Vehicle Living: What Route Is Right For You?

The internet loves #vanlife. #westielife, #RVliving, and so on and so forth are popular too. Maybe you’re starting to contemplate some time on the road yourself but there are so many choices: a Sprinter? A basic delivery van? A camper? Another RV?

Beth Lakin cooking in the Scamp

I’ve done a fair amount of living and and traveling in a vehicle and there are pros and cons to pretty much anything you choose. The most important suggestion I can make is to not get too attached to any particular form of conveyance. Until you figure out your travel style and what is important to you, you won’t really know what the most practical choice is for you. Keeping your investment minimal can allow you to switch vehicle forms as you sort all that out. (But although totally impractical, if anyone wants to buy me a Pendleton Airstream, $120k, I wouldn’t be opposed).

Without any more ado, I present to you…

3Up Adventures Vehicle Living Comparison

| SPRINTER | CARGO VAN | TRUCK CAMPER |

|LARGE TRAILER | SMALL TRAILER |CAR/TRUCK|

Sprinter Van:

I traveled in a Sprinter van with my ex from November 2013 until late January of 2014. We had purchased the Sprinter with an eye to traveling to Alaska the following summer, a trip covering a huge number of miles and making the fuel mileage of the Sprinter a real boon.

Pros: Fuel mileage. Our 2002 Sprinter would regularly get about 26-28 mpg as long as we were driving about 55mph. I’m a firm believer that for the budget conscious adventure traveler driving a bit slower to maximize your fuel dollar is totally worth it.

Head room. Being able to stand up is a really amazing thing in your travel vehicle. Although by no means a requirement, over the long haul putting your clothes on or cooking dinner without being stooped over is a really nice option.

Comfortable driving arrangement. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a more comfortable long haul road trip vehicle. When we purchased the Sprinter, we drove it from Florida to Idaho in just three days with a little time set aside to visit friends and I have no complaints about long hours in the drivers and passenger seats.

Impressive ground clearance. For a 2wd van, the Sprinter has pretty impressive ground clearance. Our Sprinter made a jaunt up Baby Lion’s Back in Moab just to prove that it could. Although too top heavy and lacking 4wd capabilities, with tall skinny tires we found that we weren’t very limited at all.

Durability. Early Sprinter (T1N) motors were known for their durability, many running to 500,000 miles. Transmissions are generally expected to last 250,000 miles.

Cons: Expense. Sprinters are expensive. Although they get pretty solid fuel mileage, you pay for that savings up front. It takes a significant number of miles driven to make up the extra cost of the vehicle. Sprinters do retain much of their value and you might recoup a significant portion of that extra capital cost when you sell the vehicle it can be an uncertain proposition depending on how long you keep the vehicle and what condition it is in. If you’re looking to someone else to do your conversion work for you, you can add to an already significant capital expenditure

Maintenance. This point is largely addressed in my post “Is A Sprinter For You?” but it is worth mentioning that a mechanical breakdown can be an expensive proposition if you aren’t able to handle the repair yourself. Even if you are a competent mechanic, parts for a Sprinter are more expensive than for a delivery van and a hefty repair bill can put a damper on adventures in a hurry. Since Sprinters have become very common I’d imagine that finding a mechanic familiar with them isn’t as hard as it once might have been but still might pose a problem.

Creature comforts. For my ex-partner, the lack of bathroom meant forgoing a luxury they really appreciated. This is a sticking point for some people and not for others. I found that for me this wasn’t ever a really major issue. I didn’t spend much of my van time in areas where this actually was a problem. (#backpacking experience FTW) I did, miss a comfortable place to sit and read or type that wasn’t in bed, an option I experienced in other configurations. We did have swivel seats which helped a bit and I probably could have come up with a good table option to fix this issue. We did purchase a Mr. Buddy Heater for use in the Sprinter but never got a chance to test out how effective it was at heating the space.

Note: A Roadteck or Winnebago type Class B conversion might have a bathroom and feel really fancy but they’re really heavy and gas mileage will take a significant hit. Although their mid-teens fuel mileage certainly beats a full size RV, it comes no where close to a lighter DIY conversion. Additionally, that extra weight puts more strain on the drive train (specifically the transmission) and can lead to earlier failures of parts.

Sprinter sunset

Chevy Van (or Ford or Dodge):

Pros: Inexpensive. A gas powered Chevy van can be a really affordable option to hit the road. If you’re okay with simplicity, these plentiful vehicles can be converted quickly and you can hit the road with gas money in your pocket.

Fuel mileage. But wait? Didn’t I claim fuel mileage to be a Sprinter advantage? If gas is cheaper than diesel, getting 18-22mpg in a gas powered vehicle might be a better deal than 22-27mpg in a diesel Sprinter.

Parts & maintenance. Due to their ubiquity, parts for Chevy/GMC vans (a GMC Savanah and a Chevy Express are the same thing mechanically), are fairly inexpensive. You may be able to do the maintenance yourself or finding a mechanic should be a cinch.

ConsHeadroom. Being hunched over in your vehicle gets old. While you’re hopefully spending a lot of time outside adventuring, sometimes you’re stuck inside working, sheltering from the weather, or cooking and being stooped is less than fun.

Creature comforts. See Sprinter cons.

Van on Brown Mountain Jeep Road

Truck Camper:

Pros: Comfortable. The camper had a refrigerator, a table, a bathroom, a cooktop (many even have an oven), and a heater. Our bed was always made and was out of the way.

4-wheel drive possiblities. I’d been really insistent that we find a 4wd truck for this project because I felt that we were getting our 2wd vans into situations where it would be really nice to have that extra bit of security. It was nice a few times but mostly the camper was too big for us to get where it was really helpful (see cons).

Not too big. For the relative creature comfort of the camper, we didn’t take on too much of a hit on size (there were some, see cons). There was a lot of storage (and in our flatbed configuration there was a lot).

Fuel mileage. Depending on the size of the camper, they can get really heavy. The Lance 825 that I traveled in was really lightweight and small compared to many other options so it didn’t impact our fuel mileage too terribly but most full size trucks don’t get amazing mileage so this can start to add up.

Cons: It’s pretty tall. The downside of our flatbed configuration was that it put the camper up really high. This made going down some Forest Service roads sort of hard as we tried to avoid damaging the camper.

Fuel mileage. There are pros and cons (see pros).

The dog is underfoot. I’m mostly kidding here but because the amount of floor space in the camper is tiny the dog was even more under foot than usual.

Camper on the Colorado River

Travel Trailer (large):

Pros: I actually don’t have much that is positive to say about the toy hauler. We carried our toys with us which was nice but a small trailer behind the truck and camper was a much nicer option that accomplished about the same thing.

It had an oven, although again, many campers have that as well. Same thing goes for the bathroom (the large storage closet in the bathroom though was kind of cool: we rocked a gear closet in our mobile living space).

Cons: It was too big to heat efficiently and because of all the empty space around the bikes and the quad it just felt empty and kind of sad most of the time. (It was kind of cool to drop the back open on warm days though.)

Fuel mileage was dismal and it was just too damn big. We’d hoped to just move sometimes and mostly use the truck and our toys to explore but the simple fact is that I like wandering around too much for that. It cost us an arm and a leg to move plus we couldn’t get it into the good spots.

Beers on the "porch"

Travel Trailer (Scamp or other fiberglass):

Pros: ADORABLE. I seriously loved the Scamp so much. It wasn’t really meeting our needs at the time but I think SP and I would rock one with the XJ right now really well.

Compact. At only 13′ the Scamp was small and maneuverable yet it still had all the necessities inside. It had the dinette that I really liked in the camper, TONS of light (best in class with this!), the ability to stand up, a refrigerator and a really respectable amount of storage for its size.

Fuel mileage. We didn’t tow it like normal people for any long distances with the TJ so I don’t have a really good estimate on how it affected fuel mileage (we did, however, tow it across Arizona rather unconventionally) but I imagine that it probably wouldn’t be too big of a problem since they are SO LIGHT. Ours only weighed about 1200 pounds because it was so simple; newer ones with AC units and awnings (which I wouldn’t recommend) weigh about 1500. I would love to do a fuel mileage test with Ruth the XJ!

Cons: No bathroom. If this is really a con for you, current Scamp floor plan options have versions with a bathroom. This would reduce the “open” feeling that I loved so much but the loss of under bench storage would probably be made up for by the gain of an extra closet if a bathroom is really a big deal to you.

Trailer. It is a trailer and that does sort of reduce mobility. We also discovered that the frames are pretty lightweight for frequent off road use, however, the Jeep + Scamp size combination is only beat out by a van for off road maneuverability. They are much shorter than a full size travel trailer or the camper plus their lightweight nature makes them really easy to hookup and unhook leaving you with a Jeep (or a Subaru or a Toyota or whatever else floats your boat).

Scamp after axle with motorcycle

Straight up vehicle living (Cherokee, pickup, 4-Runner, Land Cruiser, etc.):

Pros: You’re in your vehicle, no encumbrances, no extra fluff. If you’re 4wd equipped you can just go (and often find yourself waking up to amazing views).

Fuel mileage: Okay fine, this pro is relative but I’ll happily take the fuel mileage of my XJ (18-25mpg) especially when I consider that I have full 4wd capabilities at my disposal all of the time.

It might already be sitting in your driveway. For all the glamour of being able to use the hashtag #vanlife on your custom build, I see way too many vans be built but then the builder either doesn’t use them or has spent way more on the conversion than they planned and can’t travel. You probably already know the maintenance concerns of your vehicle and they can be cheaper to fix (although not always) than a truck or van you purchase for a specific use. The lack of specific investment can also make it an excellent choice for seasonal or temporary mobile living.

Cons: Space. It’s a lot more like organized long term camping. You don’t have a nice table to sit at or a refrigerator or a bed you can sit up in and so on. This can kind of suck on a rainy day, although you have the flexibility to just drive to a coffee shop.

Bathroom/kitchen. Similarly to the space issue you’re going to have to do all of this outside your vehicle but if you’re only out for a couple of weeks at a time or maybe one big special trip, it might be cost effective to use the vehicle you already have.

 Sunrise

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Is a Sprinter For You?: An Introduction to Mercedes Benz Sprinter Vans

A Sprinter is a great vehicle for a certain type of individual. For others, it may not be the cost effective choice. In this post we’ll take a look at the Sprinter’s strengths and whether they’ll work for you.

Morgan Creek Road

T1N vs NCV3:

The Mercedes Benz Sprinter was introduced to the North American market in 2002 and has existed in two body styles: the T1N, produced from 2002-2006, and the NCV3, 2007-present. Sprinters have come badged as Freightliner, Dodge, or Mercedes Benz but regardless of badging they are all 100% Mercedes Benz.

Improvements from the T1N to the latter NCV3 include tilt steering, a quieter and smoother ride, and an “updated” look (whatever that means). Despite these improvements however, the NCV3 is heavier, has lower fuel economy, and many dependability issues. These problems are enough to recommend not buying a NCV3 for the budget minded individual. (Unless of course you really, really want a brand new van with warranty. In that case, head right on down to your dealer, drop $45K.) You can also go pick up a New Roadtrek RV conversion starting at $110K. Because of the NCV3 issues, and their expensive price tag we will discuss only ‘02-‘06 (T1Ns) in this article.

Drive Train: The drive train is the same in all T1N configurations.

The engine is a 2.7L 5-cylinder turbo diesel that puts out 154HP and 243 ft-lb torque in stock form. All transmissions are a NAG1 5-speed automatic.

The 2002 and 2003 models had the OM612 engine while the 2004-2006 models had the OM647 engine. There isn’t much difference between the two engines however the OM647 has an in-tank transfer fuel pump, an O2 sensor and a slightly better EGR valve (except for an easily fixable issue with the turbo resonator). While the OM612 is preferred by some owners/mechanics because it is slightly simpler, it doesn’t really matter.

In brief:

  • -Generates plenty of power for the vehicle size, it is quite “zippy.”
  • -Engine can be expected to last about 500K miles with regular maintenance.
  • -5-speed automatic transmission lasts about 250K miles on average.
  • -Will not tow or put up to the abuse like a 1-ton domestic van will.

Sprinter in the desert

Fuel Mileage:

T1N fuel mileage is excellent! Carrying a standard (~1200 lb) load with the tires well inflated, driving at 55-65mph will net 26-28mpg. As with any vehicle, stop-and-go traffic, heavy cargo, driving with a lead foot, or low tire pressure will decrease fuel mileage.

My personal extremes range from a low at 12,500lb gross (loaded van, towing jeep) with conservative driving netting 19mpg to a high being completely unloaded, no headwind, 215/85R-16 tires at 70psi getting 30mpg. However you slice it, compared to domestic vans the mileage is very good.

The T1N does not require ultra low sulfur diesel (so go to Mexico or beyond!) One can even use the red stuff in a pinch. If your grandma owns a bakery, this Sprinter can also be converted to WVO (waste veggie oil).

Passenger vs. Cargo:

T1Ns came in two configurations: passenger and cargo vans. The cargos are by far the most common, will be useful for working out of, or for a clean slate to start your conversion. They have minimal windows although they are easy to install and will run about $100 each.

A passenger version is ideal for hauling a large number of people. They will have all the factory windows and are completely “trimmed out.” The walls have some insulation although it is not sufficient for RV use. Little of the factory interior is useful in a conversion.

Configurations:

The T1N Sprinter comes in three different lengths: a 118”, 140”, and 158”. The long 158” was available in a 1-ton version (denoted by duel rear wheels) with the only differences being that it has a larger full floater rear end and heavier rear springs. Each length also came in two roof heights: a high roof with 6’ interior height and a regular roof with 5’2”ish interior height.

Sprinter as Adventure Van:

For a vehicle of its size, the Sprinter has very good ground clearance (9” of clearance under the front suspension, and 13” under the belly). 4-wheel drive has never been available in North America however they get into the boonies rather well, especially with aggressive tires.

In Mexico, the Sprinter is a fairly common vehicle making parts and service available throughout that country.

Sprinter on Baby Lion's Back

Maintenance and Parts:

The Sprinter is known for running a half-million miles (and beyond in some cases) but it doesn’t hold up to neglect the same way a Ford or Chevy would. Fixing small problems when they’re small will save frustration and money down the road.

Although the Sprinter has a small engine, it holds about 10 quarts of 0w-40 synthetic oil lasting 10-12K between changes.

Parts can be ordered at most Mercedes, Dodge, and Freightliner dealerships. Some parts are rather expensive; others are shockingly reasonable. RockAuto.com also stocks a lot of consumable parts (as do other online retailers) and are far cheaper than the dealerships—for example Mercedes dealership sells the 150 amp Bosch alternator for $858 while the same unit can be purchased on Amazon for $160.

Since most T1N’s have 200-300K on them by now all the common problems have been brought to light with most issues having step-by-step instructions with pictures. The online Sprinter community is a GREAT bunch of people.

Some Sprinter owners have had dealerships (out of greed) and honest independent mechanics (out of ignorance) replace high dollar items when there has been a failure with a simple item. Independent mechanics may lack familiarity with the Sprinter and most do not have the appropriate diagnostic tools to read the internal Mercedes codes. Even the generic codes are barely readable via OBD-II.

So who should buy a Sprinter?

How much do you drive? If it’s a lot then it may be an excellent choice in fuel savings alone. But if you drive less then 10K miles a year a domestic van maybe a better financial choice. (If in a year you toured 50K miles around N. America making for a difference of $4000ish in fuel savings over a gas powered comparable van!)

Are you very mechanically inclined? Do you have a trust worthy, knowledgeable mechanic? Go for it! If you can change your own oil, pack bearings, disassemble door parts, clean EGR’s, swap steering components and do simple problem-solving the Sprinter is probably a great choice. Just be willing to do a lot of research as most problems before 250K miles are often simple fixes in which your most valuable tool is research via sites like sprinter-source.com and other web resources. For example, I recently fixed a known issue with the window regulars for $5 instead of $300 each for a new window regulator unit from Mercedes. By far the most important tool is research!

Buying a T1N:

Sprinters commonly had paint and corrosion problems. Plan on traveling south for a rust free body (but it’s also a way of getting a cheap van when pointed out to the sellers).

  • Your best bang for your buck will come in the 150K mile range where you should expect to pay $9-12K.
  • Vehicles in the 250K mile range are up into the mileage range and generally sell for $7-8K. But maybe you only need this for a one time epic road trip? Budget for a repair that maybe over your skill level. ($$)
  • Low mileage units exist but are difficult to find and may fetch as much as $15-18K (and maybe worth it to you in the long run).

Panther Creek Road

 

Sprinter Van Resources:

Doctor A

Sprinter-Source.com forum

Links for Sprinter builds:

1977 13′ Scamp: In Progress

Sometimes I feel like the pictures on the blog show our “travel life” in only it’s prettiest states. Last weekend while I was “moving” us from one vehicle to the next, Forrest was cleaning up the Sprinter, and Steve was making us new cabinet doors  for the Scamp I decided I should snap some pictures of the messy parts:

Moving day

Scamp packing in progress

Steve working on Scamp

DSC_0070

Scamp cushions in Sprinter

Sprocket was unimpressed by how busy we all were and appeared quite offended at how much he was being ignored:

Sprocket on Scamp packing day

Seat Swivels

Forrest designed these swivels for our seats!

Since we only have about 25 square feet of floor space, being able to use the existing seating in the van maximizes that space.

The swivels are 2 pieces of 1/8″ plate (This raises the seats 1/4″)with counter sunk allen bolts and a 7/16″ grade 8 center pivot with a lock nut. (Sheer strength is 13,530 lbs!) The center bolt is 1.5″ off-center to pivot with the doors shut. A spring loaded 1/4″ pin locks the two plates together in the driving position.

-Swivels are available commercially for about $500 and raise the seats 1.5-2″.

Curtains

The first phase of curtains is completed. We bought a set of “thermal blackout” curtains from Target. They are grommeted (so they fold up tightly), match the interior of the van, and required minimal alteration (a team effort hemming job).

They do make it easier to heat up the cab when it’s cold, keep the heat in the bed area instead of going out the windows, and give privacy. They also look like they “belong” from both the inside and the outside.

The curtain rod itself is pretty cool. It’s a carbon fiber/Kevlar windsurfing mast.

Phase two, some sort of shades for the side and rear windows will be in progress this winter. (I need to make friends with someone in Southern Arizona that has a sewing machine.) I’m leaning toward panels with magnets to the sheet metal…

What We’re Taking

Last Saturday, we did a test pack of the van. This is the stuff that’s going to live under the bed & in the cabinets. It seems like a lot. A bunch of shoes (running shoes, sandals, boots). There’s backpacking gear and climbing gear. There’s a bunch of tools.

There’s a little bit more stuff that is going to go in the upper cabinets (clothes and some utensils and bowls) but this is it. All of our stuff. 🙂

Van Updates

While I was playing in the Cabinets, Forrest hung out with Ezra in Oregon last week to work on the cabinets. It came back looking like a totally different van!

Not only did they add upper cabinets, they installed a new Fan-tastic vent, carpeted the walls, and built a box for the batteries under the bed to hold our 400 amp hour battery bank. We also have running water now!

New upper cabinets with carpeted walls and ceiling. Fan-Tastic fan installed.
Another interior view
Speakers in the cabinets. Note the passenger side cabinet is smaller for more room over the bed.
Under bed battery box at lower right

There’s a couple storage cubbies under the bed for extra water tanks and tools:

We’ll store an extra water tank in here.
Sprocket models the cabinet accessible via the rear doors.

The bed also can be moved aside so there is a 12′ cargo area for motorcycles, kayaks, building materials, etc. And the top of the big cabinet is a work bench.

Sprocket models the 12′ cargo area.

A very special thanks to Ezra and Thomas for the great work!

Sprinter van Towing Jeep

If this doesn’t look like awesomeness, I don’t know what does.

UPDATE 10-3-12: We just pulled the Jeep 1000 miles down to Moab and it worked out great. I always drive in the slow lane and this no exception, slow and steady. Gross weight was right at 12,000 lbs since the van was packed with all our wedding gear plus towing the TJ with a bike on the back. Fuel milage was 19.5 and 20 on the two towing tanks. (We got 28MPG on the way back without the jeep)