The Top AWD Vans for Rugged Van Life Adventures

AWD vans are perfect for taking off-road, down rugged highways to find that perfect boondocking spot. Here are the top AWD vans and some alternatives if those suit you better.

If you’re in the planning stages of your van life adventures, you may be considering all the AWD vans out there. To be honest, AWD vans are gaining in popularity all the time as more people realize they want to be able to head out into the wilderness for off-grid adventures.

We turned both of our vans (A 4×4 Sprinter and an AWD Chevy Astro) into rugged off-road machines, as we love boondocking deep in nature.

Still, all-wheel drive van options are still fairly limited, and not all AWD systems are created equal. Plus, with so many four-wheel drive options available, it’s easy to get sidetracked and confused.

With that in mind, we’ve put together this guide to the top AWD vans. We’ll discuss the important differences between AWD and 4WD as well as listing all the best AWD vans for DIY conversions.

Heck, we’ve even included a section on alternative AWD camper vehicles for the very best off-road experiences. So, without further ado, let’s get to it!

*This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclosure policy for more info.

AWD vs 4×4: Understanding the Difference

As you’re searching for your all-wheel drive van, you might notice AWD and 4WD being used interchangeably. That can get pretty frustrating, because these two systems differ in a number of ways. Plus, it’s easy to get bogged down in a bunch of technical jargon as you’re trying to understand exactly what those differences are.

Well, don’t worry — we aim to make this as easy-to-understand as possible!

Let’s start out by saying that both AWD and 4WD vans send power from the engine to all four wheels. So, right from the get go, either option is going to be superior to a front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive van. That’ll be especially apparent when you’re driving on snowy roads or over rough terrain.

With that said, there are some important differences to be aware of, especially if you’re looking for a camper van to take you off the beaten path. Let’s start by discussing all-wheel drive vans.

AWD Vans

chevy astro small AWD camper van
Our 1994 Chevy Astro had full-time AWD

All-wheel drive can be found on a wide range of vehicles, including passenger cars, SUVs and larger vans. Essentially, this type of drivetrain relies on a computer, which monitors wheel slippage and sends more torque to the appropriate wheels, depending on what’s happening. There are two types of AWD systems:

  • “Part time” AWD. Vehicles with this kind of all-wheel drive usually send most of the power to the front wheels. However, when the sensors register slippage, the AWD system is engaged and power is sent to the rear wheels to compensate.
  • “Full-time” AWD. As you might have guessed, vehicles with “full-time” all-wheel drive always have power going to all four wheels. Still, this type of system can usually still adjust how much power is going to the front or rear wheels, depending on slippage.

Seeing as all-wheel drive is an automatic feature, it’ll take care of everything, allowing you to just drive. Plus, AWD vans are more fuel-efficient than four-wheel drive vehicles (when AWD is turned ofjf). With that said, all-wheel drive vehicles perform best on regular roads, and it’s generally accepted that AWD doesn’t perform as well as 4WD over rugged terrain.

What we missed in our AWD Chevy Astro compared to our 4×4 Sprinter are the low range gears. The Astro could have done better going slowly up or down steep off-road terrain with a transfer case, which is an aftermarket product for this type of van.

4×4 Vans

Our 4x4 Sprinter van parked in the Alabama Hills
Our 4×4 Sprinter van parked in the Alabama Hills

In a four-wheel drive vehicle, the front and rear axles are physically connected by something called a transfer case. When 4WD is engaged (the driver has to do this manually), the engine’s power is split evenly between both axles and they turn at the same speed.

If you want even more power and reliability in a 4×4 campervan like our Sprinter, you’ll need a limited slip differential, like this one sold by Off Highway Vans.

This makes 4WD a great choice for adverse road conditions and times when you need added traction to get out of a sticky situation. For the most part, you’ll have two options in a four-wheel drive vehicle:

  • Four-high (4H). This setting allows you to travel at higher speeds and is intended for wet conditions and rough roads.
  • Four-low (4L). This is the more serious setting that’ll get you out of a jam! When 4L is engaged, you’ll get maximum torque to all four tires, although you’ll need to keep the vehicle at a low speed.

Most 4WD vans give you the option to switch between two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive. This is crucial, seeing as you’ll experience reduced fuel economy and the van will be harder to handle with 4WD engaged. Even so, your 4×4 van will be less fuel efficient even in 2WD mode.

With our 4×4 Sprinter van, we ONLY engage 4×4 and low range when we’re on rugged or steep terrain where we need that extra grip. Our van is in 2-wheel drive the rest of the time, and therefore, gets better gas mileage than our AWD Chevy Astro. Keep in mind that driving your van in 4×4 mode on a dry highway can damage the system, and/or your tires.

AWD vs Full-Time 4WD: Are They the Same?

Here’s where lines start blurring and things get potentially controversial! Over the last few years, some manufacturers have started releasing trucks and SUVs with full-time four-wheel drivetrains. As the name suggests, that means that the 4WD system is always engaged and there’s no 2WD option.

OK, so that sounds a lot like all-wheel drive right? Well, that’s where this gets controversial. Some will tell you that full-time 4WD is completely different because there’s still a 4H and 4L option. However, others claim that this just makes it a Hi/Lo AWD system.

In reality, true off-road enthusiasts are put-off by all-wheel drive because it’s seen as being inferior to four-wheel drive. However, the fact remains that a full-time 4WD vehicle is pretty much an AWD vehicle with a low gear option.

AWD Vans: Our Top Picks

Now that we’ve established the differences between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vans, let’s take a look at the AWD vans currently available. Bear in mind that some of the following options are still being manufactured, while others have been discontinued.

Still, if you’re looking for an older van that’s not still in production, consider searching on dedicated van life websites like vanlife trader and conversion trader, as well as RV trader and Craigslist.

Ford Transit

2023 Ford Transit AWD campervan parked outdoors
Photo: 2023 Ford Transit AWD campervan is available for rent on Outdoorsy.

Model Years: 2020 — present

In case you have yet to notice, the Ford Transit has quickly become one of the most popular cargo van options for conversions. A growing number of van dwellers have cottoned on to the fact that the Ford Transit offers tons of advantages for full-time living.

For starters, the Transit has loads of interior headroom and drives like a minivan. What’s more, you’ll pay much less for a Transit than for a Sprinter and maintenance costs are much lower. Finally, the Transit’s relatively square shape makes it ideal for DIY conversions.

In 2020, Ford started producing an AWD Transit option, making it the only company to offer an AWD cargo van at the time. What’s even more exciting, though, is the Ford Transit Trail, which was launched in 2023.

Obviously having recognized the burgeoning popularity of van conversions, the Transit Trail was a really smart move on the manufacturer’s part. As well as featuring all-wheel drive as standard, the Transit Trail comes with a 3.5 inch body lift, swivel seats, all-terrain tires, and rugged exterior protection as standard. You can also select from a number of optional extras, including a rooftop vent fan and an up-fitters package with an auxiliary fuse panel and dual AGM batteries.

Mercedes Sprinter

red 2023 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter AWD parked outdoors
Photo: 2023 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter AWD from motortrend.com

Model Years: 2023 — present

The incredibly rugged and popular 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter has long been king of the road for van life adventure junkies. It’s easy to see why the Sprinter has become so popular for camper van conversions — this sleek, luxurious van has everything you could want, including a powerful diesel engine, super long lifespan and high resale value.

It’s little wonder there are so many cool 4×4 Sprinter adventure vans out there like the Winnebago Revel and Storyteller Overland.

Still, starting in 2023, Mercedes is phasing out its 4×4 vans and now only offers all-wheel drive models. Based on its hugely successful 4Matic technology, Mercedes’ new AWD Sprinter drivetrain is much more sophisticated than its 4×4 predecessor, allowing the system to send 100 percent of the torque to either set of wheels, depending on the conditions.

Even better, the new and improved nine-speed transmission’s first gear is 25 percent lower than the 4×4 van’s seven-speed transmission’s first gear. That effectively does away with the need for a low-range four-wheel drive option. Overall, the new AWD Sprinter seems like it’ll be even better for off-roading and boondocking than the almighty 4×4 model!

Chevy Astro/GMC Safari

2003 Chevrolet Astro Van AWD parked outdoors
Photo: 2003 Chevrolet Astro Van AWD is available for rent on Outdoorsy.

Model Years: 1990 — 2005

It’s no secret that the Chevy Astro is one of our favorite types of van here at the Wayward Home. In fact, my 1994 Chevy Astro — my very first campervan — is still going strong to this day!

The Chevy Astro and the GMC Safari are the same van, marketed with different names. Over the years, the Astro has become a cult classic in North America, and it isn’t uncommon to see rad Chevy Astro conversions cruising the highways.

For starters, it’s still fairly easy to find a used AWD Chevy Astro or GMC Safari on the used market, and you won’t have to shell out an eye-watering amount of money. Plus, if you’re lucky enough, you can find a Chevy Astro conversion van with a little extra headroom and some awesome retro conveniences like microwaves and wooden cabinetry.

Thanks to its boxy shape and compact dimensions, this AWD van is ideal for a camper conversion. What’s more, some conversion companies are catching on to the van’s popularity and now offer aftermarket modifications such as lift kits and locking differentials for the rear axle.

Overall, the Chevy Astro is ideal for adventure-bound couples or solo van lifers on a budget. Just remember that the AWD model was only available between 1990 and 2005.

Chevy Express/GMC Savana

2014 Chevrolet Express AWD campervan parked at the beach
Photo: 2014 Chevrolet Express AWD campervan is available for rent on Outdoorsy.

Model Years: 2003 — 2015

The Chevy Express is still available and continues to be one of the most popular choices for an affordable camper van. In fact, you can check out our Chevy Express van build guide for inspiration and information on DIY kits and professional conversions.

If it’s an all-wheel drive Chevy Express you’re after, you’ll need to find a 1500 model produced between 2003 and 2015. That was when this was the only full-size AWD van in North America. Incidentally, the GMC Savana is almost identical to the Chevy Express, with just a few cosmetic and branding differences.

As with the Chevy Astro, you can still find the AWD Express 1500 on the used market, and you won’t have to pay too much. And this is another boxy, rugged van that’s just perfect for a budget van build. With that said, you’ll have to be cool with not being able to stand up inside your camper van.

Toyota Sienna

black 2017 Toyota Sienna Limited AWD van parked near the beach
Photo: 2017 Toyota Sienna Limited AWD van from outdoorsy.com

Model Years: 2004 — present

These days, more and more folks are realizing that the humble minivan can be an absolutely fantastic choice for a camper conversion. Seriously, if you’re a solo traveler and you don’t mind getting creative with your build, a minivan camper is definitely worth considering.

Enter the Toyota Sienna, which is currently one of the only all-wheel drive minivans available. While this isn’t the most budget-friendly minivan out there, it’s certainly more affordable and versatile than a full-size panel van. Anyway, a Toyota Sienna will hold its value for years and maintenance costs are relatively low.

Overall, the Toyota Sienna is perfect for weekend warriors who don’t want to commit to a full on camper van. Fortunately, there are plenty of options when it comes to DIY conversion kits for the AWD Toyota Sienna; companies like Vanpackers offer creative solutions for your compact home-on-wheels. Best of all, these kits can often be taken in and out fairly easily.

Ultimately, the Toyota Sienna is one of the best AWD vans out there, especially seeing as a growing number of companies offer lift kits and overloading accessories. Seriously, once this minivan is fully kitted out, it’ll go just about anywhere!

Chrysler Pacifica

2020 Crysler Pacifica AWD van with rooftop cargo box
Photo: 2020 Chrysler Pacifica AWD van is available for rent on Outdoorsy.

Model Years: 2020 — present

As far as all-wheel drive minivans go, the other option currently available is the amazing Chrysler Pacifica. Since 2020 Chrysler has offered an AWD system for this super popular family vehicle, and the Pacifica really does shine when converted to a camper van.

For starters, both the second row seats and third row seats can be completely folded down to the floor, so you won’t have to make a ton of modifications if you just want a weekend off-roading rig.

Speaking of off-road traveling, the Chrysler Pacifica has one of the most sophisticated AWD systems around. The vehicle will transfer 100 percent of the torque to whichever wheels have the most available traction, making this all-wheel-drive system comparable with that of the new AWD Sprinter.

Priced similarly to the Toyota Sienna, the Chrysler Pacifica also measures up to its competition in terms of size and performance. Plus, there’s a growing number of amazing DIY minivan conversion kits out there, including the wonderful Chrysler Pacifica modular system from Roadloft, which can be installed or removed in a matter of minutes.

To get $100 off your Roadloft order, use the coupon code TWH100.

All-Wheel Drive Alternatives for Even Better Off-Roading

Let’s face it, even the best AWD vans might struggle in truly rugged and challenging terrain. Sure, all the vehicles on our list are pretty fabulous and will give you the chance to do more than just cruise the highways.

However, as we established earlier, all-wheel drive isn’t always suitable for the very worst conditions. Plus, a larger camper van is top-heavy — especially once it’s been converted. In essence, even an AWD or 4×4 Sprinter will be difficult to navigate on undeveloped roads.

With that in mind, we’ve found some alternative all-wheel drive rigs that can work really well for off-roading and camping. Something along the lines of one of the following vehicles might be the best choice if you plan on doing a lot of off-roading and boondocking.

Jeep Gladiator with Project M Camper

Jeep Gladiator with Project M Four-Wheel Camper parked in a garage
Photo: Jeep Gladiator with Project M Four-Wheel Camper from mainlineoverland.com

When it comes to real off-roading, the legendary Jeep Gladiator might just be the ultimate vehicle to go absolutely anywhere. This rugged, powerful pickup truck seems kind of unbreakable, which is why so many people love it.

Incidentally, the Jeep Gladiator comes with full-time four-wheel drive, which we’ve already talked about. So, this beast of a truck is essentially an AWD vehicle that’ll take care of everything. Alternatively, you can get involved and switch to manual 4×4 mode.

What’s really cool is that you can easily and affordably turn your Jeep Gladiator into a legit camper by installing the Project M Topper. Produced by Four Wheel Campers, this topper has been eagerly anticipated by Jeep Gladiator enthusiasts, and it really delivers. Plus, at just over $10,000 for the base model, it’s a relatively inexpensive option.

The Project M topper is super lightweight and rugged, as well as being easy to mount onto the Jeep’s existing rails. There are far too many cool options to list here, but let’s just say you can add just about anything your heart desires, including a mattress, 12-volt refrigerator, vent fan and more.

Honda Ridgeline with Hiatus Camper

honda ridgeline with hiatus camper parked outdoors
Photo: Honda Ridgeline with Hiatus Camper

The Honda Ridgeline might not be the most well-known truck out there, but it’s actually a very capable and powerful AWD vehicle for off-roading. This mid-size pickup really shines as a family vehicle, thanks to the roominess of its cabin and overall comfort factor. Plus, it’ll handle really well on both blacktop and dirt roads.

As it happens, Honda’s proprietary AWD system is incredibly sophisticated. Without getting too technical, the intelligent sensors are capable of sending varying amounts of torque to each rear wheel separately. Ultimately, that means this truck isn’t likely to get stuck!

Based in Bellingham, Washington, Hiatus Campers produce exceptional toppers for just about any pickup, including the Ridgeline. These lightweight and durable campers feature a popup design that creates a roomy and airy living space, and the basic model includes a slide-out sleeping space, windows, and vent fan.

From there, you’re able to customize the topper as much as you’d like by adding lights, awnings, and much more cool stuff.

Subaru Forester Wilderness with Roofnest

white Subaru Forester Wilderness with Roofnest rooftop tent
Photo: Subaru Forester Wilderness with Roofnest

It’s fairly safe to say that Subaru has got the market for all-wheel drive cars pretty much sewn up. The manufacturer offers a wide range of vehicles with AWD as standard, and there’s something for everyone in the lineup. With that said, not all Subarus are suitable for going really deep into the wilderness, even if they do all have All-wheel drive systems.

What’s especially cool is that Subaru tailors its AWD system, depending on the model, and with the Forester Wilderness, they’ve brought out the big guns! Seriously, this compact and rugged SUV will go just about anywhere thanks to its 9.2 inches of clearance and all-terrain tires.

As for the AWD system, there are different settings to choose from, depending on the conditions you’re faced with.

For weekend warriors, the Subaru Forester Wilderness pairs really well with a rooftop tent by Roofnest. There are several options to choose from, none of which will break the bank. Plus, a rooftop tent offers a lightweight camping solution that’s easy to set up and provides plenty of interior space.

The manufacturer recommends either its Meadowlark, Condor, Sparrow EYE, or Sparrow Adventure for the Subaru Forester Wilderness. The last option is particularly cool seeing as it includes crossbars for carrying extra gear on the tent when it’s folded down.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve made it this far, you’ll likely have a much clearer idea of the AWD van that’ll work best for you. If you plan on driving across steep and uneven terrain, consider a few modifications like burly all-terrain tires, an off-road suspension upgrade, and an aftermarket lift kit for that all-important extra clearance.

You may also need to think about modifying your build so that it’s as lightweight as possible, and make sure that everything in your van is well-secured.

Finally, don’t let yourself be tricked into thinking that your AWD van will take care of absolutely everything; you’ll still need to take it easy on rough roads and drive with extra caution through ice and snow!

Leave a Reply

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

Similar Posts