This is where it all starts. It’s really hard to build out a camper if you don’t have a platform. There are a ton of options out there to choose from and things to consider. It’s important to really take your time deciding the exact van you'll be converting. After all, this is the biggest decision to make.
This guide focuses on the newer generation of vans(the modern rectangular types). It goes over things to consider before choosing a make/model, lists the different configuration options and the pros/cons of each van.
Things to consider before buying a van
Many people fall into the trap of seeing a sweet built out van on the road and decide on a make and model without thinking about what they actually need. Don’t do this. Selecting the right van convert into a camper starts with evaluating what your needs are.
How much money can you spend/are willing to spend? This is the first and most important question. Budget rules all when it comes to your van build and if you don’t have one things can quickly get out of hand. You absolutely don’t have to have a budget but it can really help act as a guiding force when it comes to deciding on the necessities vs nice-to-haves in your van conversion process.
You can always find deals but as the old saying goes, “you get what you pay for.” Skimping out of your platform can cause maintenance and reliability headaches later down the road. Pouring $30,000 into a $10,000 van with over 150,000 miles on it doesn’t make much sense does it?
When it comes to your van build platform, make sure you know what you’re getting into. There’s no magic formula for how much of your total budget should go to the actual van cost. Just make sure that you leave yourself between $10,000 - $20,000 for the conversion components.Length & Height
These two elements are usually the main determining factors for the price of a van. They are also the determining factors for nearly every aspect of your build from bed size and orientation to elements like seating and showers. Part of this also comes down to simply how large of a vehicle you are comfortable with driving. Long tall vehicles handle very differently than some of the shorter vans.
How long your van impacts turning radius. This can make it more difficult to maneuver in tight places like parking lots and campgrounds. Vehicle length also affects breakover angle. We’ll get into this in the off-road section below.
On the inside, length will ultimately determine bed orientation or type. Check out our guide on camper van beds for more information on things to consider when planning your sleeping area. Overall van length will also determine things like storage area, seating capacity and if you can include a shower or not.
It’s really important to think about how important being to fully stand up is to you. Are you ok with crouching when moving around? Ok with cooking sitting down and putting pants on laying down in bed? Really think about this one.
Height also has implications for where you can go. Most tall vans can’t fit through drive-thrus, banks, car washes, parking garages and many more places. This might seem small but it doesn’t really hit how limiting this can be until you have to get out at places you’re used to
Will you be sticking to pavement and campgrounds or are you looking to blaze your own trails? Jacked up 4x4 vans look badass but come with hefty price tags. Really think about where you will be driving before jumping into a mountain machine that you may not need.
Most 2wd vans are more than capable of dirt or snowy roads with a simple tire upgrade. There are some vans that do come with better factory clearance than others. More on that below.
Another consideration when thinking about off-road capabilities is breakover angle. Read more on approach, departure and breakover angles here. Wheelbase and overall vehicle length can basically impact the object you can go over. Long vans run the risk of getting stuck in the middle on tight hills and dragging the rear as well.Gas or diesel
This one is really personal preference. Both gas and diesel vans get the job done equally well. If you are planning on regularly towing with your campervan then diesel will be the better choice but other than that you can’t go wrong with either.
You may be able to purchase a diesel van with a lot of miles for cheaper but always think about the maintenance costs. Diesels are known to run “forever” but they still need regular maintenance.
Van Makes & Models for Camper Conversions
We’ve all seen the decked out Sprinters but they aren’t the only option out there and they may not be the best choice for what you need. Below we go over the top 4 vans best suited for converting into campers and the pros and cons of each.
1. Ford Transit – Tallest Interior
- 130” wheelbase, 220” long
- 148” wheelbase long, 236” long
- 148” wheelbase extended, 264” long
- Low: Interior height 57”
- Medium: Interior height 72”
- High: Interior height 81.5”
- All models 69”
- Engine Options
- 3.7L V6
- 3.5L Eco-Boost
- 3.2L Inline 5 Diesel
- Rear Wheel Drive - 2015 - 2019
- AWD - 2020 and beyond
Ford Transit Pros:
- The high roof transit provided the tallest interior of any van available.
- 3.5L Eco-Boost engine can get up to 20mpg offering decent gas mileage for such a large vehicle
- Ford parts and maintenance are generally cheap
Ford Transit Cons:
- Extended version has considerable rear overhang and is very limited when it comes to off-roading.
- Compared to equal length vans you get less interior length due to the longer front.
2. Ram ProMaster – Widest
- 136” wheelbase, 213” long
- 159” wheelbase, 236” long
- 159” wheelbase extended, 251” long
- Low: Interior height 64”
- High: Interior height 74”
- All models 73”
- 3.76L V6 Gas
- Front wheel drive
Ram ProMaster Pros:
- ProMaster is the widest van available. It is 4” wider than Transits and Sprinters. This enables beds to be placed side to side for anyone under 6’.
- Lowest floor height due to front wheel drive.
Ram ProMaster Cons:
- There is no way to convert a ProMaster to 4×4.
- Stock ground clearance is quite low due to a bar that spans between the rear wheels.
- Only one engine option and users have expressed that it feels underpowered when near GVW.
- Front wheel drive can have issues in slippery conditions.
3. Mercedes Sprinter - High-end
- Trim Levels
- Cargo, Crew, Passenger
- 144” wheelbase, 234” long
- 170” wheelbase, 274” long
- 170” wheelbase extended, 290” long
- Low: 64”
- High: 75”
- All Models 69”
- Two engine options
- 4-Cyl Gas
- 6-Cyl Diesel
- Rear wheel drive
- Four wheel drive
Mercedes Sprinter Pros:
- Comes in a true 4x4 option with low gear range.
- Good gas mileage. 20ish mpg for the diesel engine.
- Highest resale value
Mercedes Sprinter Cons:
- Most expensive van in terms of upfront cost and maintenance.
- Service options can be limited due to the need for special technicians.
So what is the best van to convert into a camper? It depends. All of the options listed above will absolutely work. It really comes down to your budget and specific needs. And if you’re buying used, part of it comes down to what’s simply available.
Check out our DIY Camper Van Knowledge Center for more info to help you with your camper van conversion.