Selecting a Van

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If you are going to be living and traveling in a camper van, then selecting the right vehicle for you is probably the single most important decision you’ll make. And that decision will be based on cost and practicality. The possible choice of vehicles ranges from an absurdly expensive commercial Class B camper van with all the comforts of home, to a cheap “beater” Chevy or Ford with little more than a sleeping bag in the back.

If you have lots of money to spend and you like your creature comforts, such as hot running water, a stove, a fridge, and a real toilet, then you’ll probably be looking for a Class B RV van, a full converted camper van, or perhaps a Class C camper cab. These are virtually mini-apartments, and can even be fitted with luxuries like a shower, microwave or a TV. There is usually an external hookup for water and electricity, and tanks for wastewater. Some come ready-equipped with solar panels and storage batteries.

The advantages; you can live in one of these in full comfort, with all the luxuries of home. The disadvantages; they are horribly expensive, and some of the better-equipped models will cost you almost as much as a small house would. And if you are planning on any sort of “stealth”, forget it–these beasties stand out like a coal pile in a ballroom, and everyone in sight will know there’s someone living in it. And in many areas it is illegal to park them on the street. That won’t be a problem if you will be staying in campgrounds or just overnighting at Walmart lots, but for long-term stealth camping, these are not an option.

Most of us who choose the camper-van lifestyle will be buying a plain ole cargo van and converting it. This gives great flexibility, since you can fit out your van as sparsely or as opulently as money and taste allow.

Here are some factors to keep in mind when selecting a van:

Obviously, you will want the newest van in the best condition that you can get. If you have the money for a new van, go for it. Me, I didn’t want to get locked into monthly car payments (I prefer to keep my regular monthly expenses as low as possible), so I saved up for a long time until I could get a late-model used van for cash. (I ended up with a four-year-old GMC Savannah.) If you only have money for a “beater” van, then you’ll either need to be able to do repairs on it yourself, or have the money necessary to have it done by someone else.

You will want a cargo van, not a passenger van. This may be harder than you think–when I was van-shopping, I found that there were dozens of passenger vans for sale in my area, but only a tiny number of cargo vans. One of these, the Ford Transit, I found unsuitable for van camping–although the high headroom is nice, the van’s rear bed itself is too short for comfort. (As it turned out, the Savannah I ended up with had the extra-long 10 foot bed, which I didn’t really need anyway.) There may be some models of passenger vans that you can make work for camping by removing the rear bench seats, but that was more hassle than I wanted to do.

If possible, you’ll want to get a cargo van which was part of a company fleet, rather than a private owner. Businesses don’t like to waste money on repairing their vehicles, so any fleet vehicle is likely to have been very well-maintained. (My van belonged to the Penske company.) The downside is that these vehicles also get used every day for long distances, so the mileage is likely to be pretty high.

Since I was planning on placing a solar panel on the roof, I wanted a van that did not have any cargo rack on top. And because I planned on a lot of stealth camping, I wanted a plain white van with no markings or anything that would make it stand out in a crowd–I wanted it to look like an ordinary ole work van.

In the same vein, I wanted a van that had no windows in the back compartment. I wanted no light to be able to escape from inside if I were reading an ebook or watching TV, to give no clue to anyone outside that I was back there. My van also has a steel gate across the back, right behind the seats, the windows of which I covered up with cardboard to block any light from being visible from the outside. (If your van doesn’t come with such a gate, you can install one, or you can hang up some blackout curtains or a blanket behind the seats.) While it’s not completely lightproof, it is enough to not be readily noticeable at night, especially if I am parked under a streetlight.

If you are a tall person or if you will be spending a lot of time inside the van, you may want to consider either getting a vehicle with the extra-high roof, or adding one on. Since I have a small stature and I’m not in the van very often (except to sleep at night), that was not a consideration for me. You may also want to think about adding a vent to the roof, since the inside of the van gets pretty hot during the day.

Since you’ll be driving long distances, you’ll likely want to get a 6-cylinder engine instead of an 8, to save on gas. I had to compromise on this criterion–my GMC Savannah has an 8-cylinder engine, though it’s the smaller version of the V-8. It gets about 20 mpg on the highway: I don’t drive it in the city.

So those are the things I was considering when picking out a van. But the bottom line is this: get the best van you can with the money you have available.

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One thought on “Selecting a Van

  1. My experience with vans has been quite the opposite. Cargo vans made horrible camper vans, and attracted nothing but negative attention from everybody and everywhere at night. Cops and security treated me like I was either homeless or a serious criminal. I was judged by my van, not by my person.

    I had a cargo van just like yours, and it was full of electronic BS to go bad and need fixing. Newer isn’t always better. I upgraded to a much older 1985 passenger van, and it gets better MPG, requires much less maintenance, and is much more reliable. It also makes a much better camper van. Simply removing the rear seats is much easier and cheaper than insulating a cargo van.

    A window van is far more stealthy than a cargo van at night, and now on the very rare occurrence that I have any interaction with cops or security, I am treated with respect. Now I am judged by who I am rather than the van I drive. I no longer need to hide or worry about light escaping, because obvious campers are not met with the disrespect that cargo van campers have to endure.

    I spend a lot of time in my van, not just sleeping, and windows make a world of difference in the livability of a van. Great ventilation and great views make life so much more enjoyable. Windows allow you to be a part of the world around you, while maintaining your own space. A window van is a huge upgrade from a cargo van, and you might find it much more comfortable to work in the comfort of your van rather than outside of it. The upgrade took me from a place I dreaded to hang out in, to one I couldn’t enjoy more. The weather no longer matters, because I can enjoy my surroundings from the comfort of my home even if the weather isn’t being agreeable.

    Cargo van campers have no idea how much of the good life they are missing out on.

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