A beginner’s guide to choosing the perfect van-life vehicle

Gas mileage and reliability are factors, but so is pure, simple fun.
A Honda Element parked off-road in an open area by a large rock
The author likes the Honda Element, but you may find another vehicle works best for you. Jimmy Conover / Unsplash

Whether you call it “van-life” or “overlanding,” I’ve been doing it since back when it was known as “living in your car,” and over the course of many years and miles I’ve become all too familiar with what it takes to find a vehicle you can call home. Vans, SUVs, pickups, school buses, even little hatchbacks—vehicles of every format can suit the ongoing road trip lifestyle if you know what to look for.

The vehicle you select for conversion will affect a range of factors in your van-life. Comfort, the amount of cargo you can carry, your day-to-day cost of living, and even whether or not you’ll get rousted by cops or Karens—all are affected by your choice of chariot.

If money isn’t an obstacle, acquiring a van-life-ready vehicle is, of course, easy. These days, many companies offer vans specifically equipped for endless road-tripping, though they are pricy. Even used, for example, the ubiquitous Mercedes Sprinter will run you upwards of $35,000. Buy new and the sky is the limit. 

But we’re not here to talk about pre-made overlanders. Instead, I’m writing to the DIYers out there, many of whom are likely working within a more limited budget. If that sounds like you, let’s roll.

Size and shape

Your primary consideration when you’re attempting to construct a home on wheels involves how much space you have to work with. On one hand, the roomier the better. But on the other, live too large and you’ll burn all your money in the gas tank hauling the big lug around.

Your goal should be to strike a balance between how much space you want and how much you need. You might want a spacious panel van, but you probably also don’t want your wallet drained at a rate of 14 miles per gallon. At the same time, a hatchback might be too restrictive for any journey longer than a weekender, so you need something with more elbow room.

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Certain models also offer body shapes that are better suited for conversion. Some SUVs might seem roomy at first, but once you start building you may discover that awkward angles or a narrow top make it difficult to design a comfortable camper layout. In other words: the boxier the better.

This is why I ended up going with a Honda Element. While it’s theoretically the same size as a Honda CRV or Subaru Forester, it essentially becomes a big box when you take the seats out, making it far more customizable than most other midsize SUVs. Minivans have seen an aftermarket boom lately for the same reason. Remove all those family-friendly seats and you’ve got a lot of space to work with.

Gas mileage

While gas mileage has always been an important consideration, it has become essential in the age of six-buck-gallons. If you’re embracing life on the road, you pay your rent (or mortgage, if you’re over 50) into the gas pump. Too high an MPG and the lifestyle becomes outright unlivable. I suspect this is why you see more and more people converting smaller SUVs rather than big vans these days.

Bottom line: look for something that strikes a balance between size and MPG.

Handling and capability

Last year I clocked some 40,000 miles driving all over North America in my setup, and that spanned every road and weather condition imaginable. Off-roading in Moab. Blizzards in Oregon and Idaho. Bedraggled pavement in rural Mexico. Countless hairpin mountain passes and rainstorms. Even one tornado that might have been in Colorado (though I’m not precisely—or even vaguely—sure where I was).

This variance of driving circumstance is pretty common when overlanding. You’ll see an army of conversions bouncing across the hardtop outside Vegas, inching their way through a Pendleton snowstorm in the dead of winter, or attempting mucky dirt roads in the backcountry of Northern California.

Essentially, you want a vehicle that is capable of handling the most severe road (or off-road) conditions that you expect to throw at it. My Honda Element trim came with all-wheel drive, making it ideal in this regard. Other surefooted rides you’ll often see among the van-life crowd include the Ford Transit, Subaru Forester, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Toyota 4Runner.

Condition and reliability

The most obvious reason for seeking a vehicle that’s in good condition involves the all-too-human desire to not end up broken down on the side of the road, but a well-maintained conversion can have wider implications.

If van-life was a rising trend before 2020, the pandemic made it explode in popularity as people sought alternative travel opportunities. Suddenly van conversions could be seen parked everywhere, and plenty of non-vanners are sick of it. As a consequence, people (or police) who might not have bothered someone parking in their neighborhood for a night’s sleep a few years ago have become far more likely to rouse you with an angry knock and send you on your way.

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The result of this has been the rise of “stealth” van-lifing in which the goal is to park in an urban or suburban space without drawing attention and ire from the locals. There are a variety of techniques one can use to achieve this, but it all starts with the aesthetic condition of your vehicle.

Let’s put it this way: if your vehicle looks like garbage, some nosy neighbor-for-a-night is going to feel inclined to toss it out. But if your ride looks at least halfway decent, it’s more likely to park under the radar.  

Just for the fun of it

A final consideration that should not be overlooked: fun. Seek out a vehicle you will have fun converting, and that you will enjoy through all your travels.

Sometimes, the enjoyment of the journey is enough to supersede the other points. A Volkswagen Bus, for example, fails in almost every other regard. It isn’t reliable or stealthy or capable or fuel-efficient. But it is fun, and that’s why people will be restoring, converting, and driving them right up until the last automobiles are traded for jetpacks or hovercars or whatever.

So have fun with your conversion. Practicality is only one half of the DIY ethos. The other involves the pleasure of doing it yourself.