What are the options when it comes to cargo vans? Read this info sheet to find out. Then complete our Van Checklist.
Quick tips before you buy
It’s important to make sure you start off with the right van. We’ll go into detail below, but if you want the quick and dirty here it is:
- Get a cargo van, not a passenger van. The passenger van might come with seats and a floor and other things that seem like they’ll save you time in money, but in reality after you do some research you end up removing a lot of those nifty features in the end in order to have what you really want. It’s always easier to add a feature than to take it away.
- Get a high-roofed van, not a mid- or low-roofed van. You might be able to stand inside a mid-roofed van in the lot, but once your panels, insulation, and floor go in, you’ll lose precious inches. Full-time living or even weekend getaways get old FAST when you can’t stand up in your van. Few of us want to cook while squatting or hit our heads every time you crawl out of bed. We’ve found zero benefit to mid- or low-roofed vans. Go high roof and give yourself the freedom to stand comfortably.
- Don’t get factory windows unless you want windows that don’t open. The windows Ford or Mercedes puts in are fixed, meaning they won’t open. If you plan to sleep or cook in your van, you need at least one vented window and a vent fan. We recommend starting with a blank slate and then determining the windows you need based on your design. That’s becuase it’s very easy for us to install a window in an empty cargo van, and very difficult to remove and replace a factory window. The only exception to this window rule is if you want windows that don’t open – for example a sliding door window that’s just for visibly or rear door windows.
- Don’t get an AC unit. We feel AC is highly overrated for vanlife. The large factory AC units Sprinter, for instance, sticks to the top of the roof limit other roof elements like solar or venting. Plus they won’t run on your battery system or when your car isn’t running. A good vent fan and a few vented windows provide plenty of comfort for sleeping at night even in hot climates. Most people don’t convert a van in order to sit inside of it with the AC on, but instead want to engage with nature and the outdoors. Invest in a hammock so you can laze outside in the shade instead.
Sprinter, ProMaster, or Transit Van?
The big three when it comes to van conversions
If you’ve been interested in the vanlife for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard of the three most common cargo vans in van conversions: Mercedes Sprinters, Ram ProMasters, and Ford Transit vans.
If you already own a van, congratulations! You’ve made your decision. But if you’re like many of our customers who are in the market for the perfect van, this info sheet will give you the basics about each type of van, plus our take on the pros and cons.
What we like about Sprinters
Top quality Mercedes construction
Usually Diesel engines, which go forever
Comes in a 4x4
What we like about ProMasters
Mid-size wheelbase has lots of room but still fits in a parking space
Wider inside, making sideways beds comfortable
Tightest turning radius
Lower floor so lower external height
What we like about Transit Vans
More height options, including extra tall
Aftermarket 4x4 kit let you upgrade a used van
Cheaper to buy and repair
Up-and-coming more affordable Sprinter alternative
Which wheelbase makes sense for you?
Each of the big three come in different lengths – short, long, and reallllly long
The advantages of a longer wheelbase are obvious – more space inside for your stuff! However, before you go for that Sprinter 170″ extended, it’s worth considering the pros and cons of wheelbase choices.
The crux of the matter is: more interior space vs. more hassle to drive and park. Most solo travelers or couples find the standard sized van – 144″ Sprinter, 148″ Transit, and 159″ Promaster – to be totally adequate for their needs. Families and some full-time travelers or those who travels with lots of friends and gear might go for a 170″ Sprinter or an extended Transit.
Short wheelbased vans – like the 136″ Promaster or 130″ Transit – are less common than the mid-sized wheelbases. However, some folks with specific needs prefer them.
Longer wheelbase pros
Maximum space inside for conversion elements and gear
No need to compromise on features - you can fit it all!
Great for families who want seating and sleeping options
Longer wheelbase cons
More cumbersome to drive and maneuver, both in the city and off-road
Doesn’t fit in a parking space and requires extra thought to avoid parking and driving hassle
Less fuel efficient
Shorter wheelbase pros
Super easy to drive and can go anywhere
Enough room for a robust conversion while also fitting in a parking space
Better fuel efficiency
Shorter wheelbase cons
Less interior square footage might feel cramped for some couples or families
Require some amount of compromise when determine in which features to include
The quintessential #vanlife van, there’s a mystique and (well-deserved) reputation about Sprinter vans, arguably the model that got cargo van conversions started. Sprinters are well-built vans from a quality manufacturer.
Let’s look at the body and engine options Sprinters provide.
Wheelbase and Body Length
Sprinters come in two wheelbases, 144″ and 170″, with an extra long option that adds a foot of interior space. As in all cargo van models, the shorter wheelbase is much easier to maneuver—but the longer vehicle provides you with more space for more features.
For the Sprinter, in particular, the short wheelbase is very fun and easy to drive. It easily fits in a regular parking space and maneuvers more similarly to your average vehicle. The longer Sprinter model, however, feels like a tank. While its expanded body offers all that tantalizing space (“We could have a shower, and a bedroom, and even put our bikes in here!”), be sure you’re comfortable driving it before you buy. Like the ProMaster’s and Transit’s longer wheelbase options, you’ll need to be strategic about turning and parking.
Sprinters come in two heights: low roof and high roof. While people do convert low roof vans, we don’t recommend it. Few of us can stand up inside the low roof model. In our opinion, it’s not a very fun adventure vehicle unless you put a poptop on it.
It’s worth noting the high roof Sprinter is taller than the high roof ProMaster, due to the ProMasters lowered floor. This gives the Sprinter better ground clearance but worse height clearance. The Sprinter is also slightly narrower than the ProMaster, giving it a skinnier look and less interior width than the other two vans. Sideways sleeping is still doable in a Sprinter with the use of side flares.
Sprinter is the only model of the three that offers four-wheel drive from the factory.
You’ll find most Sprinters with diesel engines. Mercedes introduced a gas-powered Sprinter in 2019. We cover the pros and cons of each in our Fuel section below.
Newer to the scene, ProMasters offer the same durability as their Sprinter counterparts with a few key body differences.
It’s front wheel drive only so it doesn’t have a transaxel which means the floor is lower than in a Sprinter or a Transit. This gives it a lower center of gravity, making it more stable and easier to turn. Due to the lower floor, the overall van height is shorter on the outside while giving the same amount of room on the inside. You will lose a few inches of ground clearance compared to a Sprinter.
Wheelbase and Body Length
The ProMaster comes in three lengths: 136″, 159″, and 159″ extended body, which adds a foot and a half of space inside. The 159″ regular body is a great option because it still fits in a normal parking space and has ease of driving while providing more room inside than the Sprinter or ProMaster short wheelbase version.
The ProMaster also comes in two interior roof heights, low and high. As with Sprinter, we recommend a high roof for van conversions. Levity Vans owner Jimmy Grey is 6’2″ and he can stand up in the high roof vans of all three models.
ProMaster’s only comes in two-wheel drive and do not have aftermarket options for a 4×4 conversion.
ProMaster’s comes in gas or diesel. One of the cons of the ProMaster is the clunkiness of the automatic transmission in their diesel engines. Although they will probably last for 400+ thousand miles, the engines shift like you’re driving a manual transmission. Note that ProMaster stopped making new model diesel vans so if you want a diesel ProMaster, you’ll need to buy used.
May be less well-known than the other two, Transit vans offer some unique features that make them worth your consideration.
Wheelbase and Body Length
Transits come in two wheelbases, 130″ and 148″ plus an extended body that adds almost two and a half feet to the interior. As in all cargo van models, the shorter wheelbase the easier to maneuver—but the longer vehicle provides you with more space for more features.
Unlike the other two, Transits come in three heights: low, mid, and high roof. If you’re below 5’10”, check out the mid-roof option but also consider that you may have company that is taller and at some point, resale of a higher roof might be more fruitful.
Transit’s come as 2 wheel drive but have an option to upgrade to 4 wheel drive with a 4×4 conversion from Quigley. That means you could buy a used Transit and turn it into a 4×4 much more easily than with a Sprinter, where you’ll need to get it stock, or the ProMaster which doesn’t come in 4×4. Keep in mind that converting a Transit van to 4×4 will cost between $10k and $15k.
You’ll find Transits in both diesel and gas engines. We cover the pros and cons of each in our Fuel section below.
Diesel vs. Gas Powered Vans: Who Wins?
Each of the three models of cargo vans offers gas engines and diesel engines. Many of us grew up thinking of diesel as dirty, probably from seeing trucks spew out clouds of exhaust. But diesel is much cleaner than it used to be.
It’s true that diesel exhaust does contain more particles than gas, giving it that “smoggy” look. But which one is actually worse for the environment? The jury is still out, with experts going both ways. Diesel engines are more efficient than gas, use less fuel and overall produce fewer emissions. But, diesel fuel itself is more carbon-rich, so they produce smelly, noxious gas.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.
Diesel Van: Pros
More efficient with stronger engines
Better mileage than their gas counterparts
Engine lasts considerably longer
Diesel Van: Cons
More expensive and harder to find
It can be harder to find diesel at the pump, especially after hours
Diesel engines are more expensive to buy and harder to find used
Gas Van: Pros
Easy to find and cheaper to buy
Convenient. Find gas anywhere at the pump
Cheaper to buy and easier to find used
Gas Van: Cons
More upkeep and less efficient
Less fuel efficient with worse gas mileage
The longevity of a gas engine is typically half that of a diesel engine
Do You Need a 4×4?
Sprinter and Transit vans come in four-wheel drive. Is it right for you?
If you like off-road adventures and don’t want to be stopped by weather or geography, consider a 4×4 van. Their higher clearance and better traction keep you safe and mobile in the snow and sand, or on steep terrain. While most popular wilderness destinations don’t require four-wheel drive to reach, some deep wilderness areas do.
The convenience of a 4×4 is great. There are, however, a few drawbacks. Four-wheel drive vans are more expensive to buy and harder to find in the market. They also get worse gas mileage, meaning you’ll spend more on fuel.
If you want unlimited freedom to go on any terrain, a 4×4 is for you
Pros: handles better in weather and on all terrains
Cons: gets worse gas mileage, is more expensive, and harder to find
Front- or Rear-wheel Drive
If you won’t be doing any heavy off-roading or frequent snow travel, you probably don’t need a 4×4
Pros: easier to find, cheaper to buy, and less expensive to drive
Cons: limit your mobility in weather or on remote terrain
New Vans vs. Used Vans
There’s nothing like a brand new vehicle. You’re certain of its history and it comes with a warranty. But if your budget is tight, you can save money by opting for a used van.
What to look out for with a used van
The biggest problem we see in used vans is wear-and-tear from previous owners using the cargo van for work purposes. If the previous owner has scratched or dented the insides, or put holes in the walls and those holes weren’t treated, they along with the scratches and dents will lead to rust. Which means your used van could cost much more than anticipated in repairs if the damage is extensive.
The benefits of new
Of course, new vans are more expensive. But if you know exactly what you want, the expense can be worth it. You can custom order them: the color, trim package (heated seats, fog lights, leather, etc.), drivetrain, etc.
Take note if you do choose new: while you can add windows from the manufacturer, we don’t recommend it. Stock windows often cost more than adding aftermarket windows, plus they don’t come with vent options. If you’re going to sleep or live in your van, at least one vented window is a must to be comfortable and removing a stock window and replacing it with a vented window is more trouble than just adding a window.
How does the van fit into your puzzle?
Unless you already own one, the cost of buying a van can a substantial part of your conversion budget. As you clarify your desires, needs, features, and budget, you’ll begin to put the puzzle pieces in place.
After going through all the features, do you have some extra room in your budget? Consider a new van to give yourself that extra assurance.
Realize you really want a few additional features? Trim costs by going used.
New vans are just that—brand new! There will be no rust or holes, and whatever breaks you’ll be able to fix because it’s under warranty. A new van is a clean slate to work with.
Get all the customizations you want, plus a warrantee
If you want more power, order a second alternator bracket (you essentially can't get one aftermarket)
Some things are better done aftermarket, like windows
You can save on a used van. But be on the lookout for holes, dents, and scratches on the inside walls and floor of the van. Ask the previous owner how they used the van.
Conversions are an investment. Be sure to get a van that can go the distance
Look for a used van with under 50K miles
This will give you significant savings and a vehicle with tons of life left on it.
Add them from the factory to your new van or install them aftermarket
Running boards make it much easier for you to safely get in and out of your van. They’re not just for people with limited mobility! If you choose a 4×4, you’ll literally need to climb into your van without running boards.
There are two main types.
These are tubular bars that often have a flat top where you can step to get into your van. It feels more like walking up a ladder than having a step in terms of how large the area is for your foot. Nerf bars are always stationary.
Flat running boards
Flat running boards have more surface area and a larger, more secure feeling step. They come in stationary and electric. The stationary boards are fixed to the side of your van and don’t move. Electric running boards retract when you’re driving.
The downside of stationary: they can be in the way while you’re driving and give you lower clearance. The electric boards retract when you shut the doors before you start driving. Electric is more expensive and while sturdily built has the potential to require more maintenance.
The Levity Local
Sleek and functional while still warm and beautiful, the Local has the essentials you need without the extras you don’t. It’s perfect for:
- The adventure-minded who use their van for outdoor recreation
- Those who want a sleepable travel van on a tighter budget
Removable bed system / Solar electric / Full insulation and ventilation / Waterproof floor / L-track to secure gear / + Add features like kitchen galley, outdoor shower, cabin heat, & more
$45K base price
+ or – features to fit your lifestyle and budget
The Levity Legend
This home-on-wheels makes spontaneous adventuring a breeze. Just pack up your stuff and leave your life behind – while taking all the comforts of home with you.
- Part-time adventurers who value comfort and ease
- Glampers and festival-goers who want to upgrade from a tent to a tiny home
- Full-time travelers whose van is their dream home
Queen bed / Full kitchen / Indoor dining / Outdoor shower / Composting toilet / Cabinets / Solar power / Robust electrical system to power appliances / + Add features like hot water, indoor bathroom, rooftop deck, & more
$95K base price
+ or – features to fit your lifestyle and budget
The Levity Landscape
Bring your unique vision to life with a one-of-a-kind Levity Landscape. We partner with you from start to finish as we synthesize the elements you want into a van that will work. Best suited for:
Those who want to do some of the build themselves, but aren’t true DIYers
Adventurers who want to incorporate kits
- Budget-minded van converters who want to do their build in stages
Often custom / Can be done in installments / Incorporate kits / Unique designs / Do some yourself, outsource the rest to the pros
$20K to $80K+
Due to all the moving parts, every Levity Landscape starts with a paid consult.
You’re kicking a** and building your dream van – but need just a little help with the features beyond your skillset. Or you’re stuck trying to figure out how it will all fit together, and it’s been a few months (or years) – and you need help.
We install one-off features for DIYers and offer hourly consultation to take your project from stress to success.
Windows / Vent fans/ Electrical work / Solar / Cabin & water heaters / Flares / Seats / Swivels / Project consultation & more
Priced per project
How do you decide what’s right for you?
Our three biggest tips as you’re dreaming about your van:
- Do your research
- Know what you want
- Know your budget
This sets you up for success because you’ll know what features you need and which ones you don’t. You’ll end up with a van that works for you and your lifestyle – not anyone else’s. Because that’s what vanlife is all about – freedom to be yourself, travel on your own terms, and enjoy the natural world without the typical hassles of camping or limitations of RVs.
We’ll build a van that works for you.
🚐What kind of van do you want?
🚍What wheelbase do you want?
🙆🏾♂️What height makes the most sense for you?
- Mid (Transit only)
🚜Are you interested in a four-wheel drive?
⚙️Are you going for a new or a used van?
👟Do you want running boards?
- Nerf bar
- Flat, stationary
- Flat, electric
- No running boards
❓What other van questions do you have?
- We want to hear about them!