The first thing you need to live your best van life is the van. We look at the pros and cons of the best conversion van candidates around.
You’ll often find the hashtag #vanlife attached to the sepia-toned Instagram posts of young, eclectically dressed twenty-somethings grinning ecstatically as they lounge on the bed of their conversion van, doors open to an impossibly beautiful bucolic scene of natural splendor somewhere in the American West. The hashtag has spawned something of a cottage industry of social media influencers making a life on the road look incredibly romantic. And while there’s plenty of room for skepticism, even cynicism, when it comes to social media trends, there is also something essentially American about the real “van life” behind the hashtag.
So, what exactly is the van life? In a nutshell, the van life means leaving behind the trappings of a geographically settled life for one of travel, adventure, and intermittent showering. It combines the peripatetic wanderlust of Kerouac’s On the Road and Horace Greeley’s advice to “Go West, young man …” with the alluring simplicity of Marie Kondo’s tidiness and the minimalistic ingenuity of tiny homes. There’s a considerable swath of young Americans who see 9-to-5 jobs and mortgages as shackles on their freedom rather than pillars of a “normal” life.
At its core, the van life is a rejection of materialism and the embrace of a simple, yet challenging lifestyle centered on travel and an appreciation of natural beauty. In some ways, America remains a nation of seekers often most at home on the road. Travel offers insights both about the world at large and about yourself, so why not take that “gap year/decade” and travel the country in your own converted van?
Convinced that a life on the road with your bae and your Aussie blue-heeler is right for you? Well, there are a number of important things to account for when choosing the right van for your van life conversion project.
A major consideration in choosing a van is how much room will you be needing. Do you want room to stand? Will you want to install a kitchenette? How many people and/or dogs will be accompanying you? As you’ll see below, there are plenty of options no matter how you answer these questions.
Another consideration, and perhaps the foremost, is how much you’ll be spending on this van. Since you’ll be on the road, remote work, selling artistic/bespoke creations out of the back of your van, and possible snowboarding sponsorships will all be key in funding your travels. So, unlike the majority of car buying situations, entering into the van life means forgoing financing and doing a cash deal instead. Plus, you’ll be converting the van to make it livable 24/7. In that case, getting a good deal on a van, either new or used, is paramount.
The most common vans for converting fall into three broad categories: Euro-style work vans, cargo vans, and minivans. Work vans are great thanks to their interior dimensions with often five, six, or more feet of vertical space. They’re also fairly bare bones inside, perfect for retrofitting. But they can also be expensive to both buy and maintain. Cargo vans are plentiful and offer a ton of interior space to work, but their larger engines can be gas hogs. Minivans are the most economical, both in terms of sticker price and fuel economy. They’re also pretty snug for anything but a solo adventure.
The Ford Transit is one of the most popular conversions and a ready foundation on which to build your van life. You can find 3-5-year old used Transits for between $13,000 and $20,000 depending on mileage and condition. There are three engine options a turbo diesel, NA V6, or an EcoBoost V6. The Transit offers great interior height with the medium roof offering 5’10” and the high roof extending all the way to 6’5”. Another benefit of the Transit is that it’s a common fleet vehicle and not difficult to find parts for or a knowledgeable mechanic. Also, there’s the Transit Connect built off the Ford Focus. Not as big as the regular Transit van but another good option. AWD was added as an option on the 2020 version of the Transit.
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is another common choice for the van life. Among extended wheelbase versions, the Sprinter is the longest at a full 24 feet. The Sprinter also comes with options for petrol or diesel fuel engine as well as either RWD or 4WD, though the latter will drive up the cost. Speaking of cost, that’s one of th big downsides to the Sprinter, it’s a Mercedes after all and carries a heftier price as a result. Another is their Euro roots mean they can be harder to service and more expensive to fix. But there are lots of examples of used Sprinters out there with 300,000 or more miles on them, so longevity doesn’t appear to be an issue.
The RAM ProMaster’s claim to fame is its width, enough for a six-foot person to sleep across the rear. The ProMaster runs with a single engine offering a 3.6L V6 that gets a combined 17 mpg, that may not sound great but that’s about average for vans of this size. Its FWD configuration helps the ProMaster navigate snowy conditions as well as free up space in the rear for extra cargo room. Another strength of the ProMaster is that, like the Transit, it’s easy to find a mechanic who knows how to work on it.
The Nissan NV may not be the best looking of the work van bunch, but it has all the hallmarks of a great conversion van candidate. The Nissan NV lags a bit behind in fuel economy, below the 17-ish mpg you find in other vans of its size. But it does offer a roomy front end that, thanks to that truck-like shape, doesn’t sacrifice space in the rear.
Another ubiquitous Ford, the Econoline can be perfect for those on a budget. Even though you can’t stand up in this van, saving on the initial buy means it’s a great choice for converting with a pop-up roof. Another benefit of full-size vans is their towing capacity with some Econolines equipped to tow up to 10,000lbs.
Another workhorse van ripe for conversion is the Chevy Express/GMC Savana. You can find quality used examples for well under $10,000. Since its another common model, parts and mechanics shouldn’t be too hard to come by.
We’d be remiss if we skipped the original van life vehicle, the VW Bus. Both the smaller bus and the Vanagon, along with the rest of Volkswagen‘s camper vans through the years, have lots of space and ample legacy when it comes to living on the road. But if you think a 50-year old Eurovan will save you on overhead, think again. These classics have been steadily rising in popularity in recent years (something about a hashtag perhaps?) and often run comparable to the nearly new work vans we noted above. Still, if you’re serious about that ‘gram, there’s no more of a photographable choice on this list than a V-dub.
The Chevy Astro is perfect for those looking for an affordable way to jump into the van life. At anywhere from $7,000 to $2,000, the Astro should leave you with a decent budget for your conversion plans. The Astro can be found in both RWD and AWD varieties.
Like the Astro, the Grand Caravan’s main virtue is its price. Unlike the Astro, which ended it’s run in 2005, the Grand Caravan has been soldiering on since the mid-1980s. As a result, there’s a Grand Caravan out there to suit any budget. The fifth and latest generation (2008-2020) is also the largest version of the Grand Caravan. It also ends up fairly cheap, with ten-year old versions at well under $10,000.
As you may have noticed, maintenance and reliability are major concerns when you’re living out of your mode of conveyance. That’s why the Toyota Sienna comes in well ahead of other used minivans when considering an economical van life conversion. Never has over-engineered felt so right as when you’re relying on your twelve-year old used van to get you from Bangor, Maine to San Diego, California.