Before we purchased our 2wd Ford Transit, we kept asking ourselves if we really needed a 4×4 for van life. We had seen these cool (and expensive) 4wd Sprinters and decked out overlanding vehicles and thought that we needed something similar in order to get the most out of our camper van travels.
In the end, for budget reasons, we decided against getting a 4×4 van. And you know what? Except for a tiny handful of situations where a 4×4 was required, we have been totally fine with our rear-wheel drive Transit over the last three years.
So in this post, we’re going to talk about why you very likely DO NOT need that expensive 4×4 for van life. We’ll also discuss some of the things you can do to improve a 2wd vehicle’s off-road capabilities.
So if you’re ready, let’s get to it!
Will You Really Be Going Where Only A 4x4 Can Take You?
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 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 of just a small percentage of the total van life experience. And for many camper travelers, they may never come across terrain that truly requires 4wd.
The Majority Of The Roads Are Paved
Whether we like it or not, the vast majority of the roads we all drive on will be nicely paved and level.
In fact, 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 roads that you’ll be driving on, the vast majority will be backcountry dirt roads that are 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 30,000 miles all across Mexico & Central America without much of any problems at all. And we’ve seen some pretty gnarly roads down here!
So really, when looking at the opportunities to actually take advantage of a 4×4’s capabilities, we’re talking about a really small percentage of the time.
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?”
We won’t deny that there are plenty of examples of gorgeous roads and sleeping spots that 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 the our photo collection below.
We just want to reiterate the point we made above that there are many unpaved & unmaintained roads that are easily driven on with just a 2wd vehicle.
See 4x4 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.
Look, 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 useful!
But for the vast majority of us van lifers, being forced to cross such challenging terrain is such a rare thing. Honestly, it really 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 just 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.
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.
From what we’ve seen and read, 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 more 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 a whole host of factors ranging from vehicle age to existing wear-and-tear. But just keep in mind that maintenance and labor costs aren’t cheap.
Are the extra costs worth it for you?
Alternatives To Getting A 4x4 For Van Life
Deciding against getting a 4×4 for van life doesn’t mean your off-roading dreams must come to an 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 over and over again. And it’s true.
If you only have two wheels providing forward thrust then you should ensure those wheels can gather the most amount of 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 of the best for off-road adventures.
Prioritize Vehicle Clearance
Oftentimes, 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 difficult.)
Get Sumo Springs
For the best value upgrade you can make to your vehicle’s suspension system, look no further than SumoSprings.
While SumoSprings don’t improve your vehicle’s off-road abilities per se, these products vastly improve your drive experience across rough, unmaintained roads.
Check out our SumoSprings review to learn more about why we love these oversized bump stops for van life.
Help Others Help You
If things go bad 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 out.
Below is a table of all the gear we travel with to help us get out of a jam.
Looking for van conversion resources? Check out our van build guide for tons of great content teaching you how to build your own camper van.
What's More Important Than A 4x4 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. There are much more important factors, like internal livability, fuel economy, and clearance.
If you haven’t yet finalized your vehicle choice, we recommend checking out our post, The Best Vans For Van Life, to learn more about all the different choices available to you.
Conclusion: A 4x4 Isn’t Required For An Unforgettable Van Life Adventure!
At the end of the day, van life is what you make of it. But we believe that whether or not you invested in a 4×4 plays an inconsequential role 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 still snap those envious Instagram pics.
Plan ahead, understand your van’s limitations, and just have fun.