Thinking of taking up van life with a cat and traveling and living with your cat in a van? Here’s our complete experience (thus far) traveling with a cat full-time in our tiny home-on-wheels.
Van life with cats might not be as mainstream as van life with dogs. But for Paul, Yoda, and I, along with a handful of other nomads who travel with their cat, traveling with a cat in a van is doable and especially enjoyable!
We began traveling with Yoda in a car since he was a kitten, but living in a campervan or minivan with a cat takes on a whole new level of travel.
In this guide to van life with cats, I discuss our honest experience of traveling with our cat full-time and tell-all about how we manage the van life with a litter box, how we adjust and take breaks, and how we adapt to van life with a cat according to the weather, our schedules, and more.
How to Travel & Live with a Cat in a Van
First things first. Do you intend to travel or live in a van with your cat?
Traveling with a cat in a van and living with a cat in a van are two different ways of experiencing van life with pets.
While traveling with a cat might imply short-term travel, living with a cat in a van implies long-term travel.
If you plan to go on a weekend or week-long trip with your cat, you don’t necessarily need to set up permanent structures.
But when you live with your cat in a van, you’ll want to do some DIY handiwork to ensure your cat has permanent structures in place (i.e. cat tree, space, food and water placements, litter box, etc.).
5 Things to Consider When Thinking About Van Life with Cats
One might say van life with cats involves extra challenges compared to living in a van with a dog. And that’s definitely true. In fact, there’s a lot of extra things to think about when overlanding.
For one, cats, unlike dogs, can’t just run outside of the van safely without being monitored. Dogs also do their business outside, whereas cats will need to have a litter box in the van!
Here are 5 things to think about while preparing to live in a van with your cat:
1. Your Cat’s Own Space
Cats are territorial creatures and they thrive off being able to hide, scratch, nap, eat and poop in certain places.
Most cats love perching themselves high atop a cat tower, but realistically you’re not going to have that much space in your van.
So how do you accommodate your feline in an already cramped space?
The best way to organize van life with a cat is to take it category by category. It helps to identify a place where the food and water can go, the litter box, sleeping quarters, and some form of a cat tree or scratching board.
We found it useful to first seek out our cat’s own space in the van before deciding where we would even put our own items like clothes, toiletries, and food.
Once we designated space for Yoda in the van, we were able to adapt our needs around this area. I think this was key in making sure our cat had enough space for him while keeping a good amount of space for us!
2. Where Will the Litter Box Go?
The litter box in any normal-sized home is already an eye-sore and a stinky one at that.
Well, in the van the stench of a fresh poop is immediate and there’s no other way around it than to clean it extremely often.
Cats are also notorious at kicking around their cat litter all over the floor. And since there isn’t much floor space in a van, litter tracking becomes especially messy.
The best place to store a litter box in a van is, ideally, in a small cubby near the floor. The cubby hole will prevent the box itself from sliding around, and also trap any kicked-off litter inside. It also helps to use a cat litter mat to reduce the amount of litter that ends up on your floor or worse, your bed.
3. Keeping Your Cat Active with Enrichment
With less space to run around, you’ll need to find alternative ways to keep your cat active and healthy in a van.
Of course, you should still engage in active playtime with your cat for at least 15 minutes a day with a variety of cat toys, but what else can you do in addition to this?
One aspect of van life with a cat that has really enriched Yoda’s life is outdoor exploration on-leash.
If you can harness and leash train your cat at a young age, this will extremely supplement your cat’s enrichment while living in a van.
Yoda absolutely loves when we put on his harness and go outside to walk together in parks or on quiet trails. Not only does he get some exercise (at least 10-25 minutes of walking), he gets to enjoy the fresh air and scratch on real trees, which he loves doing.
After exploring outside together, he happily returns to the van (he even walks up and goes inside on his own) and we notice his overall behavior is more playful and his mood more joyful.
If your cat already takes well to riding or traveling in the car, chances are that they will also enjoy exploring outside on-leash!
4. How to Best Setup Cat Food, Water, and Scratcher
The best bowls to use for van travel with cats are shallow, stainless-steel dishes. We don’t recommend sizing up with your cat’s water bowl because it will slosh around while you drive.
We’ve learned that Yoda doesn’t eat or drink if we are on the road anyhow, so we store his water bowl in the sink until we take a break.
The best place to put the food and water is somewhere other than on the floor. The floor, as you’ll see, gets so dirty so quickly. With little foot space, it also makes stepping on the bowls a hazard.
We have placed Yoda’s food and water bowl on a 3rd shelf in the van. It’s high enough for him to jump (which contributes to that exercise) and is contained within “his space” which I mentioned earlier.
To help reduce movement during travel, we use a non-slip shelf liner to keep the bowls in place.
5. Leaving Your Cat Inside the Van vs. When to Take Your Cat with You
The biggest question we receive (and one that we asked ourselves at the beginning) is: When and how do we leave our cat in the van versus when we need to take him out?
You must decide when it’s best to leave your cat unattended in the van or when you should take him with you based on your own schedule and experience.
Here are some factors that we personally take into consideration:
- Surroundings (noisy, secluded, safe, etc.)
- Time away (when is too long?)
- Pet-friendly spaces or activities
- Our intended action or schedule (work, tourism, eating out, etc.)
Weather/Temperature. You must never leave a cat (or dog) in a vehicle when it’s warm and sunny out. Temperatures can rise quickly inside the van which can be fatal to your kitty (even if you leave windows cracked). We always take Yoda with us in his cat backpack if the temperature inside is too hot to leave him.
Surroundings. Is it too noisy or too secluded to leave your cat unattended? What would your cat prefer? Would they rather chill out and sleep or go on an adventure?
Time away. How long do you intend to be away from the van? We usually base our decision on our schedule for the day. And since the van life is somewhat unpredictable, we make this decision day by day. Usually, we decide that leaving our cat in the van for 8 hours is like most people’s workday, but we are rarely away for that long. A few hours at most if we’re working in a nearby cafe. And even then, we go back to the van to take a lunch break or to check on Yoda anyway.
Pet-friendly spaces or activities. If a cafe is pet-friendly, we’ll take Yoda out for some fun in his cat backpack (if he’s feeling up to it). Likewise, if there are pet-friendly trails or small hikes (that aren’t busy with people or other pets) we’ll take Yoda out. Otherwise, if we have plans to go out and it’s not appropriate for Yoda to join us, we’ll leave him in the van.
Our intended action or schedule. Both Paul and I work full-time online. Sometimes we work from inside the van (in which our cat gets company), but most often we work from a cafe. If we have plans to visit a town or city, we adapt our plans to best accommodate Yoda so he doesn’t have to be alone all day. All of this also depends on where we are and what the weather is doing, so there are lots of things to consider when you live with a cat in a van!
Our Experience: Van Life with a Cat
We first took off in our van with Yoda for a 4-day road trip across Mexico back to the United States in July 2019. Yoda has traveled in a car on long trips before, but this was the longest time enclosed in a vehicle.
After a month’s break with family in Tennessee, we officially started our van life adventures with Yoda.
We’ve been living in our van with our cat full-time now since August 13th, 2019! It’s been three months living the van life already and we couldn’t’ be happier to have our furry companion with us.
Amazingly, Yoda is more well-behaved on-leash now that we live in the van versus when we lived in an apartment. He soaks up every minute we get to explore outside together on trails or in parks. This way, he remains very active and doesn’t get bored.
Eradicating boredom for your cat might be your biggest challenge if you take up van life with a cat. That’s why creating their own space, engaging in active playtime, and enriching their day through exploration is crucial for keeping your cat’s mental and body health happy!
Creating Yoda’s Space in our 1990 Roadtrek Van
We ripped out what previously was a closet for hanging clothes in the van to create a 3-tiered shelf and cubby holes to put Yoda’s things.
The top shelf is for his cat food and water bowls. The middle shelf is where we place his cardboard cat scratcher and a natural seagrass cat scratcher (that’s bolted from the middle to top shelf). On the bottom shelf is Yoda’s litter box.
We also have a hanging cotton mesh bag on the side to store Yoda’s toys and accessories like his harness and leash so that it’s easily accessible and findable.
The total DIY work only took the better part of an afternoon. We reshelved, screwed and bolted the shelves and repainted the siding.
Storing Our Cat Food and Litter in the Van
As for Yoda’s food storage, we bought a 10-lb plastic storage container to empty cat food bags into to keep it dry and safe away from critters or insects in the van.
This is important especially if you plan on doing wild camping with you cat, where all food (human and pet) needs to be stored away out of reach of wildlife.
As for Yoda’s litter, we just keep the litter in its bag. We use natural wood pellet cat litter or plant-based litter. Using eco-friendly litters also help us reduce our impact while traveling in the van. That also goes for any dish soaps or bathing soaps we use for ourselves.
Challenges of Living with Our Cat in a Van
Boredom and loneliness in cats are common, even in households with plenty of toys and treats!
We know Yoda can get bored easily, which is why we try to be a presence in the van as much as possible. When we are in the van, working or relaxing, we engage with Yoda so it really breaks up his day once we do step out to go work in a cafe (for example).
The second biggest challenge we face is to keep the temperature regulated in the van so our cat doesn’t get too hold or too cold. Both can be fatal, so it’s extremely important that we adapt our travel plans according to the weather. Even something small and otherwise trivial now becomes a deciding factor (like parking in the sun or in the shade even if it’s just to go get groceries).
Safety is the third challenge we face every day. Leaving our van behind always means taking the risk of someone breaking in. In this case, our primary concern isn’t with our valuables but with Yoda! Also, cats are sneaky and they can accidentally slip out of open doors. Yoda has already jumped out once while we were emptying our van’s grey tank because he was excited to explore, but we were nearby a road and thick forest. Luckily he didn’t run off and we were able to catch him.
9 Cat Essentials for Van Life
So what do you need in your van to make meet your cat’s needs? Here’s everything we’ve bought so far for Yoda that’s really been a game-changer.
We grabbed this last-minute before beginning our road trip and Yoda has scratched on it so many times. It’s great because it’s not big and hefty so you can place it seamlessly into your van’s aesthetic. It’s all-natural and blends in nicely too, unlike those ugly faux carpet cat stands.
We’ve had Yoda’s cardboard floor scratcher for ages (1+ year) so we brought it with us to supplement his vertical scratcher. It tucks away nicely on the second shelf. We also place it on the floor so he can get in a long stretch and scratch!
Any bowl will do really, but I highly recommend getting low-dish stainless steel bowls since stainless bowls reduce bacteria build-up (unlike plastic). Non-slip is a bonus, or you can use non-slip kitchen grip as a placement if your cat bowls don’t have rubber lining on the bottom.
Yoda’s favorite “toy” is actually hairbows. But he loves kicking around a little rattan wicker ball that I attached to natural sisal string. We avoid plastic toys as much as possible to reduce our carbon pawprint.
Trust us, switching to an eco-friendly cat litter has been the best decision for both Yoda and us as cat parents who have to deal with cleaning out the litter box. You’ll 100% want natural cat litter to go in the van. Avoid clay litter at all costs! It’s also wise to pick up a litter mat while you’re at it.
It’s a great idea to store your cat’s food in a closed storage container. Get one that conveniently fits somewhere in the van but that’s also readily accessible. We bought a 10-lb container since, at the time, we had a 10-lb bag of cat food. But we rarely fill it up now and wish we had down-sized a little.
7. Cat grass
We picked up cat grass actually a month after we started our trip. We saw that Yoda was missing some elements of nature and found organic cat grass at a farmer’s market. He instantly knew it was for him and started chomping on the long grass blades. Cat grass is a great natural treat to offer your cat. Plus, it doesn’t take up too much space in the van (and actually looks cute!).
As the temperature began to drop, we picked up a jacket for Yoda to wear. It was meant for dogs but fits perfectly well on Yoda and helps keep him warm. It’s especially useful for when we go outside or when the van is a little cooler in the mornings.
We don’t travel anywhere without Yoda’s Seresto collar to ward of dangerous flea and ticks. It is the only tick prevention we trust to really keep nasty fleas, ticks, and parasites at bay. Especially since we explore with Yoda out in nature on-leash!
Ultimate Guide to Van Life with a Cat
If you’re still reading this then thank you! We truly hope our guide to van life with a cat helps you prepare for your very own road trip with your feline friend.
Living with a cat in a van does come with its extra challenges. But that doesn’t compare to the joy of getting to experience the adventure of van life with your kitty!
If you have any questions for us at all, about our van life journey, our van, etc., please don’t hesitate to reach out. 🙂
If you have already lived or traveled with a cat in a van, let us know in the comments below!