Van Life Vocabulary

Van Life Vocabulary

Is this a dorky thing to write about? It might be. But we decided made a post about some of the most common words you’ll hear on the lips of RV’ers and van owners because learning the lingo and jargon is often a good place to get started when you’re getting into something new. We also not-so-secretly hope that it will speed up the learning curve for you. We’ve found that almost all of the van lifers and adventure mobile enthusiasts that we meet are eager to share their knowledge with us but we thought it might make some of those early conversations with others a little easier – especially if you’re in the market for a vehicle and are looking to buy! Our Van Life Vocabulary:


Van Life Terms
How sweet is this van?!

This is just another name for your van or RV. It’s a catch-all term for whatever you’re adventuring in.


This is our own nickname for cool rigs that we adopted on a recent trip to Beijing. There were so many sweet mini-buses in China and many of them with the name Jinbei stamped on the front. The name stuck and it’s been on our lips ever since.

Cargo Van vs. Passenger Van

Our Ram ProMaster City Van is a Cargo Van. It came empty in the back and was ready to undergo a complete van conversion with very little adaptations. To learn more about how we converted our van head on over to our story about Wayfarer Vans. The cargo is in stark contrast to the typical passenger van which has seats to transport people. We’ve seen some cool set ups where people have done van life out of a passenger van but a lot of times it involves ripping the seats out.

Pop Up

Like the name suggests, the roof of your van pops up. There are all different kinds of pop up camper vans: some that pop up at an angle, some that pop straight up, some that only part of the roof pops up and of course, some that leak! Before you or someone you know cuts a hole in your roof, make sure you know what you’re doing!

Van Life Terms 1
We will always have a big crush on VW Vans, pop top or not.

High Top

No this isn’t a basketball shoe. This is a van that you can stand up in! Unlike a pop top, in a high top van is just up all the time. The benefits of a high top van are that you can walk in and out of your vehicle at any point without having to crouch down. You can also have additional storage with all that extra space. It also means you might have some additional challenges such as height limits in parking garages, difficulty stowing gear on the roof and reduced fuel economy.


The Bureau of Land Management just became your best friend if you are looking to live a life on the road. Why? Because as their website says, “BLM-managed lands represent the largest acreage available for recreation in America – most with no admission charge.” Make sure you check the site before you go to avoid road closures and delays.

Gray Water

The next time you do the dishes, take a look at the leftover water. Is it gray? Probably, unless you had spaghetti or something like that. Gray Water is basically all the used water that you need to dispose of in your rig except for toilet water.

Black Water

Don’t be fooled by a friend who asks if you want a sip of their black water. It is NOT a specialty cocktail that they’ve made for you. Instead, hand them a pair of gloves and let them deal with their own bathroom waste water. We don’t have a gray or black water tank but we have heard some stories from people who do!


Boondocking, also known as “dispersed camping”, is for some, camping at it’s best. It’s primitive, often in the middle of nowhere and without the typical amenities such as electric, water and dump tanks that you would get at RV parks and campsites. If you like taking the road less traveled, don’t want to be around a lot of people and want to avoid paying for a campsite, this might be the way to go.

Van Life Terms 2
Would you stay on this bus?!


Some RV’s have heaters that run on propane. Many are set up to cook food on propane. We had that kind of set up in our vintage RV but in our new van we are back to using a Coleman stove and relying on the little green cylinders to cook our food. We don’t have a way to hear our van other than our awesome sleeping bag and each other but so far we haven’t really missed it.


If someone mentions the word carburetor or if you happen to see this word in an ad for what you THINK is the van of your dreams, turn and run. As fast as you can. We had a carburetor in our most recent vehicle, the Chinook, and it was one of the worst experiences of our lives. Unless you are a mechanic or want to learn how to work on these kinds of vehicles, take it from us and avoid them like the plague. Lots of places won’t work on them (or can’t) anymore and if you breakdown (because you will) it will leave you high and dry.

Van Life Terms 3.jpg
Love vintage things, hate vintage problems.

Our Van Life Vocabulary Recap

The next time someone mentions boondocking, now you can nod your head because you know what they’re talking about. And if they mention black water, you know to stay well away from it. We hope this post has been useful to you! And if you’ve been at this for a while and have some suggestions for us of some terms that should be on this list, please let us know. We hope to see you out on the road sometime soon!

How many of these van life words did you know? How many of them are new to you? We’d love to hear your thoughts – please leave your comments below!







Published by Erin McGrady

Erin McGrady is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer exploring Asheville and beyond. My work focuses on sharing about LGBTQ safe spaces, camper van life, and the outdoors.

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