It may depend on your part of the country, but the aspect of living in a van has exploded in popularity over the past decade. Whether permanent residence, seasonal traveling, or even weekend excursions, it has formed into a tightly-knit community with like-minded, passionate individuals. Though a majority may be individuals, it has also become more widespread for families, couples, and friends to take part. Throw in a few dogs, even cats, and it’s a full-fledged adventure.
With the advent of the underlying community came the explosion of aftermarket support, often portrayed at various expositions. I found myself at one recently, and it was enlightening. Dozens of vendors, hundreds of enthusiasts, and curious outsiders all came together to share ideas, and for the outsiders, to see what the fuss is all about. The Adventure Van Expo takes part in multiple cities throughout the U.S., including this one in Dillon, CO. Nested alongside the town of Silverthorne along Interstate 70, it wasn’t hard to access from Denver.
There were far too many vans to even recount at the expo. The sky really is the limit, or in some cases, it’s the drive train. There are so many possibilities, but at the heart of many vans is a barely-capable power plant that wasn’t expecting all the added weight and functionality. Granted, in most scenarios, it will suffice to take you on your adventure. But for those seeking the intensity of mountain roads and hard-to-reach areas, aftermarket tuning may be required. Depending on the van, you may have to address ground clearance, suspension tuning, or even power output.
Size for Thought
Another consideration for van-life is the size, and there are a number of factors to weigh, especially in wheel base, roof height, and overall length. There are nearly infinite possibilities, since technically any van can be converted. Some people do opt for true minivans, or even the smaller Ford Transit Connect. But the most common options are the Nissan Ram Promaster, Ford Transit, and Mercedes Sprinter. These can be had in a variety of short, medium, or long wheelbases, as well as short, medium, or tall roof height. Some even have an extended option (longer overhang past the rear wheels), making it as long as 24 feet total length. But the most common options vary from 138-170” wheel base (often denoted SWB or LWB for short or long wheel base), with low or high roof. The brands vary a bit, and each have their pros and cons.
The Dodge Promaster is a popular choice due to the width of the interior. It is wide enough for a full-size bed without major modifications to extending the sides of the van using flares. Depending on the thickness of the wall, it’s even possible for a 6 foot tall person to lay down between the walls.
The Mercedes Sprinter has a factory 4×4 option, though there are many possibilities to convert other van brands and models to 4×4, with the exception being the Ram Promaster, due to its front-wheel drive nature. The Promaster “bed” is lower, which is a benefit, but it would require immense overhaul to somehow adapt it to a 4×4 system. Quigley is a common 4×4 conversion option for Ford Transit vans, though 2020 and newer Transits do have an AWD option. Ford Transits also have the highest roof of the main contenders, but also the longest rear overhang in extended options. As you can see, there are many pros and cons to the various popular choices. Other contenders are Ford Econoline, Nissan NV, Ford Transit Connect, Volkswagen Bus or Vanagon… the list is expansive.
New or Used?
The age-old debate of “do I buy used or new?” can also be addressed, though the vast majority may find it useful to find something used, even much older. A benefit of a new van may be warranty, but doing your own conversion will often void any existing warranty. Something to balance is just how used you want it to be, because the older you look, the cheaper it [typically] can be. But with older models you may be sacrificing certain modern conveniences such as a reverse camera or parking sensors or even heated seats. While not being necessarily life-and-death, those can be extremely beneficial in a large van, especially the camera or sensors to assist in challenging maneuvers. That being said, a reverse camera can be a very simple modification on older vehicles.
Another idea to explore before buying is to try one. There are many companies offering van rentals, anywhere from one day to months on end. You can expect to pay a couple hundred bucks per night for a well-sorted example though, which if rented enough can become a large portion of what you could put towards your own rig.
Space for Days
Another common inquiry is about storage space. Many people, including myself, have expressed disbelief of the idea of actually living full-time out of one. However, when you break it down, there are a lot of creative storage options to be had, and it simply requires a minimalist outlook on what you need for life. In many ways, it’s an easier, simpler way of life. But the initial creative brainstorming needed to determine what you might need, and how tools and space can be used multiple ways, may cause some early-onset stress. That being said, with the growing popularity, blogs and videos of examples are abounding across the internet. If you find a problem, there’s most likely a solution lying somewhere.
Something I learned at the expo was the importance and versatility of the “garage”. Not the dwelling for the van itself, but rather the space in the back, typically beneath the bed. It can hold quite a bit of usable room, configurable into storage cubbies, drawers, even bicycle racks. It’s a great options for outdoor gear, keeping it “separate” from the rest of your house-on-wheels. In the rest of the van, it’s easy to create storage along the roof and walls, in whatever size you need. Some vans even have the capability for the bed to raise and lower, effectively giving the garage more temporary ceiling height.
How It’s Made
So you’ve committed to the concept… now what? When weighing the options, there are a few ways to approach it. We can easily break these down into 3 categories: buying a readymade conversion, buying a van and perform a full DIY, or buying a van for partial conversion while involving specified professionals along the way for various components. From the outside looking in, the third option seems most intriguing to me. It allows a variety of hands-on exciting work to truly make it your own, but also prevents the stress of certain components that could go very wrong and potentially hard to reverse.
In talking with the folks at Earth Ship Vans, they said this is commonplace, where people bring them in specifically to do certain electrical work or plumbing, as well as modifications requiring cutting the actual van body or components. But in addition to this, Earth Ship Vans is one of many companies who buys standard vans and does the full conversion. They make each one unique in its own way, and also design it how they themselves would want it. Buying a ready-made conversion may carry a significant price tag, but it’s also an immediate way to jump into the scene.
So why would you cut into the van? There are actually more roof options beyond the factory short/medium/high roof. Low roof options can be convenient for those with garage-parking necessity, and an option to add to that would be a “pop-top”. This can make the entire roof expand upwards, creating a loft-like area for sleeping or simply more headroom to stand while cooking, for example. Or it can be a slanted pop-top, achieving the same purpose in a slightly different way. They’re more work to use daily, but provide a great option for those who value a shorter roof or a “second story” for the sleeping area. Some even opt for it as a guest bed.
Another major cut to the van can create a second large sliding door. This is very uncommon, as it compromises the valuable wall-space, but it can be a great option for having more breeze-way and natural light. I spoke to an owner of such a van, and his response was “we do van life so often to be more in-tune with nature, to get outside, so why not bring more of the outside inside?” He has a point.
Van life isn’t for everyone, but there is something about it that truly intrigues me. I don’t know if I could commit to the fully nomadic and minimalist lifestyle, but having a van for long-term trips and being able to live both on the road and at your destination does sound incredibly freeing. When you remove the need for finding accommodations, freedom ensues. There are so many options with building or buying a van, and hopefully this helps paint a rough picture or identify even more questions you didn’t consider. The possibilities are as endless as the potential adventures to be had.