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The Best Vans For Affordable Camper Conversion

7 minute read

By Devon Taylor

#VanLife has become one of social media’s hottest trends and people from all walks of life are getting aboard. It’s easy to see why. The appeal of adopting a nomadic lifestyle on the open road awakens the romantic idealist in all of us.

Even if you’re more of a dabbler than a full-time #VanLifer, you’ll need a vehicle. Converted campervans are generally considered the best option. They’re roomy and practical, with ample space for sleeping and other essentials. The van models profiled in this guide have all scored major points with enthusiasts. Use it as a springboard for your own vehicle research.

Why You Should Consider a Campervan Conversion

Automakers already produce vehicles that come off the assembly line 100% ready for #VanLife. So why spend the time converting a regular van into a campervan when you can just buy a campervan?

For most people, the answer comes down to money. Campervans are readily available, but they tend to be very expensive. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one extends to labor costs. Campervans take a lot more work to build than regular passenger vehicles. Thus, manufacturers recoup these costs by passing them on to the buyer. Converting a regular van is therefore usually cheaper, even after factoring in your own labor.


Legal Considerations

Legal specifics vary a bit from one U.S. state to the next. However, in general, it’s totally legal to drive a converted campervan as long as it meets applicable standards. The vehicle must meet these standards for you to register or certify it.

When you register your converted van, you’ll likely be identifying it as a campervan or motorhome. To be eligible, your vehicle should:

The best thing to do is check the guidelines in the state where you plan to register the vehicle. Do this before you even purchase a van, let alone carry out the conversion. You’ll need to plan carefully to make sure you meet all applicable guidelines.

Popular Van Models for Campervan Conversion

Some van models convert into campervans more readily than others. The vehicles featured here have all scored strong recommendations from online #VanLife communities. They’re relatively affordable, easy to convert, and practical to drive (and live in) once the conversion is complete.

Note that this is not an exhaustive list. There are many other van models that will convert just as well as those profiled here. You’ll also need to factor in your lifestyle plans. The appeal of certain vehicle options may change if you’re only expecting to use your campervan on weekends or holidays. If you’re serious about #VanLife, supplement these vehicle highlights with your own research.


Ram ProMaster

Pretty much every authoritative list of the best vehicles for campervan conversion includes the Ram ProMaster. It’s got everything your typical #VanLifer could ask for: lots of room, multiple size options, and tons of towing capacity. The sizing options also extend beyond length to include wheelbase and clearance height. For campervan converters, this means you’ll have lots of leeway for getting creative.

The Ram ProMaster made its North American debut in the 2013 model year. In general, the vehicle appears to age well and remains reliable even with higher mileage. You can research average resale costs and local availability here.


GMC Savana

GMC’s Savana offers a generously sized interior: the 2021 model (extended format) features 283.6 cubic feet of space. While large and roomy, the vehicle is not the biggest convertible van you’ll find. This makes it practical for city driving and parking (which are unfortunately still part of #VanLife). It also has a powerful engine capable of putting out more than 400 horsepower.

The one major consideration to keep in mind here is fuel economy. GMC has been notoriously reluctant to publish clear, accurate fuel economy ratings for this vehicle. Anecdotal evidence suggests it’s a bit of a gas guzzler, which elevates both your operational costs and your carbon footprint.

Source: GMC

Nissan NV

#VanLifers rave about the Nissan NV for its rugged durability and power. If you’re looking for a model capable of doing some light off-roading, the NV scores serious points. It’s also a roomy vehicle, with standard seating for up to 12 passengers. The seats can be reconfigured in hundreds of ways (324, to be exact) to accommodate kitchenettes, cabinets, and other must-haves.

If you choose to buy your Nissan NV new, ask your dealer to tell you about factory conversion options. These allow you to pick up your new vehicle with most of the features you want built-in. Sourcing a used NV is another solid option: they have generous warranties and are extremely reliable even at high mileage.


Mercedes Sprinter

This famous German automaker is best-known for its luxury vehicles. Yet, Mercedes-Benz also makes some of the most reliable cargo vans on the market. They’ve become heavily sought after among #VanLife enthusiasts for several reasons, including elite reliability. Mercedes Sprinter vans are also available in various height configurations, all of which offer ample headroom.

Beyond a complete lineup of advanced safety features, the Sprinter also shines for its practicality. The van’s roomy interiors can comfortably sleep four people after conversion, making the Sprinter a popular family option. If it matters, the Mercedes emblem also carries a touch of extra prestige.


Chevy Express

Chevrolet’s Express van lineup comes in two trims: the Express Cargo and the Express Passenger. Both vehicles feature cavernous interiors, making either one a solid option for campervan conversion. That said, it’s worth noting that the Express Passenger offers standard seating for up to 15 people pre-conversion. You’ll find no shortage of ways to reconfigure those seats after carrying out your modifications.

Another appealing aspect of the Chevy Express van line is its track record of reliability. The vehicle is renowned for its solid build. It’s rugged yet practical and reasonably sized, delivering a great driving experience no matter where your travels take you.


Ford Transit

If you’re looking for a cargo van that maximizes your modification options, check out the Ford Transit. When purchased from the dealership, standard versions of this vehicle come with only two seats. That means you’ll have virtually limitless choice when it comes to reconfiguring the interior.

Newer versions of the Ford Transit also feature a long list of advanced technology, media, and safety options. These might benefit you if you’re planning long-term road trips and need internet connectivity. Ford made a WiFi hotspot standard with the Transit starting in the 2020 model year. Intelligent all-wheel drive is another added bonus, especially for #VanLifers planning wintertime treks.


Volkswagen ID Buzz

Volkswagen recently launched a new van model known as the ID Buzz. It’s a throwback to the iconic VW “hippie vans” of the 1960s, and it’s generating major — pardon the pun — buzz in the automotive world. Volkswagen plans to launch the vehicle in select markets in 2022. Some industry insiders speculate that VW revived the van line hoping to cash in on the #VanLife trend. Early reviews have been very positive.

If you’re thinking about buying a new van, you might want to consider this model. That’s doubly true if style points matter to you, as the Volkswagen ID Buzz definitely makes a bold statement. On the other hand, the Buzz is a completely electric vehicle. That means you can’t camp out too far from a charging source for too long, or you’ll risk being stranded.


How Much Does a Conversion Cost?

Conversion costs vary, sometimes wildly. Some #VanLifers have completed conversions for $1,000 or less. Others have spent $100,000 or more. It partially depends on which modifications you plan to carry out, and the materials you choose to use.

According to experienced #VanLife enthusiasts, electricity is usually the most expensive aspect of the job. Most people opt for an off-grid electricity setup that uses solar panels. This typically costs at least $1,500 and can run up to $4,000 or more. All told, most people spend between about $5,000 and $15,000 to put together a fully functional campervan.


Final Thoughts

While most #VanLife newcomers choose to convert a used van, you don’t have to. You can also purchase a new cargo or passenger van for use as your future campervan. The same general set of considerations applies, but you’ll enjoy the reliability advantages of having a brand-new vehicle. However, keep in mind that your modifications may nullify certain aspects of your vehicle warranty.

It’s also very important to keep your conversion legal, and not just for vehicle registration purposes. The standards in place are designed for your health and safety. Don’t cut corners, especially when it comes to electricity, electrical connections, insulation, and ventilation.

Devon Taylor

Managing Editor

Devon is an experienced writer and a father of three young children. He's simultaneously trying to build college funds and plan for an eventual retirement. He's been in online publishing since 2013 and has a degree from the University of Guelph. In his free time, he loves fanatically following the Blue Jays and Toronto FC, running, camping with his family, and playing video games.



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