If you’ve decided you want a conversion van but aren’t sure what type of van to choose or how to convert it, this post lays out some of the options. After exploring different options for living on the road, we chose to convert a utility van- mainly driven by the ability to save money on a custom conversion by doing the work ourselves.
Professional Conversion: Conversions are offered by a variety of commercial companies, typically either pre-built models (Airstream Interstate and Atlas series, Winnebago View series) or built-to-order(Sportsmobile, Outsidevan, Van Specialties, Colorado Camper Van) with prices of >$40k in addition to the base vehicle. For the owner, the van buildout is simplified to picking choices from a menu and swatches from a palette of options. Many of these companies use engineered materials that give their interiors a feeling similar to a conventional car: plastic or fabric surfaces in muted colors. A few boutique firms (e.g. Townsend Travel Trailers) are now offering designs that appeal to millennial tastes for rustic or modern designs.
If you don’t want to go with a full professional conversion, you can often hire a smaller local conversion shop to do a portion of the work (e.g. electrical, plumbing, heating, cabinetry), but do the rest yourself- this approach has been taken by friends like TraipsingAbout and TheDangerz.
- Cost: $40-100k+, plus vehicle
- Time required: Minimal
- Pros: tried-and-true, no time requirement, battle-tested designs
- Cons: Expense, limited control of materials
DIY Conversion: We chose to do the conversion ourselves as we didn’t have the budget for a commercial conversion and wanted more control over our design. The time and budget for a DIY conversion can vary dramatically- from spending $2000 on lumber, insulation, and a nice cooler, to spending $20k on high-end parts and components. Our conversion cost about $10-12k all-in.
- Cost: $2-20k, plus vehicle
- Time required: Typically 100-1000 hours (we expected ~200 hours, probably took ~600 hours)
- Pros: Low cost, high control
- Cons: Intensely time-consuming, needs lots of research, make all the mistakes yourself
As they are built on a standard vehicle body, conversion vans are limited by their ‘skeleton.’ Prior to the introduction of the Sprinter van in 2002, the only vans available in the US had a low roof similar to a minivan or SUV (less than 5ft interior height). While it is possible to add a raised fiberglass roof to some vehicles (typically >$10k) or a pop-up top (typically >$20k), this distinction separates most designs.
Low-roof DIY conversion:
Ford Econoline, Chevy Express, GMC Savana, Dodge Ram B-series: These are the cheap way of getting into the conversion van market, with lots of vehicles available for low prices ($2-20k). These were the mainstay of van conversions before the Sprinter was introduced. Four wheel drive variations of the Ford Econoline and GMC/Chevy vans were the only 4WD van options available prior to the introduction of the 4WD Sprinter in 2015. Alex Honnold’s first van is a great example of an Econoline build-out.
High-roof Conversion van:
If you want to stand up in your van but don’t want to deal with a fabric-sided pop-up, a high-roof van is the way to go. The Sprinter van has become iconic because it was the only high-roof stock vehicle offered in the US between its introduction in 2002 and the introduction of the Ford Transit and Dodge Promaster in 2013. As a result, used Sprinter vans have been a popular conversion chassis, and the market of used vehicles continues to grow.
However, there are very few 4WD high-roof vehicles: the only 4WD options are to buy a stock 4WD Sprinter (starting at $45k, but may have a waitlist), or spend >$40k converting an existing vehicle.
- Cost: $12-30k used, $35k+ new
- Pros: Standing height inside, lots of cargo room
- Cons: Limited options, higher price may have expensive service
The following highlights some of our conclusions that we looked at conversion vans for our own project. Note that each of these vans is also available in a low-roof (and sometimes medium-roof) version; be sure you know what you’re buying:
Sprinter. There are two designs of the Sprinter: the T1N (2002-2006) and the NCV3 (2007 onwards). The T1N sprinters were branded as Dodge, Freightliner, and Mercedes; the newer vans are all sold under the Mercedes logo. This article provides a great description of the differences between the two; for us the main concern became price, as we didn’t need the 6’4” ceiling of the NCV3 and it was hard to get a NCV3 with <300k miles for <$15k in 2016 when we bought our van. If shopping for a used van, most Sprinter engines last 300-400k miles, but repairs can be expensive and take a long time when they are needed due to limited availability of parts and trained technicians. There is an excellent community forum at Sprinter-source.com and accompanying (limited) wiki.
- Cost: $10-30k used; $40k+ new
- Pros: Large community, reliable engine/mechanics, good fuel economy (>20mpg diesel)
- Cons: Limited parts availability, few trained technicians, expensive for vehicle age
Ford Transit: Introduced in the US in 2013, the Transit has been sold internationally since 1965 and so represents a well-proven design. Limited US distribution in the first few years has meant that there haven’t been too many DIY conversion vans built on these (check out Vannathetransit for an example). I would expect that as the market of used vehicles increases, so will the number of DIY campers.
- Cost: 20-30k used; $35k+ new
- Pros: Good support and maintenance network
- Cons: Expensive, shorter-lived engine than diesel, lower fuel economy than Sprinter
Dodge Promaster: A rebranded Fiat Ducato, the Dodge Promaster has some design features that make it great for converting: a wider interior (at 6ft 2” above the wheel wells) make it easier to put a bed sideways, and nearly-vertical walls make it easier to fit wall and ceiling panels. This has made it the van of choice for Alex Honnold, and there are other great Promaster builds emerging (see Pedro the Promaster, Alex Honnold’s new van, and and this great design). However, there have been some complaints of chronic mechanical issues, and support for the Fiat engine may not be as good as conventional Dodge, Ford, or Mercedes vehicles.
- Cost: $20-30k used, $35k+ new
- Pros: Wide interior, flat walls, good ceiling height
- Cons: Some mechanical and support issues, lower fuel economy than Sprinter
I haven’t covered the Nissan NV Cargo van, as I don’t know anyone who’s used it- this is a newer van, but offers a lot of space.
What Wheelbase is Right for You?
In addition to offering low-roof and high-roof version, these vans each come in a variety of lengths (called wheelbase, the length between the front and rear axles). Shorter vans are more maneuverable, easier to park, and more affordable. Longer vans offer more storage space and more living space. I’m only familiar with the Sprinter vans, which have three lengths
118″ (NCV3 128″): You aren’t planning on using this for more than weekends, right? Good- because your bed sticks out past the door, and you don’t have much room to cook or live in without getting creative. This length is rare because it’s frankly too short to be practical for a lot… though it parks easily!
140″ (NCV3 144″): The most common conversion length, particularly for NCV3 sprinters. This still fits in standard parking spaces, is fairly easy to parallel park, and isn’t long enough to worry much about high-centering or scraping the back on dirt roads. Oriented lengthwise, the bed ends just before the side door and leaves about 4-5 feet of living and cooking space. This is a great size for one person to live in long-term, or two people who are creative about their space and are good at downsizing. Examples which we love include the Sprintervandiaries, Traipsingabout, and TheDangerz.
158″ (NCV3 170″): We own a 158″ T1N sprinter from 2005, and it’s a great size for permanent living with two people and two dogs. While we didn’t think we’d be able to fit everything, the van is so big that we we actually ended up with some extra storage room that we don’t use! The extra length means that this is harder to park and a bit underpowered on steep hills- though we still squeeze into perpendicular-parking spots and can hold 55mph up Tioga Pass. The newer NCV3 extends the wheelbase by an additional foot, making it a bit longer and more awkward to park.