This bug out van guide was written by a TruePrepper contributor, Aaron Randolph. We do not have a van expert on staff, so Aaron contributed greatly with his experience in van life and bug out vehicles.
A bug out van is one of the better options for a bug out vehicle. A van hits the sweet spot between car and recreational vehicle (RV) where you can be nimble and mobile, but have plenty of room for supplies. With a properly prepared bug out van you and your loved ones can survive for weeks, months, or indefinitely.
You can prepare your bug out van according to a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, there is just an empty van with survival supplies. This is an affordable version that has portable equipment and requires no knowledge of solar, plumbing, etc. It also requires very little prep work or construction inside the van.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the bug out van that resembles something more closely akin to a camper: permanently installed solar, water systems, beds, etc… You can combine elements from either end of the spectrum to create a van that perfectly fits your needs and budget.
Contents (Jump to a Section)
Best Bug Out Van Makes/Models
You may be looking to create a bug out van for a number of reasons. The make and model of your van will depend on your budget, and luckily any van can be transformed into a bug out van if you plan accordingly.
Right now it seems like new and used car prices are outrageous, but manufacturers expect prices to decline in the latter half of 2022 and continue to decline into 2023. This is because the supply of computer chips and other car parts is expected to become more regular. If you can’t afford a brand new van, used vans are not a bad deal with most vans last. This way, you can avoid the markups that come with used car dealerships.
Here are the best bug out van models:
The Dodge Sprinter Van has been a popular choice for van conversions. High-roof sprinters are easy to find and you can stand up in them. The most common models are long so you can install a bed and extra cabinets for storage. On Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, models as old as 2004-06 are priced between $5,000 – $12,000 on average.
It may be alarming if you see these engines with 150,000 miles or more, but this is common. Because they’re diesel engines, they can easily last up to 400,000 miles if they’re well-maintained. One of the best things about a sprinter is their fuel mileage. They can get as good as 25 mpg, which is incredible for such a large vehicle!
If you’re willing to spend more money, new sprinter vans are around $40,000 and have a longer life expectancy.
Dodge began making this model in 2014. These vans seemingly bring together all the good things about vans for the common person. They have high roofs, and simple gasoline engines, and get slightly better than average gas mileage with around 15-20 mpg.
Ford Econoline and Dodge Ram Vans
These vans may not be the most beautiful, but they certainly do the trick. They have enough room to store everything you need and sleep several people if you don’t mind being close. The beauty of these vehicles is that they’re common. This means that the price is usually low and parts are readily available. Using Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist to search, you can find one for between $4000 – $6000.
Some people claim they can reach up to 600,000 miles if they’re well-maintained. A more realistic expectation is probably around 300,000 miles. This is still good news if you find one for $5000 with 150,000 miles- that’s only half of its life!
There are hundreds of different minivans to choose from. You’ve got to search to get the best price for the lowest number of miles. People may shy away from this option because of size, but they can make beautiful conversions with some creativity.
One upside if you choose a minivan is that they’re incredibly stealthy. If you’re boondocking, the van can be completely inconspicuous.
This may not seem like your first choice for a bug out van, but some ambulances have been transformed into impressive campers. Ambulances usually come with cabinets that are accessible from inside and outside the van. They also usually have exhaust fans and lights already installed. This can make the conversion faster. In general, ambulances are designed to have people walking around and laying down in them, so it’s actually a natural choice.
Buying an ambulance, or any other vehicle that was previously used by a public organization like a city or county is usually good because they’ve been routinely maintained. Oftentimes, cities keep maintenance records and will pass them over to you if you buy the vehicle.
Pro Tip: Standing Room – If you consider a situation that might cause you to live in your van for more than a few days, you might want to think about buying something you can stand inside. Being able to stand in a van makes it more sustainable long term.
Gasoline vs Diesel, Pros and Cons
Picking between gas or diesel for your bug out van isn’t a simple choice: there are benefits and drawbacks to compare for both:
- Gasoline engines are cheaper to fix because they’re more common than diesel engines and parts are more readily available.
- If you’re faced with an emergency, gasoline is easier to locate than diesel, so it’s easier to procure. Only 51% of filling stations on the east coast of the U.S. have diesel.
- Gas engines tend to stop working sooner than diesel. This is because there is ethanol in gasoline.
- Another disadvantage of gasoline engines is that they get fewer miles to the gallon than diesel. Meaning, they’re less fuel efficient and you’ll spend more money on fuel.
- Diesel fuel is more efficient than gasoline because it has more energy per gallon. So, you might pay higher prices at the pump, but you will go farther before you have to top it off again.
- Diesel engines tend to last much longer than gasoline engines. This is partially because they have fewer components than gas engines to potentially malfunction.
- Diesel engines are less common than gasoline engines, meaning their parts are less readily available making the engines more expensive to maintain.
- Diesel engines often have difficulty starting in cold weather because they don’t use a spark to ignite the fuel.
- Diesel fuel is slightly more expensive than gasoline, and less commonly available.
Bug Out Van Maintenance
It’s important to keep in mind that a van is a piece of machinery that requires maintenance. People often forget this fact when they delve into the popular forms of van life proliferated across various social media platforms. They later realize that no matter how much money is spent on accessories to make the van more livable, it will only become a headache if it’s broken down. So you definitely want to search for a well-maintained van with low mileage. Here are some things which will keep your van running longer, or get it started when it’s broken down:
- Fuel Stabilizer – If your bug out van will not be driven regularly, make sure you start it and change the oil to keep it fresh. If the vehicle won’t be run for a while, be sure to add fuel stabilizer. Fuel stabilizer can keep fuel from going bad for 1-2 years. Check out our favorite fuel stabilizer based on our testing: best fuel stabilizer.
- Jump Starter – You may also need to jump-start your van from time to time. In this case, it’s beneficial to have a portable battery that is capable of jump-starting your van’s battery. This power jump station will allow you to do so and also provides you with an air compressor for your tires.
- Tools – Maintaining a vehicle requires at least some basic tools. If your vehicle requires specific socket sizes, that is information you want to know as soon as possible. But there are essentials that will always be useful no matter what van you choose. This tool kit is one example that includes various useful tools. Here are some specifics you might need as well:
- Adjustable Wrench
- Universal Lug Wrench
- Spark Plug Wrench
- Jumper Cables
- Tow Straps
- Gas Can: Wavian USA Jerry Can – store gas or have an empty for emergency (see why this is the best Jerry can)
- Siphon: Shaker Siphon – Transfer fuel or water quickly and easily (see why this tested as the best siphon)
In an emergency, the last place you want to find yourself is stranded on the side of the road. Keep tools on hand to maintain your bug out van, and know how to use them!
Water and Water Storage
Water is the most important thing to have in an emergency situation. There are multiple ways to make sure you have plenty of water ready in case you need to leave in a hurry. The good thing about a van is that you can take a lot of water without having to worry so much about its weight.
While health fads might encourage people to drink a gallon of water a day, you will do quite well with 2-3 liters a day. The amount of water each person needs varies, but it’s smart to have enough.
Water Tanks – You can buy a water tank on the internet and keep it filled in your van. Following this link, you will find 10, 16, 21, and 42-gallon water tanks. These are all priced relatively low. However, it’s important to remember that keeping large amounts of water in a tank like this might lead to algae growth. These types of tanks also require some simple plumbing. If you think you’ll be getting in your van in a hurry, you might want something which requires less work.
If you want something more portable you might want a 5-gallon tank.
Water Bottles – If you want an option that requires no maintenance, simply buying sealed water bottles from a grocery store is fine. They may be more difficult to store due to the shape of the bottles.
Purifying Water – This is just as important as storing water. If you do store water in a large tank, this could be a solution for water that’s been sitting for a while. Iodine tablets are one good way to purify water in a pinch. Water filters take up minimal space and can also be used to source water from natural bodies of water or filter the water you already have. TruePrepper has already reviewed the best water filters.
Water Pouches – Emergency water pouches require no maintenance. They can be purchased online and stored easily, here are the best the TruePrepper team has reviewed: best emergency water pouches.
Food and Van Cooking
This shouldn’t be too surprising. Non-perishable foods are good for your bug out van. Peanut butter, food bars, canned food, and other dehydrated food will all serve your bug out van well. Luckily, because you won’t be carrying the food on your back, you can carry quite a bit in your van. Aside from water, this is your second most important concern.
You will also want to include some basic cooking gear in your bug out van. This cooking kit has multiple non-stick pots, pans, knives, and forks.
If you have food, you might want to have a stove of some kind. Having a stove can make staying in your bug out van for extended periods of time easier to manage. Enjoying a warm meal can really boost your mood. There are small stoves that require propane cans such as this commonly used Coleman stove. Many other camping stoves exist on the market, but this stove allows you to pack it up easily and stow it away. It’s also a good stove because you can purchase extra cans of butane which can be easily stored.
Energy & Power
Having power gives you access to plenty of options when it comes to survivability. Vans already have built-in motors and batteries of course, but you don’t want to rely on those 24/7. There are a few ways to generate power on the move.
Generators that fit in Vans
Many people carry generators on the back, or underneath their campers or trucks. The Champion Dual Fuel 2500W Inverter is an incredibly simple and compact choice that can run efficiently overnight. Of course, there are a multitude of generators to choose from online and in stores. You can see those options and why we think the Champion is the best in our portable generator review:
Fixed and Portable Solar
You can go the fixed route and install solar panels on the roof of your vehicle. This requires time and planning but can be a great option because you won’t need to move or carry batteries and solar panels. You can buy solar kits that already come with charge controllers, panels, cables, and everything else you need to install solar power.
However, there are portable solar kits that require no installation. They take up minimal space with folding solar panels and can be packed away in your van when you’re not using them. You would simply need to lay the panels in the sun. These kits come with a battery that already has charging ports and outlets wired in. This is an easy option if you’re not good with electrical installation or don’t have time.
If you’re looking to spend very little money there are a multitude of emergency radios that can charge your phone, have a small hand crank on the side, a small solar panel, and double as AM/FM radio stations. These take up less space and are a great addition to any bug out van or bag.
The option to have a bed is really what makes a bug out van really sustainable in the long run. It allows you to sleep anywhere you park while protecting you from the elements.
One of the most common ways to create a bed in a van that takes up little space and also serves as a bench is to make a slatted bed. This is a bench that pulls out and instantly transforms into a bed. You can cut a memory foam mattress in half to create cushions that serve as the back of the bench and then functions as the mattress.
You can also build a Murphy bed inside your van if you have time and resources. It’s more than possible to build a bunk bed in your van if you have children or just multiple people sleeping in the van:
The truth is, there are many ways to ensure that you have a place to sleep inside your van. If you don’t have time or carpentry skills, you can also just leave the floor empty and get an inflatable mattress. There are some inflatable mattresses with a built-in memory foam topper that are quite comfortable.
Pro Tip: Staying Safe While Sleeping – Depending on the situation in which you’re using your bug out van, you might be sleeping in public places. You may be parked on the side of the street, or in a parking lot. In these situations always make sure it’s safe. Be aware of your surroundings and try to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Turn any interior lights off when you’re sleeping or make sure they can’t be seen from the exterior of the van by using curtains or blankets to cover the windows.
When sleeping in a van, warm temperatures can be uncomfortable but they’re not as dangerous as low temperatures if you’re unprepared. It’s easy to stay warm with sleeping bags. As with everything else mentioned here, there are a plethora of sleeping bags to choose from online and in stores. The beauty of a bug out van is that you don’t necessarily have to be concerned with carrying the sleeping bag. This allows you to choose one that is cheap, and still very warm.
If you plan to stay inside the van and want to provide warmth for the interior, you might want to consider a Mr. Heater Buddy. These use propane and very quickly heat up a small space. You can use propane canisters or an entire propane tank. This can be doubly beneficial if your stove uses propane because you don’t need to buy more than one type of gas.
As with a bug out bag, communication equipment is important to have in an emergency. In long-term emergency scenarios, cell phone service may eventually cease. In this case, it’s good to consider having one of the following emergency communication devices.
These types of radios will continue to work when cell phone service might fail you. These will help you communicate with other people who may know more about the situation that you don’t know. This could include weather information, roadway conditions, or other pertinent information that is helpful to your health and safety.
There are also a number of portable wifi-routers that could be useful if the internet continues to work. The Skyroam Solis is a portable, rechargeable wifi hotspot that does not require a continued monthly subscription plan. You can purchase a day pass and only use the internet for a day. The company also has long-term plans if that’s what you want.
The Final Word
A van, when properly outfitted, makes a hell of a bug out vehicle. There is plenty of room for supplies and people, but it’s also not a massive lumbering target like an RV. Keep your bug out van non-descript and quick, and you’ll be able to quickly get to where you’re going in an emergency.
If you haven’t started prepping yet, then what are you waiting for? Get started prepping now. If you don’t know why you should be prepping, we have you covered as well: Why You Should Prepare for Emergencies. Here are a few other good reads you may be interested in:
- How to Get a Free Survival Map of Your Local Area
- The 11 Cardinal Sins of Prepping – Mistakes to Avoid
- Bug Out Vehicle Buying Guide, Checklist, and Gear
Keep exploring, stay prepared, and be safe.
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