Last Update: 9/06/2017

Need 4WD for Van Life Backwoods Boondocking?

Old orange VW bus with huge suspension lift and offroad tires
Americans love big trucks and 4WD offroad rigs. But do you need all that shit just to camp off the dirt roads in public lands? Vanholio gives a qualified "no."

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Regular Vehicles Handle Most Dirt, Gravel Roads

For the last couple years, I been goin' all over the national forests and BLM lands in a Promaster City, a mini-cargo-van with street tires, front-wheel drive, and only 5.1 inches a clearance. That's the same clearance as a fuckin' Prius!

I'd say that with that low-slung van a mine, I been able to get into 80% or more a the places I wanted to go. No problem. #vanlife

That said, I gotta be careful and pick my way. Dirt and gravel forest roads are smooth for the most part. But in some places, usually on steep parts where they get washed out, they ain't. You can drive 15 miles back in smoothness, then come to a rough patch. That's when ya put your tires atop the rocks and straddle the gullies.

Offroad Tires and True Spare Help Van Life Bunches

Vanholio's only been stuck three times, once each in snow, mud, and sand. That last was 'cause he was a fuckin' idiot. He also caused some under-damage the first year, but experience has tempered him a bit. Ain't been fuckin' that up lately.

No, biggest problem I faced was punctured tires. In the last two years, I gone through 6-7 tires that couldn't be fixed. Either the gash was too big to patch, or the puncture was in the sidewall. Rough rocks'll do that! Expensive and a pain in the ass!

The Promaster City come with a Slime and pump kit, but now I got me a true spare. And next month, I'm gettin' a lift and offroad tires. The lift ain't high, 1.25 inch (though every bit helps), but the offroad tires'll be a longterm savings – money and hassles.

Tire traction mats and a somethin' ta dig with is probably a smart idea, too. Don't know that a winch is all that. Maybe a tow rope or strap, though. (See video and links at bottom for more tips.)

Exceptions to This Backroad Van Life Advice?

Sure! If ya wanna get up that other 20% a roads, or even go offroad, you'd be better off with high clearance an' a 4WD or AWD.

That don't need to be fancy none, though. Some's out there got old Astro AWD Astro vans with lifts and good tires. Also look at the Subaru Outback with AWD and 8.7 inches clearance! Or maybe a Ford F150 with camper top. (Thanks ihatemybike and Al Christensen for the Astro and Outback recommends!)

And if you're gonna frequent areas with a lot a mud and/or snow and ice, yeah, 4WD and more clearance is best. Plus that winch!

Also See ...


  1. I had a blog post of my own on this subject and was waiting for an appropriate time to post it. Now I'll have to wait longer so it doesn't look like I'm copying you. But, yeah, we agree about 4WD.

    1. That's all right. You beat me to the punch with that "You Have Time" post: