Vans versus Pickup trucks with camper shell


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Mountain climber
pac northwest
Topic Author's Original Post - May 4, 2013 - 03:41pm PT
What's a better choice for someone who wants to live in a vehicle full time (in a warm climate)?
Trucks with camper shell seem to have the following Pros:
    easier to maneuver/less likely to get stuck than 4WD van (I do not plan to go off paved roads, though)
    easier to use as daily commute to work vehicle
    can be more stealth than a van (if the right shell is chosen, same color as truck, etc, making it all look like one unit

The benefit of vans seems to be:
    much more space--more comfortable, can be converted into a little RV basically, with sink, restroom, even small shower

I thought (may be I'm wrong) that trucks and vans eat about the same amount of gas. It appears from looking at used car ads that it's easier and cheaper to buy a pickup with small mileage than a van--I have no car repair skills and would have to pay for them. Camper vans seems to be very expensive and few so I was just looking into cargo vans... So, seems lik,e overall, pickup with shell is more of a win for a outdoor-loving person who doesn't want to live in apartment....(apartments in Bay area costing $2-$ can buy a camper van after one year of paying these rents)
So, what's a winning vehicle?

Mountain climber
pac northwest
Topic Author's Reply - May 4, 2013 - 04:21pm PT
I see...well, I've been living in a tent during warm months and living in any car would be much better (tired to get rained upon and dealing with condensation/dragging around the wet rainfly and finding a place for my tent)...the damn laws in CA always persecute landowners who let people stay in a tent, so anything more stealth is better. Don't think this is getting old for me yet...spent last several months in 4 walls and can't wait to live without apartment again, like I used to...

I lived in South Lake Tahoe this winter--yes, I've seen that, 4wd trucks flying around hwy during the storm...I plan to stay in Bay area now tho,so snow isn't an issue--BUT there're plenty of roads in Santa Cruz mountains where even my sedan was almost stuck and raised truck would be think of it I might be on unpaved roads quite a bit if I head out to stay on some ranches...

Recently, had seen a pickup with small camper shell--they painted the shell same color as truck so I thought it was a "wagon" type of vehicle until I realized it was a strategically painted shell on a was pretty damn stealth-looking....Regular shell, yes, less stealth....Just don't want the locals to call the cops on my white van if I sleep in Los Alos etc some nights. So, stealth is a big consideration...You see I'll possibly be stuck in engineering job in South Bay area for a while and paying a fortune for some 4-wall place isn't exciting....I could do Airbnb 2 days a week and then be out in a truck or van....Few campgrounds that are out there will be all booked and full of tourists all summer.
If you say vans eat less gas though, it's a big plus.
Dapper Dan

Trad climber
Menlo Park
May 4, 2013 - 04:34pm PT

So many opinions and pros and cons , search and sift through them, it's been hashed out on numerous threads.

I've said it before , there's no worse feeling than getting your rig stuck somewhere desperate. Not that it can't happen in a 4x4 , but seems more likely to happen in a van...

Mountain climber
pac northwest
Topic Author's Reply - May 4, 2013 - 04:42pm PT
I see, lots of info :))
Yeah, this year I went to see a place to camp on private property but my sedan was scraping and was one step from being stuck...
Perhaps, start with a truck and later "upgrade" to a van...these shells seems to be tiny, but I guess there're ones that can be popped up tall like a tent.
Had seen people tow a flat, low platform into a campground recently....before I knew it, they popped it up and it started to look like a 4-person rv. All effort was to spin a handle.

Trad climber
May 4, 2013 - 04:48pm PT
I deleted my post but IMHO living out of the back of a pickup is in no way stealthy or convenient. Getting in and out of a tailgate is a major PITA.

Ford Transit Connect or Honda Element bro....

Mountain climber
pac northwest
Topic Author's Reply - May 4, 2013 - 04:56pm PT
Can't you move between the shell and the front instead...
I was thinking of starting with older, low key vehicle, like Toyota pickup, or cargo van...I guess cheaper and "low key" looking not to draw attention in certain areas... Something that could pass for work vehicle. These nice looking cars you mentioned are great for Bay area... but if you end up traveling in poor parts of the country, they can draw unwanted attention I guess...So far my survival strategy was to look super-poor and low key wherever I go--this can bring cops on you in SF Bay "nice" hoods no doubt--but I better deal with them than theives...had some property stolen in campground in Oregon from me, these people were so desperate they were taking *everything*...luckily my car looking old and beat up escaped the broken windows...No doubt seeing a nice new car they can try to take it.
But DAMN 30mpg on Transit Connect NOT bad!

Trad climber
Chamonix, France
May 4, 2013 - 05:53pm PT
Credit: jaaan

Social climber
1187 Hunterwasser
May 4, 2013 - 06:18pm PT
My dream ride.
Peter Haan

Trad climber
Santa Cruz, CA
May 4, 2013 - 06:35pm PT
Michelle, no. Those aren't battle-hardened; you will need that upgrade.
the Fet

May 4, 2013 - 07:55pm PT
Can't really make good recommendations without an idea of your budget, are you talking full size or mini, for one person only, etc.

Full size truck or van are both going to get about 12-18 mpg. Mini pickup or mini van is going to get about 18-26.

A full size van is the go to dirt bag vehicle. Enough room to live in. Can be very stealth. Can get them cheap. Only real downsides are poor mpg and usually no 4x4.
Lynne Leichtfuss

Sport climber
moving thru
May 4, 2013 - 08:36pm PT
I love my Chevy Express All Wheel Drive Van. Not tricked out at all. It looks like an ordinary vehicle, that can be a plus. Hiway about 16-18.

I've thought about a pickup with shell. You can get kits that make the shell, driver seat accessible. I say that because I don't want to wake up by someone or some critter and not be able to start the car immediately and take off. I don't want to have to exit the back to get to the drivers seat.

I like the room in my van I can kinda stand up and I can take all my sheee to TPR with no problem and live in comfort for 4 months. That includes 2 kayaks, a bike and extras.

Red flag goes up for me when you describe living without being noticed in the city. We have people come into where I work asking for maps etc. and upset cause they can't camp just anywhere. If you want to live in the real outdoors that's one thing. If you want to just make a home in the city and it's outskirts, good luck. The establishment folk discourage that. Cheers and hope you find what your're looking for. lynne

Edit: why did you give yourself the name tioga? Just curious since I work in the area.

Trad climber
the crowd MUST BE MOCKED...Mocked I tell you.
May 4, 2013 - 08:48pm PT
once you make some hard decisions on what you "must" have, then the decision making becomes easier.

If stealth is the number one concern, Taco with shell is not really low key because of getting in and out thru the tail gate.

Vans are way more stealth for that purpose. You just draw the curtain behind the driver seat and sleep away.

If size isn't an issue, then smaller vehicles like Elements might work.

Off pavement doesn't necessarily mean 4x and high clearance, but if that is a must, you probably will know that now, or need to know that now.

It sounds like cost may be an issue, so high end VW conversions are probably out, not to mention 40k VW pop tops imported from the EU...

Dingus Milktoast

Gym climber
And every fool knows, a dog needs a home, and...
May 4, 2013 - 09:21pm PT
Buttoned down
Buttoned down
Credit: Dingus Milktoast

Its reason for being
Its reason for being
Credit: Dingus Milktoast

T Hocking

Trad climber
Redding, Ca
May 4, 2013 - 11:26pm PT
DMT's rig is the shizzzle,
I'm a pickup and shell guy myself,
04 Dodge Ram 1500 4x4 <br/>
2 space kayak rack on shell.
04 Dodge Ram 1500 4x4
2 space kayak rack on shell.
Credit: T Hocking
Bed frame and futon mattress
Bed frame and futon mattress
Credit: T Hocking

May 4, 2013 - 11:49pm PT
This is what you want...


Trad climber
Greeley Hill
May 5, 2013 - 12:18am PT
Ho man, where to start.

Your situation is similar to my own. I've worked on and off in Silly-Con Valley for quite a while. The whole 80-90 hours a week start up thing, etc etc. Software engineering and web crap. It's just pretty much stupid for most people to spend so much in rent only to have a place to crash. I've slept in offices, hotels, cars... and paid $2400 a month in rent.


I lived in a Toyota RAV4 for a year, then later a van for four years. Now I do the pickup/camper shell thing, but only for weekends away.

If you are stealth living anywhere in the Bay Area while working, DO NOT GET A PICKUP!

A van can be completely self contained so that you look like just any old contractor's rig or grandma's seldom-used camper. There are many many used rigs for under $4k that have the standard security grill between the driving compartment and the back -- you know the kind with a door? You want that. I've even seen 4x4 Astro vans with that kind of deal.

The ONLY way to deal with living on the street is to look like every other vehicle and be in plain sight. I'm not kidding... I used to see folks in pickups and whatnot get busted for sleeping in their vehicles in Santa Cruz while I remained untouched 20 feet away. You cannot do this in a pickup truck while retaining any level of comfort. You'll be perpetually paranoid.

While working in Berkeley in 2010 I found my best bet was to completely avoid any vehicle that looked like someone was living in it. Pick a better sort of neighborhood and slide into a spot around 10pm. Use blackout curtains, minimal lighting. You don't have to leave early, but keep it reasonable. Typically I'd leave my van parked in the same spot a couple of days. In better weather I'd head out to the nearest National Forest for a weekend of respite.

I've never been hassled or busted. Well, once I accidentally parked in a county park parking lot, but despite the expired registration and license the cop just recommended better places to sleep in my vehicle.

BUT there're plenty of roads in Santa Cruz mountains where even my sedan was almost stuck and raised truck would be great

I've lived in Boulder Creek and Bonny Doon. If you are getting stuck you are so so doing it wrong. But many vans have great clearance.

My van was 2WD and although I got stuck a lot initially (some of which is sadly documented on this forum), I learned to cope. Chains my friend, chains.

Two wheel drive doesn't have to mean you get stuck all the time, it just means you learn to drive better. I kid you knot! I learned to do things in that van that made 4x4 seem ridiculous.

From everything you've said I think you want an Astro van or Chevy Express or something similar. The Transit Connect or whatever if you can afford it (hey, cheaper than rent really).

Oh, and my rig, for sale (but apparently sold) by the new owner:

Trad climber
May 5, 2013 - 01:04am PT
Khanom is EXACTLY right. I lived in downtown Santa Barbara for 4 months sleeping in the back of my Hyundai Accent every single night. Only one incident, and it was drunk guys. Anyway, I would park in areas with lots of other sedans. My windows were tinted. You just have to fit in. Pickups definitely stand out. Hence my recommendation for the Honda Element with blacked out windows BEHIND a heavy tint. So it looks tinted, but if they peer through, it's blacked out. Then wake up super early, grab coffee and your set. Mix up the parking spots 3 times per week. Case Closed.

Social climber
1187 Hunterwasser
May 5, 2013 - 10:07am PT

This is the one I want, The Patagonia. Although I would tolerate the UXV 550 or Turtle. And of COURSE I'd get the upgrades!

Trad climber
Greeley Hill
May 5, 2013 - 10:31am PT
Burch3y, yes. Popping the top could never happen on the street. That's the main reason I built the bunk the way I did -- it was just as comfy.

When I was in the RAV4 I'd sleep mainly in the parking lot of the condo complex next to my office building. I got a key card for the gym and showers. When you are in between cars you don't stand out. This was far easier to do in the van, which looked good enough to just be someone's camper. It actually seemed to help that it was there most of the time. It was very important to put up black curtains behind the front seats -- to most people that says "empty".

Berkeley / Oakland was a lot harder than down near Cupertino. It's much about running counter to people's expectations, and in the east bay there are too many people living in their vehicles. Santa Cruz too, which sucked. Still, I never got hassled.
The user formerly known as stzzo

Sneaking up behind you
May 5, 2013 - 06:29pm PT
Regular shell, yes, less stealth....Just don't want the locals to call the cops on my white van if I sleep in Los Alos etc some nights. So, stealth is a big consideration...You see I'll possibly be stuck in engineering job in South Bay area for a while and paying a fortune for some 4-wall place isn't exciting...

Have fun doing these while you're "camping" in the city in a truck w/ camper shell:

* Taking a dump in the morning when the nearest public restroom is "out of range".
* Relaxing in the evening & on weekend mornings comfortably over the course of several months.
* Crawling through the back window night after night to get into the sleeping area "stealthily"
* Having a "visitor" sleep over.
* Etc.

There is a reason why retirees choose RV's over pickups with shells for camping: it's simply more comfortable and convenient.

You see I'll possibly be stuck in engineering job in South Bay area for a while and paying a fortune for some 4-wall place isn't exciting...

But think about this: Is the excitement:cost ratio of living in your van (or truck) really going to be that much higher?

Maybe consider subletting a room in a house. Short-term single-room rentals do exist -- they are prolific in the Bay Area.
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