Travel is one of the best ways to see the world with your own eyes and experience other climates, cultures, and so much more. But there are so many ways to make it happen, we’re not even going to try and list them here. Classically, people tend to lean on hotels and, more recently, Airbnb-style rentals have become the norm. However, they’re far from the only option, especially if you want the freedom to go wherever you want whenever you want.
If unfettered adventure is what you seek, you might be in the market for a camper van — a kind of home-on-wheels that offers living, sleeping, and (in some cases) cooking spaces in a mobile and relatively small package (compared to RVs, at least). And while you can buy them fully-kitted and ready to go, the price of a pre-built adventure van can be, at a minimum, in the $100k and up range — and that’s a bit too steep for plenty of normal folks. Thankfully, there are other options, like buying a van and doing the conversion yourself. And that’s what we have for you today: the eight best vans for DIY camper conversion that you can buy.
Camper Van Considerations
Factors To Consider
As is the case with any major purchase, there are some things you should think about long before you write that check or sign a finance contract. However, picking up a van for camper conversion is a bit different from other vehicles. It’s with this in mind we’ve put together the following collection of metrics you should consider, ensuring you’ll end up with the right base vehicle for your project.
Price: Probably the most significant factor to consider in your search is your budget, as your buying power will perhaps immediately remove some of the available options — unless you’re lucky enough to be independently wealthy. Even if money is no object, it’s still a good idea to set expectations for your project, as the cost of the van itself is only the first in a long line of other purchases necessary to get your vehicle up to snuff as an adventure rig. It’s also probably a good idea to consider buying a van used, as this could cut your costs significantly, so long as you’re okay with a secondhand vehicle.
Cargo Space: Not only will the internal space of a given van determine how much stuff you can pack into it, but it will also determine your own personal comfort level (some aren’t even tall enough to stand up inside), how you will outfit the interior (a smaller van doesn’t leave a lot of room for large beds, extraneous gear, and even storage solutions), and what kinds of equipment you’ll potentially need to mount on the outside. And that’s just the start of things — there may be issues that pop up that we haven’t thought of here.
Overall Size: While it might seem like the cargo space and overall size kind of go hand-in-hand, there are other reasons to think about the external dimensions. For starters, you’ll need to park your van somewhere. And if you have a tall Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, you’re not going to be able to fit it inside a standard garage, as it will be far too tall and long. If you’ve got a bigger garage or street parking, this might not be as big a factor, but you will need to be more judicious about finding a place to park when it comes time to wind down for the evening. The overall size will also affect overall maneuverability. Taller vans have higher centers of gravity and potentially are more prone to tipping and longer vans require more room to move, especially when making point turns and the like.
Engine: Let’s be frank for a moment; your van is going to be slow and will likely be a gas guzzler. Sorry, that’s just how it works with big heavy vehicles. Still, considering the engine is important because it will determine some other factors including capability, price to refuel, where you can refuel, sustainability, and even required maintenance. For instance, a diesel engine will cost less to refuel than petrol and likely offer better torque, but it isn’t available at every gas station (and even when it is there is sometimes only a single pump) and your overall horsepower will likely be lower. Similarly, electric power is arguable better for the environment and can combine superior HP and torque figures, but it will be hard to find places to charge up and will take a lot longer.
Intended Usage: This metric actually comes in a couple of different forms. First, if you plan to do any measure of off-roading, you’ll want to make sure you have a van that can handle it — or you’ll want to be prepared to spend a pretty penny on upgrading the running gear, especially the suspension. However, you should also be considering just how much time you plan to spend in your van. If you want to just use it on weekends, a smaller option might suit you fine. However, if you want longer trips or to even move into your van, a bigger, more comfortable van could be the better bet.
2021 Ram ProMaster
If you were interested in building out a camper van and you just did a quick Google search to see your options, you might not even come across Ram as a viable marque. And that actually might be a good thing, because that means the ProMaster is the perfect under-the-radar option, boasting a format and silhouette that are remarkably similar to the two leading options (Mercedes-Benz’s Sprinter and Ford’s Transit), but the intro price is several thousand less. Furthermore, according to the brand, this van boasts best-in-class standard cargo height and width, meaning you get more space for your dollars than similar options. This van even has an MPG rating that’s on the higher end of the spectrum. Whatever the reason is that this van isn’t more popular for DIY camper conversions, we’re not seeing it. And that makes this a true dark horse of an offering.
Internal Capacity: 259 cu ft (Max)
Height: 5’6″-6’4″ (Cargo Area)
MPG (City/Highway): 21/28
2021 Nissan NV Cargo Van
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and the Ford Transit have been ever-so-busy competing for the top spot in the full-sized-cargo-vans-ripe-for-DIY-conversion space while Nissan has been quietly building an outstanding, slightly more manageably-sized, budget-friendly cargo van called the NV. While its maximum capacity is more than 100 cu ft less than either the Sprinter or Transit, the intro price is also more than $5k under those other two options. And those savings could go directly toward making your DIY conversion more comfortable and convenient, which is a pretty enticing prospect when you start to consider how expensive these kinds of projects can be. And that alone might be enough to bump this into consideration for many folks.
Internal Capacity: 323 cu ft (Max)
MPG (City/Highway): 24/26
2021 Chevrolet Express Van
Not everyone needs nor wants a full-sized, high-clearance cargo van — especially if you want to park in normal spaces or even in a standard garage. But you can still get a relatively spacious van that suits the same purpose and meets your needs if you opt for the Chevrolet Express you see here. Sure, you’ll have to duck down to get inside, but you’ll still get 252.62 cu ft of capacity in an easily customized format. Really the only time we’d maybe steer people away from this option is if they’re looking to spend an extended amount of time inside the van, like those who have decided to live their lives traveling the many roads of America. Furthermore, you could even feasibly tow a small trailer behind it, as it also offers up to 401 horsepower and 464 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s not half bad for this space-saver of a conversion van.
Internal Capacity: 252.62 cu ft
MPG (City/Highway): 18/24
2021 GMC Savana Cargo Van
Much of what you’ll find in the above option, the Chevy Express, you can also find in the GMC Savana — give or take. This van actually offers a bit more overall maximum space — 283.6 cu ft to the Chevy’s 252.62 — thanks to the fact that it comes in a standard or extended format. And, while it comes offered with a pair of petrol engines (276- and 401-horsepower), it can also be had with a 2.8L Duramax Turbo-Diesel, if that speaks more to your desires. The one downside: GMC is pretty cagey about the MPG rating, which could mean you’re going to end up spending more on filling up than you might with the alternatives. Still, the GMC Savana is still very much a solid, viable DIY camper conversion option.
Internal Capacity: 239.40 cu ft
MPG (City/Highway): N/A
2021 Ford Transit Cargo Van
In the conversation about the absolute best base vehicle for a camper van conversion, the Ford Transit is probably the only option that comes close to mimicking the many successes of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. In fact, across the board, the specs of the Transit (and its available sub-models) are extremely similar to the Sprinter — offering a range of heights, wheelbase lengths, and cargo capacities. The Sprinter has the edge in some cases, like maximum capacity, whereas the Transit has the leg-up elsewhere, as can be seen in the maximum MPG rating. We’re not saying that they are a one-to-one carbon copy, but if you’re a fan of domestic vehicles, it’s absolutely a suitable alternative to its German competitor. You’ll just want to make sure, especially if you plan to use a kit or standardized models, that you’re not simply trying to shoehorn Sprinter-intended gear into your Transit.
Internal Capacity: 227-445 cu ft
MPG (City/Highway): 15/19-24/27
2021 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van
If there were a van equivalent to Apple’s iPhone, it would definitely be the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. That is to say, this is the van by which all others are judged, at least in regards to camper conversions. These vans are so en vogue, in fact, that almost every brand that does conversions or offers conversion kits uses the Sprinter as their primary focus (if they don’t specialize exclusively in the Mercedes-Benz). That means finding gear suitable for a DIY conversion is exceedingly simple for any and all Sprinter owners. Furthermore, along with a range of available sizes, Mercedes-Benz actually offers a Sprinter model that’s pre-equipped for light off-roading, giving this offering an even bigger leg up when compared to its competition. We’re not saying that this is the all-around best of all vans on our list, but we are saying that the industry has decided as much.
Internal Capacity: 319-469.4 cu ft
MPG (City/Highway): 16/20-21/24
2022 Ford E-Transit Cargo Van
Electric power is certainly not a viable option for everyone that wants to do a DIY camper conversion. But we’d be remiss in our duties if we didn’t have at least one plug-and-play option, which is why we’ve gone with the outstanding Ford E-Transit. While the styling and sizing is on-par with its gas-powered in-brand counterparts, this version has an entirely different propulsion system that offers roughly 125 miles per charge — which probably won’t take most folks further than their local campsites, but that could be enough. Of course, thanks to the likes of Jeep, there are also charging stations at trailheads — which means, with some clever planning, this is a very viable adventure van option. It’s also available in three different sizes, so you can pick the one that suits your needs best; just remember that a larger van will inevitably be heavier and, therefore, have a more truncated range than its smaller counterparts.
Internal Capacity: 246.7-487.3 cu ft
Range (Miles Per Charge): ~125
Volkswagen Crafter Panel Van
Sadly, the Volkswagen Crafter Panel Van isn’t available in the United States. Still, it’s definitely a viable and, frankly, pretty upscale option for your camper van DIY conversion. In fact, this van is so well designed that it actually won Parkers’ Best Van of the Year award for its superb combination of utility, versatility, and standard creature comforts. What really helps set this bad boy apart, as well, is its integrated driver assistance technologies, including an emergency braking system that will help you avoid collisions, a bevy of sensors to help with situational awareness (especially helpful when parking), and something called Cross Wind Assist, which helps keep your van on the road in the case of, you guessed it, strong gusts of wind. It’s a pricy starting option for those who can access it, but you can plainly see that the money would be well-spent.
Internal Capacity: 328.43-649.79 cu ft
MPG (Combines): 33.1-32.5
The 15 Best Adventure Vans For Life On The Road
If you’re not really the DIY type or you just want to save yourself some time, you can actually get a fully-kitted van built for you — you just have to be willing to pay that extra premium. For those who think that’s worth it, you can check out our list of the best adventure vans you can buy.
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