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How to pick the right vehicle for Vanlife// What fit’s you?

April 8, 2019

How I decided on my Vanlife home: Phay.A camper van parked in the snowy mountains of Utah, this is what the vanlife is all about!

My idea of what I wanted as my home changed a lot over a period of 6 months while I was planning and looking at so many different options. When I decided that I wanted to go full Vanlife everything changed.

Would I live in my Mazda 3 that I had just bought? I can lay the back seats all the way flat so I can fit a twin sized mattress in it to sleep comfortably.

After a month-long road trip in July through British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan for 2 weddings(In Prince Rupert and Swift Current) and 10 sessions(2 couples, 3 family, 5 boudoir sessions) I realized I could not go without cooking and would not be able to survive of off easy food for a year.

Okay, so that’s not the right option… Is this temporary or do I want to go Vanlife?

Well if I want to cook I need more space. So what if I get an SUV and build a frame so the bed is off the ground and I have storage under the bed for everything I need? Plus I can cook under the hatchback for coverage from rain and sun. Maybe… I looked at Rav4’s, 4runners, land rovers and so many other SUV’s.

Soon I came to the conclusion that I wanted to do the travel and living mobile lifestyle for more than a year. It seemed like life was pushing me to do the vanlife fulltime. I was tired of paying rent, of being stuck in one place, and having so much stuff weigh me down. It came to my realization that the only thing I really wanted was to travel as much as I could while photographing amazing humans in the most incredible landscapes the world has to offer.

In this case, I want to have an actual home for my longterm vanlife. Kind of like an apartment on wheels. That opens a whole new can of worms…

What is the best vehicle for Vanlife/mobile life? Do I do an SUV with a trailer? A converted Van? Convert my own Van? Get a truck with a camper in the box? A small motorhome?

I decided I really liked having a smaller system to drive around and park, so the trailer and motorhome are out. I liked the concept of living anywhere I want and being mobile. In a parking lot, a neighborhood or just on the side of the road. These are the joys of Vanlife I wanted full access to.

Okay, so a Van of some kind or a truck with a box camper. I decided to look into both options until one fit just right.

The DelicaA Japanese car The Delica off roading. The badass vanlife.

The first Van I fell in love with was the Delica: I saw my first one on the way back to Vancouver from Powell River after one of my Goddess Marathons in August. I loved this Van because it was compact, unique, 4×4 and extremely durable and reliable. Because they were becoming so common in North America it was easy and cheap to get parts or get them fixed; which after I did a ton of research I found out that those are far in few in between because these little vans are tanks!

I started looking at conversions people had done and found a couple who had converted one and had been traveling and doing vanlife for 2.5 years. They started in Australia and then had it Shipped to Seattle where they did the Panamerica tour from Canada to Brazil. They even adopted a street dog in Mexico who was living with them in their Van.(Check out their story here)

About imported Vans

I was in love! I loved that I could literally go anywhere I wanted and be compact(smaller than some cars even). So I looked at over 30 Delicas. I drove all over the lower mainland test driving all the different models and learning everything about them. Which years are the best, what to look out for and why some are around $5000 and some are $20000. I found out that they are Japanese cars which means they get exported out of Japan after they hit 100000KM because they consider those old cars (and are legally not allowed to drive them) so they instead of hitting the junk pile they sell them to other countries, usually North America.

In Canada, cars must be at least 15 years old before they can be imported in the USA they have to be 20. They have to have an in-depth inspection done and have everything checked over, so if you get a newly imported vehicle you know it’s in perfect working order otherwise it wouldn’t be certified, which is awesome! I also learned that Delicas are worth almost 2x as much in the USA. So if I bought one newly imported only 15 years old and then after 5 years I decided I was done with the vanlife or wanted a better/bigger van and I wanted to sell I could make money in the end. How cool!

I really wanted a diesel because they are significantly better on gas and I wanted a standard because they are easier to maintain and much more durable(and if they’re both its that much better). There are also different sizes and bodies and I looked at every single one.

But before I for sure settled on the Delica I wanted to see all my options first.

A truck bed camperA ford pickup truck and a truck bed camper on top

My mom has been living in a truck-bed-camper off and on for nearly 2 years and she loves it. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree I guess 😉😂) So do I! It’s like an apartment on wheels; literally! You have everything you need, from a full kitchen, living room/dining room, a full bed, tons of storage and an extra bed for guest. All with ample head and walking room. Plus, which is what always is a big deal for me, lots of windows and natural light. Though this isn’t the idyllic vanlife I had in mind I was intrigued by the idea.

My mom convinced me I should check some out because they are the most comfortable and that way whenever I come back from the extended trips I literally come home to a setup apartment: to my home. I adored that idea! So I went on the hunt again. Looking at some all over the place and doing so much research about that’s import what to be careful of and so much more. Here are some of the things I learned:

With this duel system, you now have two things to worry about the vehicle(the truck) and the camper its self. Let me go into each separately:

The camper:

You have to make sure to go through the whole thing and make sure there is no mold, these systems can very often get mold and it’s nearly impossible to get out. It the insulation isn’t done right or the roof then you get leaking and get mold, which is very dangerous for you but also to the structure of the camper. You have to make sure that all the systems work, the oven, stove top, fan, fridge, fans and vents. You have to check how much power each element takes and make sure the battery system can sustain it all and for how long(most are set up for short term use, not for long term use) this is something I might have to invest more into. Batteries also get worn out so you need to check how old they are.

You also have to decide on how big you want it, how heavy or light. The bigger they are the heavier or you can get the ultra light which is mega expensive. Another thing to consider is if you want a bathroom with only a toilet or both a toilet and a shower. A big factor here is weight because now you not only have to carry fresh water(which you’ll have to carry much more of) but also grey(water from doing dishes and showering) and black water(water from the toilet ie sewage). Weight is a HUGE factor: which brings me to my next point.

The Truck:

With the topic of weight, you have to consider how much each kind of truck can carry. For example, none of the smaller in-expensive trucks will work because they can’t nearly carry enough weight. You’ll need a truck that can carry at least 1000km but probably more because that is the minimum weight of a camper. If you add water and cargo weight they can get up to around 3000kg. For more info on how to pick the perfect truck for the perfect camper read this article.

Other things to consider are how much you want to spend on a truck. I’m on a low budget so I knew I’d be getting a used truck but of course, there is always a risk in buying used. I highly recommend getting an inspection done whenever buying used it costs only about $100-300 but can save you thousands or even having to get another vehicle in a very short time. Again the hope for standard and diesel for durability and affordability.

But a big thing to consider here is that trucks cost 2x-5x more than a car and most vans. So if your breaks go out it would cost maybe $500 to fix on a car and about $1500 on a truck. Do you need new tires? $500-$1000 for a car for a truck its $2000-$3000+. You see the point. This was a big fear of mine that the joy of being extra comfortable would be at the risk of breaking that bank if something went wrong.

A camper Van parked on a dirt road at sunset in Arizona, ending another Vanlife day.

A hard decision: Comfort or practicality and affordable?

I went back and forth from truck to Van over and over and over again. I reasoned with myself that if something did break down and I couldn’t afford to fix it I’d just stay in that place until I made enough money to keep going again. Then there was the fact that you are much less inconspicuous than in a Van. Everyone can see that someone could be sleeping/living in there. 

A converted Cargo VanA converted GMC Cargo van. A van ready to live in for the vanlife

Next, I spend time researching and test driving already converted Vans. It was a great way to get inspiration if I decided to convert my own. If I found the perfect fit that was already converted well then even better! I met with so many vanlife -ers and to test drive their vans. One of the couples even had a propane converted van with over 200,000. For propane vehicles is really low, they can easily hit 600,000km. I drove hours all over looking at Vans. Some in Whistler and Squamish. Some in Abbotsford and others a bit closer to home.

But I was hesitant. Something that I concluded was that all the converted cargo Vans(not the sprinters but there is no way I could afford one of those, unfortunately) is that though they are cute and super stealthy(which is what I really wanted so I could park and sleep anywhere without being noticed) they are all very short. Even for me I couldn’t even close to stand and would have to crawl or walk on my knees throughout the van, even to cook. I’m sure I could adjust and my easy going self doesn’t care but my wanting a homey feel and wanting to have guest sides didn’t see long term happiness and comfort in one of these.

I found a converted cargo Van that I absolutely loved and it was already converted. The guy is from Australia, loves vanlife and already converted 3 vans. It had everything I thought I wanted. I decided to make an offer. We came to an agreement but all I wanted was an inspection. He agreed.

In the day or so until the inspection, my mom’s friend (and expert in Vans because he converts about 5 a year) sent us a link of this amazing Van. It was in Abbotsford that was already converted, had an extended top, was great on fuel and was at a great price. I couldn’t tell much from the pictures but something about it just told me I needed to go see it.

The last test drive

Laura Mohr standing beside of her camper Van in Arches National Park. Traveling the USA this is Vanlife.

So I drove 2.5 hours to go and look at it.

As soon as I stepped inside I knew I was home. It has all the pieces I liked from all the other vans/campers I’d looked at all in one. It was spacious, had a whole wall of windows, I could stand comfortably (even my 6’1 dad can stand in it), it had a large fridge, a stove top and fan, rotating front seats, a bed that converted into two couches and a long table, more storage than I had things to put away, hanging closet space and compact.

The owner had put so much TLC into this van. I could tell how much he loved this Van and how much time and energy he’d spent on her. The house battery was brand new, the roof was redone and he’d put in new insulation. There were little things here and there he’d thought of to make the van more comfortable and easier to use. The only things that were missing that I’d wanted were an oven and solar panels. The panels I’d add later and the oven I’d just have to do without(fingers crossed I’d make lots of friends along the way who’d let me bake at their house’s 😂 and I got myself a dutch oven to do simple things that usually require an oven). The couple had done mini vanlife excursions some to New York, Alberta and one to Alaska. They never had any issues. 

I said yes, I’ll take it. We drove over to ICBC and we transferred ownership to my name and I got the keys!

I FOUND MY NEW HOME!! YEAH!!!! ❤️

Laura Mohr standing beside of her camper Van in Arches National Park. A girl and her Van in their Vanlife.She’s a 1989 GMC Vandura and I love her to bits. Her name is Phaydra or Phay for short!

Let the vanlife begin!

I hope this gives you some insight into my journey in finding Phay. If you’re thinking about the Vanlife this should help you get some ideas and info about what to think about. Remember, this was my process and yours might be different. You might love the options I didn’t like. You might have a bigger budget than me. So consider and try all the options before you decide. I will be posting more about details, logistics and things I’ve learned along the way while living in Phay. Some of the other topics I’ll cover are batteries, solar panels, power, what work I’ve done, what I added and so much more. Follow along for more and please feel free to comment or contact me with more questions. I’m always happy to share and nerd out about all this stuff.

Much love,

Phay and Laura

LAURA MOHR IS A WEDDING, BOUDOIR, AND FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHER BASED OUT OF VANCOUVER, CANADA (BUT SHE'S TRAVELING ALL OVER THE WORLD FULLTIME! SHE TRAVELS THROUGHOUT CANADA + EUROPE REGULARLY). SPECIALIZING IN CAPTURING THE JOY OF LIFE AND YOUR REAL CONNECTIONS + RELATIONSHIPS, LAURA LOVES GETTING TO KNOW HER CLIENTS TO PROVIDE THEM WITH A UNIQUE AND CUSTOM EXPERIENCE, AND PICTURES THAT THEY'LL CHERISH FOREVER. TO BOOK YOUR SESSION, CONTACT HER.

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