Vanlife Movement: Is Vanlife Right for You?

I can fit just about anywhere in my Sprinter Van

VanLife, or #vanlife, is all over social media these days and it’s not just for young women in bikinis! VanLife can be the solution for lots of full- or part-time RVer’s goals.

VanLife is a fast-growing movement and for good reason! While it might seem a little cramped at first, living out of a converted cargo van (think FedEx van) is truly the best of all worlds. A well-designed van has a place for everything you need, and with everything stowed all the time, it is a wonderfully nimble traveling home.

My goals for life on the road were 1) to have my comfortable bed and fully-functional kitchen everywhere I want to go, and 2) to be able to park in all the little pull-offs along the Oregon coast. In designing my own custom van, I got that and a whole lot more. My finished van is full of “happy surprises” and works better than I’d ever imagined.

Perks of a Sprinter Van

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Fitting in a car camping spot with my van

Even though I got my Sprinter just before the 4×4 models came out, my 170 wheel-base hightop van gets me to the places other RVers can only dream about. 

On the rare occasions that I do stay at an RV park, I’m able to fit into a car camping site, which is almost always more scenic than the big-rig spots. But because I’m in “just a van”, I’m also able to overnight just about anywhere. 

With the van, I feel like I can fit in anywhere as well: it’s an RV when it needs to be an RV and it’s a van when it needs to be a van. Because it’s self-contained, I can use Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome, and because it’s a newer van I can stay at just about any RV park or in any neighborhood without question.

Finding Vanlife Friends On The Road

I’ve also found that with my van I fit into lots of different social groups. There are van life gathering of mostly young, hip Instagram influencers, overlanding gatherings, the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), Descend on Bend, and more. 

Of course, my favorite and where I feel most at home is at the Xscapers Convergences. But because my van fits in everywhere, I’m able to experience it all!

Perks of Van-Living vs RVing

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There are so many benefits to living in a van. I’m able to pack up camp in less than 5 minutes. I get 20+ MPG. Setting up camp is as simple as finding a mostly level spot, parking, and turning my seat around. And I just love going to a national park, checking out the visitor center and then deciding what I’m going to wear for the day because I have it all with me in an easily parkable package.

I intentionally purchased my Sprinter with a Freightliner emblem instead of Mercedes to attract less attention. I also ordered it in green so no one ever knows what to make of it! Other than the fans and solar on the roof and the tip out windows, there isn’t anything that screams “RV”. Is it a work vehicle? A passenger van? An RV? No one is ever really sure and I like it that way; it gives me a lot of flexibility.

Different Kinds of Vans

Of course, Sprinter cargo vans made by Mercedes aren’t the only options for #vanlife. Dodge, Ford, and Nissan all make cargo vans and each has their own strengths and weaknesses.

 The Nissan NV Cargo Van is becoming more popular with its generous 5yr/100K warranty and 9,400lb towing capacity making it attractive to RVers with trailers because you can still have your larger RV and take excursions with everything needed in your converted van. 

I even have friends who live full-time in minivans, SUVs, and even Prius’, but I do appreciate being able to stand up in my home on wheels!

Why Build a Custom Van?

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Once I knew I wanted a van, I started looking around at the available options and the vans that were built by the RV industry just had too much going on. They were trying to be everything to everyone and, in my not so humble opinion, ended up not really being just right for anyone. So I started looking at custom and DIY options and after a couple of false starts with builders, I settled on working with a tiny house builder and designed my own van. I was able to have him build drawers and cabinets to fit the things I needed, rather than having to fit my things in existing spaces. 

In building custom, I was also able to choose materials with minimal off-gassing and environmental impact. I have just the things I need in my van and nothing more. The systems I chose are fairly simple and sturdy. 

By using a marine fridge, diesel heater, and slam latches, my van has more in common with a boat than a typical RV. The marine fridge allows me to park just about anywhere and not worry about being level. Other than my heater, everything runs off my solar-charged lithium batteries. I opted to go without propane, mostly to avoid the smell and the condensation, and I don’t regret it for a second.

There are so many benefits to acquiring your rig this way, not least of all is the cost. My van was 10s of thousands of dollars less than a new class B off the lot. I have way more open space in my van, the components are of a much higher quality, I was able to choose eco-friendly options, and it works for me rather than me having to adjust to it.

The one downside to building custom is the time required. Time in figuring it all out, time in finding the right builder, time in building a one-off rig. And now, with #vanlife being so popular, it is getting harder to find a good builder who is available. Most have multi-year waiting lists. I do think the benefits are definitely worth the wait though. Besides, you’re going to need that time to downsize all your stuff!

So... Could Vanlife Be Right for You?

Just this year, four of my Xscapers friends have either downsized to a van, or added a van to their travel options and several others are actively looking at vans. Maybe #vanlife is right for you too!

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Joni Zander

Joni Zander is the Gal behind the YouTube Channel “TheGalavan”. She’s been living and exploring full-time in her custom-built Sprinter van since May 2017. While on the road she volunteers with Homes on Wheels Alliance, a non-profit working to prevent homelessness by providing alternative housing and nomadic education. You can follow Joni at The Galavan on YouTube. 

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