The allure of van life was on the rise even before a pandemic pushed humanity closer to its I Am Legend endgame. With socially distant vacations driving enormous growth in RV rentals, a survey by the home relocation site Move.org found that a meaty portion of the populace is ready to get away. From everyone. Think Kerouac’s On the Road but with a bed and minus the benzedrine.
#VanLife, like any good van, offers a number of doors for entry. If one of your resolutions for 2021 is role-playing Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, here’s your primer:
WHAT KIND OF VANLIFER ARE YOU?
The life you plan to lead over the horizon determines which conveyances you should consider. Will you stick to paved roads and well-tended dirt paths? Or will a lucid dream of the Dempster Highway have you burning gas for the Arctic Ocean faster than you can say “belugas and bears”? Do you plan to lay up in national parks and truck stops? Or do you need off-grid survivability for days on end?
Decide what you will actually do, not dream of doing. A Pan-American expedition rig on 35-inch mud terrains gets you loaded for bear. It’s also a hideous waste of money and resources if you know you’ll never stray more than two hours from a Denny’s.
GO BEYOND THE VAN
What exactly qualifies as a van? Merriam-Webster defines it as “a multipurpose enclosed motor vehicle having a boxlike shape, rear or side doors, and side panels often with windows.” That gives you a lot of freedom in your hunt. Decommissioned ambulances are fair game—and come with a bed, a desk, and cabinets—as are municipal and airport shuttles, minivans, and school buses, which are called skoolies.
Expand that search, and you might even find the step-van ice cream truck of your dreams. Who wouldn’t want to hit the road with a chestful of Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches?
BOUGHT NOT BUILT
Doing your homework and knowing what you need is important because modern, dedicated live-in conversions are spendy. The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and Ford Transit are the mainstream models, and outfits like Glampervanspecialize in the Dodge ProMaster. Expect pricing to start at $70,000 for a full-size hauler with the core appliances for a wheeled bivouac. And there’s no ceiling; a bodacious custom build from Sportsmobile costs more than a house in many of the distant hideaways you’ll visit.
Step down to a smaller van, and prices shrink likewise. Oasis Campervans converts minivans like the Toyota Sienna; builds start at $45,000. The Caravan Outfitter’s Free Bird, built on the Nissan NV200, starts around $38,400 including the van, but can fit only two people.
Many conversion companies sell used vans, but forget about finding a screaming deal; the builders know what they have, and fully featured Sprinters and Transits are still six figures. Buy from a company with pedigree and testimonials—a good build is more than silent operation and durability. During an emergency maneuver like swerving on the highway to avoid an accident, you don’t want your galley sink flying through the side window.
An old-school conversion van, like the high-roofed Ford E-Series or Dodges that were parked in every third granddad’s driveway once upon a time, represents maximum value for time and money. Solid examples go for less than $8000 on Craigslist. After that, one trip to a well-stocked sporting goods department gets the basic accessories you’ll need to hit the road immediately.
BUILT NOT BOUGHT
Say you already have a candidate van. ZenVanz sells premade DIY furnishings, but like the segment’s other timesavers, they aren’t cheap: The kit for a short-wheelbase van demands $18,000 of your hard-earned cash and omits essentials like a sink and a stove. Colorado Camper Van sells a Base Camp bundle that dresses the interior walls, starting from about $13,300, and DIY cabinetry from $600.
On the other hand, let’s say you have nothing more than a set of coveralls and a hankering to wield the sledge. For that same $18,000—including the price of the van—you could build your movable lodgings and have dosh left over for at least a few tanks of fuel and some truck stop coffee.
This will take the most time, work, and learning, but you’ll get just the van you want. Advice Abraham Lincoln never gave but is often credited with anyway applies: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”
Copious online research can spare you a month of migraines on the road. Better to find out in the comfort of your immobile home that you should avoid Ford’s 6.0-liter Power Stroke diesel, that Sprinters can be serviced only at approved Mercedes-Benz dealerships, or that you can add four-wheel drive to an E-Series van with a kit from Ujoint Offroad.
Dive into social media to peruse builds and rent a converted van for a week. Draw your van interior and use slips of paper to rearrange furnishings. Try a free 3-D modeling software like SketchUp.
Since hordes of VanLifers keep uploading build walk-throughs, putting in a semester at YouTube University will earn you a degree in conversions. Forums and detailed guides like this one at Trucks.com solve nitty-gritty issues like installing a bed platform and auxiliary batteries for your specific vehicle.
What’s most important to remember is that neither the van nor its interior has to look like an HGTV makeover; you only need to be able to get where you want, the way you want, without spooking the locals. An old Dodge A100 bearing a decent paint job, a sleeping bag, a RoadPro slow cooker, and a five-gallon bucket with a Double Doodie Waste Bag could make a fine Rocinante to your Quixote.
If you do end up pointing your Dodge up the Dempster Highway, stock up on those waste bags. The tundra’s full of deterrents to squatting. Like moose. And don’t ask us how we know, but moose are absolutely insane.
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