The year 2020 is bound to be remembered for many things, most of them not so good. But for many Americans, one silver lining may be that it was the year they first considered camper vans as a viable addition to their lives.
Coincidentally, 2020 also happens to be the year that New Jersey-based Ready.Set.Van’s operations jumped into high gear. The company relocated to a new 11,500-square-foot facility outside Trenton this year, which has enabled them to better keep pace with their booming order, the wait time for a new van now only stretches out to five or six months.
But it’s one thing to ogle the #vanlife pictures on Instagram; it’s another to actually taste that life for yourself. So to see what it's actually like to escape the madness of the rat race and the real world in a camper van, I borrowed one of Ready.Set.Van's rigs — a brown model equipped with a large bed, a refrigerator, induction stovetop, pop-out table and outdoor shower, which retails for around $80,000 — for a serene weekend of camping.
Driving a camper van isn’t like driving, say, a minivan
Ready.Set.Van uses the Ram Promaster because it’s as big as a full-size van can be while still being able to fit into a regular-sized parking spot. That might make it sound tidy of proportions in the abstract; climb behind the wheel, though, and you’ll realize that actually means that if the camper was any bigger, it’d be a bus. Maneuvering through tight campgrounds and car-centric parking lots requires a steady hand and frequent checks of the mirrors.
Unless you spend a lot of time with high-roof cargo vans, the driving position —very upright, very high up — feels strange. You sit taller than even pickup trucks and full-size SUVs; it’s strange to gaze down on the roof of an Escalade as it drives by.
And while the Promaster’s front end is sloped in a gesture towards aerodynamics, there’s no arguing with the fact that it's only a little more sleek than a flying brick. Add in the fact that the 3.6-liter V6 makes just 280 horsepower, and at highway speeds, your foot will be spending a lot of time introducing the gas pedal to the floorboard.
Bottom line: a camper van like this is more like driving a U-Haul than any passenger car you’re used to piloting. While you could, in theory, use it as your daily driver, it's hardly the best tool for the task, especially if you ever need to navigate city streets.
A remarkable amount of living space...unless you’re super-tall
The Promaster lacks the extra-high ceiling available on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. Unless you’re more than six-foot-one, that won’t prove an issue; that said, as someone who normally considers himself lucky to stand six-foot-four, being forced to adopt a hunch in order to move freely about the cabin felt a little awkward. Still, it wasn’t so bad as to be a dealbreaker, at least over the course of the 24 hours I spent with the camper.
Height issue aside, the rest of the interior is a wonder of efficient packaging. There’s storage everywhere, with drawers and cabinets and cubbies across the cabin, but the handiest has to be the big “trunk” in back; it’s perfect for bikes, but also works very well at keeping longer items like folded up camping chairs, big bags, etc. If you didn’t keep bicycles back there, two people could easily keep enough clothes and supplies to live out of the van.
All the comforts of home, in one form or another
Ready.Set.Van's idea is, to paraphrase them, to build quality camper vans at an entry-level price. It’s important to remember that RVs, camping trailers and camper vans aren’t built like cars; they’re more like houses, made individually and with their own levels of fit and finish. There’s a few little rattles inside, but overall, the fit and finish feels excellent.
The camper van configuration Ready.Set.Van currently offers is known as the Basecamper, but you can basically think of it as sort of a much more glamorous version of the Mercedes-Benz Metris Getaway: a vehicle made for weekend escapes and week-long vacations, rather than one capable of providing long-term residency.
My test rig did technically come with a toilet and a shower, but both were the sort you’d use out of necessity more than choice; the former was a portable unit that collects your, er, waste in a bag in a slide-out tray, and the latter an elegant handheld unit rigged up in the cargo area for outdoor showering only. If you were traveling solo, only passing through temperate or toasty climes and had a distinctly un-American lack of shame about both bodily functions and being seen in the nude, it’d be fine; otherwise, anyone who feels the need for a john or a shower would be better served with the upcoming Basecamper Plus, which squeezes a wet bath in between bed and table.
If you can live without a traditional shower or lavatory, however — as I did quite nicely by staying at a New York state campsite in the Catskills — the Ready.Set.Van Basecamper is an utterly delightful place to spend some time in — or at least adjacent to — nature. The materials inside all look and feel top-shelf; the wood used bountifully across the interior is as easy on your fingertips as it is on your eyes, and the cushions of all feel both durable and comfortable in equal measure. The bed was comfortable, if slightly cramped for my lanky frame; still, if you can stand up inside without brushing your head, you won’t need to worry about the sleeping arrangements.
Likewise, power never once proved an issue while using the van, thanks to the battery of batteries located beneath part of the seating compartment. Ready.Set.Van is known for their use of Tesla-sourced battery modules, with buyers able to choose between one, two or three of the 5,200 watt-hour packs, depending on their needs. (The smallest of those setups, according to RSV, can run the van's power-intensive A/C for four to five hours; multiply that by two or three for the double or triple setups.) Any of them can be recharged via either the alternator or shore power; you can also opt for solar panels.
I barely scratched the surface of the battery's potential — though to be fair, my girlfriend and didn't stress it much, as we never used the induction cooktop and barely ran the water pump or water heater. Still, even with the fridge running constantly, two phones and an Apple Watch charging overnight and frequent use of the on-board lighting, the battery was still at around 90 percent after 24 hours.
If you're only planning on doing long weekends with your van, or spending plenty of time at campgrounds with electrical hookups, the single battery module will probably do fine by you. If you're planning longer, more isolated trips, however, I'd spring for one of the stronger setups. After all, you're getting a camper van because you want to use things like the fridge and water heater, right?
Camper van life opens up new worlds
As it has been for many Americans, camping has provided me with a bit of a respite during the unconventional pandemic-plagued summer of 2020. But as nice as spending nights outdoors with fire pits and rooftop tents has been, living out of Ready.Set.Van’s camper was by far the best way I camped all summer.
Indeed, apart from the aforementioned slight lack of headroom, my biggest issue with the van was simply not being able to spend enough time with it. The good folks at Ready.Set.Van offered it for a week or longer, but work and other responsibilities kept me from spending more than a night in its company. It was enough for a taste of that sweet, sweet #vanlife...just enough to leave me wanting more.
Indeed, it's clearly a powerful draw for many of us these days. More people liked and commented on my Instagram post about the van than do on my posts about Ferraris or Lamborghinis; indeed, my mom even reached out to ask if she should consider buying one for retirement and driving around the country in it. I felt where she was coming from; the idea of packing up and vanishing off into the wild for a few weeks or months seemed awfully appealing after my day with Ready.Set.Van's camper.
Perhaps the toughest thing about owning a camper van, then, is finding the time to use it.