What Vehicle to Buy

What vehicle to buy? As far as decisions go, this is definitely going to be a big one. Get it right – we set ourselves up for an epic trip, get it wrong – it could be an expensive mistake.

Our plan is to buy a vehicle in the next couple of months, kit it out and make it ready to go on an epic trip. In summer 2017 (when I’m finished with my PhD), we’ll be shipping it to Alaska to start driving south until we hit the southern end of South America. We’re planning to take around 1.5 years for the journey and therefore the vehicle has to be comfortable enough to live in for the best part of that time.

The considerations:
  • cost: our budget is limited, and currently we’re hoping to spend no more than 10,000£ on vehicle plus conversion
  • reliability: we’d rather not spend most of our time and money in garages along the west coast of the Americas
  • popularity in the Americas: if (when) something goes wrong with the vehicle at some point, it’d be very useful if it was easy to get spare parts and find mechanics
  • size: can it fit into a standard shipping container? If it doesn’t, shipping becomes either more expensive or more risky (if opting for the RORO option)
  • comfort: in order to make this trip affordable, we will need to sleep in the vehicle for most of the nights, as staying in hotels/hostels/motels will drive the price up
  • fuel efficiency: over a really long trip this can make a big difference in terms of cost, and obviously it’s better for the environment to not drive a really wasteful vehicle
  • petrol vs. diesel: what’s more common/cheaper where we are going?
  • cooking facilities: we will need to fit cooking facilities, as cooking our own food is probably the second biggest money saver
  • cost of insurance: both on the trip and back in the UK in the year prior to our departure
  • awesomeness factor: since we’ll be in or around the vehicle every single day, and it is going to be our biggest single investment ever, I think it’s fair to say we’d also love a vehicle that we love
Extra things we have to consider because we live in London:
  • cost of insurance: it’s bloody expensive
  • cost and possibility of parking: our council (Hammersmith and Fulham) doesn’t allow vehicles higher than 2.3m to be parked on public roads unless an expensive commercial license is purchased
  • left hand drive: our trip will be exclusively on the right side of the road, so we will have to buy our vehicle in mainland Europe

The candidates:

4WD car with roof tent:

  • pros:
    • we could go pretty much anywhere a car can go and wouldn’t be restricted by our vehicles ability to cope with bad roads and off-road sections
    • driving would be nice and comfortable
    • parking would be easy as the car would be small(ish)
  • cons:
    • living space would be severely limited and we’d have to get out of the car to set up the roof tent (or a normal tent) for the night
    • sleeping in the roof tent could be uncomfortable in bad weather conditions, especially with high winds or extremely cold nights
    • might not feel comfortable sleeping in a roof tent in dodgy areas
    • it’s definitely not inconspicuous, so sleeping in car park etc. where sleeping isn’t technically allowed would be difficult to impossible
4WD pickup truck with either camper conversion of the hard top in the back or a full camper unit in the back:

A photo posted by Travis (@icamptoomuch) on

  • pros:
    • could go almost anywhere, driving would be relatively comfortable and easy
    • more space than in a roof tent, hard top conversion can be quite inconspicuous
  • cons:
    • full camper unit would make it a very big vehicle
    • camper conversion of hard top back still smaller than a van
    • camper unit not inconspicuous
    • not overly fuel efficient
Unimog or truck with camper unit:

  • pros:
    • pretty off-roady, could go almost anywhere
    • quite spacious so more living space
    • pretty hardy and badass vehicles
  • cons:
    • huge
    • not as fuel efficient
    • very expensive

Standard van (e.g. Ford Transit, Mercedes Sprinter, …):

A photo posted by Home Sweet Van (@homesweetvan) on

  • pros:
    • the above named vans are wide enough to sleep sideways, freeing up more space for living and cooking
    • the ride is still pretty comfortable but they offer a lot of living space
    • modern versions have very good fuel efficiency
    • relatively cheap to buy if we do the conversion into a camper ourselves
  • cons:
    • limited ability to drive on bad roads
    • we would be restricted to roads and couldn’t go offroad
    • expensive insurance in London
    • limited popularity across the Americas
    • the short wheel base with medium high roof version is quite rare and hence not as easy to get hold off as vans such as the VW Transporter
VW Transporter (T4 or T5):

  • pros:
    • ubiquitous, so it’ll be easy to find and buy one
    • very popular, so spare parts are relatively easy to get by
    • drives like a car but provides a fair bit of living space
    • pretty fuel efficient
  • cons:
    • slightly overpriced because of its popularity
    • not quite as spacious as the standard van
    • not off-roady, so we’ll be limited in where we can go
The realistic best option for us:

Currently, our preferred option is to go with the VW Transporter, as it seems to offer the best compromise for us. Maybe we’ll even be able to get a 4WD version for a reasonable price. It has a fair amount of living space, but drives like a car. It’s supposedly quite reliable (models 1991 onwards) and spare parts are relatively easy to get by, wherever you go. It’s surprisingly cheap to insure in London and it’ll be easy to find one when going over to mainland Europe with limited time.

The unrealistic dream option (if money wasn’t an issue):

Toyota troop carrier converted expedition vehicle:

These guys do really cool expedition vehicles.

Pretty kick ass vehicles, super off-roady so could go anywhere a car can go, reasonably roomy if the conversion is done well, but: super expensive, so not an option unless we win the lottery before we set off.

It’s decision time soon:

It’s now still a while until we’ll go over to mainland Europe to buy the van, so we’re happy about any comments or tips you might have before we commit to a vehicle. Get in touch in the comments, via email or on social media if you have any useful tips or comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *