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So you’ve finally come to the conclusion that a $750,000, 1,100 square-foot, one-story bungalow isn’t the right place for yourself and your family. You’d rather save that money and show them the wonders of the great outdoors, huh? Perfect, you’ve come to the right place!
Living in a van, what the hipsters and youths are calling #vanlife, is an idea as old as the van itself and is exactly what you think it is. You live in a van. However, as modernity has instilled a need for creature comfort in us all, living in your van has become more glamorous. Today, you sacrifice little in terms of what you’d find in a small luxury apartment.
To get a better sense of what van life is, The Drive’s adventurous editors put together this guide to aid you on your journey into the great unknown! We discuss how to go about living in a van, selecting the right van for you, and building your perfect mobile palace. Let’s find your perfect one-night-only home
What Is Van Life?
Van life isn’t a thing or a place. Van life is a state of mind, man. Joking! Van life, or the way we perceive living in a van today, is when a person, couple, or family purchases a large conversion van, something like a Ford Transit, and decks it out with all the accouterments of a home-away-from-home.
And this isn’t a weekend pad in the Berkshires, van lifers live out of their vans for months and even years at a time. They’re free from rent, from utilities, and from all the constraints that are put upon you living in an apartment or house. For many, it’s the best thing they’ve ever done, even if things smell a little funky from time to time.
Why Is It So Popular Right Now?
Um, have you been recently awakened from a medically-induced coma? There’s a lot—waves hands vigorously—going on right now, and living in just about any built-up area can feel suffocating. Add a housing market out of control with high pricing and low inventory, and the idea of tiny living is alluring for many. Especially when your backyard could be Zion, Yellowstone, or anywhere in the Pacific Northwest.
What’s the Best Van to Convert Into a Living Space?
Get ready to feel slightly dizzy, and yet oddly happy, because there are numerous options available to you. Everything from high-priced glamping vans to Craigslist specials on 20-year-old Chevrolet Astro vans that definitely smell like feet and everything in between. Big vans and little vans. Short vans and tall vans. RWD vans and AWD vans. All the vans that can van!
Our Dr. Seuss alliteration aside, those options make finding the best van for you a simple task. No matter your budget, there’s a van that’s perfect for what you want to do. Let’s get into those options.
The Ford Transit is one of the best platforms due to all-wheel-drive availability and its variations in size, cargo space, layout. Ford even dropped a new package, the Adventure Prep Package, which outfits the Transit with the aforementioned AWD, upgraded axles, privacy glass, and dual batteries to run all your tech for your mobile office. If only Ford made a Raptor version…
Space, reliability, cheap parts, and upgradeability.
Can get expensive in a hurry.
Starts at $34,510.
When you think of a van, you likely think of a Chevrolet Express. It hasn’t changed in decades, nor do its acolytes want it changed. It’s big, boxy, and has the space to be a helluva faraway home.
Space, reliability, cheap parts.
Not as many available options as other vans, plus it looks like a creeper van
Starts at $32,500.
Mercedes-Benz’s name might summon visions of luxurious trappings and fancy yacht parties on the Med, but Merc’s vans feel at home in the muck, dirt, and gravel of the world’s national parks. The Sprinter, which is offered with a variety of options such as some seriously meaty tires, is ready for anything.
Mercedes dependability and strength, optional AWD, massive cargo space, a laundry list of available options.
Expensive to maintain and to purchase.
Starts at $34,950.
The modern interpretation of the RAM Promaster is actually based on Italy’s Fiat Ducato. Spacious, moderately cheap, and coming soon in an EV variety, the Promaster is a solid choice in terms of van living.
Space, cheap parts, ease of building out a living space.
Reliability, according to those Edmunds’ owner-generated reviews, isn’t as good as others.
Starts at $31,450.
One of the cheapest new van options available, Nissan’s NV is just as spacious as the others, but a few thousand cheaper. That means you’ll have more money to spend decking out your mobile home! Win, win!
Available V8, price, cheap parts, ease of building out a living space, great warranty.
Only offered with rear-wheel drive.
Starts at $30,140.
Used School Bus
The Drive’s News Editor Caleb Jacobs puts it perfectly, saying, “I started with a 1965 Chevy C60 school bus that, of course, sat for 25 years before I bought it last spring. It was cheap, though, and we installed dual bunks, a sink, propane range, and cedar cabinetry. Depending on your taste, you can find most of the living supplies you need at a flea market. Pair that with your own ingenuity and voila, you’ve got a schoolie.”
No space compromise, price, you won’t lose it in a parking lot.
Maintenance, prep time will be longer due to size, and breakdowns could occur mid-trip given age. It’s also a significantly different driving experience compared to the car-like rides of the Transit, Sprinter, and other options.
Used Volkswagen Vanagon
The O.G. #vanlife. Hipsters and hippies alike have sworn by the Vanagon for ages. They used to be cheap, effective, and perfect for those wishing to live off-grid. Now, they’re somewhat expensive for a good example.
You’ll look awesome.
Living space is non-existent, price.
How Much Does It Cost To Build a Van For Van Living?
Whatever your imagination, budget, and van space will allow, that’s how much you can spend. Here’s a quick glance at some of the things you could include in your van life build.
According to Tina Fey, you spend “half your life, and eat all your meals” in bed. And given you’ll be on the road at all times, that’s even more true. Don’t skimp, but be mindful of how much space you have and how the rest of the van will convert, or if it’ll convert, when you’re not using the bed for sleeping and eating.
You want to eat, right? Yeah, you’ll need a fridge. Like a bed, you’ll need to figure out how much space you have to work with and choose your fridge accordingly.
We aren’t animals … until we’ve had a few.
You do have the option to use truck stop toilets/showers, but there are times when you’ll need to relieve yourself or clean yourself when one isn’t available. Camping toilets and showers make for great kit and are designed to be easily stored in small spaces.
How else are you going to Instagram your #vanlife? But seriously, if you’re planning on working or having access to the outside world, you’ll need a mobile wifi setup. There are many to choose from, with some even being offered through your phone service.
You can’t just throw everything into the back of your van and drive down the road anymore. Properly put-together storage bins are essential to keep your gear, clothes, food, and other items safely secured while driving to your destinations. You can build your own cabinets, install a few storage bins, or build out a bed frame with integrated storage, etc. Just make sure they all have locks on them to keep everything from falling out when you hit a bump.
Ya gotta eat, play cards, or look into the other person’s soul somewhere. Swing-out or folding tables are great space savers.
Camping grills, portable burners, and fire starters are easily some of the best additions to any van life project. As with everything, you’ll need to consider space and portability, though there are hundreds of options available, everything from single-burner camping propane tanks to foldable steel fire pits.
A camper sink is a great addition to any van life project but will require a little bit of plumbing knowledge, along with integrating a water supply into your van.
Save space and money by purchasing a tablet or using a laptop and loading up your apps!
Your van’s lighting likely won’t be enough to satisfy your needs to see. Additional lighting, both indoors and outdoors, will solve that. However, you’ll likely need to wire up an additional battery so your car still starts in the morning. Solar power is also a great option.
Some RVs have side-mounted canopies in order to provide a shady space when the sun gets too hot to handle. You can also do this with your van.
If you want to save even more space inside the van, you can mount a roof-top tent. This would become your main sleeping area and leave your van’s interior vacant for other things like a kitchen, bathroom, or living space. However, you would be out in the elements every single night, so you’ll have to take that into consideration.
Where Can I Park My Van?
You can’t just turn up anywhere, drop a flag, and claim that land as your own. You aren’t the British Empire during the 1800s. Stopping for a night or two or longer is a little more nuanced than you might believe, but with a little planning, access to your phone’s web browser, and a quick search, you’ll find exactly the right place to park your home.
To make things easier, we’ve broken down a few popular spots where you can slam your van into “P” and rest your weary heads.
National Parks and BLM Land
National Parks and BLM land are pretty much what you picture when you think of #vanlife. These are the picturesque places Instagram influencers love to post, oftentimes shirtless, to show off their well-toned physiques, dogs, and sunsets. There isn’t a set rate at how much these cost, but they’ll usually run you between $20-$50 a night.
Say what you will about Walmart, but crashing in the chain’s parking lot is free. It isn’t as nice to look at, but you can’t beat free. That said, more and more Walmart stores aren’t allowing overnight parking, so you’ll have to check to make sure the one you’re staying at is still kosher.
Cabelas/Bass Pro Shops
Owned by the same corporate entity, Bass Pro Shops and Cabelas across the United States offer respite to weary van and camper travelers. Though not all stores offer the service, most do, and it’s free. Some even offer dump sites for your…well, refuse.
Every state in the union has periodic rest stops. These are designed for road-weary travelers to safely stop and rest their eyes for the night. Some even have vending machines, while all usually have bathrooms. They’re also free to use.
Free to use, bathroom-adjacent, and a spot to fill up your van in order to do more adventuring. It isn’t glamorous, but a truck stop is useful.
Campsites litter the United States and are often safer than truck stops or national parks, but they can be costlier, too. Expect to pay anywhere between $20-$200 depending on the campsite, it’s accommodations, time of year, and its availability.
What’s Leave No Trace?
That’s the practice where you leave wherever you’ve camped in exactly the same fashion you found it. No garbage, no smoldering fires, no dookie behind that big oak. Everything, and we absolutely mean everything, goes back to how you found it. This keeps the wilderness wild, unencumbered by trash, makes sure Bambi, Thumper, and Mr. Mole are free to frolic as they wish.
Follow the rules, because if you don’t, we’ll sick Bigfoot on you.
FAQs About Van Life
You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q: Is Van Life a Good Idea?
A: Are we your mother?
Q: I Hope Not!
A: Then we can’t really tell you if it’s a good idea or not. That’s a decision for you to make, because you’ll be giving up a lot. Living in a van is a drastic life change, even for the most outdoorsy individuals. Weigh your options, go camping for a while, and see if that’s really the life you want to lead.
Q: Ok, Is Van Living Legal Everywhere?
A: No, it isn’t. Where you park your van will depend on the county’s laws and regulations, as well as those used by national parks. You’ll want to research your destination ahead of time so you’re not towed at 2 a.m. in your briefs.
Q: All Right, What About Cash? How Much Money Will I Save Living in a Van?
A: This will come down to how you want to live. Consider these questions:
Are you ok with doing laundry every other week?
How Much are you willing to spend on Wifi access?
Where will you eat and buy groceries?
How far will you travel?
How much gas will you need?
Are campsites a priority?
A safe guestimate is you’ll spend around $1,000-$2,200 a month, but if you’re resourceful, you can reduce that by a lot.
Q: Where Do I Do Laundry?
A: You’ll be able to do laundry at a local laundromat, as you don’t have access to laundry in your van. You can, however, wash your clothes and hang-dry them from your van as they did before the advent of the washing machine.
Q: Um, Another Question.
Q: Where Do I Shower When You Live in a Van?
A: Well, you have some options. You can purchase a camping shower you rig up to the rear of your van, though you’ll have to source water for it each and every time you want to get clean. Or, as truckers have known for some time, you can shower at a truck stop that’s equipped with showers. The best option, however, might be a membership to a widespread national 24-hour gym chain.
And for the hippies in the group, I don’t know, wait for rain? You’ll also need to think about where you go number two.
Q: Oh No, I Forgot About Number Twos!
A: Yeah, you did.
Q: Last Question, How Do I Stay Safe Living In a Van?
A: That really depends on where you park your home, what sort of locks you have on your doors and the setup of your #vanlife home. Are you staying in a rough neighborhood or out among the pines? Did you wall off doors and windows? Are you crashing where bears could pick a lock and hop into the driver’s seat? (Ed. The author has personally seen this occur.)
Staying safe is really about staying vigilant and knowing that you no longer have the benefit of walls, windows, and security systems to protect yourself. You can take precautions, though. Lock the doors and windows, park only where it’s safe to do so, check local crime reports for incidents in the area, and talk to park rangers to see if you need to worry about Yogi and Boo Boo.
Spruce Up Your #Vanlife With Roofnest
Listen, sleeping in your van is great, we’ve done it countless times. But there are instances where the added security of being high off the ground, away from fauna with large canines and grumpy dispositions, is for the best. That’s why The Drive’s partnered with our pals at Roofnest to bring you the rooftop tent of your dreams! They come in a few shapes, sizes, and applications, all ready for any adventure you can think of.
Click here and start camping on your roof!
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