There are almost too many options when it comes to selecting a van. Size, brand, and price seem to be the largest considerations when selecting an adventure van. Other options to consider are do you wish to convert it to four-wheel drive, do you wish to install a rack on the roof or have a fiberglass topper? Also, the drive train should be considered when looking for your adventure van.
What Size Van?
This is a question that can only be answered by you. When we set out to look for a van, we knew what we wanted to use it for and that there would be two of us. We originally thought that we would want a kitchenette with a small sink but no bathroom. Having a taller top was a priority for us because we thought that we would be working at times out of the van and wanted some extra space. Storage in the van was also a priority. Being able to carry our backpacking and pack-rafting gear in our van, along with clothing, food, and camera equipment was a must. The extra height would allow us to make the bed high to utilize the space under it without having the ceiling of the van right on top of us.
The length of the van was another consideration. The longer the van the more space we would have but that also makes it harder to park. We are considering converting our van into four-wheel drive. That being said a long wheel base van also has a really terrible departure angle. Departure angle is the angle that is from the end of your bumper to the point of contact on your tire. This will determine the size of the ledge you could potentially drop off of while off road. In the end for us, it was more important to have some space vertically than it was to have a long van.
The size will also greatly affect your gas mileage. A tall or heavy van will directly affect the gas mileage. If you don’t need a huge van, don’t get one. The great part of having a van for us is living with less. The smaller the van, the less stuff you can bring, the more simple your life becomes.
Do you want a van with four-wheel drive? First, are you going to use it? Do you plan on camping on back roads in the middle of nowhere, or are you more of a campground person? Second, do you really want to spend the coin it takes to have a four-wheel drive van? Four-wheel drive on a van is really expensive. Before you spend that money, make sure it is something you are going to use. Four-wheel drive will also dramatically affect your gas mileage. Although having four-wheel drive will allow you to get to the backcountry with a bit more ease, it also means you will be stopping a the gas pump more, and you will probably have to carry some extra fuel for the journey.
Before you decide to get four-wheel drive, another thing to consider is if you know how four-wheel drive works. Just having four-wheel drive does not mean you can go anywhere. It really helps, but what really helps is knowing how your drive train works. Open differentials will get you into some serious problems if you let them. You may want to consider installing a locker on the rear axle at least to really make the most out of your machine.
Half, Three-quarter, or One Ton?
These are the payload capacities of vans. You will find them as a number usually like an E150/250/350 for Fords, 1500/2500/3500 for Chevy and Dodge. The higher the number the more payload you are able to carry safely. This affects the suspension, drive-train, and brake systems. If you are planning on carrying a lot of weight in your van, you should get a more beefy van. Again remember that the larger the van, the less gas mileage you will get. So if you do not need a big van, there is no need to get one.
For us, the 3500 was a good choice. We are considering converting to four-wheel drive. The 3500 Chevy van has a corporate 14-bolt axle in the rear already, which is a superb four-wheel drive axle. I also like the idea of having a van that is a little overbuilt. Having larger brakes. a heavy-duty transmission and wheel bearings were a bonus. I would rather have a van that is not at its maximum capacity all the time than one that is almost at its maximum all the time.
There are tons of configurations for motors across all the makes, models, and years. You have options of getting a V6, V8, or even a diesel engine. You will have to do your research on each of the drive trains for each of the makes and see what makes sense for you. Do you really need a large motor, or are you going to be traveling light?
Diesel engines. I have mixed feelings about this type of engine. Diesel engines are great for torque, so if you are planning on towing something or having a pretty heavy van, this may make sense for you. If you are not, I would steer away from them. Diesel vans tend to be more expensive to buy. Diesel engines are more expensive to repair. Diesel fuel is more expensive than gasoline. Diesel maintenance is way more expensive. Because of the size of the engines, if you are planning on doing any of your own repairs, working on them is more difficult and often requires more specialized tools.
People will often say that a diesel engine is better because they will last forever. This is a half-truth. Yes, the blocks are generally built better because they have to be. But don’t think for one moment that everything bolted to that motor is built to last forever. I had, and loved, an F-250 with a 7.3L Power Stroke with 376,000 miles. That wonderful truck also had a rebuilt turbo, new injectors, new glow-plugs, new injector wiring harness, water pump, belt tensioner, valve covers, oil cooler seals, fuel bowl with fuel lines, new fuel tanks, alternator, oil pan gasket, clutch with flywheel, glow-plug relay, etc. My point is simply don’t get a diesel thinking it will never have any issues.
VANilla came with the 5.7L V8. This was a great motor for us. I did all the repairs myself. Parts are readily available for this engine and affordable. There is a ton of aftermarket support for this engine if we ever decide we need a bit more horsepower or torque. Another bonus is in the event there is a problem that I can’t fix on the road, any shop should be able to work on this engine with ease.
How Old or High Mileage?
This depends on your budget. We tend to be in the middle. As I tell Stretch, “There is nothing that can’t be fixed”. I do all my own repairs though. If you are not comfortable with that, you may want to get a van with lower mileage. Also before you decide to buy a used van, especially if you plan on driving across the county in it and you don’t know anything about the mechanical side of it, have a local mechanic you trust to take a look at it. Most shops will do a used vehicle inspection for you at a reasonable price.
With VANilla I did a ton of parts replacements before they were completely needed. I knew we would be driving on a long road trip as soon as the van was done. VANilla had about 175,000 miles on it when we bought it. I did general maintenance and replaced many things that could leave us stranded just for peace of mind and reliability. This was an easy choice for us, as we only had to pay for parts. I rebuilt the suspension, replaced spark plugs, wires, fuel pump, power steering pump, water pump, thermostat, radiator hoses, alternator, battery, belt tensioner, idler pulley, coil, ignition cap, and rotor.
In our experience, finding the right van was tense. There were not many used vans available. The ones that we did find were very overpriced because of the current market. This was especially true for Sprinter Vans. VANilla was an old AT&T fiber-optic repair van with 175,000 miles at a price of $3,800. I thought this was pretty reasonable.
In summary when choosing a van, consider the size and length, four-wheel drive, payload capacity, drive train, year and mileage. Much of this will depend upon how you’re planning to use your van, your budget, and how comfortable you’re with doing your own mechanical work or paying someone else to do so. Happy hunting. If you have questions or suggestions, please reach out to us in the comments or e-mail. For more travel van articles, visit our page here.