How to Choose the Right Camper Van

June 03, 2019 by Amanda Ellis, @WanderRedFox

Committing to #vanlife? Get ready for a life overhaul. Whether you’re planning on living in a van part-time or hitting the road for the foreseeable future, several big decisions await.

Weekend warrior van dwellers require different amenities than those going off-grid for several months. Before hitting the road, consider your van’s configuration. Will you DIY your build with elbow grease or seek a professional conversion?

These steps will help you decide what you’ll need, regardless of your method of getting there.

Step 1: Research the Basics

  • Budget: Consider the base vehicle and conversion costs separately. Avoid spending your entire budget on the base vehicle unless it’s already converted to your needs. DIY and professional camper-van conversions differ greatly. For instance, ZenVanz, a conversion company based in Portland, Ore., offers full Sprinter van conversions for roughly $164,500. It sells DIY kits for $18,000.
ZenVanz Sprinter conversion

ZenVanz, in Portland, Ore., provides Sprinter van conversions. But you can also do your own. (Photo: ZenVanz)

  • Size: Consider the number of passengers and amount of gear you plan to carry. You’ll want plenty of space even if you go it alone. Compare different vehicle lengths and widths and factor in features like individual floor plans, pop-up roofs, cargo boxes and accessories like rooftop tents. Familiarize yourself with the difference between small vans and large vans.
  • Drivetrain: Evaluate the roads on which you plan to drive and the environments you’ll be exploring. If you’ll be off-roading or driving during winter, look for four- or all-wheel drive vehicles. A two-wheel drive van will be more capable and less expensive if paved roads or light off-roading is your choice.
  • Fuel economy: Fuel economy varies by vehicle size, engine type and age. Attached accessories like rooftop tents and cargo boxes also affect fuel economy.
  • Diesel vs. gasoline: The U.S. Department of Energy says diesel engines can go roughly 20 to 35 percent farther on a gallon of fuel than similar gas-powered engines. That fuel efficiency comes at a cost, however. A base model 2019 Mercedes Sprinter van with a gas engine costs $33,790, while the same model with a diesel engine is $49,590. In many regions of the U.S. diesel fuel is more expensive than gasoline. AAA has a fuel cost calculator that breaks prices down by region.
  • Service history and mileage: A used van should be in good running condition. The seller should provide a comprehensive service report. And don’t rule out newer vehicles with high mileage. Routine maintenance and modern vehicle tech can allow a van to run for over 200,000 miles.

Step 2: Classic vs. Current

Understand the variety of base camper vans before buying. Classic vehicles from an automaker like Volkswagen differ greatly from newer models by Mercedes or Ford. Here are some of the most common options, from classic to current:

CLASSIC

Volkswagen

Volkswagen created the camper van concept when Westfalia began producing Type 2 Transporter vans in the 1950s. The vans originally were designed for sleeping and cooking. Since their introduction, VW has released a series of similar vehicles:

  • Type 2 T1: The split screen Type 2 T1 model was produced from 1950 to 1967.
  • Type 2 T2: Westfalia improved on the T1 conversion to produce the “bay window” model.
  • T25 and T3: Newer versions of the T2.
  • T4 and T5 Transporter: VW’s most modern camper van.
1966 Volkswagen T1

Volkswagen camper vans like this 1967 T1 are classics. They can be fun. And they can be costly. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The condition and quality of Volkswagen camper vans varies. Low-mileage models are challenging to find but tend to carry a hefty price tag due to their mainstream popularity. Used models may have a more appealing price but often require expensive repairs or specialty parts that are hard to obtain.

CURRENT

Cargo vans are the most popular option for camper van conversions. Manufactured for cargo or passenger transport, they vary in size from compact to extended-length models.

Passenger and panel vans are the main types of cargo vans. Passenger vans have windows and rows of seats, while panel options typically lack windows. Both are frequently converted into camper vans because they allow for conversion freedom.

Most van makers offer small and a large cargo options. Some of the most popular automakers and cargo van models:

Mercedes

Ford

RAM

Nissan

New cargo vans have factory warranties. Such warranties are for 36,000 miles or 36 months, whichever comes first. Powertrain warranties reach to 5 years and 60,000 miles. However, camper van alterations and conversions may void those warranties. Reference an owner’s manual or talk to a dealer about warranty coverage.

Recent model-year cargo vans also offer a range of conversion flexibility and accessory compatibility. Repair parts tend to be more affordable and easier to find, and the vans are reliable if well-maintained.

 

2019 Ford Transit cargo van

Ford Transit cargo vans are popular choices for #vanlifers. (Photo: Ford)

Step 3: Make Your Choice

Consider your needs, budget and preferred vehicle. Know whether you want to build out the van yourself or hire professional help.

Make a checklist of the basics and vehicles in which you are interested to create a blueprint. This will help you to decide what you want and need and will be a good resource while shopping online or in person.

Camper van forums are a great resource for troubleshooting the process, talking with current van owners and answering questions. And they can be beneficial post-purchase for everything from help with repairs to conversion inspiration.

Ryan ZumMallen October 24, 2018
An outdoor-loving couple chases epic hiking, biking and exploration of the western U.S. in a converted Ford Transit Connect small van.

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