The Best Vans for Van Life: 5 Types to Choose From

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You’ve decided to drop the roots that hold you in one place and see what the world has to offer, taking your home on the go. Much like an adorable hermit crab or turtle, you want to be safe, comfortable, and fully prepared for whatever adventure comes your way, wherever in the world you want to be. 

Welcome to van life.

Living in a van is a lot of fun. It allows you to be completely location independent, giving you the freedom to go where you please, so long as there’s a road to take you there. 

But, just like anything in life, it’s not all epic sunsets, picture-perfect campsites, and cozy nights. There are a lot of pros and cons to living in a van but choosing the perfect vehicle type for the van life you dream of is key to making it work for you.

While vans come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, I’ve broken them down into 5 different types. These vehicles will offer you either more off-road capabilities, more interior space, or a more lux experience. Fill in the blanks to pick the best van for your van life. 

Jeep / SUV with Roof Tent

Pros:

  • Use your everyday vehicle
  • No building necessary
  • Can take you anywhere, roads optional
  • The best-fitted vehicle will come with a big price tag, an older or used model will be affordable

Cons:

  • Not great for building an interior living space
  • Small, not able to stand inside
  • Bad weather is a dealbreaker

Let’s start with the smallest option on this list and one that’s actually not a van at all. Opting for a Jeep or small SUV with all-wheel drive (AWD) or 4-wheel drive (4WD) won’t give you an indoor kitchen or workspace but it’s the ultimate vehicle for outdoor adventures.

We met plenty of people on the road who were traveling this way. By adding a pop-up tent to their roof (with a ladder for easy access), they were literally able to take their everyday vehicle anywhere they wanted to go. With a Jeep or other SUV fitted for activities, you’ll be able to easily bring your bikes, kayaks, or extra gear with you. Plus, most of these vehicles can fold their backseats completely down, giving you the option to sleep inside or providing you with plenty of storage for all of your camping gear.

The Bottom Line: A Jeep or similar SUV with a rooftop tent is the perfect adventure vehicle for those seeking a true escape. If you want to be able to go and camp anywhere, without being hindered by roads or parking spaces, this is the one for you. Ideal for those not doing this full-time.

Ford Econoline E150 or Similar

Pros:

  • Small enough to park anywhere and blend in
  • Large enough to have a bed, small kitchen, and storage space
  • Easy driving, especially in cities
  • Super affordable

Cons:

  • Not all models have 4WD 
  • You won’t be able to stand up
  • Max space for 2 people

A Ford Econoline E150 is relatively small. This is the type of van most often associated with construction workers, painters, or unfortunately enough for its self-esteem, those dodgy white vans that children are lured to.

Now, let’s drop that stereotype and see these vans for what they really are: a compact enough vehicle that you’ll be able to fit in nearly all parking spots but large enough where you can turn the inside into a comfortable build with some room to stretch out.

When my husband, dog, and I embarked on our western U.S. road trip, we bought a Ford Econoline E150, affectionately named Wanda. Wanda was the perfect van for what we needed her for. We planned to spend most of our time outdoors, only planned to do dispersed camping, and wanted to be able to pop into cities when it was convenient.

She was the perfect size for all of that. 

Although the Ford Econoline was ideal for our trip, it does have its downfalls. Unless you want to take off the roof and add height, adults won’t be able to stand fully erect in these. You’ll need to hunch or sit while inside, which can get pretty tiresome if this is your full-time home. Ours also didn’t have a 4-wheel drive, so while we were able to take her to some pretty remote places, we couldn’t do all of the adventures we hoped for. 

The Bottom Line: A Ford Econoline or similar is the best van for van life if you want to be able to mix in visiting remote areas with spending time in cities. It’s also great if you plan to only do this part-time or for a relatively short period of time. 

Mercedes Sprinter or Similar

Pros:

  • Modern amenities
  • Spacious interiors
  • Big enough for a small family (but best for 1-2 adults)
  • Ideal size for full-time van life

Cons:

  • The price tag of your van is well-known and might draw unwanted attention
  • It’s bigger than you think, making city driving sometimes tough
  • Given the number of features, it might be tough to maintain

I know you’ve seen plenty of Sprinter vans when you scroll through Instagram daydreaming of your life on wheels. I get it: they’re new, modern, aesthetically pleasing, and spacious enough. If you have the money to spend on one, it really is hard to beat out a Sprinter’s amenities, especially as a digital nomad needing to balance travel with work.

The combination of being able to stand up and having all of the amenities of a real house, without being so big you can’t get anywhere, is a pretty great option. Keep in mind though, Sprinters are probably smaller in your head than they actually are in real life. You won’t fit in many parking spaces or parking decks if you plan to spend your time stealth camping around cities. 

Given its size though, it is a great van for full-time van life for a single person, couple, or a family with a small child. Thanks to how intricate van builds are these days, you’ll be shocked by how much you can fit into a Sprinter. 

The Bottom Line: A Sprinter is a great option for someone who will live full-time in their van. It’s can cost a hefty sum, so it’s best for someone with money to spare. It’s not the only van out there, contrary to what social media says.

Schoolie (aka a School Bus)

Pros:

  • You’ll have more than enough room inside
  • You can get super creative with the interior build
  • It’s an affordable option
  • It’s every kid’s dream come true

Cons:

  • It’s big so you won’t have all the freedom to go where you please
  • It’ll be really difficult to find parking in cities
  • Gas will be expensive

All aboard the school bus! This time though, we’re skipping elementary school and going straight into the outdoors. Well, at least as far into the outdoors as your big ‘ol bus will take us. 

Let’s get one thing straight: living in a school bus is cool. Something about it brings all the vibes and you can go ahead and assume whoever calls this bus home is a pretty down-to-Earth person. That being said, driving a school bus wherever you go certainly isn’t for everyone.

Given its size, you can kiss downtown parking goodbye. You can also say chao to super dispersed camping where the spaces to park might just be a small cut out down a hardly used forest road. 

On the other hand, its size means spacious living. If you plan to travel slowly, stay on friend’s property, or are willing to sacrifice where exactly you park your home, you’ll love just how big your portable house is. You’ll be able to create a full-on living space, working space, kitchen, and sleeping area without any issues.

The Bottom Line: A schoolie is the ideal “van” for “van life” if you prefer comfort and space over the ability to travel far off the beaten path. This is great for those that need ample workspace or are just trying to save a pretty penny on housing costs.

RV

Pros:

  • The build is done for you
  • You’ll have all the at-home amenities already built in
  • You’ll have plenty of options with size
  • You can find an RV in your budget

Cons:

  • They’re not great off-the-grid vehicles
  • Stealth parking will be tough in cities
  • They function at their full potential only when hooked up at RV sites.

Before I dive into living in an RV, I want to preface with this: RVs come in a variety of sizes and builds. I realize this is a big blanket term but I have my reasons for lumping them all together, just stay with me on this one. 

Regardless of the size RV you purchase, one thing is for sure: the interior build will be done for you. You’ll purchase it ready for the road, meaning you can start your nomadic life the moment you drive away from the dealership (or from that random person you met on Facebook Marketplace). 

This is great if you either A) have no building skills or desire to use a hammer or B) are eager to start your trip and have no time to lose. On the flip side, this is less than ideal if you either A) love building things or B) want to have any say in how to maximize your interior space. 

For us, having the interior done for us was a deal breaker. My husband loves to build and I wanted to learn. Although building our own van completely on our own was weeks of non-stop work, it was a big part of the fun. We felt connected to our home and started our trip with a huge sense of accomplishment and ownership. 

If you just rolled your eyes at that, you’ll probably love an RV.

A bonus thing to note about RVs is much of them need to be hooked up to function to their full potential. This means camping at RV parks, not the great outdoors. With that electricity and water supply though, you can have a really comfortable livelihood in an RV.

The Bottom Line: An RV is for you when you want a travel vehicle that is ready for full-time living from day one. Based on the size of the RV, it could comfortably fit your entire family. It’s also best for the person that wants to bring all of the comforts of a house with them.

Which is the Best Van for Your Van Life?

Now that we have gone through 5 different vehicle types for van life, which one will you choose? 

Picking the perfect van, or similar,  for your nomadic journey is key to starting it off on the right foot. Before you pull the trigger and purchase the first deal you come across, take some time to think about what you want van life to look like for you. Since this will soon become your car, your home, and your workspace, you won’t want to take this decision lightly. 

Kat Smith, the founder of A Way Abroad, has been living around the world for the last 10 years. She recently spent 6 months in the U.S. building out a van and enjoying a long road trip. She’s back abroad now, currently traversing the Balkans.