Are you someone who spends hours browsing through social media, looking at pictures of converted vans, and dreaming of living your best van life?
You’re not alone. Van life has become increasingly popular in recent years, and while it’s not for everyone, many van lifers will tell you that it’s worth it. Van life benefits include being able to see the U.S. on a budget, freedom, and the chance to save money.
The problem is, where do you begin? How do you choose the right vehicle?
If you’re looking for the best vans for van life, you’re in the right place. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about finding the right van. Let’s get started on your transition to van life!
Before You Begin
Before you get started on your van life journey, you need to consider your experience level with van life. If you have previous experience with van life or camping in a van, you may already know what to expect and what you want out of a van. If not, you may have a lot of questions.
Start by asking yourself what your goal for your van life experience is. Are you looking to enjoy van life for a short time, or a long time, before resuming your “normal” life?
What mechanical skills, if any, do you have? What vans have you worked on in the past? Mechanical skills aren’t necessarily required, but they will make your van life experience easier.
What is your budget? Keep in mind you will need a budget for both your van and the cost of materials (and possibly labor) to convert it. Plus, there are ongoing costs such as fuel, food, supplies, and repairs and maintenance.
What size van do you need? How much stuff will you be taking with you?
Perhaps most importantly, who will you be taking with you? Traveling solo has its benefits, but it may get lonely.
However, traveling with another person means your relationship should be solid. If not, there are going to be some very uncomfortable moments when you are sharing a small space with each other.
Your ability to answer these questions will determine what type of van you should consider. It will also prevent you from making the mistake of rushing into buying the first available van. The odds of you finding the “perfect” vehicle are slim. Take the time to make a checklist of your must-have features, and consider your trade-offs.
The Best Vans for Van Life
Once you have an idea of what you want from your van life experience, it’s time to determine what van is right for you.
Let’s start by taking a look at some of the most popular van models on the market today, and see how suitable they are for van life.
The Mercedes Sprinter is a top-of-the-line, full-size van. If you’re budget conscious, it’s likely that you won’t be choosing a Sprinter. Keep that in mind when it comes to repairs too – Mercedes Sprinters aren’t the kind of van anyone can repair.
However, Sprinters are very popular vans for many reasons.
For starters, their large size means more space. They offer a standing room height of 66.5″-77.8,” which makes for a spacious interior. This size was one of the reasons why they first become popular for van conversions.
Sprinters also come in a 4×4 or 4WD (four-wheel drive) option, which is a feature not seen in many other vans. Combined with a ground clearance of 8″ and you have a van that’s capable of exploration.
This generous clearance and four-wheel drive capability make Mercedes Sprinters a good choice for boondocking. Boondocking is a free and legal way of camping, without the campsite fees and amenities, such as electric or water hookups.
Boondocking takes many forms, and it may be possible to boondock in a nearby national park or even the parking lot of a big box store. Check out this guide to boondocking for a more comprehensive look at boondocking.
Previously, we mentioned how Mercedes Sprinters aren’t necessarily vans any mechanic can repair. However, there’s a caveat: they are very reliable vans. Used Mercedes Sprinters with over 100,000 miles on them are often still in great shape.
Their reputation for reliability means Sprinter vans have been used for both commercial goods hauling as well as passenger transit. It’s not uncommon to see them used as airport or intercity shuttles.
Sprinters are not without their drawbacks, but overall, many consider them to be the best van available.
Next up is the Ford Transit. While not as common on Mercedes Sprinters, these vans are sometimes seen in the van life community.
Most vans will usually get you in the range of 20 miles per gallon. However, the Ford Transit’s average mpg (miles per gallon) is much lower at 15-17 mpg. Expect fuel costs to be a larger part of your budget if you go with a Transit.
Another drawback to the Ford Transit is its ground clearance: 5″. If you plan to do a lot of camping far away from others or plan on navigating a lot of dirt roads, this low ground clearance will prove a hindrance. You don’t want to find yourself second-guessing every potential dirt road you may go down.
That’s not to say that it’s all bad though. The Ford Transit is affordable and sturdy. In the event of a breakdown, most garages will be able to work on them.
Taller folks will appreciate the option for a 6’8″ roof, providing you with generous standing space. It also allows you to build your van out and kit it with a roomy feel.
While typically rear-wheel drive (RWD), all-wheel drive (AWD) options are available.
Overall, the Ford Transit is a suitable vehicle for many van life enthusiasts. What it lacks in ground clearance and fuel mileage it makes up for in vertical room, durability, and general affordability.
Dodge Ram Promaster
The Dodge Ram Promaster is a van built for comfort, not power. That translates to a small engine (276 horsepower), as well as a lack of four-wheel drive. Unfortunately, a front-wheel drive-only option means the Promaster isn’t suitable for many van lifers.
So why would anyone choose a Promaster? Its key benefit is its shape. Car and Driver even described the vehicle as “a box on wheels.”
That may not sound like a flattering compliment, but for creative, DIY van lifers, the Promaster offers interior possibilities that other vans do not.
Its wide body, as well as matching cabin space, leads to a roomy interior. Opt for one with a high roof option, and you have even more room.
Like the Ford Transit, the Promaster is a more affordable option than the Mercedes Sprinter.
Overall, the Dodge Ram Promaster is suitable for a certain set of van lifers: those that desire to have plenty of storage space and sleeping room, but don’t require the horsepower or all-wheel drive options that other vans offer.
Consider Used Vans
The previous van options talked about were all more recent van models. However, if budget is your biggest concern when choosing a van, there are other options.
The obvious is to look for used vans. If you like a Mercedes Sprinter, but don’t want to pay full price, the used market is an option. The Ford Transit and Dodge Ram Promaster will be even cheaper used.
Other Van Options
Another option is to look for vans that are currently out of production. Finding these vans may take some time, but opting for one of them over a newer model could save you money.
Enter the Chevrolet Astro. Last produced in 2005, the Astro is not the sleekest, prettiest van. However, it is iconic, and its boxy shape is what many people envision when they think of a van.
The Astro was a large family vehicle, with a towing capacity of 5,000 lbs, which exceeded other vans at the time. While initially rear-wheel drive, later models of the Astro did offer all-wheel drive. The
However, finding a Chevy Astro in working condition can be tough. These vans are still popular, so many folks hold on to them.
Chevy Astros are so popular that fans have attempted to petition General Motors to bring them back into production.
Another possibility is the Ford Econoline or E-Series. The E-Series debuted all the way back in 1961, with production finally ending in 2015. The previously mentioned Ford Transit became its replacement.
The E-series came with a standard roof height of 5’5″, so it lacks the headroom of modern vans. However, that smaller size translates to easier navigation for drivers who are worried about low clearances, tunnels, and low-hanging tree branches.
There are other classic van options too. Parts for these vans may be affordable and easy to find. For some vans, such as Volkswagens, there is a sizeable community surrounding them. You could always tap into this community for general questions or repair help.
The biggest downside of classic vans is that they lack many of the safety features of newer vehicles. For many folks, that means shopping for a newer model vehicle instead of a classic van.
Converting Your Van
Once you have your van, it’s time to convert it. There are several ways to do this: either 100% from scratch, using a conversion kit, or going to a van conversion shop. Each method has its own pros and cons, so ultimately it is up to you to decide which method you want to use.
The DIY Route
Are you a handy person? A DIY king or queen?
If so, and you have more time than money, the DIY route may be for you. The more features you desire (and the more space you have in your van) the more work involved.
You may want to consider some or all of the following in your converted van:
- Temperature control system (heating and cooling)
- Water system
- Electric system
Most van lifers prefer to have at least a bed, toilet, and electricity (via solar panels attached to the roof). Even an indoor shower is optional, and some van lifers will argue that an indoor shower is unnecessary. However, you (or your partner) may disagree with that.
This is where it goes back to needing to understand what you want to get out of van life, and how you plan to lead your van life. If you plan on visiting friends and family and staying at campgrounds, an indoor shower may be unnecessary. Alternatively, there are portable camping showers you can look into.
The same goes for features. You may not need a full kitchen or kitchenette, opting instead for a small stove and a couple of pots and pans.
While the DIY route can be frustrating and time-consuming, especially for those new to van conversions, many van lifers prefer to go this route. It provides a wealth of experience in kitting out their van. Plus, it’s the best way to fully customize their ride.
Conversion Kits and Van Conversions
In recent years a number of van conversion companies have popped up. Some of these offer conversion kits for your existing van. That leaves it up to you to find a van and do the DIY installation of the conversion kit.
These kits still give you a bit of the DIY experience. The downside is that they may be limited in what amenities and features they offer.
Others offer van conversions of stock vans. Basically, you choose what options and upgrades you want for your van, drop it off, and let them do the conversion work. Once complete, you have a custom van for all of your needs.
Finding a Vehicle for Van Life
There’s no singular answer to determine what the best vans for van life are. However, this guide should get you started. Begin by considering what you want to get out of your van life experience, how you will use your van, and your budget for your van and its conversion.
From there, you can narrow down your options and decide what types of van you should consider.
For more information on vans and all things vehicle, check out the rest of our site.