To Sprinter or Not to Sprinter: Van Living 2

It was last December that I realized it was finally time to think about getting a van. It could be a point of pride to have been living in vehicles ranging in uncomfortableness compactness from a Ford Ranger to a Honda Fit for twenty years, but there’s also an argument for realizing that this type of lifestyle isn’t just a passing phase and it might not be all that bad to be a little more comfortable. Last December, Ian, Cajun and I had gone down to Eloy Arizona like every winter, for a multitude of reasons. One, my parents live south of Tucson and like to be visited at Christmas. Two, there are several good wingsuit base jumps in the canyons about halfway between Moab and Phoenix. Three, the holiday skydiving boogie is happening at Skydive Arizona in Eloy, including a New Year’s party. Four, there’s lots of good climbing in Arizona and it’s theoretically warmer than Moab in December.
cajun element bed
Packing for a trip like this can get pretty big, no matter how minimalistic one is. Two humans and a dog need cooking and sleeping gear and clothing for a lot of different temperatures and activities. We each had three wingsuits: one for base jumping and two for skydiving. I had two base rigs: one for wingsuit and one for slider off jumping, while Ian had minimalistically only brought one (but his is big). We both had skydiving rigs and helmets. We had ropes and gear for multi-pitch climbing, and also for sport climbing. Cajun had 2 ball tossers and extra balls, a dog bed and a little dog jacket. I packed a whole bag just for costumes, because how were we supposed to know what we wanted to wear for the New Year’s party until the day of? The Element was loaded completely, even with a roof box. And cooking outside was very cold and dark, as it always is in December even if you’re almost in Mexico. As we drove back north in early January with Cajun stomping on our thighs, Ian commented that it might be time to start thinking about a van. Which honestly hadn’t ever occurred to me, for some reason. I guess you just get used to things. But it’s true, there does come a time when the inconvenience becomes so much that it’s hard to focus on the activities you’re camping out to do, which is the whole idea behind vehicle living anyway.

I didn’t really feel like buying a new truck and a new living installment at the same time, so a camper top was out. Plus I’m highly sensitive to fuel economy, and trucks are not really in the running there. A camper trailer was very much out for similar reasons. I wanted a vehicle that you could stealthily camp anywhere in, and quickly jump out of bed and start driving away immediately if necessary (you can tell a little bit about my past camping experiences…). We both wanted a big enough bed for Ian, me and Cajun to not be wrestling with each other all night–once Cajun is in the mix, this means a queen size bed. And the bed would need to stay a bed at all times, with no shifting or shuffling in order to get the bed ready or to start driving after having slept–the scars from Element living were still fresh. We wanted lots of storage space. Decent fuel economy. A place to hang out comfortably in rain or wind. Ability to drive on semi-rough roads, though not too crazy. Above all, I wanted to be able to cook inside! Basically a vehicle that makes daily life and sleep as simple and comfortable as possible while on the road. So all of this added up to: van.

As we started researching vans and van options, my first reaction was to somehow discover an alternate universe in which one could acquire a perfect van setup for under $10,000. I quickly discovered that this universe does not exist, although it might have in 1974. Of course we knew lots of people with $printer vans, and of course what we really wanted was a Sprinter van, but we didn’t even bother looking into those because we knew they were way out of the budget, whatever the budget was. We reasoned that the amount of money one would save by buying a less expensive, American style van with a higher roof added would ultimately outweigh the enjoyable savings at the gas pump with a diesel Sprinter. So we didn’t even consider the Sprinter just like it would never even occur to you to compare prices on first class or business class plane tickets when checking out flights.

We figured the way to go would be more traditional and older vans like used Savannahs and Ford Econolines. We researched having a hardtop or a poptop added, to get a vehicle that Ian could stand up inside at 6’3″. But I couldn’t get my head around the idea of spending $6-8000 to add height to the body of a used vehicle. And it’s surprisingly expensive to buy a used American style van. I was quickly discovering that there is not a cheap van option. And vans of this type are unrepentant gas guzzlers, which is such an insurmountable deal breaker for me.

Eventually we started looking at Ram Promasters and Ford Transits, which have the desirable tall, square shape. I was somewhat in love with the Promaster. It’s a lot cheaper than the Transit (or the Sprinter), has a very square interior shape, and in my opinion looks really cool. Ian can stand up inside. We got pretty close to buying one, but I got panicky at the last minute about the rear axle. The rear axle of the Promaster is a really strange design–a long straight bar that actually sits lower than the center of the back wheels, causing it to look like it has about 6 inches of clearance. I did some research to see if you could replace, or even flip upside down (thus achieving way more clearance! wouldn’t that have been awesome?), that axle. You can’t. I also spoke to climber friends who have Promasters and they assured me that they had no clearance problems and were able to drive out to places like the Bridger Jacks. Still, it just kind of made me concerned.

I also had to think realistically about my personal issues in dealing with a vehicle at this point in life. I have a strong and perhaps even irrational reaction to how much money I spend on a fuel fill up. You (meaning Ian) can make spreadsheets showing me how it will take 218 years to start saving money on fuel cost if you buy a Sprinter van versus a 1987 Chevy van, factoring fuel savings versus purchase price, but it will still ruin my whole day when I have to hand over $96 for a fill up. Irrational personal issues aside, the reality is that a diesel engine will get better fuel economy than a gas engine, and diesel fuel is also typically cheaper. It’s also true that diesel engines last longer than gas engines. A lot longer. Most people say you’re lucky to get more than 200,000 miles on a gas engine van. Since my idea was to keep this van until the end of time or until the wheels fell off, whichever comes last, fuel economy and longevity are a really big deal. So the Promaster being a gas engine vehicle was also a major negative. The Promaster is also shorter than the long Sprinter, and it was starting to seem like we might actually want the big van, though that wasn’t fully determined yet.

When we started looking into the Ford Transit, my first reaction was one of serious annoyance. On the Ford website, the base model price for the Transit looks like it will cost the same or less than a Promaster. Then you realize that if you want a medium or a tall roof, which obviously you do, it also requires a “long wheelbase” and the price jumps. If you want a high roof AND diesel, suddenly it’s $10,000 more than the base model price they advertise. To me, that’s like going to buy a car and then the dealer is all “oh, did you want wheels on that vehicle? That’s extra.” and just a really annoying way to do business. So this van at first seems like a great deal, but once you add on features to make it comparable to a Promaster or a Sprinter, it actually costs more than a Sprinter, and the roof still isn’t as high. In our case, a few inches make a big difference, as Ian can just barely stand up straight in the Sprinter and Promaster (even when insulated).

I also never have quite recovered from replacing both heads on my Ford Ranger at 170,000 miles and then asking the mechanic if he thought I could expect any other major and ridiculously expensive repairs at this point. His response was that I might get a little more out of the truck, but most Ford Rangers don’t get much past 200,000 miles. To me this was a horrible shock, having always been firmly opposed to spending twice as much on a Toyota Tacoma for what seemed like essentially the same truck. What kind of car dies at 200,000 miles?? I trusted you Ford!

And really, the biggest problem with both the Promaster and the Transit is that they’re too new. You can’t find used ones, and you also don’t really know how they’re going to hold up in the long run. It’s a really big and costly project to do a build out on a van, so you don’t want to go through all that and then have the van not last.

So against all previous ideas, it was time to start looking at Sprinters, after all. This was a search that started with lots of optimism: after all, there are tons of Sprinters out there, all ages and conditions. Surely I’d be able to scour the internet and find some amazing deal on a van, even if it required buying a plane ticket to Texas or Florida or something. I’ll spare you everything I learned about Mercedes versus Dodge versus Freightliner Sprinters, and the i6 engine, and Bluetec. After several discouraging months of searching, I discovered that anyone who has a Sprinter in good condition or with low mileage (under 200,000 is considered “low” on a Sprinter. seriously.) wants to sell it for more than they purchased it for. People seem to think that a Sprinter with 400,000 miles on it is still in great condition and worth more than my Honda Fit. I was completely baffled by seeing ads for one-year-old Sprinters priced higher than a 2015 showroom model. I’ve never owned a new car in my life, and my feeling has always been that new cars are for rich people. But I was starting to see that in this one case, there might not be a better option. Against all logic, a new Sprinter might actually be an appreciating asset and cheaper than a used one. Apparently there is an alternate van universe after all…

So after all these months of interneting, discussing and soul searching, test driving vans, making spreadsheets (Ian) and listening to gut feelings (me), we came to realize that the most economical van purchase might actually be a new Sprinter. I still have a hard time even saying that with a straight face. But you have to take a longterm view, like the Swiss. I’d just reached this conclusion when I was contacted by Mobius Concepts, a van conversion company in Denver owned by Chris Anthony (a name that might be familiar to New River Gorge climbers). Chris was interested in working with me as a brand partner to do design testing and promotion of Mobius, which sounded great to me!, but in order to make this relationship possible, I still needed a van. After patiently discussing the nearly unsolvable van dilemma with me for a few more weeks, Chris told me that at the end of the day, you just need to make a decision and do something, and you will most likely be really happy with whatever van you choose. Thus invalidating the last 6 months of mental torture.
us and van colorado
Most likely realizing I’d never be able to make a decision on a van, Chris offered to sell me one of his very gently used and perfectly maintained Sprinters (at the first reasonable price I’d yet encountered for a used Sprinter), so we could get going with the build out process. At this point I had done enough research to know I should jump all over that! (Heck, it’s an investment! Is Warren Buffett aware of the $printer appreciation charts and asset allocation potential?) And so I miraculously and suddenly became the proud owner of a 2012 Mercedes Sprinter, 170 wheelbase with 29,000 miles on it, with a sweet set of BF Goodrich AT tires!

Which brings us into the fun phase of the project….what do you need for an ideal van buildout? We’ll get into it in Van Living #3 and maybe #4, this might be a bigger topic than one post πŸ™‚


  • Inzek

    nice good fun post.
    greetings

  • MerTrainor

    These posts are awesome – I find the idea of buying an older van or Element and converting it to be really tempting, at the moment. Can you elaborate on why you can’t cook inside the Element, but could in the other vehicles? You mentioned it in both posts, and maybe it should be obvious, but it would be great to know!

  • Steph, your thought process is totally reasonable and logical. My boyfriend and I are struggling through this web of van living info right now too, but both in our 20’s will have to settle for a smaller/cheaper option for the time being. You’ve earned your van living stripes! Enjoy the $printer!

  • myfingersaresore

    Fun how you did so much research to converge on the Sprinter.

    Mine was – already owned a Ford, never again. Only the threat of violence would make me buy anything from Chrysler, annual “worst car company in the world”.

    Have fun with the conversion. If you haven’t found it already, I found this to be a great resource:

    http://www.sprinter-rv.com/sprinter-rv-conversion-sourcebook/

    Climb ON, Rick

  • Chris Pelli

    Hmmm…. I’ve been having these same thoughts, and before reading this, I thought that I was set on a transit….. your logic just may prevail over my need for shiny things!

  • Hey Steph

    I took the BIG plunge and bought a Mercedes 2105 4×4 sprinter van and am having Sportsmobile outfit it with everything. The BIG difference is that I am moving into it full time. I have spent the last decade renting an apartment in LA where I work part time and then driving back and forth to climb while missing my cat (and paying for a babysitter). After much internal debate, I decided it was time to consolidate and be like a snail (home on back). The sprinter is basically a tiny house with a queen size bed that pops up, shower, toilet, oven, stove, couch. It is powered with solar panels and diesel from the engine.

    It will done in 6 weeks (after a year long ordering/conversion process). This will improve my life on all fronts–climbing time will be longer and most importantly my cat will be with me πŸ™‚

  • So, how much did you end up paying? I recently acquired a 2004 Dodge Sprinter 140in wheel base high roof, 160,000 miles, already fitted out in a configuration that sounds like what wanted, for $17,500. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but I believe it’ll be as mechanically sound as can be expected. Like you, I had never thought I could afford a sprinter, until I actually took a look at craigslist and saw some for ≀$20,000.

  • Vanessa SΓ‘nchez

    “but it will still ruin my whole day when I have to hand over $96 for a fill up” hahahaha I guess if I’m in the same situation my day would be ruined too. I live in a country where filling up your tank costs less than buying yourself a cup of coffee or water. Still, I’m waiting for the day where clean energies take over and our dependence on fossil fuel could be over… or at least used to a minimum.

    Have a great day !! πŸ™‚

  • Katherine Hepworth

    The element has plastic and polyester fittings on the roof and sides, whereas an old truck has a metal/fiberglass roof and sides, so there is much less of a fire hazard. I’m not sure if these things were the reason in this case, but it’s my guess.

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  • hi: the problem with the element for cooking is just the size for two people–to have a bed that is big enough for two fills the entire interior, so there’s no space to have a stove area. This could be addressed with a more creative buildout solution, and/or with one person using the Element.

  • Katherine Hepworth

    Ah, thanks for the clarification!

  • knormoyle

    I see some used Sprinters from the commercial truck people under the Freightliner badging. (same vehicle, as Steph noted above)

    http://www.commercialtrucktrader.com/Freightliner-Sprinter-2500-Trucks-For-Sale/search-results?make=freightliner%7C2310628&model=SPRINTER+2500%7C764865908&sort=actualPrice:asc

    heh, even one used ambulance in there.

    some in the $14k to $17k range (2007)

    The freightliner website is interesting to play with the “build your sprinter” thingee

    http://www.freightlinersprinterusa.com/freightliner/home

  • Ryan Farrell

    where will you park it when you are working in the city, i am on the verge of doing this because i work seasonally and travel and this makes sense for my life style i just don’t know where to park it in san diego

  • There are three RV parks located around Los Angeles. I will be parking there when I’m in town working

  • sounds oddly like the research and conversations we’ve been having around here, and we seem to be coming to much the same conclusions.
    thanks for sharing…

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  • Phil

    Hi Steph,

    Great posts and love your whole thought process in purchasing the van. Just curious tho since cost was a big factor in deciding your purchase, doesn’t maintenance on the Mercedes cost more than say the Dodge or Ford? I know that just oil change itself is usually double or triple the price on a upper class vehicle. Not sure if that’s the case if the Sprinter as well. Of course, unless you do your own oil change.

  • John P. Daley II

    Dear Steph,
    I have been a fan for years. My own sprinter experience with a new 4×4 has been nothing short of disastrous. I did however find a silver lining. If you have problems, call Mercedes Benz of Westminster in Denver and ask for Paul. He is an educated British fellow who worked on them in the UK. Out of the 5 dealerships in the USA that worked on my van he was the only one the seemed to know his job. I pray you have better luck than I did. Please keep extra DEF in your van in case of emergencies and avoid biodiesel like the plague. It is quickly rotting out the fuel system. http://Www.sprinter-source.com was helpful for do it yourself repairs and unfitting.

  • oh no!!!

  • Very cool Ian and Steph! I’ve been obsessed about building out a van for quite some time now and recently pulled the trigger. I did a lot of the same research when deciding on the vehicle, but also ended up going with a sprinter due to their track record. For the last 2-3 months I’ve been actively building mine out. Since I was leaning towards the long-haul with this thing, I started with the expensive stuff/the stuff the would require running wiring and such before being able to put up walls. So far the solar and batteries are in place, wiring for all of the lighting and aux plugs are in place, 13.5K AC unit (I live in Texas…It gets hot. Slightly wish I didn’t have to buy an ac), 12v 4.2 cubic ft fridge, insulation, and shore power connection in case I need to plug in at some point.

    After tons of searching around, I was able to purchase the sprinter for $6500 (a little over 7K after the taxes), and have put a little over 6k into since. Everything from this point on should be pretty cheap compared to the initial stuff. I can’t wait until it’s ready for the road! There are too many skydive and base boogies that I miss throughout the year and I plan on changing that.

    Awesome job on the build. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to jump with you all again at some point. Stay safe!

  • congrats! the panels look amazing πŸ™‚

  • Thanks! I recently decided to empty the inside of the van and insulate the floor better. So far I’ve added a layer of truck bed liner paint. I’ve noticed it insulates, and reduces noise quite a bit. Next I’ll add a layer of reflectx to the floor, put back the wood, the. Add the nice wood paneling.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bba44673e6ba31e4258474d61dcfb0fad4ba849121a076066f87c8cfb2cde08a.jpg

    οΏΌ

  • Ken Kelley

    How in the world did you pick up a Sprinter for $6,500.00? How many miles are on it? What year is it?

  • You have to be ok with high miles πŸ™‚ – the van has just under 300k, but it was maintained by FedEx previously and runs great. I’ve seen sprinters with over 600k, so hopefully this one can do at least a few 100k more. Also, the cost for a replacement, rebuilt motor wasn’t too bad in my research, so that is an option later.

  • Mike Barnitt

    I have a 2016 Srinter. It just had its first problem and I was wondering if I am the only one with this situation. The grommet in the roof popped open, slightly, enough to let rain in. Of course I discover this the evening TS Hermine is hitting me in Tampa. Anyone else have this problem?

  • Hi @highsteph:disqus! I love your site and all of your helpful posts – I’ve learned so much over the last month as a reader, but now I would greatly appreciate any of your years of knowledge in the form of input for my dilemma:

    I’ve been researching pretty hard for the last month. I was bent on buying a new MB Sprinter and was actually less than 8 hours away from pulling the trigger on one in Laguna when I discovered an elaborate article warning against the Sprinter because of the intricate and complex diesel emissions regulating / filtration system and their tendency toward crippling failure….that in tandem with the sparse network of qualified mechanics in the U.S. and slow times for replacement parts would mean potentially weeks/months out of both transportation and a home for me….even with a brand new $40k rig….

    I sent this article to both the Laguna and the New Hampshire Sprinter dealers I was communicating with and they both honestly acknowledged that is in fact a big issue not only for MB but for most manufactured diesel engine vehicles in the States….

    I am now leaning on a new 2016/2017 Ford Transit but I’m nervous because of the novelty which = 1) don’t know how resale will hold up 2) don’t know how reliability will be post 100,000 miles…. which leads me back to the used gas guzzler market with a lot of room in the budget for modifications.
    But here is that debbie downer article about the fatal flaw with the MB Sprinter – or more accurately, with complex diesel emission regulation / filtration systems in America: 

    [Google: “fatal flaw mercedes benz sprinters tom robertson” ….I think posting the actual link is causing my post to get deleted…]

    I’ve also read the counter argument which is that his fleet drivers were idling their MB diesels all day to keep cool in the heat while waiting to unload etc….which consistently caused their exhaust regulation/filtration systems to fail.

    I would love your thoughts about my situation as I’m sure there are many people out there facing the same paralyzing choices…..thank you!

    Hope your adventures continue with minimal hassle! πŸ™‚

    -Nick

  • Hi Nick, the sprinter is definitely harder to get worked on and can be expensive. My boyfriend is good with cars–if I didn’t have him in the picture I probably would have gone for the Ford because I can take it to a dealer here in Moab. I have taken it to a mechanic in Draper (for maintenance that Ian didn’t want to do), and he had only good things to say about sprinters and their longevity. Tough call, I would see if there’s a good shop in your area (not a dealer or Mercedes shop, but someone who works on sprinters frequently). If there’s no one near you at all, you may not want to deal with the headache of going far to get to a mechanic.

  • Orejano

    In Australia we have the German Sprinters and the best are the ones before 2006 (316) which keep the value better than the troublesome of the new models.
    An ex ambulance it is the best bet here.
    The other option are the old VW Crafter with a 2.5 diesel engine. They are as good as the MB.

  • Paula

    Hi Steph. Great post! Any chance you could share some of those spreadsheets Ian made? I am also an avid spreadsheet-maker (it drives my husband crazy) and would love to see his work on these comparisons. We’re at the beginning stage of trying to decide which van to buy and build out. It’s a major passion project, but also incredibly frustrating. My husband is also pretty indecisive, so if we could make the decision based on facts and a little bit of gut, I think that would be best. Any advice you have would be amazing! Thanks!!

  • Hi Paula! I’m sorry, we don’t have them anymore, it was part of the decision process. You’re right, it would have been good to keep them πŸ™ Tell your husband he’s lucky he has a spreadsheet genius!!!!!

  • thanks!

  • Dylan Cummings

    oil changes on any diesel vehicle will typically cost ~3x what they would on a gas engine. However, these oil changes typically only have to be done every ~15k miles vs every ~5k with newer gas engines, so it can be a bit of a tossup. But yes, any maintenance on a Mercedes will typically cost way more than a Ford, just as any maintenance on a diesel will for some reason always cost more than similar service on a gasser. Again though, its a little “apples & oranges” as diesel engines and german vehicles will typically last twice as long. Gas engines in ford vehicles may be cheaper to maintain, but once the engine dies, your next maint cost is a new engine. Now suddenly the total cost to date of maint of the gassser and a diesel with the same number of miles under its belt becomes a bit more similar. Diesels have a ton of additional pros and cons too – theyre interesting beasts. Unfortunately theres no one perfect option!

  • happyriding

    Hi Steph,

    Your Sprinter has the type of layout I’m looking for. I’m 6′ 3.5″ inches tall, and everything I’ve read about the high roof Sprinters says that the roof height is 6′ 3″. Can Ian rally stand up inside your Sprinter without hitting his head on the ceiling?

    Due to my height, I’ve been looking at the LTV Unity CB, which uses a Sprinter chassis with a bigger fiberglass body attached to it with a higher 6’5″ roof. I’m not sure how I’ll store an mtb in there though. The LTV Unity looks like an RV rather than a Sprinter, but I don’t think you can stealth camp in a Sprinter anymore because everyone knows they are RV’s, so I’m not sure the RV look makes a difference. I was getting pretty excited about possibly buying an LTV Unity, and you seem to be a big fan of diesel engines, but there are some articles out there that claim that the Mercedes diesel engine has major issues:

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/fatal-flaw-mercedes-benz-sprinters-tom-robertson/
    http://www.stephensservice.com/bluetec-diesel-issuesproblems/

    Does any of that ring true for your Sprinter?

    Thanks. Be safe.

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