Real talk: what does #vanlife really mean? We could try to define it, try to define the people in the community, but more and more #vanlife has become a state of mind – a testament to the way we want to live, the thread that binds us together.
Whether you are simply curious about vans, thinking about life on the road, or currently identify as a grizzled vanlife veteran, you undoubtedly have a specific vanlife vibe – the subculture within the culture that boils down your passions until the meat starts to fall away from the bone. I’m talking about unspoken calling between you and your style. The way the metal, rubber, and textiles collaborate to form a bond between you and those beautiful mobile shelters – that pull you feel from the design and utility of the van and the way it all comes together to create an aesthetic that calls to you. It’s palpable and, dare I say, emotionally charged.
Let's take a look at some of the most popular van styles. Where do you land?
The vintage van is well known from its flower power roots to its modern day expression of simplicity and appreciation of history. An enduring symbol of kindness, positivity and family legacy, the vintage van has been embraced by many different groups of people over the years. From the Woodstock-bound free lovers to grimy modern rockers touring college towns around the US, vintage vans always seem to belong to those who have an artistic flair and a sense of fun.
Often featuring large and smartly placed windows, passengers have the opportunity to take in the full experience while in motion. Fully flushed out, they might include a pop-top camper shell and some basic amenities inside like a fold down bed and simple kitchen. A tidy package with enduring style.
Many vintage vans are known for their mechanical simplicity. With engines that are easily reached, they offer nearly entry-level operational knowledge.
While the ability to pop open the hatch and easily tinker with the engine appeals to many, others prefer something with a little more modern power and reliability. In recent years, there’s been a trend to restore these classics to showroom condition and upgrade the historically underpowered engines with modern V6 offerings. This allows you the best of both worlds. You’ll really be able to take in the fantastic mountain views through all that glass, while finally being able to drive uphill at the speed limit.
What do we know about it?
Our friends at Black Forest Westfalias have been renting vintage vans in Washington State for many years. A terrific way to vacation or just dip your toes into vintage life if you are thinking about testing one out before becoming a full time owner.
Noteworthy vintage vans
1973 VW type 2 drive by Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams and in Little Miss Sunshine
The cargo/DIY van calls to those who love a blank canvas. Those who enjoy the field of unlimited possibilities. Purchasing a naked cargo van means that the world is your oyster. Once you’ve got the engine, wheels and the desire, the only limitations are the square footage and your imagination.
This van type often appeals to those who prioritize two things: recreation and/or living on a budget. Those who prioritize recreation are drawn to cargo vans because it offers the ability to build their living space around their recreation needs. If you love to surf, you’ll find that you need ample space to stow boards and wetsuits, and can construct your digs to accommodate the unusual amounts of sand and seawater entering your home. If you love to ride bikes, you can build around stowing a bike and riding gear. Rock climbers are well known for gravitating to cargo vans because of the basecamp-style rolling home it provides as you bounce from one granite wall to the next.
Those looking to get into vanlife on a budget also gravitate towards cargo life because it offers the ability to uniquely craft a living space with nothing more than a plastic bucket, a few 2x4’s, and some plywood. Obviously people have gone to incredible lengths when customizing their vans, but just as many go the inexpensive way. A twin size mattress on the floor and a few belongings stuffed into milk crates can feel just as homey for many.
The cargo van is a time-tested medium for creativity and individuality. It truly embraces the “home is where you park it” mentality, evidenced by the YouTube vanlifers who often take the DIY route.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t also mention that the cargo van is sometimes associated with some bad stuff.. It isn’t always roses when detailing the relationship that a vehicle has with the zeitgeist. Every child of the 80’s remembers the kidnapping warnings involving vans who would scoop up kids. In reality, cargo vans are a great way to transport all kinds of things, making them a prime suspect for nefarious activity. Maybe we’re optimists, but we think they are best remembered as the perfect customizable adventure partner.
What do we know about it?
“For my 2008 Dodge Sprinter, what drew me in was the amount of space I had for things like standing, cooking, and exercising, along with the aesthetic. The interior is boxy, with lots of head room. I found myself dreaming out what I could do to the interior so I can enjoy the inside of my tiny van home whether in the Rocky Mountains or a Walmart Parking Lot.” - Sunny Flaherty | Founding Team Member, Van X/Nomadx Inc.
Noteworthy cargo/DIY vans
Conversion vans are first cousins to the cargo van. They resonate with the mobility and ease of having your home base smartly laid out inside your vehicle. However, they also prefer to have their interior design work completed by somebody with a little more time or professional craftsmanship on their resume. The main distinction between the cargo van and the conversion van is that conversion van interiors come pre-installed from the factory or by an aftermarket customization group, where the cargo vans are just the bare shell. Both are constructed on the same vehicle platforms, but conversion vans come off the lot with purpose-built interiors already installed.
The early incarnations of conversion vans often meant little more than a bolted down bench seat that converted into a bed and maybe additional lighting options around the rear cab. The goal was to offer a comfortable place to sleep while on the road. It wasn’t long before this extended to additional offerings like onboard dinettes, refrigerators, and even restrooms. These extras make the rear section of the van more like a mobile hotel suite than an emergency bedroom.
The conversion van is usually plug-and-play and appeals to a lot of people for this reason. If your intended plan is to live out of your vehicle but don’t require any customization for your recreation needs, the conversion van is likely your style. The well outfitted conversion van is the happy medium between tent camping and slapping down your credit card in exchange for a room key each night.
From a cost perspective, if you are buying new, the conversion van will probably cost more than the cargo van. The interior is usually geared towards a general road trip style travel than for a specific activity. You won’t want to lean your dirty bicycle against the sofa or wheel it outside each time you need to open your refrigerator door.
The additional materials, labor and design that goes into conversion vans account for the extra cost of conversion vans in comparison to their cargo cousins. If you’re looking to get into vanlife on a budget, we recommend checking out older model conversion vans to find something in your price range. You may find a winner out there –some of the most charismatic vans around are older conversion vans.
What do we know about it?
“The size was really attractive. My wife and I bought our 1988 Chevy G20 for 2 specific reasons: we wanted the ability to stand up and move around freely inside our vehicle but also something small enough to drive into a normal town or city and park or move around wherever we please without issue.” – Dave Lewis | Founding Team Member of Van X/Nomadx Inc.
Noteworthy conversion vans
Van X Posse Member: Sydney Ferbrache of Divine of the Road’s Dodge Promaster (Instagram)
If you have the money and the desire, then a luxury van might be just what you need. Van platforms can be pushed to the brink when it comes to including modern style and comfort, so much so that a basic conversion van can be stuffed full of bells and whistles until it starts to look more like a Bond villains evil lair than its humble origins as a van.
These vans are all about upgrades. Making simple things better. Frankly, they’re pretty cool. You get all the high points of other vans and you’ll be able to rest-easy surrounded by the fashions and functions you’ve grown accustomed to.
From premium materials throughout to all the latest onboard technology you can imagine, luxury vans leave no box unchecked when it comes to amenities. They cost a pretty penny, but some would argue that there is no price too high for getting the best of the best. For the right price you can even have the seat cushions stuffed with actual money.
What do we know about it?
“Two parts stand out to me about vanlife: the people you meet while on the road or on an adventure and the simplicity of life. Life around us is so complex and noisy. Being with my son and my van is really all we need to be together and in the moment. The little luxuries in my van allow me to focus on time with my son and our adventures more than anything else.” Jason McNamara | Co-founder of Nomadx, Inc on the benefits of his 2017 Mercedes 4x4 Sprinter
Noteworthy Luxury Vans
The off-road van market is a beautiful little subculture that speaks specifically to those individuals who are unsatisfied with sticking only to the smooth roads and heavily groomed RV Parks. These individuals need more from their vehicle. They ask it to be their home on wheels, but to also be capable enough to arrive at remote trailheads and backcountry camps unscathed.
These vans are truly a subculture within a subculture. You’ll find all kinds of vans in this category from the vintage van to the conversion van. The big difference is four or all-wheel drive, a little ground clearance, and some tires capable of pushing you through any questionable sediment you encounter.
Fortunately, you’ll be able to mesh your desires for any of the van types we’ve talked about above with these off-road features fairly easily, placing yourself on the road to remote wilderness.
You may also find that this type of van offers additional accessories with things like a full size accessible tire and a sturdy roof rack for hauling additional gear–all things that are important when the usage becomes part of the platform.
What do we know about it?
Sportsmobile is a titan in the off-road van industry and you can find direct links to renting, purchasing, and upgrading yours at our site.
Noteworthy Off-Road Vans
Van X Posse Members: Jana & Fab of Ride on the Wild Side’s 1981 Mercedes 407D named Fritz (Instagram)
So, what type of vanlife do you resonate with? Maybe you already have your dream van or maybe you want to try something new. With each style there are compromises and harsh realities. No matter which type of van feels like you, ultimately you’ll still be part of a much larger family and community. Make sure to give the van wave when you see each other out on the road.