Taking a van off road?

I am about to purchase and outfit a van for van living. I love traveling off paved roads into the back country. In the past I had a truck. I am wondering, with a two wheel drive van, the right tires and ground clearance, is a van suitable for those gravel/dirt/rocky (but not too rocky) roads?

We have a Chevy Express 1500 we take dispersed camping, Smoky Mountains, all through Colorado even parts of the Alpine Loop, Lake City area. Stock wheels and Michelin Defender LTX M/S with no issues. When these wear out I am going to go with Yokohama Geolander G015. More aggressive side wall. We have them on our Outback and they are 5 star. They are even quieter than the Michelin’s. My van has just as much ground clearance as my buddies PU. Weight and breaking on the long steep grades was more an issue.

My rig is rear wheel drive and pretty standard clearance, which is better than a car but less than the newer pickup trucks. I have cheap city tires that are a year old and am always on rocky or dirt roads, desert in the winter and mountain forest service roads in summer. I just drive slow and careful. Never been stuck. Only have had one flat and it was from picking up a nail. I don’t drive on super muddy roads or snow though.

I’m not an expert on this.

But even with a 4wd truck (mine was only a Ford Ranger pick-up (a relatively lightweight truck, with limited weight capacity), to which I added a cap, with roof racks on the cap for kayak(s) and skis), and big tires, and a 4WD low transfer case, I sometimes got stuck. In mud (eventually learned to carry traction mats; full time chains are too often hard to put on, though some sort of very easy-to-put-on emergency chains might help - make sure you practice in a non-critical location). A dirt road can easily turn to mud in and after rain.

I had even more problems on ice covered vegetation (like grass). Ice covered grass is just about the lowest traction surface you can imagine. And I wasn’t really driving off road - just parking on grass covered shoulders in icy weather.

There are some other issues:

  1. Some “jeep roads” are relatively thin. Most vans are pretty wide. Likewise, I think for driving between trees outside roads, though I admit I haven’t done that.
  2. Sometimes you have to drive under low branches. That could be a serious problem with many vans.
  3. Sometimes you need to put down your radio antenna, which means a telescoping design is great.
  4. Any high vehicle can be unstable driving across steep slopes. One of the reasons why serious Jeep freaks want rollbars and winches to right themselves. (Also to pull themselves out of low traction situations.)
  5. There are only a few vehicles sturdy enough to drive on dry creek beds. I’ve never done that, so I can’t talk about it. But I assume that a lot of overland travel (the overland community has its own forums) has much the same problems. Given that you want to drive off-road, maybe you would be better off asking some of your questions in overland forums!

In all honest, lots of trucks, including 4WDs, have the same problems.

E.g., if you instead took a 4WD pickup with lots of weight capacity, and added a very high camper shell, height might be a problem there too.

But one thing I have considered: there are pop-up camper shells that go on pick-up beds. That’s a little scary to me, because pop-ups (which use fragile materials like canvas) could easily be broken into by people or bears.

In terms of pop-ups, I used to have a VW Vanagon Camper (not a 4WD, which would have been nice) with a pop-top (and believe or not, I had a very high Thule roof rack that extended high enough for me to use the pop-top (needless to say, it couldn’t go in low parking garages), and I loved it. But I only used it in black bear country, not grizzly, and I never ate inside, even though it had a table, fridge and dual battery isolater circuit that would have made that easy. If you are going into grizzly bear country (or the territory of any large aggressive animal), maybe it makes sense to stay with hard shell vehicles.

(BTW, IMO VW’s are no longer cheap enough to repair and maintain, or reliable enough to be worth it, the parts are too expensive for most mechanics to stock, even dealers and in the back country, at least in the U.S. it is hard to find people who can repair them. If you want to find service in the back country, it is best (in the U.S.) to stick with Ford or Chevy trucks of a very common type, because backcountry mechanics are more likely to stock their parts and to know how to repair them. Maybe a few Dodge trucks are common enough. And while you are at it, make sure you carry a full size spare wheel and tire, because you can damage transmission systems if you drive on donut spares for more than a few miles (I’ve done it twice) - and the stupid tire repair kits usually wouldn’t work - In my experience, most flat tires have sidewall damage that the tire repair kits probably can’t handle. You are unlikely to find an open tire store in the middle of nowhere. Also, use very common tires, like Michelin Defender. They aren’t the best on mud and snow, and are pricey, but they are easy to replace if you have to.

But these things are only my opinion. I’m not a true road gypsy, have just done some car and truck camping, so take it all with a grain of salt.


With good recovery gear, a 2wd can get nearly any place a 4x4 can go, and much cheaper.


"Be the reason someone smiles today!" ~ Van_Dweller

1 Like

Great Question! We have an e350 van and are hoping it will take us into the backcountry on FS and BLM roads. We got some beefy 6ply all-terrain tires and hope that our high-clearance will help. Also added some maxxtrax and a portable tire inflator/deflator in case we get stuck. I am hoping these, and taking it slow, will get us out there (and back).

In selecting your van, check out the clearance-- some of those newer models like the ram promaster seem pretty low.

It may also be worth investing in a winch if you are trying to take a 2wd vehicle off road. In my opinion getting stuck regardless of drivetrain is on the operator and them making poor decision.

There are a million places out there you can go where you don’t need a 4x4.

@mitch I think VW’s are still cheaper to fix than newer vans are. There are so many cheap places to find new and used parts for them online and they are consistently remaking things better that have gone out of stock. For instance the plastic emissions jugs above the wheels that went out of stock can now be found in stainless steel. I think their downfall is the high prices they command when they are covered with rust and won’t even turn over.

1 Like

What do you consider “good recovery gear”?

Even though I don’t go off-road, unless you count driveways and campsites, I would like to have gear that can get me out of trouble, beyond the traction mats I already have. If I can find clip-on emergency chains to fit my current tires, I would like them. I don’t have a place to mount a winch, and I don’t have space to waste inside. I’m planning to get a portable power station for emergency starting. What else is a good idea?

2WDs is definitely cheaper, to buy, fuel, and maintain. But once I tried 4WD I was hooked. When I had 2WD I used to be very nervous driving in the snow. But all cars and trucks have 4 wheel braking. So it doesn’t make it completely safe. And even with 4WD, ice will be a problem. (Where I live and drive, studded snow tires are illegal.) Though now I only have AWD.

Bretly wrote

I wish I had kept that Vanagon. I loved it. I gave up on it because a bad mechanic destroyed much of the underbody by lifting it wrong, damaging the exhaust system and gas tank. I got the exhaust system repaired, but when it leaked and probably came close to catching fire because of the gas tank, I replaced it.

I loved the way it sat high over traffic, and how easy it was to see around corners. And it fit a 4m slalom kayak inside (at an angle). The closet was great for stowing gear. And even with 2WD it could drive through snow as high (and maybe a bit higher) than the generous ground clearance, if I took the spare tire out from underneath the truck.

That said, with rear wheel drive, rear engine, and short wheelbase, it wasn’t great on ice.

I guess, for the original poster, 2WD vs 4WD depends a lot on where and when they want to go. E.g., skiing, especially XC, is mostly possible at exactly the times when everyone is advised to stay home safe. Someone once told me that 4WD can get you into deeper trouble because you aren’t afraid to take it places you shouldn’t go. Including I guess places tow trucks may not want to go to rescue you.

On back-country dirt roads (and I presume off-road), you are even less likely to get someone to rescue you. Cell phones often don’t work there, though I suppose Sat phones and other satellite contact gear (expensive!) might, unless the terrain blocks them. It’s best to be as self-sufficient as possible.


Re: Recovery gear

I keep a long tow strap and lots of rope along with a portable come-along. The tow strap or rope can be wrapped around a drive wheel for a very powerful winch. If a ground anchor is necessary I can bury my spare tire.

Don’t need much extra room for it, but it can sure be a life saver if you’re off the beaten path.


"Be the reason someone smiles today!" ~ Van_Dweller