Choosing the Perfect Van for a Camper Van Conversion

Choosing the Perfect Van for a Camper Van Conversion

You've decided to take the leap. You've been dreaming about van life for a while and have decided you're ready to try it out. 

In some initial research, you've seen some camper van conversions that were over the top, and some as simple as throwing a sleeping pad in the back and calling it good. You've determined that you can't afford a fancy build from a high-end professional van conversion company, but you also want more than just a mattress to sleep on. You've probably watched the YouTube videos of people who build their entire van conversion from scratch, measuring every piece to perfection. Sure, that sounds great, but what if you don't want to buy all the required tools or you simply don't have the time to focus on all the details you want in your own van? 

You're in luck! We're here to help you navigate a semi-DIY camper van conversion. Did you know that there are camper van conversion kits that can make parts of a DIY camper van conversion easier to complete? There are even conversion kits for cars and minivans! 

So what are the best vans for camper van conversions, and most importantly, what's the right van for you? With so many van models available, you'll need to determine what camper van is best for van life based on your travel goals, hobbies, and budget.

Sierra Elberly / Boondock Consulting

Sierra has been traveling the PNW and SW full-time with her dog, Snow, since Sept 2020. She runs her business, Boondock Consulting, from the back of her van. For fun, Snow and Sierra go trail running every chance they get!

What Camper Van is the Best for Van Life?

Conversion van options are extensive and can be quite overwhelming, so we'll break them down for you to make your decision process easier.

Are you looking for a cargo van with a high roof for the standing room? Maybe a small van with a lower roof height for stealth parking. Do you need lots of cargo space?

We've highlighted the most popular vehicles used for living full-time on the road, but this certainly isn't a list of your only options.

People live nomadically in everything from a Prius to a 40-foot-long school bus conversion. The moral of the story is if you want to get out on the road, don't let a vehicle style be your limitation. Some of the best vans out there aren't even vans!

Simpler Ways is the one-stop shop to build and equip your rolling home — tastefully and responsibly. We do the research so you don’t have to! We offer a carefully curated selection of conversion kits, DIY resources and gear for the road for modern days nomads.

Simpler Ways

Mercedes Sprinter

The Mercedes Benz Sprinter is probably the most popular choice for those who can afford one. They are also the most expensive camper van conversion on the market, with good reason.

Mercedes Sprinters are also very popular with van conversion companies since they are often a top request from people wanting to pay for a professional camper van conversion. 

Luxurious and stylish, many argue that the Mercedes Sprinter van conversion is the best van on the market. It's reliable and easy to drive compared to some other cargo vans.

Known for its longer-lasting diesel engine, the Mercedes Sprinter van is a common choice for those looking for a long-term investment. You'll have to pay attention to gas stations to ensure they have diesel. A good safety precaution is to fill up at truck stops, where diesel fuel is guaranteed.

Due to its popularity, there are lots of aftermarket upfitting options. It comes in 2WD and 4WD options, making it a great off-road adventure vehicle. You can buy entire kits for the interior of your Sprinter van if you don't want to measure and cut everything yourself.

Kits and accessories for the Mercedes Sprinter

Why we like Mercedes Sprinter vans

  • Versatile
  • 2WD and 4WD options
  • Stylish
  • Longevity
  • Lots of aftermarket options

Con: Although reliable, it's difficult to find a mechanic capable of working on a Sprinter Van outside of a dealership if something goes wrong. This can be problematic if a check engine light comes on and you're hours away from the nearest dealership.

Ford Transit

The Ford Transit van conversion has exploded in popularity and probably takes the #2 spot just below the Mercedes Sprinter. The Ford Transit van has a reliable gas engine and can be worked on at nearly any mechanic shop. Parts are also usually readily available.

Since Ford Transit camper conversions are becoming more common, there are also many aftermarket options for these versatile rigs. You can pick up a Ford Transit with 2WD and AWD options, and there's even a company certified to convert a 2WD into a 4x4 ultimate adventure vehicle. 

Another big appeal to the Ford Transit is that it comes in three different lengths and heights to fit whatever your heart desires. If you're looking at smaller cargo vans to convert, the Ford Transit Connect is a favorite among many. Compact cargo vans like the Ford Transit Connect are also a more fuel-efficient van.

Why we like Ford Transit vans

  • Various sizes available
  • Comes in 2WD, AWD, and a new 4x4 option is available
  • Quality gas engine, one of the more reliable vans
  • Growing pool of aftermarket options
  • Mechanic-friendly and parts readily available

Con: A con to the Ford Transit is that some builders have voiced that the roof curve is difficult to align walls and cabinets on if you're doing a DIY conversion. There are various DIY kits available that can make installation easier.

Dodge Ram Promaster

Boasting the most interior room for your camper conversion layout, the Dodge Ram Promaster cargo van is known for its wider shell and fewer curves on the walls and ceilings. This makes it ideal for DIY van builds and gives you more room to design the van of your dreams.

Unlike the other camper vans we've outlined, the Ram Promaster van is front-wheel-drive only. It doesn't have as many features as the Sprinter or Transit cargo vans, but it's also less expensive, hence its popularity. It has low ground clearance compared to other cargo vans, so It's not suited for driving on certain terrain.

There are many professional Ram Promaster van conversion companies. This is because building out a Promaster van is easier than Sprinter van conversions. It's also a more affordable van to convert.

Why we like the Dodge Ram Promaster

  • Most interior space for building
  • The boxy style is easier for camper conversions
  • Easy to include lots of storage space
  • Decent gas mileage for the size of the vehicle

Con: Out of the three top vans listed, the Promaster van is known for its potential for a few mechanical issues, so be sure to get an extended warranty with you purchase the van. The good news is that there are many Dodge dealerships across the country, and most mechanics will be able to work on it thanks to its rather standard gas engine.

Get on the road faster: Shop our conversion kits for all vehicles

Simpler Ways Conversion Kits

Chevy Express

Super popular for DIY van conversions, the Chevy Express cargo van is a great stealth camping vehicle. It does not have a high roof, so don't expect to be able to stand up inside. There are options for a raised fiberglass roof if you want a more functional living space.

For years, the Chevy Express has been a staple DIY van conversion option for van lifers and is one of the more affordable vans. Its design hasn't changed in over ten years, it gets decent gas mileage, and it has a solid drive train that stands up over time.

Perks of the Chevy Express

  • Aftermarket AWD or 4x4 options can often be found
  • Parts are widely available
  • Great for the DIY mechanic - easy to work on
  • Good for stealth parking and smaller spaces

Ford Econoline

Also popular for a DIY camper van build is the Ford Econoline or Ford E-Series. This van series didn't have a 60-year run for no reason. It's been one of the most popular vans out there since the 80s. It was transitioned out when the Ford Transit came into the mix around 2015.

As long as you keep up with a strict maintenance schedule, the Ford E-Series has been known to last well over 300k miles, sometimes even breaking the 500k mark.

Since they were designed as a passenger vans and not a cargo van, the ride is often smoother than other camper van conversions. Some say the ride is a little too soft, with loose steering and brakes that don't catch quickly.

Benefits of the Ford Econoline

  • Usually has windows installed
  • A great option for budget builds
  • Parts are still available, and most mechanics can work on them
  • With proper maintenance will last many, many miles

If you're not up to the task of doing the entire camper conversion from scratch, there are universal conversion kits available to help with the process.

Chevy Astrovan

Many will say that the Chevy Astrovan is the most affordable, reliable, and capable among smaller conversion vans. You can pick one up for under $6k and complete a simple van build to save money.

The advantage of a Chevy Astrovan is that it comes with an AWD option and is easily fitted with lift kits, off-road tires, and other upgrades, making it an outstanding overlanding vehicle. If you don't mind a van with a smaller interior space and want to explore off-road, this is the van for you.

It's easy to work on mechanically and is very reliable. Depending on how you build it out, it can be very stealthy and perfect for those who often park in places where they don't want to be noticed. The rear cargo area can easily be turned into a bed with additional living amenities.

Why Chevy Astrovans are rad

  • AWD models can easily be upfitted to a great overlanding rig
  • Great gas mileage
  • Literally a minivan, so perfect for stealth parking
  • Easy to work on with good accessibility to parts

Subaru Outback (not a van, but still a great option!)

Among cars, the Subaru Outback is an ideal choice for car camping. It's longer from the driver's seat to the hatchback than other models, allowing taller people to stretch out for a good night's rest.

If you're looking for a quick and efficient car camper conversion, you can purchase this kit specifically for Subaru Outbacks! You can customize it to include drawers, a slide-out table, and even a bed extension.

All our Subaru kits

Why a Subaru Outback might be perfect for you

  • If you want something small, stealth, and easy to drive
  • If you want very good gas mileage
  • If you want a vehicle to stealth park easily in and still get off the beaten path with
  • If you're considering towing a small camper trailer

Own a Subaru Forester or Subaru Crosstrek? We've got camper kits for those, too.

Any car, truck, or minivan!

As we already mentioned, don't let a vehicle style or type stop you from starting the vanlife lifestyle! The reality is that you can make any vehicle into a home on wheels, even if it's just temporary until you can find your dream van build.

There are universal car camper conversion kits available that can help get you started. You can find many YouTube videos from people who have converted everything from a truck with a camper shell to a Kia Sedona. Even box trucks and ambulances are great for a DIY camper conversion.

Universal kits

Universal kits
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Car & truck camping

Car & truck camping
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Other options for an affordable camper van conversion or car/truck camping

  • The Chevy City Express is discontinued but still a great option for a camper van conversion if you can find one second hand.
  • The Nissan NV is another smaller van. You can get this great van conversion kit that you can easily install.
  • The iconic Volkswagen Vanagon, or VW Bus, is a favorite among many, and has a lot of aftermarket products available.
  • A Toyota Rav4 is a great option for the off-roading wanderer.
  • Nowadays, people camp in mostly any car! We've put together a catalog of products that'll help you get on the road with your college rig or your grandpa's truck.

What Camper Van Conversion Will You Start Van Life In?

Now that you have chosen the best van to convert into a camper van, where will your first destination be?

We'd love to follow along with your adventures, see your camper van conversion, and help you cultivate a simpler, sustainable way of living.

Let us know in the comments where your life on the road begins, or ask us a question if there's something we haven't answered.

See you on the road.

Simpler Ways Camper van conversions

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