Updated: Feb 5, 2019
The middle of nowhere.
In the heart of the city.
Away from everyone.
If all of these phrases appeal to you in some way or another, read on…
Many of you are familiar with the new term #vanlife. If you’re not, it involves a group of people who are eschewing the old dream of a house and trading it in for the freedom, both financially and physically, of living in a van.
This lifestyle is becoming so popular that the van conversion industry has month long waiting lists, whereas 10 years ago it was barely surviving.
There are different kinds of vanlife, from the very simple home build to the very luxurious factory machine. All fall under one principle; The vehicle must be a van, not a large RV or motorhome, but a van that exists normally from a factory. Perhaps it has a pop top, perhaps a tall roof, but it does not have slide outs and it’s not larger than the full size Mercedes Sprinter or Ford Transit high roof long wheelbase at most.
At it’s most basic, vanlife is a VW minibus from the 70’s with a small kitchen and bed inside. Those were the pioneers, nomads with surfboards who chased good waves up and down the coast of California.
At its pinnacle are the 4 wheel drive Mercedes luxury van RV’s with showers, bathrooms and full size beds, awnings, water heaters, waste tanks, and every luxury you can imagine, and a six figure price tag to match.
And I’m going to tell you the advantages and disadvantages to a setup like mine.
I have a 2007 Ford E-150 cargo van. I bought it at auction for $3,000 as an insurance salvage. It is regular wheelbase (not the long version) and has two seats in front, a metal cargo barrier behind them, and no windows in the back. Here are all the reasons why this is the perfect vehicle to start with:
It’s literally the single most common vehicle in the United States. If you drive along the freeway you’ll literally count a dozen in as many minutes. There are literally hundreds for sale at any given moment from private sales, dealerships and auctions. This means it is easy to park anywhere, anytime (more on that later, literally).
It’s dirt cheap to run and maintain. It has a 4.6 liter V8 (there is also a 5.4 available, but that one gets worse mileage) and is known as one of the most reliable powertrain systems in the world (see millionmilevan.com) and any mechanic can work on it. Yes, diesels get better mileage, but they can be noisy at night (more on that later as well).
It’s short enough to park in any standard parking space. The long wheelbase version doesn’t fit anywhere without sticking way out, and if you plan on putting a motorcycle or bicycle rack on the back it makes it much too large.
There are dozens of companies out there which can modify the van (more on that later)
Another popular choice is the Mercedes Sprinter, which is an excellent machine, quite a bit more expensive, and available from the factory in 4x4 which is REALLY expensive, but that one doesn’t have “barn doors” which are the 2 doors that open out on the side. This is important if you want to take showers in the wild (more on that later). Another option is the new Ford Transit, which comes in a high roof and with barn doors. This is also a great choice if you don’t want to add a pop top, but you will want to (more on that later). The new Transits are really nice and can be converted to 4x4, but of course they are much more expensive as well, especially with the new very powerful ecoboost motor.
Ok, so here is why you want my van or a similar plain white cargo van: Stealth...
Stealth Camping :
In the United States it can be illegal to sleep in your vehicle unless you are at a campground or RV park. It’s hard to know where and when it’s allowed, some states have different rules than the towns and cities in that state. My favorite place to sleep hands down is in the middle of the forest or desert down a dirt road (my van has a 4x4 conversion, more on that later) with the pop up deployed enjoying the stars and smells with no one around for miles. That is simply the best, and for that you can use any van or RV that is capable of not getting stuck, and here the ideal would be a Mercedes 4x4 RV which you can pick up at a local dealer for a measly $130,000. My next favorite place is a nice campground. No problem at all, as long as it’s a level parking spot you have a metal tent, basically. But then you either have to use the public showers (ewwww) or take a shower before you arrive. And these are all no problem in any van, no stealth required.
Another fun place to park for the night, and which sometimes, especially when it’s busy season, the only choice is: Anywhere. What I mean by that is a quiet neighborhood, a hotel parking lot, a quiet street in the middle of a city, you name it. If a plain white cargo van (obviously you can’t put the pop top up) looks normal parked there, you can camp there. Find a neighborhood where there are other work trucks or vans parked in front of houses (not too fancy, not too shabby). Pick a spot that isn’t right in front of someone’s home, arrive late and leave early, and make sure not to let any light show to the outside (no windows, metal cargo barrier or blackout curtain) and I have never once been bothered in my hundreds of nights sleeping this way. It goes without saying that showering outside or cooking is probably a bad idea. Do that before you get to your overnight parking spot…
If you have a stealth camper the world is your campground.
If you have a van that stands out as a camper van, I have heard many people will call the police because they are uncomfortable with people spending the night on their street. If it’s a van the looks like it belongs to a local plumber they won’t, unless you are seen moving in and out of it, etc.
So, on to the details.
Pop Tops :
I had a company called “Sportsmobile” install a pop top on the van. This can cost anywhere from three to six thousand dollars depending on if you have an extended van, or want a power top (you don’t need it) or want it painted, or a rack on it, etc. I chose just white and plain to continue the stealthy look. When it’s open, it’s MAGIC. You can now stand up, move around, change clothes, etc. But the best part is the “penthouse” bed that comes with the top. You now have a bed on top of the van, surrounded by zippered clear plastic panels with mosquito screening behind those. On the inside you can roll down cloth privacy curtains. The bed is just wide enough to sleep two skinny people or my fat butt solo (I have another fold down bed in the main body of the van for when I need to sleep stealthy). But ohhh the breeze at night, and you are up high and feel protected from the elements (I have been in many major storms up there, always watertight and solid) and basically have the BEST of both worlds, sleeping inside a vehicle AND being outside in a tent. I can’t tell you how nice this is, both in the forest and in a parking lot on the pier in Santa Barbara during the day, taking a nap and listening to the waves outside or reading a book with all the windows open next to the beach wrapped in my electric blanket (more on that later). The pop top makes the van a true liveable camper and is the best modification I can recommend. And when it’s time to go, pull the top down, secure 3 latches and drive away (takes about 1 minute). Besides, if you saved that much money buying the van, you can spend more on the things that make it better.
The next major modification to the van is the four wheel drive system. Installed by a company called Agile Off Road in San Diego, they basically use the parts from a Ford F-250 chassis and mount it to the bottom of the van. This costs about ten thousand dollars but still DIRT cheap compared to a Mercedes 4x4 Sprinter. This won’t allow you to go crazy off roading (although you can request locking differentials, a huge lift kit, huge tires, larger 40 gallon fuel tank, winches, air compressor, the list is endless) but it will allow you to go down dirt roads or roads that have a little snow on them to the best out of the way camping spots without worrying about getting stuck. I chose to keep the original tires and wheels, and minimal lift, again to keep the stock appearance.
Cargo Barrier :
Next, I would say there are smaller details which I would recommend to anyone looking for a true anywhere adventure van. One is the metal cargo barrier between the driver/passenger seats and the rear of the van. This does make it feel smaller in the back, but has two major advantages; One, it allows you to completely and securely close off the back of the van, both for security (the only windows are in the front) and for stealth (the barrier is closed off so no light shows through at night). Two, it prevents all the contents of the van from slamming into the back of your head in a crash.
Batteries and Blankies:
Another mod which has been priceless is the biggest marine battery I could find which I mounted to the floor behind the driver’s seat. I also installed an automatic charging system so that the engine charges the battery while driving, but using it doesn’t discharge the starter battery under the hood. The point of this battery? I have a 12 volt electric blankets (make sure you get the kind which do not shut off after 45 minutes!). This blanket keeps me TOASTY warm on even the coldest of nights without running a heater. No worrying about fuel, propane, carbon monoxide, and completely silent. On hot nights I run the a/c from the van (remember what I said about the importance of not having a noisy diesel? You can’t hear this engine running unless you are closer than about 15 feet away). When running the blanket at night it barely drains the auxiliary battery, so I can go about 4 nights before I need to recharge it by simply driving the van. You can do solar panels, but I love sitting on top of the van at night looking at stars.
Bathroom Bits and Bobs :
For showers I have what’s called an “Aqua cube”. This is a portable propane and battery powered tankless heater pump. As a water source I have a large 7 gallon tank inside the van and some extra 1 gallon containers to fill it up. I typically use about 3 gallons per shower. I mount the shower head on the inside of the barn door and shower wherever I please, often on the side of the road where people driving by can only see my feet (and this is why I prefer barn doors over sliders!). I typically pull over somewhere about 3 or 4 pm while it’s still sunny. If it’s raining or windy I have to use a public shower or baby wipes, but the vast majority of the time I can find some part of the day where it’s nice enough to shower outside. This eliminates the need for a grey water tank, plumbing, etc. A tiny propane canister lasts dozens of showers, and the power comes from plugging into my giant marine battery. Having a hot shower every day is so important to me and makes every trip much nicer.
As a toilet I use a “hassock” toilet. Just a fancy name for a bucket with a seat (amazon.com). I use opaque biodegradable plastic bags (doubled up, that is one bag you don’t want leaking!) which are easily disposed of in any trash can. You can get units that use a tank, or a cassette toilet where you empty into a public toilet, but somehow that never appealed to me since they smell and you can find a trash can to dispose of your bio bags anywhere.
General Build :
That covers the big items. Everyone has their own way of building out the inside, mine is practical, easy to clean and inexpensive. I mounted a bed inside taking up the back 30% of the van, up off the floor so I can store everything I need under it, I use doubled up plush memory foam bathroom mats as my flooring, which are easy to shake out, or even throw in a washing machine. I have plenty of storage for clothes and food, I use a small propane stove for when I want to cook, I like using “Heater Meals” sometimes when I’m lazy or out on the motorcycle. I also have an electric skateboard (Boosted Mini S) for getting around, which is way smaller than a bicycle, charges while I drive and lots of fun to boot.
My van is cheap, stealthy, reliable, capable, roomy, easy to drive and park, fits down most single lane dirt roads, and fun. I have taken it all across the country both by myself and with my kid, and showered every day and always been comfortable. I have slept in the nicest locations imaginable, many of which would only be possible in this van. I have showered in the middle of the desert and then spent the better part of the night on top of the van looking at the stars. I have woken up in the snowy forest and spent the day riding the trails on my motorcycle. I have slept in the middle of San Francisco and then spent the day riding the electric skateboard across the Golden Gate Bridge.
If you have a van that does everything, you can do anything.
There is only one disadvantage: Your friends will make endless fun of you looking like a homeless pervert…