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How to Celebrate Thanksgiving #VanLife Style


Thanksgiving allows us to spend quality time with the people we love and indulge in our favorite foods, but the holiday can feel a bit stuffy when you’re inside cooking all day or laying on the couch after one too many helpings of pumpkin pie. Reach the perfect balance this Thanksgiving by celebrating in a beautiful natural location where you can eat outside in the crisp fall air and get some physical activity in too. With this unconventional van life holiday itinerary, you’ll have even more to be thankful for this year. 

Some might say it’s too ambitious to fit Thanksgiving traditions into a small camper van, but we’re here to show you how it’s done. Van dwellers can–and should–get in on the cheer by utilizing outdoor spaces and following our handy tips. Read on for the delicious details.

Guest Post By Sofia Resnik

The Food

It comes as no surprise that van kitchens are smaller than home kitchens. Besides the limited counter, fridge, and storage space, many vans don’t have ovens. Van lifers have also usually pared down their cookware to the bare minimum. However, it is quite possible to cook a Thanksgiving meal on the road that satisfies all of your seasonal cravings. 

How? The first step is to take stock of your kitchen setup and strategize. If you have a top-of-the-line van kitchen, you can probably approach the meal similarly to home cooking with a bit more organization. If you don’t have a kitchen in your van at all or would rather cook outside, you can still create a mouthwatering meal over the campfire. Check out REI’s campfire Thanksgiving recipe to get started. 

Roasting an entire turkey is neither feasible in a van nor necessary since you’re likely cooking for a smaller group. If you don’t want to forgo this classic meat, however, opt for turkey breasts or legs cooked with a dutch oven, pressure cooker, or campfire grill. You can also purchase harder-to-cook items like roast turkey meat and pies premade from the deli section of grocery stores and focus all your attention on homemade sides. 

Whip up mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and even stuffing in no time on your stovetop. Sauteed sweet potatoes and green beans are a modern and simplified nod to casseroles. Because you probably don’t have many pots and pans, you’ll need to pace yourself and prepare some dishes in advance. Don’t feel pressured to make every item on the classic Thanksgiving menu; just choose your favorites and enjoy!

For nontraditional but equally satisfying alternatives to pumpkin pie, check out “Ten Mouthwatering Campfire Cooking Desserts.”

The Company 

Tasty Thanksgiving food is even more enjoyable with good company. This could mean an intimate dinner with just your traveling companion(s) or a large gathering. Consider planning a potluck meetup with multiple van life friends from around the country. Gather at one of many campgrounds with group camping options. Then arrange for each person to provide one of the dishes to minimize the amount of work. Looking for more friends to add to your nomadic community? Check out “8 Tips to Meet and Connect with Fellow Van Dwellers.”

The Location

With the freedom of van life, you can celebrate Thanksgiving anywhere your imagination takes you. We recommend seeking out autumnal scenery to get into the holiday spirit. Read our guides to catching fall foliage in western states and southern states for all the info. Leaf peeping season will be winding down across the country by late November, but there are multiple states on these lists like New Mexico, Arizona, Georgia, and Florida that will still be offering colorful displays once the 24th rolls around. We also recommend Shenandoah National Park in Virginia for endless outdoor adventures.

The Activities

Speaking of outdoor adventures, take advantage of your surroundings for some out-of-the-box Thanksgiving activities. Some American families have a tradition of taking a walk before or after dinner. When you’re camping, you can extend that idea into epic nature hikes or bike rides either on Thanksgiving morning or on the days before and after the holiday. Getting your body moving in the crisp fall air will do wonders to counteract the “blah” feelings that can arise from the more indulgent aspects of the holiday. You can also set up outdoor games like cornhole or frisbee at your campsite for some active fun. 

Less physically demanding outdoor activities include apple picking, playing card games, and painting the scenery. You can also create festive crafts using things you find around your campground. Garlands made of dried leaves do double duty as an activity and decoration.

The Decor

If you’re a serious Thanksgiving lover, you’ll want to set the mood with decorations. Even the most minimalist and eco-friendly van dwellers can get in on the fun with natural decorations that don’t produce waste. Mini pumpkins brighten up your van or Thanksgiving table and can be eaten afterward. You can also pick up some long-lasting greenery like eucalyptus branches to lay down the center of a table or put in a vase. Complete the tablescape with a few simple candles that can be repurposed for other holidays and daily use.

For the most memorable meal, set up a table outside surrounded by the stunning natural landscape. If you’re using disposable dishes to accommodate a larger group, consider compostable paper plates and palm leaf plates. These options are environmentally friendly and have a natural look that will match the harvest aesthetic better than typical waxed paper or plastic plates. 

The Gratitude

At the end of the day, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to practice gratitude. Take stock of everything you are thankful for this year in conversation with your companions or reflect solo with gratitude journaling. With a lifestyle like this, there is so much to be thankful for!

Van life provides the freedom and flexibility to experience adventure on your terms. Van dwellers can focus on the important things like making memories and connections rather than getting bogged down in the stresses of a conventional lifestyle. 

If you haven’t yet joined the van life movement and are curious to learn more, check out “8 Reasons to Consider Van Life.” Then visit Rec Van to browse our wide selection of new and used camper vans from industry-leading brands.