Which #vanlife vehicle is right for you?
Which vanlife vehicle is right for me?
That is a question we all ask ourselves at the beginning of this process. At this point, you may have an idea of what you want, or you may be just beginning to explore the endless possibilities. I encourage you, regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, to read this post with an open mind and think long and hard about exactly which vehicle will best suit your needs and desires. This is a big project, a huge life change, and there are probably more options than any of us realize, so it’s super important to make sure that you choose a vehicle that aligns with your dreams.
When building a home, particularly a tiny home inside a vehicle, there are zillions of decisions to make throughout the process. Like, an unlimited number of decisions. Fortunately, at this stage, there is really just the one: what do you want your canvas to look like?
Your vehicle will become the blank slate on which you realize your ideas. At that point, the decision tree really opens up. For now though, all you need to do is start dreaming.
The Biggest Factors in Picking a Vanlife Vehicle:
What Does it Cost?
There is no doubt that, from the very start, price will be a major factor in your decision about which vehicle best suits you. But there is more to it than just looking through craigslist and deciding what you can afford. Yes, that is certainly part of it, and we will talk more about making a budget in a bit, but first we will explore all of the factors that play into the price of your vehicle.
For example, when comparing the cost of a skoolie versus the cost of a brand new cargo van, the skoolie will be cheaper. While it is true that the skoolie, even in the long run, could cost you much less money, it is not as inexpensive as it seems at first glance. Purchase price is important to consider, but what about conversion cost, fuel economy, maintenance and other operating costs? It’s important to factor these things in before buying the cheapest skoolie or van you can get your hands on.
A brand new cargo van costs, on the lowest end, something in the ballpark of $31,000 at the time of writing. Meanwhile, I regularly see people on the internet scoring full-size skoolies for a tenth of that. Perhaps the biggest trade-off is that the conversion costs of a full-size skoolie are much greater. A cargo van has something like 70 square feet of space to convert, whereas a skoolie can be as much as 270. By that metric, the materials for an equivalent conversion will cost 3-4 times as much in the skoolie. But it also doesn’t end with materials. What about fuel economy?
A brand-new, non-converted cargo van gets around 20-28 miles per gallon of gasoline. I cannot speak to the fuel economy of a full-size skoolie, but I can tell you that our converted shortbus averages around 12-13 miles per gallon of diesel. That difference in fuel economy makes the price difference in the vehicles moot after a couple hundred thousand miles. And while several hundred thousand miles seems like a lot of driving to make up that price difference, it is far from the only factor.
Buying an older vehicle like a used skoolie or short bus is also likely to mean more money spent on maintenance. Vehicles break down over time. It is a rule of the natural world, entropy and all that jazz, so no matter how well you source and inspect your vehicle, going with the cheaper option up front will most likely mean more money spent on maintenance down the road.
None of this is intended to discourage you from tricking out a school bus and turning it into your dream home (hello, have you seen our Sweet Bea?!), only to encourage you to think clearly about both short-term and long-term costs before purchasing your vehicle.
How Many Are Available?
Certainly another reason you see so many cargo vans converted is that they are readily available all over the country. Anyone, anywhere in the USA (and many other countries) can hit the dealership and buy their new will-be home on credit. Buying something more unique like a skoolie or a step truck can be more difficult. With the more unique vehicle options you first need to find it, then you need to inspect it (or have someone who knows what they’re looking at inspect it), and finally you likely need 100% of the money up front. Just one more thing to keep in mind while you are reading this and dreaming about your perfect tiny home on wheels.
How Large Do You Want It To Be?
Size is one of the most important factors in determining which vehicle you will find the most comfortable to live in. Are you looking for something that will house one person on the weekends, or do you need enough space for two adults, two kids, and a dog? 70 square feet is a tiny amount of space for one person to live in, trying to fit two sounds downright impossible. The rule of thumb for building a tiny house is that it should have 120-150 square feet per person. By that rule, anything but a full-size skoolie will not house more than one person. Obviously this is not a hard and fast rule, as we have been living in about 100 square feet with two people and a puggle for some time now. Just a reminder that the norm for even tiny houses is quite a bit larger than what you will be living in. But that’s only talking about interior size, exterior size is also very important.
While you may like the idea of having a large space to live in (uh…who doesn’t), a skoolie is unlikely to be a perfect fit for many folks. In some states, skoolies require a specialized license to operate, and the enormous size can be quite limiting. Like a traditional RV, you won’t be able to pull a skoolie into a neighborhood and sleep for the night, it will be tricky to to park at a restaurant to have dinner, and, unless you’re a glutton for punishment, you will hate driving through busy cities. If you choose the largest available vehicle, you can build it to be a pretty wonderful house with many amenities, but it will be more difficult to travel in. RVs and skoolies are perfect for long-term boondocking, but not nearly as versatile as a cargo van. Which brings us to the broadest and most important question of the lot.
How Do You Want to Use Your Vehicle?
During the process of reading these articles (and eventually our book, wink wink nudge nudge), your #1 goal needs to be imagining how you want to use your vehicle. Every decision that you make throughout your build will dictate how your finished vehicle can be used, and what it enables you to do. Every article you read will add a little bit of understanding of the potential outcomes from each of those decisions so that you can build yourself the perfect tiny home on wheels.
There are as many ways to look at the question of what you want your vehicle to do as there are things to do in this world, so let’s narrow it down to the largest issues, and address those. Here are some of those big questions:
Do you intend to live in your vehicle full-time? Are you gonna be a full-timer?
People build out vehicles for a lot of reasons. When we started our build, the intent from the very beginning was to create a house that we could live in (with our sweet pup) and travel the country. We wanted to be comfortable doing nearly everything in there and bringing along all the equipment we would need to pursue our various passions. What we wanted was a complete home on wheels. But lots of folks building out vehicles do not need quite that level of comfort.
For many, a converted vehicle will operate as an adventure rig for a weekend warrior, or maybe a road-trip-mobile to scoot between the National Parks for three months on a long vacation before returning to a home base. Those factors make a huge difference in what kind of vehicle to buy and what you want your build to look like. For example, we have a massive bookshelf above our bed. Andy sleeps half-under it every night and hits his head on it at least three times a week. As much of a pain as it can be (literally), We are so thankful that we have it. Andy is a huge book-lover, and it was painful enough putting 90% of his books in storage to move into the bus. If we were building an adventure rig, even if we planned to travel for six months or a year, that would not have been such an issue, and we likely wouldn’t have dedicated so much space solely to the storage of books.
No matter what, moving into your vehicle will require a lot of down-sizing, even if you move into a skoolie or a giant RV, but the larger options are certainly easier to fit your entire life into. If you are going to try to live in this vehicle full-time for the foreseeable future, be sure you start thinking about how much space you will need for your belongings and must-haves, and what you can comfortably live without.
Does it need to be able to get into the backcountry?
And, if it does, how far into the backcountry are we talking? You can buy a lot of these rigs with 4-wheel drive, but that comes with a considerable price tag. And then you also need to start asking questions about clearance and width.
Our short bus is clearly not a particularly backcountry-capable vehicle. She has plenty of power, and dualies in the back, but she is not 4-wheel drive and does not boast a lot of clearance. There are always trade-offs to a decision like this, so spend some time thinking about what you need your vehicle to do.
I know many people who would not be happy with a conversion that couldn’t easily get them to any trailhead in the country, or that would have trouble driving them to a backcountry skiing location in the dead of winter. But I know an equal number of folks that don’t need quite so capable a vehicle, who would prefer to have the cost savings and maybe the extra space afforded by a larger and less backcountry-capable vehicle.
As a general rule, the larger your vehicle gets, the harder it will be to take it places. The trade-off for a larger home in this instance is decreased mobility. But there are workarounds for these issues. Like the RVers you have seen in National Parks and National Forests the country over, you can always bring an additional, smaller vehicle with which to explore.
Some of the vehicles we talk about in this chapter might struggle to tow a full-size car behind them (not to mention the pain in the ass that towing a trailer everywhere is), so keep in mind towing capacity and post-conversion weight if a second vehicle is part of your plan. A popular alternative to towing a car or truck is to strap a motorcycle on the back. Adding a small dual-sport motorcycle to the back of your rig only adds a few hundred pounds and increases your mobility a ton! If motorcycles aren’t for you, a bicycle or an e-bike can work similarly. If your vehicle is a pain to drive in the city or can’t make it the last couple miles to the trailhead, just park it and hop on your bike. Not quite as convenient, but hey, at least you are getting some exercise, and some ripped calves.
Does it need to be comfortable in all weather conditions?
Tagging onto the topic of the last question, do you need your rig to be comfortable and functional in all four seasons and all weather conditions, or are you happy to chase the warm weather around the country? In our case, our bus does not particularly like the cold. She is an older diesel who not only struggles in the snow, but also has trouble starting in really cold weather.
When we bought her, neither of us had owned or driven an older diesel vehicle and we did not realize what a struggle it might be to start her in the Colorado winter. That first year, before we learned about block heaters, anti-gelling agents for diesel fuel, and replacing glow plugs, she had a particularly hard time. She has gotten better after a bit of TLC, but she still doesn’t love the cold. But, frankly, who can blame her?
As it turns out, we don’t like the cold much either. In our ideal world, we never need to spend a Colorado winter living in our bus, constantly stoking the tiny wood stove to keep our tootsies toasty. Yes, we are officially snowbirds.
For some, however, the allure of winter will never cease, and their rigs need to support their snow-filled desires and passions. In places like Colorado, where we built the bus, there are a lot of folks that would like to have a rig that is comfortable to live in up in the mountains in the dead of winter, and it is not hard to see why. Who doesn’t love the idea of parking at your favorite ski hill, waking up at 8:45 in the morning, and still making the first chair? There certainly are ways to build out a rig that is comfortable during a Colorado winter for weekend warriors and full-timers alike.
If you want a skiing rig, a short bus probably won’t be your go to, not only for the reasons mentioned above, but also for warmth’s sake. A larger space to live in is also a larger space to heat, and buses sure do have a lot of windows. We will explore climate control more later, but for now just keep that question of seasonality in mind while you think about which vehicle best suits you.
What gear do you need to carry?
This question dovetails well with the winter weather question above. If one of your main goals for your vehicle is to park outside your favorite ski hill, that dictates a lot about what you need to carry. You will definitely need plenty of room for your ski equipment as well as all of your cold weather clothing. But, if you like shredding the tasty gnar that much, you probably enjoy a few warm weather sports as well. Do you need a place to put your mountain bike? Or your paddleboard? Maybe a rack on top to strap down a kayak?
The outside of your vehicle can be modified in many ways to strap extra outdoor gear on, but every bit of gear should be considered. Some folks are single-sporters, who build their adventure rig around one thing, like skiing, mountain biking, or climbing, but I would say the majority like to hit a few bases. For us, we don’t have a ton of outdoor equipment, but we did have to factor in storage for the things we enjoy doing, namely: cooking, backpacking, hunting, fishing, photography, and making music (yes, there is both a ukulele and a suitcase kick drum aboard Sweet Bea). Can you imagine if we tried to add mountain biking and kayaking to that list?
Not every person building out their vehicle is going to need a roof rack for their canoe and a space where they can safely store their $4000 mountain bike while they’re away from the vehicle, but we do all have our own hobbies and our own set of necessary gear. Maybe for you it is a set of paints and an easel or just a large television and a collection of DVDs for when you are away from wifi. Start thinking about what you want to spend your days on the road doing and what you would want to facilitate that, as well as what you absolutely NEED to bring, and plan accordingly.
Does it need to be covert?
This is a question that I didn’t really understand when we were starting our build and one that is likely hard for anyone to understand until they have lived in a vehicle. Everyone in our lives was really supportive, and everyone who talked to us about our bus was so enthusiastic, it was hard for us to imagine how negatively people might respond to the finished rig pulling into their neighborhood for the night. Let us just say, not everyone is excited when a couple of young folks in a bus (no matter how well-converted and nice looking) pull up across the street for the night.
When you look at our bus, it is clear that we did not consider for even a second trying to make it covert. There isn’t a whole lot that you can do to make a bus covert, but painting it green, putting in a wood stove (with chimney), and building a deck on the roof are definitely the exact wrong decisions to make if you are trying to fly under the radar. We told ourselves that she would be so charming that no one would call the cops on us so long as we were kind and thoughtful to the folks we parked around. We giggle now just thinking about the naivete present in that sentence. Obviously, that was not the case.
It only took two nights in a town for someone to call the cops on us. When parking in town, we do everything that we can to keep ourselves from bothering the folks we park near. First off, we always park next to a non-residential property. Whether it is a park, a church, or a rec center, if you’re parked next to a non-residential property, you are at least a little bit farther from someone’s personal business. Second, we never stay more than a couple days in one place–and even the second day is often skipped to keep it down to a single night in one place. Thirdly, we are always very respectful. We don’t make noise and we clean up after ourselves–shotskis and dance parties are for the wilderness only (and when you’re parked outside your brother’s house). We realize that we are asking folks to allow us to be their neighbor for a day, and the only way to do that is to be very courteous. But we now know from experience that, in spite of all that, people will still call the cops on you.
I can’t speak to the reasoning of folks calling the cops, whether they are concerned we’ll set up camp there for a month, or do drugs outside their house, or what, but for some reason folks get really upset seeing you park your house in their neighborhood. Often the best strategy is to make yourself invisible.
The optimal vehicle for blending in is probably a white cargo van. White cargo vans are used by many businesses, so it is not unusual to see one parked in a neighborhood or a shopping center overnight. Folks are starting to get wise to the fact that a cargo van with solar panels on top likely has a couple of dirtbags in it, but it is your best option for blending in regardless. Someone may still blow your cover and call the cops on you, but it is a whole lot less obvious than when we pull up in Sweet Bea. And if you don’t make any noise and don’t answer the door, there isn’t a whole lot they can do.
Just how self-sufficient do you want to be?
Another parameter to take into consideration is just how self-sufficient you want to be in your vehicle–and for how long. Is the goal to have a van that you can take up to the mountains for long weekends or something that you can park in the desert for two weeks without a resupply? A lot of that capability will be determined during your design phase, but the size of the vehicle is definitely one parameter.
Living in a short bus, we can get by pretty easily for a week without any outside resources. Two weeks is a push and requires more forethought with regard to food and water. In the bus we have room for a 70 liter refrigerator, a composting toilet, two 15 pound propane tanks, and 34 gallons of water. There is also plenty of extra storage for non-perishable foods to help extend our time away from the grocery store. Unless long-term backcountry stays are the top priority, a cargo van is likely to have much less of all of those resources, and will need to head into town more frequently for food, water, and fuel.
How Hard Do You Want The Conversion To Be?
The final question I encourage you to ask before buying a vehicle is how easily you will be able to convert it. Not all conversions are created equally, and some of that comes down to the vehicle that you choose, for reasons such as: vehicle size, availability of tutorials, and the need for demolition.
The size of the vehicle is the most obvious stumbling block with a conversion. I cannot count the number of times throughout the conversion of our Sweet Bea that we thanked the heavens that we had not chosen to purchase a full-size skoolie. After removing the seemingly endless number of rivets, we couldn’t imagine how long that would have taken us if she were 15 or 20 feet longer. The larger the vehicle, the more space you have to build your home, but that obviously means more work as well. Which brings us to demolition.
Depending on the vehicle you buy, you may have to remove some things before starting your build. For us, when deciding on a vehicle, the short bus seemed absolutely perfect for our needs, and we are still very happy with our decision *self-five!* However, when you buy a vehicle like a skoolie, the demolition phase can be quite extensive. The first four months or so of our build were all spent in demolition and modification. We were able to sculpt the bus into exactly what we wanted, but it took a lot of time and resources to get there (resources meaning equal parts money, building supplies, and PBRs).
A cargo van, on the other hand, you can pretty much start building out right away. You can bring it back from the dealership and start plugging away. If we had chosen a cargo van to convert instead of the bus, I think that we would have been done in half the time (famous last words).
That should be all, or at least most, of the big questions to start mulling over. There will certainly be more as you start to fine-tune your personal plans, but that will get you started in the right direction. In the next section, we will cover some of the most commonly converted vehicles as well as some of the pros and cons of each.
Commonly Converted Vehicles:
Cargo vans are definitely what you see the most of these days in the vanlife community. They are widely available both new and used, and suit the job pretty well. They can be purchased with 4-wheel drive, which is a must for some folks, and they are also probably the best incognito option available.
When you think of vanlife, I would bet dollars to doughnuts that what comes to mind is a picture of a white sprinter van, probably parked on a beach somewhere. Either that or a picture out the back doors facing some beautiful lake, most likely including some beautiful lady’s beautiful backside (#vanlife). There’s a reason for that–cargo vans are great vehicles that are, for the most part, relatively inexpensive and easy to convert.
Despite their ubiquity, cargo vans are far from the only option, and are definitely not the best choice for every person. A cargo van only has about 70 square feet of usable space inside, which is not very much for even one person, much less a couple. If you get stuck in there with your partner and two dogs for a couple days because of bad weather, there’s little doubt you will be getting a bit testy with each other by the end. While a properly built van can be large enough to do nearly everything you want inside, they are pretty tight quarters, and van-dwellers typically rely more on outdoor space than do people living in skoolies or RVs.
While the high-ceilinged Dodge Promaster and Mercedes Sprinter are perhaps the most common styles of cargo van out on the road, there are plenty of other van options out there. The low-roof chevy express vans do not give you the ability to stand up inside, but can often be had for much less money. If what you are after is a self-contained adventure mobile (or mobile studio) on the cheap, these could be a good option for you. There are also those old conversion vans (the original van down by the river) and, of course, the eurovans like the Westfalia and the VW bus.
Because cargo vans are the most common vanlife vehicle, they also have the largest number of available resources on how to convert them. Not only are there tons of photographs out there of other people’s builds, the internet is overflowing with design ideas and build tutorials. Not only will your pinterest board be fire, but youtube has thousands of hours of folks converting cargo vans (though be warned, the skill levels in these videos and tutorials vary tremendously).
Cargo Van Pros:
-Widely available new and used
-Can be purchased on credit
-Lots of examples and tutorials to follow
-Good for stealth parking
-Low maintenance costs
-Lots of options for drivetrain, windows, etc.
Cargo Van Cons:
-Limited space for 2+ people
-Not the most exciting option
-Expensive relative to some options
-Used vehicles likely to have high mileage from commercial use
Perhaps the second most commonly converted vehicle is the skoolie. For those of you that don’t know the jargon, a skoolie is just a retired school bus that has been repurposed as a living space. Folks have been living in old school buses since at least the 1960s, when Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters travelled the country tripping on acid in their colorful school bus (see: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test).
Since then, many folks have followed suit, picking up a retired school bus or coach bus on the cheap and turning it into a home on wheels, with or without the LSD. As tiny homes have become more and more popular, the builds in these buses have equally become more and more intricate. These days, many of the new skoolie builds resemble an apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan more than they resemble those old hippie mobiles, but that exemplifies the biggest pro of the skoolie: it is a giant canvas with a lot of potential for you to build whatever you like.
A skoolie can (relatively) easily house a family with children while providing room for a full bath, and a standard refrigerator. The roof has enough space to host an enormous number of solar panels, and buses are built to carry a ton of weight that can be used to haul furniture, water, etc. On top of that, they can often be picked up quite cheap at auction. I’ve heard many stories of skoolies being bought for two to three thousand dollars. You could buy a whole fleet of old skoolies for the price of a new cargo van.
Given how popular skoolies are, there are also a lot of resources out there on how to convert your school bus. The resource library is not quite as deep as it is for cargo vans, but there is a strong buslife community out there to support you during your conversion and journey.
The biggest concerns with buying a skoolie are that they can be of mixed quality at the time of purchase, and they are enormous. You need to be sure when you buy your skoolie that it is in good condition, because repairs to big engines come with big price tags. Big rig mechanics often charge $200 or more per hour. The size issue also manifests itself in that it takes more money and time to convert and, once you’re done, more fuel to operate. It is also quite a bit more difficult to drive and park than most other options on this list.
In sum, you can often pick up a skoolie on the cheap, they can provide a wonderful home, but they are also a lot of work and the conversion will likely be much more expensive. Be prepared for that.
-Inexpensive to purchase
-All the space you could want for people or gear
-Built to haul a lot, so adding weight is not a concern
-Lots of character
-Large space means high conversion costs
-Poor fuel economy
-Difficult to drive and park
-Zero stealth camping potential
-May have trouble in the mountains
-Potentially only one seatbelt
-Older buses will require more maintenance
The short bus is right there in the middle between a skoolie and a cargo van. As such, it can be either the best of both worlds or the worst of them. It has about 50% more square footage than a cargo van and requires no special license or special skill to drive. They can often be purchased on the cheap, and do not necessarily have the big rig front requiring a specialized mechanic to work on them. That said, they are nearly as overt as the full-size skoolie, will require a fair amount of demolition before your build can begin, are prone to maintenance issues, and do chew through more fuel than a cargo van.
For us, the short bus was the best option. Trying to live full-time with two people and a dog in 70 square feet sounded like it would be tough. On top of that, we are both on the taller side, which made sleeping horizontally in a cargo van impossible without installing panel flares in the back (which sounded like a real pain). Big tip here, if you are around six feet tall, try laying down sideways in a van before you buy–you might run into some trouble.
If you are looking for a vehicle that does not need to be incognito, can house a couple people and a lot of gear, and doesn’t need to be able to make it too far into the backcountry, a short bus may just be the vehicle for you.
Short Bus Pros:
-Around 50% more square footage than a typical cargo van
-Lots of character
-Inexpensive to buy used and fairly widely available
-Large interior allows for creative design
Short Bus Cons:
-Fuel economy worse than cargo van
-Zero stealth-camping potential
-Older buses will require more maintenance
-Potentially only one seat/seatbelt
Box Truck/Step Truck/Etc.:
This category is meant to cover all the other used commercial vehicles you might find. When you think of a box truck, think of something like a u-haul truck, with a cab in the front and a large, square cargo area in the back. The cab and the cargo area are sometimes connected in these vehicles, but often are not. A step truck is more like a UPS truck or a food truck. Step trucks are tall, with a large door in the front that allows the driver to easily step down, and a large cargo area in the back. The cab and the cargo area are connected in step trucks.
There are a lot of reasons why step trucks and box trucks make great conversions. For starters, the building space is incredibly simple. You have, essentially, a large room in the back. It is tall, it is square, and it is empty: a perfect canvas. It does not have the curved ceiling of a skoolie or the peculiar bumps and lumps in the floor and walls like you find in a cargo van. The box truck may be the very simplest to build out.
Additionally, because box and step trucks are so widely used commercially, there are tons of them out there. They do however often carry a relatively hefty price tag, even when used. As fleet vehicles, they will often have many miles on them, but they should also have received all their required maintenance on time.
If you choose not to paint or alter the exterior too much, these could also be quite covert. If you park a uhaul in a neighborhood, it would likely be a couple days before the neighbors start to assume anything other than that someone is moving. That said, it would be miserable to live in the back of a box truck without any windows, so I would definitely plan on installing a few of those. And then your disguise is pretty much shot.
If we were to do this all over again, we would probably choose a box truck. Nothing is square in a bus, and that was one of our biggest struggles. The design options for a box truck are endless. With the right design and skills, you could build something really special in a space like that.
Box Truck Pros:
-Widely available used from commercial operations
-Square design makes building easy
-Potential for very stealth design
-Large living area
-Wide variety of vehicle sizes and shapes
Box Truck Cons:
-Commercial vehicles may have high mileage
-No windows in living area when purchased
-Poor fuel economy
-Not many examples/tutorials on the internet to follow
If you are like us, the idea of buying a premade RV and hitting the road literally never crossed your mind. Ayana and I both individually planned on living in vehicles when we went on our first date, but as far as I know this simply was not an option that we considered. We were both pretty set on building the vehicle out ourselves, I suppose, and my only association with RVs at the time was retired folks living their golden years bouncing from one national park to the next in some monstrously oversized vehicle with a generator and a satellite dish. Needless to say, that was not the image of life on the road that we had for ourselves.
Now, having spent over a year turning a short bus into an RV (we retitled our short bus as an RV after we finished the build), I no longer hold those same prejudices. If you have some money and would like to get on the road quickly, a pre-built RV may just be right for you. And if, like me, you are turned off by the McMansion feeling of the standard RV interior, you can certainly buy an older one and renovate it. Buying a vehicle that is already intended to be lived in can save you a LOT of work. You don’t have quite the same creative license as you get with a fully blank slate, but if you can get on the road six or twelve months faster, more power to you.
-Plug and play: you could move in today
-Lots of space and storage
-Can be purchased on credit
-Potential to renovate, but not necessary
-Some can tow a car behind
-Poor fuel economy
-Built around RV technology requiring things like dumping sewage
-Large options are difficult to drive and park
The tow-behind camper shares many of the pros and cons with the RV, except that this one comes with much less commitment. If you already have a vehicle capable of towing a camper, the initial investment comes down immensely. Tow-behind campers are not cheap, but they are certainly cheaper than an RV, and they have the advantage that, when you get to your campsite, you can disconnect the camper roam freely in your much more maneuverable vehicle. This trade-off is important, because driving with a trailer can be a real pain if you aren’t used to it. I’ve seen more than a few folks without trailer experience really mess up a vehicle trying to reverse.
The interiors of tow-behind trailers are similar to RVs–not quite our speed or preferred flavor. Again, ready-made just never crossed our mind. We wanted full creative license with our build. However, these campers are built to live in. Depending on your desires and timeline you could put in a little work and turn them into something that the instagram crowd will fawn over. Or just move in on day one and start enjoying life on the road.
-Plug and play: you could move in today
-Potential to renovate, but not necessary
-Well-designed for space and storage
-Low commitment: you don’t have to take it everywhere
-Requires vehicle capable of towing
-Towing a trailer makes driving difficult
This one almost doesn’t belong in this book, as the build and the lifestyle are completely different from buslife or vanlife, but for some it is really all you need: a pickup truck with a built out camper shell. I helped my friend build out the back of his Toyota Tacoma, and he is happy as a clam living in there.
Unlike a van or a bus, living in the back of a truck means that you need to be very minimalist and your lifestyle is fully reliant on outside space. To cook, use the bathroom, or do just about anything, you need to climb out of the back of the truck. You wouldn’t want to try to spend a winter living in the mountains in this, but if you are happy to follow good weather and live a glamping lifestyle, the camper shell is an awesome option.
For less than $1000 (excluding the shell itself), you can build a nice little space in the back of a pickup truck with a bed, a basic solar setup, and enough room to store the gear you need to get by. It probably works best for the weekend warrior, but the committed dirtbag can live comfortably for a long time out of the back of their truck.
Additionally, there are slide-in, pop-up campers that are more expensive, but allow the truck to go just about everywhere it could before, and provide a much larger inside living space, though these get pretty very quickly.
Camper Shell Pros:
-Can go anywhere
-Maximum stealth for sleeping in the city
-Quick and inexpensive to build (if you have a truck already)
Camper Shell Cons:
-Requires a truck
-Near impossible for more than one person
-Very dependent on regular resupplies and use of public services (toilets, etc.)
This list does not come close to covering all of the options out there. At best it covers the most commonly converted choices. It is not meant to be all-inclusive, it is meant instead to get your mind rolling on the different sorts of vehicles you could choose to live in and how you might go about that.
While you are thinking about it, remember that you really can live in just about anything. For a couple of months, while I was fighting fires in Southern Arizona, I lived in my Prius. It was summer in Tucson, so it was hotter than hell during the day, but cooled off a fair bit at night. I ate my meals sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open, with all my non-perishable food in a milk crate on the passenger seat. When it was time to go to bed, I crawled in the back next to my bins of clothes and books, and read for a while or watched the stars out the window before I fell asleep. It was the fewest possessions I have ever had, and the freest I have ever felt. Those months were some of the best of my life, and that was when I first felt certain that this was the life for me.
I hope that after reading this article your head is buzzing with ideas. While writing it I got so excited about the different vehicle types out there that I had to take a few breaks to sketch out ideas of how I would convert them. And that, I would say, is the best way to go into this: with a head full of dreams and ideas. Start looking at what’s out there and start thinking about what you would do with it. Get that creative fire stoked.
The next article will take us into the basics of design, but don’t feel like you need to be set on a vehicle to move on to that next chapter. I would suggest that, before you make any big moves (like buying your rig), you read as much as you can on every aspect of vanlife and the conversion process. Once you have taken in all that information, you will be much better prepared to start the conversion process and to select the perfect canvas for your build. So, hit that subscribe button on the sidebar to get on our list and receive notifications for each new article we release.