The 2023 Ford Transit Trail Is A Brilliant Blank Canvas For Vanlifers To Build The 4×4 Camper Of Their Dreams

Vanlife

Ford is entering into the #vanlife world with a Transit built specifically for vanlifers who want to turn a van into a camper. The 2023 Ford Transit Trail is more than just a commercial van with chunky tires; Ford is taking care of most of the hard work involved in converting a van into a camper. That leaves you with a blank slate to do whatever you want with.

Ford first teased the Transit Trail last month. The company’s teaser confirmed rumors that the van, already for sale in the United Kingdom from 2020, will be sold in the United States. I wondered how close this van would be to its counterpart overseas, and now I know. At least on paper, it’s even better than what you can get across the Atlantic.

(Full Disclosure: Ford invited me out to a lake out near Detroit to see the new Transit Trail van. I paid for my own travel, driving out from my home in Illinois.)

Before Ford let us climb around its new van, its representatives gave us a quick history lesson. Even though I’ve been writing about RVs for a while now, I still learned something new.

Ford’s RV Journey

Vagabonds
THF36035 Site of Ford’s New Tractor Plant–Left to right: H. S. Firestone, Jr., H. S. Firestone, Thomas A. Edison, John Burroughs, Mayor James R. Watt of Albany, Henry Ford, Chauncey D. Hakes and Samuel Ott – The Henry Ford

Ford’s archivist started with the year 1915. Back then, Henry Ford teamed up with Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs on a series of summer camping trips. The industry titans would take their cars and travel around the country, stopping in places like forests to go camping. The group called themselves the Four Vagabonds and these trips were huge undertakings. The Vagabonds were accompanied by several heavy cars and vans to carry themselves, their household staff, equipment, and photographers. This actually sounds a bit like how some go camping today, but more convoluted. This was something new to me. I’ve read through tons of camping history, and yet somehow missed this.

The archivist then skipped ahead five decades to the first-generation of the Ford Transit in the UK and the Econoline in the States. He noted that in both countries, the vans ended up being used by similar people. Sure, Transits and Econolines were used by tradesmen, but they were also used by people wanting to get out and go camping. These people didn’t just go camping, but they customized their vans inside and out. Ford saw this, and in 1969 arrived at the Chicago Auto Show with the Econoline Kilimanjaro concept. The Kilamanjaro was a wild four-wheel-drive van meant to go on safaris.

1969 Ford Econoline Kilamonjaro Concept Van
Ford

These trends continued into the 1970s, where some really groovy vans were created. These were the times of shag carpeting, murals, and crazy interiors. Ford’s archivists moved forward from there, noting how the Econoline became the backbone of so many Class B, Class C, and even Class A RVs. And the regular van itself became a popular tow vehicle. That continues to this day. While Ford no longer sells the Econoline as a van, they’re still sold as cutaway chassis, and you’ll still find brand new RVs with the familiar E-Series face up front.

Continuing Tradition

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Ford, like other manufacturers, has noticed that the idea of taking off on an adventure in a van is something that has only grown in popularity in recent years. The pandemic has changed how many Americans live, work, and travel. With a lot of work going remote, many people have found themselves in a position to take to the open road and finally fulfill their travel dreams. And to do this, a lot of people are getting into camper vans.

Ford has some data on this, and it has found that 22 percent of Class B motorhome (these are camper vans) buyers are 18 to 34 years old. It found that 53 percent of Millennials are interested in buying an RV. And Ford found that 26 percent of Millennials are likely to buy an RV. Ford has also found that the Class B market has grown 30 percent over the past year, and it expects that growth to continue.

This data inspired Ford to look into the Class B market to see what it could improve. The company found that a lot of people in the #vanlife movement like building their own vans rather than buying ones from say, Thor or Winnebago. And while a number of these builds use old vans as a base, Ford saw a sizable market in people who want to have a new van as a base for their build. Of course, new vans have current technology, warranties, and won’t need repairs.

Furthering its research into the #vanlife movement, Ford asked vanlifers what they liked and didn’t like about building their vans. Ford found that van owners loved being able to put together their own living space, but didn’t like handling stuff like electrical upgrades, cutting holes in roofs to add vents, or the whole process of lifting a van and fitting it with off-road tires. The vanlifers had other desires, too, like a low price for the donor van and colors that hide dirt well. Basically, DIY van builders like making a cool space to sleep, but not so much the part about making it work.

The 2023 Ford Transit Trail

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In response to all of this, Ford, through its Ford Pro division, has created the Transit Trail, a van that takes care of most of the hard work, so van builders can have fun doing the rest. And if you’re not the kind of person who wants to build out a van, that’s fine, too, as Ford Pro will get you in contact with hundreds of upfitters who can build your dream van for you.

Starting with the exterior, I found that while the UK and the U.S. Transit Trail look similar, they’re actually very different. Something that I immediately noticed was the cladding. On the UK version, there are two layers of cladding on the lower part of the body. The U.S. version does away with the lower layer of cladding. However, what cladding remains is actually more aggressive than the UK version. While the UK version sports flat fender flares, the U.S. version has flares with bulges on them, giving the van a more muscular look.

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In the UK, the cladding is said to be there for rock protection. Here, Ford Pro told us that the cladding serves two purposes. One is that it’s supposed to make the van look rugged. And the second is that the flares cover the next big item: the wheels and tires.

Off-Road Gear

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The Transit Trail comes equipped with bespoke 16-inch alloy wheels painted in black. These are the same wheels as found on the UK version, but now we know more about them. These wheels are wider and with a different offset than regular Transit wheels, resulting in a 2.75-inch-wider track over a base Transit.

Those wheels are wrapped in 30.5-inch Goodyear Wrangler Workhorse all-terrain tires. Ford says that these tires have a 2.5-inch larger diameter than standard Transit tires.

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This tire package is combined with a 2.25-inch suspension lift. Ford says that its engineers didn’t just lift it and call it a day, but the Transit’s unibody was reinforced in certain areas to deal with the lift. The Transit Trail also gains a new steering column to help maintain geometry. And further changes were made to the sheet metal to accommodate the changes to the steering. Ford’s goal was to lift the Transit without doing anything that would wear out driveline components faster than they normally would.

And in case you were wondering about how the spare tire works, Ford is giving you a spare meant for the regular Transit. Yes, this wheel and tire is too small, but Ford says that you’ll be able to limp your Transit Trail to a shop without damaging the AWD system if you keep things under 50 mph.

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All of this adds to 6.7 inches of ground clearance at the Transit Trail’s lowest point. Approach angle is 19.5 degrees, Departure 25.3, and breakover 19.3. These wouldn’t be amazing numbers for a 4×4 SUV, but remember, this is the kind of van that your plumber would normally drive.

Powering the Transit Trail is a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 making 310 HP and 400 lb-ft torque. That’s driving an AWD system through a ten-speed automatic. There are no lockers here. Instead, Ford gives you a limited-slip differential. I should also note that despite the rugged looks, there is limited protection. In another departure from the UK version, the U.S. version of the Transit Trail gets running boards that look like rock sliders.

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Ford tells me that the running boards are not real rock sliders, but they do look the part.

It’s a similar story up front, where the U.S. version gets its own bumper with what appears to be a skid plate. I felt up the skid plate and it’s a thin, brittle plastic. An engineer confirmed that there is no metal behind this skid plate, but they do expect that it can take a few hits. The engineer also noted that the “skid plate-style” bumper will be of a thicker, more robust plastic when the production version comes around.

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If you’re thinking that this isn’t an off-road beast, you’re probably not wrong. The AWD version of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter can net you better angles and more clearance. Ford says that while this van is meant for off-road adventures, it’s not a hardcore off-roading rig. But if you do want it better equipped for the outdoors, the van’s many upfitters will likely offer steel skid plates and other gear. More on this later.

Wrapping up the exterior is a sort of Raptor-inspired grille, but with a regular Ford oval badge.

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This grille has Ford’s characteristic marker lights in it, and Ford says that they’re there because widening the track by those 2.75 inches means that the van legally has to have those lights.

Blank Canvas

Inside, Ford has decided to offer bits and pieces to make a camper van build easier. The Transit Trail comes standard with two 12V batteries, one to run the vehicle and one that can function as a house battery. It also comes with a 400W inverter, 4G LTE connectivity, and a 12-inch infotainment screen on the dashboard. You also get tech like five drive modes and adaptive cruise control.

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One of my favorite features here is an upgraded electrical system that features an electrical panel under the passenger seat. There is where you’ll find a 110V outlet, fuses for the camper portion of the van, and more. Ford’s idea here is that when this van gets outfitted into a camper, the electrical connections can flow through here for easy troubleshooting. These are options normally available to Ford Pro commercial customers, but are offered standard here.

Optional is an additional panel on the dashboard that will add a bunch of toggle switches for any auxiliary component that you or your upfitter may want to wire to it. Also optional is a second 250A alternator.

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And here is where the U.S. Transit Trail departs again from its UK sibling. Where the UK version gets a camper van-like interior with a table and adjustable seats, you don’t get that in the U.S. version. Instead, you get just the two front seats, and they can swivel. Everything behind the front of the cab is a blank slate for you or your upfitter.

Ford found out that people are scared to cut a hole in their van’s roof for a fan or air-conditioner. So there’s an option for a roof fan (that could later be removed for an air-conditioner). But aside from that, it’s a blank slate.

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In Ford’s research, it learned that vanlifers have near infinite ideas for what makes a perfect van. Ford found that some people just wanted tie-downs for motorcycles and a bed that swings down from the wall. Others wanted a $200,000 tiny home on wheels. So, Ford has decided to do the hard stuff like that roof vent and the electrical, then leave the rest up to you.

But if you don’t want to build your own van, Ford Pro says not to worry, because it has built up a network of literally hundreds of upfitters. These upfitters will take your new Transit Trail and build it into whatever you want it to be. For an example of this, Ford Pro had Missouri-based VanDoIt build out the prototype Transit Trail. Once again, everything from the rear doors to the backs of the seats was done by Vandoit.

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For me? I’d love to have the basics. Give me a space to park a motorcycle plus a bed, a shower, and a toilet. I can handle the rest. Ford Pro says that the upfitters could definitely handle something like that, including builds that have generators, black tanks, and other proper RV equipment.

All Ford Transit Trails are built on the 148-inch wheelbase Transit with a 9,500 GVWR. You can have your roof in medium height (like the prototype) or high roof. And if this prototype isn’t long enough, you can get two more feet of space with the extended length version. The extended length Transit Trail boasts 14-feet of space behind the seats. Ford expects these to go on sale in the spring for $65,975. On the surface, this seems pricey, but you do get a neat bit of kit for what you pay. I can’t wait to take one of these off-road and tell you how they wheel.

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35 Responses

  1. It doesn’t appear they have a low roof version of this van. That’s what I want. Put in a pop-top. The high-roof is more practical but ungainly, the low roof is sleek and easy to climb into the top bed. This lets me sleep four and still fit in some garages.

  2. I know it would add weight and cost, but a plug-in hybrid version of this would be pretty appealing. Don’t even power the wheels with electricity. Keep the gas drivetrain as it is, but add some regenerative breaks, a flush solar roof, and a lithium battery – not a second rinky-dink 12-V battery. Having a decent size, fully-charged lithium battery to power the back of the van when you get to the camp site would be pretty neat to me.

    1. After using our hybrids as power sources for our house when PG&E kills the power grid, A hybrid for camping is such a logical thing. Better gas mileage plus a built-in power source by simply adding a quality inverter. None of that second battery or generator nonsense and power enough to run anything. Oh, to run basically everything in our house except the big fridge only used about a gallon of gas per day.

    1. Or people not wanting to buy into a corrupt system and have to pay for 30 years on a house that’s value can be wiped out at any point. Or rent and toss money down a hole to be neglected by a landlord. Why spend $1000/mo on the low end for a mortgage (for 30 years!) or rent when you can own something that suits you fine? I own a house I’m halfway done paying for, but with wages not anywhere close to keeping up with housing costs or inflation, it’s an affordable way to live for a lot of people.

    1. Is it possible, that ford invited more than one member of the automotive media to review this van, and people seeing the same presentation and the same vehicle will have similar takes (especially former coworkers working for similar publications with similar editorial influences on their careers)?

  3. I’m surprised Ford didn’t offer the “basic camper” interior package right from the factory as an option.

    Surely plenty of the less-hardcore vanlife crowd would love to just be able to purchase something with a bed, table, storage, etc. without having to engage a third party to customize things. I don’t doubt their focus group spun wild tales of hauling collapsible helicopters or something, but I’m sure there was plenty of aspirational thinking involved (like all those people who must be telling Chrysler “oh yeah, I’d be going to the drag strip 3, 4 times a week with that Challenger.”)

    And of course, those basic camper editions would become the collectibles 30 years from now.

    1. Yeah, before hitting that price tag, I was all nodding with raised eyebrows and an upside-down smile like “this sounds like a reasonable product for people who are looking to make a custom camper”.

      After hitting the price tag, I was all leaned backwards with a scrunched quizzical face like “why not just buy a used camper van that is already done and have money left over to pay for gas for the whole summer?”

    2. The only way I’d pay this kind of money for an itsy bitsy camper would be if Gisele Bunchin was my camping partner, the kids were staying with Tom and Giselle admitted to an old fat man fetish. Otherwise the van isn’t big enough for me and I can and have bought a house for less and many RVs are also available for less than this.
      This makes me think marketing is involved. Small houses and camper life became a thing because it is so much cheaper. Once you design for it you realize it’s not the lifestyle you are looking for.
      But seriously Giselle I’d retire tomorrow if you want a fat old guy with terrific hair.

  4. “The Vagabonds were accompanied by several heavy cars and vans to carry themselves, their household staff, equipment, and photographers. ”
    because nothing says vagabonding so well as bringing the household staff.. that is absolutely wild, thank you M. for digging that up.

    “The vanlifers had other desires, too, like a low price for the donor van ”
    “Ford expects these to go on sale in the spring for $65,975”
    a swing and a miss then..
    Given the number of Sprinter campers I see around Colorado, those coming with price tags which would buy you a house in the Midwest, there’s probably a market where $67k is considered cheap. It’s a bit sad to see Ford that used to build a car its workers could afford to buy, setting its sights on the luxury market. Though at least they do still have the Maverick.

  5. Definite eyebrow raise at the price, but how is that in comparison to the base Transit without all the vanlife prep? To me that’s the real question so you can look at the number and decide whether not having to do the lift, electrical, and roof vent is worth it to you.

  6. I was interested in this as a truck replacement right up until it got to cost. This is about $20k more than a 4×4 f150 crew cab with the 2.7, but has a completely gutted interior. How? Isn’t unibody supposed to be cheaper? The inverter and switches are about a $1000 option on the trucks. There’s nothing that explains the price discrepancy. This is nuts. Also, it can’t cost that much to throw a basic ass bench back there just in case.

    1. A base model 4×4 sprinter with literally nothing inside is around $54k, so the AWD eco-boost transit with these extras (the 2.25″ lift, actually good looking tires and wheels, the upfitter package, extra battery, swivel seats, roof hole etc…) doesn’t seem too far off market pricing TBH. I don’t think they will have any issues selling these.

      1. Maybe not, and a base 2wd transit seems to start around $50k. I just can’t seem to figure out where the money is going. BoF, true 4×4, already ‘lifted’ with better tires, much nicer interior-you’d think the trucks would be a lot more expensive, but that’s not the case even for the stripped Pro versions. They also seem to average about 16 mpg compared to 19 with a 2.7 L f150 (same power output). For kicks I priced out a f150 super cab 4×4, trailer and payload packages, rear locker, 36 gallon tank, basic amenities package (nicer than what’s in the transit)-about $48k. I’d expect that van to cost $35-40k tops based on that.

        Without shore power and a RV AC unit, I can’t imagine sleeping in those is any more pleasant than a tent or a truck bed with camper (barring covert mid trip naps at the truck stop).

  7. I built out a 4×4 econoline and now have a 2×4 Sportsmobile. I camped and snowboarded extensively in both when we lived in Colorado. Dudes love a 4×4 van, but I never found I needed it. It just weighed more and cost me gas mileage. Two wheel drive is fine most of the time if you keep decent tires.

  8. I kinda like this and I’m sure Ford will sell every one they make (for a few grand over MSRP) but I’m kinda thinking I could do this better.
    I know they sold a AWD version of this. I also know the prices varied greatly depending on engine and options. So talking prices might be moot.
    Pluss you had a bunch of seats and interior stuff you could sell or repurpose into couches.
    But I’m also not the target audience for a vehicle like this. I’m not a rich aspiring YouTuber who’s parents will give them 100k to pretend they live in a van.

    1. They still sell them in AWD and let’s be honest the 2 inch lift is not much. you could easily get a base AWD and put KO2’s on it and then do all the rest of the interior DIY still.

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