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?
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?
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?
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.
19 thoughts on “How to Choose a Van for Van Life”
I’m 62 years old and have a 2015 Dodge ProMaster Van I’m currently working on the getting it converted to live in, less than 7000 miles on it,I can’t wait to get on the road!!!
Excellent! Sounds awesome. How far along in the process are you? And where will you go on your first adventure?
I wished for an extended mini-van, and I got one! I bought a new Nissan NV200, chopped off the back door assembly just aft of the side windows, and extended the van 30 inches. With some professional body work, it looks like factory. Now we have room for a dinette, a full size bed which rises to the ceiling, sink, wet toilet/shower, microwave, refrigerator, AC and house battery. All of that in a stealth parking lot camper that gets about 23mpg. A lot of work, but we love it. 💘
Hey Barry – thanks for your comments! Glad to hear you’ve had a positive experience with the NV200. The back sounds super interesting. Do you have photos? Sounds like a great build and the gas mileage is incredible with the size of the vehicle. so glad you’re happy with it. did you consider the transit or promaster at all?
I’ve been dreaming about van life for a long time. I’ve been carefully researching options. Thank you for your perspective.
You’re welcome! Think van life is something you’ll continue to pursue in the new year? If so, what van?!
That is a tough decision! Of course I love Sprinter vans, but like you wrote they are expensive. I am keeping an eye out for a good used Sprinter van with low miles. We have a friend who uses a Sprinter van for his flooring business, and he loves it. My partner’s mom works for a Dodge dealership, so I believe we could get a discount on a new ProMaster. After reading your post and doing other research, I think we need the higher roofline. I want to love out of the van for months at a time in the summer, and everyone seems to wish they could stand up in their vans if they live out of the lower roofline models.
Yeah we love the sprinters as well. Just spent some time in a stand up Ram Promaster. Review will be coming out soon so stay tuned!
Great post on vans. Thanks
You’re welcome! You contemplating getting into one for travel?
I am! Me and my husband are hoping to leave late Summer 2019☺️
Ah, that’s amazing! Congrats! Just started following your blog so hope to keep up with your adventures. What kind of van?
Love this! Working on a post about our experience with our travel trailer and you bring up some great points here.
Thank you! Looking forward to reading your post! When do you leave for Death Valley? And will you be traveling with the trailer?
Which van is that in the main picture in the article?! I want to convert a van so I can so extended long road trips / outdoor trips.
It’s a Volkswagon Synchro. It was four wheel drive but I unfortunately don’t remember the year. We saw it at the Asheville Van Life festival and the owner was kind enough to allow me to sit in it! Best of luck in converting and finding your van!