The van has come a long way.
Long the butt of jokes about Matt Foley “living in a van down by the river” from Chris Farley’s classic Saturday Night Live Sketch, or lumped in with 60s hippies in VWs and swinging 70s shag-carpeted conversions, the van has now gone fully modern and totally serious.
In fact, when it comes to long-term overland travel in North America, the van is the undisputed king. These days, if you take a trip to Moab or Yosemite you will encounter a veritable sea of vans parked up in campsites and out in the wilds. Self-contained, versatile, ultra comfortable, and surprisingly capable, it’s no wonder these formerly humble boxes on wheels have come to dominate the overland scene. It’s no joke anymore.
One search for #vanlife on Instagram will tell you all you need to know. Driven in part by the recent surge of people transitioning to remote work and attempting to put some distance between them the COVID-19 pandemic, the van-based lifestyle exploded in the last few years. In an interesting twist of fate, at the very same time the number of van platforms available to buyers was as deep as it had ever been. From the ubiquitous Mercedes Sprinter (also available as a Freightliner or a Ram ProMaster) to the Ford Transit and Nissan NV series, there are dozens of vans of all shapes and sizes to choose from. That doesn’t even take into account the lively and diverse market for older vans, like the Ford E-Series, Chevy Express, and, of course, the stalwart VW van in all its many iterations stretching back to 1955.
My grandparents' VW Type 2 Camper - somewhere in Europe, 1963
From Anchorage to Miami, there are literally hundreds of outfits that will design and build the VW Vanagon, Transit, or Sprinter of your dreams. Or if you’re the DIY type, the van community offers tons of guidance and endless opportunities for creating a rig that fits your lifestyle perfectly. The aftermarket for van-centered accessories and gear has boomed in equal measure. That’s not to say this is all brand new. Westfalia has been converting VW buses into classic camping platforms for decades, so has Sportsmobile with Fords and Chevrolets.
So what makes the van so appealing as an overland platform? Are you still “overlanding” if you make the jump into vanlife? We’ve hashed out some of those questions before here on the Notebook, but for us at Overlander those folks who drive vans are a big part of the overlanding community.
In fact, we partner with the folks at Explorevanx as a way to help guide you in your search for the perfect overland van experience. Explorevanx is your comprehensive source for everything vanlife and campervans - from builders to rentals to DIY solutions. Overlander’s own inventory of van-specific equipment and gear is growing, particularly for the Mercedes Sprinter platform. Explorevanx also has their own curated collection of van-based gear right here on Overlander.
Let’s take a look at a few reasons why a van might be a potential overlanding solution for you.
Of course, the number one reason adventurers gravitate toward vans is the stunning array of configurations they come in. Let’s face it, while it’s a champion off road, a Toyota 4-Runner can only be built out as a living space in a limited number of ways. The big box interior of a van - particularly a larger one like a Sprinter - is the blankest of slates. From a lot of angles, the only limit to how you can build your van is your imagination.
In addition, there’s a sliding scale of build complexity and capability available with a van. Big lift and tires? Skid plates and winches? No problem. Want to keep things a little more mellow, more suited to RV parks and quiet forest roads? Equally easy to do. There are build solutions available across the spectrum. The same goes for price point. A lightly used bare-bones commercial van can be shockingly affordable, well down into the low five digits if you do some hunting. On the other end of things you can write a check for upwards of $150,000 for a van that’s far nicer than your own home. Large flat roofs that accommodate huge solar installations, and big payload capacities also add to the van’s versatility.
It used to be that one of the only factory 4x4 vans available was the rare, expensive, and often finicky and fragile VW Westfalia Syncro. There have also been four wheel drive conversions on the market for domestic vans like the Ford E-Series for many years. But those conversions involve a serious investment of time, skill, and knowledge to complete. However, with the advent of many different kinds of all wheel drive and four wheel drive systems, it’s far easier to find a van that turns all four wheels straight from the factory. This includes Sprinters and Nissan vans.
Bigger vans always have a more challenging time off road, particularly when it comes to maneuverability, break-over angles, and ground clearance. Taller vans that have a higher center of gravity can be very tippy as well. So, if you’re ambitious about exploring technical tracks and the roads less traveled it’s a serious consideration. There are quite a few solutions from the aftermarket to bulk up your off road capabilities, including suspension systems like those from ICON and Fox.
There’s no more conspicuous overland accessory than a roof top tent. With their height and expanse, it loudly advertises, “I’m sleeping here!” In wilderness contexts that’s not much of a problem, but on extended overland trips you often find yourself staying over in cities, towns, and villages. There are other times when you just don’t want to draw attention to yourself and your vehicle.
What’s more stealth than a plain white or grey van? With all of your gear, and importantly, your living space fully contained inside the van you can fly under the radar whenever you want. Most van builds allow you to move easily between the cab and the living area via a passthrough, and there are attachments that can swivel your front seats around to turn them from driving duty to lounge duty. One of the drawbacks on some van models is a lack of windows, and thus lack of sunlight. But hard sides also make for more efficient insulation installation, and, of course, security.
Lastly, the vanlife community is one of the most vibrant, widespread, and creative travel communities on the planet. Explorevanx is a great place to start to get inspired on your van build. When you find that inspiration, hit us up at Overlander for advice, ideas, and more guidance as you get out there. Even if you plan to live in a van down by the river.
Stephan Edwards with David Lewis
Photos: Explorevanx and Stephan Edwards
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