Vehicle Living: What Route Is Right For You?

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

| SPRINTER | CARGO VAN | TRUCK CAMPER |

|LARGE TRAILER | SMALL TRAILER |CAR/TRUCK|

Sprinter Van:

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.

ConsHeadroom. 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.

Truck Camper:

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.

This post contains affiliate links that help fund 3Up’s adventures!

Building A Van For $200

After putting together our awesome Sprinter and working hard on the Scamp, we were anxious to get on the road and didn’t want to spend tons of time working on the Chevy. After traveling off and on for the last few months we have a pretty good idea of what is really necessary in a van to be comfortable and live on the road. We were also attracted by the challenge of building out this van as affordably as possible (see yesterday’s post) as an exercise in what it really takes to hit the road.

We purchased 3/8″ sheeting for the floor and installed it directly on top of the sheet metal. The bed is 3/4″ A/C plywood (11 layers!) cut to fit the sides of the van (our van tapered about 1″ from front to rear); conveniently, the left over plywood was the right height to support the bed below our torsos (placement was determined by the width of our storage totes).

There are a few key items that you probably need inside your van. The items we chose to include in our budget breakdown are things that we’ve judged to be necessary to “make the jump” to living in your van comfortable. There are always ways pare down and make the entry costs cheaper and never ending ways to make things more complicated or expensive—these just represent our thoughts on the matter.

Budget Van Build:

  • 2 sheets 3/8″ sheeting for floor: $36 (Home Depot)
  • Box of self tapping screws for floor: $6 (Home Depot)
  • 1 sheet 3/4 A-C plywood for bed: $34 (Home Depot)
  • Two burner propane stove: $25 used (garage sales, Craigslist) or $40 new.

A single burner can also work but for minimal extra cost two burners can be quite nice. 1 pound propane cylinders will work just fine and you can upgrade to a 5 pound container when you can. We’re actually just cooking with my backpacking stove outside the van right now, so whatever you’ve got will get you on the road!

  • Cabinet: $15 (garage sales)
  • Futon mattress: $40 (thrift store, Craigslist)

Non-spring mattresses can be trimmed with a razor blade to fit around ribs in the van body. A full-size futon will hang over a plywood bed (48″ wide) but at 54″ this size works fine. Or just cut it down and resew the cover.

This is one of the vandwelling necessities we already had. Any clean container will work but having a good supply of water on hand is key! We keep 4 1L Nalgene containers full for drinking water and cooking and refill them from our large container.

Here’s something that you probably don’t need to get started but being able to charge a computer while going down the road is really important to us—and probably to lots of potential van dwellers

  • LED dome replacement lights: $6 (eBay)

Since you’ll be going in and out of your vehicle a fair amount, switching the dome lights to LEDs (or simply removing the fuse for them) will probably save you from killing your van battery repeatedly.

Total van build: $208

So You Want To Live In A Van…

The open road is calling your name but how do you even begin? There’s more than one way to live in a van.

There’s the $120K Roadtrek way:

There’s the DIY Sprinter conversion way ($15-25K):

And then, there’s the budget way ($1-4K):

We recently purchased a 2001 Chevy Express contractor van with 118,000 miles for $2500. For this build, we decided to do a budget build to figure out what’s really necessary to live in a van.

Budget vans come in all varieties, most common being the cargo van although conversion models are also available. Among cargo vans, budget options vary from $1000 older or high mileage vehicles to $4000 low mileage late models.

Although there are cheaper options out there, we decided to go with the newer van because of several factors. The newer van has a few more creature comforts: it is quieter and rides more smoothly. Our 2001 with the 5.0L V8 gets 20MPG which is as good as it gets for a gas powered van. Some mechanical improvements also make the newer models desirable; for example, the transmission is much stronger and modern fuel injection. Parts are widely available in junk yards and are more likely to be in stock at auto parts stores. This van has a high stealth factor for exploring towns and cities. A 1991 “Free candy” van sticks out a lot more.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue with a look at how to build a Budget Van.. for less than $200!

Van Updates

While I was playing in the Cabinets, Forrest hung out with Ezra in Oregon last week to work on the cabinets. It came back looking like a totally different van!

Not only did they add upper cabinets, they installed a new Fan-tastic vent, carpeted the walls, and built a box for the batteries under the bed to hold our 400 amp hour battery bank. We also have running water now!

New upper cabinets with carpeted walls and ceiling. Fan-Tastic fan installed.
Another interior view
Speakers in the cabinets. Note the passenger side cabinet is smaller for more room over the bed.
Under bed battery box at lower right

There’s a couple storage cubbies under the bed for extra water tanks and tools:

We’ll store an extra water tank in here.
Sprocket models the cabinet accessible via the rear doors.

The bed also can be moved aside so there is a 12′ cargo area for motorcycles, kayaks, building materials, etc. And the top of the big cabinet is a work bench.

Sprocket models the 12′ cargo area.

A very special thanks to Ezra and Thomas for the great work!

Van: In Progress

Forrest went to Oregon a couple of weeks ago to work on our van conversion.

Here’s what it looked like towards the middle of his time over there:

Here’s the van now with a large storage area under the bed.

We now have a window installed on the drivers side above the sink. It lets in so much more light!

Creeper.

We still have some cabinets to put in and need a two-burner stove but we’re slowly getting there! It’s already much more comfortable than it was. F and Ezra did a good job, don’t you think?