Congratulations! You’ve decided to live in a van. Whether it’s a part-time gig, a full-time lifestyle, or dirtbag climber van, choosing a vessel to call home is still a big decision. And depending on your needs, the type of van for you may differ from the norm. Though I personally live in a 144” wheelbase Sprinter (named Frieda) I will try my hardest to be unbiased. Afterall, the vanlife is unique for everyone!
New or Used?
Step one is to decide if you want to drop the money on a new van with a fancy warranty or find a rescue and make it a good home. A new van is obviously expensive. However, it comes with a warranty, no known issues, and a clean slate to begin your build. You can also make sure that it comes with whatever bells and whistles you deem necessary.
When going the used route you have a lot more options and can get a lot of good deals. You can get a straight five cylinder sprinter (2001-2006) or an old bubble top ambulance. But these vans will definitely need some love and you will never truly know their history. There are also really cool 4×4 options.
The Big Three
Let’s say you are going brand new. There are three major vans that are currently dominating the vanlife market. The Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, and Dodge Promaster. All three of these vans come in a variety of roof heights, wheelbases, and lengths. Choosing between them can be extremely difficult and matters greatly on what your plans are. Are you tall? Do you have a family? Are you bringing the dog along? These are by no means the only new vans you can purchase. There are just so many on the market that I am only going to cover the heavy hitters for now.
The Mercedes Sprinter Van
Of course you have heard of it. It’s pretty infamous in the vanlife community. The Sprinter van comes in a great assortment of options for the everyday vandwelling dirtbag and is the only stock high top van to offer a 4×4 option. If you plan on being in the snow or sand a lot I would highly recommend 4×4. Not to mention the Sprinter 4×4 comes with independent suspension that makes just everyday driving and normal dirt roads a lot smoother and easier on your precious goods.
- Engine: Diesel 4 Cyl Twin Turbo 2.1L (22 mpg)
- Diesel 6 Cyl 3.0L (20 mpg)
- Bodies: 144” WB, 19’ long (373.8 cu ft)
- 170” WB, 23’ long (486.5 cu ft)
- 170” WB, 24’ long (530.0 cu ft)
- Ground clearance: 7.9in
- Interior height: 6’3
- Interior width: 69”
- Rear wheel drive
- 4×4 option
- Higher ground clearance
- Independent suspension
- 3-year unlimited mile warranty
- Drives like a dream. Elevated seating and extra storage space above the cockpit area.
The Ford Transit
The Ford Transit may be the best option of the three for the majority of people. Not only does it sport an assortment of engines to choose from but has straight walls too. It sounds dumb, but trust me. When building the van, straight walls are extremely useful! There is also a tad more cubic footage due to it. Sadly the price of the diesel transit is slightly higher than that of a Sprinter.
- Engine: Gas 3.7L V6 (17 mpg)
- Gas 3.5L V6 Eco Boost (17 mpg)
- Diesel 3.2L 1-5 Turbo (20 mpg)
- Bodies: 147.6” WB, 20’ long (404.3 cu ft)
- 147.6” WB, 22’ long (487.3 cu ft)
- Ground clearance: 6.3in
- Rear wheel drive
- Interior height: 6’5
- Interior width: 69”
- Straight Walls
- 3-year 100,000 mile warranty
- Drives great. Low seat but still feels comfortable. Plenty of bells and whistles.
The Ram Promaster
Though this is the ugly duckling of the three vans (seriously, it’s very ugly) it is actually the widest of them all and can easily sleep a 6-foot person width-wise if built out correctly. The Ram Promaster is also the most affordable of the three and also boasts straight walls. Though it is my least favorite, it can still be exactly what you need!
- Engine: Gas 3.6L V6 (17 mpg)
- Diesel 3.0L V6 (20 mpg)
- Bodies: 136” WB, 18’ long (352.9 cu ft)
- 159” WB, 19’ long (420.2 cu ft)
- 159” WB, 21’ long (462.8 cu ft)
- Ground clearance: 6.9in
- Front wheel drive
- Interior height: 6’2
- Interior width: 73”
- Straight-ish walls and extra wide
- 5-year 100,000 mile warranty
- This van is as uncomfortable as it is ugly. The cockpit area didn’t have much thought put into it.
I didn’t post prices because they fluctuate so much between models, engine, accessories, etc…
These are just the big three. There are so many other new vans that you can go with. You can get a Ford Econoline 4×4 (my personal favorite) and put a bubble or pop top on it. You can build out a Scion XB or Honda Element. I’ve even met someone who lived in a Honda Fit and my friend David is currently living and traveling in a Subaru. The world is your oyster. Don’t be scared to crack it open and try something new and crazy!
How to choose which one!?
This is completely up to you and that’s the greatest part about the vanlife. No two vans are exactly the same (unless you get it professionally built) and no two vans are for the same person. If you’re 6’2, go with the Transit, since it has the most interior height. Maybe you really need the 5-year warranty with the Promaster? As money goes, the Sprinter and Transit are comparable, but the Promaster is easily the cheapest. Building on straight walls is a lot easier, but the Sprinter has been around for the longest and has a great reputation. Remember, this is your decision, nobody knows what is best for you, but I really hope the information laid out above can ease the decision-making process.
Choosing a used van to live in
There are WAY too many options and I can probably write a full dissertation on this alone. Old school buses, ambulances and handicapped vans are just some of the choices you have. Not to mention the quintessential vanlife van, the Westfalia. That’s actually the one that started it for me.
When I had a home in San Diego I purchased a 1988 Volkswagen Westfalia (named Vande) and started taking her to Joshua tree and other climbing destinations. It wasn’t long before I was spending more time in my van than I did my home and decided to go a bit bigger and bit more full-time. The good thing about choosing a Westy is that they are easy to work on. They WILL break, of course, but you can fix it all yourself. If you are ok with having a low roof (true dirtbag) cargo van. Your options are endless. You can even get a 4×4 for a reasonable price.
The key thing to make sure before your purchase is obviously the mileage, where it comes from and rust. Delivery companies work their vehicles hard and should probably be avoided. Local delivery companies are a little easier on their vans, but probably don’t maintain them as well as large companies. Most cargo vehicles are pretty beat up in their lifetimes, so just take your time and find the right one. Rust is cancer on a vehicle. You’ll want to pay close attention to floorboards and window liners. If rust is not quickly removed it can spread and “kill” your van before you know it. Also, be aware that rust is geographical. Places that don’t have annual snowfall don’t use salt in their roads. Without the presence of an electrolyte, you’ll have FAR less corrosion. So keep your eyes peeled and search far and wide because your dream home on wheels is out there!
Please don’t hesitate to email me with any questions! I’ll get to them as fast as I can.