Beyond VANlife Part I: Why An Expedition Vehicle?
The Sprinter chassis is, undoubtedly, the modern embodiment of the VW bus, customizable to fit any need or budget and, we could argue, is the perfect vehicle with which to tour the United States and Canada.
Been there, done that.
Having traveled those 80,000 miles of mostly paved roads in the Sprinter 170 chassis, we now wished to explore what lie between our maps’ colorful highway lines. Our vision for a travel-centric life meant going off the beaten path a little bit more, exploring areas south of the border to the tip of South America, as well as having the peace of mind & ruggedness to go far past our northern borders. That need for exploration beyond the roads “mostly” traveled to those less-so meant that we would have some new vehicular requirements. Sure, we would need to give up some of the Sprinter’s signature “stealthiness,” but we set our minds to designing a new vehicle with a purpose. Here’s a few of the requirements:
We needed to find a vehicle that could safely off-road as conditions necessitated. We’re not planning on taking it over boulders or anything crazy, but you never know what might get in your way. On rough roads, we didn’t want to worry about traction, ground clearance, or durability. Many vehicles can go off-road, but few can survive the trip without some degree of damage requiring ongoing maintenance and costly repairs. It’s not just getting there, it’s getting there well. Although even the 2-wheel drive version of the Sprinter has great traction, they are not vehicles intended to go far off the beaten path. Many people are now considering the 4-wheel drive model, but that is not without its faults. In the Mercedes Benz manuals, it clearly states that the 4-wheel drive Sprinter is for on-road traction assistance only. You can certainly drive it off-road, but the suspension and drive train are not designed for off-road abuse. Plus, you lose 3-4 miles per gallon and your vehicle sits higher in its 4-wheel set-up, so some of the original benefits of the Sprinter are minimized.
2. Temperature Regulation
We needed to ensure that the vehicle could keep us just as comfortable in temps above 100 as they could when they dip sub-zero. Good things rarely happen in a vacuum, after all, and some of the world’s most spectacular nuggets can be experienced only in some of the most extreme temperatures. While our VANdal was well-insulated and carried us well down into the mid 20’s, it’s still not ideal for full-on winter use. Though you can insulate the cabin, you can never insulate the single pane windshield and windows. The Sprinter will keep you warm, but it’s not the ideal vehicle to live in when the mercury dips to single digits. It’s a GREAT 3+ season vehicle, but if you’re out skiing all day and want to come back to a toasty van, you’re out of luck. Sure, you could equip it with an Esbar D2 heater (which, on high, burns one gallon of diesel every 20 hours), and you’ll be warm, but you’ll still have condensation. Moisture inside = bad news.
We needed a vehicle that would be able to carry all of our gear for four seasons, and in the smallest possible package. That included gear for whitewater and flatwater paddling, biking (mountain and road, so a total of four bikes), camping accouterments, kiteboarding, snowboarding, snowshoeing, skiing, and other personal gear. We needed our stuff stowed safely inside (not just strapped to the back end). Not to mention, the vehicle’s GVW (Gross Vehicle Weight) would need to be robust enough to able to accommodate the load. The Sprinter was perfect for 2-3 month trips, but difficult to carry gear for all four seasons at a time.
This is home, after all. Sure, we could live in a van down by the river, sleep in a sleeping bag every night, use a bucket as a toilet and make the most out of just about anything. But that’s just not us. We sold our house in Sarasota, Florida and fully intend to make this comfortable and completely livable. We wanted it to appear warm and welcoming, yet 100% functional and purpose-driven. We needed a full bathroom, full kitchen (we’re not the microwave type), a comfy bed, a place to lounge when it’s raining, and a nice hot shower at the end of an adventuresome day. While we were at it, we wanted to be able to launder our own clothes without making pit stops at Laundromats along the way. Being in South America where water may be questionable, we wanted to be able to 2-3 weeks of water on-board. In our Sprinter, water capacity is limited (VANdal has 40 gallons and can last us about a week with one shower for each of us daily and doing all of our own laundry and dishes). But in some areas it’s difficult to obtain water, especially in the winter.
5. Fuel Flexibility
To take our vehicle to the reaches of our map lust, we needed it to have ample fuel range and be able to run on the type of fuel sold wherever we might roam. In VANdal, we are limited by a 23-gallon fuel tank; one that requires ultra low-sulfur diesel (ULSD). Since South America and Mexico are on our radar, we had to nix any vehicle sold in the US after 2006 as any later model is mandated by the EPA to burn ULSD-only. Since ULSD is only available in the US, Canada, and an hour south of the Mexican border, this would make South American travel impossible, necessitating a vehicle that could burn high sulfur diesel.
6. Safety & Security
If our new rig is ever to make it to South America, we wanted to be mindful of some safety features. You can’t make any vehicle truly “safe,” but you can make them more tamper resistant with shatter-proof windows, a three-point locking system on the exterior door, and a locking door between the cab and cabin. A heavier-duty truck sits higher off the ground and looks more foreboding than a typical van, thereby amplifying our confidence in being able to leave the vehicle for a few days to a few weeks whilst backpacking, bikepacking, or in cargo ship transit.
“Drive Your Drive”
Just as in running, you “run YOUR race” as the saying goes, we believe that you should also “drive your drive.” Therefore, some of our preferences, non-negotiable features, and budgetary concerns may be different from yours — and that’s ok. Our goal is just to present some of our research so that it may help someone else in their quest for the right chassis, builder, and design.
It turns out there isn’t a single company who builds a production vehicle that meets all of the needs we listed above. We explored absolutely every single one of our options (and then some). And just TODAY, after hundreds of hours of research, we finally decided and committed to our chassis, builder, and major design features. It’s quite possible that we will be in our new truck by the end of July!
In the next part of this series, we’ll talk about choosing the right chassis for your intended travel purpose and all the different configurations and options we’ve been considering along the way.