Van Life: What It Is and What You Need to Know

Van life is a mobile lifestyle that has become popular among outdoor enthusiast, surfers, and minimalistic livers. What is thought to be a recent fad sparked from van life on Instagram, has been around for several years. Generally, the best vans for van life include Mercedes Sprinters, Ford Transits, or Ford Econolines.

Getting started on van life is never an easy task. Whether you have woodworking experience or not, the van conversion is extremely challenging. I’ve put together a brief, 24 step guide to help you with your next van life conversion.

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What Is Van Life?

Van life is a popular way of life in the outdoor and surfing community. Whether you want to live in a van full-time or just use it for weekend trips, you can find a place to fit in. It originally began back in the ’80s with Volkswagen buses and has recently become a popular trend.

Some may be more familiar with the word glamping, which some consider van life to be. However, if you ask the van community if they consider it that I’m sure they would disagree. Glamping is glamorous camping and that consists of staying out of the dirt 24/7.

Whether you’re an original van lifer or just getting started, there is a tight-knit community out there for you. It’s filled with people who are more than willing to share tips on converting a van and those who are immediately ready to pack up the rig for a road trip.

Who Van Life is Right For

Van life seems enticing and attractive at first for many, however isn’t always the best suite for everyone. It’s most commonly seen among outdoor enthusiasts, the surfing community, avid campers, minimalist life livers, or anyone who is generally curious about jumping into the pond of a new hobby.

The people van life is right for are:

    • Outdoor enthusiasts: Anyone who is already super into the outdoors may find this to be a perfect fit. It’s a solid way to motivate yourself to travel to more National Parks and surrounding areas.
    • Surfing community: Surfers typically love this lifestyle because they can toss their boards in the back of their van and head to the beach for an extended period of time. There are not many things better than waves and vans.
    • Avid campers: People who already have a knack for camping, but want to take it to the next level.
    • Minimalistic life livers: Building a van is like playing a game of Tetris, every inch counts. People who are about minimalism will find van life promotes exactly that.
    • Hobbyists: Anyone looking to pick up a new hobby or passion should consider building a van and joining the community. There’s a lot of green grass on the other side.

Overall, van life can be a good fit for a wide range of people. Whether you’re looking to pick up something new or enhance an existing passion, it can be right for you.

How Much Van Life Costs

Generally, there are various costs when it comes to van life. However, there are some common costs you will encounter regardless of the route you go (living full-time or part-time). Some of the costs include up to $25,000 for a new or used van, around $2,000 for a budget build, between $20 – $50 for campsites along the way, and, the one we all dread most, gas.

    • New/Used Van: $10,000 – $25,000; $30,000+ for luxury vans (Mercedes)
    • Hardware: $1,000 – $5,000 (I spent $2,000 on my budget van conversion)
    • Campsites: $20 – $50, plus any National Park entrance fees
    • Gas: Varies per location (use Gas Buddy to find the cheapest gas)

Although the initial investment might seem like a big pill to swallow, you only have to spend it one time. After you’ve completed your build and tidied up your van, you’re pretty much set. From personal experience, I haven’t spent much, if any, over the course of a year after finishing my conversion.

Best Vans for Van Life

There’s a lot of vans out there to choose from, which makes getting starting a bit of a challenge. The best vans for van life include a Mercedes Sprinter, a Ford Transit, and a Ford Econoline. They all have their own pain points and benefits, which I will briefly cover here.

Three of the best vans for van life are:

1. Ford Econoline

The Ford Econoline is the classic work van that has recently been put to use as a camper van. They generally round around $10,000+ for a used model, which is what I used for my conversion. Although they lack high-ceilings, unless you put a pop top on them, they’re a great starter van for the adventure enthusiast.

2. Mercedes Sprinter

Mercedes Sprinters are definitely one of the most common adventure vans you see driving around. With high ceilings and long wheelbases, it’s a perfect way to build a liveable space. Although because these are considered a luxury, you can expect them to cost roughly $35,000+.

3. Ford Transit

The Ford Transit is the rival to the Mercedes Sprinter. They offer the same high-ceilings and long wheelbases, but for a fraction of the price ($24,000+). With this van, you can create an affordable living home on wheels.

Pros & Cons of Van Life

Converting a van can be your ticket to a new lifestyle, one that you’ve been waiting to dive into. It offers freedom of location, a rig always packed with your gear, and a home on wheels. However, take into account the potential dirtiness, gas expenses, and the challenge to build one out yourself.

Pros of Van Life

The pros of van life are:

  • Freedom of location: Being apart of van life means you’re able to go wherever you want, whenever you want. Whether that’s sleeping at a campground or finding BLM areas on the side of the road, you have freedom of location. It’s extra beneficial to those that have a remote job, giving them the most opportunity.
  • Easy to pick up your things and go: Your gear is always set and packed in the van, which allows you to head out on a trip at any time. I find this to be one of my favorite parts because it eliminates the packing stage of camping or a road trip.
  • It’s a home on wheels: You can make it as homey as you’d like. Anywhere you go you can have a bed, stove, cabinets, a roof over your head, and a shower if you fancy that.

Cons of Van Life

The cons of van life are:

  • Tends to be a little dirty: No one ever said van life was cleaner that regular traveling and camping. Sometimes, things may get a little dirtier inside your van than you like. Just let it happen, it’s part of the process.
  • It’s not easy to build: If you’re converting a van on your own as I did, just know it’s not easy. It takes a lot of patience and time, lots of time. But at the end of it all, it will be 100% worth everything you put into it.
  • Gas expenses add up quickly: Just like any road trip, gas expenses can quickly add up. For me, I try to not worry about this and realize that gas is just one of the expenses you’ll never be able to avoid. If you like the outdoors, then it should be worth the investment.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Van Life

The most frequently asked questions about van life are:

What Van Is Best to Live In?

The van that is best to live in depends on your specific needs. For example, if you want to build an RV that is liveable, you should consider something like a Ford Transit. If you’re looking for something a little less expensive and don’t need the extra space, consider buying a Ford Econoline.

How Much Does It Cost to Convert a Van?

The costs to converting a van can range between $1,000 – $5,000+, depending on how serious of a conversion you do. If you follow my budget van conversion, you could expect to pay roughly around $2,000. However, you can always tailor your conversion to how much money you spend. After all, it’s your project.

Can You Live Out of a Van?

Living out a van is 100% possible. While it’s not totally legal to park your van wherever you want to sleep, there are some areas that allow you to do so. These areas include Walmart parking lots, State and National Park campgrounds, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas that allow for it legally.

Bottom Line

Van life as a whole is trending as of late and will continue to do so. It’s a mobile lifestyle meant for the surfing community, outdoor enthusiasts, and any run of the mill hobbyist. It can provide lots of freedom of location and motivation to travel once you get through the time-consuming conversion.

If you need a place to start or what to learn from my mistakes, take a look at the brief overview of my budget van conversion. There’s a lot of possibilities and designs to go with, but here is one I know costs less than $2,000.

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