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. Update: we recently purchased a standup Ram Promaster with a 136 inch wheelbase.

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. Update: The 136″ wheelbase is the van we upgraded to!

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.

7 Queer Owned Businesses in Asheville 

We know Asheville is pretty fruity (and we love it!). That’s why we are highlighting a few fruity businesses and co-ops ripe for your picking! Keep reading to see our guest contributor, Camille Nevarez-Hernandez’s top picks for queer-owned businesses in Asheville.

Palm and Pine | 178-B Westwood Place (West Asheville)

Looking for plants, lemonade, cute sunglasses, and more? This is the place for you. This art-driven plant shop was founded by Meghan McIver and Lindsay Riley. They offer many plant-related design and maintenance services, guaranteeing to make your space a little more green and vibey. They can also ensure you have the best layout for your plants, which, let’s be honest, you’ll keep killing without their help. Stop by for a perfect place to help fix all your plant parent mistakes and educate yourself on best plant care. 

Soulful Simone Farm | Online + In store at Art Garden 191 Lyman Street (River Arts District)

This Queer Black owned flower and herb farm is run by Tamarya Sims (also known as @plantswithT on Instagram). This is a healing and educational farm offering fresh cut flowers, medicinal herbs, herbal medicine, environmental and farm education, and  safe community space for BIPOC and Queer folks. You can shop their tinctures right now at Art Garden, a cute shop featuring many local vendors. They also sell teas, salves, stickers, t-shirts, and more! Keep an eye out for their online shop opening up soon. If you want to support Soulful Simone in other ways, there are also many volunteer opportunities and a go fund me to help secure a large piece of land to expand their business even more!

Cenzontle | 528 Emma Road (Emma)

Confused by what you’re looking at? If so, let’s dive in! This is a Language Justice tool called a receiver people can use to hear live interpretation while an event is happening. Language Justice is the commitment to inclusive multilingual spaces so that we may feel free to bring our whole selves into the room. Cenzontle is a great queer-owned language justice co-op who provides interpretation services, translation services, and capacity building to organizations who are seeking to integrate Language Justice principles into their work. Working with them will ensure inclusivity of Spanish-speaking folks in your organization, community, and events. 

Torched | 1056A Haywood Rd (West Asheville)

While Torched AVL may be the new kids on the block, they’re already making a name for themselves in the Asheville art scene. The space, which aims to promote community through art, specializes in jewelry and metalsmithing classes for all skill levels. The owners Meredith Tibjash and Nora McMullen want to be the bridge for affordable and quality art classes in Asheville, offering classes in numerous mediums for a good price.Want to teach your own class? This is the perfect space to try it out; working alongside Meredith and Nora you can create your own curriculum and test run your first class! If you aren’t ready to teach  or take a class, you can ease into the space by doing a walkthrough of their gallery featuring a variety of art.

Emote | 508 Haywood Road (West Asheville)

This Queer arts and secondhand store isn’t your average shop. This West Asheville gem is a community space that hosts events ranging from music nights and poetry readings to massage pop-ups and clothing swaps. That’s not all though, they also have a rotating mix of artists who set up booths to sell their own merchandise at the front of the store. My two favorite things about Emote are their “name your own price” rack, which makes sure everyone can shop their cute items regardless of price, and the Asheville for Justice rack. All the proceeds from that rack go to Asheville for Justice, a local mutual aid network. Make sure to check them out to get the flyest fits in town. 

Firestorm 610 Haywood Rd (West Asheville)

This Queer-operated bookstore co-op and social movement space has been around since 2008. You can [lit]erally spend hours looking through their books, many of which are written by Queer authors. You can find titles that range from prison abolition and mutual aid to fiction novels (to escape from the world for a little while). There’s also an extensive section for the kiddos. Only calling Firestorm a bookstore and failing to mention all the community work they do would be a disservice to everyone, though. This space hosts many community-oriented events like movie screenings, Political Prisoner Letter Writing sessions, Asheville Prison Books Packaging Parties, and reading groups.  If you’re looking to dig deeper into the systems we have to navigate, so make sure to stop by!

Homebody Art Collective | 1 Tingle Alley (Downtown Asheville)

This newly opened tattoo shop is home to four talented artists: J (@softanimalbody_), Gabby (@tatsbygab), Taylor (@peaceflowertattoo), and Thorn (@skunkhoney). Their dream was to build a shop where people of all body types can come and build a community centered around art. Along with adorning bodies with beautiful art, this space will be used to host community events, organize fundraisers for mutual aid, and showcase local artists!

7 Queer Owned Businesses in Asheville Recap

Editor’s note: While there are tons of businesses in Asheville to choose from, sometimes (okay, often) we want to visit places that do more than just allow us into them. What feels the best to us is when a place is also affirming which is why we chose to highlight queer-owned businesses in Asheville. Stay tuned as we continue to update our page on LGBTQ+ safe spaces and businesses here. And as always, leave a comment, pin, share, or save for later. Like this? Check out some of Camille’s other work: 7 Best Latinx Restaurants in Asheville, NC

Camille Nevarez-Hernandez (she/her/ella) I’m a Puerto Rican visual storyteller who values community, creativity, and breaking down barriers. I love to capture raw moments and culture through my pictures. Due to moving around a lot while growing up, I don’t have a set place I fully call home – I find home in the people I meet, the food I eat, and the moments I experience. I’m passionate about documenting anything and everything that encompasses. I am open to doing jobs around photography, writing and video production. 

Van Life with a Dog

I’ll never forget the day we got Maggie. We’d gone to Blue Ridge Pride Festival on a Saturday and I spotted her from afar. I didn’t want to get attached because I didn’t think, realistically, we’d adopt her. I thought she was really cute and chill in the crowd but it seemed unlikely we’d get her. But the next morning Caroline woke up wanting to go get her. And lucky for us, she hadn’t found a home yet. One of the main reasons we didn’t get a dog was the responsibility that comes with having one. And we knew we wanted to continue to travel. Still, we’ve had her for several months now and we’ve adjusted. And we’re finally ready to share some of our travel tips regarding van life with a dog.

Our Van Life Dog

Maggie is a rescue dog. Prior to living with us, she spent most of her life in a cage. Her teeth are really worn down and several had to be removed. The rescue place thinks she tried to escape by chewing out. We’re actually unsure how old she is. The vet thinks somewhere in between 6 and 8 years. If I had to guess I’d say she’s closer to 8. My brother and sister and their partners gave us a dog DNA test and it came back that she is 50% Cattle Dog and 50% Miniature Schnauzer! As for weight, she’s about 32 pounds.

Tips for Van Life With a Dog

Sure, some of the basics to van life apply but there are additional things that you need to consider when traveling with a dog. Here’s ours below:

Choose Your Dog and Your Van Wisely

So, first off, we have a dog! And she is perfect for us. She likes hiking, is a great car rider, and is low-key during the day. When we got Maggie we knew we wanted to continue to travel but our Ram Promaster City camper van conversion is small. And though she’s a medium-sized dog, when we travel, the van is loaded. There also isn’t much room on the bed to squeeze a dog. And forget about having room for a dog bed. Or on the front seat at night (that’s where we keep all the displaced gear). So we started looking around for used vans. It was something we’d been talking about for a while anyway. Maggie was just an inspiration to do it a little faster than we’d planned.

So I started looking around for vans. And the one we purchased, though used, is low-mileage and one you can stand up in. You can read more about the specifics of our Ram Promaster 1500 Camper Van Conversion here if you like. And we’ve expanded the footprint of our space so that we can now comfortably accommodate two humans and one dog on our van travels.

Be Aware of the Temperatures

Our camper van has a Maxx Air Fan which helps to keep air flow moving. It also has an Espar D2L gas heater that keeps things cozy. We’ve tested it on several occasions in temperatures that were in the teens and it kept the inside of the van nice and warm. This is great because we want to keep not only ourselves, but our dog, safe during winter travels. On the opposite side of the spectrum, when it gets hot out we’ll have to rely on shade, our fan, blackout shades for the windows, and cross ventilation. At least until we can get an air conditioner in our van. We’ll also plan to travel to spots where the temperatures are naturally cooler. So you won’t find us in Moab for the summer ever again haha.

One thing pet owners should not do is leave their dog in a hot or cold environment, even with the windows cracked. It’s not safe as things can heat up or get cold very quickly. Over half of the states in the US have laws saying it’s illegal to leave your pet in a car unattended.

Create Signs to Let Passerby Know Your Dog is Safe

The guy we bought our Ram Promaster camper van from recommended we make some signs to stick in the windows to let people know that if they hear a dog in the van, it’s ok. So we did. They’re simple but we hope that it alleviates some stranger from worrying and then breaking into our van to “rescue” our dog. If you ever see this sign in our van please know Maggie has access to plenty of water and that temps inside are safe for her.

Bring Your Dog’s Favorite Food, Treats, and Toys on the Road

This might sound really obvious but we’ve met a few pet owners who have shared that they had to get food for their dog on the road because they ran out. Doesn’t sound like a big deal but for dogs with sensitive stomachs, it may take them a bit to transition to a different kind of food if you can’t find your old kind. Read: you may be letting them out of the van at three in the morning to vomit or have diarrhea. Or, they may just not have an appetite. We keep our food in a big container and bring enough with us so that we can keep Maggie on her regular diet. And we bring a few of her favorite toys because we assume, like her, that she likes something that reminds her of home. Oh, and one other thing: pack lots of dog poop bags!

See The Vet, Pack Their Meds

If you’re just going for a weekend trip, a trip to the vet might not be warranted. But if you’re going off on a several month road trip or even planning on moving into your van full time you may want to make a stop at the vet before all of your life changes. Why? Well, it helps to know that your dog is in great condition. Not only for peace of mind, but also because their regular vet will be familiar with them in a way that a vet on the road won’t be. And be sure to stock up on their flea and tick, heartworm pills, and any other must-haves.

Stow Your Dog’s Paperwork With Your Passport

If you’re planning on driving into a different country in your van, you may have to show your dog’s paperwork before you can enter. We recommend keeping it with your passport so that both can be found at the same time. It doesn’t hurt to make a copy of both, too, just in case.

Plan To Stop Often

Maggie’s first real road trip was from Asheville to Atlanta which typically is a three-and-a-half-hour drive. We ended up stopping once to let Maggie take a bathroom break so it wasn’t too bad. Her second road trip was from Asheville to Delaware which is about 9 hours. With Maggie, it took closer to 10 hours. We stopped roughly every 2.5 hours so she could walk, pee, and get a drink.

Get a White Noise Machine

The first night we went camping in our van we were in a state park not far from home. Maggie did great on the ride out there as well as the hike around the campground. We’d arrived in the dark so it wasn’t too long before we were climbing into bed. Well turns out Maggie was feeling hyper-alert. She barked at every single random noise she heard outside as well as people that passed by. We ended up putting our shades in the windows so she couldn’t see people and turning our fans on so that she had a little background noise. And it worked. Now, when we get ready for bed, we do both of those things even when we’re in a private area and it seems to help.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Before we ever took a several hours long road trip we did short trips around town. Maggie showed a lot of interest in car rides and didn’t seem to get car sick so we started taking her almost everywhere with us. So in many ways she was ready for van life. If you’re able, start out slow with your dog and treat it like a fun time. Then, gradually increase the amount of time that your dog can do in the van. Maggie loves this part of her life so much that all you have to do is say “car ride” and she’s ready to roll.

Van Life with a Dog Recap

If you’ve made it this far you’re probably ready to travel with your dog in your van. We get it! It’s one of the most rewarding experiences we’ve had as travelers. The dog life is for me. Though it’s a bit more work than traveling without a pet, there’s no way we’d ever go back. Thanks for reading and if you have any tips on how to do van life with a dog, we’d love to hear about ’em in the comments below!

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