You don’t have to look very far to realize that vans and cycling are quickly becoming a popular combination. A van can be the perfect mobile base camp for many cycling adventures providing both a convenient method of transport for your precious bikes, and a cozy a place to eat, sleep, change, or just hang out.

To guide you down the road to #vanlife and creating your own adventure vehicle, we’re launching this new series that’ll explore everything from vehicle selection, upgrades, gear, equipment, and the outfitters that can build your dream camper. We’re starting off here with the basics, but if there’s something you’d like us to cover, drop it in the comments below!

Let’s get this out of the way right from the start – you don’t need any specific vehicle to live the vanlife. As they say, where there’s a will there’s a way, and that rings true with any adventurer. We’ve seen it all (including Honda Fits that have been made into a camper, really!). Don’t let not having the “right” vehicle discourage your from loading up your gear and setting off for life changing adventures. But if you’re ready to make the next step towards a dedicated adventure platform, we hope this series will be a good place to start.

What should I get?

Tonto Trails of Durango offers rental camper vans for the ultimate bike trip.
Want a taste of the vanlife without paying full price? You’ll want to check out an upcoming piece on Tonto Trails of Durango in the near future.

Like any great work of art, building the perfect adventure vehicle starts with a great canvas. Depending on your needs, budget, and desires, there are a number of options out there. So if you’re wondering how the Sprinter compares to a Transit, or a cargo van to a full size van, this is for you. Many of the newer full size cargo vans actually drive fairly well for a massive vehicle making it easy to get from place to place without the feeling of driving a lumbering RV. They are also fairly stealthy – there are a zillion white cargo vans out there, and this should allow you to blend in without advertising what pricey gear you might have stored inside. Since there are so many, it is possible to find them affordably, if you don’t mind one with high mileage and a few scars.

Of course, one of the biggest reasons is the amount of space that can be had inside. If you opt for a medium or high roof, it will allow most passengers to stand completely upright inside while also allowing for creative interior management like putting a bed over a bicycle storage area.

Full Size Cargo Vans

When it comes to new full size cargo vans (here in the U.S.), we have basically four options – (Dodge) Ram Promaster, Ford Transit, Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, and the Nissan NV. There are a few other options which can be found on the used market (Freightliner and Dodge Sprinter, etc.) but for the sake of this article we’ll focus on what’s currently available for sale.

Can the Ram Promaster cargo van work as an adventure vehicle for your vanlife
2018 Ram Promaster

Ram Promaster (Fiat Ducato)

This particular van goes by a number of different names (Citroen Jumper, Peugot Boxer), but here in the States it’s known as the Ram Promaster. While they had offered their own version of the Mercedes Sprinter starting in 2003, the Fiat based Ram ProMaster was introduced to the U.S. in 2013. A relative newcomer in the world of cargo vans for Americans, the platform actually dates back to 1981. One major feature that sets it apart from other full size cargo vans is the fact that it is only available in FWD (Front Wheel Drive). Because of the driveline layout, the van has one of the best turning diameters in the business.

#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures

SPEC & OPTION OVERVIEW:
Engine options: 3.6 Liter V6 24 Valve Pentastar VVT gasoline (280hp/260lb-ft) (Diesel option is no longer available in U.S.)
Fuel Tank: 24 Gallon
Transmission: 6 Speed Automatic 62TE
Driveline Configuration: FWD
Body Options: Cargo Van or Window Van
Wheelbase Options: 118″, 136″, 159″, 159″ EXT
Roof Options: Low Roof on 118″ and 136″ models, High Roof on 136″ 159″ and 159 EXT models
Curb Weight: 4,560-4,773lbs
Maximum Towing Capacity: 5,100lbs
Maximum Payload: 4,440lbs
Seats: 2-3
Starting MSRP: $29,995
Warranty: 36k mi/36 mo basic warranty, 60k mi/ 60 mo powertrain warranty, 100k mi/60 mo roadside assistance, 100k mi/60 mo rust through warranty

 

#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures
2018 Ford Transit

Ford Transit

Another van that has a long history globally, but is fairly new in the U.S. is the Ford Transit. Technically, the platform has been in production since 1965, but it wasn’t until 2013 when the Transit line replaced the Ford E-Series stateside. The version we know in the United States is the fourth generation and is quickly becoming one of the most popular full size vans in its class. With three engines to choose from, and multiple body and wheelbase options, the Transit is highly customizable.

#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures

SPEC & OPTION OVERVIEW:
Series: 150, 250, 350, and 350 Heavy Duty for cargo van (250 not an option for Passenger Van). The higher the number, the higher the GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating).
Engine options: 3.7L TI-VCT V6 gas (275hp/260lb-ft), 3.5L EcoBoost V6 Gas (310hp/400lb-ft), and 3.2L Power Stroke I-5 Turbo Diesel (185hp/350lb-ft)
Fuel Tank: 25 Gallon
Transmission: 6 speed SelectShift automatic with Overdrive
Driveline Configuration: RWD (Rear Wheel Drive)
Body Options: Cargo Van, Passenger Van (8, 10, 12, & 15 passenger)
Wheelbase Options: 129.9″, 147.6″
Roof Options: Low Roof – Transit 150/250/350 on both wheelbases, Medium Roof – Transit 150/250/350 on both wheelbases, High Roof – only on Transit 250/350, 250 EL/350 EL, and 350 HD EL
Curb Weight: Not provided
Maximum Towing Capacity: See chart
Maximum Payload: See chart
Seats: 2-15
Starting MSRP: $32,285
Warranty: 3yr/36k mi bumper to bumper, 5yr/60k safety restraint system, 5yr/unlimited mile corrosion warranty (perforation only), 5yr/60k mi roadside assistance
#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures
2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Crew Van 4×4

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

Long considered the gold standard of cargo vans for the van life, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter has gained a lot of competition here in the U.S. over the past few years. We’ll be covering the current 2017 Sprinter here, but Mercedes has already announced the 2018 version which will come out this fall. The new version will include a number of improvements, the option of a gasoline engine, a FWD version (that won’t be coming to the U.S.), and promises of lower starting prices and reduced maintenance costs. However, even in the current configuration the Sprinter is the only full size cargo van currently offered from the factory with a 4×4 option.

#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures

#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures

#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures

#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures

SPEC & OPTION OVERVIEW:
Series: 2500, 3500XD
Engine options: 3.0L V6 BlueTEC Turbo Diesel (188hp/325lb-ft) (gas turbo coming for late 2018/2019)
Fuel Tank: 24.5 Gallons
Transmission: 5 Speed automatic
Driveline Configuration: RWD with optional 4×4 package (4×4 not an option on base level Worker van)
Body Options: Cargo Van, Crew Van (half cargo van, seating for 5), and passenger van (seating for 12)
Wheelbase Options: 144″, 170″, 170″ Extended (Cargo Van Only)
Roof Options: Standard Roof and High Roof on all models. Super High Roof on 170″ and 170 EXT 3500XD Cargo vans only.
Curb Weight: 4,641 – 6,382lbs.
Maximum Towing Capacity: 5,000lbs to 7,500lbs (3500XD)
Maximum Payload: 2,322-5,496lbs depending on model
Seats: 2-12
Starting MSRP: $33,995
Warranty: 5yr/100k mi Diesel engine limited warranty, 5 yr/100k mi outer body warranty, 3 yr/36k mi basic limited warranty. Additional Extended Limited Warranties available for purchase.
#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures
Apparently red or burgundy is the hot color for cargo van press photos.

Nissan NV Passenger/Cargo

The Nissan NV might not be the most popular option for the van life, but that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked. Out of the four, this is the only van to be offered with a V8 (which beats the EcoBoost engine on horsepower by 65, but loses in torque). It also comes standard with 120v outlets in the center console and at the back door, a fully boxed frame, and a few additional creature comforts up front that other vans don’t seem to have. However, the NV passenger van is not available in the high roof, so seating options will be limited if you want the additional head room (more on this in a later post).

#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures #Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures

SPEC & OPTION OVERVIEW:
Series: 1500 (S, SV), 2500 HD (S, SV, SL), 3500 HD (S, SV, SL)
Engine options: 4.0L DOHC 24 valve V6 gas, or 5.6L DOHC 32 valve V8 gas (261hp/281lb-ft, and 375hp/387lb-ft)
Fuel Tank: 28 gallon
Transmission: 5 speed automatic with optional 7 speed automatic on 2500 HD (standard on 3500HD)
Driveline Configuration: RWD
Body Options: Cargo van, Passenger van
Wheelbase Options: 146.1″
Roof Options: Standard or High (cargo van only)
Curb Weight:  5,817 to 6,194 lbs
Maximum Towing Capacity: 6,200 to 9,400 lbs
Maximum Payload: 2,730 – 3,700lbs
Seats: 2-12
Starting MSRP: $28,850
Warranty: 5yr/100k bumper to bumper warranty, 5yr/100k powertrain warranty, 10y/unlimited restraint warranty, 5yr/unlimited corrosion warranty, 3yr/36k roadside assistance

Full Size Vans & Minivans

Long the popular option for an overlanding, dirtbag climbers or family hauler, the full size van is still a legit option for living the #vanlife. They also have far less room than the Sprinter-style vans, which means fewer bikes and friends, and you probably won’t be able to stand upright. And if you’re going really cheap, you’ll probably (definitely) want to rip out the old carpet and upholstery, because, well, who knows what’s happened in there.

#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures
The Ford E-Series

Ford E-Series

One of the most popular models is the Ford E-Series, but you’ll have to find one used – unless you’re planning to build your own body. Since 2015 Ford only offers these as cab-only chassis ready for work-truck or RV conversions.

The upside, as with the Transit models, is they can be serviced just about anywhere. Ford’s V8 engines also have a good history of dependability. And you can probably find these vans cheap. There are tons of parts, options and expertise on how to turn them into an adventure van. Maybe one of the best upsides, if you’re buying a used conversion van, are the big, cushy captains chairs you’ll probably find in the first and second rows. The downside is these vans are heavy, they handle as such, and those V8 and V10 engines guzzle gas (but the V6 might not cut it on power)

SPEC & OPTION OVERVIEW:
Engine options: Many models including V6, V8, V10, and Powerstroke Turbo Diesel V8
Wheelbase: 124″, 138″ (Standard and Super Van extended)
Body / Size options: Passenger, Cargo
Seats: 4-7
#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures

Chevy Express

Like the Ford E-series, the Chevy Express (and GMC Savana) have been around forever.  Unlike the E-Series, Chevy is still selling these. However, with starting prices that rival the most expensive full size cargo vans, you’ll probably be looking for a used van if you’re considering the Express. Which is fine, because used examples are everywhere. Currently available with a 6.0L Vortec V8, or a Duramax 2.8L Turbo Diesel I-4 engine, the vans also include an 8 speed automatic transmission.

#Vanlife: Picking the right cargo van or vehicle for your adventures
Ford Transit Connect

Minivans

New or old, there are too many options in this category to list specs for all. That’s particularly true if you consider the new crop of mini-cargo vans like the Ford Transit Connect, Mercedes-Benz Metris, Nissan NV 200, and Ram Promaster City. Obviously, you’re giving up a lot in terms of interior space, but if you’re wondering “Can I turn my minivan into an adventure vehicle or camper van?” there are some compelling reasons to accept the tradeoffs. Those include much better gas mileage, improved creature comforts as standard equipment, and car-like driving. Just realize that there are very limited aftermarket upgrades for converting these to an adventure van, so you’ll mostly be DIY’ing it.

But, if you already have a mini-van, it can be a great place to start. but the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey have been market leaders for more than a decade, but there are options from Nissan, Ford, Chevy and Kia, too. Like the Honda Element, if you remove the back seats and build your own platform bed, the vehicles will be surprisingly useful given their small size.

More?

Got a favorite adventure vehicle that we missed? Something that we should cover in the future? Let us know below.

37 COMMENTS

  1. Beware of thinking the “generic white work van” is going to keep you from being a theft target. In cities they have become the actual target since most generic white work vans are full of tools or touring rock band equipment that is all easy to sell at flea markets or on craigslist without being easily traced.

    • Used VW T3 (Vanagon) is not nearly as cheap an option as it used to be. Top line Syncro Westy models can go for $50k plus. I have seen passenger tin-top versions go for as little as $3k though. Average seems to be about $6k-20k depending on options and condition. If you are not scared of working on them there is a very robust online community and dedicated parts suppliers. In fact parts availability for a van that ended US sales in 1990 is better than it was 10 years ago. I live the #vanlife in an ’89 Vanagon Weekender myself. Great for trips, slow as molasses driving over high altitude passes, like scary slow compared to modern traffic. That’s with a very well tuned and strong stock 2.1 motor.

      • I just bought a gently used 87 t3 Wolfsburg weekender for $2k. We plan on putting in a bulletproof Subaru 2.2 and the resale value will be a better ROI than buying any of the new “vanlife” mobiles.

        • Super long delay reply: I’ve got a 91 multivan with a Subaru 2.5. Its wonderful. My total outlay was about the same as a mid-level sedan, but that’s still waaaaay less expensive than the options mentioned in this article, and IMO more practical: I can carry 7 butts and 6 bikes with the current setup, and sleep 4 (assuming pairs of people who don’t mind some coziness), and it all fits in a smaller footprint than station wagon.

          But, my main point was made by Alex: you can get a tin top in good shape for ~3-4k. You can haul a lot of friends and bikes, and many if not most of those models have a fold-down rear bench that’s intended as a bed.

  2. I have a Honda Element and while it’s really small, it gets the job done. Several modifications were necessary including creating a door lever for the hatch and creating some storage space on the ceiling. However, I was able to build a small wooden platform for a cut up foam mattress and below I can store a cooler or some living stuff. On the roof, I have a Yakima basket with some bike racks. It’s perfect for one person, with gear for two-three hobbies (climbing,biking, and general camping).

    One of the reasons why I opted for the element was that it doesn’t scream “I’M LIVING IN HERE.”

    • Also Adventure Wagon creates a kit that you can either diy or have installed. It is the sturdiest platform I have seen. It is super versatile and they have a transit version coming soon.

  3. A few things that come to mind:

    1. Make sure you have a pile of cash for this next step in your cycling hobby.
    2. Keep in mind that Fiats in general (the Dodge Pornmaster) have never worked out well for anyone.

    • I bought a Promaster new last year. Threw a queen memory foam mattress in the back and storage for my cross and road bikes underneath. Did a full road and cross season last year. While I get told “deliveries are out back” when i park at whole foods, its been great.

  4. Where’s the fuel economy info?? I was trying to see if these would be competit e in fuel mileage to a pickup with a topper… or how they would compare to each other. Pretty critical info to leave-out.

    • Frank, that’s coming in a later post. Unfortunately, since these are considered commercial vehicles, the brands are not required to give fuel efficiency ratings. And the ratings that we have found from a few manufacturers are way off. So, we’ll have a post dedicated to fuel efficiency later on once we’ve compiled some real world results, and will update this post as well.

    • so in 10,000 miles @ 15 mpg (250 transit medium roof) $4 a gallon = $2,667
      or 10,000 miles @ 24mpg (Ram Promaster city) $4 a gallon = $1,667

      how much did your bike cost? and how many miles are you going to drive/sleep/camp to go ride it?

  5. Nice article, only wish vans were more common in auto in Europe like the US. Stick shift driving in the city is a pain when the average speed is 6mph (in London). PS if you get the Transit put extra security locks on all the doors, the standard one is a joke.

  6. Anyone who thinks the Sprinter is the “Gold Standard” has obviously never owned one. They did help to define the category of large cargo van here in the United States, but ask anyone who has spent any significant amount of time living with one about reliability and durability and you’ll likely get a much different story. The Sprinter suffers from typical Mercedes issues, poor reliability, expensive parts, mediocre fit and finish and parasitic rust. The latter being the biggest issue with trying to source a decent used vehicle. I defy you to try to find a northern Sprinter without a serious case of tin-worm. The Sprinter may have benchmarked the large cargo van in North America, but gold standard?.. Unlikely, more like iron oxide standard.
    To be fair, most vans suffer from rust issues, a dealer tech explained to me once that the corrosion issues it primarily due to fast turnover and in a lot of cases, fleet ownership. Manufacturers aren’t too concerned about vehicles that typically have fleet ownership, since they’re less likely to see warranty claims and have short ownerships, that generally exceed warranty mileage before corrosion can be a significant enough of an issue to see rust through. (Corrosion warranties do not typically cover bubbles and surface rust, but require pin-holes to be claimed.)
    If you want a dead solid reliable, simple, affordable full-size van for a camping vehicle, I’d look for either a Chevrolet or Ford conversion van. They typically have a high-top installed, upgraded alternator and dual batteries and will already have some of the amenities you want, like rear air conditioning, entertainment center, and fold-down rear bench that converts to a bed. Parts availability and dealer support is the best you can get in North America, The Chevy can have a 6.0 V8 which is a torque monster, and both can be had in AWD. (The Chevy had factory AWD options, and the Ford is easily and commonly converted [Quigley])

    • I would agree on all accounts. Although it was some time ago, I spent several years managing a bike tour company in Europe and our Sprinters were a regular source of mechanical trouble. The Quigley conversion is a good suggestion, but the price to make that swap is a bitter pill.

      • There are a lot of people doing DIY 4WD conversions on their Ford vans these days and there are a ton of great web resources. Sportsmobile also makes 4WD van conversions, but I’ve heard those are even more expensive than a Quigley.
        In places like WV, CO, ID, MT, WA, OR Quigley ambulances are very common. A lot of those agencies keep those vehicles for a short time and swap them out regularly. You can commonly find 4WD ambulances on government surplus websites due that reason. That would make a great adventure vehicle, with tons of room, built in storage and a heavy duty electrical system. Typically those vehicles use the power stroke diesel too.

    • not to discount your experience(s) but the corrosion “issue” is largely limited to the white fleet vehicles as the actual non-fleet vehicles have a damn good layer of primer.

      The reliability “issues” are largely overblown IMO but the serviceability isn’t (again IMO). Just don’t buy an early nvc3 with 150k miles and expect to have no maintenance – unless it’s a screaming deal and you’ve budgeted for repairs.

      My experience? I had a 2006 long/tall and put nearly 200k on it. I have a 2012 long/tall with ~120k. Regular service (yeah at a dealer and yeah it’s not cheap) will keep these things humming and off a longbed tow truck. ~6yrs later and 21mpg between the Front Range and the Western Slope of Colorado/Moab I’m still happy.

      I’ll be even happier if/when Ford gets the kinks worked out of the transit. Why? well, there’s a ford dealership in damn near every town. my biggest nighmare is getting a check engine light in Moab and needing a tow to the nearest MB service (Salt Lake?).

      ymmv

  7. I owned a 2003 Sprinter (the longest, tallest version). Huge AF inside…super versatile and way more capable offroad than people might give credit for. But I lived in constant fear of something exploding or leaking or whatever and having to spend $$$. And I even had access to a huge garage and suite of tools. Great experience, but I bought mine for $8,000 so I guess it was a bit of a given. Still, if you do buy one…look for coking on the top of the injectors (under the black plastic engine cover).

  8. I had Ram Promaster as a rental for a week last year and was actually very impressed. I can’t speak to corrosion resistance or long-term reliability, but in a standard short wheelbase, low roof it had an immense amount of room inside, and standing height for me at 175cm. The fact that it is relatively light for a full size van, coupled with the 285hp V6 made it quite motivated to get to highway speeds, and it drove extremely well. It also returned nearly 22mpg on a 1000mi roundtrip drive, loaded with close to 800kg of equipment. The only knocks to it were: no cruise control and a crappy radio that was AM/FM only and literally had no reception regardless of the fact that I was driving it from DC to CT. It also had a funky driving position, that felt more like I was driving a bus than a cargo van. You sit extremely high, and the steering wheel was very flat. It also had poor forward visibility, which was really odd considering the gigantic windshield and side windows. The front wheel drive layout gave it an extremely low load floor in the back, which was really nice. Plus it had an abundance of ties downs in the interior.
    I’d probably still opt for a Chevrolet Express, just because they’re way more comfortable to drive, and I took one of those on a nearly identical trip and got 19mpg. I do a fair amount of towing, and I’d rather have a live rear axle with rear wheel drive and the 6.0 V8 for torque.

    • Thanks for the feedback on the ProMaster, my current van is a Roadtrek with the 6.0 size engine on the Express Chassis but my dream is to upgrade to the Zion SRT ProMaster which I think is the only front wheel drive version of these vans. One thing to consider about buying a diesel is, some states are mandating high levels of Bio Diesel of 20% and Mercedes only recommends up to 5%. This could cause serious and expensive repairs later or very much limit your choice where you choose to fill up, maybe even avoiding these states but it seems to be the long term trend which could make your expensive investment lose a lot of value.

      • I don’t think you can get the Promaster with the diesel in North America anymore. Plus, it’s my understanding that the Promaster diesel uses a manumatic rather than the traditional hydro automatic, which the V6 does use. Also, the V6 is the current Chrysler Pentastar V6, which have proven to be extremely reliable. With the power and fuel economy I witnessed with the V6, I’m not sure you could do much better with a diesel, maybe a few MPG, but
        you give up the power, reliability and parts availability of the Pentastar, which is hugely popular and widely used.

  9. A very good friend and her husband bought a low mileage 2012 long and tall Sprinter a few years ago and they did an awesome conversion of it for their biking and climbing lifestyle. Over the course of these few years they put over $20,000 in repairs to the van itself. It broke on them repeatedly, several times failing on repairs they had done by a so called ‘expert’. It was a constant source of stress each road trip because they did could not trust it anymore as they were towed multiple times from far off adventures to the nearest town where there was no Mercedes experts or dealers. Many of the failures were due to the emissions system and when it would fail the limp mode made long distance home not feasible. A complete financial train wreck of what appears to be such a perfect recreational vehicle. The just sold it and bought a new GMC which is not nearly as tall or long for living space but weekends are supposed to be a break from stress.

    • God forbid something you’re not interested in get past the editors. If you didn’t want to read it, you shouldn’t have clicked on it. Go provide your unproductive comments elsewhere. Utterly useless.

    • True, but head to your local bike festival, 24H event, race, or just go to Moab, and count the number of vans with bikes hanging off the back. The van has become an integral part of the bike lifestyle for many people. Just how it is.

    • The only Toyota van we get is the Sienna minivan. No Hiace here. I’ve ridden in several of them in the BVIs, SA, and Europe and really like the size, small enough to not feel like a full size but with a full size interior.

      • Huh. Hiaces are the default here in Oz, and seem to be very reliable mechanically. There are even 4WD versions that some people import privately from Japan; for some reason the local agents don’t bring them in.

        • Mainly the steering wheel is on the wrong side for the states 😉 They can not be legally imported from japan but we get a few down from canada. I owned one for a month in NZ but thought it was pretty uncomfortable to live in/.

  10. We have a ’97 E350 Ford van with the 7.3 Powerstroke. Bought it with ~100K showing in ’91. It just rolled over 345K. It’s getting old and roof seams are rusting, but should be good for another couple years. We get about 17-17.5 mpg, which sounds terrible, but for the amount of power and weight of the pig, it’s actually good. Too bad Ford didn’t make a Powerstroke motor from that vintage at about 4-5L, 7.3 is way overkill. Lots of knowledge and support for the early 6.9 and 7.3 diesels, not so much for later generations. For later generation Ford diesel motors, 6.0-6.4-6.7m best if you have a close relative mechanic. The new 3.2 L Powerstroke in the second gen 2015 models and up? I’m all ears…

  11. Speaking of VW Vanagons, I sold my 1988 Westy with a 2.3 stroker motor I installed for $15K and I did not even have it up for sale! Dude kept bugging me to sell it everytime we met on the trail. Finally I said look Bro, you want it have at it $15K. The guy did not even dicker! just blew me away! Now I own a 2005 Roadtrek RV we take everywhere and I have a shower!

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