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Common Tread

What's the best motorcycle for van life?

Apr 06, 2021

If you’ll be living on the road for a little while, there are plenty of touring motorcycles that can schlep you and your stuff with ease. But what if you’ll be traveling full-time in an RV, camper van, or converted bus? Which bike do you bring when space is at a premium?

An estimated one million Americans live nomadically in RVs and other house-mobiles, and the lifestyle has only gained popularity in the last year. Emerging technologies like SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet can extend the range of remote workers, while Instagram and other social media platforms spread tantalizing photos of nomad life. Besides, up-front costs for budget van or bus conversions are far cheaper than homes, especially with some stimulus cash and thrifty build guides on YouTube. Trading walls for wheels isn’t really a fringe idea anymore.

Most of my friends who’ve tried it used modified vans and cars, like Sprinters, Astros, and even a Honda Element to escape the rat race. The outlier is my friend Austin, who recently bought a retired short bus. Austin’s a lifelong motorcyclist, and his bus build prompted the question at the core of this article: What’s the best motorcycle for today’s camper-bus and van-life nomads? Austin couldn’t find a definite answer, so let’s take a look at his options. But first, some background and criteria.

The facts of life on the road

Austin plans on living out of his 2002 Chevy short bus for a few years instead of buying a place or renting. He says wild swings in the economy, as well as the housing market, encouraged him to pursue life on the road. Travel is one of his biggest passions.

“To put that kind of money out right now [for a house], just to be stuck in a fixed spot with all my money going to a mortgage instead of savings and travel… that’s hard," he said. "I see so many benefits to living this way for a while. I’m putting less money out, I’m able to go wherever I want, and I can travel seasonally."

Life on the road will be an education in mechanical, hands-on learning, too. He’s never owned a diesel before, let alone a bus, but motorcycles prepared him for basic wrenching and maintenance. He grew up on dirt bikes, later moving to the street with a supermoto.

So what's the right motorcycle?

Austin’s needs are fairly similar to most folks living in conversions and RVs. He wants something compact for his main transportation once the bus is parked. Due to his work, he might spend weeks or months in a single location. Price matters, too, since he needs most of his budget for the bus and its new interior. He’s got a motorcycle budget of $5,000, new or used. The bike will ride along on a hitch rack, but it would be nice if the bike could wiggle through the narrow emergency door at the back of the bus for safekeeping.

He expects short, local rides that avoid highways, though the faster the bike, the better. Anything on two wheels will get better fuel economy than the bus, Austin laughs. And he hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for the dirt, so a little dual-sport capability would go a long way. Low maintenance preferred. 

Honda Grom
The 125 compacts have the smallest dimensions and a robust aftermarket. Honda photo.

First choice: Honda Grom, Kawasaki Z125, or Honda Monkey

Austin has Honda’s Grom and Monkey at the top of his list. They are easily among the stubbiest street-going motorcycles, along with the Kawasaki Z125, at around 70 inches by 30. (A fender eliminator kit could make that even shorter.) Parking the bike inside the bus is the closest thing Austin could have to a secure garage while he’s on the road, which makes these options all the more compelling. They aren’t dirt bikes, but Shinko makes the Mobber tires for light dirt duty. The aftermarket for these bikes, especially the Grom, means plenty of rack options for cargo.

Honda CT125
The bike will have to carry groceries and other supplies in all weather RevZilla photo.

Utilitarian choice: Honda CT125

The compactness of the 125 minis is hard to ignore, but so is Honda’s caricature of utility, the CT125. It’s the short bus of motorcycles, all sharp angles and usefulness that doesn’t need any explanation. You get a class-leading two cargo racks, a snorkel, factory crash guards, and full-size wheels in a light, thin package, all within budget. You can add racks to it. You can add racks to the racks you added, and then add milk crates. A big downside is that it probably won’t fit in the bus, and that goes for almost all the other choices besides the minis.

If it were my bus project and budget, this is probably the bike I’d buy.

VanVan 200
A larger, more powerful bike than the Monkey for less money. Suzuki photo.

Underdog choice: Suzuki VanVan 200

The Suzuki VanVan 200 probably flopped in the United States because not enough potential buyers actually sat on one. The VanVan must have the plushest seat south of 1,200 cc, and it’ll just look right ratchet-strapped to the back of a converted short bus. Since Suzuki discontinued them, prices have fallen well below Monkey MSRP, even though the VanVan has similar style, more legroom, and more power. Also, it’s called the VanVan. That must count for something.

If you love dirt, hate maintenance, and don’t mind shopping around, you can score one of these classics in nice shape for less than your budget.

Yamaha TW200
The TW200 is a living fossil. So's the DR200. Yamaha photo.

Blasts from the past: Suzuki DR200 and Yamaha TW200

Although there are some wonderful vintage two-strokes out there that could work, an understressed four-stroke seems like the safer choice. Why not consider the 200 cc playbikes? Suzuki’s DR and Yamaha’s TW were hits when they debuted, and their solid designs stayed in production for decades. Five grand will easily cover one of these bikes, plus a rear rack and some simple luggage. The TW gets you a fat rear tire, but the DR is more like a three-quarter-scale dual-sport.

Honda ADV150
This same scoot can haul your groceries. RevZilla photo.

Scooter choice: Honda ADV150

The ADV150 can do 70 mph flat-out, haul cargo, and venture off road. It even fits the budget. If you can look past the 77-inch length and 300-pound heft, maybe the ADV150 is the best answer here, as it’s easily the most sophisticated mini-ADV on the market. To this day, I still can’t believe that Honda let us have this gem. Just read Zack’s Honda ADV150 review and see what you think. It also features the best storage capacity of any bike here, a full 27 liters under the seat. Throw a top box on there and you’ll be doing some serious grocery runs.

Electric?

Austin is open to EVs, but he hasn’t seen an electric motorcycle worth the hassle of upgrading his electrical system to handle the charging demands. His limited solar power will go to other systems, and he’s not interested in using a generator to charge an electric bike because that’s just wrong.

So what’ll it be? Of the options listed here, Austin initially favored the Grom, then reconsidered the CT125. There are plenty of good options, but which one is best? Is there another option you’d rather have?

When Austin first brought the bus home, I had to see what he’d gotten himself into, and as I climbed up the stairs and imagined the shell without the seats, I think I saw what Austin sees in his funky old short bus. It’s the same thing John Steinbeck saw from the seat of his camper truck, Rocinante, 60 years ago: “I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation — a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from Here. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited.”

As motorcyclists, that’s easy to understand. “To be able to go where the sun is shining most, that’s what matters most to me right now,” Austin says. Give a wave if you see a camper bus, bike in tow, and probably covered in mud.