So you want to live the mountain bike van life? Awesome! I fully support that dream. We’ve been doing mountain bike trips in our van, Bandit, for about two years and it’s been amazing. Having a comfortable bed to sleep in, a shower to rinse off with, and a full kitchen to whip up meals has given ‘camping’ a whole new meaning. And truthfully, I’m not sure I could ever go back to car camping…
But having a mountain bike van requires a few extra considerations. Where will you store your gear? How will you carry your bikes? Do you need four-wheel drive? In this post, I cover a few mountain bike van considerations you need to think about before buying or building your fun mobile as well as a few build examples from people already living the dream.
Ready to hit the road? Below are some mountain bike van considerations to think about before jumping into mtb van life
MTB Van Set-up Considerations
There are dozens of different van options to choose from these days. It seems like every manufacturer has their version of a van life van from Mercedes to Dodge to Volkswagon to Ford. But which one is the ‘best’? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question for you because it really depends on what your mountain bike van life goals are, but I can provide a few insights on what you should be looking for in your vehicle.
4×4: Do you need a four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive van? Think about where you’ll be heading, what road conditions might be like, what trailheads you want to access, whether you’ll be driving in winter, etc… If you opt for a four-wheel-drive or AWD van, expect to pay quite a bit more upfront. I personally don’t think 4×4 is absolutely necessary for a mountain bike van, but it really depends on where you plan on taking it.
If you do want 4×4, check out Sprinter vans, the new Ford Transit, or Sportsmobiles.
High-clearance vehicle: Another consideration for a mountain bike van is how much clearance it has underneath. Make sure you’ll be able to take it down some dirt roads without bottoming out. There are aftermarket lift kit options like SumoSprings, which we used to lift our Travato Van generator 1/2 an inch to give us more space underneath.
Hitch options: Depending on what van you get, you may need to install an aftermarket hitch if you plan on using a hitch bike rack. Our van came with a stock hitch that ended up cracking after a few thousand miles. We installed a beefier hitch that works well, but there really wasn’t a ‘perfect’ option. Make sure you evaluate hitch options before settling on your van.
Space: Whether we like it or not, mountain bikers require more space than ‘normal’ van lifers due to all our gear and N+1 bikes. I recommend going with a larger vehicle so that you don’t feel cramped or cluttered. For example, the 144″ Sprinter Van would be pretty tight, especially if you plan on storing bikes under the bed.
How are you going to carry your bikes? There are two main options for mountain bike vans.
1) Hitch rack: Carrying your bikes on the back of your van allows for a lot more space inside. It also helps keep things a little cleaner and less cluttered. There are downsides to carrying bikes on the back, though. Here are a few pros and cons:
- Pros: A lot more space inside, easier to load and unload (you don’t need to remove the front wheel), potential to carry a lot of bikes (great for shuttling!)
- Cons: Bikes are more susceptible to theft or damage, increases the length of the vehicle, more expensive (you need to buy a rack, a swing-away hitch in order to access the rear, and potentially a new rear hitch), bikes are exposed to the elements and road grime.
2) Underneath the bed: Another option for bike storage is to stash them under the bed. There are a lot of options for how to secure them, but most include removing the front wheel and securing the fork with a thru-axel bolted to the van floor.
- Pros: Bikes are safe and secure inside the van, they aren’t subject to road grime or the elements when driving.
- Cons: Takes up a lot of valuable space inside, need to remove the front wheel, can’t carry as many bikes, track dirt and sand inside the van
You could, of course, do a combo of both options by having a hitch rack and space under the bed to secure the bikes.
Mountain bike Van Gear Storage
Mountain bikers need a lot of gear – hydration packs, helmets, shoes, body protection, spare parts, etc… It’s important to think about where you are going to store all of this gear. For us, we’ve come up with a system that works pretty well. We have three Plano Sportsman’s boxes that stack perfectly under the bed. Both Andy and I each get one box for our separate gear and the third box is for spare parts. We also have two smaller Ammo Cans – one for fluids (chain lube, grease, Maxima SC1) and the other for tools.
If you opt to store your bikes inside the van, storage is going to be a bit more tricky and you’ll really need to plan out where things are going to go. See the mountain bike van examples below to get more storage ideas.
This is definitely a controversial topic, I’m going to tell you right now that a shower is essential for every mountain bike van. You may think “Nah… I’ll just jump in a river or lake when I see one” but I’m pretty sure you’ll be regretting that decision after a few big rides with no way to rinse off after other than baby wipes.
Even if your shower is just a hose off the back, it’s better than nothing. Personally, I LOVE our full shower in our van and I can’t imagine not having one!
Mountain bike van shower options:
- Built-in shower – If you’re designing your own van layout or buying a pre-fabed one, strongly consider a build with a built-in shower. This is what we have in our Winnebago Travato and we love it.
- Rear hose shower – A lot of van lifers choose to have a hose at the rear of the van that is connected to their water tank so they can use it as a shower. This is a good option if you’re ok just doing a quick rinse with cold water.
- Solar shower – There are lots of solar showers out there specifically designed for cars and vans. The Yakima Road Shower comes in a 4, 7, or 10 gallon model and can be easily mounted to most roof racks.
- Portable shower – If you just want to be able to do a quick rinse, a portable shower like the Nemo Helio could be a great fit. Pressurize it with a few foot pumps and use the 7-foot-long hose to wash all the dirt and sweat away. If you are a princess like me and want hot water, check out the Geyser Systems portable shower with a heater.
A bike workstation
This may not be an important consideration for every mountain bike van lifer, but if you want to be able to work on your bikes while on the road, you should think about how you can install a bike stand or create a makeshift one.
For us, we can use the rear hitch rack as a quick bike stand to do basic maintenance on the road. You can also install a wall mount bike stand like the Park Tool PRS-4W-2 which has a removable clamp to save space.
5 Adventure-Ready MTB Van Examples
Now let’s get to the fun part – seeing some real-life mountain bike vans. Below are five vans with different layouts and storage options.
1. Jill Kintner & Bryn Atkinson
Jill Kintner and her husband Bryn Atkinson are professional mountain bikers and they worked with Northwest Conversions to build a van that can haul all of their bikes and gear to events and fun places. Their bikes are stored underneath the bed on slide-out trays for easy access. They have lots of gear storage and a hose shower in the back.
What I really like about this van is that the back area is completely separate from the front living space so their stinky, wet bike gear doesn’t permeate the rest of the van! They don’t have a real kitchen, though, which would be a dealbreaker for me.
2. Outside Van
Outside Van makes custom vans for all sorts of adventurers, including die-hard mountain bikers. They’ve built a number of mountain bike vans and can do custom options as well with features such as bike work stations, compressors, and different fork mountain options.
3. Paul the Punter
Paul the Punter is a YouTube personality with a mountain bike van built with the help of Van Go Conversions. He has a full series on his YouTube channel featuring all the processes he went through while building out his van. If you plan on doing a DIY mountain bike van build, definitely use his videos as a resource.
4. Bandit the Van
This is our van! We have a 2020 Winnebago Travato that came fully built out and we did a few upgrades to make it more mountain bike-friendly. Most notably, we replaced the rear hitch with a more burly hitch and installed a Kuat Swing-Away arm so that we could easily access the back.
We use a 4-bike Recon Rack to haul our bikes, but we can fit two inside if needed.
5. Nick Rides Two Wheels
This mountain bike van is super dialed. It’s got clever storage for all things bikes from a spare wheelset to basically a full bike workstation!
There is no ‘one’ right set up for a mountain bike van, but hopefully, these considerations and examples help you more clearly envision the best van layout for your lifestyle and adventures.
Do you have a mountain bike van? What are the things you love and dislike about it? What would you do differently next time? Leave a comment below!