Ah, the open road. If you’ve been dreaming of ditching the conventional accommodations and taking a more mobile approach to daily life, you may have looked at listings for readymade camper vans and… baulked at the cost. Have you considered converting a used van yourself though? This approach could be far cheaper, more eco-friendly, and give you options not available in showroom models. But which used van models are the best suited to conversion for mobile living?
In the US, there are a good number of excellent options for vans amenable to conversion into mobile camper-style homes. Sure, Europe has even more choice, but there are upsides to choosing a van made stateside, such as greater availability, lower costs overall, and easier repairs.
The classic VW Camper has its merits, but there’s a growing #VanLife crowd finding out first hand the joys of DIY conversion of big, boxy work vans. These used vehicles offer a blank slate to let your imagination run wild and it’s super inspiring to see what different people come up with to create their dream van.
Having scoured van conversion resources and groups, it seems that there are four main contenders for the best used van models for mobile living:
- Mercedes Sprinter
- Dodge Ram ProMaster
- Nissan NV
- Ford Transit.
These are consistently cited as the bees knees for converting for life on the road, with higher roof-spaces, better reliability, and easier conversion key features of these models. Another good choice that is starting to make a splash is the Rivian Electric Truck, which wins hands-down for the most eco-friendly option, given it can be powered without fossil fuels (depending on the electricity source for charging stations). Other popular options include the Chevy Express, Vauxhall Movano, and the VW Crafter, which we’ll also look at below.
In general, converting any of these vans will likely cost you somewhere in the region of $30,000. If you are canny about sourcing used materials, or upcycling materials, conversion could be a lot less. Conversely, if you go for full-on luxury with high spec appliances and finishes, you could easily spend over one hundred thousand on a van conversion. And that’s on top of buying the van in the first place.
So, where to start when thinking about buying a used van for mobile living? Some key requirements include:
- Mileage – how ‘used’ is this van, and how long do you think it has left? There’s little point investing $100k on a van that will only last a couple of years and have no resell value
- Interior height – can those who’ll be living in the van stand up comfortably?
- Wheelbase and length – will the van be easy to park and maneuver?
- Access – do you favor expansive side access, tighter rear access, or a combination (and how will this influence your design?)
- Storage – both in the cabin and in the back, the availability and flexibility of storage will make a big difference to the comfort of van life
- Driveability and reliability – does the vehicle feel easy to handle for you, with good sightlines at your height and preferred seating position. You’ll likely spend many hours of your life in the driving seat, so be sure it’s a good fit and comfortable drive!
Why convert a used van for mobile living?
A few great things about a DIY camper van conversion include the ability to:
- Engineer your set-up to run smoothly on solar panels – pick up a convenient solar kit for a user-friendly DIY approach, or get a professional’s help
- Choose energy efficient mini appliances that work for you (and avoid unnecessary appliances)
- Use eco-friendly insulation and construction materials
- Avoid or replace toxic polyurethane foam and other materials that ruin air quality
- Choose a vehicle that is cheaper and smaller than an RV and much easier to park (without annoying neighbors or falling foul of the law!)
- Save money by doing the work yourself, especially if you upcycle materials.
One not-so-great thing about #VanLife compared to RVing: Most vans don’t have bathrooms or cooking facilities – so, you’re going to have to get creative!
The beauty of doing a van conversion yourself is that you can truly customize. Options may be more restricted across the board if you go with a converted camper pre-built by a dedicated company. Whatever approach you choose, there’s likely a trade-off, so it’s important to sweat the small stuff as even minor details can become major dealbreakers after months on the road.
Every inch matters
Van life means making use of every inch of space. After all, even a typical tiny home can feel palatial compared to a camper van. When planning your van conversion, it helps to measure up (and then measure again!), make a list of the must-have large items you’ll need to make room for, and then start designing using dedicated design software, unless you’re a skilled drawer.
Be sure to take into account the distribution of weight inside the van. Appliances, water storage, and other heavier items can cause camber issues and more wear and tear when concentrated in a smaller area, so be sure to distribute weight as evenly as possibly and/or position heavier items in stronger parts of the vehicle.
Finally, take into account a variety of safety concerns, including any window and door access problems, and potential fire hazards from rewiring electrics. If you plan to install bathroom facilities or cooking appliances, think carefully about hygiene, health, and safety, keeping water and electrics separate, for instance.
Is this used van a lemon disguised as a peach?
Whether you’re buying a used van for conversion or just buying a used car as a little runaround, there are some basic checks that can help you avoid buying a dud. At minimum, here are five things to do when assessing a used van or car:
- Check the engine for signs of wear and tear – looks under the chassis and check the panels for any signs of rust (including any that have been covered up!)
- Feel the bonnet before starting the engine – if it’s warm, let it cool before turning the ignition. Why? Because some dealers and sellers try to hide a dud engine by warming up before you arrive. If an engine starts first time when cold, that’s a good sign
- Check the exhaust for soot – if you can, hold a piece of paper (or just your hand) by the tailpipe when the engine is running. Black soot is a good indication this isn’t a healthy van
- Check the seatbelts – even if you’re being told the mileage of a used van is low, and the odometer says as much, a frayed and worn seatbelt (pull it out all the way) is a good indication something nefarious is afoot and this van has seen a lot of mileage.
- Check with the DVLA and ask lots of questions – At minimum, you’ll want to get a full history of previous owners and ask the current owner for records of repairs and maintenance. Ideally, take a mechanic or a very experienced friend with you to check out a van before buying or book the van into a mechanic for assessment before any money changes hands.
Okay, onto the vans!
Price: $35,000-$57,000 (New)
The Mercedes Sprinter is the go-to conversion van for mobile living, and for good reason. This cargo van is fun to drive, has a range of safety features and high-tech wizardry, and is available in several lengths, with different wheelbase and roof height options offering various amounts of interior space.
Inside the cab you’ll find everything you expect from Mercedes, including high-end, high-tech controls. This can be a real plus but also has a potential downside as certain problems could be hard and costly to fix if you get stuck somewhere without a Mercedes-loving mechanic or replacement parts. In contrast, a Ram ProMaster or Ford Transit can be a breeze to fix, with parts easy to come by.
The Sprinter is available in several models in two different wheelbase lengths – 144 inches and 170 inches – and with either a low roof of 67.7 inches or a high roof of 79.1 inches (standing room). If you opt for the high roof, 170 inch long Sprinter, you may be able to configure things to sleep a family of four. Some conversion companies have even managed to pack a family of six into a Sprinter! And if you’re over 6’4” tall, you’ll still have room to stand up. In the longer model, with a higher roof for storage space, you may be able to fit a small washroom.
There are also options for two powertrains and a new four-wheel drive option. Buying used probably means having to forego the four-wheel drive though as this model isn’t yet widely available on the secondhand market. Thankfully, because Mercedes Sprinters are so popular, spares and parts are easy to come by and there’s a lot of specialty after-market gear designed with this specific van in mind. That said, you may want to check to see if there’s a Mercedes specific mechanic in your area before committing to this make.
You may even be able to track down an already converted van. But if you’re planning on doing the conversion yourself, you won’t lack for inspiration and advice as conversion layouts and forum discussions are abundant online, such as the Sprinter Forum.
Price: $30,640+ (New)
The basic model of the Nissan NV only gives you about 55 inches of standing room, but opt for the high roof model and you can stand up just fine even if you’re 6’3” tall. There are three main models of the Nissan NV, with the NV 2500 and 3500 models all including high roof options and V6 or V8 engines. There are lots of configuration and trim options, and a great commercial van warranty if you’re buying new, but these vans are also popular as conversion vans for mobile living, so check used listings first.
Overall, the Nissan NV is a bit smaller and lower-profile than the Mercedes Sprinter, making it good for stealth living and camping, should that be an issue. This van also has a generously sized cabin, making it a comfortable drive.
The main downside of the Nissan NV is lower fuel efficiency compared to some other vans popular for conversion. The standard trim is also very basic, so expect to put some work into this one. That said, the basic approach has the advantage of making the Nissan NV quite a bit more affordable than the Sprinter and because there’s less cargo space to convert, your renovations will also probably cost a bit less.
All in all, the Nissan NV is a really smart choice for life on the road for a single person or very minimalist couple, especially if you want an off-roading van for some serious adventuring (you can convert the Nissan NV to 4 x 4). For a family, you probably want to go with the Mercedes Sprinter.
Conversion company Recon Campers uses the Nissan NV200 commercial grade van to build their Envy camper. This converted van has a pop top that features a spacious upper bed, with a galley kitchen below that houses a stainless steel fridge, sink, and pantry as well as a portable stove for inside or outdoor cooking. There are two drawers under the bench seat (which folds down into another bed) for more storage space. Envy campers come prewired for solar, and you can add a portable 100-watt solar system to your build if desired. They even have eco-friendly acoustic and thermal insulation in all wall cavities behind panels, which is made from recycled plastic and doesn’t off-gas like polyfoam.
Best of all is the price. With the Nissan starting at around $30k, and the Envy conversion package starting at around $35k, you could be looking at a fully functional brand new converted van for mobile living for under $70k.
Price: $24,275-$41,000 (New)
The Ford Transit van is a classic commercial van and also ideal for #VanLife. American-made, this van was introduced in 2014 and is easy to maintain and repair because parts and knowledgeable mechanics are a dime a dozen. The Transit comes in three body lengths and three roof configurations, one of which gives 72 inches of standing height and two high-roof long and extra-long versions have over 81 inches of standing height!
The 2020 Ford Transit boasts intelligent all-wheel drive, making this a great choice if you plan on tackling mud, ice, and snow in your van. Models made prior to 2020 are rear-wheel drive, so be sure about your needs before buying.
Ford Transit vans have a pretty basic cabin, so don’t expect all the bells and whistles of a Mercedes Sprinter, or the roominess of a Nissan NV. Instead, this van is made for getting places quickly and efficiently, then offering you a great cargo space in which to relax after your latest grand adventure out on the trails.
Ford Transits are known for their maneuverability and are narrower than many other vans popular for conversion for mobile living. This may make the Transit a great choice to tuck into narrower spaces, but could also cramp your conversion style. That said, the shape of these vans makes it easy to add wood paneling and other interior touches without a lot of hassle.
Price: $30,245+ (New)
The ProMaster comes with front-wheel drive and is available with 118-inch, 136-inch and 159-inch wheelbases and in two different heights – 66 inches and 76 inches (someone 6’2” can stand up in the high-roof version). The 159-inch wheelbase is one of the widest conversion van options available and can accommodate a standard full-sized mattress side to side! The Sprinter, Transit, and other vans make you sacrifice length for the bed as they are too narrow to accommodate a mattress side to side.
The front-wheel drive offers good traction and fuel economy, and the cabin is a bit nicer than the Ford Transit, but still not as fancy as the Sprinter. Inside the cargo area, 90-degree sidewalls and all the width open up excellent conversion options.
The downsides include low ground clearance and poorer maneuverability than the other vans on this list, but if you’re not planning on any wild adventures off the highway, this van is still a great choice, offering excellent value. It can also tow a decent amount, so if you have a bike trailer or other storage trailer, this is a great option.
Built in the US, the Dodge Ram ProMaster is simple and cost effective to repair and maintain, although this van doesn’t enjoy quite the same reputation for reliability as the Mercedes Sprinter.
If you’re looking for a plug and play conversion kit for your ProMaster, consider Wayfarer Vans. They offer kits for several models of ProMaster (and Ford Transit), starting at just over $5k, with most DIY conversion kits priced around $10k. These kits include 100% natural wool insulation, among many other things.
Price: $32,500+ (New)
If you’re not all that tall, or if you are game to replace the roof of your van with a pop-top or fiberglass roof, the Chevy Express may be just the ticket. A longstanding commercial vehicle, the Express is available in many shapes and sizes, all of which boast a well-built chassis and simple interiors. Having been around for 40+ years, it’s easy to find a used Chevy Express just ripe for conversion.
The main downside of the Chevy Express is that, well, it’s got a simple interior and little chance of being able to stand up straight inside. That said, the lack of height means less drag and it does feel roomy in its own way. A Chevy Express can be very comfortable after a successful conversion. And the classic van look means it’s a great choice for stealth camping.
Chevy has a reputation for reliability and durability, but even if something does go wrong, a mechanic and parts will be easy to find.
Price: About $28,000+ (New)
The Vauxhall Movano is one of the tallest vans around, with a fiberglass roof that lends itself well to some fun custom builds (such as installing a log-burning stove!). On the shorter side, the Movano is easy to park, but does come in three different heights and four different lengths. Even in the shorter length builds, the Movano offers decent cargo space.
The Movano is offered with manual or automatic transmission and the engine is diesel, but fuel efficient. European-made, this van can be a bit trickier to find and maintain in the US.
The Vauxhall Movano is a good option for families and has a lot of extra safety features. It also has a smart infotainment system with Apple CarPlay™ and Android Auto™, all navigable via a 7-inch touchscreen.
Price: $53,000+ (New)
The VW Camper may be the best-known campervan, but its cousin, the VW Crafter is a great choice for a less conventional conversion van for mobile living. Better yet, it’s much easier to find parts in the US to service the Crafter than it is for the VW Camper. Why? Because unlike the Camper, VW still make the Crafter!
With a long wheelbase and the ability to navigate tough terrain, the VW Crafter also boasts a higher roof, modern body, and an interior roof rack which lends itself to custom conversions. There are also 14 recessed lashing rings built into the floor and lashing rails on the side walls. There’s also built-in storage in the cabin.
Price: $75,000+ (New)
We couldn’t wrap things up without mentioning at least one electric truck for camper conversion. The Rivian Electric Truck is a great choice if you want to take your eco-principles on the road. This beast gets more than 300 miles on a single charge (they plan on introducing a 400+ mile model in 2022), has impressive off-road capabilities, and can be converted with a pop-up tent and pull-out kitchen, along with dedicated storage space for all your gear. It also boasts various components made with recycled materials, and vegan leather interiors.
Need a custom campervan build but don’t have the time or skills to do it yourself? Outside Van and Sportsmobile offer a range of off-the-rack and custom builds, and even sell readymade converted vans.
If you are going it alone, you’re not really alone. That’s thanks to the plethora of online forums of van conversion enthusiasts chock full of useful advice and inspiration. Check out the VanDwellers Reddit and the Vanual.