Guide to Vanlife with Cats

In June 2016, Lianna & Mark purchased a 2000 Dodge Ram Van, renovated the interior to suit a full-time road tripping lifestyle and set out to explore this beautiful country, all with their cat, Mazy, in tow.
As Lianna & Mark adjusted to vanlife, Mazy did too. But there are a few things they wish they would have known before they got started. Here's Lianna's guide to traveling with your cat in a van.
Having a van cat means having an amazing copilot.

When I was still working full time, I would research everything related to van living and how to plan for such a transition. I attempted to research living in a van with a cat, but came up mostly empty with information. There's definitely information out there on living in an RV with a cat, but it's just not the same. A van is much smaller and stealthier than an RV. And most of the people who had written articles about living in their RV with a cat stayed at state parks or RV parks, which I knew was not going to be the case with us.

We wanted to stay in national forests whenever possible, but could also be staying at Walmart parking lots and rest stops when needed. I felt like I prepared as much as I could, but at the end of the day, I was admittedly scared that our cat Mazy was either going to freak out and attempt to jump out of the van, or become sullen and depressed from downsizing to such a small space. As I sit in the van right now and write this, she is sleeping soundly. We're also in a Walmart parking lot with car doors slamming, carts rumbling, and engines revving.

This is not the same cat that began the journey almost two months ago. She would meow nonstop and rustle around all night, which prevented us from sleeping.

So I wanted to put together this guide to help you prepare for living in a van with a cat.

1. Get Your Cat an ID

First and foremost, Mazy got microchipped before we left. I honestly should have done it forever ago, but she was mainly an apartment cat and when she ventured outside she always returned. However, I remember hearing those crazy stories about a pet who went missing and then was found several states over by someone who thought the pet should get its microchip checked. God forbid something like that ever happened, they would know who to contact.

2. Harness and Leash Train

Yeah...about that. We attempted to get her used to wearing a harness and eventually a leash because you know, we were totally going to take her on all of these epic walks up mountains and across valleys. Ha! That has definitely not happened; however, we thought that for sure we would be able to help navigate her into and out of the van with the leash and then tether her up with a long rope when we're parked at campsites. Let me just tell you now: whatever vision you have in your mind of how this whole scenario will go, the opposite will most likely happen. She hated wearing the harness, and when you attached the leash, she just laid there and wouldn't move. If you read up on how to leash train a cat, you should definitely follow the advice. Just know that every cat will respond differently and time and patience are of utmost importance here. After several weeks, she got accustomed to the harness, but it took lots of sweet talking and treats to have her associate it as a positive thing.

3. Go on a Test Run

We thought it might be a good idea to take Mazy camping in the van before we set out on the road. We booked a spot at a nice park on the lake near our home and were also super excited to test out our rig for the first time. When we first got there, we attached the 20-foot lead to her harness and opened the doors. She got right out and headed straight for the green grass, which she proceeded to eat lots of. I thought this was going so perfectly, and I was so happy that the image I pictured in my mind was actually happening. I went back into the van and called my mom to tell her about said experience, and then I heard Mark yell "Shit!" I saw him run over to her and grab her with both hands. Apparently she wiggled her way out of her harness and was attempting to venture into the unknown. The end resulted in a scratched up husband and a terrified cat who didn't leave the van the rest of the weekend. Let me just say that this did not instill hope for the future; however, as I'm writing this, things are great. It just takes time.

Cats are not like dogs. They don't adapt to change well and they don't like to be thrown out of their comfort zone. They like to be in charge of their environment and know their safe place. Eventually, after we departed, she got used to constant change. She realized that an ever-evolving scenery was the constant at the end of the day and she now embraces that. Your cat might love the initial outing and it could go completely different for you. Just know that you have to be patient and consistent. Just because things don't go well initially, does not mean they won't get better.

4. A Few of Their Favorite Things

I definitely recommend bringing some of their favorite things with you when you travel. Living in a van means you have very little space for things you don't need, but when you bring a pet on board you have to take their needs into consideration too. Essentially, cats need food and water, a litter box, and something to scratch (that's not the seats). We put very careful consideration into where her litter box would go and how we would store her food, etc. Her litter box goes under one of the back seats and is Velcroed to the floor so it doesn't move when we're driving. It's right next to the back door so sweeping the loose litter is a cinch. Her food and water are kept in glass Pyrex containers with lids so they don't spill. We also duct taped her scratch pad to the floor behind the back seat so she can scratch to her heart's content.

She also has a favorite blanket that she lies on when we drive. We keep it under the front seat when not in use.

And last, but not least, she has her catnip pillow that we got for her at the Portland Farmer's Market a year ago. She loves the hell out of that thing. Having these creature comforts make van life so much easier.

A happy cat = happy humans.

5. Plan, Prepare and Be Flexible

Look, there is no Van Cat Guide 101 that is going to hold your hand through this process. You have to know your pet, know yourself and be able to roll with the punches. There's not necessarily a right or wrong way to do anything. If you really want to travel with your pet, then you should do what it takes to make that happen. We don't regret it at all.

At the end of the day, the companionship and cuddles make it all worth it.

Follow Lianna, Mark & Mazy's adventures

More vanlife catlife inspiration

Have any tips you don't see here or accounts you follow for vanlife catlife inspiration? Include them in the comments below.

Produced by Kathleen Morton of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to Lianna Bowers.