You’ve seen the many awe-inspiring van lifers on Instagram. You’ve probably seen their magazine-worthy Sprinter van conversions. And now you’re ready to ditch your 9-5, own a home mortgage-free and travel the country. The first step in starting your van life journey begins with selecting the best van for a camper conversion.
Planning a Trip in the time of COVID?Keep in mind that information found in this article may have been impacted by travel restrictions and other closures. Double check opening hours, tour providers and hotel status before you go. And don't leave your home without travel insurance! If you are looking for an insurance provider that covers COVID-19, we recommend SafetyWing. Get Medical and Travel Insurance starting at just $40/month and you can sign up even if your trip has already started!
So where do you begin? There are so many different roof heights, wheelbases, and models available that may all look similar. But, it offer different pros and cons depending on your lifestyle and needs.
This guide will give you the lowdown on what to look for. Why these things matter when choosing the best conversion van campers? We’ll go through some of the top options for vans in North America, Europe, and Australia/New Zealand. Let’s take a look at what makes these vans so popular.
We did loads of research when shopping for our camper van, Benji. All of these considerations helped us decide on what was most important to us. It helped us understand how each one affected the van conversion process.
What to Look for When Choosing the Best Van for Camping Conversion
Searching for the best conversion van for camping can be overwhelming. You have to make sure that the van is in good shape mechanically. You also need to consider many factors that will affect van lifestyle. Some mechanics or dealerships might stare at you like you’re crazy for asking questions about fitting a bed inside or if there’s room for a shower, but selecting the right van to camper conversion starts with evaluating some key elements.
The height of your van conversion will affect you in more ways than you think. First, you need to figure out if you can stand up in your potential van and decide how important this is to you.
You might be thinking, “of course I want to be able to stand up!” which is totally understandable, but different roof heights have different advantages too.
High Roof/High Top Van
- Can give you more headspace and more storage space
- The best option for full-time van life. It’s ergonomically more practical and it maximizes the tiny square footage that you have
Cons: Can make driving in strong winds trickier and limit your options for indoor parking and drive-throughs.
Standard Roof Van
- Allow you to park and drive anywhere a regular vehicle can, while high top vans are considered oversized in some cities and on ferries.
- Perfect for weekend trips or stealth camping – if you want to blend in a city environment
(we’ll dive deeper into the “stealth factor” later on)
- Too low to stand inside, which can make full time living more difficult, especially when there is no option to go outside due to bad/cold weather
To figure out what roof height you should opt for, consider how you’ll be using your van.
When it comes to fuel, most vans run on either gasoline or diesel. Gas stations around the world offer both for relatively similar prices, so what’s the difference? Just like roof heights, fuel type is largely dependent on how you’ll be using your van.
Gasoline is all about getting the most power out of every drop of fuel, which is great for horsepower and short hauls with a lot of stop-and-go driving. Gasoline engines are much more common, making them easier to fix with more accessible and affordable parts. Simply put, gas is the best option for a van to campervan conversion if you’ll be doing lots of city driving and shorter distance trips.
Diesel, on the other hand, is all about torque and long hauls. If you’re looking to do a bunch of cross-country road trips or might be towing a trailer, diesel is the best option. Just think about semis, they run on diesel because they’re designed to be driven for long distances at steady speeds. With these hearty engines comes more expensive repair and maintenance costs, but if driven in optimal conditions, a diesel engine is built to last and can have better fuel economy.
Your wheelbase is the distance between your front and rear wheels. This affects the length of your van and its weight distribution. The most common cargo van for van conversions, the Mercedes Sprinter, comes in a 144” or 170” wheelbase. The 170” wheelbase also offers extended bodies, where the back of the van extends even further past the rear wheels.
Selecting which wheelbase is right for you starts with determining how much interior space you need for living and storage, and the importance of being able to fit into a regular parking spot. Long vans require big parking spaces that not all parking lots have, so consider this if you plan to do lots of urban exploring. It shouldn’t be much of an issue if you’re going to stick to highways and dirt roads.
We have a 170” wheelbase Sprinter van and it is the perfect size to fit a table that we can both sit comfortably, a kitchen area with plenty of counter space, and an elevator bed that runs lengthwise so we never have to worry about feeling squished—a big victory in a van!
A van with 4×4 capabilities can be an amazing option for limitless off-road travel but carries a high price tag to match. A 4×4 van conversion for camping is great for leading you to incredible and unexpected locations while performing well in the snow and on sandy beaches. Opting for a 4×4 opens you up to more rugged adventures, but the benefits really end there.
Most 2WD vans can still handle some pretty rough roads with ease—even with low ground clearance. Snow, mud, and sand can still be tackled with the right tires and recovery gear, like tire chains and these traction boards, which should be staples in any van conversion. Unlike cars, cargo vans use rear-wheel-drive instead of front-wheel-drive, which helps with power and towing abilities. Less weight on the front tires also makes for better gas mileage.
While a 4×4 may seem very attractive from an adventure standpoint if you’re looking for the best van to live in full time, a 2WD model more than makes the cut. The 2WD models are also way more readily available.
Dual or Single Rear Wheel
Selecting a Single Rear Wheel (SRW) or a Dual Rear Wheel (DRW), more commonly referred to as a “dually,” really boils down to a few things.
Pros & Cons of a Dually
Pros: A dually is meant to tow heavy payloads like trailers, boats, and campers, and provide extra stability on rough terrain while doing so.
The biggest benefit of a dually in the best sprinter van conversion is that you can load up your build with lots of weight without worrying about the capacity of the truck.
Want real tile? No problem? 100lb live edge countertop? Done!
We didn’t intend to buy a dually when choosing our own Sprinter Van, but we do enjoy the benefits of that extra carrying capacity.
Cons: Opting for a dually, like the Sprinter 3500, does mean that you will need to design a layout for your van conversion that accommodates the bigger wheel wells in the back, but it also means that the weight of your build will be plenty stable. If you don’t have lots of towing in your future, the extra two tires will just create more vehicle weight, worse gas mileage, and reduced space in your cargo area.
As we mentioned in some of the above factors, being able to blend in with regular, non-vehicle dwelling vans is what’s referred to as “stealth.” If your van life dreams are all about sleeping under the stars in the forest, then stealth isn’t really something you need to worry about. If you plan to do some city exploring and urban camping, opting for a van that doesn’t scream “I live in this” is something to consider.
When choosing the best vans to convert to campers where stealth is a factor, you’ll want to opt for a standard cargo van, like a Mercedes Sprinter or a Chevy Express. These vans are usually plain white, don’t have windows, and could pass as a repair or delivery truck—AKA, not the type of van many people would think is home. One thing to keep in mind is that many of the things that make van living comfortable, like roof vents or solar panels, are dead giveaways of a camper van.
So, if stealth is your priority, you will have to sacrifice A LOT to make sure your van does not blow your cover.
Every van lifer has a different budget and with the extensive range of vans available, there really is something out there for everyone. Of course, the higher your budget, the more options there will be but there are plenty of used cargo vans out there that are just waiting to be converted into a campervan.
Something to consider when choosing the best vans for conversion is that the cost of your van is completely separate from the cost of your build. So, if you blow your whole budget on a top of the line 4×4, you’ll have to skimp out on building out your living space. Similarly, you could get an amazing deal on a used van and have a bigger budget for a better solar system, for example.
Best Vans for Camper Conversions in North America
North America is full of new and used cargo vans ranging in size, capability, and price. If you’re searching for a van to convert to a camper in the USA or Canada, these models are a great place to start.
The Ford Transit is an excellent candidate for the best van for camper conversion because it comes in many different sizes at a price tag that’s much lower than some of its competitors. The Transit was introduced in 2014, replacing Ford’s previous E-Series vans, and shook up the Sprinter van-dominated world of campervan conversions.
While previous versions of the Ford Transit were all rear-wheel-drive, the new 2020 model boasts an all-wheel-drive version that should be handy in snow and rougher terrains.
Size: Ford Transits come in three different lengths with wheelbases ranging from 130” to 148”. There are regular body, long body, and extended body models that reach a maximum length of 22’ 2” which makes for a very roomy living area.
Height: There are three different height options available ranging from 4’ to 6’5”. The tall roof makes the Ford Transit the tallest van on the market.
Price Range: Base model 2021 cargo vans start at USD $30,000 (CAD $39,095) and can get up to USD $44,000 (CAD $57,000) for the extended long body options. Used models are of course cheaper, but not as easy to find since the van is so new.
Pros: Beyond the versatile size and height options, the Ford Transit wins for cost and ease of repairs. Ford parts are easy to find, affordable anywhere in North America, and don’t require specialized mechanics to work on them. These vans are also known to handle well and the standard V6 engine is powerful enough for most van lifers’ needs.
Cons: You’ll most likely need to buy new or search broadly to find a used option because the model is so new compared to other van options.
Best For: The Ford Transit is best for tall people who are sick of hitting their heads on the ceiling of their van and those looking for a spacious camping van at a reasonable price.
Mercedes Benz Sprinter
The Mercedes Sprinter van is undeniably the most popular option for a campervan conversion. Appearing in Instagram feeds everywhere, this German-designed cargo van is considered one of the best vans for van life due to its size and reliability. It comes in various configurations that make it a versatile blank canvas for anyone looking to do a DIY camper conversion.
While modern versions carry all Mercedes branding, you’ll find some Dodge-branded Sprinters that were made between 2003-2009 during a brief stint of Chrysler-based distribution in the US. Beyond the branding and a few style details, these Sprinter vans are virtually the same and both make excellent options for a home on wheels.
Size: Mercedes Sprinter Vans are built on two different wheelbases: 144” and 170”. The 144” WB is a good option for a compact van that’s able to cruise through cities with ease. The 170” WB offers more living space with two lengths (regular and extended) for those looking to add extras. 170WB can accommodate a bathroom or extra storage like bikes and surfboards.
Height: These vans come in two different height options, with the low roof reaching 5’4” and the raised roof measuring 6’3”. For most people, the high roof model is the perfect height for being able to stand and cook comfortably while still having lots of room for overhead storage.
Price Range: With all of its features and credibility, the Sprinter van does come with a hefty price tag. The 2021 base models start at USD $38,000 (CAD $49,200). There’s a gas or diesel option and can climb well over CAD $80,000 for a decked out 4×4. Used Sprinter Vans range between $10,000-$25,000
Pros: Sprinters have been on the market for 20 years and consistently prove to be a reliable and well-made vehicle. There are many size options to fit space and budget needs, along with more extensive upgrades than other cargo vans available. For instance, the Sprinter is the only high roof van that you can drive off the lot as a 4×4 without having to do the upgrade yourself.
Because these vans are so universally loved, there are tons of used models available. High mileage isn’t as big of a factor on these diesel engines because they were built for long-haul transport.
There are loads of resources available online for converting a Sprinter van for camping down to every little measurement and spec you may need. With the rise of van life, Sprinters are now universally known as being some of the best vans to live in. As proud owners of a 2008 Sprinter 170WB, we couldn’t agree more.
Cons: The biggest drawback to owning a Mercedes Sprinter is the cost. These vans are expensive to buy and are costly to maintain and repair. Most repairs can only be done at Mercedes dealers or certified garages. In which, limits you if you break down in the middle of nowhere.
Parts are also brand-specific so they’re usually more expensive, harder to find, and repairs can take longer if the shop doesn’t have the part on hand.
Best For: Mercedes Benz Sprinter is the most popular van for DIY campervan conversion. It is great for those looking to join a community of people who openly share build guides, upgrade specs, and custom-fitted parts for all things Sprinter. It’s also a good option for van lifers who want to do a lot of off-roading or want to be able to choose between a gas or diesel-powered engine.
With the end of Dodge-branded Sprinters in 2009, Chrysler no longer offered any cargo vans in their lineup. Enter the Ram ProMaster. This extra-wide van has a unibody construction with a lower floor so the interior height can stay tall while the exterior is almost a full foot shorter than a raised roof Sprinter.
The Ram ProMaster comes in three different lengths on two different wheelbases, much like the Sprinter. It also offers two roof height options. A key difference that distinguishes the ProMaster is that it’s a front-wheel-drive vehicle, which can be advantageous in the snow and for fuel economy.
Size: Just like the Transit and the Sprinter, the Ram ProMaster comes in three lengths as a regular, long, and extended body. There are two wheelbases with a compact 136” and an extended 159”. The van body is also 4” wider than other models, which means that you can build a full size bed to run across the back of the van, saving precious length in the cabin.
Height: ProMasters have two height options: 5’4” and 6’2”, which as mentioned before, measure up significantly shorter from the outside than other models due to its lowered floor.
Price Range: The most affordable option on the list, 2021 base models start at USD $26,000 (CAD $34,170) and typically max out below $50,000 before any upgrades.
Pros: The ProMaster offers all the same height and performance perks as more expensive vans, but also has a wider body and lower exterior roof clearance.
The front-wheel-drive feature has its pros and cons. With improved handling in icy conditions and better gas mileage but fewer options for towing.
Cons: While the lowered floor is great for roof clearance, it also means low ground clearance, which can limit some travel off the beaten path. The front-wheel-drive is a con for some. The short nose of the van that doesn’t look as sleek as a Sprinter or Transit. Also, just like the Transit, the ProMaster is relatively new on the scene so there aren’t as many options for used models.
Best For: Ram ProMaster is the best cargo van for conversion for those that are looking for lots of interior space at an affordable price. If you’re not planning on delving too deep into the world of off-roading, this might be the best van to live in for you.
While Transits, Sprinters, and ProMasters dominate the van conversion game, there are other models out there that offer their own perks too.
The Nissan NV has a distinct nose that makes it look almost like a truck. It comes in various length and height configurations and even comes in a 4×4 option. These features also come at a lower price tag than some of the competitors. The trade-off is less space in the cargo area and more space in the cab. The Nissan NV is great if you want to prioritize comfort while driving long hauls.
If you’re willing to give up roof height or install a pop-top, the Chevy Express is your van. These vans have been around for decades and are built to last. They come in different lengths on rear-wheel-drive wheelbases and are the epitome of stealth. A Chevy Express is truly a blank canvas and it’s the most readily available cargo van that has many options for budget-friendly used models.
Best Vans for Camper Conversions in Europe
As the van life movement takes North America by storm. There are lots of cool options for van to camper conversions that are distinctly European. If you’re searching for the best van for camper conversion in Europe, look no further.
Mercedes Benz Sprinter
The Mercedes Sprinter van is a global choice. It’s a quintessential symbol of van life in Europe so you will have an easier time finding readily-available parts for a Sprinter. There is no shortage of custom-fitted accessories and gear. Just like the North American models, the Sprinter promises reliability, space, and endless options for interior builds.
The Fiat Ducato has been sold under many names over the years. It is the European version of the Ram ProMaster. It’s used as the base for the majority of motorhomes in Europe. So, parts are very common and affordable. It offers even more wheelbase options, with a super compact 118” model. It also has a much narrower body than its American counterpart.
The Renault Trafic rivals the Chevy Express with its long-standing reliability and low roof. If you’re doing weekend trips where height isn’t as big of a factor, or can add a pop-top, the Renault Trafic can be the best small van for camper conversion. It’s been around since the 80s and has been sold under several different names. It all share very similar sizes and specs to those made by Citroen and Vauxhall.
Best Vans for Camper Conversions in Australia and New Zealand
Vans converted for camping have long been a part of Australian and New Zealand beach culture. If you’re looking for the best van to live in with your surfboard, these models are perfect for conversions.
A top tier choice for van living in Australia and New Zealand is the infamous Mercedes Sprinter. With all the configuration and luxury options, Sprinter delivers as one of the best vans for van life worldwide. It does come with that same premium price tag. Sprinter vans are not easy to find in Australia/New Zealand and parts are hard to track down. The most affordable option is to buy it used.
The VW Crafter is an alternative choice that has become a popular choice for van life in Oceania and Europe. It’s the largest van made by Volkswage. It comes in three lengths on two different wheelbases with three roof height options for peak versatility. It’s a major size upgrade from the classic VW Buses and Westfalias. VW Crafter is on the pricier side. However, with many work vehicles using Crafters, there are lots of used models available.
The Fiat Ducato is also a popular van used for van conversions in Australia/New Zealand. This is the same vehicle that we mentioned in the Europe section above and is essentially a rebranded Ram ProMaster. It’s common and affordable with lots of options available on the used van markets.
The Mitsubishi Delica is a popular option for a 4WD adventure campervan. It has a much narrower and more compact body than other vans, which swaps living space for overland potential. Imported from Japan, these vans have been popular for a while so. Despite their foreign origins, there’s usually a good assortment of used models available to buy. You’ll be working with 45 square feet of interior living space, so clever layout planning is essential.
The Toyota Hiace is known to be one of the most reliable options for van life in AU and NZ. Similar to the Mitsubishi Delica, comes in a 4×4 option. It has limited length and height options in favour of its compact body. Newer models offer larger build potential but most that convert this van to a camper opt for earlier 2000s models. These are more readily available for an affordable price tag.
The Ford Transit is another popular choice amongst Aussie and Kiwi van lifers. There are large size options and affordable parts. These vans are known to be reliable. It offers high roof models that allow for quite a bit more living space than other compact vans.
Where to Find Vans for Sale
The search for the perfect van includes endless hours of scouring the web and local dealerships. So be prepared!
In the US and Canada, there are lots of popular re-sell websites with pages and pages of used cargo vans. Some popular ones that we found helpful in our search are: Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and Kijiji in Canada.
If you’re looking to buy new, check out your local dealerships and look into brand-specific sellers as well; there are many Sprinter-only dealers that would be experts on the specs and might offer financing options too.
Each country has its own popular online marketplace that’s usually the best place to start your search. Try Gumtree in the UK or Marktplaats in the Netherlands.
Australia and New Zealand
Similar to the UK, Gumtree is the main reselling website used in Australia and New Zealand. Facebook Marketplace is also gaining traction. Facebook groups can be helpful too as people will often list their partially converted or fully converted vans for sale.
Other Considerations for When You Are Ready to Buy
You now have settled on which model suits your needs and lifestyle. However, there are a few other factors to consider before you buy the best van for camper conversion.
It goes without saying that many used vehicles will have rust spots. Depending on where you’re buying, weather conditions can affect how much rust a vehicle has. In North America, snow and salt are the enemy! It’s important to distinguish the difference between surface rust, which is aesthetic and can be buffed out easily, and body rust, which causes holes and can lead to further damage.
While high mileage is usually a deal-breaker when car shopping, most of these vans left the factory as cargo vans that were built to live on the highway driving long hauls. Higher numbers are much less frightening on cargo vans, especially those with a diesel engine.
Windows are one of the most polarizing topics of van life. Having no windows is a ticket to stealth, but it means you’ll have to have your doors fully open to enjoy a view. Many stock cargo vans have no windows or only tinted windows on the back doors. So, opening up your search to a passenger van would promise panoramic views from inside.
Many people end up adding windows in themself and there are lots of resources to use as guides. This way, you can choose where you want your windows to be and what size works best for your needs. We ended up installing four windows ourselves and we are so happy that we did. We can enjoy views of the mountains from the comfort of our bed—is there a better way to wake up?!
Final Thoughts on the Best Van for Camper Conversion
With so many different options for brands, lengths, and heights, the van conversion process can seem overwhelming. It’s important to do your research and figure out what elements are most important to you. Think about how you’ll be using your van.
Ultimately, answering the question “what is the best van to convert into a camper?” is a personal decision that varies for everyone. The perfect van for us might be the complete opposite of what you’re looking for. So get out there and start hunting!
Have you ever converted a van to a campervan? What did you look for when choosing the perfect van?