Which is the best van life vehicle for you?

An overview of eight different van life vehicles to help you find the best one for you! Including pro, cons, additional resources.
vans in a circle

Van life is more than living in a van. Mark’s homepage displays my definition of van life: 

A social movement of individuals living a minimal, adventurous and mobile lifestyle, trading the “American Dream” for a simple but more fulfilling life.

Notice I didn’t use the word “van” in my definition? In other words, the best van life vehicle for you might not be a van. Any vehicle can provide a simple, mobile home on wheels.

My last post covered five questions to ask yourself before choosing your van life vehicle. So, you should have an idea how much space you need and other qualities of the best van life vehicle for you. 

I’ll discuss eight different vehicle options along with:

  • Vehicle overview
  • Pros
  • Cons
  • Additional reading/resources
  • Articles about folks living in that vehicle

Vehicles

front of school bus, the most spacious van life vehicle

School bus/shuttle bus

Most of us know what a school or shuttle bus looks like, inside, and out. There are four different types of buses. They come in different sizes as well. Short buses are 20-25 feet long, mid-sized buses are 25-35 feet long, and buses over 35 feet are full-sized.

Pros

School buses give you a lot of space to work with! Even a short bus or shuttle bus offer way more space than the average cargo van. They are the best van life vehicle if you need extra room. Additionally, school buses are very affordable. You can find a quality used school bus for less than $10k, even as low at $3k. Furthermore, buses can go the distance, especially the diesels. For example, some school buses go for almost a million miles! However, keep in mind the longevity of any engine depends on routine maintenance.

Cons

The extra space afforded by a bus comes with a price – fuel economy. Most buses only get 10 mpg or less. Buses also have a lot of windows. However, windows can be a pro to you and a con to another. Windows allow for more light and air flow. On the other hand, they don’t provide any insulation and require curtains for privacy. In addition, the windows can make the bus less stealthy. School buses are harder to maneuver if you’re not used to driving long and large vehicles. They are also more difficult to find parking for. In addition, a loooooong wheelbase runs the risk of getting high centered on uneven backroads. 

school bus types

Additional reading/resources

Skoolie stories

fedex step van

Step van

If you’re unsure what a step van is, picture a UPS truck. Most have a pocket door between the cab and the cargo area. Most have a rolling rear door as well. However, you can find some with regular hinged doors.

Like buses, step vans give you more space to work with. A quick eBay search revealed more diesel than gas engines available. Therefore, if you want a gas vehicle, it might be hard to find a gas step van. However, as I’ve said before, the diesel engine will allow you to keep your home on wheels longer.

Pros

Not only are step vans larger than a cargo van, they also have straight walls and right angles. This is a very appealing van life vehicle quality. Anyone who has converted a cargo van knows curvy walls make building more difficult. But, with straight walls you can build out a step van similar to a house. My eBay search showed prices ranging from $3k to $20k with a few newer, more expensive ones.

Cons

Step vans are loud to drive. Insulation helps with this, but it’s still something to keep in mind. Also, the pocket and rolling doors are not as easy to insulate as the straight walls. Additionally, the rear rolling door takes up headroom. Like a bus, step vans aren’t easy to maneuver if you’re not used to them.

Additional reading/resources

Step van stories

box truck

Box truck/van

These are also known as a cube truck/van, cutaway truck/van or rolling toaster. Think of a Uhaul truck. They are two-piece trucks. That is to say, the cargo box is separate from the cab. Therefore, the cargo area is often not accessible from the cab. The box itself is constructed of either aluminum or fiberglass reinforced plywood (FRP). Like step vans, many have roll up rear doors. They range in size from 10-26 feet long and 6-8 feet tall. 

As with the previous two vehicles, box trucks offer a lot of space. Because they are two-piece trucks, you can’t legally put additional seating in the cargo area. They are available in both gas and diesel.

Pros

Between eBay and the Penske website, used boxed trucks go for about $4k-30k. Like step vans, they also have straight walls and right angles. Also, refrigerated box trucks are already insulated and built well.

Cons

Used box trucks are usually well used before they’re sold. Consequently, the pro of affordability can also be a con. The more affordable the box truck, the more miles they have it. Although this is true for any used van life vehicle, box trucks with high mileage are likely getting towards end of life. Similarly, it isn’t always easy to find a box truck in good condition. Walls made with FRP aren’t as strong as aluminum. In the same vein, box truck walls in general aren’t as strong as the sheet metal walls of a bus or van.

Additional reading/resources

Box truck stories

ambulances can make your van life vehicle conversion easier

Ambulance

There are three different types of ambulances. The Type I is like a box truck on a truck chassis. Similarly, the Type III is like a box truck, built on a cutaway van chassis. However, you can find Type I/III ambulances with access between the cab and back. The Type II is like a regular cargo van with a raised roof for additional space. Most ambulances are 20-24 feet long. They are available in both gas and diesel, but diesels are more common.

Pros

Ambulances become affordable once they have over 100k miles on it. Considering many of them of diesel, this isn’t a big deal. In addition, ambulances must be well maintained while in service. Therefore, they are more likely to be in good working order compared a regular box truck or cargo van. And unlike a box truck, an ambulance box is always made of aluminum and designed to be strong. As a result, they’re better for mounting items on the top. Also, most ambulances are already insulated. And they come with prebuilt storage!

Because of an ambulance’s intended purpose, they come with a lot of desirable features. For instance, they already have AC power in the back and shore power connections. Ambulances come with air conditioning and heating in the back as well. Additionally, they have interior lighting already wired. Consequently, ambulances are a great van life vehicle choice to save time and money on your build.

type 2 ambulance
Type II ambulance

Cons

Although a vehicle already wired for your needs is nice, there are disadvantages. You don’t need many of the systems wired in an ambulance. Consequently, removal of these systems and wiring can be a pain because it’s hard to tell which wires go to what. Ambulances also have a wheelchair lift/ramp. Unless it’s a necessary feature for you, it’s best to remove it to save weight. Also, prebuilt storage isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like what’s already installed, removing it adds extra work to your built out. 

Additional reading/resources

Ambulance Conversion Stories

pop top campervan, an iconic van life vehicle

Class B motorhome/camper van/pop top van

I lumped these guys together because they are prebuilt van life vehicles. Additionally, they’re all built on a van chassis. A Class B motorhome is also known as a camper van. What sets the pop top apart is in the name – unlike a Class B, it has a pop top. You can also take a regular cargo van and add a pop top. But vans with an existing pop top are most likely already converted to a camper. Like any other large van, all three are available in gas and diesel.

Pros

The number one pro is Class B’s and pop tops are prebuilt and ready for adventure! A Class B is like an RV. They have a control panel for their systems, making them easy to use. But they get better gas mileage than an RV. The pop top van gives you all the convenience of a low-profile van with height advantage of a high top.

Cons

If you want to customize a Class B or pop top, you need to either gut it or do a major remodel. Also, nicer ones in good shape tend to be expensive because they are already built out.

You can’t insulate pop top sides, and the material makes them easier to break into. Additionally, they don’t give you as much storage as a high-top van. The pop top roof makes installing solar a little more challenging.  Also, they are far from stealthy.

Additional reading/resources

Class B stories

Mark, a cargo van, was the best van life vehicle for us

Cargo van

Sprinters, Promasters and Transits are the three most popular cargo vans to convert into your van life vehicle. But let’s not forget about the Nissan NV, Chevy Express and Ford Econolines. If you need to seat more than two people, many cargo vans also have a passenger van equivalent. Keep the seats you need and remove the rest! Compared to a box truck or skoolie, cargo vans get decent fuel economy. However, compared to a minivan or small SUV, the fuel economy isn’t as good. Cargo vans are a popular choice because of their flexibility and build options.

Pros

Cargo vans give you a lot of options. Most are available with a high or low roof. They usually have a standard and long wheelbase option. Additionally, some cargo vans even have an extended version. These come with a long wheelbase and extended cargo area. Cargo vans are work vehicles, so they are durable and built to last (with routine maintenance). If you’re okay with buying a high-mileage van, you can pick one up for less than $10k.  Also, Sprinters are available with 4×4 for those wanting to go off roading. 

Another great option with cargo vans is you can buy a conversion kit. Buying a kit is a happy medium between DIY and paying a conversion company. However, if you do want a custom conversion done by a company, a cargo van is likely your best choice. Most conversion companies specialize in converting Sprinters, Promasters and Transits.

Cons

They can be expensive. A cargo van with low mileage in good condition can run you from $15k to over $45k. Depending on your build, you could find yourself teetering on the edge of your cargo van’s load capacity (like we did). Like a camper van or pop top, cargo vans have curvy walls. Lastly, depending on where you park, they’re not exactly stealthy.

Additional reading/resources

Cargo van stories

Minivan

Don’t dismiss a minivan because of its small size! If you’re traveling solo or with a partner, a minivan is a great option. However, if you need to bring along additional passengers, you can keep some of the extra seating in the back. But the hassle of converting from home mode to passenger mode might not be worth it. As far as I know, you’ll only find gas minivans.

Pros

If you’re looking for a stealthy van life vehicle, the minivan is for you! They also get better fuel economy than their cargo van big brothers. For those not used to driving large vehicles, a minivan is more maneuverable. Similarly, they are better as a “daily driver” when you’re traveling. A good minivan with less than 100k miles on it goes for around $10k or less. Also, because of their size, they are cheaper to convert. 

Cons

Minivans aren’t as spacious a larger vehicle. As a result, they limit what you can include in your build. Odds are you can’t fit a shower or even a composting toilet in your minivan. Additionally, they don’t provide a lot of room for tall folks. They are more for living out of than living in.

Additional reading/resources

Minivan stories

truck with camper shell

Truck camper

These campers are like a mini RV slid into the bed of a pickup truck. The possibilities are endless as far as your rig! You can start with your own truck and buy a truck bed camper, or buy one already tricked out. 

Pros

Used truck campers are very affordable. You can find a rig for less than $10k. If you can drive a pickup truck, you can drive a truck a camper (steer clear of the drive-thru though!). Plus, truck campers are great off-road van life vehicles. As far as the campers go, they range from basic to super swanky, giving you plenty of options. Additionally, you can also find pop top campers for extra headroom!

Cons

Truck campers are nice, but like minivans, they don’t have as much space as cargo van. And unlike the minivan, a truck camper is the opposite of stealthy. Depending on the truck and/or camper you get, they can be expensive. Also, like a Class B or pop up, a custom conversion means gutting the camper. Trucks also aren’t known for their fuel economy.

Additional reading/resources

Camper truck stories

Which is the best van life vehicle for you?

With eight different options, deciding isn’t always easy! Each vehicle has its pros and cons. Some suit certain needs better than others. Additionally, you might face trade offs when choosing the best van life vehicle for you. Is the extra space worth the lower fuel economy? Are straight walls more important than having access to the rear from the cab?

Whatever you decide, take your time finding the right vehicle. Don’t get too excited and buy the first one you see. Be patient. Also, ask a ton of questions when you go to look at a vehicle. It’s better to annoy the buyer with questions than regret your purchase. If you can, bring a mechanic with you. Also, don’t forget to check CarFax before you buy. Happy hunting!

Which van life vehicle do you see yourself in? Let us know in the comments!

Need more help getting started with van life? Check out our How to Start Van Life guide!

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Christina

Christina

I served 11 years in the Navy, and in 2014 I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. These experiences helped prepare me for vanlife. My husband and I now live in our self-converted van, Mark.

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About Us

We left “normal” life behind and now live in our self-converted van, Mark. Our time in the military and backpacking adventures made vanlife an easy choice. The leap into vanlife and a self-conversion can be exciting yet daunting. We want to share our experiences and provide resources to give you vanlife your way, and the highway.

jeremy and christina at sunset

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