Many people are inspired by the van life and are looking to make it their own reality. While it is great to hear such enthusiasm, the one question common to most is,
“How do I get started?”
To some this question is simple, as they may have previous van life experience. For amateurs, however, there are questions you need to ask, considerations to take into account and certain steps you need to take in order to make the most out of van life.
There are so many choices and factors to consider when looking for a vehicle to live in. Not only do you need to think of the model and size of your van, but you must also consider your lifestyle and planned usage of the van.
If you need help choosing the right vehicle to live in, start a topic on our forum and our community of experts will gladly help you out. But be sure to read this blog first!
For instance, if you are looking to enjoy the van life for a short while then go back to your usual life, your ideal van would be totally different from the van you would need to make a full time home.
When considering a home on wheels to live in, you will need to think about your mechanical skills, budget and the van life experience you expect to pursue.
Be sincere with yourself about your needs and desires so that you can lead a fulfilling van life. With your needs and preferences in order, you won’t have to break the bank in order to ditch the dreaded 9-5 grind, rebel against the typical and live life on your own terms.
This guide provides an overview of what to consider when making what is arguably the most important decision: choosing a van.
Using our Automated Tool
It goes without saying that choosing your home on wheels is an extremely difficult, tedious, frustrating, and time consuming task. That’s why we’re working on a tool that will automate the process for you!
The tool will work by asking you to fill out some basic information about your requirements and preferences. It then searches our database for all the possible vans, buses, and RV’s that fit your search query.
And that’s it!! In a matter of seconds you’ll soon be able to narrow down your search for a home on wheels.
In order to bring this tool we need YOUR help. You can make a financial contribution (and get some rewards), or help us out by providing some info about your home on wheels (to help us fill our database).
Factors to Consider Before Buying a Van
Before you actually purchase a vehicle you may want to consider some of the following:
This may be the most important factor to consider first because, whether you have a strict budget or not, choosing a van that leaves a little extra cash in your pocket is bound to make you happy. The goal here is to find the correct balance of quality and features that suit your financial resources and desired lifestyle goals.
For example, you may find a great deal on an older vehicle but it may need a lot of work to get it running properly. You might also find your dream home on wheels, ready to be driven off into the sunset, but it could cost you all your savings.
You want to find a nomadic vehicle that you love, while also keeping a financial cushion in case of emergencies, customization and general living expenses while on the road. If your budget is low, start with the necessities you can comfortably afford and make upgrades as you collect more income.
Once you are on the road, budget will still play a role in the decisions you make, and your vehicle will dictate some of that budget. Think: gas, maintenance, mileage and terrain you cover, food costs (cooking in your van vs. eating out), parking fees, storage costs for what doesn’t fit in your van, etc. Many of these factors are further explained below.
Are you able to fit yourself and all your necessities in a home on wheels? Testing the limits is pretty exciting until you, well, exceed them.
More often than not, van life is something you continue to pursue for a long period of time. As such, your van should remain in its best possible condition. Whether due to negligence, unforeseeable circumstances or poor planning, some van drivers tend to overload their vehicles.
Though it may seem harmless at first, this extra stress to your home on wheels can lead to greater maintenance costs and breakages in the long run. So, when shopping for a vehicle or planning your conversion, keep in mind the estimated weight of all the belongings and necessities you will be loading on board as well.
Try this simple experiment to help you imagine nomadic living:
Start by finding measurements of your desired vehicle. Use these dimensions to create a “van” living space in one corner of your home. The goal is to make the space as realistic as possible. You can use curtains or dividers to section it off. Then, move in. Yes, that’s right – live in just a corner of your home. Cook there, sleep there, use the bathroom there; do everything that you usually do at home in your imaginary van.
Make space for your clothes, food, gadgets, tools, recreational gear, etc. Remember to also consider that some vans don’t allow for standing room.
After living in the corner for a while, assess how you feel. Were you comfortable living in the van sized space? Did you have enough space to cook? Would there be room for a bathroom? Did your sleeping space feel secure? This exercise will give you a better idea of what size van to seek out.
Or you can experience the van life for REAL by renting a campervan.
Fuel economy is among the key considerations when choosing a vehicle. Van life should be as economical as possible. If you chose to use an RV, you may get 5mpg while with a car you get up to 50mpg.
There are many online resources to view gas mileage averages; try www.fuelly.com to start the research about vans you’re interested in. Maintaining your van while on the road will help keep your home running at its peak, thus using the most efficient amount of gas and saving you money.
When you go for a camping weekend, with a decent campground, a lovely little picnic table and a fire pit, you are all set. When you go for full-time van life, two issues come up: toilet and shower.
If you are in Canada or the US, you are well sorted as Walmarts are very handy; you wake up with a spotless bathroom next door. Vanlifers in other areas may not be as lucky.
There are two ways you can go about this. You can either find a van with all the right amenities and conveniences, or you can install them yourself. This is one aspect which your budget and preferences will dictate the options of. If you choose to install a bathroom yourself there are literally hundreds of tutorials online on how to do it.
Stealth and Parking
Where are you going to park your van when it’s not in use? Where are you going to park your van when it is in use?
One factor to consider before buying your van is parking. It costs money to store your vehicle or simply park it just for the night in some places. Plus, a number of cities are enforcing laws that make spending the night in your vehicle illegal so it is important to know where you can park and how much it may cost.
Your options will increase greatly, however, if you choose a van that provides great stealth. For example, an RV can draw a lot of attention if parked outside a store overnight. On the other hand, a van or a car will be less obvious as a home on wheels, especially if the van looks like a business vehicle on the outside. Keep this in mind as your hunt for your new adventure mobile.
Maintenance and Repairs
How good are your mechanical skills?
This is not to say that mechanical skills are a requirement for van life, but those skills can certainly reduce stress and make your life on the road a bit easier. A number of travelers are forced to end their trips prematurely because of minor or major mechanical issues that could’ve been avoided by a little mechanical know-how.
Apart from slowing you down, mechanical issues can take quite a toll on your finances, especially if you are under a budget. The type of van you pick and the budget you allow for it makes a huge difference in the overall experience.
If you are buying a used van, it should undergo mechanical inspections before closing the sale. You will come across challenging roads during your trip, and your van needs to be reliable.
Assuming that you already have your travel plan laid out, it is wise to learn beforehand whether spare parts for your van can be found in the countries you plan on traveling. Nonetheless, you should always bring spare parts if you have them, especially those that are not easy to obtain in other areas.
Your budget and planned use determine the type of drivetrain you will need for your van life. You have three options from which to choose from:
- 4WD – The most expensive, four wheel drive (4WD), is best for rough terrain and bad roads. When replacing tires in 4WD vehicles you will need to replace both tires on the axle.
- AWD – All wheel drive (AWD) is found in small and inexpensive vans like Astro or minivan and uses a computer to sense road conditions and supply power to the wheels that need it most. When replacing tires in AWD vehicles you must replace all four.
- 2WD – Two wheel drive are not well suited for van life through rough terrains and wet driving conditions but will still work if your lifestyle and travel plans permit. Although it is recommended to replace tires in pairs or all at once, you can replace just a single tire in this drivetrain as long as it’s the correct size.
The more the windows on your van, the more you expose yourself to peepers. Fewer are ideal because it is difficult lo insulate windows for colder climates.
Engine size is an entire topic by itself. Each manufacturer has a trade-off between the pros and cons of their engines. In general, smaller engines are ideal if you are looking to minimize fuel usage. If your travel plan includes mountainous or rainy areas, though, a bigger engine may be better.
Gas vs. Diesel
Diesel vans are better fuel economizers and have higher torque, last longer, and have more power. They are, however, more expensive to purchase and maintain
The Perfect Van?
A van that falls on the right side all of the above factors is like the diamond necklace worn by Rose Dawson when the Titanic sunk — there is a possibility that it exists, but has anyone ever really seen it? A cheap spacious van that can has the appropriate weight and size, has the necessary amenities, and spare parts that can be found anywhere is hypothetical.
Create a Checklist
This brings it all down to trade-offs. By having your plans and needs in order, you will realize there are features that you don’t really need, and will, therefore, make your decision based on what best suits your lifestyle and desires.
By creating a checklist you will be able to organize and easily refine your searches when you go out to look for your home on wheels. This will make choosing the right vehicle a lot easier!
Now that the first step is complete, you are ready to start shopping.
Types of Vehicles for Van Life
The van life market is huge. A simple Google search for the phrase “best van to live in” generates thousands of results, many of which are of very little use to amateurs.
Just like when deciding what house to buy, choosing the right van can be a challenging task. After considering all the available options, it ultimately comes down to choosing a vehicle that will best suit your basic needs.
Remember to not pick something just because other people think it’s cool. The challenge with finding the right vehicle for you is the wide variety of options.
Unfortunately, we won’t be able to list out each make/model because there are thousands of them. But even with so many models to choose from, there are a few vans that most nomads really love. These include the legendary classic vans, cargo & conversion vans, Euro style vans and a few others which we will cover.
Classic Vans are adored by many because of their picturesque design. The Volkswagen Vanagon, for example, is perfect for a weekend getaway or a romantic weekend. You may know some by names like Vanagon, Westy or Westfalia.
Although they have a high purchase price, a Volkswagen investment is offset by cheap parts that are relatively easy to find. If you are mechanically inclined, there is a huge community of online support to inspire glamorous modifications or guide you through troubleshooting. On the shortcomings, VWs tend to break down a lot and you compromise safety since they usually don’t have airbags or modern safety features.
If you are looking for stealth, though, a classic van may not be the best choice for you. Additionally, the motor is not that strong so climbing steep mountains with all your belongings is a slow challenge.
- Classic vans have, as the name suggests, a classic and photogenic design.
- Repairs and maintenance are affordable and easy with basic mechanical skills.
- Spare parts are often readily available and easy to source.
- Most of these vans have already been transformed into homes so they require less major modifications.
- There is a large community for networking and support as you embark on your life in a classic van.
- These vans are generally old and fickle, which means they are prone to frequent breakdowns.
- These older vehicles often have poor fuel efficiency and lack modern safety features such as airbags.
- There’s pretty much no stealth when you live in a classic van.
Cargo and Conversion Vans
This category includes the Chevy Express, Ford Econoline, Chevy Astro, GMC Savana and G-series and the Dodge Ram Van and B-series. They are quite affordable and have parts that can be found virtually anywhere.
Cargo vans are widely used in many businesses so there are many options when searching for a used van. Plus, because these vans often come from a business, they usually have all the service records and usage details, too.
Cargo vans come in two main types, passenger and panel.
Passenger vans come with rows of seats and windows, while panel vans have no seats or windows but may have metal shelving. Cargo vans offer a lot of bang for the buck due to their heavy drivetrains and big motors.
Their strong design is modeled after pickup trucks so sturdiness is more reliable. Cargo vans are a blank slate, allowing you to add as many or as few modifications as you want.
Conversion vans, on the other hand, are basically full-size cargo vans that have been transformed by third-party automakers to become family camping vehicles. Often, they are designed to have a back bench seat that folds into a bed, large windows with shades and built-in cabinets.
Many conversion vans include a high top roof and rear climate control as well. Because of the added amenities, they are slightly more expensive than cargo vans.
- This category of vans are very affordable.
- The lower purchase price allows more money for customization.
- High-roof options are available, allowing for additional storage and built-in shelves. The extra headroom also makes your vehicle feel more spacious on the inside.
- Most cargo and conversion vans tend to have a barn-style door that swings out, as opposed to a sliding door. This feature offers additional options for fold-out tables, mounted storage or something creative.
- Maintenance and repairs are easier and faster to complete, due to the availability of parts and qualified mechanics. It’s common to find older Chevy, Dodge and Ford vans and their parts; plus, their design hasn’t changed much over the years. Most mechanics hold the skills to repair these vehicles.
- When kept well serviced and maintained, these vans can last over 300k miles.
- Cargo vans are extremely stealthy. They have few or no windows, hence making it difficult to tell if it’s a camper from the outside. These vans easily blend in and are easier to park compared to conversion vans.
- Conversion vans often have less usage and mileage, despite being an older model. In many cases, conversion vans were only used once or twice a year as part of a leisure activity.
- Conversion vans are basically move-in ready, if you’re not picky about style. They are equipped with all the necessities: a bed, windows with privacy, and basic insulation. You will want to add a cooler, auxiliary battery and a nice battery isolator to begin your simple van life. Other amenities and upgrades can be added as needs arise.
- Cargo and conversion vans have poor gas mileage, around 15mpg or less.
- Insulating your van may be difficult due to the curved walls.
- Despite the high-roof option, they are not tall enough to stand up inside.
- Storage space is somewhat limited compared to other vehicle options.
- Cargo vans may have a lot of miles from their use as a business vehicle.
- Conversion vans have poor stealth due to the windows and leisure style of the vehicle.
One last tip: If you decide to shop cargo and conversion vans, keep in mind how these similar vehicles are used differently. Most cargo vans are used in day to day business, so they cover a lot of ground. Once the condition of the cargo van begins to deteriorate, which doesn’t take very long for a commercially used vehicle, the owner decides to sell it. You might be excited to find this newer cargo van at an affordable price but there is a chance it will not be as reliable as an older conversion van of the same price. Shop around until you find the best balance of age and mileage to fit your budget and desires.
Euro-style vans include the Promaster, Transit and Sprinter vans. Euro-style vans are generally newer and preferred for their ample space, better gas mileage and reliability, however, they come with a hefty price tag.
Unlike cargo vans, the Euro-style has a unique design in which the cab is pushed forward over the wheels to create more space.
These are the vans you often see with bathrooms, large showers and tons of storage. As the van with the longest lifespan, a Euro-style van can be your full-time nomad home for years to come if properly maintained.
- ample and convenient storage options
- square cargo area for easier build-out
- high-roof options available
- sleek design
- usually newer
- often more reliable when well-maintained
- small motors
- some models available with more horsepower
- better gas mileage, 20-22mpg
- less prone to rust (models newer than 1996)
- expensive to purchase and repair*
- usually only serviced at specific dealerships
- maintenance is technical
- high roof may be restrictive when driving or parking in tunnels/garages
*Transit vans are not as hard to service or repair due to their large US dealer network.
Other Nomad Vehicles
A retired school bus can be easily transformed into a sizable home on wheels, and can be a relatively cheaper option as most of your conversion costs will go towards accessories instead of major reconstruction. Busses often end up feeling even more spacious than many RVs.
Not only does a converted bus offer room for multiple people, there is usually more capacity and customization for storage. This makes it a great option for families or groups of nomads. With so many options you have the opportunity to create something really unique.
Safari style range rovers, Lifted Tacomas, Sports mobile vans are capable of making long trips, whether it’s along forest roads or through foreign countries. They are known best for cruising forested and wet areas and are equipped with four- wheel drive and relatively higher ground clearance, unlike many vans.
They are quite expensive and maintaining them is essential because you don’t want to break down while exploring the back-country.
It’s great fun to travel with an overlanding vehicle. If overlanding rigs interest you, you can join one of the many supportive communities and travel around with them to learn the basics.
Ultra Low Budget
When your zeal to jump into a nomadic lifestyle is outweighed by budget, don’t worry; you can use the car you already have.
There’s risk that comes with buying a used vehicle, so using the car you have allows you to dabble in vanlife without such risky commitment.
Another advantage of using your vehicle is that you are well aware of its mechanical issues and how to drive it. Just about any vehicle can be converted to a home on wheels with a little creativity and sacrifice.
Still unsure what vehicle is right for you?
We understand that everyone’s situation, and needs are different. That’s why we created our forum where you can ask the ProjectVanlife community about anything related to living a nomadic life.
If you are already an expert feel free to hop on there and share some of your knowledge by starting educational topics and helping others out.
When posting a topic about ‘what vehicle you should live in’, be sure to include the following information, so you can get the best responses:
- How much space you need
- Who you will be living with
- Your preferences
The Road Awaits
No matter what type of vehicle you choose, van life is all about the experience and freedom of living on the go. It is nearly impossible to predict exactly what you will need until you are on the road; ponder these considerations, shop around and choose something that fits your minimal needs and budget.
You can upgrade and modify as you learn from experiencing life on wheels.
And remember, if you ever have any other specific questions related to van life you could ask them on our community Forum.