Vinyl Awning Replacement Fabric. Overall, it’s a really good choice for an awning fabric replacement in your RV. It’s ideal for covering cracks and tears while demonstrating a reliable resistance to fading. Perhaps the only problem I experienced so far is the presence of smudges on its paint in certain areas. However, they’re not really a major issue.
    https://www.rvweb.net/best-rv-awnings-reviewed/