The internet loves #vanlife. #westielife, #RVliving, and so on and so forth are popular too. Maybe you’re starting to contemplate some time on the road yourself but there are so many choices: a Sprinter? A basic delivery van? A camper? Another RV?
I’ve done a fair amount of living and and traveling in a vehicle and there are pros and cons to pretty much anything you choose. The most important suggestion I can make is to not get too attached to any particular form of conveyance. Until you figure out your travel style and what is important to you, you won’t really know what the most practical choice is for you. Keeping your investment minimal can allow you to switch vehicle forms as you sort all that out. (But although totally impractical, if anyone wants to buy me a Pendleton Airstream, $120k, I wouldn’t be opposed).
Without any more ado, I present to you…
3Up Adventures Vehicle Living Comparison
I traveled in a Sprinter van with my ex from November 2013 until late January of 2014. We had purchased the Sprinter with an eye to traveling to Alaska the following summer, a trip covering a huge number of miles and making the fuel mileage of the Sprinter a real boon.
Pros: Fuel mileage. Our 2002 Sprinter would regularly get about 26-28 mpg as long as we were driving about 55mph. I’m a firm believer that for the budget conscious adventure traveler driving a bit slower to maximize your fuel dollar is totally worth it.
Head room. Being able to stand up is a really amazing thing in your travel vehicle. Although by no means a requirement, over the long haul putting your clothes on or cooking dinner without being stooped over is a really nice option.
Comfortable driving arrangement. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a more comfortable long haul road trip vehicle. When we purchased the Sprinter, we drove it from Florida to Idaho in just three days with a little time set aside to visit friends and I have no complaints about long hours in the drivers and passenger seats.
Impressive ground clearance. For a 2wd van, the Sprinter has pretty impressive ground clearance. Our Sprinter made a jaunt up Baby Lion’s Back in Moab just to prove that it could. Although too top heavy and lacking 4wd capabilities, with tall skinny tires we found that we weren’t very limited at all.
Durability. Early Sprinter (T1N) motors were known for their durability, many running to 500,000 miles. Transmissions are generally expected to last 250,000 miles.
Cons: Expense. Sprinters are expensive. Although they get pretty solid fuel mileage, you pay for that savings up front. It takes a significant number of miles driven to make up the extra cost of the vehicle. Sprinters do retain much of their value and you might recoup a significant portion of that extra capital cost when you sell the vehicle it can be an uncertain proposition depending on how long you keep the vehicle and what condition it is in. If you’re looking to someone else to do your conversion work for you, you can add to an already significant capital expenditure
Maintenance. This point is largely addressed in my post “Is A Sprinter For You?” but it is worth mentioning that a mechanical breakdown can be an expensive proposition if you aren’t able to handle the repair yourself. Even if you are a competent mechanic, parts for a Sprinter are more expensive than for a delivery van and a hefty repair bill can put a damper on adventures in a hurry. Since Sprinters have become very common I’d imagine that finding a mechanic familiar with them isn’t as hard as it once might have been but still might pose a problem.
Creature comforts. For my ex-partner, the lack of bathroom meant forgoing a luxury they really appreciated. This is a sticking point for some people and not for others. I found that for me this wasn’t ever a really major issue. I didn’t spend much of my van time in areas where this actually was a problem. (#backpacking experience FTW) I did, miss a comfortable place to sit and read or type that wasn’t in bed, an option I experienced in other configurations. We did have swivel seats which helped a bit and I probably could have come up with a good table option to fix this issue. We did purchase a Mr. Buddy Heater for use in the Sprinter but never got a chance to test out how effective it was at heating the space.
Note: A Roadteck or Winnebago type Class B conversion might have a bathroom and feel really fancy but they’re really heavy and gas mileage will take a significant hit. Although their mid-teens fuel mileage certainly beats a full size RV, it comes no where close to a lighter DIY conversion. Additionally, that extra weight puts more strain on the drive train (specifically the transmission) and can lead to earlier failures of parts.
Chevy Van (or Ford or Dodge):
Pros: Inexpensive. A gas powered Chevy van can be a really affordable option to hit the road. If you’re okay with simplicity, these plentiful vehicles can be converted quickly and you can hit the road with gas money in your pocket.
Fuel mileage. But wait? Didn’t I claim fuel mileage to be a Sprinter advantage? If gas is cheaper than diesel, getting 18-22mpg in a gas powered vehicle might be a better deal than 22-27mpg in a diesel Sprinter.
Parts & maintenance. Due to their ubiquity, parts for Chevy/GMC vans (a GMC Savanah and a Chevy Express are the same thing mechanically), are fairly inexpensive. You may be able to do the maintenance yourself or finding a mechanic should be a cinch.
Cons: Headroom. Being hunched over in your vehicle gets old. While you’re hopefully spending a lot of time outside adventuring, sometimes you’re stuck inside working, sheltering from the weather, or cooking and being stooped is less than fun.
Creature comforts. See Sprinter cons.
Pros: Comfortable. The camper had a refrigerator, a table, a bathroom, a cooktop (many even have an oven), and a heater. Our bed was always made and was out of the way.
4-wheel drive possiblities. I’d been really insistent that we find a 4wd truck for this project because I felt that we were getting our 2wd vans into situations where it would be really nice to have that extra bit of security. It was nice a few times but mostly the camper was too big for us to get where it was really helpful (see cons).
Not too big. For the relative creature comfort of the camper, we didn’t take on too much of a hit on size (there were some, see cons). There was a lot of storage (and in our flatbed configuration there was a lot).
Fuel mileage. Depending on the size of the camper, they can get really heavy. The Lance 825 that I traveled in was really lightweight and small compared to many other options so it didn’t impact our fuel mileage too terribly but most full size trucks don’t get amazing mileage so this can start to add up.
Cons: It’s pretty tall. The downside of our flatbed configuration was that it put the camper up really high. This made going down some Forest Service roads sort of hard as we tried to avoid damaging the camper.
Fuel mileage. There are pros and cons (see pros).
The dog is underfoot. I’m mostly kidding here but because the amount of floor space in the camper is tiny the dog was even more under foot than usual.
Travel Trailer (large):
Pros: I actually don’t have much that is positive to say about the toy hauler. We carried our toys with us which was nice but a small trailer behind the truck and camper was a much nicer option that accomplished about the same thing.
It had an oven, although again, many campers have that as well. Same thing goes for the bathroom (the large storage closet in the bathroom though was kind of cool: we rocked a gear closet in our mobile living space).
Cons: It was too big to heat efficiently and because of all the empty space around the bikes and the quad it just felt empty and kind of sad most of the time. (It was kind of cool to drop the back open on warm days though.)
Fuel mileage was dismal and it was just too damn big. We’d hoped to just move sometimes and mostly use the truck and our toys to explore but the simple fact is that I like wandering around too much for that. It cost us an arm and a leg to move plus we couldn’t get it into the good spots.
Travel Trailer (Scamp or other fiberglass):
Pros: ADORABLE. I seriously loved the Scamp so much. It wasn’t really meeting our needs at the time but I think SP and I would rock one with the XJ right now really well.
Compact. At only 13′ the Scamp was small and maneuverable yet it still had all the necessities inside. It had the dinette that I really liked in the camper, TONS of light (best in class with this!), the ability to stand up, a refrigerator and a really respectable amount of storage for its size.
Fuel mileage. We didn’t tow it like normal people for any long distances with the TJ so I don’t have a really good estimate on how it affected fuel mileage (we did, however, tow it across Arizona rather unconventionally) but I imagine that it probably wouldn’t be too big of a problem since they are SO LIGHT. Ours only weighed about 1200 pounds because it was so simple; newer ones with AC units and awnings (which I wouldn’t recommend) weigh about 1500. I would love to do a fuel mileage test with Ruth the XJ!
Cons: No bathroom. If this is really a con for you, current Scamp floor plan options have versions with a bathroom. This would reduce the “open” feeling that I loved so much but the loss of under bench storage would probably be made up for by the gain of an extra closet if a bathroom is really a big deal to you.
Trailer. It is a trailer and that does sort of reduce mobility. We also discovered that the frames are pretty lightweight for frequent off road use, however, the Jeep + Scamp size combination is only beat out by a van for off road maneuverability. They are much shorter than a full size travel trailer or the camper plus their lightweight nature makes them really easy to hookup and unhook leaving you with a Jeep (or a Subaru or a Toyota or whatever else floats your boat).
Straight up vehicle living (Cherokee, pickup, 4-Runner, Land Cruiser, etc.):
Pros: You’re in your vehicle, no encumbrances, no extra fluff. If you’re 4wd equipped you can just go (and often find yourself waking up to amazing views).
Fuel mileage: Okay fine, this pro is relative but I’ll happily take the fuel mileage of my XJ (18-25mpg) especially when I consider that I have full 4wd capabilities at my disposal all of the time.
It might already be sitting in your driveway. For all the glamour of being able to use the hashtag #vanlife on your custom build, I see way too many vans be built but then the builder either doesn’t use them or has spent way more on the conversion than they planned and can’t travel. You probably already know the maintenance concerns of your vehicle and they can be cheaper to fix (although not always) than a truck or van you purchase for a specific use. The lack of specific investment can also make it an excellent choice for seasonal or temporary mobile living.
Cons: Space. It’s a lot more like organized long term camping. You don’t have a nice table to sit at or a refrigerator or a bed you can sit up in and so on. This can kind of suck on a rainy day, although you have the flexibility to just drive to a coffee shop.
Bathroom/kitchen. Similarly to the space issue you’re going to have to do all of this outside your vehicle but if you’re only out for a couple of weeks at a time or maybe one big special trip, it might be cost effective to use the vehicle you already have.
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