Travel, climbing, and Van-life



Van Build: Van Selection

The first step in building a van to adventure or live in is, as expected, choosing the van. For me, this was the biggest part of the process, and was dependent almost entirely on what was on the market, since I was not willing to buy a brand new van. But, since I knew I would be living in it, I was also willing to invest in something shiny and reliable.

After going back and forth for a few months, I narrowed down my perfect van to these minimum criteria:

  • At least six feet tall inside (I am about 6'3")
  • Possible to drive in the city (Shorter than 14 feet long)
  • Less than 100,000 miles
In addition, these are what I was considering, as you probably would too:
  • Gas mileage
  • Backup camera
  • Reliability reviews

With those in mind, here are what I researched and considered:


Ford Transit

In America, this is a new model as of 2015. (In Europe, though, I discovered this model has been standard for years.) It is tall, and is direct competition with the Sprinter.

  • Tall options
  • New model, so new features
  • Impressive gas mileage
  • Won most comparison competitions (here)
  • New model, so no used vans available and still expensive

Mercedes Sprinter

The classic choice, and the go-to van model for building a custom van, though this is mostly because until 2014, it was the only tall van sold in America. Now every manufacturer (except Chevy) has a tall option that competes with the Sprinter, yet it is still worth considering for a few reasons:

  • Tall options
  • Used models available
  • Reviews and tests are great (link: Car & Driver)
  • 4x4 option available
  • The most expensive van listed here, with a high resale price as well
  • A poor reputation for reliability (link)

Ram Promaster

And this is Dodge's tall van. It is distinct from the previous two models by it's short wheelbase/ tall height option, and it's exagerated boxiness.

  • New model, so new features
  • Great gas mileage
  • Front-wheel Driver
  • Shortest wheelbase (136") for a tall height (110") (Transit and Sprinter are both 144" long)
  • Model released in 2014, so few used available
  • Poor testing reviews (here)


Used Chevy Express

If you are a climber, then you probably know Alex Honnold used to drive one of these (link). This is a traditional cargo van, with no factory high-tops available, but they have been produced for a decade and there quite a few on the market used, so this could be the cheapest option to go with, while still keepign the blank canvas on the interior. But, I would not consider buying this model new for our purpose, since the previous three are similar cost and taller.

  • Many available used, at any price point
  • No high-top available
  • Poor gas mileage


There are also reasons to stick with a minivan, and here's a couple that loves living in theirs (youtube link). If you are trying to be super covert or as small as possible, this could be a great option.

  • Many avialable, at any price
  • Could be very cheap
  • Small physical footprint
  • Relatively great gas mileage
  • Easy getting insurance
  • Super small space inside
  • Covering the windows every night (if being covert)
  • Super small space

My Choice

For me, after thinking about everything here for a few months, I came to following conclusions:

1. A new van was not worth it

Initially I thought this is the route I would take. A new van would have a warranty, better gas mileage, and probably last longer. Plus, if I wanted to be able stand up in the van, my choices were either a used Sprinter, which are not only hard to find but also costly, or a newer American-made model.

So one day I went to a Ford dealer, and looked at a couple Ford Transit vans. They had a medium-length, high-roof model that I was interested in. After about an hour, all I had to do was sign the financing forms, but the price tag was well over $40k. I told them I would sleep on it, and call the next day, and ended up backing out.

If you are living in the van, than this is probably a strategy for lowering your living expenses. Paying a price that high could still be logical, but I wasn't willing to swallow it, so I kept looking.

2. I still wanted a tall van

This slowly became the most important criteria for me. If I were just going to be using the van for weekend trips, I probably would not have put such a value on the height, but I pictured myself getting dressed every morning sitting down, and was not too excited on that.

So, I kept looking. I was officially limited to used Sprinters, or a newer, and hopefully used, Promaster, Transit, or Nissan NV.

I found a used Promaster!

A few weeks later I was scanning dealer listings, and, weirdly found a used Ram Promaster with only 5,000 miles on it, and marked down about $7k from the new price. I immediately hopping in my car and drove the hour-and-a-half to the dealer, trying to come to terms with the scenario of driving back home with the van. I got there, took the van for a spin, and felt like it was perfect. Here's what it came down to:

  • The van is 6'4" tall inside, with only a 136" wheelbase. This was eight inches shorter than the Transit and Sprinter, yet just as tall.
  • The dimensions and angles were instantly appealing for building it out.
  • The gas mileage is over 20mpg on the highway. Really.
  • Nice to have: A navigation system with Bluetooth.

So, I gave them my car (almost literally), and drove home with the van.

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