Ready to quit your job, sell it all, & live a mobile life? Are you thinking about living on the road full time but can’t decide which of the many overland vehicles is right for you? There’s the VanDwellers living in their camper van conversions that are much like a tiny house, the RV living style, those that live in converted schoolbus homes, even converted ambulances, truck camper conversions, and even those simply living in converted SUVs. In fact, we’re one of them. We lived in a converted SUV, a Ford Escape (which we called the Great Escape) for over two years! We loved it, but as the mileage grew it became time to think about a new road life rig. We already decided that the ultimate road rig lie amongst the SUVs, Vans, & Trucks, based on our analysis chart comparing road rig choices.
Home is Where You Park It !
For us, RV living wasn’t an option due to the cost of RV living and lack of full mobility. We like to live and travel on a cheap budget and have the freedom to work on the road in any sort of job we wish to take, particularity seasonal work so that we can have time for the things we love. Besides, that’s the whole point of living on the road – the freedom to do what you want and follow what you love. So, anything too pricey was out. That meant no RVs, travel trailers or toy haulers, or any specialty, albeit pretty sweet, overland vehicles such as those beefy EarthRoamers! We also ruled out anything that didn’t offer us maximum roamability. We needed something with 4×4 capabilities, decent clearance, and overall good offroad performance because we love to dwell in the mountains. We are avid backpackers, we like our solitude at camp, and we do not pay for camping (see our List of Places to Camp for Free!). That means we need to be able to access all public land locales, including rocky muddy steep and/or sandy roads.
When it comes to the vehicle overview, we looked separately at VANS, SUVS, & TRUCKS and we discuss the details of this research in 3 seperate videos (see below).
Pt 4: SUVs – SUV Camper Comparison
Of the three categories of road life rigs which we have considered here, the SUVs provide a more mobile option. You can get a 4 wheel drive SUV and with a few modifications (like tearing out the back seats), you can convert an SUV into an SUV camper to live in. You can build a bed in the back, drawers for storage, and cooktops that can serve as your mini SUV kitchen. So, you’ll have all of your Basic Needs for SUV Living & Traveling.
You might be asking, “can you really fit all your stuff into an SUV?” Well, you can – if you live simple. We’d recommend a cargo carrier on the roof of the SUV for your sport gear, any muddy or wet clothes, storing things like dirty pans, and storage for larger items such as backpacks, shovels, or spare gas.
The SUV camper is the one we’ve been most familiar with, since we lived in a tiny mobile SUV home, aka a Ford Escape, for over two years! If we were to live in an SUV again, and yes we would certainly consider it, we would choose something a little bigger. This is primarily because we’re talking about two adults and two dogs. So, a little stretch space is desired. And the cost is not very different between say an Escape Camper versus an Expedition Camper. So, perhaps a converted Ford Expedition would be a better bet for us next time around. We chose the Ford Escape on the basis that it was simply the vehicle we had at the time.
So, the converted SUV with a bed build in it certainly provides enough space to live in. And it offers mobility with 4×4 options abundant. But it doesn’t offer quite as much room than the other option here on the list, yet still comes in at around the same cost. Before we decide, let’s see what our other options are with vans or truck campers below.
Pt 5: VANS – The Best Vans to Live In
If you’re set on living in a van & need to know what are the best vans to live in, look no further – we’ve done a lot of the research for you! Okay, actually it was for us, but here it all is for free. Most are looking at converting a van to live in, which means cargo vans present a particular good option for van life, with plenty of space and an empty shell to start for max customization (i.e. no seats to tear out). The advantages of van life include the tiny house space that you’ll gain and the ability to do a full camper van conversion build to your own custom specification. And it can all be done on a fairly reasonable budget, especially if you’re just looking for the basic van life essentials and not necessarily anything too fancy. For instance, we weren’t interested in fancy van features or converting a van to have a toilet. For us, the cost and trouble meant it would just make more sense to get a different vehicle other than a van to live in, in that case. Although, there are other van life essentials you will need to consider. If you’ll be living in a van in the winter you will want to either migrate south and/or need to convert a van for winter temperatures, such insulating a van. If you don’t believe me, just spend one cold night in an insulated cargo van. Once you recover from your frostbite, you’ll be ready to convert your van!
Anyway, there’s a wide range of vans to choose from, but as soon as you begin defining criteria you might find that your options dwindle fast, like we found. Mercedes Sprinter Van life is quite popular, however it’s definitely not the cheapest option out there. You’ll have to dish up some big bucks if you want to live in van like a Mercedes. What you will get with it is better offroad van options. Mercedes is one of the only vans you can get with 4×4 capability . . . or so we thought. What really appears to be happening is that many traditional vans and cargo vans are being sent to van conversion companies (like Quigley & Sportsmobile) who convert a van for a given price (kind of costly, in our opinion, at tens of thousands above base price for converted vans). So, in reality, you can get just about any of the top vans for van life and have the van converted after-market for 4×4 by these kinds of places. However, if you’re more like us and you’re looking to simply get a van and convert it with your own DIY campervan conversion that you can build-as-you-go and save money (i.e. you can get a lot of affordable building materials off of Craigslist or at yardsales), then you’ll be looking more at the major cargo van contenders. These include the Dodge Ram Promaster Van, Ford Transit Vans, Nissan NV, and Chevrolet Cargo Vans. You’ll also come to realize that there is a much more limited inventory of vans available in the U.S., so if you have access to vans in other countries or say you plan to join the vanpeople in the Vanlife Canada movement, perhaps you can browse those vans in Canada or elsewhere? Anyway, we were looking at U.S. van options only in this case. The biggest surprise was that only one of these is not Rear Wheel Drive! The Dodge Ram Promaster is offered at a Front Wheel Drive van. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck in the city in your van. That was not an option for us.
So, which is the best cargo van to live in? And is vanlife really for you? Or should you opt for the simplicity of living in an SUV or the mobility and comfort of truck life camping? Let’s just say living in a van offers a lot of customization for interior space, but the worst offroad capability in our price range.
Pt 6: Trucks – Best Trucks for Truck Camper Living
When it comes to truck camper living, it might seem like the most expensive & luxurious option here. It’s actually not. Pricing is comparable, and sometimes less, than many converted vans and suvs. Living in a camper also doesn’t mean it will be that luxurious. In our case, we’re talking about some of the lightest campers and cheapest campers we can find. We’ve even considered a DIY camper as an option. Really, all we need is a space to stand up and a place to eat in when the bugs swarm in Alaska. We thought about simply looking for a camper shell and making our own DIY camper build inside of a blank shell. However, that turned out to be a little harder to find than we though – and those that we did find ended up being just as pricey as shells with stuff inside of them. This is because they are basically treated like a “custom camper” with little to no custom options selected. And, you guessed it, the base price is most of the expense. So, which truck campers are the lightest campers? Well, this can also be a tough question to answer. We though newer models of truck campers across the board would be the lightest – new savvy designs and aluminum shells, right? Well, that’s not a general rule of thumb. It seems the camper accessories inside are adding a lot of extra weight. So, it turns out to be a mix up. The only applicable and common sense rule of thumb to go by is this: older will be cheaper and smaller will be lighter. So, we pretty much set out looking for a small old truck camper – maybe a fixer upper truck camper that we could customize. When it comes to truck campers to live in you’ll want to take into consideration the fact that you’ll likely be keeping the camper on the truck all of the time and consider the types of roads you’ll travel on. This will impact the kind of tie downs you’ll look for, your payload considerations, and the best truck match for your camper. We’ll go into those nitty gritty details in a separate Truck Camper Q&A. Just keep in mind that your truck payload is a very important concept that you’ll want to understand before purchasing a truck or a truck camper.
As you can see, one of the downfalls of going with truck camper living is that you will need to do a lot of upfront research. This is not to say we wouldn’t do a lot of research on the best van to live in or the best suvs for camping out in, but it is to say that those tend to be a little more straight forward than this. The advantage, however, is that living in a truck camper full time means that you will have the max mobility and versatility of all three road life rigs. You’ll have the 4 wheel drive capability & good ground clearance (something you could get with an SUV but not as easily in a van) to get back to those quiet camp spots AND you’ll have plenty of space to stand up and stretch, have a bed, room for a dog or two, and a place to cook (all options greatly reduced in the converted SUV build – and we know, we lived in a Ford Escape for two years!). All around, the truck camper is one of your best options for a mobile life on the road, especially if this is a long-term plan, like ours.