If you’re a single traveler or couple who love to go on spontaneous adventures or short weekend trips, owning a Class B camper van would be the most suitable and economical option.
Compared to other classes of RVs, a camper van is lightweight and compact, thus more fuel efficient, easier to maneuver and can get you to far-off destinations that would otherwise be impossible with a large rig.
They offer the right amount of space and amenities for one for two people, and due to their size, they are easier and cheaper to maintain and repair. You have two choices when it comes to camper vans: either buy a new fully-equipped and camping-ready van, or buy the best van for camper conversion and convert/upgrade it into your dream home on wheels.
There are various merits to customizing your own dream van, one of which is of course saving money, since a van ready-made for camping actually does not come cheap, despite their nimble size. To make this DIY project easier for you, we have compiled the very best van for camper conversion, each with major specifications and in-depth reviews.
You will also find other important information on camper van conversion, including minimum expected cost and many pro tips on how to remodel a van into a mobile home on wheels, so that you won’t have to spend a big investment on a full fledged RV.
- Why You Should Consider DIY Conversion
- Requirements for a Van Model Suitable for Conversion
- Best Vans For Camper Conversion To Buy Today
- Why A Campervan Might Be Perfect For You
- DIY Van Conversion Project for Camping: Estimated Minimum Cost & Time
- DIY Campervan Conversion: Steps & Tips
Why You Should Consider DIY Conversion
Camper van conversion is a thing. There are ample Youtube videos on this topic, plus plenty of forums and blogs like the Sprinter Forum, VanDwellers on Reddit, and the Vanual that record DIY projects from start to finish and discuss common problems to help you build, customize and install everything from bed platforms to insulation. There are also quite a few companies selling aftermarket conversion kits to make your quest a bit more manageable.
So why is camper van conversion such an attractive option for so many campers? You might think that due to their nimble size, they should only be able to fit in the most basic of amenities (and anything included must be mini-sized at that), and thus these Class B RVs should be affordable. So why bother buying a van, strip it bare just to add in a bunch of stuff to make it livable?
Because a fully-equipped camper van made for comfortable camping is nowhere near cheap. They are not much less expensive than their large, heavy and fully-equipped counterparts just because they’re smaller and have less parts and amenities. In fact, they are in essence a well-equipped, large coach compressed into a much more compact space, which creates construction and engineering difficulties. Many luxurious vans made for full-time camping also use expensive high-quality components like lithium batteries, thus further increasing their price.
For your reference, the very best Class B models on the current market have an average listing price starting from $100,000, many of which cost more than $150,000. These luxurious $100,000-plus Class Bs include all the basic amenities you’d need to go on long trips or even camp full-time on the open road, that is a convertible sleeper sofa for 2 adults (some has extra sleeping arrangements for one to two kids), a kitchen and a dinette, an entertainment center, a bathroom with toilet and a shower/wet bath (some even includes an outdoor hot/cold shower).
And even for this much of an investment, you don’t get a washer/dryer combo to do laundry. There are many models below $70,000 or even below $50,000, but they don’t include a shower and toilet, and are very limited in terms of living space, storage space and comfort.
Requirements for a Van Model Suitable for Conversion
Aside from determining your budget, you need to understand the important specifications for a van, or what makes a model suitable for a fuss-free DIY conversion project.
The most important specifications to consider when shopping for the best van for camper conversion are:
Interior Height and Pop Top
Note that what’s important is interior height, that is from floor to ceiling, and not exterior or overall height. This decides whether you can stand up straight inside or not. There are both pros and cons to each of the three options: low-roof vans, high-roof vans and pop-top vans.
The low-roof option can fit in a standard garage, thus giving you more parking choices, while the high-roof vans will not fit. If you’re below 6-feet tall and don’t camp full-time, a low roof van might be more economical and versatile. But if you’re taller and travel all the time in your van, then you must get either a high-roof or a pop-top. Also, the higher the roof, the more space you get for creative vertical storage solutions.
Another option for the tall travelers is the pop-top van, with the top that pops up when needed to provide extra headroom as well as fresh air, natural light and a better view of the surroundings. When popped up, they also allow extra space for a secondary sleeping quarter, like a fold-down bunk bed or a loft, so that you can bring your kids along. The only downside is the upper windows might let in cold air during chilly months, so you may need an insulation system to cover them.
Wheelbase and Length
A van usually offers different wheelbases, each comes with a different body length. In addition to the overall interior dimensions of a van, which determines the cubic feet of living space you get, wheelbase length is an important metric too.
A car’s wheelbase measures the distance between the centres of the front and rear wheels. It’s therefore smaller than the full body length, which is measured from the car’s front and rear end.
It’s surprising that a van’s wheelbase affects many of its qualities. A longer wheelbase provides a more comfortable and safer driving experience, especially at higher speeds. This is because the larger footprint of a long wheelbase van gives it greater stability when maneuvering corners, and there’s more time between the front and rear wheels hitting any bumps, so the car is less likely to become unsettled.
Another relevant quality is interior space. The vast majority of any vehicle’s interior sits between the wheels as an unobstructed box, so between two vans with the same body length, the one with a longer wheelbase will have a more spacious interior than the one with a shorter wheelbase.
- Four-Wheel-Drive: Not all vans have four-wheel-drive, but if you’re planning to travel off the beaten path in the mountains or other rough terrain, a four-wheel-drive system would be your best friend. You might also want some handy safety and convenience features for easier driving on the open road like park assist, lane keeping assist, blind spot monitoring, hill start assist and crosswind assist.
- Access doors: The best van for camper conversion should have both a side door and a rear door for easy access and to let fresh air and natural light in. While some vans still have the dated barn doors, a slide side door would be neater and more convenient. You should get a model with a big side door as well as a rear door, where the bed plus underbed storage are typically located in a van. The rear area of a van is also the typical space for storing frequently used gears, tools or where you install a pull-out kitchen or dinette unit for cooking and dining outdoors. So having a rear door is convenient for accessing a lot of things.
- Engine and mileage: The key for hassle-free travel on the road is to get a used van that still has a good engine and the less miles on the odometer the better. Of course it’s a major consideration when buying a new van too. The engine determines
- Fuel efficiency: A campervan is more fuel efficient than bigger motorhomes. Even then, you should still get a fuel efficient van, especially if you camp full-time, since gas bills add up very quickly in the long run.
- Towing capacity: You might want to tow some big gears behind or extra storage compartments. Some campers even tow a portable garden to have a stable supply of herbs and vegetables.
Best Vans For Camper Conversion To Buy Today
A summary of the best van for camper conversion by types:
- Best luxury vans: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
- Best affordable vans: RAM ProMaster, Chevy Express, Ford Transit
- Most well-rounded vans for full-time camping: RAM ProMaster, VW Crafter, Mercedes Sprinter
- Most reliable van with easy maintainable: Ford Transit, RAM ProMaster, Chevy Express
1. RAM PROMASTER
- New: From $31,790
- Used: $15,000-$20,000
Engine: Standard 3.6-liter Pentastar V6
Roof heights from floor to ceiling:
- Low: 64 inches
- High: 74 inches
- 136-inch wheelbase, 213 inches long
- 159-inch wheelbase, 236 inches long
- 159-inch wheelbase extended, 251 inches long
Based on the front-wheel-drive Fiat Ducato, the Ram ProMaster is an iconic van that is chosen as the foundation for many of the best Class B rigs made by prestigious RV manufacturers, including Winnebago Travato, Roadtrek Zion, Pleasure Way Lexor and HymerCar Grand Canyon. It is very well-rounded, suitable for year-round camping but affordable for what it offers. It deserves the top spot in any list of the best van for camper conversion to buy in 2021.
The RAM ProMaster is particularly loved by full-time campers for its generous size. In fact, it offers the most spacious interior among all models on the market, allowing people up to 6 feet tall to sleep side to side. This large living space is partly thanks to one of the lowest floor heights in the industry, owing to the fact that the ProMaster is only available in front wheel drive, thus there’s no drive shaft to the rear wheels. This is a plus, but also a downside, as low ground clearance reduces maneuverability on rough terrain.
The Promaster is available in multiple configurations, with cargo models offering 118-inch, 136-inch, and 159-inch wheelbases. There are two options for interior height, 64 inches and 74 inches from floor to ceiling, which are both quite decent compared to its competitors. Despite its generous width, the ProMaster has a turning radius similar to that of a standard-sized car, and thus is relatively maneuverable in urban areas.
Other features loved by DIY campers are the fine looking interior front dash and the rear cargo area with 90-degree angle sidewalls and a wide space for build outs and a clean, simplified layout.
Professionals and DIY enthusiasts consistently report that this model is the perfect base van that’s easy to work on as well as affordable to maintain in the long run. Due to its popularity, dealers and DIY-ers who have worked and will work on the van are plentiful, so you have a lot of aftermarket support as well as knowledge sharing within the van conversion community.
All in all, the RAM ProMaster is reliable and offers great value for money with its solid build and well-appointed features. The only downside is you can’t convert this van to four-wheel-drive, which limits off-road capabilities when combined with the already low ground clearance. This is probably why compared to similar used vans, the resale value of this model is a bit lower.
So if your priorities are an easy to customize platform, a spacious living space and a reasonable price tag (which you’re not planning for taking on very rough terrain), the Ram ProMaster is the best van for camper conversion to fit the bills.
2. MERCEDES-BENZ SPRINTER
- New: From $36,355
- Used: $10,000-$20,000 (but the larger models get expensive quick)
- 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
Roof heights: Maximum height from floor to ceiling
- Low: 64 inches
- High: 75 inches
Together with the RAM ProMaster and the Ford Transit down below, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is another of the best van for camper conversion widely popular within the DIY campers community. It is also a popular base for many best selling Class B RVs, like the Winnebago Revel, Pleasure-Way Plateau TS and Winnebago Era.
In many ways, the Sprinter is the hallmark of conversion vans. This Mercedes-Benz van is now made in the USA, and always has a long wait-list for the highly desirable new four-wheel-drive model. The MSRP for a new Sprinter starts from $36,355, and used price ranges between $10,000 and $20,000. While it is very rare to find a used four-wheel-drive Sprinter for under $20,000, the rear-wheel-drive model remains an economical choice for the budget DIY campers.
The Sprinter offers longer wheelbase configurations and higher roofs than equivalent vans, thus allowing for very spacious interior space ideal for full-time camping. Available in either a standard 64-inch roof or the 75-inch high-roof model, you can also customize among a 144-inch, a 170-inch and an extended 170-inch wheelbase, plus three engine options and two powertrain options.
With well-configured build outs, the 170-inch wheelbase high roof model has ample headroom so that campers over six feet four inches tall can stand up straight inside, and it can sleep a family of four, which is rare in the camper van market. Another notable feature is the turbo diesel engine, which owners report to have good fuel economy, ranging from just under 20s to low 20s mpg.
Even when the Sprinter is a van, it’s still a Mercedes-Benz. It’s the best luxury conversion van for a reason. This van comes with many sleek and techy features, including the unique touchscreen with intelligent voice control, optional wireless charging and navigation system, smartphone integration, rear-view camera display and a host of safety features like Cross wind assist, Hill start assist, Active Brake Assist and electrically heated and adjustable side mirrors. Being such a well-rounded vehicle with luxury appointments and even four-wheel-drive, it’s not surprising that the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter maintains its resale value better than competitors.
Another thing that makes this van a DIY enthusiast’s dream project vehicle is the tremendous aftermarket support. You can access a huge amount of Sprinter-specific conversion starter kits and components, plenty of dealers who will work on it and plenty of blogs or Youtube tutorial videos that will guide you through the process.
This is undoubtedly among the very best van for camper conversion, if you can afford its price. That said, if you don’t need the four-wheel-drive option, you can choose among plenty of second-hand rear-wheel-drive Sprinters available for a much more reasonable price tag. These rear-wheel-drive models are very well-rounded and reliable too. They will give you great value for money for many years to come as a base vehicle for your conversion project.
As for downside, a few owners do also complain of an overly complicated emissions system. Another downside to note is not many repair shops will work on the Sprinter, which might be a headache if you encounter any problem while traveling off the beaten path. In addition, the maintenance cost on Sprinter vans will add up more quickly than comparable options, partly due to the small number of U.S.-based Mercedes-Benz dealerships.
3. FORD TRANSIT
- New: From $35,020
- Used: $13,000 – $20,000
- 3.7-liter V6
- 3.5-liter Eco-Boost
- 3.2-liter Inline 5 diesel
Roof heights from floor to ceiling:
- Low: 57 inches
- Medium: 72 inches
- High: 81.5 inches
- 130-inch wheelbase, 220 inches long
- 148-inch wheelbase, 236 inches long
- 148-inch wheelbase extended, 264 inches long
Introduced in 2014, Ford Transit is Ford’s rear-wheel-drive replacement for the Econoline/E-Series (which is now offered only as a cutaway chassis cab). The Transit is among the top 3 best van for camper conversion and loved by campers worldwide thanks to its generous interior space, with the highest roof of any van on the market, its affordable maintenance and repair costs, and the fact that the rear-wheel drive Transit can be converted to four-wheel-drive. Better yet, in 2020, Ford offered the Transit in four-wheel drive to provide enhanced traction for better off-road capabilities.
The Ford Transit offers many size configurations and customization options to suit your needs: two wheelbases with an extended wheelbase, three body lengths, three roof heights and three different engine options. Full-time campers report that the engines are capable enough on steep grades and gravel roads and offer decent fuel economy, which ranges between high teens in the city to 20 mpg on the highway.
As for the downsides, many DIY enthusiasts are not very fond of the rather basic front cabin interiors. While it has a comparable resale price with the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, the Transit hit the market later, so it’s harder to find used models for sale.
In addition, while it’s possible to convert a rear-wheel-drive Transit to all-wheel-drive, the wheel wells need to be modified to fit larger tires. Also, the extended 148-inch wheelbase configuration has a longer rear overhang than the standard (which would require the driver to be extra careful when turning at 90 degrees to avoid hitting a vehicle in the adjacent lane).
4. VW Crafter
- New: Panel van Startline From £33,762, Panel van Trendline From £38,934
- Used: From $20,000
- 2.0 L I4 TDI with DPF
- 2.5 L I5 TDI with DPF
Roof heights from floor to ceiling:
- Low: 92.7 inches
- High: 102 inches
Super high: 110 inches
- 136-inch wheelbase, 236 inches long
- 169-inch wheelbase, 269 inches long
- 191-inch wheelbase, 291 inches long
Volkswagen has long been a classic brand loved by business and DIY campers alike, with old-school and aesthetically pleasing models like the Westfalia making waves on Instagram for the past few decades. The VW Crafter is a van that has been quickly gaining popularity in the DIY campervan conversion community for its excellent blend of utility, versatility and comfort. It is now a back-to-back winner of Parkers’ Best Van of the Year award, and for all good reasons.
True to its name, Crafter, and its tagline “Crafted by you. Engineered by us”, the Volkswagen Crafter is designed with a wide range of features and customizable options to cater for different needs, whether you use it for business or recreational purposes. The Crafter is designed more like a cargo van with a modern body style. More practical, economical and innovative than ever before, this classy van comes with the highest roofs in the industry for plenty of headroom for the tall campers, two ceiling heights, three different wheelbases and body lengths, so that you can pick your perfect base van to modify away to your heart’s content.
In addition to the generous interior space and a variety of options, what makes the Crafter the best van for camper conversion is that the manufacturer has primed the van for easy conversion projects, with lashing rails on both walls, 14 recessed lashing rings built into the floor, plus an interior roof rack. You won’t need a lot of additions to the cabin, as there is already ample built-in storage and convenience features to make driving and living comfortable.
Another benefit is this van comes with a host of innovative and intelligent driver assistance systems for the best driving experience, including Front Assist, City Emergency Braking, Crosswind Assist, and optional features like Trailer Assist, Park Assist, and Lane Keep Assist.
The Volkswagen Crafter is made in Europe, so prices vary widely based on where you buy it from as well as the model you choose. The good news is this van is very popular and has been around for awhile, so you won’t have a hard time locating a good deal in the US or other countries, whether you’re buying new or used.
5. Renault Trafic
- New: From $37,155
- Used: $12,000 to $20,000
- 1.6-liter turbo diesel
Roof heights from floor to ceiling: 77.6 inches
- 122-inch wheelbase, 188 inches long
- 138-inch wheelbase, 204 inches long
Another best van for camper conversion by an European manufacturer is the Renault Trafic. This model is a passenger van, which means you’ll need to remove the seats for your conversion. That aside, the interior of the Renault Trafic is already primed to make your build easier, with a spacious living space and modular design, ready as a solid base for any customization project.
The driving cab comes with excellent storage cubbies for your small mobile devices and personal belongings. There’s even the option to add a SpaceClass table in the rear area, which will make your conversion easier and might help to cut down your costs.
A major benefit of the Renault Trafic is its highly efficient as well as powerful high-range 1.6 liter turbo (or twin turbo) diesel engine. It offers a 6.6L/100km fuel economy and smooth rides. The Renault Trafic is also renowned for its great reputation for reliability: long-term maintenance and repairs would be minimal and won’t break the bank. This is an important criteria for an European vehicle, since not all repair shops are familiar with this model, and having a technical breakdown in remote areas means troubles. In this regard, the Renault Trafic scored a point against the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.
The Renault Trafic comes with an array of safety and convenience features to keep you and your companions safe on the open road, including Anti-Lock Braking System, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, ESC (Electronic Stability Control) with load adaptive control, Brake Assist, Roll Over Mitigation, Grip X-Tend, Hill Start Assist, Rear parking sensors, Rear view camera.
In terms of cost, the Renault Trafic starts at £23,450 or $37,155 brand new. Or to have more room in the budget for your conversion, you can hunt for a used model for anywhere between $12,000 and $20,000. For your information, the design and dimensions of the newer models are largely unchanged from the old models from a decade ago, so you’re not missing out on anything.
6. CHEVY EXPRESS/GMC SAVANA
- New: From $33,000
- Used: $10,000-$20,000
- 4.3-liter V6 gas
- 6-liter V8
- 6-liter V8, CNG/LP capable
- 2.8-liter, 4-cylinder diesel
Roof heights from floor to ceiling:
- 52.9 inches
- 135-inch wheelbase, 224 inches long
- 155-inch wheelbase, 244 inches long
The Chevy Express is a popular full-size cargo van (although it’s more like a passenger van) that is available in three versions: 1500, 2500, and 3500. It has been around for nearly four decades. Such a long, tried-and-true lifespan coupling with its affordability means that there are plenty of them roaming the streets, so many repair shops will be familiar with them. Plus, there are plenty of used and older models available at a reasonable price range.
In addition to its price and the availability of used models, this van is also easy and cheap to maintain and repair in the long term. So the Chevy Express might be the best van for camper conversion if you’re on a budget and/or if you typically travel to remote areas where a technical problem would be a total nightmare. These reasons alone make the Express hugely popular within the DIY enthusiasts, and you will find ample aftermarket kits as well as knowledge sharing to make your process easier.
The biggest downside to this affordable van is the low interior height. You won’t be able to stand upright inside, but it might not be a deal breaker for you, if you’re the type to only stay indoor to sleep or if you’re already planning to convert your van into a pop-top or integrate a rooftop tent. The good news is there are plenty of aftermarket components for high roof-conversion that you can choose from. When there are ample used four-wheel-drive Chevy Express for under $20,000, including many for a little over $10,000, the high-roof upgrade might be worth the effort.
The Chevy Express has been used for UHauls and cargo transportation or utility purposes for decades. Despite the low roof, the two wheelbase options allow for lots of interior space to build out the inside, once you remove the seats. Coupling with a highly reliable engine (comes in 4 options) and an extra durable full body-on-frame chassis, this van makes for an excellent base for a campervan conversion. This built-to-last chassis and simple interiors make it very easy to work with, although many campers comment that the Express doesn’t look very modern and lacks the bells and whistles of its fancier counterparts.
The Express has a decent towing capability of 7,400 lbs and a max payload of 4,280 lbs, adequate for most conversion projects. It comes with an array of safety and convenience features for better ride quality, including Hill Start Assist, Rear Vision Camera, electronic stability control system with traction control, Tire Pressure Monitoring System plus a few optional features like Side Blind Zone Alert, Rear Park Assist, and Lane Departure Warning.
Like its cousin GMC Savana, the Chevrolet Express shares the same GMT600 chassis with upgraded engine options, improved drivability and a full body-on-frame construction, which was a huge upgrade from the previous GMT400 platform. Better yet, in 2014, GMC made an all-wheel-drive version of the Chevy Express, and you can find used models listing for under $20,000.
7. Vauxhall Movano
- New: From £23,283
- Used: £9,000 to £14,000
- 2.3-litre biturbo diesel engine
Roof heights from floor to ceiling
- Low: 67 inches
- High: 74.6 inches
- Super high: 84.4 inches
- 125.3-inch wheelbase, 101.7 inches long
- 145-inch wheelbase, 121.4 inches long
- 170.6-inch wheelbase, 147 inches long
Although you might not have heard of this model before, the Vauxhall Movano is a quite popular European van that makes an excellent base platform for van conversion projects.
In terms of choice, it offers a lot: a roomy interior with three wheelbase lengths and three different heights, a fuel-efficient 2.3-litre biturbo diesel engine producing 128bhp to 178bhp, and manual or automatic transmission. The short, standard and long bodied vans are front-wheel-drive, while the two largest body sizes offer rear-wheel-drive with single or twin rear wheels.
You can also choose between a Vauxhall Movano classic panel van which is more suitable for single travelers or couples, or the Doublecab you’re bringing along your family. Even on the shorter models, the cargo area is quite generous, so there are ample opportunities for build outs and customization to transform this van into your dream home on wheels,
Other perks include a host of safety features and convenience features like an infotainment system with a 7-inch touchscreen display and built-in navigation. As for downside, this van is not readily available outside the U.K (this is why you might not have heard of it before) but it might be worth considering since you can still get it shipped to wherever you are.
8. Nissan NV
- New: From $30,640
- Used: $12,000 to $20,000
- 4.0-liter gas V6 with a 5-speed transmission
- 4.0-liter gas V8 engine with a 7-speed transmission
Roof heights from floor to ceiling: 63.6 inches
- 146.1-inch wheelbase, 240.6 inches long
The Nissan NV is a lesser known van, but it is a great option for your van conversion if you’re looking for something with a low-profile for stealth camping with a unique shape. A heads up though, you don’t have a lot of options when it comes to interior heights and wheelbase lengths, but you get decent living space.
Unlike most cargo vans that use 3-sided “C” rails, the Nissan NV Cargo is built on a heavy-duty full-length, fully boxed frame. On top of that, Nissan engineers specially tuned the suspension for a smoother ride. It has up to 323 cu ft of cargo space, a maximum payload of 2,980 lbs, and a towing capacity of up to 9,400 lbs so you can two along some big camping gears or tools.
Safety features are abundant, including 4-Wheel ABS, Tire Pressure Monitoring System, Traction Control, Stability Control, Emergency Braking Assist, Rear Parking Sensors, and Rear View Camera. It’s a bit smaller than other cargo vans, especially a smaller cargo area with the high roof models, but it could work well for a build out, especially if you want a roomier cabin area up front.
As for the engine, you can choose between a V6 engine with a 5-speed transmission or a V8 engine with a 7-speed transmission. Do note that many campers complain that the engine doesn’t allow for very good gas mileage. Another downside is the Nissan NV is only available in rear-wheel-drive, and the basic trim models are really basic. These, plus the smaller interior are reasons why this van is not as popular as the other options on this list.
Why A Campervan Might Be Perfect For You
Compared to the bigger, heavier and more well equipped amenities Class A, Class C, fifth wheels and full-sized travel trailers, there are many benefits to camping in a Class B campervan. Depending on the type of travelers you are, a converted campervan might be just perfect for you.
The first advantage of owning a van is drivability. You’re driving in the van itself (no towing) and thanks to the small chassis, a van is absolutely the easiest camping vehicle to drive around in. There are ample models that can easily fit in any standard parking spot, in your driveway and any campground spot, can go through drive-thrus and other places with low height clearance. This allows for more travel opportunities to far-off destinations that’s impossible to get to in a full-fledge rig.
While a large RV would be tricky to maneuver tight corners or up and down hills in the mountains and would require plenty of practice before your first trip, the beginner campers would feel safer and more comfortable driving on the open road in a van.
Another important factor is long-term fuel efficiency. Due to their size, vans are typically more fuel efficient than the larger and heavier gas-guzzler, thus are cheaper to fuel. In addition, a van is equipped with less amenities and fixtures, so they are more affordable to maintain and repair. Camping in minimalism is actually good, because it forces you to spend time outdoors and make you realize what is essential, and what is just good-to-have.
Another benefit is you won’t need to tow your regular family car behind for excursions or grocery shopping or going to the laundromat, as a van is compact enough for driving around in. Lastly, if aesthetics is important to you, you will love the look of these Instagram-worthy little cuties, especially the classy vintage models.
DIY Van Conversion Project for Camping: Estimated Minimum Cost & Time
A van conversion project might take anywhere from two weeks to half a year. It depends on whether you can work on it full-time or can only dedicate the weekends for it, whether you work alone or with help from someone experienced, whether you buy a used van that requires some repairs before you start on the upgrades or a new one that’s ready for modifications right away, the level of comfort/what amenities you want and the aesthetics you aim for.
Also, instead of cutting, building and fitting everything from scratch, from the floor to the bed to the kitchen counter, you might save more time and frustration by buying ready-made aftermarket conversion kits.
Minimum Costs Breakdown For Van Conversion
The smallest amount you can spend to buy a used van and remodel it into your dream home on wheels is around $8,000 to $10,000. That’s the minimum, but for this range, you only get a tiny van that you can’t stand up straight inside and very little space as well as storage, and most of the time, DIY campers complain about having to spend a lot on repair just to get the van up to working conditions. The most common advice from DIY campers regarding buying a used van is to get the best one you can afford to avoid, say, getting stranded in the middle of nowhere due to your cheapass van breaking down during a trip.
And that amount is only possible if you go thrift hunting for whatever used tools or accessories you can find for cheap to save money. In short, you can easily end up spending at least double, or more likely, triple this amount just to buy a better used van, and some more for high quality, durable insulation, fixtures, furniture, kitchenware and other essentials like camping gears and decorations.
Below is a breakdown of the major expense items involved in buying a used van and give it a makeover to turn it into a home on wheels, assuming a MINIMUM budget of around $8,000 to $10,000:
- A used van: price starts from $7,000 and can vary greatly up to $25,000. You get what you pay for. Getting something with a higher price tag in good working conditions and has a solid platform for a makeover might save you quite a lot of money for upgrades, customization as well as repair and maintenance in the long run.
- Repair budget for the first year: again, this depends on the condition of your used van, and can vary greatly between $500 and $1,500, even more in many cases. That’s no including some $150-$400 for auto parts and fixes.
- Lithium iron phosphate batteries: $1,000
- Van title and tabs: $300-$400
- Lumber and screws: $50-$100. Add in another $20-$45 if you need more for a wooden kitchen counter.
- Water storage: $100-$500. For short trips, you can opt for the affordable collapsible/foldable water containers (about $12-$15 for a 5-gallon container)
- Essentials: $800-$5,000, depending on your demand for comfort, which in turn depends on how big your van is and how long a typical trip is and whether you camp alone or with a companion.
This includes a sink and faucet, a mini fridge, a cooktop (you can get a portable one for cooking outdoors too), cutlery, cookware and utensils, dish drying rack, lighting units, table fan, portable heaters, air conditioning unit, dinette and chairs/ottoman, work desk and stools if you opt for long trips and need to work remotely, and many more, depending on how long you camp, your daily needs and whether your van has enough space for them.
- Storage organizers (this is an essential too): $50-$200, including collapsible hanging shelves, storage cubes, cabinet organizers, fridge organizers, over-the-door shoes organizer, containers for supplies and food.
- Mattress, bedding set, curtains, sofa cushions and other decorations: $400-$800. If you only go on weekend trips and want to go real frugal, opt for thick foam padding instead.
- (Optional) For the adventurous, outdoorsy campers, add in your budget another $200-$1,000 for camping gear and accessories like hammocks, tents, sleeping bags, camping chairs and folding picnic table, mountain bikes, kayak, paddleboards, and climbing or surfing gears.
- (Optional) Bike racks and roof racks for mounting gears for storage: $150-$300 per rack.
- (Optional) Solar panels and charger for off-grid trips: About $300-$400 for a 12V 200W solar kit by Renogy, one of the best sellers of solar kits for camping purposes.
DIY Campervan Conversion: Steps & Tips
Getting Started: Floor Plan & Design
No matter how simple or elaborate you want your dream van to be in the end, one thing that you must do is to design a detailed floor plan. No true DIYer skip this part. Feel free to visualize your space on paper or better yet, on 3D CAD beforehand to avoid concussions and mistakes when you actually get into renovating your van, since you will have to squeeze quite a lot into such a tiny space, even if you opt for minimalism.
Before this visualization step, first, spend some time carefully drafting a list of things you would bring along, divided into must-have items and good-to-have items. This way, it’s easier to trim off anything excessive that you can do without in case you realize there’s not enough space.
When you go about fitting each item into your van, move from the most important and/or bulky items first. The major decision at this stage would definitely be the bed, since it eats up the most space, but you would want the most spacious and comfortable bed possible for a good night’s sleep after a long day on the road. It makes the difference between a camping vehicle and a cozy home.
You have two options. A popular solution is a fixed bed at the rear, built on a raised platform with under-bed drawer storage, hiding your stuff away from view for a clean look. Another popular choice is a lift bed. A lift bed usually consists of boards, which can be assembled by using support units attached to the walls and legs, and can be neatly stored away when not used, thus maximizing living space.
The second important and space-consuming item you should consider is the kitchen/dinette area and/or your workstation, depending on which one you use more frequently on a daily basis. The dinette table and sitting always double duty as the lounge area and work desk, but if there’s enough space, you can customize a more permanent workstation for daily remote working.
If you get a used van, you will need to do some essential prep work on the foundation. This includes getting rid of everything inside the van, like the plumbing van remnants, sanding the rust, cleaning the tar off the floor, putting in insulation, and inevitably some repairs and replacement.
After the cleaning up comes installing and finishing the walls, the floors and the ceiling, some paint work, building or installing the bed platform, and assembling the kitchen counter, putting in the sink, the cooktop and other kitchen appliances like the fridge and microwave.
The Basics: Power
Needless to say, a power inverter is one of the first things you must buy to prepare for the van life. A power inverter converts low-voltage DC (direct current) power produced by your van’s battery or solar panels to standard household AC (alternating current) power to operate your appliances and electrical equipment.
If you don’t know which one to get, grab the Bestek 300W, a favourite by van campers. It only costs $30 and receives an overall 4.5 score from almost 7,000 reviews on Amazon.
The next absolute essential is an ultra high capacity power bank for charging your mobile phones, laptops and ipads. There are many cheap but high quality options, such as Anker’s PowerCore 20100mAh portable charger, which costs $49, a reliable portable charger for long trips.
Green Boondocking with Solar Panels
If you love to boondock in far-off places, without the electrical hookups at RV parks and campgrounds, a sustainable solution for your power needs is to install solar panels on the roof of your van. This option has become increasingly common for full-time RV-ers, since it’s environmentally friendly and will save you quite a large sum of money in the long term, although the upfront cost is not small.
Each panel will cost between $80 to $400 for each panel, depending on the size and quality. You will most likely need only 1 to 2 panels to power all of your appliances, and if you travel in the summer or in sunny places, solar energy might be all you need.
The Basics: Cooling & Heating
If you travel year round into the chilly months, you will need a portable heater. Due to its size, the inside of a van gets heated up pretty quickly, so you won’t need a super expensive, heavy-duty heater. Something compact and easy to store away would do, and of course do check out the reviews to judge a model’s reliability. A pro tips on cheap and effective heating in cooler weather is to use Reflectix.
Reflectix is a reflective roll used to cover the windows and vents to trap as much heat inside the van as possible without letting much escape. The mechanism is simple yet effective: when heat travels to these rolls, it will bounce back. These rolls typically sell for $30-$40 per piece.
By the same mechanism, Reflectix also traps cool air inside your van as well, thus it is an affordable solution for secondary, passive temperature control for four-season camping.
USB fan or Chargeable fan
If you travel in mild weather, a USB fan at night right next to your bed might be all you need to stay cool all night (installed bug screens would be to die for as well). Another option is compact and affordable chargeable fans, which are available in a wide variety on the market and are more heavy-duty than USB fans.
The Basics: Lighting
The interior of a van is quite small, so you can light up the whole space with some battery-powered push lights or solar powered lights. If you want something cute and romantic, LED powered fairy lights provide an amazing and homely ambience to wow your Instagram followers.
Last Updated on May 5, 2021