As the world socially isolates and distances to stop the spread of COVID-19, this might be a good time to think about alternative ways of living. For many, the “van life” has already proven to be a rewarding and cost-effective way to have freedom, along with some level of comfort. The best van to live in depends on your plans, activities, and lifestyle.
It also depends on the amount of customization you can do yourself, what your budget is, and the type of journeys you're hoping to embark on. Here are the top models of vans to live in, as of this writing.
The Sprinter is one of the most popular models for van-life conversion. Designed for transporting goods, it’s a very durable, safe, and powerful van you can rely on over time. It also comes in a variety of sizes, so you can choose a wheelbase and height that works for you. Because of its popularity, replacement parts for this model are available all over the world, which is good to know if you plan on doing some serious traveling.
The Sprinter has specific gear you can purchase for DIY conversion, and company Nomadvanz can build you a brand new, customized live-in model. Buyer beware, though—fully decked out versions come in around 200 grand. DIY conversion can be done cheaper, which is usually the case regarding any model of non-customized van.
The Transit is another cargo van that can be picked up cheaply and converted to whatever you dream up. Because of the brand, parts are inexpensive and readily available, and the vehicle is fairly easy to maintain. The size is one deterrent for anyone who wants to live in it full-time, as it’s smaller than other cargo models, and doesn’t have a lot of headroom.
If you’re planning on adding a pop-top, or spending most of your time outdoors, this may not be a deal breaker. It’s also a smoother drive compared to larger vans with grip and handling similar to a car—something to consider for the person trying to cook, sleep, or... do other business in the back.
Ram Promaster (Sold in Europe as the Fiat Ducato)
The Promaster is a larger cargo van that handles like a smaller one. While very comparable to the Sprinter or Transit, it has some features that set it apart. It boasts front-wheel drive, 5’6” of headroom in 8-foot length models, or 6’5” height in the 10-footer, with other sizes available to fit your needs. It’s also wide enough to fit a full-size bed which is great for couples, or someone who likes to spread out.
Its price point is another bonus, starting around $30,000 as of this writing—far less expensive than a Mercedes brand, and three grand less than the Transit, yet also with parts and servicing that will be easy to find when out on the road. It’s a great van for year-long travel, and since it was based on the Ducato, it’s been tried and tested by generations of van lifers, who've created many inspiring conversion ideas to boot.
The most iconic model for van life has got to be the first-generation VW Transporter. Technically a European made van, these vintage beauties are sold used across North America, and known for their California surfer vibe. They look great on Instagram, but early versions aren’t made anymore, so finding parts can be difficult and sometimes quite expensive.
They also have older, non-environmentally friendly engines, which makes them a great choice to turn into an electric model to replace dated or faulty insides. The transporter is quintessentially cool, but not known for its luxury or size. Later models, like the T5 and T6 have many updated features, and are both safer and more spacious, but lack a little bit of the aesthetic caché.
Nissan NV300 (Renault Trafic, Fiat Talento, Vauxhall Vivaro)
Like its predecessor, the Primastar, the NV300 is modeled after European brands, Renault Trafic and Vauxhall Vivaro. The 2020 models have upgraded their Renault-made diesel engines to be even stronger, smoother, and more fuel-efficient. Easily converted into your dream van, it's perfect for long-term travelers and weekend warriors alike.
2020 models also showcase superb audio systems, chrome dashboard interfaces, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. When looking for ideas, be sure to include the Trafic in your search, as DIY’ers have been converting these sister-models for almost 20 years now. Inspiration, as well as blueprints, will be readily available.
This heavy duty 4x4 takes a Ford cutaway body and adds some pretty sweet features like a pop-top for extra headroom. This fully customizable conversion van is exactly what you need if you want to go off-roading on different types of terrain without worrying about breaking a nail. At 20 feet long by 6.5 feet wide, this beast gives you lots of space and storage to live comfortably in, with safety features galore.
The base model comes in at around $40,000 with extras available like kitchens and beds if you can fork over more money. A DIY or custom conversion to this solid vehicle would be a great investment if you want to live in it for a long time, and take it to places unknown.
Winnebago is a name that’s synonymous with the camper van lifestyle, and if you can afford it, the Solis is a beautiful, all-season, luxury home on wheels. Using the Promaster chassis, it comes with insulated plumbing, a heated bathroom, full Murphy bed, and a fiberglass pop-top that can be used as extra sleeping space or headroom. All that for just over $100,000 as of this writing. The Revel is another Winnebago beauty, and based on the Sprinter chassis, it boasts luxury interiors and a nifty solar panel system that powers the stove, fridge, lights, heaters, and TV. It’s price bumps up to just over $160,000.
For about half the amount of the Revel, Canadian company Pleasure Way has brought out the 2020 “Tofino”, which mimics the Solis in many ways, but with a minimalist design. Using the Promaster chassis, it also has a pop-top, a small, but sleek kitchenette, and different solar panel designs to choose from. A solid choice if you want something ready-made at around $70,000. Other unique, custom made brands to check out are Outside Van, 5Mars, and the Auto-sleeper Peugot vans.
Before you spend an enormous amount of money on conversion, or on the original investment of the vehicle, do your research and come up with a checklist of must-haves. Take a few for a test drive, and imagine yourself actually living in the van–day after day. Is headroom important? A kitchen? Full bed? Easy handling? There’s a big difference between having a van that you use as a camper on weekends, and one that you can actually live in. Whatever your budget is, these models are a great place to start when considering what van is best to live in for you.