The Art of Living in a Van: An Adventurer’s Dream?
If you are old enough to remember the mid-90s Saturday Night Live skits where Chris Farley’s character talks about “living in a van down by the river,” the idea of doing so wasn’t always considered exciting, fashionable, or remotely enviable.
In fact, doing so was considered something unfortunate.
Fast forward a couple decades, however, and “small houses,” sustainable living, and even vandwelling have become all the rage.
For folks who have no interest in being tied down to expensive monthly rent or mortgage costs, the 9-to-5 grind, dress codes, an endless cycle of Zoom meetings, or traditional societal conventions of wealth and success, the ability to live freely, openly, and cost-efficiently is an absolutely dream.
Imagine being able to call the entire country and the open road your home. Your life could be the stuff of Jack Kerouac novels or Willie Nelson songs.
For digital nomads who are able to make a stable, sustainable income working remotely, the appeal is even higher.
Even for those who are probably never going to actually live in a van, the attraction and interest is definitely growing.
Wanderlust and Van Dwelling Take to the Screen
Chloe Zhao’s film Nomadland took home a plethora of Oscars for the 2021 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Director. If you haven’t seen Nomadland yet and are contemplating van life, it’s worth a watch.
The film embodies the ideals that run deep through vandwellers: independence, freedom, self sufficiency, adventure, opportunity.
While all of that may sound nice, getting there can be a logistical nightmare.
Similar themes have been explored in numerous other feature films, short films, and documentaries. Films like Van Boom, Vanlifers, and Descend on Bend give an edited-yet-exploratory look at the nature of living in your van.
Before investing in any of the livable van options below, you may want to check out some of these films and see if the van life is really for you.
You can watch movies, read blogs, and interact with folks who have taken on this lifestyle.
For those who are considering the jump, however, let’s take a look at how you can choose the best van to live in.
Choosing the Best Vans to Live In
For starters, choosing a van to live in can be totally overwhelming. Once you factor in custom build-outs, budget planning, time constraints, safety concerns, and any learning curves, the option to live the nomadic lifestyle might end there.
That said, there is something to be said for the prospect of complete freedom. Or at least the idea of freedom from the constraints that bind us.
Below we will review some options and considerations for the best full-time living vans. Don’t worry, though: it’s not as complicated as it might sound.
Van Living Cabin Options
First and foremost, you have to understand the options for your van’s cabin. This is your living space.
If you aren’t familiar with the lingo, it is important to differentiate between the cabin and the chassis. The latter is the engine and actual vehicle that your cabin is built on.
Potentially livable vans typically come in three variations of cabins:
Also called “panel vans,” cargo vans are simply a van without any customizations or build-outs for living.
Cargo vans offer a blank slate for building a customized, livable vehicle that is tailored to your personal style and preferences. Cargo vans are most often used as company work vehicles for delivery businesses, plumbing, HVAC, and other similar industries.
Understandably, cargo vans are often the cheapest on the market and have usually been well maintained despite high mileage. The biggest consideration here, though, is the build out.
While buying the cargo van may be a bargain, you have to know or be willing to learn how to outfit it. For many vandwellers, building out your van is part of the journey to full time van life and doing so ensures you know every working part of your new abode.
You will know every mechanism inside and out – how it works and how to fix it – which is super helpful and cost effective should you find yourself needing a repair in the middle of nowhere.
Don’t let the idea of building out your van scare you away, it is possible and, for the creative and/or mechanically inclined, probably the best bet. These are also the best bet for folks desperate to just hit the road and escape the grind without a lot of money to spare.
You can also find plenty of videos and tutorial online that offer comprehensive DIY steps to outfit your van.
Conversion vans are just cargo vans that have been upgraded in the factory to provide additional travel comforts.
These vans usually have more storage. They may also come fitted with window coverings, and, for a premium, a media center and seats that fold into a bed.
Conversion vans are perfect for weekend warriors who take regular road trips and camping outings. While they are not designed for full time living, they provide an excellent base for a customized build out.
Adding a water and plumbing system, insulation, and electrical to bring your conversion van to full functionality actually isn’t as difficult or as expensive as you might think.
For folks who have been able to save back some funds and aren’t tied doubt by heavy debt or location-bound obligations, the upgrade to a conversion van might be worthwhile.
Class B RVs
Class B vehicles are considered an RV and licensed and insured as such. They come fully equipped with all the bells and whistles, including a water and sewage system.
Class B vehicles (usually) require zero work from the buyer and they often have a dealership warranty (if purchased new). As you can expect, this category also comes with a higher price tag but is a great option if you need a comfortable, functional van quickly, or don’t have the skills to build out your own van.
Class B vehicles also offer the advantage of being smaller and more streamlined than their larger, more luxurious, and (considerably) more expensive Class C motorhomes counterparts.
Higher-end models may still offer plenty of accommodations like beds, restrooms, and small kitchens, however.
Now, here’s the kicker: Unless you plan on sustaining a good income while on the road, or have saved back a pretty penny, a brand new Class B motorhome might be out of reach.
While used models can sell for around $50,000, a new Mercedes Airstream can run close to $250,000!
Looking at Some of the Best Vans to Live In
Now that we’ve covered the options for living space and creature comforts, let’s take a look at some of the van makes and models that are best for building your vandwelling life.
Cost, fuel efficiency, head space, maintenance, and repair costs are all things to consider when choosing a van. While the vans listed below aren’t necessarily the “nicest” or most expensive, we are are looking at the options that have, historically, been among the best options for a wide audience.
For those familiar with vandwelling, it should come as no surprise that the Mercedes Sprinter van makes the list.
Well known and reputable, this van is not only carries the enviable Mercedes designation, but is loaded with some of the highest-end interiors, safety features, and spaciousness on the market.
Available in diesel and gas models with multiple variations, there is a Sprinter to fit every need. Keep in mind that the Sprinter might not meet every budget, though.
These vans can be found ready to go as Class B motorhomes from most manufacturers or as basic models ready for your custom build and frequently for private sale by owners.
As we mentioned, one major downside is cost. Upfront cost, as well as specialized maintenance and repairs can carry a hefty price tag, but may be well worth the investment if you have the money to spend.
While slightly smaller than the Mercedes Sprinter, the Ford Transit packs a budget friendly, efficient punch.
As of 2020, Ford has started rolling out additional models of the Transit, offering increased headspace, diesel fuel options and three different power trains.
The Transit gets average gas mileage for a camper van while offering lower upfront cost as well as lower cost on repairs and maintenance. Plus, virtually any mechanic anywhere will be able to work on it if something goes wrong, as opposed to the Sprinter which may require a visit to the dealer.
If you plan on spending time outside of the cities and “living” in more rural environments, then this is a huge consideration.
Ford Transits are popular, so finding one for sale by a private seller may be more difficult. That said, they are abundantly available for a custom build out and fully loaded from RV dealers.
The ProMaster is climbing in popularity as a competitor to the two models listed above.
Two things set the ProMaster apart from the competition.
First, it has a wider wheel base, which allows a full size mattress to fit width wise. This saves space and adds comfort for taller or larger vandwellers.
Second, it has a front wheel drive train, which makes for easy maneuverability and increased fuel efficiency.
However, there’s always a catch. The engine is not as powerful as other makes and diesel is not an option at this time. If you plan on hauling a trailer or a smaller boat, the ProMaster might not be the best option for you.
Upfront cost is comparable to the Ford Transit, as are maintenance and repairs. Finding mechanics who are able and willing to work on the ProMaster might not be as it is with the Ford, though.
Interestingly, the ProMaster has only been available in the United States and Canada under its current name since 2014. It was originally marketed as the Fiat Ducato, Alfa Romeo AR6, and Peugeot Boxer, among others, since its debut in 1981.
That said, the ProMaster is becoming increasingly more common with RV dealers and private buyers, so finding one prefabricated or ready to build should be simple.
Overall, choosing a van is a very personal decision. Where you plan to take your van, how long you plan to live in it, your budget, and how much building you want to do (or not do) are all considerations to make while transitioning to van life. Despite the hiccups you may face in this process or the lessons you may learn the hard way, it is all worth it the day you drive away to your first vanlife location.