Vanlife: Selecting a Van

[NOTE: I’ve blogged all these “how-to” posts before, but am gonna re-run them on occasion, since folks may have missed them, and many of them have been updated or expanded since they were first posted.]

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 used Chevy or Ford van with little more than a sleeping bag in the back. Also under the category of “van-dwelling” are things like minivans and small panel trucks—I have even seen ambulances that have been converted into a live-in travel vehicle.

The most crucial decision you will need to make, of course, is whether the van-dwelling lifestyle actually suits you. More than one person has enthusiastically sold all they own, bought a van and moved in—only to find that the lifestyle really isn’t for them after all.

So you will want to take a “test ride” before you do anything. In your home or apartment, take some masking tape and mark out an area in a corner about nine feet long and about five feet wide. This is your “van”. Now, equip this space as you would the inside of your camper van. Bed, clothing, sink, storage, food, bathroom, electrical battery bank, stove—everything you will need must find a place within this area. Once you have everything set up, live inside this space for the next four weeks: cook here, sleep here, watch TV here. Rearrange things if you need to, add things or take them away. Follow the wisdom of the backpacker: “Bring what you need, and need what you bring”. Remember, you will be living fulltime in a space that is smaller than an average prison cell. You will have to make some hard choices.

If things work out, you are ready to go van-shopping. But if you cannot be comfortable living within this confined space, and find yourself “cheating” all the time, then you either need a larger commercial RV, or you need to reconsider your lifestyle choice.

If you have lots of money to spend and you like your creature comforts, such as hot running water, a fridge, and a real flushing toilet, then you’ll probably be looking for a commercial Class B RV van, or a full converted camper van. These are virtually mini-apartments, and can even be fitted with luxuries like a shower, microwave or a TV. There is often an external hookup for water and electricity, and tanks for wastewater. Some come ready-equipped with solar panels, generators 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 as much as a small house would. And, depending on the particular design, they are not all that good for “stealth”–some of these beasties stand out like a coal pile in a ballroom, and everyone in sight will know there’s someone living in there. That won’t be a problem if you will be staying in campgrounds or just overnighting at Walmart lots, but for long-term urban camping, these are not the stealthiest 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. It also gives maximum stealth, since from the outside it just looks like an ordinary van. Here are some factors to keep in mind when selecting a van for camping:

There is no “perfect” or “ideal” vehicle. Everything will be a tradeoff between competing factors, and since that is largely a subjective matter of personal taste and comfort level, everyone will make different decisions. And since you are the one who will be living in the van, the only factors that really matter are
the ones that are best for you.

Obviously, though, 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 latemodel 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 probably 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. There may be some models of passenger vans that you can make work for vandwelling by removing the rear bench seats, but that was more hassle than I wanted to do. (There are, however, people who camp in their passenger vans or SUVs and are perfectly happy with it.)

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. 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 parking, 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. The gate also has a closing doorway that allows me to enter and exit the cargo compartment from inside the van’s cab.

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 (or two, for better ventilation), as the inside of the van gets pretty hot during the day.

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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