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Why more four-wheel-drive camper vans are in our future

This is #VanLife, upgraded

An RV camper van, the Revel Adventure van from Winnebago, sits on a grassy hillside. The van is grey and has rooftop storage. There are mountains in the distance and a sunset in the sky.
The Winnebago Revel is an off-road capable van proving that four-wheel-drive campers are here to stay.
Courtesy of Winnebago

Early last month, Ford made a splash in the auto world with the announcement that its best-selling Transit van will soon be available with an all-wheel-drive system. Starting in 2020, the new Transit will offer an “intelligent” all-wheel drive that will—according to the press release—provide enhanced traction on icy, snowy, or muddy roads.

While the announcement will likely come as welcome news to small businesses and families who use the vans, it’s also a significant development for the RV industry. Along with the Mercedes Sprinter and the Ram Promaster, the Ford Transit is one of the most popular bases for camper van conversions. It was brought to market in the U.S. in 2015, replacing the lackluster E-Series. But for years, the only class B van with the potential to handle snowy roads or off-road trails was the (recently introduced) four-wheel-drive Mercedes Sprinter. If that wasn’t an option for buyers, their choice was a pricey aftermarket four-wheel-drive conversion.

Every day we see discussions about maneuverability and day-to-day driving on Curbed’s community camper van group. The question is asked of vans both big and small: Which ones come with four-wheel or all-wheel drive? The fast-growing small camper van market also doesn’t have many all-wheel-drive options; Colorado-based Oasis Campervans decided to build out the Toyota Sienna minivan because it was the only in its class to offer all-wheel drive. But there are rumors that more small vans—most notably the Mercedes Metris—will offer all-wheel drive soon.

Some will likely be disappointed that they’ll have to settle for an all-wheel-drive version instead of the beefier four-wheel drive, but Ford’s announcement shows where the future of #VanLife is headed. The new Ford Transit won’t let you off-road in Moab, but it will help you tackle a forest road or get out of a snowy parking lot during ski season.

While the van life segment of the industry is still small, more and more people are buying versatile, small campers—not Class A behemoths—because of what they allow people to do. This means that for a new class of RV buyers, the ability to store gear and get to where you want to go is more important than a fancy TV or how many slide outs a camper has.

The perfect example of this is Winnebago’s four-wheel-drive Revel. First introduced as a concept in 2016, it’s now tackling terrain throughout the U.S. I recently drove the Revel at the new RV Industry Association trade show, RVX, in Salt Lake City. The morning was crisp and the roads were muddy and rutted, but the Revel did fine. You activate the four-wheel drive with a switch on the dash and you can use a low gear range to help with climbing and descents.

A black van with a ladder leading to the roof. There are mountains in the background.
When I wanted to buy my Sprinter van, I chose a custom outfitter because at the time, no one was manufacturing a 4x4 camper van. Read more, here.
Photo by Lucy Beaugard

I’m used to driving Sprinters—my personal camper van is a 4x4 170 EXT—but the shorter wheelbase of the Revel seriously impressed; it was more maneuverable than my own van and it conquered the mud hills with ease. And for those who fear that the height of camper vans make four-wheel drive prohibitive, Mercedes’s stability assist adjusts braking and torque so that I never felt in danger of tipping. For potential buyers, the proof is in the pudding. Once you handle a four-wheel drive camper in tough conditions, it’s easy to become hooked.

All signs in the industry point to more four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive campers in our future. While the Revel is the first mass-produced, four-wheel-drive camper to be sold in the U.S. in the last 25 years, Winnebago also recently debuted the Boldt, a new camper van that will be available in four-wheel drive this summer. Winnebago has proven that four-wheel drive can be profitable, and where industry powerhouses like Winnebago lead, others will follow. And with the announcement that the Ford Transit will be available in all-wheel drive, conversion van companies that use the Transit as their base will be able to offer a better, more stable van to their customers.

Get ready for #VanLife, upgraded.