Choosing a van
Choosing a van to convert into a camper is arguably the most exciting part of the build. Do your research on which suits your needs/budget the best, and which vans have the best reviews in terms of reliability and cost of repair – because if you’re buying a van on a budget, there will be some repairs.
Take into account the size of the cargo area – if you’re a tall person or simply value your space, the height and width of your camper van is going to be important. Other questions you might consider when shopping around – do i need 4-wheel drive? What cargo van has the best MPG? Windows on the back, sides, or neither? Below is a quick visual list of common vans to convert into campers, but know that there are other make/models out there that will serve you just as well.
One of these might jump out to you as “the one”, but just know that EVERY type of van comes with it’s own challenges and quirks– it could be the shape of the interior, the gas mileage, or something else entirely.
Try Before You Buy!
Before you spend a few thousand or more on a vehicle, it is well worth it to rent someone else’s camper van for a weekend! There are a couple services like Outdoorsy and RVShare that both allow you to quickly rent a great RV or campervan at a moments notice, (like a rolling AirBnB).
Renting a camper/RV allows you to do a few things:
- Test drive the vehicle
- You’re basically buying a little home AND a car, here. You might as well make sure you like driving it. Is it too tall/wide/slow/fast for your liking?
- Practice parking in a few different places (It helps to bring a friend on this trial weekend)
- Pinterest is great, but this is a great opportunity to “live in” the layout you’re thinking of (assuming you can find one to rent that is close).
- Cook some meals. Read a book. Work on a computer. Do things that you’d do on an average day and confirm that the layout accommodates you.
- Many of these rentals are.. awesome? Meaning they have everything you need, as well as some stuff you don’t. One or two nights in a rental can save a LOT of time thinking about your inventory. Jot down some notes!
- Inspect their solar/12V/isolator setup (without taking anything down, obviously). Take pictures if you think it will help with your electrical planning.
Check out some of the available camper vans for rent (use the search box to type your city, a particular model, year, etc.)
Ready to Buy?
You’re ready to start building your campervan NOW. Well, easy cowboy, because finding a cheap and mechanically reliable van to convert into a camper van takes patience and diligence. First and foremost, check Craigslist, but there is also good deals to be had on eBay or r/VanDwellerMarketplace.
If you’re searching Craigslist, you can copy/paste this “catch-all” search parameter to see a more comprehensive list of whats available in your area:
(ram van|1500|2500|3500) | (sprinter) | (astro|safari) | (e-150|e150|e-250|e250|e-350|e350|econoline|transit) | (express|savannah|savana|savanah 1500|2500|3500)
Just know, it is very possible to find, say, a solid 2004 Econoline E-350 van for under $4,000, but you may have to expand your search radius and be prepared to make a trip out of it.
Offers in Southern California (where we bought ours) differ greatly from just over the state line in Arizona. We purchased a ’02 Dodge Ram Van 2500 for a mere $2500. It has high miles, but the engine and transmission were recently replaced, and frankly, we were willing to take the risk. We have emergency money saved up, and the converted van will serve as a 4-week vacation mobile during our honeymoon, and a weekend warrior for camping and spearfishing trips after that, so we’re not trying to get another 100k miles out of it.
That being said, your situation may be quite different. Money might be tight, and you may be looking to live in your new camper conversion van full time, for years of adventuring. In retrospect, I do wish that I had shopped around in nearby Arizona, where there are a lot of folks trying to get rarely-used cargo vans off their hands. Know your budget, and be sure to take the van to a trustworthy mechanic for an inspection before handing over the cash.
I brought two different vans for inspection prior to settling on Jean-Claude (Van Ram), both resulting in having to politely tell the owner that since I needed reliability, I was no longer interested. The inspections cost roughly $80 each time, but seeing as they both saved me from buying problematic vans, I saved thousands. Lastly, be prepared to spend roughly another $1-3K on the van conversion (whatever you dont spend out of that $3K should be saved for repairs).
Thinking About Buying New?
If you have the budget to buy a new (or newer) van, there’s obviously a lot of benefits– reliability, warranty coverage, and a “clean slate” to build upon. Generally in this blog we write about budget builds, but if you’re buying a brand new van to go all-in on this project, it helps to have a good credit score, do your research thoroughly, and put on your negotiating hat.
Now, on to the van conversion
Now, the real camper van conversion begins. Every converted van is a special snowflake, and there is no right/wrong way. We think it’s important to focus on YOUR main purpose.
Are you living in your van?
Make the bed the top priority and plan everything around that.
Is this your adventuremobile and you need to keep gear like a mountainbike or surfboard alongside you?
That takes a little more thought. Check Pinterest for inspiration and ideas on layouts and designs.
How do you plan to go to the bathroom?
It’s worth sitting down and thinking about this seriously. Because if you’re not OK holding it until you find a public restroom every day, you don’t want to build the entire van without some sort of camping toilet.
Once you’ve thought these things through and you’re ready to start building, continue on!
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