7 Unbeatable Cars for Nomadic Living: Find Your Perfect Match

I’ve lived in a Toyota Prius, a Chevy Astro and now a Sprinter van. Living in your car can save tons of money and get you ahead financially. Here’s how to get started.

kristin standing in front of a chevy astro, one of the best cars to live in

So, you’re thinking about living in a car? Congrats! Living in a car will save you a lot of money and make you extra mobile for outdoor adventures. But the first step is scary – you have to figure out the best cars to live in and make a choice.

We started out living in a Toyota Prius for several months to pay off debt and get ahead in San Francisco. Then we moved to a Chevy Astro van, and now a Sprinter.

There are all sorts of cars you can live in, whether you prefer a smaller, more stealthy car like a Prius or a larger van like a Ford Transit.

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Toyota Prius: The Best Car to Live In

David sitting in his Prius passenger seat, which he's been living in for 6 years
David Swanson has lived in his Toyota Prius for six years!

The Toyota Prius wins hands down regarding the best smaller car to live in. We managed to fit two people in the back of a Toyota Prius for several months in the bustling city of San Francisco.

You fold down the back bench seat and create a bed in the back.

If you’re going to be living in a car on your own, you can get rid of the front passenger seat to create more space, like David Swanson did in his Toyota Prius.

A Prius is amazing for stealth camping, and its hybrid technology allows you to run the engine all night long. This can either serve as your heater in a cold climate or air conditioning in a warm climate.

Plus, it’s unmistakable that you can’t get a better deal on gas mileage when you choose a Prius as your car to live in.

Honda Element – Best SUV to Live In

Honda Element with a rooftop tent and a bed inside, a roomy car to live in
You can turn a Honda Element into an awesome car to live in with the Freeway Camper Kit.

The roomy Honda Element is our top pick for the best SUV to live in. These vehicles are a cult classic among people living in cars, even though they are no longer manufactured. However, you can find some great deals on a used Honda Element.

This SUV camper is one of the best vehicles you can live in for several reasons.

Some models come with four-wheel drive to explore more rugged destinations. It’s easy to convert into a camper thanks to its boxy, open design and all-weather rubber floors. It has a reliable engine and bi-parting side doors for easy access. It might be a car, but it certainly feels more like a camper van.

The cab is big and can be expanded with an add-on pop-top if you have some extra funds. You’ll find plenty of inspiration out there – so many people choose an Element to live the van life out of.

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Toyota Sienna – Best AWD Minivan

Toyota Sienna Camper conversion with side door open showing desk and bed
The Toyota Sienna is a great minivan to live in. You can just throw a bed in back or get a conversion, like this one from Oasis.

A Toyota Sienna camper is a popular option if you’re trying to live in a car. This is one of the only new AWD minivans on the market.

Plus, it’s bigger than popular small cargo vans, including the Ford Transit Connect and the Ram Promaster City. Check out these comparisons:

  • The Toyota Sienna is 16′, 8″ long and 6.5′ wide.
  • The Ford Transit Connect is 14′, 5″ long and 7′ wide.
  • The Ram Promaster City is  15′,5″ long and  6′ wide.

A Toyota Sienna is a great car you can live in because it’s nimble, reliable, and safe. Some Siennas last over 300,000 miles. Driving it conservatively and maintaining it regularly will pay off big time.

These minivans have a combined gas mileage of 22 mpg and feature 3.5L V-6 engines. They offer 101 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats, which is ample room for solo travelers or couples. Removing the rear seats is really easy and doesn’t require any tools, which is a plus.

You can either throw a bed in the back or pay for a partial or full campervan conversion. The flat roof allows you to install solar panels easily. Finally, the extra large sliding door makes it super easy to get in and out of the vehicle.

Looking for a simple and comfortable mattress? Check out the best mattresses for van life.

Chevy Astro – Best Budget Van

Chevy Astro parked in Arizona, which we think is the best budget vehicle you can live in
The Chevy Astro van is an affordable, roomy vehicle you can live in

I might be biased, but I think the Chevy Astro is possibly the best vehicle to live out of for many reasons. It’s an affordable, roomy vehicle. It allows you to test out the nomadic lifestyle for a small price tag.

I found this 1994 Chevy Astro conversion van on Craigslist for just $6,000 with only 57,000 miles.

I’ve barely done anything to convert it into a traditional camper. We just fold down the back bench seat and prop our feet on a couple of stools I found at TJ Maxx, and it’s become our camper!

However, I do have a few vital items in here for camping and traveling full-time, including a portable 37-quart ARB fridge I can’t live without. And two 50-watt flexible solar panels connected to an inverter that runs my fridge and powers my devices.

There are several types of Astro vans you can choose from. Chevy Astro cargo vans, passenger vans, and conversion vans are roomier and have fiberglass roofs. There are normal back hatches or Dutch-style back hatches.

You can find really affordable Chevy Astro vans on the market – sometimes just $3,000 or less. Some people say their old Astro vans have gotten over 300,000 miles!

Check out this tour of my Chevy Astro van:

Jeep Wrangler – Best Off-Road Car to Live in

Jeep with a pop-up parked in the desert, great for living in a car and off-roading
This Jeep Wrangler features a pop up by Ursa Minor Vehicles.

If you want to live out of a car to explore remote 4×4 dirt roads, you might want to consider living in a Jeep Wrangler.

Jeep Wranglers aren’t as easy to live in as a van or an SUV because you can’t just throw down the seats and make a comfortable bed. Usually, people living in a Jeep either add a rooftop tent or a full pop-up by Ursa Minor.

However, Jeep Cherokees are bigger, and I know one woman who lived in her Cherokee for years in Los Angeles.

The main benefit of a Jeep is its ability to really get off the beaten path to remote, beautiful campsites far from other people. A Jeep Wrangler camper is almost like backpacking, but on wheels!

Want to know what its like living in a Jeep camper? Man Living in Jeep Camper Hopes to Inspire

Ford Transit

The latest Vincent Van-Go campervan conversion by Van Life Customs

If you’re ready to go a bit bigger, a Ford Transit is a popular option among people living in their vehicles. Plus, Ford Transit came out with its first AWD van in 2020, in competition for the Mercedes Sprinter 4×4.

The Ford Transit is much more affordable than a Sprinter and doesn’t need to go to a special dealership for repairs.

Like the Sprinter van, there are varying height options. For full-time van living, a high or medium top would be the best choice.

Ford Transit vans are easy to drive and maneuver but have higher gas mileage than smaller vehicles you can live in.

Want to learn more about larger vehicles? Check out the 13 best vans to live in.

Ram Promaster City

Dodge Promaster City parked in the snowy mountains is a small cargo van you can live in.
This Ram Promaster City is available to rent on Outdoorsy.

If you’re looking to put a camper set up in the car you’re living in, the Ram Promaster City offers a combination of stealth and open cargo space.

This little van has a 28 miles per gallon highway fuel economy and a cargo capacity of 131.7 cubic feet.

The Promaster City drives with a 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine and can be loaded down to 1,886 pounds. It also has a nine-speed automatic transmission.

One level up from the basic cargo van model, or the SLT, gets you a van that needs oil changes every 10,000 miles, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control and heated seats.

Check out this cool video of a Ram Promaster City conversion:

Want to learn more about small cargo vans? The best 4 cargo vans for a camper van conversion

Truck Camper – Best for Living Off Grid

lance truck camper
Photo Credit: Lance Camper via Flickr

We highly recommend a pickup truck camper if you hope to do lots of boondocking. It’s not super stealthy or roomy, but it’s practical and fun to drive.

On a 4×4 truck camper, you can even go off-road, adding much freedom and adventure to the van life. There are a huge variety of pickup trucks to choose from – both old and new. Think of the Ford F-350, a Ram 3500 or Chevy Silverado 3500HD.

Make sure you check the truck’s payload rating before you choose a camper. These come in different shapes and weights.

The cab and driver’s seat will always be separate from the camper, which can put some people off. If it doesn’t bother you, truck campers are great vehicles to live in.

Our top tip? Go for a light interior color so it doesn’t feel like a cavern in there.

School Bus – Best Car for a Customized RV

Talking about other vehicles to live in, the biggest one you can get your hands on while staying on a budget is a skoolie. A school bus can easily turn into a big, comfortable motorhome DIY. The boxy interior makes designing a spacious floor plan for newbies very easy. Because they were designed as people carriers, skoolies can take a decent amount of cargo, so you don’t have to worry about weighing it down too much.

The biggest advantages of a skoolie are the headroom and the incredible interior room. There is even enough space to fit holding tanks. And you know what that means, right? You can install a toilet, a kitchen sink, and even a shower. That’s the van lifer’s ultimate dream!

Older skoolies aren’t very fuel efficient, though. So this might not the right vehicle for you if you hope to make lots of long road trips. They are also a little harder to drive than most cars or vans, so you’ll need a little practice. Parking in a city is super awkward – there is no way around it.

Ford E350 – Best Stealth Van

2000 Ford E350
Photo: Ford E350 is Available for Rent on Outdoorsy

If you’re looking for a van to take you on many adventures, you can’t go wrong with the Ford E350. You won’t be able to stand in it, but it can fit a long bed and furniture, including a kitchen and a power system. This van is very affordable, and it’s small enough to park pretty much anywhere, even in cities.

The Ford E350 is an excellent camper for a couple or a solo traveler. Being a cargo van, it’s excellent for stealth camping, especially if you don’t install a lot of solar panels, ladders, and awnings onto the exterior.

Beware: not all E350s have 4WD drive; read the listings carefully.

Volkswagen Camper – Best Nostalgic Car You Can Live in

Volkswagen Eurovan parked with other campervans
Renting a Eurovan is a great way to see how much you love it.

A VW camper will make your vintage camping dreams come true. These iconic little buses imported from Europe are fantastic platforms on which to live the van life.

They are small enough to fit in a garage or car parking space and they drive very easily, thanks to their compact shape. While the interior room isn’t a lot, they can pack a lot inside.

The models with the pop top have headroom to cook inside when the roof is up. You won’t need to make the bed every night on one of these, which is a great plus.

So many VW buses are around – from the EuroVan to the Vanagon. Older models are less reliable and have low gas milage. For this reason, they’re not the right camper to use on long road trips across the states. More recent campers with newer engines are long-lasting.

There’s one last advantage of a VW camper. It will turn heads wherever you go, which can help break the ice and make new friends.

Sprinter 4×4 Van – The Best High Clearance Van

sprinter van life
Here is our Sprinter van!

A 4×4 Sprinter is the off-roader’s dream. Such a vehicle can take you to remote places to enjoy some fabulous off-grid time. The headroom inside a Sprinter is also pretty good, especially if you’re not super tall. Its rectangular shape makes it really easy to convert into a camper. They are super easy to drive and maneuver; plus, the fuel economy is fantastic.

We love our Sprinter van and are happy we chose it as our third car to live in.

They are the best of both worlds: compact enough to be easy to drive anywhere and roomy enough to have all the comforts on board. Of course, space is still limited, but you’ll be able to get to pretty much anywhere, even off-road.

Sprinters come with a 144″ or a 170″ wheelbase. Both models are notoriously expensive, but they hold their value well, which is an advantage if you plan to take a sabbatical rather than live the van life long-term.

Dodge Promaster – Widest Car You Can Live In

dodge promaster camper
Dodge Promaster Van

Van living becomes a lot cheaper if you choose a Dodge Promaster over a Sprinter. And, honestly, they’re not worlds apart – they are essentially the same kind of vehicle. The lower price tag will allow you to buy a more recent van, which is a huge plus.

The fuel consumption is 13.6 average MPG, which is fabulous. There is no 4WD drive or diesel option, but the 3.6L V6 engine is powerful and long-lasting. The Promaster is a reliable van with a 75in maximum cargo width. That’s wider than any van!

The Dodge Promaster is available in 118″, 136″, 159″ wheelbases. Choose between high roof and low roof. There are a number of professional conversion companies specialized in converting Promasters. Alternatively, you can do your own self-conversion.

Things to Look for When Choosing One of the Best Cars to Live In

The Wayward Home writer Sierra Eberly in her campervan

There are many factors to consider when choosing a car for full-time living, especially because of the limited space. Finding the right vehicle for your needs and habits is essential. Let’s look at some of the crucial things to look for when choosing a car camper.

Dimensions

Living the van life out of a car can be cramped, especially if you don’t choose a spacious car. Research the dimensions of the cars you like, especially the interior length and width.

The interior space available makes a huge difference to your car-living experience. Dimensions vary greatly across regular cars, so be sure to check them before arranging a viewing.

Not a fan of driving a bigger vehicle? Get one with reversing cameras. You will most likely regret getting a small car, which offers little to no living space. Extra space is always useful – you’ll get used to driving a bigger vehicle with time.

Interior height

Don’t forget to check the height of the sleeping area, especially if you want to be able to sit and eat inside the car. Many cars are too low to allow you to hang out inside on a rainy day.

Fuel efficiency

If you’re going to live in a car, you will probably want to drive it often. Check the gas mileage of the vehicle you’re looking at, so you know roughly how much you’ll need to budget for gas.

Common issues

Almost every car tends to develop a problem or two over the years. Research the car you’re interested in to find out what are their common issues, so you know what you’ll potentially need to fix.

Your electricity needs

How will you charge your phone and tablet? And how often? Are you hoping to keep a microwave in the car? Even if you want to live off-grid much of the time, you will need to charge some electronics regularly; you can’t simply burn fuel or drive somewhere every time you need to charge your phone.

There are two options: you can either choose a car with a flat roof on which to install solar panels or go for a hybrid car with a big battery. Bear in mind that mounting these on a car isn’t ideal if you want to go stealth camping.

Easy-to-remove rear bench seat and flatbed

In order to create a bed, you will likely need to take the back seats out of the vehicle. If removing these is fairly easy and the floor in the rear is flat, then you have saved yourself a lot of trouble. If you don’t want to build a platform, make sure the seats fold down flat.

What you’ll need to start living in your car

Living in a car is a huge adjustment from an apartment or a house. You’ll have to get used to a much smaller living space and spending a lot of time outside the car. To get started, you’ll want a few basic items to stay warm and provide comfort.

Bedding

You’ll need something comfortable to sleep on when living in your car. You can use a camping mat like this Thermarest from REI, or a trifold memory foam mattress popular among van lifers.

We use warm sleeping bags instead of blankets in the van. I personally love the REI Joule bag, which keeps me warm in freezing temperatures. Instead of using a heater, we opt for warm sleeping bags and a campfire on chilly nights.

It’s great to bring a couple of comfy pillows so you can make your van bed as cozy as possible.

A way to cook and store food

We love our single- burner JetBoil Half Gen, and a stainless steel pressure cooker

You’ll most likely be cooking quite a bit when living in a car, which helps save money on going out to eat. We cook pretty much every night when we’re living in our van.

There are all sorts of camping stoves to choose from, but we have a single-burner stove called the JetBoil Half-Gen. This is an incredibly powerful small stove that also has great simmer control.

Most nights, we cook using a stovetop pressure cooker, which can make everything from chili, to sloppy joes, to sausage and bell peppers.

In the mornings, we use a JetBoil Backpacking Stove to quickly boil water for coffee and oatmeal.

You’ll also want a way to store your food. We use a 37-quart ARB portable refrigerator, which needs to be connected to solar panels or a solar generator.

You can also go with a good cooler, but you’ll have to chance ice every few days. If you don’t want to store any cold foods at all, you can eat boxed and canned foods that are simple to heat up on your camping stove.

We also invested in a few plastic bins in which to store our food.

Folding table and chairs for outdoor relaxation

We love these Moonlence folding chairs and this GCI compact table from REI.

Living in a car means you’re going to be spending most of your time outside the car. Think of your car as the place you’ll sleep at night.

During the day, especially if you’re boondocking, you’ll need somewhere to sit and hang out.

We bought this small folding portable table from REI which is just amazing, along with these two Moonlence camping chairs, which are perfect for a car or a small van.

A way to charge your electronic devices

Charging your electronics in your car is a necessary way to work remotely!

When living in a car full-time, you’ll most likely need to charge your computer and other electronic devices.

This can be as simple and affordable as a 300-watt inverter connected to your vehicle’s cigarette lighter, to a more advanced setup like solar panels and an inverter.

The midway option is a solar generator, like this a Jackery Explorer 500, which you can charge using a portable solar panel or connected to an AC power outlet.

If you’re using an inverter connected to a cigarette lighter, be sure you don’t run down your battery. It’s best to use it when you’re driving somewhere, or when your car is running.

We hope you find the best car to live in

There’s no single best car to live in. It all depends on how you’ll be using your car and what you hope to get out of it.

Think about gas mileage and roominess before picking the car you’re going to live out of.

There’s everything from a Toyota Prius hybrid, to a Chevy Astro conversion van, to a large Ford Transit or Mercedes Sprinter. A lot of this also depends on your budget.

You can get a very affordable used vehicle off Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. I bought my van for just $6,000 with only 57,000 miles, with barely any issues whatsoever.

So, don’t think price is a barrier when you’re thinking about living in your car.

We hope this guide gives you some ideas about the best cars to live in.

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3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Is it illegal to sleep in your car? Check out our ultimate guide.
  2. Pingback: Turn Your Car Into a Camper with These Kits - The Wayward Home
  3. My husband and I are planning on moving into our car within a week to 10 days we are putting our things in storage and moving us and our 3 dogs into our dodge avenger..any suggestions will be helpful

  4. Great comparison of the various options.

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