Tools for Driving a Van in Poor Road Conditions
Driving through the snowy mountains in the winter, muddy roads in spring, rutted roads during the summer, or just poorly maintained roads, we wanted to make sure we wouldn’t get stuck. Not only do we not have cell reception on some of these roads, but it would get quite pricey being toed, so there are certain tools we’ve invested in to try and avoid this. Read about them below!
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Is a 4×4 Sprinter Worth It?
It is no surprise that between the size, ground clearance, and load distribution a camper van makes for a poor off road vehicle. And, after adding 4×4 capability to a cargo van, the center of gravity is raised, making it worse to drive in windy conditions. But, think about it. . .would you really want to drive down roads that risk getting your van stuck, damaged, or totaled, after all of the time and money you put into it? For this reason, we opted to save the money that a 4×4 cargo van would cost (+ $12,000) and use it towards travel expenses instead. Don’t get us wrong, the 4×4 Sprinters are quite sexy and can help when driving on snow or sand, but that’s about it. All of the other terrain that the 4×4 capability could help with, we wouldn’t want to drive our van on anyways. With the right tools, a two wheel drive van can get you everywhere that you want to go and are willing to drive your home.
Deflating / Inflating Tires from Anywhere
Tire Pressure Gauge
When driving through sand, wanting a smoother ride on gravel roads, or changing the wear pattern on your tires, you will want to deflate them. To do so, they make tire deflators, but a more versatile tool to use is a tire pressure gauge. Not only is a tire pressure gauge cheaper, but it can quickly measure the tire pressure and is more compact. We personally like the gauges that are self contained and have a max PSI capture feature, aka there is no measurement stick shooting out the end, like a more traditional pencil gauge. Most pressure gauges read up to 60 PSI. Because our rear tires need to be inflated to 70 PSI, we needed a pressure gauge that reads above this. So, we use the JACO Deluxe Tire Pressure Gauge, which reads to 100 PSI. Not only does this tool meet all of our needs as a pressure gauge, but it is also the simplest, with no external moving components and not needing batteries to operate.
12V DC Air Compressor
If you need to inflate your tires, after having deflated them intentionally or unintentionally, an air compressor is a really convenient tool to have. Portable air compressors allow you to inflate your tires no matter where you are because you can buy ones that run off the 12V DC cigarette lighter socket in your car. So, if you have deflated your tires on a bumpy road, you can immediately inflate them afterwards or if you get a small hole in a tire, an air compressor will allow you to limp to a auto mechanic’s shop. Plus, because the suggested PSI for inflating your tires is the cold tire pressure, you will avoid inaccurately inflating your tires by driving to a gas station and warming your tires in the process. We suggest the EPAuto 12V DC Portable Air Compressor Pump because it is fairly small, can be run off of your cigarette lighter socket, comes with a bag to store all of the parts, and can inflate tires up to 100 PSI.
Driving in Wintry Conditions
If you are thinking about driving through mountains or colder states in the winter, you may want to consider snow tires. In fact, some states have traction laws that require snow tires and without could lead to a hefty fine. We briefly thought about studded tires, but decided that they would be overkill. Plus, it is illegal to drive with studded tires in some states, including Michigan! We went with the Nokian Hakkapeliitta CR3 snow tires because they were one of the few options available that met the size tire and load range required on Ford Transits and had good reviews. So far, we’ve been really happy with these!
On a side note, the van came with four season continental tires (Continental VancoFourSeason 235/65R16C 121R), which could barely get us up a friend’s driveway, when it had a couple inches of snow on it (this driveway wasn’t particularly steep). Last winter, we were driving to Breckenridge from Denver, CO and we passed a Sprinter driving up the mountain with the the four season Continental tires. They got stuck part way up and we didn’t. Needless to say, we were quite happy that we had spent the extra money on snow tires.
The snow tires allowed us to get to places like this!
Chains are less of a necessity, but provide good piece of mind. That said, if you want to drive through the mountains, some states have chain laws that may limit the places you can legally drive in the winter without them. We use ONORM Diamond Snow Chains (P235/65R-16), which are made of Boron Alloy Steel (boron is a hardenability agent for steel) and meet the class “S” requirement (stated in the Ford Transit manual) for low clearance between the tire and wheel well of the van. The diamond pattern adds improved lateral traction, giving these chains better stopping power when driving forward or turning. The links of these chains are d-shaped, so they have excellent traction in snow and grip ice well, while still maintaining a fairly smooth ride.
Beefy Telescoping Ice Scraper
An ice scraper is something that everyone should have in their vehicle, but having an ice scraper with a brush on the opposite end of a telescoping arm is key for reaching the high spots on a van. With the Bigfoot 60 in. Brush and Ice Scraper, we are able to reach the top of the windshield to scrape ice off and brush snow off the solar panel furthest from our ladder. The telescoping arm and rotating brush allow this ice scraper to fit in fairly small spaces, so finding a place for it in your van should be no problem.
Back before we had the a brush for clearing the snow off of our solar panels. . .
Simple Tools for Road Obstacles
Shovel with Removable Handle
If, after having deflated your tires to drive through sand, you get stuck, a shovel is a very versatile tool to have. It is most useful for getting you unstuck, after having driven in too deep of snow, sand, or mud, but you can use it for a number of other things as well such as digging a poop hole or shoveling snow off of a road. We use Black Diamond’s Transfer 3 Shovel because it is lightweight, compact, and sturdy. The handle is fully removable and telescoping, making it less awkward to store in a van.
Compact Hand Saw
In the event that you come across a fallen tree/branch, while driving down a road, a saw can be a handy tool to have. The Silky Professional Series BIGBOY 2000 hand saw folds down to 16 in, with the handle covering the teeth of the blade, making it easy to store. Plus, if you are visiting family or friends you could offer to do some yard work for them!
Surprisingly, bikes make for a handy tool as well! While they can’t move your camper van, they can be used to travel long distances in search for help, in the event that none of your other tools work. They can also get you down rough roads that vehicles aren’t capable of or allowed to go down. And, our favorite. . .if you don’t have a second vehicle for shuttling between trail heads, you can bike between them!
Great article. In the winter I have water softener pellets in my van. In my area they are cheaper than sandbags for adding some extra weight behind the rear axel (20kg/45lbs per bag). If you are stuck on ice or snow, they can provide both grit for additional traction and they also melt the ice/snow somewhat. If I find myself stuck in a parking lot or something where putting chains on would take a long time and I only need to go a short distance to good pavement it is a very fast option for getting un-stuck.