A topic that I don’t see discussed very much in the van life community is how much your van weighs. You may start with an empty cargo van, but after you build out the interior and load it up with everything you need to live on the road, you might be very close to the maximum weight your van can safely handle — or over it.
I recently had the opportunity to drive my van through an empty weigh station with the scale still turned on. In its current configuration, my van weighs 7,900 pounds. That’s without my motorcycle, its trailer hitch carrier, or any of the heavy items like tools that I moved from the van into the trailer. In its previous configuration, with everything inside and the bike on the back, it would have weighed close to 8,600 pounds, which is my van’s maximum allowed weight. No wonder it felt like it was lumbering at times.
If your van is over its maximum weight rating, its handling will suffer. No one expects a van to handle like a Mazda Miata, but if you need to make an emergency maneuver, the van may wallow too much in the turns, resulting in a loss of control or even a rollover. At minimum, you’ll be putting excessive wear and tear on the suspension, shortening its life and requiring more frequent repairs. You don’t want to operate your van, or any vehicle, outside of its design limits.
Aside from safety, the more weight you’re carrying, the more fuel you need to burn to haul it around. I’m writing this at a time when gas prices have barely started to come down from their highest ever (so far). Many people, myself included, have considered cutting back their travel plans because they simply can’t afford it.
Here’s what you need to know about the weight of and inside your van. We’ll cover how to find out how much weight you can safely carry, as well as considerations to make in your build to keep it light while still keeping it strong.
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating
What you see here is my van’s vehicle information label. Every vehicle has one of these, usually located in the driver’s door jamb. It has all kinds of useful information, like the VIN, recommended tire size, tire pressure, and the gross vehicle weight rating, or GVWR.
The GVWR is the maximum that the vehicle, passengers, and cargo can weigh. If the number you get at a weigh station scale exceeds this number, you’re in trouble. Look in the top right corner of the sticker, and you’ll see this maximum weight is 8,600 pounds for my van. The unmodified van itself, as it came off Ford’s production line, weighs roughly 5,300 pounds, which means its maximum payload is 3,300 pounds. Subtract the weight of yourself and any regular passengers, and that’ll give you how much weight you’re left to work with for your build.
In my case, the van was further modified to become a wheelchair van. I don’t know how much all of these changes weigh. My rough guess is that removing the wheelchair lift and steel roof, and adding the fiberglass high roof and custom floor to strap down wheelchairs, approximately balance each other out.
I weighed my van, in its current configuration, at 7,900 pounds. Subtract the weight of the van and myself, and that means that my wheelchair van modifications, interior build, and cargo weigh 2,400 pounds! This is after taking a 400+ pound motorcycle off the back, as well as its 100-pound carrier, plus my tools, which aren’t exactly light either. This is why I say I must have been right around my van’s maximum weight limit before I got my trailer. It also explains why it drives pretty well around town now when I don’t have the trailer attached. I’m 1,000 pounds below my maximum weight, and the van can easily handle this load.
It’s a good idea to have this information before building your van. I didn’t and got surprised. Fortunately, I’d already addressed the situation by offloading a bunch of weight to the trailer, so I’m okay now. The right way to do it is to plan your build with these numbers in mind.
Simplify and Add Lightness
Lotus design engineer Colin Chapman was famous for his philosophy of “Simplify and add lightness” when it came to designing high-performance sports cars. It’s how cars like this Lotus Elise were sold in the US with a pedestrian Toyota Celica engine for emissions reasons, yet can still hold their own with some of the most powerful sports cars out there. These cars weigh only 2,000 pounds (less than my interior build), so it doesn’t take more than their 200 or so horsepower to make them fast. Their lightness also contributes to their excellent handling and braking capabilities.
Your van will never be a Lotus, but you can still apply some of the same philosophies as Colin Chapman to improve your fuel economy and safety. The problem with an elaborate wooden van build like you see all over YouTube and Instagram is that wood weighs a bit. We used a unique interior build in Smokey that deserves its own article. Basically, we used various lengths of angle iron to build a strong metal frame, then attached doors and lightweight non-structural wall panels to it. Flat surfaces, from small shelves to the counter to the bed platform, sit on top of this structure. We didn’t do this for weight reasons, but because neither of us knew much about woodworking at the beginning of this project. (Trisha became a rather good woodworker by the end, but that didn’t help us until later.) I’d be curious to know how much this method weighs compared to a comparable all-wooden design.
There are other ways to go, too. Vancity Vanlife‘s build by Overland Interiors is all wood, but uses a honeycomb design to make the panels much lighter without sacrificing any of their strength. If it’s good enough for bees, it’s good enough for us. Andy uses a CNC machine for wood to make these cutouts, which are pretty far beyond what the average person building a van in their driveway can do. But you could still cut holes in your plywood with a jigsaw. They may not be as pretty, but they’d work.
You can also plan a more minimalist build. My dresser for clothes isn’t a fancy wood cabinet, but a simple shelf with a cargo net and compression bags to keep my t-shirts, socks, and underwear sorted. That’s it. We’d already designed tall cabinets for either side of the bed. All it took to add this was a single piece of angle iron to connect the two cabinets in front, a piece of 3/8″ plywood for the shelf, and the net. It’s easy, lightweight, and effective.
One advantage of the no-build van build is it doesn’t weigh much. Plastic bins and drawers are very light but work almost as well as custom-built pieces. They’re not as durable, so you may need to replace them from time to time. That may be just fine for you. They worked great in my first van, though I wasn’t living in it full-time.
Finally, the most obvious way to lighten your load is to not take as much stuff with you. As a van dweller, you’re already a minimalist compared to people in apartments and houses. The less you bring, the less weight you’ll be carrying. For me, this is true to an extent, but I also want to live comfortably and happily. In my case, that includes bringing a motorcycle, which adds layers of complexity that most van dwellers won’t have to deal with. I also like having a good set of tools with me, which isn’t exactly lightweight. There is no one right way to live, in a van or otherwise. But, if you can live happily without a thing, particularly a thing that weighs a fair amount, consider leaving it behind.
Another way to make sure your van can handle its own weight once built out is to buy a van that can handle more weight. Smokey is a 2004 Ford E250, which is a medium-duty van. A light-duty E150 would’ve collapsed under this weight long ago. But an E350 would handle it much better. Despite looking identical, it’s a heavy-duty van with a beefier suspension, drivetrain, and everything. If I was starting a van build today, I’d hold out for a heavy-duty van rather than accepting a medium-duty van like Smokey. Now that I know that even a moderate interior build like mine still weighs a ton (literally), I’d get a van that could handle the load better.
Going beyond the older Fords, other van choices include the Transit 350 (it was nice of them to continue the same submodel naming convention), the Chevy Express 3500, and the Ram Promaster 3500. Basically, if the submodel number begins with a 3, that’s the heavy-duty version.
Note that in some states, this may cause you some insurance issues. Some places automatically require commercial insurance for any heavy-duty (also called “one-ton”) van, regardless of whether it’s being used for a business or not. This would force you to carry commercial insurance on your van even if it’s strictly for personal use, and you’re not using it to make content for your wildly successful YouTube channel (one can dream, right?) One solution for this is to simply not register and insure it in a state that does this. Here’s how I did it in Florida.
What do you do if you’ve already built out an E150 or E250 and find out you’re overweight? Starting over with an E350 is a major ordeal, especially with vehicle prices these days. You can make the best of it by upgrading your current suspension to handle the extra weight. You don’t need a full off-road suspension like the one in this picture, or like Vancity Vanlife has, though that would work and give you more backcountry capability. But you could upgrade to an E350 suspension. That means beefier springs, shock absorbers, sway bars, etc. The package deal of a true E350 van would be better, but putting E350 parts on your E250 that you’ve already invested a great deal of time and money into building is the best way to make your current van better able to handle the load you’ve already given it.
Even though I’m well within my weight ratings at this point, I’m still seriously considering a shock absorber upgrade. My current ones aren’t as fresh as they used to be, and when I’m towing the trailer I still have to consider my tongue weight, which gets added to my rear axle. The van bounces a bit more than I’d like, so I’ll likely get that done at some point. (I’d do it myself, but I’d spend 90% of the time fighting old rusted parts off the van, and probably breaking a few along the way. I’d rather pay a shop with better tools and more experienced technicians to do that.)