Van Life vs. Skoolie: Which Is Better?


There are few things as satisfying as having your own home in this world, but with the cost of property steadily rising, that dream is becoming farther and farther out of reach. For that reason, among others, people are turning to the nomadic “van life” or “skoolie” lifestyles. But which version of this existence is right for you?

Van life has some major benefits over skoolie life. Vans allow you to access more places, like mountain tops and backcountry roads, and they are much more incognito when parked. Skoolies, however, offer the perk of extra room, which is helpful if you’re a remote worker or traveling with a family.

To determine which mode of nomadic existence is right for you, we’ll explore some of the differences between the two. Read on to discover why van life is generally considered better than skoolie life, and find out if you agree.

What’s the Difference Between Van Life and Skoolie Life?

Both of these ways of life consist of living full-time, or seasonally, in a mobile vehicle. Skoolie life involves living in a school bus that has been converted into a home. Usually, these homes include a kitchen, living room area, dining/working area, and sleeping area. Skoolies can be bigger than some apartments, and they offer full head height when you are standing.

Vans, on the other hand, are much more compact. They usually include a kitchenette, a sleeping area, and storage. Most of your activities with van life will have to take place outside. With a skoolie, you can spend all day inside your vehicle, with enough room to walk around. With a van, you’d be very cramped if you stayed inside all day, as few vans offer the room even to stand up straight.

From this description, it may sound like skoolies have the obvious upper hand. However, vans offer a list of benefits from cost savings to mobility. We’ll examine these in closer detail below.

Advantages of Skoolie Life

Offers More Livability

With more room comes more livability. The average size of a skoolie offers between 120 to 270 square feet of living space. Considering there are 327 square feet apartments in New York going for more than $3,400, you’re getting a good value for the dollar with a school bus.

In that 270 square feet, you can fit a surprising amount of amenities. The skoolie in the video below boasts a toilet, shower, two desks, and even a miniature wood stove, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a van that has a fraction of this livability:

Room for a Family

Not only are there all the comforts of home on a school bus, but you have room for your family, too. School buses are perfect for couples who like their space or for small families that don’t mind being cozy. Think of a skoolie like a small RV; if your family would be happy in an RV, they would probably love skoolie life.

Protection From the Weather

Another great feature of a skoolie is weather protection. You can travel to frigid places like Northern Canada or Alaska and not worry about having to get outside to cook your food. Van lifers are much more restricted by the weather, or at least, have to endure much more of it.

Much of the life in a van will take place outside. Since most vans don’t even offer full head height, you’ll have to exit your bus multiple times a day to stretch out. This isn’t a problem if you’re always staying on the beaches of the Baja California Peninsula. But for anyone who’s planning to travel north, you may want to be more secure from the weather than that.

Room for Storage

Storing things in a skoolie is much easier than in a van. You have a lot more room in which to install compartments, and the exterior of your vehicle can be laden with gear. If you have a lot of adventure toys (think kayaks, mountain bikes, and skis), you’ll find it much easier to store them all in a skoolie. This goes double for a couple.

That’s not to say that you cannot store a lot of things in your van. Many people layer their bed above a deep storage area and use the external parts of the van. 

There are also many storage hacks you can use to optimize the space of your van, like in this video:

Advantages of Van Life

Vans Can Go More Places

One of the biggest drawbacks of the skoolie is how large it is. Skoolies are mostly limited to paved roads or flat dirt roads. Vans can be outfitted with aggressive off-roading tires that allow you to reach mountain tips, backcountry roads, and sandy beaches. Part of the reason you are choosing the nomadic life is to travel, and if any of these far-off destinations are on your list, a van might be the better choice for you.

You Can Park Almost Anywhere

Something to consider when you’re choosing the roaming life is that you’ll need somewhere to park every night. It’s much easier to find parking for a van than it is for a full-sized school bus. With a bus, you’ll likely spend a lot of time (and money) parking in RV parks, where they can accommodate your size and power needs. Vans can easily park on the side of quiet streets without alerting suspicions.

Vans Have Better Fuel Economy

According to the US Department of Energy, the average fuel economy for a van is 17.5 MPG, while a gasoline school bus is 6.2 MPG. You can expect to pay nearly three times as much for a skoolie than a van in gasoline.

Vehicles Used for Van Life

Some of the best vehicles used for van life are:

  • Mercedes Sprinter Van
  • Vauxhall Movano
  • VW Bus
  • Sportsmobile Classic 4×4
  • Ford Transit

Vehicles Used for Skoolies

The brands that reign supreme in the skoolie market all make excellent buses to choose from. Choosing the brand can be a good start to shopping for a bus. Popular vehicle brands used for skoolie conversions are:

  • Prevost
  • Dina
  • Setra
  • GMC
  • Bluebird
  • Eagle
  • Mercedes
  • MCI

Which Is Right for You?

It’s hard to say whether van life or skoolie life is better objectively, but if we compare them side by side, you can better understand which is right for you. Let’s take a look at which vehicle “wins” in the following criteria.

Van LifeSkoolie
MobilityX
Gas MileageX
Incognito ParkingX
LivabilityX
StorageX
Better for FamilyX
Better for SinglesX
Protection from WeatherX

As you can see, it’s a pretty tight race. The best way to determine which vehicle type is right for you is to select the criteria from the list above that are most important to you. For instance, if your top three criteria are mobility, gas mileage, and parking, then van life is the clear winner. If you value livability, storage, and protection from the weather, then a skoolie is the obvious choice.

Summary

For singles who don’t mind compromising on the comforts of home, then a van will offer the ability to see the country while still having a stable place to rest your head. For those who need indoor office space or simply want a more luxurious life on the road, then skoolie life will fulfill those needs.

Hivan Team

As an independent team of travelers, we do share positive and negative observations as we find them and make our best to help and inform other vanlifers around the globe.

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