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.
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.
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 🙂