Van life vehicle needs, 5 useful questions to ask yourself

Buying a van life vehicle is a big investment. These five questions can help you identify what you need to look for when making the big purchase.

Don’t set yourself up for a van life fail. That is to say, don’t jump the gun and buy a van the instant you decide to do the #vanlife. Sure, you can buy any van and make it work. But making it work with a tiny home on wheels is not ideal. Instead, ask yourself a few questions to help determine what your van life vehicle needs are. Then you can look for a vehicle that suits your needs. I say “vehicle” instead of “van” because you don’t need a van to live the van life. My next post will cover the many vehicle options, so stay tuned. In the meantime, on to the questions!

  1. Does you van life vehicle need to seat more than two people?
  2. What are your must-haves?
  3. How long do you plan to keep your van life vehicle?
  4. Do you have a fuel/engine preference? (Gas vs Diesel)
  5. What are your mechanical abilities?

1. Does your van life vehicle need to seat more than two people?

If you’re traveling solo or as a pair, the world is your oyster. However, it gets tricky when you need to accommodate more than two people. Not only do you need extra seating, the seating needs to be safe and legal.

Adding safe and legal seats to a van is no easy feat. Some insurance companies won’t cover your vehicle if the seats are a self-install. You can always check with your insurance provider if you want to DIY. Consequently, the safest bet, pun intended, is to have additional seats installed by a professional. In short, if you need more than two seats, it might limit your vehicle options.

This article by Bikerumor does a good job of addressing the extra-seats problem even though it only covers popular van life vehicles. 

three people sitting in a van
Remember, safety first!

2. What are your must-haves?

This question leads to more questions. Do you need the ability to stand up in your van life vehicle? Are off-road capabilities necessary? Is an indoor kitchen a must? Do you need instant hot water? Make a list of the things you must have to be happy and comfortable in your van life vehicle.

This goes back to satisfying your needs versus making it work. For instance, if you plan to part-time van life, there’s a good chance your must-haves are different than a full-timer’s. In addition, your vehicle living experience influences your must-haves. The more time you’ve spent living in a vehicle, the less you’ll need. Check out my previous post if you want a better idea of what I’m talking about.

Example – how our must-haves dictated our vehicle choice

Our must-haves:

  • Indoor kitchen with stove and sink
  • Composting toilet
  • Fridge
  • A stationary bed with garage underneath
  • Seating in the cargo area (i.e. not doing swivel seats in the cab)
  • Access to the living area from the cab
  • Insulation
  • Heater
  • Vent fan
  • Leisure battery

And the things we could live without:

  • Hot water heater
  • Indoor shower
  • Solar panels (we’re the minority, I know)
  • Plumbing (i.e. a big water tank in the garage with plumbing to the sink)
  • Windows
  • 4 x 4
  • Stealth (a green cargo van doesn’t blend in with other work vans)

With the insulation and walls in place, the only bed orientation that worked for us was forward to aft. Therefore, our bed orientation takes up an extra 20 inches vice port to starboard. A regular wheelbase van didn’t leave enough room for our kitchen and seating area. As a result, we opted for a long wheelbase van. We wanted room to sit upright while on the bed. We wanted adequate storage underneath as well. This required a high-top van. Our van life vehicle needs chose our van for us.

back of mark the green van showing our full garage and why we needed a high top vanlife vehicle
All that “crap” in the garage is why we needed a high top.

3. How long do you plan to keep your van life vehicle?

Some folks start van life knowing they won’t be in their first vehicle for long. They use their first one as a test run to see what works and what doesn’t. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to nail your layout and usability on the first try when you have nothing to base it on. Therefore, it makes sense to build a Version 2.0 if you find yourself wanting some major changes.

Buying a whole new vehicle isn’t the only option though. For example, if you love your rig you can always gut it and start over. Likewise, you can do a remodel. Oh the other hand, you might find it more affordable to sell your built out van and start from scratch.

A quick search on conversiontrader.com of 2010-2015 Sprinters yielded eight results. Two of the eight stated they were up for sale because the owners were building out new rigs. Also, looking at the prices, Jeremy and I could sell Mark right now and at least break even. However, I’m a drive-my-vehicle-until-it-the-wheels-fall-off kind of girl. Jeremy is the same way. As a result, Mark is a ‘til-death-do-us-part home on wheels. For better or worse!

The amount of time you plan to keep your van life vehicle could determine what kind of vehicle you buy. For instance, if you foresee a Version 1.0 and 2.0 in your future, you might not want to spend a whole lot on the first vehicle. Or you might want to buy a pre-built vehicle to test it out before converting one yourself. Also, how long you keep your vehicle might be the deciding factor whether to go with a gas or diesel engine.

sign with diesel and gas prices
These days diesel is more expensive than gas.

4. Do you have a fuel/engine preference?

Diesel vs gas – advantages of each

Your two major fuel/engine options are gas or diesel. Both have their advantages. Every gas station has gas. In some regions, finding diesel takes a little more work. Diesel engines produce more torque than gas engines. Therefore, they are more efficient under heavy load. Additionally, diesel engines get better fuel economy than gas, especially on the highway. Diesels also last longer than their gas counterparts. For example, a gas pickup truck might last 200,000 miles whereas a diesel can last 500,000-800,000 miles. But diesels also cost more than gas vehicles, as do their repairs. In addition, diesel fuel is more expensive than gas.

Gas AdvantagesDiesel Advantages
Fuel available at every gas stationMore efficient under heavy load
Fuel is cheaperBetter fuel economy, especially on the highway
Gas engines are cheaperDiesel engines last longer
Cheaper repairs/parts can be easier to come by

Fuel economy

If you plan to drive a lot, fuel economy is an important van life vehicle aspect you need to consider. Does the higher cost of diesel fuel matter in the long run? Let’s do some math to find out! We’ll compare the gas and diesel versions of a Dodge Promaster. This is ideal because it’s the same vehicle except for the engine.

First, we must make some assumptions for our calculations:

  • I pulled fuel prices from AAA’s National Average Gas Prices. The highest cost difference between diesel and gas is the Month Ago Average. Those are the numbers we’ll use for gas and diesel prices: $1.83 and $2.52, respectively.
  • VanLifePrep noted the gas Promaster fuel economy at 15-17 mpg, so I’ll use 16 mpg. For diesel, it stated 23 mpg.

Using the numbers from our assumptions, let’s calculate how much it costs to drive 500 miles.

Gas Promaster:

calculations

Diesel Promaster:

In the case of the Promaster, it’s cheaper to fuel a diesel engine. However, is the fuel savings enough to make up for the higher sticker price of a diesel? 

a dodge ram promaster might meet your vanlife vehicle needs
This guy could be your future home on wheels!

Long-term considerations

Sticking with the Promaster, I did a search on TruCar to see the price difference between a used diesel and gas van. I looked for a 2015 cargo van, 2500 high roof with 159” WB. The diesel with 187,555 miles on it went for $14,993. The gas with 157,334 miles on it went for $12,957.

Now we need more assumptions:

  • Both vehicles will run until end-of-life with no repairs needed. I know this is unrealistic, but the purpose of assumptions is to make things easier.
  • The gas Promaster will only last 250,000 miles and the diesel will last 500,000 miles

This scenario doesn’t require any proper math. Based on our assumptions, the gas Promaster on TruCar has about 93,000 miles left on it. The diesel has over 300,000 left. In other words, you would need to buy three gas Promasters to get the same miles as the diesel. Additionally, you’re looking at three van builds vice one for the same miles. However, diesels tend to have higher maintenance and insurance costs. But the extra costs don’t add up to the price of two gas vans and building them out.

You may have noticed I’m a proponent of diesel. This takes us back to Question 3; how long do you plan to keep your van life vehicle? It doesn’t make sense to spend the extra money on a diesel if you plan to turn around and sell it. But if you do, diesels hold their value longer than gas vehicles. Just saying 😊.

Additional References

https://www.bellperformance.com/blog/diesel-vs.-gasoline-which-engine-is-a-better-fit-for-you

https://www.carsdirect.com/used-car-buying/are-used-diesel-pickup-trucks-worth-the-price

https://www.moneyunder30.com/will-owning-a-diesel-save-you-money

mechanic tools hanging on the wall
The ability to perform simple repairs on your vehicle can save a lot of money.

5. What are your mechanical abilities?

Your mechanical prowess, or lack thereof, could sway your van life vehicle decision. For instance, the older a vehicle is, the more likely it is to break down. This means more repairs and more downtime. If you can’t do the work yourself, if also means spending more money. That old Westy you’ve dreamed about for years breaks down a lot more often than a newer Ford Transit. 

I’m not saying to buy a new vehicle or only look for used vehicles with low mileage. What I am saying is do research on the specific vehicle you plan to buy when the time comes. Does it have a history of mechanical problems? Are the typical repairs something you can do yourself? If not, are they expensive? Make an informed decision when you buy.

What are your van life vehicle needs?

At the end of the day, the perfect vehicle that suits all your van life needs might not exist. But at least now you know what your vehicle needs are. Knowing this makes it easier to narrow down a vehicle. Stay tuned for our next post on different van life vehicle options! It highlights different vehicles, their pros and cons, and the needs they meet.

Have you already purchased your van life vehicle? What did you buy and what influenced your decision? 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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