How to Choose a Vehicle

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There are so many choices for a vehicle, where do you start? You start by asking yourself, “How many creature comforts do I need?” Can you live in a car, or would the tiny space drive you crazy? Would a van be big enough for you? Maybe the small space is okay with you, but you must have a hot shower every day. How many things do you need to carry with you, and where will you put them? Be brutally honest with yourself, what do you need to live a contented life? To help you decide how much space you can live in, perform this simple experiment in your home. Measure the area of the vehicle you are considering and recreate it on a corner of your home. So if you are thinking about buying a van and you measured it and found out it is 5 foot by 9 foot, you would set up that much space in a corner of your house. Make it as realistic as you can. Use curtains or dividers of some kind. Where will you sleep? Can you have a dresser? Where will you cook? Can you have a porta-potti? Then, move in! Live for a month in the space. Sleep there, cook there, go to the bathroom there! If, after the month, you like living that way, start looking for a van. If it is too small, go up a size to something like a box van or truck camper which is 8 foot by 12 foot. After living in that for a month, how does it feel? If you like it, start looking for one. If not you may have to go all the way and get an RV.

By adding an air conditioner and generator this vandweller is much more comfortable. BUT--he doesn't have much stealth.

By adding an air conditioner and generator this vandweller is much more comfortable. BUT–he doesn’t have much stealth.

Another consideration is where will you park? If you have the money to pay for an RV park then a vehicle’s ability to stealth camp is not important. But if you are like most of us and you need to save money with free camping then stealth is very important. Many cities are making it illegal to sleep in your vehicle overnight and are enforcing it. If you are parked overnight in an RV anywhere but in a park, you might as well put out a neon sign that says, “Look at me, I am parked illegally!” But a car or a van won’t draw any undue attention. A box van would not be questioned parked outside any store. It just looks like a delivery van that belongs there.

And what about gas mileage? With a car you may get 50 mpg and with an RV you may get 5 mpg. Since we are living cheaply, this is a very important consideration. It’s hard to be too specific with mpg numbers. If you buy a 1975 1 ton pickup with a 454, you might get 6 mpg with a camper, but if you buy a 2005 diesel, you may get 20 mpg with the same camper. If you get a 1985 Ford van with a 460, you may get 6 mpg but if you get a Dodge with a 318 V8 you may get 20 mpg. Or, even better, get an Astro minivan and you could get 24 mpg.

And finally, what about the initial purchase price? For $2000 or less you can buy a good used car, van or pickup, but probably not much of an RV. You can get older travel trailers for that little, but it will probably need work and you will still need to buy a pickup to pull it. You can buy an RV for $5000 but it will be quite old and probably need work. $8000 would be a more reasonable amount to plan to spend for an RV. That extra $3000 to $6000 would be a nice little savings to cover emergencies in your new life. It would probably pay for a new engine or transmission if you need one. For many of us, it seems like we can’t save that much money so we have to go with what we can afford.

It all comes down to trade-offs. With a car, the initial price is low, the gas mileage is great, but there is very little space. With a van the space is small, the gas mileage can be okay but it’s cheap to buy and stealth is great. We each have to decide our own priorities and make our decision based on them.

To help you choose, we have created a table to display the pluses and minuses of the different vehicles. If saving money by getting good gas mileage is your top priority look down that column and see which is best. If stealth is your second priority add the values of the gas mileage and stealth together and whichever is highest is your best choice. The number is on a scale of 1 – 10, 10 being the best, 1 being the worst.

Vehicle:

Gas
Mileage:

Stealth
Ability:

Space:

Initial
Cost:

Total
Score::

Bicycle:

10

0

0

10

20

Motorcycle:

9

0

1

8

18

Car:

9

8

2

8

27

Minivan

7

8

5

6

26

Full Size Van

5

10

6

5

26

Truck Camper

4

3

7

4

18

Box Van

4

8

7

5

24

RV

3

0

10

3

16

If gas mileage and stealth are most important:

  • Chevrolet Astro minivan–great mpg and super stealth

If room and stealth are most important:

  • Full-size American van, especially the Dodge with a 318 V8

If comfort and stealth are most important:

  • High-top American conversion van

If comfort is most important:

  • Class B RV (a van that is converted into an RV) or full-size RV

For a couple, or if you need lots of room:

  • Box van or Step-van, both with a diesel engine

If you want to go further into the back-country:

  • Pickup with a camper with 4X4