Mobility versus Comfort: Which Vehicle to Buy?

by | Sep 3, 2012 | 21 comments

Mobility versus Comfort: Which Vehicle to Buy?

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Here I’m camping in my home-built camper in Alaska. I was younger then!

My poor old Ford F150 is almost at the end of its life. We drove into town the other day and the rear end started howling for awhile. I have known it is going out and been waiting for it to finally give in and die. The truck has MANY small problems also, and altogether the repairs will cost much more than it is worth, so I have just been waiting for it to die.
I’ve wanted to put off buying something new until I get back to Nevada. I’ve been stuck in California for a year with my broken arm, and buying in Nevada will cost less and be easier. I’m still hoping it will get me back there, but you never know. I am in the throes of indecision whether I will buy a van or another 4×4 pickup. A van is very comfortable to live in and gets better gas mileage, but they are very hard to find in 4×4. Pickups are easy to find in 4×4, have higher clearance and with a tall shell or very light camper are reasonably comfortable.
Either way I will keep my trailer for the time being as it is very comfortable to live in. However, it is also very restricting to my mobility. Taking off down a desert or forest road with it in tow is very risky. In fact I just don’t do it. Often I will park on the road and walk down the smaller road to find out if it is safe. Or I will drop the trailer and then go explore to find a new campsite. That works but it is not convenient. And I simply can’t get as far back with the trailer as I could with just the pickup and a shell.
For most people that isn’t an issue, they vandwell in cities or boondock in reasonable places. But I want to explore and find that incredibly wonderful campsite that is only available to the adventurous. So far, I have been very lucky and found many of those sites.
 

The trailer in a desert campsite in the winter. I’ve never needed to put the truck into 4×4 so I think a van would be fine.

What got me to thinking about this is we have some great friends that joined us in camp and they live in a huge Slide-In camper that is 11 ½ feet long and has a slide-out on the side. They have a 4×4 diesel pickup with duallies, a crew cab, and an 8 foot bed. It is very long, very wide and very tall!! I thought it would be no-problem getting it back to my campsite, but boy, was I wrong!!
The part of the road that I thought would be no-problem nearly stopped them. In fact they had to cut down a small tree to get by it. Then when they got into camp, they couldn’t cross a granite rock face we all cross very easily because they were so long the dip in it made the camper drag. They tried to get over it for an hour, but finally admitted defeat. So we moved Cheri up to where we were going to put them, and they took Cheri’s spot. That was no big deal because as it cools off here for fall, we had planned to move Cheri up there anyway because it has more sun. She is actually really glad she moved since the nights are getting cooler and the extra sun during the day keeps the van warmer all evening.
It turns out my friends are looking for a new van right now because their huge truck camper has constantly caused them these problems. Like me they want to find the remotest campsite they can and they simply can’t do it now. They have decided on a Chevrolet Express (or GMC Savannah) van with All Wheel Drive. It isn’t true 4×4, but it will still get them far enough back to satisfy them. In fact they just found two of them they are hoping to buy and convert.
That brings me to the topic of this blog. Mobility versus Comfort. They have a huge amount of comfort in their camper, but severely limited mobility. In the van, as a couple, they will have severely limited comfort, but have a great deal of mobility. There is always a trade-off!!
There is one more compromise to consider though: mobility, versus gas mileage. A van (whether 2 wheel drive or All wheel drive) will get better gas mileage than any pickup, especially a true 4×4 pickup. The less you spend on gas, the further you can go to have an adventure. A 4×4 pickup will get me further back in the Washington Cascades, but if I can’t afford the gas to get there I still can’t camp back there.
As an adventurous young couple, the decision is easy for them; they want mobility and gas mileage. I’m not as adventurous, and I am definitely not young, but I think I want the mobility and gas mileage also. But I will settle for a 2wd van with a posi-track rear end, lift kit, and aggressive tires. Those AWD drive vans are very hard to find and you are going to pay more for them.
For now the combination of the trailer and a van seems to be the best compromise. I can live in the trailer in the desert in the winter and then put it in storage for the summer and take off in the van for trips during the summer. Or if money is tight, just take the trailer up into nearby National Forests and get back as far as I can and stay there for the summer. That seems like the best possible compromise. Bob

Next Rigs of Moab Part 1: Live-Aboard Adventure Vehicles

21 Comments

  1. Calvin R

    Hi, Bob. This post illustrates how very individual mobile living can be. The freedom to do things one’s own way brings to responsibility to do one’s own thinking. I’m glad you share your thinking with the rest of us; it shows us resources and concerns we might not see on our own.
    The other potential solution that comes to mind is to use a pickup with a popup truck camper. While allowing you to reach the back country and elimininating most of your friends’ issues with the big truck camper, this would cost more upfront than either a van or a truck without the camper, and you would be living with canvas and with less amenities than your friends. Given the snow where you are, that might not be as good, but it will work for some people.

    • Bob

      Right, Calvin, there is no one answer for everybody! The main thing is know your own priorities and make sure the important ones are met. For my friends, getting into the backcountry is their highest priority and they will readily admit they bought the wrong rig for that. For me comfort and mobility are about an equal priority, with comfort slighty more important. But I can see the time coming when mobility will be more important. For now its comfort, which is why I am in the trailer, even though it limits my mobility. Bob

  2. GARY GREEN

    hey bob,get a used sportmoble van,on there website click on used they update it often.from the sound of think’s you might need a bigger trailer!! lol.see ya down at big q.fellow travler.

    • Bob

      I’ll do that as soon as money starts growing on trees! Those things are out of my price range. I’ll be at the Sportsmobile front door the day after I win the Lotto. Bob

  3. JBandHilda

    Hi Bob!
    we met you last year in the Sierras. We are in Oregon and are now living out of that white Ford conversion van. Loaded as we are, we only get 11-13 mpg on a good day. Our dream is a 4×4 truck with a camper on back. 8-10 feet. the van is just not big enough for two of us and interior height is only 5’6″ at the highest. 7 sterlite bins under our floating bed plus a 4 drawer sterlite dresser is enough storage. Less storage in the truck camper, but better setup. Lots of vans for sale up here, and at least one good 4×4 Custom van place. V ery expensive to do. However, I see 15 passenger E350’s with hightop wheelchair vans for sale on Craigs list pretty often. If you are finished with trailbikes, ATVs can be found used pretty cheap. Anyway, we want a truck with camper and pull a small trailer with odds and ends with the ATV for exploring. Best wishes to you and Homer! We are not able to travel much yet, but hope to make one of the rendevoux’s soon.
    You have a great forum and blog!
    jbandhilda

  4. dave

    Here is another HUGE shout out for a popup truck camper. Fourwheel, Allterrain and Phoenix all make aluminum framed campers that can withstand the beating they would take on the backroads of the west. Hallmark, Northstar and others are woodframed, and are said to not last quite as long on washboard roads. These things have Lower center of gravity than a traditional hardwall and better gas mileage as they are SHOCKINGLY light.Also, they come off the truck easily. New they are very pricey, pushing 20K for a nicely equipped camper. But, there is a great enthusiasts forum called wanderthewest(dot com), and members troll craigslist and post used campers for sale. Look for the “used camper alert” thread in the FWC forum, and head to the last page for the most recent craigslist ads. In Colorado and California good deals can be had on older FWC campers, sometimes under a thousand bucks for a 80’s Grandy or Keystone. Campers come with a 16,000 BTU heater (forced air but many people put in Olympians) cab over bed, a couch, and a built in galley. Some have iceboxes, some have 3 way fridges. Only the largest keystone model of FWC has a interior bathroom area. Major cons are: soft side wall transmits cold, but you can get an “artic pack” which basically creates a dead space so you keep some of your heat in, and you have to use some strength to pop up the camper. The Wander the west folks are INGENIOUS, have solved most of the issues with the camper themselves, such as exterior struts to help with lift, A/C’s mounted out the side window or backwall, Roof mounted swamp coolers, etc. Given that you take advantage of mother nature’s heating and cooling, live in the backcountry most of the year…seems like a no brainer to me.

  5. dave

    Sorry to double post but here’s a great youtube vid of an older keystone, fixed up real good:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKa4sYWdWII
    I think he paid like 600 for the camper.

  6. Angeli

    Hi Bob,
    This really is such a subjective decision, isn’t it? I hear your desire for mobility, and I’m not young, either so comfort is definitely an issue. I’m half way thru my year of wiggling out of main stream and heading for van life, and I keep going back to the idea of the step van, because of my need to stand straight, a place to stow my easel, and my little furry navigators need for a bit of room. EXCEPT that the mpg is so bad, and driving from FL to CA in a step van might not be the thing to do. Well, I’ll probably end up with a cargo van and convert it as I go. It helps to remember that one can always change and do something differently, if necessary.

    • Bob

      Hi Angeli, I lived in a box van for 6 years, so I am also a fan of them and step vans. My box van got 5-8 mpg!! Pretty bad! Most step vans won’t do much better. An alternative is a Ford box van with a 7.3 liter diesel engine. But even then you are only going to get 10-12 mpg. Some Step vans came with Cummins diesel engines which are a great motor that is legendary for its reliability and fuel mileage. If you can find of those with the Cummins 4bt 4 cyl diesel, you could get 15-20 mpg, and the engine will run forever. The 6 cyl will also run forever but not get as good a mpg 14-18 mpg.
      I think a cargo van is just about ideal, however, if you are concerned about comfort I would get a high-top conversion van. MUCH more comfortable than a low-top! You can also build in more storage making your life much easier. If you can find a high-top, extended van, I think you will be very happy. it sounds like you have some time left so I would suggest a nationwide craigslist search on those two terms. Keep us informed on your progress!!

  7. Dave

    hi Bob,that sounds cool! did you get a price for
    doing the posi rear end?
    Will you do a limited slip one?

    • Bob

      Hi Dave, I’m not sure what you mean? I’m not putting any more money into my old truck, it needs too much. I’m just waiting till I can get out of California to buy either a newer van or pickup. I am still undecided between a van and a 4X4 pickup. To be realistic if I buy a van it will need to come with a posi because I probably couldn’t afford to put one in. That’s the huge advantage of a pickup. Bob

      • Dave

        oh, gotchya…just buy one with it already in it. Yeah, I’ve been looking and it doesn’t seem like too many already have it in it. I see you can order a new one built with it in. Keep us posted with what you find !!!!

  8. Boonie

    what picture?

  9. Boonie

    You mentioned posi-track differentials. Aren’t Traction Control systems becoming easier to find (or even standard equipment) on vans and trucks of the last few model years?
    I’m hoping that they are 80% as good as real four wheel drive, while only being 10% the cost, and with no mechanical complexity, extra weight, poorer fuel economy.

    • Bob

      Hi Boonie, yes, I think they are pretty common. You can find out if a vehicle has traction control by looking at the VIN number. I can’t really put a percentage on their value, but they do help a lot. Most of us really don’t need 4×4, however clearance is pretty important. Bigger, more aggressive tires can make a really big difference in traction and clearance. Bob

  10. Izaak Diggs

    Hi Bob,
    Wow, this is a great site. I am currently saving up to become a van dweller next Spring and all your information is very helpful. I have decided on a van (over an RV). My budget is extremely small, but I have found decent ones for $1500-2000. I am curious what your insights into older vans versus newer ones is. Older ones have time against them, and lack overdrive transmissions for higher fuel economy, but they also don’t have computers so they are (theorhetically) easier to work on. Do you have any thoughts on this?
    Thanks! Izaak

    • Bob

      Hi Izaak, I am a big fan of newer vehicles. It’s easy to hate the computers, but they have made today’s engines so much better, especially with much better fuel mileage and much more reliability. My general advice is to buy the latest model van with the lowest mileage you can afford. Chevy replaced the 350 5.7 liter with the 5.3 and from everything I hear, it is a much better engine. Same thing with the new Ford 5.4, much better than the 351. I am a huge fan also of the Dodge 318, it is a truly outstanding engine.
      If you are a good mechanic, but can’t work on the newer engines, that would be the only time you would be better off with an older vehicle. The savings on labor might make up for the poor fuel mileage and reliability. Bob

  11. Irene

    Thanks for the advice about the high top extended van for comfort. Sounds like you feel it’s worth the extra expense and loss of some fuel efficiency. For buying a used van, do you have an opinion on the age of the vehicle and the number of miles on the odometer? For example, would you avoid a vehicle made before 2000 or with more than 120,000 miles? Many thanks for this informative blog.

    • Bob

      Hi Irene, my feeling is, if it is going to be your home, it needs to be comfortable. If it is primarily transportation, then it doesn’t really matter. Some people don’t mind the low top at all, but I am not one of them. I find it very unpleasant to have to stoop over all the time. The van I just bought is a low top, but it is not my home. My home is the trailer and I can stand up in it. I do plan on taking extended trips in the van, but I figure I can live with some discomfort for short periods.
      My advice is to buy as new a vehicle, with the fewest miles you can afford. 1996 is a big cut-off in age, because after that you had much improved computers with OBD II (on Board Diagnostics version 2). If at all possible, buy a 1996 or newer van. But, I would say a 2000 or newer is even better, if you can afford it.
      Today’s vehicles should give you around 200,000 relatively trouble-free miles. After that, you can expect major problems to start popping up. Of course that is a broad generalization, there are lots of exceptions to it. So generally, the lower the number of miles on a used van, the longer you can go before trouble starts. I bought my f150 with 130,000 miles, and it was trouble free till 200,000, so I got 70,000 trouble-free miles. I was very happy with that! The van I just bought has 150,000 which is more than I wanted, but the mechanic said it was in great shape (it doesn’t have any leaks anywhere) it was exactly what I wanted in every other way, and it is a Los Angeles van which means those are mainly highway miles. So I took the risk on a van with more miles than is ideal. 120,000 or less is more what you want.
      Good luck on your search for the perfect van for you, it’s out there waiting for you!!

  12. Jim

    A company I worked for bought 1 ton vans with 4:11 rear ends and positraction for surveying work. They worked great. Positraction is almost as good as 4 wheel drive, and a lot cheaper. With less to go wrong.

    • Bob

      Jim, I agree about positraction. I wanted a van with it, but I don’t think this one does. It has good tires on it but when they need replacing I will get aggressive tires on the rear. I’m so spoiled by having 4×4 that if I find not having it is a problem I will add a locker to the rear end. With good tires and a locker I can go anywhere I want to go in it since I am not a true four-wheeler.
      I debated getting another 4×4 pickup, but like you said they have so much more to go wrong that I finally decided against it. Bob

Table of Contents

21 Comments

  1. Calvin R

    Hi, Bob. This post illustrates how very individual mobile living can be. The freedom to do things one’s own way brings to responsibility to do one’s own thinking. I’m glad you share your thinking with the rest of us; it shows us resources and concerns we might not see on our own.
    The other potential solution that comes to mind is to use a pickup with a popup truck camper. While allowing you to reach the back country and elimininating most of your friends’ issues with the big truck camper, this would cost more upfront than either a van or a truck without the camper, and you would be living with canvas and with less amenities than your friends. Given the snow where you are, that might not be as good, but it will work for some people.

    • Bob

      Right, Calvin, there is no one answer for everybody! The main thing is know your own priorities and make sure the important ones are met. For my friends, getting into the backcountry is their highest priority and they will readily admit they bought the wrong rig for that. For me comfort and mobility are about an equal priority, with comfort slighty more important. But I can see the time coming when mobility will be more important. For now its comfort, which is why I am in the trailer, even though it limits my mobility. Bob

  2. GARY GREEN

    hey bob,get a used sportmoble van,on there website click on used they update it often.from the sound of think’s you might need a bigger trailer!! lol.see ya down at big q.fellow travler.

    • Bob

      I’ll do that as soon as money starts growing on trees! Those things are out of my price range. I’ll be at the Sportsmobile front door the day after I win the Lotto. Bob

  3. JBandHilda

    Hi Bob!
    we met you last year in the Sierras. We are in Oregon and are now living out of that white Ford conversion van. Loaded as we are, we only get 11-13 mpg on a good day. Our dream is a 4×4 truck with a camper on back. 8-10 feet. the van is just not big enough for two of us and interior height is only 5’6″ at the highest. 7 sterlite bins under our floating bed plus a 4 drawer sterlite dresser is enough storage. Less storage in the truck camper, but better setup. Lots of vans for sale up here, and at least one good 4×4 Custom van place. V ery expensive to do. However, I see 15 passenger E350’s with hightop wheelchair vans for sale on Craigs list pretty often. If you are finished with trailbikes, ATVs can be found used pretty cheap. Anyway, we want a truck with camper and pull a small trailer with odds and ends with the ATV for exploring. Best wishes to you and Homer! We are not able to travel much yet, but hope to make one of the rendevoux’s soon.
    You have a great forum and blog!
    jbandhilda

  4. dave

    Here is another HUGE shout out for a popup truck camper. Fourwheel, Allterrain and Phoenix all make aluminum framed campers that can withstand the beating they would take on the backroads of the west. Hallmark, Northstar and others are woodframed, and are said to not last quite as long on washboard roads. These things have Lower center of gravity than a traditional hardwall and better gas mileage as they are SHOCKINGLY light.Also, they come off the truck easily. New they are very pricey, pushing 20K for a nicely equipped camper. But, there is a great enthusiasts forum called wanderthewest(dot com), and members troll craigslist and post used campers for sale. Look for the “used camper alert” thread in the FWC forum, and head to the last page for the most recent craigslist ads. In Colorado and California good deals can be had on older FWC campers, sometimes under a thousand bucks for a 80’s Grandy or Keystone. Campers come with a 16,000 BTU heater (forced air but many people put in Olympians) cab over bed, a couch, and a built in galley. Some have iceboxes, some have 3 way fridges. Only the largest keystone model of FWC has a interior bathroom area. Major cons are: soft side wall transmits cold, but you can get an “artic pack” which basically creates a dead space so you keep some of your heat in, and you have to use some strength to pop up the camper. The Wander the west folks are INGENIOUS, have solved most of the issues with the camper themselves, such as exterior struts to help with lift, A/C’s mounted out the side window or backwall, Roof mounted swamp coolers, etc. Given that you take advantage of mother nature’s heating and cooling, live in the backcountry most of the year…seems like a no brainer to me.

  5. dave

    Sorry to double post but here’s a great youtube vid of an older keystone, fixed up real good:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKa4sYWdWII
    I think he paid like 600 for the camper.

  6. Angeli

    Hi Bob,
    This really is such a subjective decision, isn’t it? I hear your desire for mobility, and I’m not young, either so comfort is definitely an issue. I’m half way thru my year of wiggling out of main stream and heading for van life, and I keep going back to the idea of the step van, because of my need to stand straight, a place to stow my easel, and my little furry navigators need for a bit of room. EXCEPT that the mpg is so bad, and driving from FL to CA in a step van might not be the thing to do. Well, I’ll probably end up with a cargo van and convert it as I go. It helps to remember that one can always change and do something differently, if necessary.

    • Bob

      Hi Angeli, I lived in a box van for 6 years, so I am also a fan of them and step vans. My box van got 5-8 mpg!! Pretty bad! Most step vans won’t do much better. An alternative is a Ford box van with a 7.3 liter diesel engine. But even then you are only going to get 10-12 mpg. Some Step vans came with Cummins diesel engines which are a great motor that is legendary for its reliability and fuel mileage. If you can find of those with the Cummins 4bt 4 cyl diesel, you could get 15-20 mpg, and the engine will run forever. The 6 cyl will also run forever but not get as good a mpg 14-18 mpg.
      I think a cargo van is just about ideal, however, if you are concerned about comfort I would get a high-top conversion van. MUCH more comfortable than a low-top! You can also build in more storage making your life much easier. If you can find a high-top, extended van, I think you will be very happy. it sounds like you have some time left so I would suggest a nationwide craigslist search on those two terms. Keep us informed on your progress!!

  7. Dave

    hi Bob,that sounds cool! did you get a price for
    doing the posi rear end?
    Will you do a limited slip one?

    • Bob

      Hi Dave, I’m not sure what you mean? I’m not putting any more money into my old truck, it needs too much. I’m just waiting till I can get out of California to buy either a newer van or pickup. I am still undecided between a van and a 4X4 pickup. To be realistic if I buy a van it will need to come with a posi because I probably couldn’t afford to put one in. That’s the huge advantage of a pickup. Bob

      • Dave

        oh, gotchya…just buy one with it already in it. Yeah, I’ve been looking and it doesn’t seem like too many already have it in it. I see you can order a new one built with it in. Keep us posted with what you find !!!!

  8. Boonie

    what picture?

  9. Boonie

    You mentioned posi-track differentials. Aren’t Traction Control systems becoming easier to find (or even standard equipment) on vans and trucks of the last few model years?
    I’m hoping that they are 80% as good as real four wheel drive, while only being 10% the cost, and with no mechanical complexity, extra weight, poorer fuel economy.

    • Bob

      Hi Boonie, yes, I think they are pretty common. You can find out if a vehicle has traction control by looking at the VIN number. I can’t really put a percentage on their value, but they do help a lot. Most of us really don’t need 4×4, however clearance is pretty important. Bigger, more aggressive tires can make a really big difference in traction and clearance. Bob

  10. Izaak Diggs

    Hi Bob,
    Wow, this is a great site. I am currently saving up to become a van dweller next Spring and all your information is very helpful. I have decided on a van (over an RV). My budget is extremely small, but I have found decent ones for $1500-2000. I am curious what your insights into older vans versus newer ones is. Older ones have time against them, and lack overdrive transmissions for higher fuel economy, but they also don’t have computers so they are (theorhetically) easier to work on. Do you have any thoughts on this?
    Thanks! Izaak

    • Bob

      Hi Izaak, I am a big fan of newer vehicles. It’s easy to hate the computers, but they have made today’s engines so much better, especially with much better fuel mileage and much more reliability. My general advice is to buy the latest model van with the lowest mileage you can afford. Chevy replaced the 350 5.7 liter with the 5.3 and from everything I hear, it is a much better engine. Same thing with the new Ford 5.4, much better than the 351. I am a huge fan also of the Dodge 318, it is a truly outstanding engine.
      If you are a good mechanic, but can’t work on the newer engines, that would be the only time you would be better off with an older vehicle. The savings on labor might make up for the poor fuel mileage and reliability. Bob

  11. Irene

    Thanks for the advice about the high top extended van for comfort. Sounds like you feel it’s worth the extra expense and loss of some fuel efficiency. For buying a used van, do you have an opinion on the age of the vehicle and the number of miles on the odometer? For example, would you avoid a vehicle made before 2000 or with more than 120,000 miles? Many thanks for this informative blog.

    • Bob

      Hi Irene, my feeling is, if it is going to be your home, it needs to be comfortable. If it is primarily transportation, then it doesn’t really matter. Some people don’t mind the low top at all, but I am not one of them. I find it very unpleasant to have to stoop over all the time. The van I just bought is a low top, but it is not my home. My home is the trailer and I can stand up in it. I do plan on taking extended trips in the van, but I figure I can live with some discomfort for short periods.
      My advice is to buy as new a vehicle, with the fewest miles you can afford. 1996 is a big cut-off in age, because after that you had much improved computers with OBD II (on Board Diagnostics version 2). If at all possible, buy a 1996 or newer van. But, I would say a 2000 or newer is even better, if you can afford it.
      Today’s vehicles should give you around 200,000 relatively trouble-free miles. After that, you can expect major problems to start popping up. Of course that is a broad generalization, there are lots of exceptions to it. So generally, the lower the number of miles on a used van, the longer you can go before trouble starts. I bought my f150 with 130,000 miles, and it was trouble free till 200,000, so I got 70,000 trouble-free miles. I was very happy with that! The van I just bought has 150,000 which is more than I wanted, but the mechanic said it was in great shape (it doesn’t have any leaks anywhere) it was exactly what I wanted in every other way, and it is a Los Angeles van which means those are mainly highway miles. So I took the risk on a van with more miles than is ideal. 120,000 or less is more what you want.
      Good luck on your search for the perfect van for you, it’s out there waiting for you!!

  12. Jim

    A company I worked for bought 1 ton vans with 4:11 rear ends and positraction for surveying work. They worked great. Positraction is almost as good as 4 wheel drive, and a lot cheaper. With less to go wrong.

    • Bob

      Jim, I agree about positraction. I wanted a van with it, but I don’t think this one does. It has good tires on it but when they need replacing I will get aggressive tires on the rear. I’m so spoiled by having 4×4 that if I find not having it is a problem I will add a locker to the rear end. With good tires and a locker I can go anywhere I want to go in it since I am not a true four-wheeler.
      I debated getting another 4×4 pickup, but like you said they have so much more to go wrong that I finally decided against it. Bob