If you’re looking into van living but you can’t afford to buy an outfitted adventure rig, consider a DIY approach. With the growing number of companies offering conversion starter kits and a plethora of online resources and tutorials, converting your own camper van is easier than ever. A used cargo van that once served as a work truck is the ideal blank slate for a DIY camper conversion. These are our picks of the best used vans for camper conversions for under $20,000.
Suggested model year range: 2014-2017
Estimated cost: $15,000-$20,000
Trims: Cargo, passenger van
Engine: Standard 3.6-liter Pentastar V6
- 136-inch wheelbase, 213 inches long
- 159-inch wheelbase, 236 inches long
- 159-inch wheelbase extended, 251 inches long
- Low: Maximum height from floor to ceiling: 64 inches
- High: Maximum height from floor to ceiling: 74 inches
Why we picked it: The Ram ProMaster is based on the front-wheel-drive Fiat Ducato. It’s the widest van available, allowing people up to 6 feet tall to sleep side to side. Full-time vanlifers appreciate this huge space-saving advantage. Because the ProMaster is only available in front wheel drive, there’s no drive shaft to the rear wheels, allowing it to claim the lowest floor height. DIY enthusiasts covet the vehicle’s 90-degree cargo-area sidewalls for simplifying the conversion layout.
We found the ProMaster relatively maneuverable in urban areas despite its width, with a turning radius similar to that of a standard-sized car. Dealers who will work on the van are plentiful, and owners report the ProMaster is affordable to maintain. If you’re looking for a base vehicle that’s easy to work on and boasts a ton of interior space, the Ram ProMaster fits the bill.
Cons: You can’t convert the ProMaster to 4×4. Combined with its low ground clearance, this limits off-road driving options. In addition, its resale value is less than those of similar used vans.
Suggested model year range: 2015-2018
Estimated cost: $13,000-$20,000
Trims: Cargo, Passenger Van XL and XLT
- 3.7-liter V6
- 3.5-liter Eco-Boost
- 3.2-liter Inline 5 diesel
- 130-inch wheelbase, 220 inches long
- 148-inch wheelbase, 236 inches long
- 148-inch wheelbase extended, 264 inches long
- Low: Maximum height from floor to ceiling: 57 inches
- Medium: Maximum height from floor to ceiling: 72 inches
- High: 81.5 inches
Why we picked it: Ford designed the fourth-generation, rear-wheel-drive Transit to replace the Econoline/E-Series. The Econoline is now offered only as a cutaway chassis cab. A popular choice for camper conversions, the Ford Transit boasts three size configurations, including the highest roof of any van on the market. Owners value the Transit’s affordable maintenance and repair costs.
We put a couple of thousand miles on a rear-wheel-drive 2015 model with a 3.5-liter Eco-Boost engine and found it capable on steep grades and gravel roads. We can attest to the Transit’s reliability, cabin comfort and decent fuel economy (ranging between 16 mpg in the city to 20 mpg on the highway). Serious adventurers have the ability to convert the rear-wheel drive Transit to 4×4. For 2020, Ford plans to release an all-wheel drive model.
Cons: It’s possible to convert a rear-wheel-drive Transit to 4×4, but you have to modify the wheel wells to fit larger tires. Also, the extended wheelbase configuration has a longer rear overhang than its contemporaries.
Suggested model year range: 2010-2015
Estimated cost: $10,000-$20,000
Trims: Cargo, Crew and Passenger Van
- 2.2-liter turbo diesel (CDI)
- 3.0-liter turbo diesel (CDI)
- 3.5-liter gas
- 144-inch wheelbase, 234 inches long
- 170-inch wheelbase, 274 inches long
- 170-inch wheelbase extended, 290 inches long
- Low: Maximum height from floor to ceiling, 64 inches
- High: 75 inches
Why We Picked It: Many consider the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter a #vanlife hallmark — attributed in part to the highly desirable factory 4×4 models. While you won’t find many (if any) 4×4 Sprinters on the market for under $20,000, the rear-wheel-drive model remains a popular choice for DIY enthusiasts on a budget. The Sprinter is available in longer wheelbase configurations than equivalent vans — and the extra space is ideal for full-time van living.
This van is a DIY lover’s dream, thanks to the huge amount of Sprinter-specific conversion starter kits and components on the market. Owners report the diesel engine boasts good fuel economy (ranging from the high teens to low 20s mpg). Also, the Sprinter maintains its resale value better than comparable options.
Cons: Sprinter vans are more expensive to maintain than equivalent models, attributed in part to the small number of U.S.-based Mercedes dealerships. Also, a limited of repair shops will work on Sprinters, which complicates the logistics of traveling in remote areas.
CHEVY EXPRESS/GMC SAVANA
Suggested model year tange: 2005-2018
Estimated cost: $10,000-$20,000
Trims: Cargo and Passenger Van
- 4.3-liter V6 gas
- 6-liter V8
- 6-liter V8, CNG/LP capable
- 2.8-liter, 4-cylinder diesel
- 135-inch wheelbase, 224 inches long
- 155-inch wheelbase extended, 244 inches long
Roof height: unavailable
Why we picked it: The Chevrolet Express shares its mechanical identity with the GMC Savana, designed in 1995 to replace the Chevrolet Van and the GMC Vandura. Both are built on the GMT600 platform, which features a full body-on-frame construction, upgraded engine options and improved drivability over its predecessor, the GMT400-derived chassis.
It’s easy to find a used Chevy Express for under $20,000, which makes it a popular option for shoppers on a budget. Because of its low roof, the Express is ideal for vanlifers looking to convert the vehicle into a pop-up or integrate a rooftop tent. In addition, plenty of aftermarket components are available, including a high roof-conversion option. Bonus: GMC made an all-wheel-drive version of the Express/Savana through 2014, with some used models listing for under $20,000.
Cons: The Chevy Express is only available in a low roof configuration, which limits space and conversion possibilities. The vehicle also lacks the bells and whistles of its fancier counterparts.