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How to Choose a Van for Van Life

Ready for a new adventure? One that involves travel? And possibility living out of your van? We’ve spent many, many hours discussing, processing, debating and learning about how and what kind of van we should get for van life. In this post we discuss some of the questions we’ve wrestled with ourselves. Answering them should help you narrow the decision making process and get a van that suits your needs: How to Choose a Van for Van Life. Already picked a vehicle? Head on over to our thoughts on outfitting the inside of your home on wheels.

What’s the best van for van life?

Best Van for Van Life | Authentic Asheville.jpg
Who doesn’t love the look of this van?!

Is it a vintage VW? A mini van? A cargo van from the 90’s? The long and short answer is that the best van for you might be the worst van for someone else. (We’re making the assumption that you’ve decided to actually live in a van and have already ruled out school buses, RV’s, truck campers, etc.) Vehicle choice is a personal decision and one that is going to take a good bit of time to figure out. For starters, though, we’ve found that the following questions are good jumping off points for figuring how to choose the best van for van life.

How much money do you want to spend?

The answer to this question is one of the most important when it comes to figuring out how to choose a van for van life. Your budget is definitely going to impact your options. You might be lusting after a 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter van with clearance, a hitch, a bamboo ceiling and all kinds of internal wiring as well as solar BUT if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it. Figure out how much money you have (or want to spend) on a van and go from there. There are so many options these days that figuring out your budget is going to be one of the first steps in narrowing your options.

In addition, a new van is likely going to be more expensive than a used van. That said, if you have the experience necessary to fix up a used van, you might be able to save a lot of money by buying a vehicle someone else has given up on. We’ve had two vintage vehicles but we will never go down that route again. Lesson learned! We dumped way too much money into them and ended up abandoning both.

Also, when it comes to money, think about gas mileage. Our Dodge Ram Promaster City gets pretty good gas mileage. It averages about 24 miles per gallon. If you think you’ll be doing a lot of driving, this might be a question to really ask yourself when trying to decide which van to choose for van life.

Starting prices for our top three van life vehicles are below.

Will you be living in the van full-time?

This is another one of the critical questions to ask when deciding which is the best van for van life. Part-time adventures mean you can have a rig that maybe isn’t the perfect fit  but it’s close enough because you can problem-solve relatively easily. For example: the van is missing a shower but you’ll mostly be staying at campgrounds so it’s not a big deal. Or, it’s lacking electrical wiring but you’ll only be using it on weekends so you can bring most of your gear fully charged.

How many people and pets will be traveling?

Space needs will be different based on how many people and pets you plan to travel with. The fewer the people and paws, the less space you will need. Space needs include seats, seatbelts, sleeping spaces, food storage spaces, gear storage spaces, etc … all of which expand as you add more bodies to the trip. We traveled with a dog for a while in our 1976 Toyota Chinook but it was tight. For the last year it’s just been the two of us. We’ve managed to cut down on how much space we’ll need by decluttering (more on that HERE) and making sure that almost everything in the van has at least two purposes.

Do you need to stand up?

What's the Best Van for Van Life | Authentic Asheville
We drove across the country and back in this van and are thankful for good gas mileage!

At first I wrote, ‘Do you want to stand up’ but then I realized, almost everyone is going to want that. It’s one of the main reasons we have outgrown our van (pictured above.) Most of the time being able to stand up isn’t an issue but it really gets the best of us when the weather is bad and we’re cooking and making coffee outside. But purchasing a high roof van is going to impact how much it costs. There are different options for van height but, basically, the taller you go, the more it’s going to cost. That goes for both the cost of the van as well as gas mileage. That said, if you’re only going to be weekending or taking short trips in your van, you might not need the extra height.

Do looks matter?

What the van looks like really comes down to personal preference. For the longest time I really wanted to get a VW van. I just love the way they look. But when it came time to choosing a van, the practical side of things took over. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice reliability for something that looked really great on Instagram. Maybe you are? (Especially if you’re handy with tools and love a good project. In all honestly, I’ll probably always love the way a VW looks but will never own one because I’m too afraid of the costs.) One look at Pinterest will show you that the sky is the limit when it comes to van life aesthetics. That said, often the most affordable rigs are really, really ugly. (A quick scan on Craigslist is bound to turn up all kinds of examples.)

What are your van life needs?

How to Choose the Best Van for Van Life | Authentic Asheville
Making coffee in the rain is one of the drawbacks to a smaller van.

Some van lifers can get by with fewer amenities than others. We have traveled for over a year without a bathroom or running water. There are lots of different hacks to staying clean on the road but if you can get away without a bathroom, you’re going to save yourself money and valuable space.

Another question to ask yourself is whether or not you’ll want a sink, or electricity, running water, a bed that you don’t have to break down or not. The answers to each of these questions is going to impact the amount of space you’ll need and therefore the size of your vehicle.

Conversion kit or DIY van life build?

Another super important question to consider when trying to narrow down which van to choose is whether or not you’ll be using a conversion kit or doing the build yourself. A conversion kit will take a lot less time to install (this means getting on the road faster) but it can potentially cost more money than doing it yourself. A DIY build, however, requires having the skills to do the work or learning them. In addition, building your own van out requires time, tools and the space to do it.

There’s plenty of options when it comes to custom builds but if you’re trying to keep costs low, you can pretty much cross this option off your list. The minute you go custom, the costs start skyrocketing. We’ll post more about the interiors of different vans and their options. For now, we’re going to just stick on the vehicle itself.

Gas or diesel?

Ah, the debates for this one seem to go round and round. Especially on reddit. Personally, we’re big proponents of gas engines. The main reason for us isn’t actually fuel economy or torque (we’re not going to be towing anything) but it’s that we don’t want to have to stress about being able to find a diesel mechanic if we break down.

So, what’s the best van for van life?

Since you made it this far you probably guessed we were going to say “it depends” when it comes to choosing the best van for van life. It’s really all about your needs as van lifers (or weekend users) which are different from one person to the next. But we’ve narrowed our top picks to three:

Dodge Ram Promaster City

This is what we’ve been traveling in for about a year. You can read a ton more about it by checking out our Van Life page. It’s got a Wayfarer Plug-N-Player Camp Conversion Kit in it. It’s great for people who are on the smaller side (especially if there are two of you traveling). It is also great if you are wanting a daily driver (meaning that your van will double as your regular vehicle) and want to still get fairly good gas mileage. It’s also the most affordable option of all the ones listed below. It’s starting price new back in 2018 was $23,995. These days you can get a used one for much less. Full disclosure: We’ve had some issues with our van. We finally decided to write about it. You can learn more here on our post Problems with the Ram Promaster City.

Dodge Ram Promaster 1500 with a high roof

This is the bigger sibling to the Dodge Ram Promaster City. You can stand up in this van and spread out a bit more (it’s got a super boxy shape to it.) If you’re wondering why we like this one over the Ford Transit, it’s mostly because the base models come with more things than the base models of the Transits. In addition, we like the look of it a tad more than the Ford, it has a few more inches of roof height and we can get a Wayfarer kit for this van. It’s starting price new is $32,695. Again, this is for a high roof. The standard sized roof Promaster starts at $29,295.

Mercedes Sprinter Van

We never really considered buying a new Mercedes Sprinter van because it’s a big jump up in price from the Dodge. Not only does the cost go up for the vehicle itself, but it also prices the conversion kits and van life builds in a much higher group. Rising costs = rising panic. That said, if you can find a used one that hasn’t been in an accident and has low mileage, you might have found a winner. We think it’s a great vehicle and it makes the list because, even though it’s out of our budget, it’s still a great vehicle. New Mercedes Sprinters start at around $36,495.

All of the above vehicles we mentioned above are at the 2018 models.

Additional Camper Van Resources

How to Choose a Van for Van Life Recap

There’s obviously lots to think about when it comes to figuring out which is the best van for van life. Hopefully the information above helps you in choosing a vehicle that fits your needs. If you’ve already picked a great van for van life, hop on over to our next post in this series about Custom Builds, DIY Van Conversion and Conversion Kits.

Still not sure which van to choose? It’s helpful to try them out. Luckily there are numerous companies out there that rent vans so you can test them out for a weekend or a week-long adventure (even more) to see which ones suit you best. Learn more on our post about the 7 Best Camper Van Rental Companies.

In addition, be sure to check out the full list of van life posts HERE.

Authentic Asheville is a team of two. We are freelance Squarespace web designers, photographers, writers and content creators.

Review of the Coleman Atlas Series 65-Quart Cooler With Wheels

Hey y’all! We’re back at it again with another gear review. This time the piece of gear we’re taking a look at is the Atlas Series 65-Quart Cooler With Wheels. Keep reading to see why we think this cooler is perfect for your next vacation, tailgate party, or sideline soccer game.

Specifications

Width: 22 inches
Height: 22.5 inches
Color: Dusk, aka light blue
Model year: 2022
Volume: 65-Quart

Features

Erin McGrady is in the middle of a boardwalk over water. She is pulling a blue Coleman Atlas Series 65-Quart Cooler behind her. The cooler has a black handle.
Coleman’s Atlas Series 65-Quart Cooler is perfect for a day at the lake!

Coleman’s Atlas Series 65-Quart Cooler with Wheels was designed for weekends at the lake or the beach. It’s also perfect for long days on the sidelines of your favorite sporting event. It rolls easily along the grass, pavement, and even on a boardwalk and can hold up to 50 cans of your favorite beverage as well as 32 pounds of ice. And if you’re thinking that’s amazing but I cannot carry that, you’re in luck because this cooler has wheels and a collapsible stainless steel handle that makes it easy to pull and steer, even when it’s loaded up.

In addition to the ease with which this cooler fits your life and lifestyle, the cooler’s TempLock™ FX lid and body are fully insulated. This means whatever is inside your cooler stays cold and not just for the day but for days. We tested it out on a long weekend camping trip where temps got up into the mid-sixties during the day and down into the 40s at night. We’re pleased to report that after the third day, our drinks were still cold and there was still a good bit of ice left in the cooler.

A woman in blue jeans and a grey sweatshirt reaches for a blue La Croix out of a blue Coleman cooler filled with ice. The cooler is resting on mulch and two bikes are blurred out behind the cooler.
You can fill the Coleman Atlas 65-Quart Cooler with Wheels with up to 50 cans and 32 pounds of ice!

Two additional features that we love are the antimicrobial liner and the tethered drain plug. These two features work together to keep your cooler smelling and looking fresh. Gone are the days of having a stinky, mildewy cooler. The drain plug is one of our favorite features. Some of the other coolers we’ve used in the past didn’t have a drain plug so we were constantly having to take everything out of the cooler, set it aside, tip the cooler to drain it, and then repack everything in it. As you can imagine, it was a hassle. And it got old really quickly. With the drain plug in this Coleman cooler, you no longer have to waste time emptying and repacking your cooler. You can drain anytime you want without the hassle.

Pros

Erin McGrady is pulling a blue Coleman Atlas 65-Quart Cooler down the middle of a wooden boardwalk. She has green trees all around her and there is a little bit of sky in the distance that is visible between all the trees.
The Coleman Atlas Series 65-Quart Cooler with Wheels is designed to go anywhere you want to go.

The cooler works as advertised and keeps drinks cold for days.
The telescoping handle is rust-resistant so being out in the rain or snow is not an issue because it’s designed for the outdoors!
The drain plug is super helpful in keeping food fresh.
The Coleman Atlas Series 65-Quart Cooler with Wheels is made with 15% less plastic vs. comparable Coleman coolers.
Has four drink holders on the lid.
Works well as a seat at the game or at camp.
Coleman’s Atlas Series 65-Quart cooler is super durable. We’ve dropped it, kicked it, accidentally backed into it with the van, and have left it out in the rain and it still looks and feels brand new.

Cons

It’s a little on the large side for us for extended travel in the van but it’s great for a car camping weekend.
When fully loaded with 50 cans and 32 pounds of ice, it takes two to lift it into the van. The good thing is that it’s manageable together. If for some reason one of us needed that much to drink, we’d simply put the cooler in the van first and then load it up. All in all, neither of these cons are dealbreakers for us.

Review of The Coleman Atlas Series 65-Quart Cooler With Wheels Recap

Erin McGrady is sitting on a blue Coleman Atlas 65-Quart Cooler. She is facing a lake and there are three cypress trees in the lake. She is wearing a yellow jacket and green trucker hat and jeans.
Load up your favorite food and drink and throw it in the cooler – we’re headed for the lake!

The Coleman Atlas Series 65-Quart Cooler with Wheels is an outstanding cooler for outdoor adventures; whether it’s a tailgating party, a soccer match, or a long weekend car camping trip. There are a lot of options out on the market these days for coolers but you can’t beat the value and quality that this cooler provides. It had plenty of space for the two of us but we think it could also easily serve 4-6 people for a day at the beach.

Erin McGrady is a Coleman Collective Ambassador and this is a sponsored blog post. While we genuinely love and use this product, we were paid to review and suggest the Coleman Atlas Cooler. Your support of this blog and this post means that we can continue to share about our camper van adventures in Asheville and beyond. Thank you, as always, for the read!

@colemanusa #ad #ColemanCollective

Sea To Summit Sleeping Bag and Mat Review

In this post we’re going to share our thoughts on the latest Sea To Summit Sleeping Bags and Mats. Specically, we’re taking a look at Sea To Summit’s Altitude AtII Sleeping Bag, Ascent AcII Sleeping Bag, and the Comfort Light S.I. Self Inflating Mat. Up until now we’ve been using Kelty’s Double Wide Sleeping Bag and two homemade DIY foam pads for our camper van bed. And while we’ve slept pretty good with that system, we jumped at the chance to test out other gear. Keep reading to learn about our Sea To Summit Sleeping Bag and Mat Review.

a photo of the inside of a van. there are two wooden boxes in the van and on top of them rest two teal sleeping mats. On top of the mats is, on the left, a Sea To Summit black bag containing a sleeping bag. To the right of that is a teal blue sleeping bag that is ready to be laid in.
Our camper van bed setup took 3 minutes to get the mats out and opened up and the sleeping bags pulled out of their storage bags.

Sea To Summit Altitude AtII Sleeping Bag

For starters, the Sea To Summit Altitude AtII Sleeping Bag comes in its own stuff sack and larger mesh bag. The stuff sack has a handle and a label on the outside. The mesh bag is fairly loose and easy to get the sleeping bag into. Both are great for transporting the sleeping bag though we wouldn’t recommend storing the bag in either for prolonged periods of time because like all down products, it’ll negatively impact the loft and therefore ability to keep you warm.

Sizing and Weight

The Altitude AtII bag itself is a bag specifically designed for women. It comes in two sizes, Women’s Regular and Women’s Long. We tested the Women’s Long. The Regular sized bag is suitable for people 5’7″ or 170cm or under. The Women’s Long is suitable for people who are 6″ or 183cm or under. The Long bag also has a few more inches in width. This bag weighs in at 3 pounds, 1 ounce which means it’d be great for backpacking, car camping, or even just for delivering extra warmth as you watch the sun set on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Note: If you don’t need the extra length you can cut down on weight as the Regular bag weighs 2 pounds, 13.2 ounces.

Temperature Rating

Now when it comes to sleeping bags one of the first things we take note of is the temperature rating. This one is rated down to 15°F meaning you’ll be comfortable in temps down to 15°F. I have never camped in 15°F and unless someone invites us on a winter expedition, I may never put myself in that scenario. Still, if I was, this bag would do the job as it’s lower limit is 2°F and it’s extreme limit (survival) is -37°F. As far as our purposes go, it worked great in the mid 40°F degree temperatures that we tested it in. For our three-season camper van travel pursuits, this bag will more than do the job. To be clear, though this bag is rated with some pretty extreme temperature ranges, we do not and Sea To Summit does not recommend using these bags in such extreme temperatures such as those well below freezing.

Materials and Construction

Sea To Summit Makes synthetic sleeping bags and ULTRA-DRY Down Sleeping Bags. Both of the ones we tested fall into the latter category. The ULTRA-DRY Down is not only RDS certified but it also undergoes a water-repellent treatment which helps protect the down from the elements and also condensation which is a legit challenge in a camper van. This treatment helps keep the down from taking on water, weight, and a bad smell. THERMOLITE panels can be found at your feet for additional warmth on this bag which helps keep your toes warm. One of my favorite things about this bag though is the feel of the 20D Nylon shell. It’s soft to the touch and when you’re inside, it feels super cozy and warm.

Sea To Summit Ascent AcII Sleeping Bag

Just like the Altitude AtII mentioned above, Sea To Summit has also given the Ascent AcII Sleeping bag a stuff sack and mesh bag. Similar storage guidelines apply. Side by side the Ascent AcII is smaller in size compared to the Altitude AtII.

Sizing and Weight

This bag doesn’t have a gender specification. There are, however, two options when it comes to this bag: Regular and Long. The Regular bag has a max user height of 6″ or 183cm or under while the Long bag can accommodate people who are 6’6″ or 198cm tall. We tested the Regular bag. The Ascent AcII weighs 2 pounds 10.2 ounces. It’d be perfect for both backpacking trips and camper van adventures.

Temperature Rating

The temperature rating for the Ascent AcII Sleeping Bag is similar to the Altitude AtII. Sea To Summit says you’ll be comfortable in this bag at 27°F. It has a lower limit of 15°F and an extreme rating at -19°F. What this means is that your average woman would be comfortable in this bag in air temps as low as 27°F. Your average man, however, would be comfortable in air temps as low as 15°F. This bag was perfect for our overnight camping trip in the mid-forties.

Materials and Construction

Just like the Altitude AtII, the Ascent AcII is also made with RDS Certified down that’s undergone ULTRA-DRY Down treatment. This means you’ll stay warm and also have protection against moisture. Though the Ascent AcII doesn’t have THERMOLITE panels at your feet, it is constructed with the 20D Nylon like the Altitude AtII and is just as soft against your skin.

Sea To Summit Comfort Light S.I. Sleeping Mat

a photo of a white camper van with the two back doors open wide. The sun is shining on the van. There are two wooden boxes in the photo that two teal sleeping pads rest on, side by side. Next to the wooden boxes, on the left, is a blue plastic water jug.
Unlike some of the other camper van beds we’ve tried, these pads are slim, inflatable, and easy to work with.

A sleeping bag is only part of the equation when it comes to sleeping comfortably in the outdoors. The idea goes that while you want to keep your body warm with a sleeping bag, you’ve also got to have a layer of insulation between you and the ground. Or, in our case, our bodies and the boards on the van bed. A mat or pad serves the dual purpose of keeping you warm but also offering a little extra padding.

Sea To Summit’s Comfort Light S.I Mat (Regular size) clocks in at 1 pound 5 ounces which makes it great for car camping and backpacking. The Large weights 1 pound, 9 ounces. It’s not the lightest on the market BUT it is super durable. The extra weight is well worth it and it’s due to the air proof barrier (laminate) behind it that makes this mat so durable and reliable. For us, camping in the van doesn’t mean we’re likely to puncture it on rocks or dirt, but there are some corners on the wooden boxes in our van that have snagged more than a few things. We don’t have to worry about that with this mat. Plus, if we do want to have a layer between us and then ground when eating or relaxing outdoors, we can do so on this mat.

Another great feature about this mat is that it’s self-inflating. This means you don’t have to carry a pump or make yourself dizzy blowing it up. When filled with air, the R-value is 3.7. The pad is shaped like a mummy which helps reduce weight and bulk but if you’re the kind of person who will be doing mostly car camping you might want some additional surface area and padding. But for the person who will do a combination of backpacking and car camping this is a great option.

The Comfort Light S.I. Mat has grippy silicon design on the bottom so that the mat stays in place. This is a great feature to have because it eliminates the annoying ‘walking’ mat that requires constant adjustments.

Two hands hold a teal blue sleeping pad. the hand on the left cradles the pad while the hand on the right holds open the valve.
The Sea To Summit Mat is self-inflating. It’s also easy to get the air out of the mat when it’s time to pack up.

The first time you use this self-inflating mat, you’ll need a few hours for it to expand and inflate. After that, it won’t take hours. It’ll be ready for use by the time you finish setting up the rest of your camp. And if not, the inflation valve is easy to blow into if you want to speed up the inflation process. When it’s time to head home, the air releases out of the mat fairly easily. Unlike other sleeping pads, this one didn’t fight too hard with us to go back into the bag.

Bonus: each mat comes with it’s own patch kit in case you snag it on a rock and create a small puncture. Also, the mats are available in a regular and long length. We have one of each to pair with the regular and long length sleeping bags.

Recap of the Sea To Summit Sleeping Bag and Mat Review

Aesthetically speaking, we really love the way the Sea To Summit Sleeping Bags and Mats look. They come in bright, vibrant colors that not only look stylish and modern but that helped make our photographs pop.

Though we love that these mummy-style sleeping bags keep us warm, our favorite feature was that the zippers coupled up meaning we could pair them up with one another and create a double-wide bag that we could both fit in. Yay cuddling!

Our second favorite feature, also found on both bags, is the large internal pocket. You can access it without having to unzip the bag. It’s great for storing your phone and for us, keeping our camera batteries warm.

Ready to buy? Want to learn more? Click on each link below on Sea To Summit’s website:

Seat To Summit Altitude AtII Sleeping Bag
Sea To Summit Ascent Ascent AcII Sleeping Bag
Sea To Summit Comfort Light S.I. Sleeping Mat

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