About Us

Hi! we're Becca and Cade. We can generally be found playing outside with our dog Tala: hiking, biking, paddleboarding or paragliding.... or making burritos in our Sprinter Van. We are committed to getting outside, having fun, making sustainable choices easy and accessible, and reducing our impact on the planet. Follow us on Instagram for updates about life on the road!

 

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sustainablevanlife@gmail.com
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Disclosure

Choosing the Right Van for your Life

May 7, 2017

 

 

Note: this post is about our first Sprinter Van, which we bought in May 2016, converted, lived/traveled in, and sold May 2018. If you are looking for info about our second Sprinter/current project, please check the dates of the post and make sure you're reading posts from 2018/2019. Cheers!

 

So you want to buy a van. Now what!? New or used? How big? What model? Where? This is a major life decision. If you are like us, this may be the most expensive thing you've ever purchased. Your situation will definitely be different than ours, and you might make different choices than we did. That's cool, and we're still excited to see what you do with your build no matter what kind of van you decide on. We do hope that our experience might offer a bit of insight, as this initial stage was honestly the most stressful of the entire build process for us.  At the end of this article, we’ve listed a few resources that may help you make your decision. They helped us. And don’t worry, you’ll figure it out eventually, and never look back, and you’re going to love your new van the mostest forever and ever just like we do, no matter what kind you eventually settle on.

 

If you find this blog post helpful, please feel free to visit our Thank You page to leave us a note or send us a Paypal contribution that will allow us to continue producing useful content. You can also use the Amazon affiliate links throughout our posts to help us earn commissions on your purchases. You pay the same price, we earn a small fee. Thanks for helping us help you!

 

Fortunately/unfortunately we were under a pretty serious time crunch as our previous van (a ‘98 Chevy Astro) had a blown transmission in California and we needed a place to live and a vehicle to drive like *yesterday.* We weren’t quite ready to bite the bullet and drop the money on a new van, but we didn’t really have much of a choice. If you’re not ready to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a new van at this point, we get it. We spent 3 years cruising almost 70,000 miles around the western United States, Mexico, and Central America in a Chevy Astro that we bought for $3,000. We were also the people that were like 'how could you possibly spend 40 grand on a VAN!?. We have seen amazing campervans made from everything from an ambulance to a bread truck to an Econoline and everything in between. You can downsize, simplify, and adventure in a lot of different vehicles, most likely including the one you already own. Get a tent, go on a road trip. See if you like it. Buy a shitty old van and make it livable. Give it a ridiculous name, drive it all over the place, love it til the end of its days. Come back to this post when you’re ready. If you know you’re all in for this #sprintervanlife thing…. Then by all means, read on.

 

 

Wants/Needs

 

When we first started considering upgrading from our beloved Chevy Astro van to a full-on home on wheels, we had a few requirements that helped us narrow down what we were looking for:

  1. We wanted to be able to stand up, cook, and sit inside comfortably. After years on the road in our cramped Astro, we were ready for a real home. No more exploding all of the contents of our vehicle as soon as we got to a destination just to boil some water for a cup of tea. We were also building this van to be our full-time home. No more apartments.

  2. We wanted a fixed (very comfortable) bed that we didn’t have to set up before going to sleep. Again, after years of playing tetris/twister every night just so we could go to bed, we were ready for something that we could just pop onto for a quick nap and collapse onto at the end of an amazing day of fun without having to rearrange. I (Becca) also really like to sit on the bed, so it doubles as seating/lounging area.

  3. We wanted room to carry all our gear. No more storage unit--all our stuff in one place, wherever we go. Ideally we wanted it all to also be easily accessible. Our current setup in our Astro was kind of like a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle, and inevitably you always want the thing that is at the very bottom/back of the stack. No more Tetris.

  4. We wanted something that was going to last a long time. After many years of renting apartments and feeling like we were throwing money away, we were ready to invest a significant amount of time and money building our home on wheels, so we wanted a vehicle that would be worth putting that much energy into

 

Our Choice: the Sprinter

 

We quickly realized that we were going to need a much larger van than our Astro. There were quite a few different options that could meet our needs. We looked at the Ford Transit, the Dodge ProMaster, the Nissan NV, and the Mercedes Sprinter. After taking each for a test drive and some intense internet research, the Mercedes turned out to be a clear winner for us. The major bonuses from our perspective:

  1. Diesel engine with great gas mileage

  2. Long standing reliability record (the other 3 options are relatively new to the US market at least, and there have been some recall issues already)

  3. Reasonably affordable extended warranty program (did I mention we had a blown transmission while we were making this decision? Reliability was weighing heavily into our decision at that moment)

  4. Great resale value (have you looked at used Sprinters lately!?)

  5. Purchase price (I know what you're thinking, see note below)

  6. Great "feel" while driving (we didn't actually drive the Nissan. The Sprinter was far superior compared to both the Transit and Promaster though)

 

*Note: some of the other vans like the Transit have a lower base price, but when you add the diesel engine and other options (like a high roof, which was mandatory for us), they turn out to be significantly more expensive. If you’re looking for a low-roof van with a gas engine, you might make a different decision than we did.

 

Throughout our searching, planning, and building process we referenced The Sprinter RV Conversion Sourcebook often, it’s a great ebook that goes into all sorts of detail on just about every aspect of a van build. Among other things, it helped us figure out which van to buy and which packages were important to have from the factory and which ones we could live without or could be added aftermarket at a better price. We also spent a lot of time on the Sprinter Forum. This is a great resource for questions, classified ads, and info. You can also easily configure the van of your dreams on the Mercedes website. It's easy to search the current inventory in any state there as well. See the end of this post for a list of resources that we used.

 

New or Used?

 

Once we figured out that the Sprinter was the van for us we had to decide if we wanted to buy used or new. We scoured the internet for good deals on used Sprinters and quickly realized these are hard to come by. Our budget was significantly less than what a new Sprinter costs ($38,000+ for the configuration we were after). We considered a lot of factors as we hemmed and hawed and tried to brainstorm ways to come up with that kind of cash (and kept holding out hope for the perfect used low-mile van to fall in our laps). We decided we’d probably sell our new van within 5 years, which led us to look at the estimated value a few years down the road when we will sell compared to what we would pay up front. Even though we would pay much more for a new van, it would still be worth a lot in a few years. We were also in the precarious position of sitting on an Astro Van with a blown transmission that had left us stranded in California. We definitely did not want to invest thousands of dollars to build our new home in an unreliable vehicle that could have lots of major mechanical issues that could leave us with nowhere to go and nowhere to sleep at any point. As we broke down some of the costs, we also realized that although you pay less up front for a used van, there are certain options that you can get on a new van that will save a significant amount of money down the road in the conversion process. We considered all these factors and decided that the peace of mind of having a factory warranty and a clean slate was worth it to us. We managed to borrow enough money to get us into the realm of possibility for a brand new van. Now we just had to find the van we wanted.

 

Options: Length, Height, Motor, Factory Packages

 

One of the first decisions to make is which size van you want. The sprinter comes in a 144” wheelbase (high or low roof) or two different overall lengths with a 170” wheelbase (high roof only). We test drove all 3 and were surprised at how nice the longer wheelbase van felt on the road. We expected it to drive more like a school bus, but were pleasantly surprised. Going with the longer vans definitely opens up the possibilities of what you can do with the interior layout for your home on wheels. The deal breaker for us is that they don’t fit in a normal parking spot. We also considered the large amount of outdoor gear we carry with us (including a small motorcycle and paramotors, which have the problem of gas fumes), and realized we would still need to tow a trailer behind the van to fit everything. Since the van would be our only vehicle (and therefore our daily driver), it would be better to have the 144” and tow a trailer with our gear. That way we could easily ditch the trailer and venture into places with limited parking or committing roads. We would also have the option of leaving the trailer parked somewhere as sort of a mobile storage unit/garage. If you are planning on living full time in your van and don't want to tow a trailer, my guess is you would seriously consider the 170" wheelbase vans. You have to be pretty ruthless with paring down everyday items and minimizing gear to fit your entire life into the 144" van. If we didn't have a toy trailer, we would definitely have gone with the longer Sprinter.

 

There are two different engines offered on 2016 Sprinters, a 4-cylinder and a 6-cylinder, The 6-cylinder engine has been around for much longer and is known to be very reliable. The 4-cylinder is now standard, although it has only been out in the US for a couple years, but a similar version has been used in Europe for quite a while. The 6-cylinder engine is an additional $1000 on the purchase price. This option might be a better choice if you’re doing heavy towing, especially in areas with a lot of hills. The 4-cylinder gets significantly better gas mileage and has a 7 speed transmission, which gives it a much smoother feel when driving. We also noticed it was a lot quieter during our test drives. The rated towing capacity is exactly the same for both and after some research about our light trailer we decided on the 4-cylinder. We realized it might slow us down over mountain passes, but we aren't usually in a hurry and the benefits outweighed the costs for us.

 

There are also 3 different styles of Sprinter: cargo, crew, and passenger. Cargo vans are bare bones: no back windows, no extra passenger seats. They can have different options like tie-down systems in the cargo area, full, partial, or no paneling on the walls and sometimes a bulkhead partition that we really didn’t want (if you buy a used van you might have to remove a lot of these things). Crew vans have rear windows and side windows in the sliding door and across from it. They have one bench seat in the rear and usually have some sort of paneling and headliner in the cargo area. Passenger vans have side windows all the way back, multiple rows of seats, and often have a roof mount A/C unit and rear compartment heater. We knew we wanted either a cargo or crew van. Cargo vans are usually cheaper upfront, but you end up having to install things like aftermarket windows and they can be equipped with other options that you don’t want.

 

One of the options we decided was important to us was the driver comfort package. We frequently drive for extended periods-- this package included more comfortable seats with the addition of seat heaters, and cruise control. After 3 years of long road trips without cruise control in the Astro, we were ready to splurge a little. Although we have been chasing endless summer for years, we do spend most of our time in the mountains and heated seats are the ultimate luxury on a cold morning.

 

We also wanted the factory tow package because we knew we would be pulling a trailer most of the time. It is possible to install an aftermarket tow hitch, but it ends up being quite a bit more expensive. We were also told the factory-installed hitch was the only way to access the 'trailer stability assist', a standard function on the Sprinter which uses electronically-targeted braking to correct trailer sway, especially useful in the case of a tire blowout. We knew we definitely didn’t want the active safety or navigation packages because they added a lot of expense to the vans and we honestly just find them kind of annoying. Ideally, we wanted a van with 2 rear windows and the two side windows as well. Otherwise we would have to install these aftermarket, which gets expensive, committing, and time consuming quickly.

 

The Search

 

We scoured the inventory of all the Mercedes dealerships in the western US for a van that fit our criteria. If we had more time and a little more foresight, we could have ordered a Sprinter exactly to our liking, but delivery can take 3-6 months and we didn't have the time. This narrowed it down to 4 or 5 close-to-ideal vans (and about 20 more good vans that were missing some of our options) spread across the West. Our dream van turned out to be waiting for us in Boise, ID, where Cade’s family lives. It was *way* over our budget (and *way* *way* over our initial budget for a used van). It had a few extra options we weren’t looking for, but everything we did want. We actually found it, loved it, dismissed it because it was too expensive, and kept looking at other vans for another week. Then finally, with some help from Cade’s brother Pat, who works in the auto industry there in Boise, came back to it, worked out a good deal, and bought our dream van!

 

 

 

 

The basics of our van:

 

Sprinter 2500 Crew Van

144” Wheelbase

High roof

4 Cylinder engine

Stone Grey with black leatherette interior

Driver comfort package:

    -Cruise Control

    -Comfort seats

    -12v outlet at drivers seat base

   -Hinged lid storage compartment on dash

    -2 additional keys

Multi function wheel display package

Trailer hitch package

Painted black wheels

Back up camera

Mounting rails for roof rack

 

 

 

Thoughts:

 

We have learned a few things over the past 2 years of ownership:

  1. We’re totally happy with our decision to buy new, even though it was a much bigger investment than we were initially planning on.

  2. We love the 4-cylinder engine, and the great gas mileage. Towing our 6x10 trailer has been super easy, although we take it easy over big mountain passes as expected. Unfortunately in the US in 2017 and 2018, the 4 cylinder model has not been available for order. Maybe in 2019?

  3. The backup camera, while not on our original list of ‘must haves,’ has turned out to be amazing. Especially for backing the tow hitch up to the trailer without a spotter and getting out of tight parking spots with limited visibility. It also makes parallel parking way easier. You can easily install one after-market.

  4. Having heated seats is just as amazing as we thought. We use them almost every day.

  5. If we were ordering a custom van, we would get factory seat swivels. There is some talk about Mercedes not offering them anymore with side curtain airbags, but we would try our best to get the factory versions. All the aftermarket ones have their quirks-- more on this in future posts.

  6. We love not having a white van. We tried not to worry too much about color during our search, but we have to admit that it played a little bit of a role in our decision. Pancho is like desert camo, and we love the color. We just wish that more Sprinter dealers would realize that the demand is huge for better color selection and not every van is going to a fleet anymore.

If you find this blog post helpful, please feel free to visit our Thank You page to leave us a note or send us a Paypal contribution that will allow us to continue producing useful content. You can also use the Amazon affiliate links throughout our posts to help us earn commissions on your purchases. You pay the same price, we earn a small fee. Thanks for helping us help you!

 

Resources:

 

The Sourcebook, a comprehensive guide to all things conversion:

http://www.sprinter-rv.com/sprinter-rv-conversion-sourcebook/

 

The Forum, great place to search and ask questions, post classified ads, ask opinions:

https://sprinter-source.com/forum/

 

Mercedes Sprinter website for configuring new vans and searching inventory:

http://www.mbvans.com/sprinter/shopping-tools/build-and-equip#/model/model/sprinter


Great blog entry by Steph Davis about choosing a Sprinter (the other parts of the series deal with the buildout and other topics, she has great insight):

http://stephdavis.co/blog/to-sprinter-or-not-to-sprinter-van-living-2/



 

 

 

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