Hitting the road. Part 1, choosing the right adventure-mobile.

Noah Twining

More and more people are choosing to leave behind their comfortable lives and set up residence in a vehicle, this is the first of a series to help make that transition as pain free as possible.

First things first, set a budget (and stick to it.)

The biggest thing to remember about any form of travel is that every dollar you spend prior to leaving is a dollar that you can't spend on the adventure itself.  Whether you are totally broke or your bank account resembles a Scrooge McDuck-like vault, you will greatly benefit from having a solid number to not exceed on your vehicle preparation.  These days there are an astounding amount of companies focusing their advertising on the "Van Life" crowd hoping they can convince you that you need what they are pushing to live in your vehicle.  Trust me, you don't.  A $15 cast iron skillet is going to work better than any nesting titanium cookset.  Just remember you are car camping after all. 


The "Who, What, and Where" of vehicle choice.

Three main questions you need to ask yourself to ensure that you have the best vehicle for your trip, and subsequent trips.  

Who will be going with you, if anyone?

This is very important as it dictates size, space, and comforts.  If you are traveling by yourself then you only need to have internal dialogue about what is truly important.  When other people or pets come into play then you really need to dig in to what it is that they cant live without.  Everyone has different priorities when it comes to creature comforts; you may think you cant live without your foam roller while your travel partner requires some electronic that needs a $200 1500W inverter.  Just make sure to not discount anything that your partner deems necessary, thats a sure fire way to start the trip off on the wrong foot.

What are the large items that have to go with you?

The large items are the ones to consider first.  If you need to take your entire quiver of surfboards and a handful of mountain bikes then you have successfully eliminated 90% of the vehicles on the market, and thats a good thing.  Knowing what is vital to take is going to make everything go more smoothly in the planning process.  We knew we wanted to spend a ton of time on the water but didn't want to have our boards taking up valuable roof space so we opted for inflatable paddle boards that we can easily stow inside the truck bed.  If there are no real large items you deem necessary then you have the entire automotive world to choose from.  Remember you can always rent items that you will only occasionally use, and you can also buy used if need be.  If you are going to be in the desert for the first 4 months of your trip and then spend a month at the beach it would make more sense to take the bikes and leave the boards.  If there is anything on the vehicle that you have to move constantly, worry about for theft, or crushes your gas mileage then you better be getting plenty of use out of them or else they will just be constant annoyances.

Where do you want to go, primarily?

There are a million ways to go about a trip like this, so this will be different for everyone.  Say you really want to spend time at the Grand Canyon, are you someone that is totally happy with staying at the NPS Desert view campground or would you rather do the rugged North Rim of the canyon and dry camp every night?  This is the biggest part to be considered for vehicle choice.  I have met a lot of people in two wheel drive vehicles who need 4WD and a lot of people living in 4WD trucks who have never engaged the front differential.  A high clearance two wheel drive vehicle can get you a ton of amazing places while still getting you good gas mileage, four wheel drive is to get you out of those places when everything hits the fan.  

Sleeping and Cooking.

These are the two things that will occupy most of your time (and space) while on the road.  There are a million options for sleeping that really depend on your preference and budget.  The easiest, cheapest, and least space consuming is to pack a ground tent and just use that every night.  This will limit where you can stay in urban environments but open up a multitude of options for dispersed camping in public lands.  From there you can scale up in terms of cost and space; from a built in sleeping platform all the way to a full on camper.  The comfort level will increase but so does weight which is something to always be considered for the budget as you will most likely have to upgrade your suspension and most likely your brakes as well.  The act of cooking itself has less options, but where will you store all of your food should be a big factor in the planning process.  You pretty much have two options for cooking, whether you choose to do it inside or outside is all personal preference.  If you choose to cook inside you need to take ventilation into consideration as the gases can build up quick in a small space, hence why most people just choose to do it outside.  A simple awning on the vehicle and a small table transforms your outdoor cooking into a 4 season affair, and you don't have to worry about the inherent fire risks.  We chose to completely separate our sleeping area (rooftop tent) from our pantry (bed of truck) so when the inevitable mouse gets into the food supply it isn't also in our bedroom.

Know your strengths.

Whether you are mechanically inclined or a complete novice it shouldn't affect your choice to do a trip like this but it should affect how you choose a vehicle.  Choose your vehicle loosely based on what I outlined above but also on availability for the countries you are planning to travel in.  A lot of the sexy European vehicles that we don't get in the states can be tempting, especially for those that are van inclined.  Just remember that none of them can be imported legally until they are 25 years old and now you are dealing with a 25 year old vehicle that has no dealer support or parts availability.  If you have your eye on a early 90's Mitsubishi Delica and have never done an oil change in your life you need to make sure you have plenty of money left over in the bank account for repairs because they are going to be expensive.  I strongly suggest people who have smaller budgets to stick to the big car companies like Toyota, Nissan, Ford, and VW among others.  Most of those companies will have a plethora of parts available all over North, Central, and South America at almost any mechanic or parts store.  

Get it road worthy.

I have read it all over the internet on every post about "Van Life" there is.  Everyone says you are going to break down eventually and they may be right, but you can do a ton to prevent or delay that.  Have a trusted mechanic go over the entire vehicle, almost every shop will do a low cost 100+ point inspection of your vehicle so do that first.  Depending on the age of the vehicle make sure to go and do the upcoming rounds of preventative maintenance.  For example if you buy a van with 90k miles then do all the 100k mile maintenance so you don't have to pay for it and be out a van while on the road.  Research what is likely to go wrong on your vehicle and go over those parts with a fine tooth comb and replace as needed.  If you buy a higher mileage vehicle then go through and replace all the plastic and rubber bits that are showing their age.  Invest in good tires, suspension, and brakes.  

Strengths and Weaknesses:

Van Life

Pro's: Discrete and urban camping is almost always available and free, fleet vehicles can be had cheap albeit with high miles, parts availability on most is abundant, tons of space for buildout.

Con's: Almost all are limited to rear wheel drive and low ground clearance, they can be a bear to work on, gas mileage is never that great, older vans are generally beat on by contractors and new ones are quite expensive.

Truck Life:

Pro's: Very capable off-road, separated driving space leads to way less road noise, easier to work on, can be had for very little money, huge vendor network.

Con's: Usually poor gas mileage, limited space for living, can be expensive to build out, cooking has to be done almost exclusively outside.

Car Life: 

Pro's: A good car or wagon can be had cheap, gets the best gas mileage of the bunch, generally reliable, can be purchased inexpensively.  

Con's: Almost no room for sleeping or cooking, limited space for larger items, have to stick to paved or dirt/gravel roads.


Read up a bunch and ask a ton of questions.  People living this life enjoy talking about it and the forums out there are a wonderful place to gain knowledge.


Expedition Portal is a great community of travelers and weekend warriors.

Cheap RV Living is a resource focused around van dwellers 


Desk to Glory spent the better part of 3 years traveling in a early 90's pickup

Drive Nacho Drive spent over 900 days circumnavigating the world in a VW Westfalia

Gone with the Wynn's have been traveling since 2001, first in an RV and now a sailboat

There is a ton to consider throughout all of this and the point of this article is to get you thinking about what works best for you and your desired lifestyle.  Talk to as many people as you can that have done this or are considering doing this and get their opinions on what works best.  The vehicle choice and buildout is going to be different for everyone and no one option is better than another.  Have fun and don't rush into it, you're choosing a home not just a vehicle.

Published: November 26, 2017

Noah Twining

Adventurer, Trucklifer, and occasional photographer. Currently on the road with @anamalie seeking all the amazing places North America has to offer. Find me on Instagram or at destinedforlateness.com

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