Do You Need a 4×4 for Van Life?

Before purchasing our 2WD Ford Transit, we asked ourselves if we needed a 4×4 for van life. We had seen these cool (and expensive) 4WD Sprinters and decked-out overlanding vehicles and thought we needed something similar to get the most out of our camper van travels.

Ultimately, for budget reasons, we decided against getting a 4×4 van. And you know what? Except for a few situations where a 4×4 was required, we have been okay with our rear-wheel drive Transit over the last five years.

So, in this post, we will talk about why you very likely DO NOT need that expensive 4×4 for van life. We’ll also discuss some things you can do to improve a 2WD vehicle’s off-road capabilities.

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Will You Be Going Where Only a 4×4 Can Take You?

Driving on the highway in Mexico
Even in Mexico, highway roads are paved

With a 4×4 van, there’s a plethora of dreamy locations we can imagine going to. Perhaps you’ve seen social media pictures of that hidden section of sandy beach…or that secluded corner deep in the BLM desert.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “If I can get to those places, too, then I’ll really be living van life to the fullest. “

But one of the many truths about van life is that these idyllic, 4×4-required locations comprise just a tiny percentage of the total van life experience. And many camper travelers may never come across terrain that genuinely requires 4WD.

The Majority of the Roads Are Paved

Whether we like it or not, most roads we all drive on will be nicely paved and level.

  • Cruising on the highways? Paved
  • Driving to Walmart? Paved.
  • Exploring The National Parks? Paved!

We would go so far as to say that 90-95% of all the roads you’ll ever drive on will be beautifully level asphalt roads.

The Majority of Unpaved Roads Are 2WD Accessible

For the remainder of the roads you’ll be driving on, most will be backcountry dirt roads easily driven on with a 2WD.

We’re talking about National Forest dirt roads, rocky BLM roads, and the occasional grassy pasture. We’ve driven many of these roads without issues with our rear-wheel drive Transit.

In fact, we’ve driven over 60,000 miles across Mexico, Central America, and South America without much problems. And we’ve seen some pretty gnarly roads down here!

So, we’re talking about a tiny percentage of the time when looking at the opportunities to take advantage of a 4×4’s capabilities.

4x4s Don’t Necessarily Get You Better Views

“But won’t I be able to get to more amazing campsites and better views with a 4×4?”

Camper van parked on a grassy field in Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
Steep & rocky road to get to this viewpoint in Nicaragua. But no 4×4 required.

We won’t deny that many gorgeous roads and sleeping spots are only accessible with 4WD vans. We’ve all seen those photos on social media.

But it’s false thinking to believe that you won’t be able to reach similarly gorgeous spots with just a 2WD van. We know because we’ve done it.

Don’t believe us? Check out our photo collection below.

We want to reiterate that many unpaved & unmaintained roads are easily driven on with a 2WD vehicle.

Side note: We love our Ford Transit van. Check out our other post to learn why Transit vans make the best camper vans.

See 4×4 terrain? Just Don’t Go There.

Another reason why people think they need a 4×4 for van life is so they can navigate across muddy terrain, icy roads, or sandy beaches.

If you live in a location where challenging terrains like these are a daily occurrence for you, then absolutely get a 4×4. In the right situations, 4WD is helpful!

But for the vast majority of us van lifers, being forced to cross such challenging terrain is such a rare thing. Honestly, it is.

And if you happen to see a dangerously muddy or sandy patch? Just don’t do it. Resist the urge.

Try to get around it another way or turn back. You won’t be filled with lifelong regret for turning around.

We never have…

4x4s Make Van Life More Expensive

If you’re on a budget, sticking with a 2WD vehicle for van life is worth it for your wallet’s sake. Imagine having to spend more money to own a 4×4 for practically the same van life experience as if you had a 2WD instead.

4x4s Get Worse Gas Mileage

It’s no secret that a 4×4 gets unquestionably worse fuel economy than its 2WD counterpart. This is also true even if you put your 4×4 into 2WD mode.

Cat sitting in a camper van at a gas station
Observing life at a gas station

That’s because of all the additional weight, more moving parts, and more overall friction that a 4×4 experiences.

Not to mention that a 4×4 vehicle is often lifted and sits higher on the chassis, increasing air resistance and drag.

We’ve seen and read that 4x4s get about 8-15% worse fuel economy (1-2 MPG reduction). So, in the end, you’d need to calculate how much you intend to drive and if the additional cost is worth it.

4x4s Have More Maintenance Cost

More moving parts and complicated drive-trains mean more opportunities to end up in the auto shop for repairs.

How much more you’ll spend at the shop depends on factors ranging from vehicle age to wear and tear. But keep in mind that maintenance and labor costs aren’t cheap.

Are the extra costs worth it for you?

Alternatives to Getting a 4×4 for Van Life

Deciding against getting a 4×4 for van life doesn’t mean your off-roading dreams must end. There are a plethora of things you can do to boost your 2WD’s off-road capabilities.

Get High-Quality All-Terrain (AT) Tires

Getting good quality AT tires for your van is advice we’ve heard repeatedly. And it’s true.

BFGoodrich KO2 tires
Good tires reduce need for a 4×4 for van life

If you only have two wheels providing forward thrust, you should ensure those wheels can gather the most friction with the ground to propel the vehicle forward.

That’s why we went with the BFGoodrich KO2 tires. These tires are among the best for off-road adventures.

It’s no wonder the moniker for these tires is “Baja Champion.” We’ve taken our van through Baja, and these tires handled Baja like a champ.

Prioritize Vehicle Clearance

Often, more important than having a 4×4 is having a vehicle with ample clearance under the chassis to avoid rocks, tree roots, and extreme ditches.

So when shopping for a van, get a van with good clearance underneath.

Mercedes Sprinters and the older Chevy Astro come with the best clearance. But we’ve done well with our Ford Transit as well.

Although the Ram Promaster is popular, we shied away from this model because of its lower clearance versus other van models. (Also, their front-wheel drive makes navigating challenging  & steep terrain more complicated.)

Get Sumo Springs

For the best value upgrade you can make to your vehicle’s suspension system, look no further than SumoSprings.

#1 Suspension Pick
SumoSprings (Rear)

SumoSprings are our #1 value pick for upgrading a camper van's suspension. They stabilize sway, decrease vibration, and reduce rear-end sag. Best of all, they are easy to install yourself. Click for Ford Transit models.

RAM Promaster (Amazon) Mercedes Sprinter 2500 (Amazon)
We earn a commission if you purchase, at no additional cost to you.
04/07/2024 08:36 am GMT

While SumoSprings don’t improve your vehicle’s off-road abilities per se, these products vastly improve your driving experience across rough, unmaintained roads.

Check out our SumoSprings review to learn why we love these oversized bump stops for van life.

Help Others Help You

If things go wrong and your vehicle does get stuck somewhere (in the mud or sand), you’ll likely need someone to help pull you out.

If that’s the case, it’s a great idea to be prepared with all the gear to make it as easy as possible for a Good Samaritan to help you.

Below is a table of all the gear we travel with to help us escape a jam.

What’s More Important Than a 4×4 for Van Life?

When selecting the best van for your adventure, we think whether or not to get a 4×4 is near the bottom in terms of importance. Many more essential factors include internal livability, fuel economy, and clearance.

If you haven’t finalized your vehicle choice, we recommend checking out our post, The Best Vans For Van Life, to learn more about all the available choices.

Conclusion: A 4×4 Isn’t Required For An Unforgettable Van Life Adventure!

Van life is what you make of it. But we believe that whether or not you invested in a 4×4 is inconsequential in how much you’ll enjoy van life.

With a 2WD van, you can still get out and enjoy nature, take the “road less traveled,” and snap those envious Instagram pics.

Plan ahead, understand your van’s limitations, and have fun.

Please let us know in the comments section below if you have any specific questions regarding whether to use 4×4 camper vans.

Happy traveling!

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