If you’re interested in getting started with van life and not sure how to find the best vans for van living, we’ll break down everything you need to know about choosing the best home on the road in this post!
When we first started researching the best van for van life we felt completely overwhelmed. We primarily saw several different types of vans out on the road and the more we began talking with van owners and touring different vans the more confused we became about which van would be right for us.
Choosing which van you want is the most important decision of your burgeoning van life so far. It’s one thing to think about taking the plunge to begin living in a van, but once you hand someone you met on Craigslist a wad of cash and drive away with their old van, there is no backing out.
Or, maybe you opt to buy new and feel even more pressure because anything you don’t end up liking about the van is 100% your fault for making that pick. Maybe you should have gone with the more spacious option or the one with a “boxier” fit instead of the first one available on the Facebook marketplace.
Choosing the best vans for van life is like shopping for a house and a car at the same time. Unless you’re a carpenter and a mechanic, you’re going to have to take a lot of people’s word about the quality of your purchase.
While we can’t tell you whether or not the van of your dreams has a faulty transmission, we can set you in the right direction by looking at a wide range of the best vans nomads have to choose from. Before you start planning the layout and loading up on all of the van life essentials you have to find the best van that meets a wide range of criteria.
The options we’ll cover below are all conversion cargo vans that account for the primary DIY favorites as well as most modern Class B RVs professionally outfitted. All the big names including Airstream, Westfalia, Winnebago and Coachman use these vans as the basis for their luxurious Class B RVs.
Some of the best vans for van life wound up here by accident. It doesn’t matter if these vans’ first purpose was cargo delivery, the mountaintop or soccer practice. All of them have found a second home in the van life.
We’ve spent years driving around and poking our heads inside the neighbor’s camper vans to get some inspiration. We can spot a roof vent from 3 blocks away and we’ve seen all sorts of buses, vans, cars, and trucks converted into second homes.
Brave amateur engineers and van life start-ups are doing more with less. And if you choose the right van, you could find a life on the road more luxurious than most college apartments. But it won’t be easy!
These vans aren’t just houses and they’re not just cars. When so many variables are at play, it can be hard to sort out the contenders from the pretenders. We all know about Mercedes Sprinter vans, but what else is out there?
We’ll cover some classic names and surprise contenders head to toe to paint a picture of the best vans for van life no matter the budget. And if you need help making a purchasing decision, check out this post on buying a campervan.
Table of Contents
- Best Vans for Van Living
- Mercedes Sprinter
- Dodge Promaster
- Ford Transit
- Nissan NV
- Chevy Astro
- Ford E-series or Chevy Express
- Class B RV
- Notable Exceptions
- Top Considerations When Choosing the Best Van for Van Life
- Other Questions to Answer When Choosing Your Van
Best Vans for Van Living
The majority of vans being built out post-2020 fall under one of the “Big 3” brands: Mercedes Sprinter, Dodge Promaster and Ford Transit. All three of these camper vans are universally recognized as the best in the business.
Each one has a few strengths and weaknesses, so let’s take a closer look. And if you’re looking specifically for the best van for camper conversion, we have a post that lays out a little more detailed information on what to look for when making such a big decision.
The Mercedes Sprinter is the greatest of all time. Sprinter vans were the first conversion vans to hit mainstream success with a diesel engine and plenty of interior space.
That engine sets this mobile home apart from the competition. You can expect Mercedes Sprinter vans to last for 300,000 miles at the bare minimum.
There is only one catch. This quintessential van is one of the most expensive conversion vans to repair. You can’t limp into any small town and expect to find someone who knows how to work on these complicated engines.
The good news is, these vans have been around for decades and have proven to be reliable and a really, really good time.
The huge used market is a testament to Sprinter’s success. Twenty-year-old cargo vans with 150,000 miles on them still attract a high price, especially if they’re four-wheel drive.
There’s no such thing as a cheap rig with 4X4, and combining better fuel economy and off-roading prowess with a diesel engine is the safest bet on the market for getting your money’s worth.
Vanlifers who count every square inch quickly point out that the Dodge Ram Promaster’s unique cargo area makes it the widest conversion van on the market.
The square shape extends the headspace and gives more room for activities. It’s only a few inches wider than the competition, but anyone who has lived in a car before knows what a difference of 3 inches can do when it’s time to go to bed.
How important? It’s the only conversion van wide enough to fit a full-size bed side-to-side.
Across the board, this van is built more for comfort than power. The Promaster has the smallest engine of the three main players and no four-wheel drive options.
This, unfortunately, disqualifies the van from many adventures, but anyone who doesn’t plan to spend much time on forest roads won’t need these abilities and will cherish the good gas mileage.
The Ford Transit simple van conversion is our pick for the best middle-class cargo van out there. It may not have the long-lasting diesel engine of Mercedes or the interior comfort of the Promaster, but it’s much more inexpensive to fix a Ford than other vans.
We hate repair costs, and no matter which van you choose, you’ll spend your fair share of time underneath the hood. Ford cars are as simple as they come and thus become some of the best vans to live in.
You won’t need to head to the shop to change a headlight, and if you do have to take care of something major, any domestic mechanic in the continental U.S. can take care of Ford Transit van engines and brake systems.
Ford Transits are American-made vans, so a few things fall apart quickly, and you can’t expect the gas mileage to compete with international competition. Ford cars are notorious for churning through brake pads, and the Ford Transits just barely have the worst gas mileage of the big three.
Instead of fuel economy, designers focused on a powerful engine built to tow up to 7,500 lbs. The affordable price leaves plenty of space in the budget for a few repairs, and Ford Transit vans are dependable units that can fire up no matter what.
Newer models of the Ford Transit Connect have AWD and electronic stability control features built-in that ensure the van is off-road worthy and even include side-wind stabilization.
We’re big fans of this efficient unit that might be the smallest possible camper van conversion out there that still has standing room. Nissan gave this van a snub-nose design like a typical truck and raised the roof.
You’ll likely recognize the Nissan NV as a contractor special thanks to the extra bit of storage space above the front cabs.
With a bit of woodworking, you can convert that shelf into a complete home kitchen cabinet, bookshelf, or entertainment center and maximize the interior cargo space. It’s essential to take advantage of every inch inside this Nissan, as the van doesn’t have loads of extra room.
If you’re willing to live in a cramped space, you’ll be rewarded with decent fuel economy and one of the cheapest vans to convert on the market.
There is no such thing as cheap conversion vans anymore. But the Nissan NV hasn’t quite reached the popularity levels needed to artificially inflate the price like most newer van options.
This relative obscurity also gives the Nissan NV cargo van a few extra stealth points. No one associates these working-class specialists as one of the best vans to live in, which may allow you to sneak under a few more radars.
Budget van lifers ready to build a home from scratch can find great deals on these vans.
Good luck getting your hands on one of these still in perfect condition. Anyone smart enough to hold onto their Astro all these years ain’t selling for cheap now.
They don’t make them like this anymore. A classic boxy body makes an ideal tiny home inside a chassis that tow heavyweight and drives off-road.
The Astro may look like something primed for retirement, but this unassuming van remains one of the best AWD vans on the market.
Chevrolet hasn’t built an Astro since 2005, but early two-thousand versions of these vans are still roaming through beaches, forest roads, and backcountry campgrounds 15 years later. You can take the Astro anywhere you could drive a Sprinter van, and the beast gets 22 mpg highway.
It’s not quite tall enough to stand inside, so weekend warriors may better suit this van as a part-time living space rather than your new home. But Beggars can’t be choosers.
If you’ve got to look for a cheap minivan and you need to start your van life in a hurry, the V6 engine, insane towing capacity, and all-wheel drive options make the Astro one of the 2000s best van life options.
Ford E-series or Chevy Express
The bottom line that defines our van search is our budget. For some of us, that means looking towards old, old vans to save a few bucks. If the only vans you can afford are from before the year two-thousand, a Ford Econoline van is your best bet (followed closely by the Chevy Express for similar reasons).
The Ford E-series van is synonymous with Class B RV from the ’90s. But this van style isn’t just a retro model. The Econoline series is as old as the VW bus, and the gas engine has ranked as one of the best vans for van life every year for decades.
This has flushed the used van market with decades of reliable, albeit gas-guzzling, Ford Econoline cargo van options. The engines vary in power, from slime E-250 cargo vans up to E-550 super-duty trucks. Each step up in power has more towing and hauling capacity and worse gas mileage.
You can find loads of used Class B RV’s using the body of these front-wheel-drive powerhouses.
Class B RV
Do you have a concrete idea of what you want out of your van? And can you make it happen? If the answer to that question is yes, you’re ready to choose conversion vans.
Van lifers who are in a time crunch or aren’t very confident with their hands be wary. Converting a cargo van is not fun work. Even professional contractors fumble with wires and spend weekends agonizing over insulation settings and floor types.
If you’re comfortable spending a few months shopping around for the right deal, you can find a used Class B RV with many of the same amenities you were planning on building into cargo vans, ready to roll by the weekend.
Check out online marketplaces and be patient. Eventually, you’ll find someone clearing out their parent’s stuff who doesn’t know the value of classic vans, and you could find a steal. Or, you could get conned into a lemon that requires more trouble than it’s worth. The gamble is all part of the fun.
Old Class B RV engines are often in great shape, but we haven’t seen many refrigerators or original air conditioning units from the 1990s still running. The troubles with old vans often involve the appliances.
No salesperson will be completely honest about their Class B RV, so choosing a used Class B RV is unlikely to completely excuse you from a few weeks of hard work fixing up your living space.
VW buses such as the VW Vanagon didn’t make the cut for our list simply because they are unique vans that offer nearly entirely different criteria due to their age compared to newer van options. Finding one of these models requires a whole different strategy so in this post, we’re focusing just on newer models.
We also aren’t addressing the idea of shopping through a van conversion company in this post. There are several great options that will convert most newer cargo van models from Ford Transits to Sprinters into livable vans. We’ll cover these companies in another post.
Top Considerations When Choosing the Best Van for Van Life
Before you get into the literal nuts and bolts of planning your own van build you’ll want to consider several key factors about the van itself. Each cargo van that made our list has the capacity to include the various amenities you may or may want inside the van – toilet, bed setup, shower and so forth.
But the real factors you must consider begin by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each type of van in terms of its overall functionality when it rolls out of the manufacturing plant.
We’ve interviewed dozens of van dwellers who built their own conversion vans and all agree that there is no single perfect van for van life. But they will say that one, if not all, of the following considerations, were the most important factor for them.
Remember, van life is about providing YOU the ability to live the way YOU want. So while some people opted for the Sprinter van because of its hardy diesel engine, others saw that as a liability because of the expense involved in maintaining a Sprinter van.
Here are the top things you should consider when sorting through the best vans for van life.
Roof height may or may not be an important factor to you depending on whether you are 6’4″ (as I am!) or a little more “average” in height. Most of the vans on our list offer high-roof options.
But the more options you add to your van choice the more expensive it will be new (or harder to find when shopping for a used van). If you are particularly mechanically inclined or have the extra cash to spend, you can almost always add a pop-up roof to add more space.
But definitely consider roof height when deciding which van is best for you. The Ford Transit and Sprinter Van have the highest roof out of the factory.
The wheelbase is the distance between your front and rear axle. This distance will, for the most part, determine the amount of living space you have inside the van. It will also determine whether or not you can fit in a standard parking spot or make it through a big dip in the road.
Some people prefer a shorter wheelbase both for the lower cost and the practicality of being able to fit in more places. Other people want the longer wheelbase to account for adding more luxuries to the camper van conversion. You’ll be hard-pressed to fit a shower and toilet in a shorter wheelbase van.
Choosing between gasoline engines and diesel engines really only rules in/out the Mercedes Sprinter as it is the only diesel van on our list. Diesel engines are known for better fuel economy, adding an extra 1-3 mpg on average. They also have more torque, which helps with steep terrain.
But gas engines work just as well as diesel. And the cost of diesel fuel usually more than offsets the mpg difference. You also don’t have to worry about adding diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) or risk the engine shutting down in remote places.
Unless you are dead set on the Mercedes Sprinter, all of the other options on our list have gasoline engines.
Front, Rear, All-Wheel or 4-Wheel Drive
A factor often overlooked, the drive setup plays a big part in an educated decision about choosing the best vans to live in. Front-wheel drive vans do not tend to handle well in rain, snow or ice based on the fact the weight of the engine is directly over the front axle.
And rear-wheel drive vans may have lower gas mileage and less space beneath the van due to the additional heavy drive shaft. They also don’t handle as well in steep terrain as they “push” rather than “pull” and are more inclined to get stuck in soft sand or snow.
Then there are all-wheel drive vans that maximize the power of 4 wheels but tend to reduce fuel economy by 1-2 mpg. The additional parts required will also add to the overall cost of the van as well.
Finally, the much sought-after appeal of the 4-wheel drive van, like the all-wheel-drive van comes with reduced fuel mileage and higher cost. But clearly, they will allow you the peace of mind to be able to go off-roading to places where other vans with front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive will not be able to take you.
Although many people say they want 4WD for off-roading, most of the van dwellers we interviewed related to us that they very rarely found themselves in situations where having 4WD was necessary. If anything, having great recovery gear such as traction pads and a shovel, will go further for far less than the cost of adding 4WD to your van.
Clearance refers to how high the van chassis sits above the ground. This is often more important than whether you have 4WD or not because many roads van dwellers like to travel include ruts and rocks that you will need to clear as you drive.
There is nothing more unnerving than the sound, and imagination, of grinding rocks beneath your vehicle! You can always add an after-market lift to any van to add additional clearance.
But if you plan to spend most of your time on paved roads and traditional campgrounds then clearance will not mean a whole lot to you.
Even if you purchase a new van you will have regular maintenance costs associated with keeping the van in top shape. You may be surprised to learn that you cannot change your own oil in newer Sprinter cargo vans!
So rather than spending $20 on oil and a fuel filter and then crawling beneath the van to change your own oil you’ll need to find a Mercedes dealer or service center to do something as simple as an oil change. And that’s before something breaks and you need an actual repair!
Many van dwellers opt for either the Ford Transit vans or the Dodge Promaster because the engines are quite common and both parts and qualified mechanics can be more readily sourced on the road.
Some vans on our list are more “buildable” than others. Promasters, for instance, are the most “boxy” and allow even the most novice van builder to customize their van without having to cut round edges on cabinets and doors.
Sprinters are notoriously round and require much more thought and a bit more skill when building out along the upper portions of the van.
Of course, building a van of any kind will be challenging and other factors may matter more to you than buildability. But if you’re looking for an out-of-the-box van ready for insulation, 2x4s and paneling you will likely prefer the Dodge Promaster.
Other Questions to Answer When Choosing Your Van
|TOP CONSIDERATIONS WHEN CHOOSING THE BEST VANS FOR VAN LIFE|
The “Big 3” vans differentiate themselves in the following criteria.
1) Roof Height
2) Wheelbase (length)
3) Gas Engine or Diesel Fuel
4) Front, Rear, All-Wheel or 4 Wheel Drive
6) Maintenance Costs
The perfect van doesn’t exist, but you can build out your dream van. To find the best van for your van life, you need to ask yourself the same questions your relatives ask you when they’re concerned about your lifestyle.
How will you bathe? How do you use the bathroom? How do you sleep at night?
These are the three things in van life that will send you home faster than anything else, and the answer to these questions will point you to an affordable van and your best life.
Converted passenger vans and fleet vehicles won’t come equipped with much plumbing. Some van lifers do not mind hitting the road with anything more than a bucket in the back.
But not everyone getting into this lifestyle is satisfied with using the bathroom in a bag and baby wiping at bathtime. If there is no shower inside your van, you’ll have to rely on rivers and truck stops. It can get ugly fast, so keep your hygiene at the front of your mind when shopping.
Space-saving propane technology exists that will pump out piping hot outdoor showers without taking up interior space, but any bathroom will require valuable feet.
Even if it’s just space for a composting toilet, we believe a toilet is essential for a good van. Decide for yourself how important a bathroom is for your adventures.
While you can lay pipe in an old van, you won’t be able to add on more space. If you’re shopping for a passenger van to live in, we highly recommend going for an interior you can stand up inside.
A weekend camper or the ultimate stealth van may get away with cramped half-sized interiors. But living in a van full-time means spending a few rainy days inside. Give yourself space to stretch out and cook dinner without hunching over in case you end up trapped indoors.
Whether you’re deadset on the Sprinter van’s diesel engines, the reliability of a Ford Transit Connect or are willing to take a chance on an obscure Nissan NV cargo van, the best vans to live in are the ones you can afford and are readily available.
Shopping for an older van is an easy way to save some money, but nothing used will come without surprise costs. A good rule of thumb for used models: the cheaper/older it is, the more likely you’ll have to repair it. And if a van sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Take your time while shopping. Spending an extra month finding the right van will provide you with decades of freedom. Hopefully, we’ve helped you narrow down your decision!
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