Before we begin, I’d like to point out that we are traveling the country living mainly on BLM areas, National Forests, and state campsites- keeping our time in the cities to a day or two. We work remotely and generally tend to play outdoors in our free time. For those living in one area and at a 9-5 office job there are a few extra persuasions you’ll want to take.
Is It Possible to Live on the Road With a Dog?
Yes, it is possible to van life with a dog. Living with a dog is going to take a lot of extra preparation and planning compared to your average vandweller. That said, it’s a rewarding experience and worth the effort if your pet is important to you.
Some of the most repeated concerns we hear are:
- How do you control the temperature?
- Can I leave a dog in the car all day? (No!)
- What do I do with the dog when I want to go somewhere that is not dog friendly?
These were our biggest concerns as well and it took a lot of time to get used to. Luckily, we’ve developed a process that has been working pretty well. Use the tips below to make van life with a dog as hassle free as possible.
Leaving your Dog in the Vehicle
Is it even legal?
Public perception, especially in hot states, is that it’s outright illegal to leave your dog in the car. And for good reason: a car in the sun on a hot day can heat-stroke out your pup quickly.
The public has been educated fairly well recently to avoid this, and I’m not complaining. I’ve done some casual research on this and it appears that it’s not explicitly illegal in most states. With the exception of Nevada, it only becomes illegal under conditions that are potentially unsafe for your pet.
There are also a number of good Samaritan laws protecting citizens from prosecution if they break into your vehicle to save your pet. See the animallaw.info website for the breakdown per state.
What does this mean? It means you should legally be in the clear as long as you are careful about the real-time living conditions of your vehicle. That being said, it might be good to mentally prepare to accept that it is possible that someone might break a window to protect your pet.
How To Avoid Break Ins
Any time you leave a pet in a vehicle for an extended period of time, you face the chance that a good samaritan might try to break-in and “save” your pet. This could be because of potential heat, or they think the pet has been left along too long. They might even be concerned that the dog doesn’t have any water.
Whenever we leave our dog alone in the car, we crack the windows and put a note on our dashboard. The note says:
Our dog Harper has food, water and a vent fan to keep cool. If you are concerned about her well-being please don’t hesitate to text or call us immediately. (phone numbers)
To this day, we have not received any phone calls. But we have gotten many compliments on the note. And fingers crossed, we haven’t had any break-ins either.
How To Keep Your Dog Comfortable In A Van
Use Sunshades To Cover The Windows
A van sitting in the sun gets hot fast. The greenhouse effect is strong in a box full of windows. Adding inexpensive reflective sunshades to the windows will make a noticeable difference in temperature. It’s especially important to cover the windshield because it will be the largest source of radiant heat in your van.
Crack The Windows
Having a breeze running through your vehicle keeps the interior temperature closer to the outside temperature. Combine this with a installing a vent fan and you can really prevent your car from heating up fast.
Install A Vent Fan
By far, the most important dog-friendly feature you can build into a van is a 12v vent fan. Our fan runs off solar power and significantly decreases the inside temperature of the van when we keep the windows cracked and the fan running.
Testing your setup
This will come naturally to most people, but it’s important to understand how your particular vehicle is responding to the weather.
Take your van to a coffee shop and park it outside for an hour or two and check on it every 15 minutes. Do this in the shade and in the sun. Test it again in humidity, and any other weather conditions you may be concerned of.
As we got more used to how our vehicle heats up we became more aware of it’s limits. Over time you’ll be able to confidently approximate how long – and in what weather – you can leave the van unattended.
Remote Temperature Monitor
While we rarely leave our dog unattended for long, it may be worth looking into a remote temperature monitor if you do. These thermometers sit inside the car and measure heat and humidity. You can check the results on your phone and set up alerts if it rises above a certain level.
Park Where You Can See The Dog
One thing we always try to do when eating out at restaurants or stopping by Starbucks is parking near a window. We look for tables where we can see the van from our seats.
That allows us to keep a constant eye on our pet and anyone who wants to walk by and check out our van.
Can You Leave Your Dog In The Van All Day?
No, we do not recommend leaving your dog in a van all day; even in good weather. Unfortunately, many National Parks do not allow dogs on their famous hikes and trails. Most of the parks that we came across (and we’ve been to a lot) only allow you to bring your dog where cars can travel. That means parking lots and paved sidewalks for the most part.
Nevertheless, we did make it a point to hike up Angel’s landing in Zion and explore the base of the Grand canyon.
For times like these, we have three main ways to keep our dog safe and occupied the entire day.
Friends and Family
This one will vary on the traveler, but as we’re roaming around we cross cities where we can visit folks for a day or two. We’ve found that without even asking, some of them will offer to watch our dog for a day as we explore a city. This gets us out of their hair for a minute and they get the opportunity to be great hosts with little effort. Many people like to help so we take every offer we get!
Rover.com is essentially an Airbnb for dogs. You can find people nearby who will board your dog for a few hours, or several days. This is our favorite service to use when we go to big cities, or go on an all day hike.
With Rover.com you can vet who is going to babysit your dog. You can place your pet in a household with other dogs or by themselves, and give instructions on whether they’ll need a walk or special treats.
We like Rover.com over other boarding services because you don’t need to do a welcome visit before you drop off your dog. And because you’re dealing with individuals the locations and hours are much more flexible than a place like Petsmart. We’ve been able to leave our dog early in the morning for a hike, then pick her up after 10PM before bed.
This service also tends to have a more affordable day rate if you’re using it for an extended period of time.
Petsmart Doggie Day Camp
There are a number of Petsmart stores that offer Doggie Day Camp from open to close. These are much less numerous than Rover.com but they are structured and dependable.
Unlike most boarding services, Petsmart does not need a prior visit to accept your pet. They do however need a copy of current vet records (within the last year). You’ll also need to complete a lot of paperwork with every location you go to.
As you visit different cities, Petsmart treats each location as if you’re signing up for a new service. Here’s the bonus: first time visitors get a half-off promo! Day Camp goes from $18 to $9 at every location we visit.
Planning For Van Life With A Dog
Physical trips are the best! They add a nice cherry on top when your pup is exhausted and exhilarated after a long day on the trails. The variety of smells across the country seems to be lost on us humans, so it’s good to see someone appreciate them.
Look online or call in advance to parks and restaurants to see if they’re dog friendly. Don’t be sure either way because sometimes we’re surprised at what is allowed.
Many cafes have dog-friendly patios and some parks don’t allow dogs on any of the trails. Pick activities that your dog can enjoy with you!
It’s relatively cheap to keep a dog on the road once you get going. Food should be fairly easy to determine from what they eat currently. Make sure you set aside some funds for vet care should you need it. You might not know until you get to Oklahoma that your dog needs some tick-repellent!
We found that overall the dog probably saved us money on the trip because we were more likely to engage in free activities like hikes and runs. This way our pet could come along.
Every public location we’ve come across requires the dog to be on a leash. This is common dog etiquette and even if your pup is well behaved it doesn’t mean that someone else’s will be. When we’re in a campground, our dog is tied up. Same for trails; if it’s a busy weekend at a popular park we default to leashed dog.
Circumstances when we take our dog off leash are on BLM lands and National Forests where we mostly camp. In these areas we’re almost always the only people around. It’s given us a great opportunity to train our dog on heeling and staying nearby.
Preparing Your Dog For Van Life
Get your dog used to car travel if they aren’t already. We started ours on short journeys to the dog park using the same loading routine each time. After she understood how to behave we followed up with several longer drives to camping trips in which she was rewarded with outdoor play. Bonus: we learned the hard way, if you don’t want a mess, don’t feed the dog just before a long drive!
Take A Trip To The Vet
Before you go, don’t forget to get your dog caught up on the shots! Depending on where you plan to travel, specific medications may be necessary like heart worm and tick prevention. Be sure to make multiple copies of vet paperwork to bring along with you on your journey.
We like to keep digital copies of our dog’s paperwork stored in our phones as well. If you plan to board your dog while you are out and about, many places will require proof of vaccinations.
What To Pack For Your Dog
Food and Water Storage
When bringing a dog along, we doubled our water capacity and got some airtight food containers to store a 40lb bag of dog food. Waterbricks are great for this as they are portable, durable, and made in the USA. The company also makes food bricks that are stackable as well.
Long and Short Leash
We like to keep two different size leashes with us when traveling. Our short leash is perfect for hikes and the long leash is used more in areas like parks or campsite. We tie the long leash to either our van or a stake in the ground while we’re relaxing.
Usually we carry one toy at a time as more than that creates a slobbery mess. If your dog likes tennis balls, the Chuckit! is amazing as you can have a fetch session without getting your hands dirty (which is harder to clean up when out in the woods).
When you’re on the road for a long period of time, you’ll run into a lot of people who want to pet your dog. We’ve found keeping treats around is the perfect solution to helping your dog adjust to the new people and keep everyone happy.
A fur brush is important to keep with you when you travel. Regularly brushing your dog will greatly reduce the amount of hair in your car during a road trip which will make your journey that much more pleasant.
LED Dog Collar
Nighttime sanity includes knowing that the rustling bushes behind you is just an exploring hound and not a bear. We love having an LED dog collar on our pet so it’s easier to find her at night.
Food & Water Bowls
Dog bowls are a necessity weather traveling or not. The collapsible style bowl works great for road trips because it takes up less space and is easier to carry around during hikes.
Dog bags are cheap and essential to (pretending to) behave in public. Every trail or walk you go on is going to require you to curb your pet. It’s always a good idea to keep extra bags around because you’ll never know when you need them.
Old Blankets & Towels
Cold weather is easier to adjust for than hot. Have a bunch of blankets on hand that you can pile on your little hound should the weather turn south. Extra blankets are also going to be important for drying off your dog if it decides to go swimming.
For Your Camper: Window Sunshade
Sunshades greatly reduce the “greenhouse effect” in the camper van and lengthens the amount of time we can leave the pup unattended. Reflective sunshades block radiant heat and keep the van significantly cooler.
For Your Camper: Vinyl Seat Covers
Consider purchasing vinyl seat covers instead of cloth. We have found that dog hair sticks to vinyl significantly less than the cloth seat covers we were using at first. Vinyl covers are also easier to wipe off.
Bringing our dog was a relatively late decision in planning for our trip, and now that we have her along we wouldn’t want it any other way!