Choosing a Vanlife Van

The first time I began to realize the potential of a van was when I encountered this blog post on Bearfoot Theory. Her open layout which manages to incorporate a work table, bed, shower, toilet, kitchen, and more while looking good was a revelation. Along the right side of this post, you can also see Pinterest pins of other things which have inspired me along the way.

Photo from Bearfoot Theory

I began having more conversations and was only mildly surprised to find that I had several friends who had either converted, or were planning to convert, a van. I was intrigued by creative solutions, like hooking a diesel-powered stove into the gas line of the van… which could also double as a heater. I’ve always had a fascination with high-efficiency, low-space, specialty solutions to specific problems. The unique space and resource constraints posed by a van conversion offered no end to these kinds of problems.

Some of the most useful resources I found were…

… and many others I’m sure I’ve forgotten at this point. I started putting together my own Trello board with ideas and inspiration. Before long, I realized I had mentally committed to the project without ever realizing it.

Vanlife Priorities

There are so many van builds out there. Take the following picture of the van belonging to a friend of the family. It was built by Sportsmobile, one of the van buildout companies mentioned above. He prioritized a rugged vehicle that could survive just about anything, hauling his road/mountain bikes, and having all the amenities (microwave, kitchen, etc).

vanlife custom van
A Sportsmobile converted Mercedes Benz Spinter Van.

But my priorities were a bit different. I was willing to sacrifice some of the off-road ability and ruggedness for a bit more coziness. I wasn’t too interested in things like a built-in air compressor for tires or satellite TV. Instead, I decided to prioritize just two things:

  • Park-anywhere (look like a standard cargo van outside, be of a standard size).
  • True tiny-home (cozy interior, have good amenities, allow me to do work).

Notably, a low price point is not on my priorities. Many vandwellers get in to vanlife to save money, but my priority is more of a mobile home/workstation that lets me take short or long trips without sacrificing (much) comfort of home.

Related: Building a Wood Cabin Steampunk Van

There are many, many websites showing off #vanlife vans. We run into travelers every day with beautiful, albeit "standard" vans. Some look super polished, with crisp white lines. There are several professional after-market companies that create "perfect" vanlife vans...

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Choosing a Van

Many people advocate for the Mercedes Sprinter Van, which offers 4×4 drive and a great reputation for quality. I knew that I’d likely need to order my van custom to accomplish the trade-offs I wanted. My priorities were:

  • Tall enough to fit me comfortably, even after adding a floor/ceiling (I’m 6’1).
  • Fits within the width/length of a standard parking spot.
  • Drives well, with good amenities, so getting from A to B is not torture.
  • Easy to upkeep and repair.

The first point, in particular, is hard to find in a used vehicle but easy to accomplish when ordering a custom van from the dealership. Unfortunately, I soon discover that there’s currently a 1 year (or more) wait for a Mercedes Sprinter.

This long wait has something to do with a fascinating bit of history known as the Chicken Tax. The Wikipedia entry is a seriously fascinating read!

I later learned that the Ford Transit 250 has been rated higher and higher over recent years. Car and Driver magazine rated it as the best driving cargo van, and of course the domestic Ford brand would be easier to repair in the North Americas than its foreign counterparts. What’s more, because of these advantages this vehicle is increasingly chosen by fleets — which creates something of a network effect. The more people who buy the van, the more support arises around it, as more money is invested in infrastructure.

The wait for a Ford Transit was only about 3 months (for construction) and the only serious trade-off as opposed to the Sprinter appeared to be the 4×4 (all wheel drive). There are companies which will upfit a Transit to be 4×4, but it requires doing so on a new van (unconverted) with less than 5,000 miles, plus it costs over $10,000 at the time of this article. I eventually decided that this was one area where I’d forego the upgrade. The wait-time (another three months) and restrictions did not seem worth it. From what I read, the unmodified van should have no problem getting to Tahoe, national forests, and other interesting places with the simple addition of appropriate tires and shocks.

my ford transit van

Some of the relevant 2018 Ford Transit 250 Cargo Van options include:

  • 148″ wheelbase (LWB: longer, but not the max length, which is too long for a standard parking spot).
  • Hi Roof: 6’7 clearance inside (though 9’2 outside, which is too tall for many garages).
  • EcoBoost: better fuel economy.
  • Heavy duty alternator & dual-batteries (more power availability).
  • In-dash inverter (standard wall-outlet plug for charging things).
  • Ford Sync package (CarPlay, nice sound system, etc.)
  • No cargo area windows. This one was a tough decision, but ultimately I decided that for safety reasons (San Francisco…) I wanted to keep my living (cargo) area very private. I can always open all 3 of the large doors when outside, and I plan to devise other ways to get natural sunlight.

I ordered the van in mid-October and received it early December 2017, for a total wait time of about 7 weeks, from Serramonte Ford (south of San Francisco). Since then, I’ve started the long process of actually building out the van.

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Written by
(zane) / Technically Wizardry
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